Was the 3rd Duke of York like his youngest son in appearance….?


Richard, 3rd Duke of York, from the frontispiece of the Shrewsbury Book

When I posted on my Facebook page that it had been suggested to me I write an M&B article about the physical appearance of the 3rd Duke of York, a friend commented:

“. . . .According to John Ashdown Hill’s biography of Cecily, he was probably tall because of some poem written about how manly he was. His hair was probably fair and his features like his youngest Richard III. Either way, I think he was probably really handsome. His sons are a good looking bunch . . . .”

Well, that would certainly explain the likeness that was said to exist of him and Richard III. Although can we really be sure he was fair, in that definition of the word? Fair also means good-looking and healthy, angelic even, etc. So, not necessarily blond. As Richard seemed to have brown hair, then a likeness to his father might also mean the duke had the same brown hair?

If I look for images that purport to be him, I find a whole gamut of different looks – clean-shaven/bearded, blond/dark, noble and Arthurian/downright weird (with two small fox-tails attached to his chin!)

Definitely fox brushes! But was the Duke of York ever bearded? The fashion throughout the 15th century was for men to be clean-shaven. But, there are always rule-breakers, of course!

There aren’t many likenesses of the duke from his actual period. Two are in stained glass. The first is from a window at Trinity College, Cambridge. The second from the church in Cirencester

The trouble is that back then it was fashionable to be blond. All the best people were supposed to be blond. The 3rd Duke of York’s father was Richard of Conisburgh, who descended from the blond Edward III (maybe!) and from Pedro the Cruel of Castile, who was very definitely blond. I say maybe for Edward III, because there’s a strong possibility that Richard of Conisbrough’s father was Richard II’s Holand half-brother and not Edmund of Langley, who was Edward III’s son and who didn’t reject the boy. But then, maybe the Holands were blond too! Royal blood flowed through them all.

Holand’s mother was the almost legendary Joan of Kent, who became known as the Fair Maid of Kent. So, was she fair as in beautiful? Or fair as in blonde? Who can say, because there are hardly any useful images of her. But, her son by the Black Prince was Richard II, who certainly was blond, although that may only have been because of his father, who was from a supposedly very blond family.

Joan of Kent

Of course, with stained glass the light shines more brightly through fair hair (hence all those golden angels?) which would tempt a little artistic license, and be especially pleasing (presumably) to the subject of the glass likeness. But with a man like John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who was known for his almost black hair, most of his likenesses do indeed show him as very dark. So not everyone wanted to be a fake blond!

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury

Richard III has always been accepted as dark haired, indeed this fact has been used to make him seem, literally, the black sheep of the family! But if you look at this image, of Edward IV and his family receiving a book from Sir Anthony Woodville, you’ll see Richard is the figure in blue and ermine.

Richard has brown hair, but it’s lighter than that of Edward IV himself. This has been commented on before, as we said earlier.

So it seems to me that there’s a good chance the 3rd Duke of York was like Richard III in more than one way – hair and features. Maybe he was taller than Richard, but that can only be proved by examining and measuring his skeleton, which isn’t likely to happen. His remains are in the House of York’s magnificent church of St Mary and All Saints in Fotheringhay.

The main illustration at the beginning of this article is from The Shrewsbury Book, and is shown below as it appears in the frontispiece. (To examine the entire book, go here, 1444-45 Royal 15 E. vi, ff.2v-3) It’s a contemporary image over which some time and effort has been taken, so I feel that this is a fairly accurate likeness of the duke.

Frontispiece from the Shrewsbury Book

As you can see, from the picture, the two figures are small and at the very bottom, with York on the right. The other one is of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The Duke of York’s chin certainly doesn’t recede, but nor is it particularly protruding. He is very definitely blond, too. Was his hairline receding? It’s certainly far back, but then so is that of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Or did the men of that period take to shaving their forehead as did the women? And if his calves and ankles were really like this, he must have turned heads!

But is he tall? It’s impossible to tell, but that said, so much is always made of Richard III being small that I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be similar mentions of his father being the same.

So I think the Duke of York was perhaps taller than his youngest son . . . although whether or not he was as tall as his eldest, Edward IV, 6’ 4”, is another matter! I also think he was probably a good-looking man, because although we don’t know what his second son, Edmund of Rutland, looked like, we do know about Edward IV and Richard III. They were both good looking, albeit in very different ways.

So, all in all, I conclude that the 3rd Duke of York was like his son Richard, although maybe taller and with fairer hair. But it’s just my opinion and can’t be taken for fact.

To read about the appearance of other members of the family, go to this article and this one.


  1. Wonderful post, viscountessw! Thank you for posting my request. I just want to add a few more points. Re: height, apparently they unearthed Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and his skeleton was described as robust and over 6 ft tall. Since York is represented with a similar figure I think its not too far fetched to assume they had similar builds. Although it is totally possible that it is just for the sake of symmetry.

    More interestingly something I learned recently was that apparently Richard of Conisbrough’s skeleton had been discovered some Victorian workers and he was described as a giant with his head between his knees (interesting since John Holland was apparently tall when Edmund of Langley was relatively short). There is also a portrait of Richard Earl of Cambridge from 1411 in M.S Harleian 5805. Unfortunately I have not been able to find the original source but there are two engraving/drawings of it. One shows Anne Mortimer too! I am not sure how faithful these artists are but he seems blonde.
    Sorry for going off. Richard Duke of York is my favorite and I have been really intrigued by theories about his appearance. Thank you again for doing the post!! I really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It would really be hard to say, often in N. European people they can be blond, red, black (I have Finnish relatives with black hair and blue eyes), blond-red, brown-red, dark brown, etc because they carry all of these genes. I think Richard himself would have been light in coloring during childhood and darker as he grew up given his genetic profile. Perhaps his father was the similar. This is similar to my own hair color which can appear very blond in the summer and dark brown in winter. I do not color my hair. I even have strands of near black and red and have much darker brows, I am brown-eyed. My daughter is white-blond and has crystalline blue eyes and her father is a redhead with green eyes.

    I think the most accurate picture of Richard was the one of him with a reddish background. His hair is definitely a brown but with highlights in it.

    Also I think tall and short genes were throughout the Plantagenet lines. It is impossible to say who someone’s father (or mother) is depending on height. In my own family, I am the shortest at 4ft10 and built with a very small frame (most my height actually have larger bones) we have to go back a few generations to find someone built like me. Yet I have a brother who is 6ft4 and a sister 5ft7.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I seem to remember reading that in Medieval times if a person managed to avoid having smallpox scars on their face they were said to have a “fair” complexion. Later, of course, “fair” came to mean either pale skin, blonde hair, or both.

    Liked by 1 person

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