The Countess of Desmond remembered dancing with Richard….?

from a reconstruction drawing of the great hall at Eltham Palace in the late 15th century © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

While searching for one thing, yet again I came upon another. This time it was a very interesting essay available on JSTOR. It is titled Lees and Moonshine: Remembering Richard III, 1485-1635 by Philip Schwyzer of the University of Exeter. You can find it here but need to register and give a password. However, for that you get access to a lot of free papers, so it’s well worth doing.

Anyway, as you can’t miss, the above essay deals with the way Richard’s character and reputation have been dealt with through the ages. It begins by pointing out that “In his 1502 biography of Henry VII, Bernard Andre (ca. 1450-1522) declines to describe the battle [of Bosworth], preferring to leave a blank page”. The reason Andre gives is that he wasn’t there, didn’t see, and only knows from what he’s heard. This I find rather curious, and the Yorkist in me wonders if it’s because Andre knew Henry Tudor wouldn’t have won it if had not been for Richard having been deserted and betrayed by turncoats. Not exactly flattering for Henry.

The essay then goes through the various accounts by other writers that have gradually built up to acceptance of the Shakespearean Richard. But it also includes the exceptions that now and then speak up for the real Richard. We all know the list on both sides of the scale, so I have selected one that has always made me curious.

Katherine Fitzgerald, Countess of Desmond of Inchiquin in Munster, Ireland, lived (it seems!) in the year 1589, having been married in the time of Edward IV. Now this stretches credulity, although “Writing only slightly later than Ralegh, Fynes Moryson and Francis Bacon would specify her age at death as 140, adding the curious detail that she grew a third set of teeth late in life.” A footnote goes further: “Moryson, 3:43. Bacon, 1627, 194. Bacon, 1638, 188. There were rumors of the countess’s survival to an even greater age. Richard Steele (1622-92) says she ‘died within our memories, being, as it is credibly affirmed, an 184 years old’: Steel, 17.

Good grief! Is that even vaguely possible? So who was she? Well, you can read about her here. In this link you will find that none other than the Sainted Sir Thomas More also repeats her incredible age, and that she was married in the reign of Edward IV. You will also find that according to one source Ralegh had been conned about the countess’s great age by a “crafty fraud designed by Sir John FitzEdmund Fitzgerald, member of a minor branch of the house of Desmond, to keep the lands at Inchiquin under his own control.” This assertion was made in 1881 by Mary Agnes Hickson, a lady antiquarian of Munster, who drew on her knowledge of the Munster Fitzgeralds. But Hickson herself was, it seems, guilty of relying on the incorrect interpretations of others, and so her claim becomes dubious.

from Wikipedia

The above History of Ireland article is very informative and interesting indeed and includes the odd tale by Robert Sidney that she died “following a fall from a nut tree”. She was climbing nut (some say cherry) trees at the age of 140/184? Wow, she was indeed some woman!

But the main interest in the countess as far as Ricardians are concerned is her claim to have once danced with Richard when he was Duke of Gloucester. She declared he was very well made and the handsomest man in the room, except for his brother the king. This anecdote would, of course, fit well with the fact that she was married during the reign of Edward IV, but it certainly doesn’t rest easily with her having died in 1604 or 1614!

Something isn’t right somewhere along the line, although who/what it is remains a mystery. Philip Schwyzer, writer of the JSTOR essay, suggests it was something to do with the countess’s husband, who was some fifty years older than her at the time of their marriage and so could possibly have seen Richard and Edward at some dancing occasion. He told his wife, and as the years progressed she gradually made herself the witness who danced with Richard. Perhaps she really believed it. Today we might call this false memory the Mandela Effect, even though she was only one person, not a mass. See here. Or, of course, perhaps she really had danced with Richard.

Anyway, I recommend you read the essay and the History of Ireland article. They are both very thorough and interesting, and bring into focus a very unusual, long-lived woman who may, just may, have danced with Richard and thought him handsome and well-made.

Inchiquin Castle, Munster

You can read more about the countess here and here and also here which says she grew THREE sets of teeth!



  1. Thank you so much for the links. This is fascinating. I especially want to know about her 3rd set of teeth. I could use some myself.


  2. Nobody can speak for the accuracy of the Countess of Desmond’s recollections, of course. But if she indeed had a third set of teeth that naturally came in later in life, to me that does seem like she might have had some kind of special longevity genes. There must have been something unusual about her lifespan for others to make note of it like that.


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