Savage's parentage, while the subject of some dispute, is central to his legend. Besides the story related by Johnson, a romantic account of Savage's origin and early life, for which he supplied the material, also appeared in the Curll's Poetical Register in 1719.
In 1698 Charles Gerard, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, obtained a divorce from his wife, Anna, daughter of Sir Richard Mason; shortly afterwards she married Colonel Henry Brett. Lady Macclesfield had two children by Richard Savage, 4th Earl Rivers, the second of whom was born at Fox Court, Holborn, on January 16, 1697, and christened two days later at St Andrews, Holborn, as Richard Smith. Six months later the child was placed with Anne Portlock in Covent Garden; nothing more is positively known of him.
In 1718, Richard Savage claimed to be this child. He stated that he had been cared for by Lady Mason, his grandmother, who had put him in a school near St Albans, and by his godmother, a Mrs. Lloyd. He said he had been pursued by the relentless hostility of his mother, Mrs. Brett, who had prevented Lord Rivers from leaving £6000 to him and had tried to have him abducted to the West Indies. His statements are not corroborated by the depositions of the witnesses in the Macclesfield divorce case, and Mrs. Brett always maintained that he was an impostor. He was wrong in the date of his birth; moreover, the godmother of Lady Macclesfield's son was Dorothea Ousley (afterwards Mrs. Delgardno), not Mrs. Lloyd. There is nothing to show that Mrs. Brett was the cruel and vindictive woman he describes her to be, but there is abundant evidence that she provided for her illegitimate children. Discrepancies in Savage's story made James Boswell suspicious, but the matter was thoroughly investigated for the first time by W Moy Thomas, who published the results of his research in Notes and Queries (second series, vol. vi., 149, Nov. 6, 1858, p. 361).
Savage, impostor or not, blackmailed Mrs Brett and her family with some success, for after the publication of The Bastard (1728) her nephew, John Brownlow, 1st Viscount Tyrconnel, bought his silence by taking him into his house and allowing him a pension of £200 a year. Savage's first certain work was a poem satirizing Bishop Hoadly, entitled The Convocation, or The Battle of Pamphlets (1717), which he afterwards tried to suppress. He adapted from the Spanish a comedy, Love in a Veil (acted 1718, printed 1719), which gained him the friendship of Sir Richard Steele and of Robert Wilks. With Steele, however, he soon quarrelled. In 1723 he played without success in the title role of his tragedy, Sir Thomas Overbury (1724), and his Miscellaneous Poems were published by subscription in 1726. In 1727 he was arrested for the murder of James Sinclair in a drunken quarrel, and only escaped the death penalty by the intercession of the Countess of Hertford.
Savage was at his best as a satirist, and in The Author to be Let he reported many scandals involving his fellow scribblers. Proud as he was, he was servile enough to supply Alexander Pope with petty gossip about the authors attacked in Pope's The Dunciad. His most significant poem, The Wanderer (1729), shows the influence of James Thomson's Seasons, part of which had already appeared. Savage tried without success to obtain patronage from Robert Walpole, and he hoped in vain to be made poet-laureate. Johnson states that he received a small income from Mrs. Oldfield, but this seems to be fiction. In 1732 Queen Caroline settled on him a pension of £50 a year. Meanwhile he had quarrelled with Lord Tyrconnel, and at the queen's death was reduced to absolute poverty. Pope had been the most faithful of his friends, and had made him a small regular allowance. With others he now raised money to send him out of reach of his creditors. Savage went to Swansea, but he resented bitterly the conditions imposed by his patrons, and removed to Bristol, where he was imprisoned for debt. All his friends had ceased to help him except Pope, and in 1743 he, too, wrote to break off the connection. Savage died in prison on August 1, 1743.
Savage was the subject of a novel, Richard Savage (1842), by Charles Whitehead, illustrated by John Leech. Richard Savage, a play in four acts by J. M. Barrie and H. B. Marriott Watson, was presented at an afternoon performance at London's Criterion Theatre in 1891. The dramatists took considerable liberties with the facts of Savage's career. See also S.V. Makower, Richard Savage, a Mystery in Biography (1909).