A Knight is a Knight is a Knight. Or was he?

Jousts Between Knights on Horses and on Foot- Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 141r

I’ve been wanting to write this article for a long time, but the topic is so complicated that I’ve been afraid to tackle it. Why? The personification of a knight has changed over the centuries and most scholars don’t go there. I don’t need to reinvent the proverbial wheel; we all recognize the classic knight from the crusades and jousting tournaments. My aim in this article is to fine-tune the different layers of knights in the fourteenth and fifteenth century (which is the period of my study) who served the king.

This all started for me when I kept reading about chamber knights in Richard II’s household. Already I was baffled. What exactly was a chamber knight? Ever since then I’ve been piecing together bits and pieces of historical tidbits, until finally I stumbled across an article written by my favorite Richard II historian, Chris Given-Wilson. The title threw me: “The King and Gentry in Fourteenth-Century England”. (There’s another conundrum: how to define Gentry. I’ll save that for another article.) Thanks to his explanations here (and elsewhere), I’m ready to take the plunge. If you know something I’ve missed, please jump in!

As expected, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the knight and his relationship with the king was primarily military. According to Given-Wilson, the household knights (familia regis) were kept on retainer: “They were the core of the king’s retinue, his nucleus of shock-troops, a force in itself, and capable of rapid expansion whenever necessary.” Apparently this last statement was important; the number of household knights was modest—somewhere around 30-70—but as soon as military action was demanded, their numbers jumped considerably—maybe as high as 120—then back again. These household knights were divided into two groups, depending on their military rank: the simple knight (also knight bachelor, who fought under someone else’s banner) and the banneret. The knight-banneret led his own contingent of knights and esquires and was entitled to carry a square banner instead of the triangular pennon for regular knights. He was also paid double the wages of a simple knight.

Roland pledges fealty to Charlemagne. Source: Wikipedia

Around 1360, the knights gradually evolved into chamber knights who were “trusted royal servants valued by the king for their counsel, their administrative ability, and their domestic service as much as for their strong right arms”. Naturally their military function was important, but from then until the end of the century the king was—for the most part—inactive militarily. He just didn’t need a core of fighting knights around him (until the last three years of Richard’s reign, his so-called tyranny).  The chamber knights were closely attached to the king, and sometimes served as diplomats, special commissioners, and companions; they were given castles and manors to administer, and sent as ambassadors to foreign powers and even to negotiate the king’s marriages. Their numbers were much more limited: “under Edward III, between 1366 and 1377, they number between three and five; under Richard II and Henry IV, they number between eight and thirteen. During the fifteenth century, they came to be known as ‘knights of the body’.”

From 1377 (the beginning of Richard II’s reign) through 1413 (the end of Henry IV’s reign) most knights retained by the king primarily served a different function outside the household and were known as the king’s knights (milites regis). Their job was to exert influence and authority in their shires. They didn’t receive robes and fees through the wardrobe like the chamber knights, but they were granted annuities. The king’s knights were sheriffs and justices of the peace, or represented their shires in parliament. The important aspect of this is that these knights were not separate from the gentry; for the most part, they were the gentry. Many knights were also landowners and belonged to that class, ranking just below the baronage. “The knightly class,” he tells us, “was the nobility”. And the gentry were rapidly becoming a key element in national politics.

Just to complicate things further, the king also started to retain king’s esquires for considerably less money than the knights (many, but not all of them were esquires of the household). According to Given-Wilson, “If for the moment we exclude the years 1397-99, the over-all figures for king’s knights and king’s esquires during the two reigns are not dissimilar: under Richard II, there were about 150 knights and 105 esquires; under Henry IV, about 140 of each.” The esquires’ careers were similar to the knights but with less prestige and importance, though sometimes this was a stepping stone to becoming knights of the chamber. Nonetheless, most esquires actually possessed the lineage to become a knight, but the fee for their equipment and the cost of the dubbing ceremony deterred them from taking that step. So by this time, the gap in status between knights and squires was narrowing. By the mid-fourteenth century esquires were even permitted to bear coats of arms. So Given-Wilson places them squarely into the knightly class. More on this when we get to the gentry!

FURTHER READING:
Given-Wilson, Chris, THE ENGLISH NOBILITY IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1987

Given-Wilson, Chris, THE KING AND THE GENTRY IN FOURTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 37 (1987), pp. 87-102

Given-Wilson, Chris, THE ROYAL HOUSEHOLD AND THE KING’S AFFINITY, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986

 

 

 

The History of the Tomato: Guest Post by Gerard Paul

The history of your favorite (mainly) red nightshade involves a long and intricate tale that traces back to the Aztecs around 700 AD. Yes, the tomato hails from the Americas, although it took a trip to Europe – and a fight over its reputation as a poisonous killer – before it became the globally embraced veggie you know today. And before that, it left its (scary) mark on the European consciousness, global tax laws, dietary guidelines – and even the Supreme Court of the United States.

Yes, it’s been a strange journey. The tomato has had a wildly varying reputation over the years, considered everything from poison to aphrodisiac(!). I’ll explore all these fascinating tomato facts – and many more – in this history of the tomato.

Tomatoes have become a global tour de force today, but originally they were limited to only one pair of continents — the Americas. One study traces the earliest ancestor of the fruit to South America, where the grandfather of all tomatoes — Solanum Pimpinellifolium L., was known to have been first domesticated. This species gave rise to the S. Lycopersicum L var. Cerasiforme (S. l. Cerasiforme), which, in turn, birthed the most common tomato species known on the planet today — Solanum Lycopersicum L. var. Lycopersicum (SLL – the one you chop to put on your salad). It first made its way into Mesoamerica before finding its way to the rest of the world.

That’s just the tomato, though – nightshades, particularly the tomatillo, have an even longer history. A few years ago, scientists found a tomatillo fossil in Patagonia, Argentina they dated to roughly 52 million years old!

As mentioned in my introduction, as far as we know, the Aztecs were primarily responsible for first understanding the fruit’s versatility and using it as an ingredient in their cooking. We even derive the word tomato from the Aztec word “xitomatl” (pronounced as ji-tomatel). By the early sixteenth century, the Aztecs had domesticated a reasonably modern version of their tomatoes and had created at least 50 unique recipes using the red wonder as a base. Early Aztec writings reveal recipes for a dish that uses tomatoes, peppers, and seasoning – yes, recipes for salsa have been around for an extremely long time! We now know that the Aztecs of Mexico were a source for tomatoes that were taken to Spain and the Mediterranean by the Spanish conquistadors – likely Columbus or Cortés. We even have a record of the fruit entering Europe with the earliest mention of them being seen on the continent by Mattioli in 1544. (At the time, he essentially called it an eggplant).

Before making it to Europe, tomatoes had a good stint in Pueblo culture and had a reasonably influential touch on their customs and beliefs. The journey from South America to Europe featured a noteworthy stop in Central America where the tomatoes interacted with Native American culture. While the Pueblos certainly used tomatoes in their cooking, they did not explore it as deeply as the Aztecs in their culinary style. Instead, there were a few noteworthy associations between the Pueblos and the tomato. This included the belief that those who consumed tomato seeds would be blessed with the powers of divination.

Hernán Cortés is the Spanish explorer who is credited with introducing the tomato to Europe. He did this after successfully capturing Tenochtitlan’s city in 1521, and he used the Spanish colonial system to spread the fruit successfully across the rest of the world.

Before reaching Europe, tomatoes first made their way to the Caribbean islands. And after Europe, the naval path to the Philippines was used to take the plant to Asia. Its path to Europe, and specifically Italy (where tomato’s culinary popularity first took off), is harder to trace, but there have been several handwritten accounts to read. The first of these dates to 1548 in Tuscany, where the fruit was improperly thought to be a type of eggplant, and it was named “Pomodoro” or pomi d’oro.  You might think the “Pomodoro” caused shock waves across the country and transformed the landscape of Italian cuisine as soon as it entered the market – alas, this was not the case. Many of the Italian tomato dishes that we know and love today are quite recent. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the modern-day tomato had firmly cemented its roots in Italian culture. Pasta and pizzas were around for quite some time by this point, but they depended on base ingredients such as cheese and olive oil for flavor until someone had the bright idea of adding tomato sauce.

The Chinese and Europeans eventually whole-heartedly embraced tomatoes in their cuisine. After the tomato’s travels to Europe, the fruit was also making the rounds in Asia, where it continues its popularity to this day. In Chinese culture, written records of tomatoes date back to 1621 during the Ming dynasty. Much like Italian culinary culture, China took a fair amount of time to warm up to the fruit. In fact, the tomato’s first records read more like a precaution – written records tell of a Western-originated fan persimmon. Although tomatoes never rose to culinary prominence in the same way as they did in Italy, several regions of China became quite reliant on the use of tomatoes in their dishes. By the turn of the nineteenth century, tomatoes had officially migrated to most parts of Asia. During this period, they also found their way into Syria and Iran. There though, they were widely used almost immediately.

To read more about the mighty tomato, click HERE

Review: The Fall Of The House Of Percy, 1368-1408 by Richard Lomas

This book with the catchy title has actually proved to be very readable and informative. I had hoped it would answer some of my most nagging questions (what exactly was the relationship between Thomas Percy and Prince Henry, and of course, why did he throw everything away to fight at Shrewsbury? And why did Hotspur throw everything away on such a risky venture?) Alas, I can only assume that the answers are lost to history and we are left with plenty of speculation. Nonetheless, this book provided me with many details I didn’t find elsewhere and that helped explain situations.

“The alternative and reasonable explanation is that whatever loyalty to Henry he (Thomas) had was dissipated by the king’s treatment of him. Also, there was family solidarity: he probably felt unable to fight for a king his nephew was seeking to depose. What is unclear is the point or stage at which he was drawn into the plot. His move, however, was militarily significant in that he brought with him eight knights, 96 esquires and 866 archers, most of them staunch Ricardians and/or Cheshire men, that constituted over a quarter of the Prince’s force.”

The same quandary applies to the relationship between Hotspur and Prince Henry. Hotspur was often portrayed as young Henry’s mentor, but anecdotal evidence gives us a small window of opportunity. Even biographies of Henry V yield little information. But enough of what is lacking. The author has given us a solid picture of the Percys starting with family background, leading to Henry Percy’s early career as first Earl of Northumberland. We get a thorough description of the wars and politics of the years between 1368-1389, bringing in the international influences. By chapter four, we explore the last ten years of King Richard’s reign and the revolution of Henry Bolingbroke, which relied heavily on the Percys for its success. They were greatly rewarded, but during the next few years it became evident that Henry IV was not as committed to their cause as they were to his. Using the rival family of the Nevilles as a counter-balance, Henry sought to control the overweening Percys by giving the Nevilles land and offices, just as Richard II had done. Alas, he only succeeded in driving them into the arms of Owain Glyn Dwr, who was more than happy to combine forces in an effort to unseat the usurper king.

Percy captures King Richard, BL Harley 1319 Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard

A major fallout occurred as a result of the battle of Humbleton Hill—a huge success for the English against the Scots, where a large number of aristocrats were captured. “It was the fate of these men that shortly became the occasion of a bitter quarrel between the king and Hotspur. A week after the battle, on receipt of the news of the victory… Henry wrote to the Earl as Warden of the West March, strictly ordering that none of the Scottish prisoners should be ransomed or released, except on his authority. The stated reason for this prohibition was the ‘urgent causes now moving the king’ but without indicating what they were.” Earl Henry duly delivered his hostages to the king at Westminster, but “Hotspur refused to hand over the Earl of Douglas. In doing so, he flouted the rules of war, which accorded the king the right, for obvious political reasons, to captured commanders and prisoners of royal blood, on the understanding (which Henry explicitly gave in his letters) that he would suitable compensate the captor.” So you see, the author gives us a balanced description of events, unclouded by the usual haze of sentiment surrounding the chivalric Hotspur. The disaster at Shrewsbury was followed by two more failed rebellions of Henry Percy—the last when “he was in his early sixties, that is to say, he was a man of very advanced years, whose health may have been poor and faculties impaired. As regards his final throw in 1408, it seems clear that it had virtually no chance of success and that the Earl may well have known this as he set out.” A sad end to a proud and powerful man.

The dynasty did survive after all, but their eventual fate is outside the scope of this volume. Overall, I liked this book very much and find it to be a worthy addition to my library.

When Did Bolingbroke Decide to Take the Crown?

Coronation of Henry IV, BL MS Harley 4380, F.186V

Bolingbroke’s decision to go for the crown has puzzled historians for the last 600 years. Certainly his contemporaries were led astray by his declaration that he was only returning from exile to recover his inheritance. Or were they? Many of them probably were—at first. After all, an outlaw ran the risk of losing his head if caught returning illegally, and anyone supporting him ran the same risk. So when Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur around July 4, 1399 accompanied by a small but faithful retinue, the outlawed Archbishop of Canterbury, and the son of the executed Earl of Arundel, all were fair game to any loyalist looking to stop them. Nonetheless, the insistence that he was only seeking to regain his Lancastrian patrimony garnered  a tremendous amount of sympathy from anyone who had something to lose. No one was safe from a king who could destroy their inheritance on a whim. But landowners weren’t the only ones who worried about their status. All Lancastrian retainers and servants stood to lose their positions. They could expect to find themselves replaced by vassals of new royal appointees who were to manage the estates until Bolingbroke’s eventual return—if he was ever allowed back.

Henry wasn’t about to let that happen. Once Richard left the country for Ireland, the time was ripe for Lancaster’s return. The first big encounter—and it happened very soon after Bolingbroke’s landing—was with Sir Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, the son of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. This happened at Bridlington, a town about thirty miles north of Ravenspur on the coast. Hotspur had a manor nearby, and it was thought he was in the area to collect payment for his services as Warden. His appearance was a big surprise, and if he had been so inclined, Bolingbroke’s expedition could have come to a screeching halt. But he was not so inclined. Over the last several years, Richard II had been steadily attempting to diminish the Percies’ influence in the North by removing them from key positions, and they were already disgruntled. They were quick to anticipate a golden opportunity by supporting the cause of this new opportunist—especially since Henry assured Hotspur that he only wanted his inheritance back. It is thought by some that Hotspur promised his support on the spot.

And so it began. Bolingbroke quickly garnered more support from the Northerners, making a wide berth around York and stopping off at Pontefract, his family’s stronghold. By now he was sure of his strength and moved on to Doncaster, where he met the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland among many other powerful local magnates. Northumberland had brought with him a large contingent—some said 30,000 men—which gave Bolingbroke the army he needed to challenge the royalist forces. In a very public ceremony he swore an oath that he had only returned to claim his inheritance, and did not have any designs on the crown. This wouldn’t be the last oath he was to make before changing his mind. It’s more than probable that at this point he also declared—at least privately to his closest adherents—that they would put the king under their control and impose a continual council, as they had in 1386.

Did his followers believe him? Historians conjecture that even if Henry had already decided to go for the crown (some think he did even before he landed, though there is no solid evidence), it was too soon to declare his intentions to a guarded populace. They had just barely recovered from Richard’s recent burst of tyranny; would they be willing to expose themselves to another series of threats? But if Bolingbroke came to assert his own rights, unfairly trampled upon, surely this was not treason?

Richard II detained by Percy, BL Harley 1319 Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre

And so, bolstered by a strong army that grew as he marched south, Bolingbroke solidified his credibility when he convinced the regent, Richard’s uncle the Duke of York, to come over to his cause. All along the regent was sympathetic to Henry’s grievances and was seriously distressed by this conflict of interest. After all, he was Henry’s uncle, too. Once again, it is thought that Bolingbroke repeated the same oath to York, convincing him to change sides.

The first action Bolingbroke took that indicated a possible change of intention came along shortly thereafter when they subjugated Bristol and executed three of King Richard’s close advisors—an action quite illegal unless ordered by the king. Afterwards, on their way north to Chester, he appointed Percy Warden of the West Marches toward Scotland—another custom reserved for the king. Yet still, Bolingbroke professed that he had no designs on the crown.

When Percy was chosen to approach King Richard who was by then holed up at Conwy Castle, again it was said that Henry swore the same oath. Did Percy really believe him? He certainly repeated this oath to Richard over a consecrated host, convincing the king to meet Bolingbroke in person. Too bad for Richard! He hadn’t traveled far from his sanctuary when Percy’s hidden soldiers surrounded him and and escorted his little party to Rhuddlan then on to Flint Castle, prisoners in fact. When meeting the humiliated king in person, according to the eye-witness Jean Creton, Henry said, “My Lord, I am come sooner than you sent for me: the reason wherefore I will tell you. The common report of your people is such, that you have, for the space of twenty or two and twenty years, governed them very badly and very rigorously, and in so much that they are not well contented therewith. But if it please our Lord, I will help you to govern them better than they have been governed in time past.” And Richard answered mildly, “Fair cousin, since it pleaseth you, it pleaseth us well.” If this wasn’t an acquiescence, I don’t know what more would have been needed!

The game was up, and although Bolingbroke treated the king like a prisoner, he still did not declare himself. With the king in tow, they all returned to Chester where Henry sent out summonses for a Parliament—in the king’s name—to be held the 30th of September. This would be about a month-and-half later. While in Chester, he received emissaries from London, who declared that the people renounced their allegiance to Richard and pledged their loyalty to Henry. It was said they even demanded that Henry put the king to death, but of course he refused. Three days later, Bolingbroke returned to London with his prisoner king, who rode a nag rather than his own horse, and was still dressed in the clothes he was wearing when arrested. When they reached London, Henry turned Richard over to the mayor and another delegation. By now the citizens must have come to their senses, because the officials escorted the king to the Tower, guarding him from the menacing crowd.

Richard was out of his hands. Now Bolingbroke could concentrate on finding a legal way to stage the deposition. By the time he reached London he had undoubtedly decided to go all the way.

The County Palatine (or Palatinate): A threat to the king?

Palatinates of Lancaster and Chester, saved from heritage-history.com

A Palatinate (coming from palace) is one of those words bantered around that I never gave much thought to, until I realized how important it was. In Richard II’s reign, there were actually three Palatinates: Lancaster, Durham, and Chester. And what distinguished them from the rest of the country? They were nothing less than a kingdom inside of a kingdom, metaphorically speaking.

Palatinates date back to the Norman Conquest, and the earls and bishops, essentially, were given “princely” powers over their own jurisdictions — to help the king rule the marcher territories. Although other counties were given Palatinate powers, by the fourteenth century they had fallen into abeyance, leaving the big three. Durham was ruled by the Bishop of Durham. Lancaster (created in 1351) was ruled by the Duke of Lancaster, then united with the crown after Henry IV’s accession — though still administered separately. Chester was put under the control of the heir to the throne after Henry III, though Richard II promoted it to a Principality in 1398 (he entitled himself Prince of Chester). Henry IV returned it to a Palatinate in short order.

Palatanate of Durham, saved from heritage-history.com

What does all this mean? It was put eloquently by James Wylie in his “History of England Under Henry the Fourth”: “…the County Palatine of Durham, which sent no representatives to the parliament at Westminster, but was governed by its own Prince Bishop, who exercised royal rights and jurisdiction, held his own courts, appointed his own judges, and might assert an actual independence when the central government was weak and distracted.” The Palatinate had its own chancery, its own seal, its own sheriffs and justices. Its own laws. Revenues stayed within the Palatinate. Bottom line: the king’s writ had no power there. Parliamentary representation came later: Chester in 1543; Durham in 1654, and Lancaster in 1873.

Needless to say, the Palatinate of Lancaster was a huge concern to Richard II. Although the Duke of Lancaster swore fealty to the king, Richard couldn’t touch much of his territory. The Palatinate encompassed Lancashire, but the duke also controlled other territories and castles as far north as Pickering (north Yorkshire) as far south as Pevensey, and as far east as Gimmingham, in Norfolk. These territories were the jurisdiction of the duke under the rule of the king. Nonetheless, when all put together, the Duke of Lancaster was the most powerful noble in the land, and if he chose to rebel, the strength from his Palatinate could present a formidable block.

The Palatinate was a gift from the king; John of Gaunt did not obtain its rule in Lancashire until 1377 (Edward III’s last Parliament), and this grant was only for life. However, in 1390, after achieving his majority, Richard II was so eager to bind his uncle to his cause that he awarded the Palatinate to Gaunt’s heirs male. It wasn’t until the king was firmly in control, seven years later, that he realized his serious error. He was no longer friendly with his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke—if he had ever been—and once Gaunt died there was every possibility that Henry would become a formidable threat. No king wanted that kind of challenger in his own backyard. This goes a long way toward explaining why Richard seized Bolingbroke’s inheritance after Gaunt’s death. What exactly he planned to do about it will never be known, for his usurpation followed a few months later.

When Henry IV became king, he chose to maintain the Duchy of Lancaster as a separate entity; he didn’t want the Duchy to be absorbed into the crown’s possessions. The Palatinate eventually morphed into a parcel of the Duchy and soon the same officers administrated both. This separate status of the Duchy of Lancaster lasted all the way until 1971.

Clashing cousins: Richard II and Bolingbroke

Richard II and Henry at Flint, MS BL Harley 1319 f.50

Even though Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke were first cousins and born only a few months apart, their personalities were total opposites. Whereas Richard had little interest in marshal activities and did not participate in tournaments, Henry began his training at fourteen and was a champion at jousting. Richard’s early childhood was spent mostly in his own household with a father who was slowly dying; Henry was surrounded by siblings and cousins and given a first-rate education; he could write in French, Latin, and English.  Richard was crowned at age ten with all the accompanying ceremony and formalities; Henry was free to come and go as he pleased. In May of 1390, while Richard was struggling to establish his own rule after proclaiming his majority, Henry was making a name for himself at the famous Tournament at St. Inglevert in France. After that, he took a huge contingent of knights on crusade, first to Tunis, then to Lithuania—all funded by his father. Oh, and he traveled all over Europe, the honored guest of kings and dukes. In between all this traveling, Henry managed to sire six children, whereas Richard had none. Surely Richard must have envied his lifestyle!

Interestingly, a year before Edward III’s death, the king created an entail that ordered the succession along traditional male lines. This meant that John of Gaunt was the next heir to the throne, and after him, Henry Bolingbroke. Because of Gaunt’s unpopularity at the time, the entail was kept quiet; few even knew of its existence. I can only assume that Richard and Henry were among the few, and this must have impacted on their relationship. Later in life Richard vehemently opposed the idea of Henry following him, though he never formally declared an heir. Many of his countrymen, unaware of the entail, assumed that the Earl of March, descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel though his daughter, would be next in line.

Henry Bolingbroke spent much of his time away from court, although he was present with the king in the Tower during the Peasants’ Revolt. Since Henry’s father was one of the primary targets of the revolt, it made sense to leave him behind in safety while Richard ventured out to meet the rebels at Mile End. No one expected the insurgents to breach the Tower defenses and pour into the fortress, dragging out the Archbishop of Canterbury and Treasurer Hales and decapitating them on the spot. Henry surely would have met with the same fate except for the quick thinking of one John Ferrour, who managed to hide him from the intruders; they obviously didn’t know he was there.

Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick, Before the King Source: Wikimedia

The first major breach in Richard and Henry’s relationship came about as the Lords Appellant organized their fight against the king in 1387, leading to the Merciless Parliament. At first there were only three Appellants: the earls of Arundel and Warwick and the Duke of Gloucester (Richard’s uncle). But when they discovered that the king had sent his favorite Robert de Vere to Chester so he could bring back a royal army, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray joined them. Bolingbroke personally blocked de Vere at Radcot Bridge, precipitating an easy defeat on the king’s forces. Although the new newest Appellants kept a low profile and broke ranks with their elders over the execution of Sir Simon Burley, the proverbial die was cast and Richard never forgave his cousin.

But things were complicated. Once the king declared his majority, Richard relied on his uncle to support his throne—a reliance that was well placed, for Gaunt proved his champion for the rest of his life. Naturally, this meant that Henry would be treated well; Gaunt’s protective cloak shielded him from Richard’s revenge against the senior Appellants. All might have gone well, except that Thomas de Mowbray lost his nerve and blew things wide open. He spilled his guts to Henry who told his father who told the king, and voila! Richard had the opportunity to get rid of his last two enemies. Rather than let one of them kill the other in a trial by combat, the king stopped the tournament and outlawed them both. Shakespeare gave us the perfect depiction of this pivotal event in his play Richard II.

Richard presiding at a tournament, from St. Alban’s Chronicle. Source: Lambeth Palace Library, MS6 f.233

Richard almost got away with his revenge. Had he not confiscated Henry’s inheritance after Gaunt died, perhaps his cousin would have respected his outlawry. That’s one of the big “What ifs” in medieval history. But the king went too far and precipitated his own downfall. Henry’s popularity in England and Richard’s perceived tyranny against his own people brought about an almost bloodless revolution. At some point during his return, Henry decided to go all the way and claim the crown that he was destined to inherit, according to Edward III’s entail. Valorous, handsome, chivalrous, robust, well-educated, and popular, Henry held all the advantages, and poor Richard didn’t stand a chance.

Getting to know my protagonist, Richard II

British Library: MS Harley 4205 f.6V

For a long time my only knowledge about Richard II came from Shakespeare. How typical! The great bard established many historical figures in our mind that didn’t match reality (how about Richard III?). I suspect he would have been amazed at how literally we took his memorable characters. So when I decided to take on King Richard, I thought of him as tragic, naturally. I also thought, before he came to a bad end, that he was flippant, arrogant, inconsiderate, and self-centered. It was a tribute to Shakespeare’s skill that I felt sorry for him at the end.

I’m still not sure why I needed to write his story, but thirty some-odd books’ worth of research later, I’m glad I made the journey. My conception of Richard changed along the way, and it’s still probably incomplete. He was a complicated character, and once I found out what Shakespeare left out, I was more amazed than ever.

Born in Bordeaux, Richard didn’t move to England until he was four; apparently he didn’t speak a word of English. He was the second son; his brother, England’s heir, died just before they left France. From what I understand, he did not grow up with a support group since his youth was spent in the household of a dying man—his father, the Black Prince. Crowned king at age ten, the lonely boy started out at a disadvantage. No child should have that kind of responsibility thrust upon him, even if he was only a figurehead. Did he realize he was a figurehead? Or did he take his responsibilities seriously? Since he alone had to face the ringleaders of Peasants’ Revolt at fourteen, I’d say the young king took on more than his share of authority. Did any of his elders give him credit when the crisis was over? It appears not; they were quick to blame him when it came time to suppress the aftermath. I imagine this was the beginning of his “attitude” toward his alleged advisors.

Court of the King’s Bench, MS Illum. from Inner Temple Library. Source: Wikipedia

Not willing to suffer the reproaches from his council, he sequestered himself with the men he did trust: Sir Simon Burley, his tutor, Robert de Vere, his childhood friend from Edward III’s court, and Michael de la Pole, his chancellor, among others. These were the very men singled out for destruction by the Lords Appellant—led by the Duke of Gloucester and the earls of Warwick and Arundel. Once their patience ran out with Richard’s “bad government”, the Appellants decided it was time to clean house and get the king under their control (more of this in A KING UNDER SIEGE). As far as the Appellants were concerned, Richard was badly advised by his friends; they had to be eliminated—permanently. To say that the Lords were thorough would be an understatement! By the time the Merciless Parliament was over, Richard had lost his inner circle of friends to either judicial murder or outlawry, and his household members were all dismissed. The reins of power were wrested from his hands. His humiliation was complete. One can only imagine what that trauma would do to a young mind.

So, in 1389 when Ricard declared his majority at age twenty-two, he was a changed man. In fact, for the next seven years he behaved himself so well that everyone thought he had learned his lesson. It was a rare time of peace and prosperity. Chroniclers had nothing to talk about except the weather. Richard had proven that he knew how to rule well. Alas, when Queen Anne died in 1394, he lost his only remaining attachment from his youth. Theirs was a love match and he was devastated. Was she responsible for keeping him under control? When her restraining hand was removed, did he give vent to the rage that was simmering inside? It’s tempting to think so.

The Duke of Gloucester murdered, by Colfox-Froissart BnF MS Fr 2646, fol. 289.

But he didn’t strike back until three years later. Historians are in disagreement as to the catalyst, but by 1397 he arrested the three original Lords Appellant and tried them for treason. One was his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester; the other two were the Earls of Arundel and Warwick. These arrests came as a complete surprise to everyone except his new circle of friends, soon known as the Counter-Appellants. All three Appellants were soon dead, and the other two, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray, had a sinking feeling they were next.

What drove Richard to these acts of revenge? Had he planned them for seven years, just waiting until the timing was right? Did he carry around this terrible hatred for years, which surely would poison the most rational mind? Or did new acts of lese-majesty by the Appellants (never proven) set him off on his destructive path? Nobody knows. What seems to be the case is that he was so terrified that the whole thing would happen again, he decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against his enemies. And when that wasn’t enough, he insisted on sworn oaths to uphold Parliament’s new laws, again and again. Even worse, seventeen southern counties and London were deemed complicit with the Appellants, and he required that they sue for pardons—except that fifty unnamed accomplices would be excepted. Nobody knew if they were among the fifty condemned traitors, and over five hundred immediately came forward to secure their clemency.

Ultimately, I see Richard as someone who never had a sense of security. On the one hand, he was able to instill loyalty with his close friends. Both his wives loved him. His court was among the most cultured in Europe; he patronized men of letters such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, as well as Oxford University. For the first seven years after he achieved his majority, he reigned quietly and efficiently. England experienced a rare time of peace and prosperity. Chroniclers had little to talk about except the weather. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed that his pent-up anger and frustration burst forth. His enemies, who had been lulled into a false sense of security, were unexpectedly arrested and tried for treason. For a few short months, the Wheel of Fortune raised him to the top. Alas, in the end, his retribution wasn’t enough and he didn’t know when to stop; he felt that the whole country was against him, and took measures accordingly. What would Richard require to feel safe again? I don’t think he ever found out.

Review for THE KING’S RETRIBUTION by Mary Anne Yarde

“When I was young and powerless, they saw fit to manipulate Parliament to achieve their selfish ends. Those days are over. It’s my turn, now. I mean to bring the Crown back to the splendor and magnificence it possessed in the days of Edward I—when the Crown ruled Parliament, not the other way around…”

They had demanded pardons, and he had given them for there had been no other choice. But things were different now. The son of Edward, The Black Prince, would see justice served. Richard II would have his revenge, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

At least, Richard II had thought there was no one to stand in his way. But the Wheel of Fortune was forever turning, and fate was not done with Richard yet…
From the death of Queen Anne to the utter despair of a vanquished king, The King’s Retribution: Book Two of The Plantagenet Legacy by Mercedes Rochelle is the story of the tyranny of Richard II and his subsequent fall from grace.

Confident in his newfound power, Richard is determined to right an injustice. He may have given those involved in the Lords Appellants’ rebellion their pardons, but he has not forgotten such a gross betrayal. And now was the time to right that wrong. Besieged with paranoia, Richard travels along a path that will ultimately end in his demise. With her enthralling narrative, Rochelle has given us a Richard who is determined to assert his personal will upon the baronial challenges that plagued his early reign. But in doing so, Richard abuses his divine powers which leads to dire retribution seemingly from the heavens. Why did Richard do this? Rochelle goes some way to explain. Richard is left totally undone by the death of his beloved wife — he loses the one person who understands his fears and can console him. Beset with grief and desperate to gain a sense of control in his life, Richard forgoes the fragile peace that was so hard-won in order to consolidate his power. Rochelle does not give us a Richard who has lost his mind, as some historians argue, but instead one who is governed by fear which leads him down a road of forced confessions and even the murder of his uncle, Gloucester.

But that is not his only crime. Richard is seemingly out of touch with the common people, and he mismanages the country’s finance. He is also apt at creating friction between the nobles, but especially between members of his family. This Rochelle describes in all its glorious yet sometimes ugly detail.

As Richard loses control over his country and his own destiny, Rochelle presents her readers with a despairing king. Richard’s desperate attempts to hold onto his honour and dignity despite Henry’s efforts to humiliate him was masterfully drawn. One could only feel sympathy for this dejected King as he is betrayed by almost everyone around him. And yet, with quiet dignity, Richard endures the hecklers on the streets as he is ushered into a world of uncertainty and despair.

Rochelle presents two very different sides to Richard — the paranoid statesman whose own personal bodyguard, the Chester Archers, causes disquiet and concern, but also Rochelle depicts a devoted husband. I thought Rochelle’s depiction of Richard II was utterly sublime, and his desperation really drove this story forward and made it unputdownable.  Read More

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If you read A KING UNDER SIEGE, you might remember that we left off just as Richard declared his majority at age 22. He was able to rise above the humiliation inflicted on him during the Merciless Parliament, but the fear that it could happen again haunted him the rest of his life. Ten years was a long time to wait before taking revenge on your enemies, but King Richard II was a patient man. Hiding his antagonism toward the Lords Appellant, once he felt strong enough to wreak his revenge he was swift and merciless. Alas for Richard, he went too far, and in his eagerness to protect his crown Richard underestimated the very man who would take it from him: Henry Bolingbroke.

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Usury in Medieval England: Lending Money to the King

Detail from Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, National Gallery of Art, Source: Wikipedia

It’s pretty much a given that usury was considered a sin by almost all Christians; even Dante put usurers in the seventh circle of hell. However, the degrees of sinning and the exact definition of usury is debated to this day, so I am merely a novice dipping my big toe into the ocean of discourse. Nonetheless, I always wondered how people got away with it. After all, no one would take the risk of lending money without some sort of recompense, would they?

Since medieval Christians were forbidden to practice usury, it fell upon the Jews to engage in this unsavory profession—as long as they didn’t lend to other Jews. After all, in England Jews were not allowed traditional trades; they were marginalized into socially inferior professions like tax or rent collection or money changing. Unfortunately for them, their practice made the Jewish moneylender the first victim whenever it was convenient for those in authority—or mobs—to rid themselves of their pesky creditors. Again and again we hear tales of their murder, arrest, torture, or expulsion, and I wonder how that behavior could possibly encourage the next generation to continue lending?

But in this article, I’m interested in how the crown got its loans. After all, war was an expensive business and the taxes approved by Parliament took months to collect—and they usually didn’t cover all the bills. In fact, it is widely believed that Edward III was responsible for giving Parliament the idea that they could force their agenda on the king in exchange for the next round of taxes—first one, then the other. My research tells me that the money needed by the king was borrowed in advance, with the provision that the lenders would be paid off with the proceeds from the next tax collection, or sometimes “on the customs of the ports”.

BL Add. 27695, f.8. Cocharelli of Genoa. Bankers in an Italian counting house in the 14th cent. Source: Wikipedia

The first three Edwards borrowed money from Italian banking-houses, but they were notorious for not paying back their loans. At first, the bankers were motivated by profit, but soon they needed to keep lending money to ensure they didn’t lose what they had already invested. The two largest bankers, the Peruzzi and the Bardi, collapsed in the 1340s, and most historians believe that Edward III’s nonpayment of colossal loans was the main contributing factor.

Some of the wealthier magnates, bishops, merchants, or corporations were tapped again and again for royal loans. They were issued tallies by the king’s commissioner that they could later redeem when the exchequer was solvent—in theory. It was more reliable to advance loans to be credited against their own future taxation. Coercion was not unheard of: according to K.B. McFarlane, a contemporary writer told us that in Henry V’s day, “Italian merchants had been given a choice between lending and going to prison and had in some cases preferred prison”. (Richard II wasn’t the only king guilty of “forced loans”! But that’s another story.)

It’s an outside possibility that people lent money to the crown out of the kindness of their hearts—expecting no return—anxious to serve their country. It’s more likely that at the very least, the creditor stood to gain trading concessions or licenses, or some kind of preference. But the most convincing explanation of all, considering everyone wanted to skirt the illegality of usury, was that they were compensated, but in a way that made it difficult to prove. Fortunately, some evidence has survived that has enabled historians to track the clever devices used to conceal usury. For instance, in the case of royal tallies, they were often taken at a large discount: it was recorded that “one Robert Worsley, mercer of London, took two royal tallies for a total of £500 in settlement of a debt of £400 owed him by John, Duke of Bedford”¹. That’s a pretty hefty markup!

The Usurers by Quentin Metsys, Galleria Doria Pamphilj (Rome) Source: Wikipedia

Enter the word chevisance or chevance: essentially a form of disguised usury. This term was used regardless of the size of the loan. Contemporary literature is full of rebukes concerning this damnable practice, which they often referred to as bastard usury. To leave no trace, the sum recorded in the exchequer was the amount that was to be repaid, not what was loaned (the loan was known as mutuum). Often, the money that was loaned did not even go to the treasurer; he was only responsible for paying the debt and nothing more. Rarely was the documentation more precise than that. However, there was one incident that demonstrated how ruinous the rate could be. In 1376, the London merchant Richard Lyons was impeached with the charge that he took a 50% markup against the exchequer. It was said that he lent 20,000 marks and received back £20,000; a mark was 2/3 of a pound (not exactly 50%, but who knows?). John of Gaunt defended him, saying “that the rate was nothing out of the ordinary for a royal loan”.² No wonder the exchequer was always broke! Cardinal Beaufort—one of the wealthiest men of his time—is said to have lent the crown an excess of £200,000 during his career (he survived well in to Henry VI’s reign); there were times he was the only bulwark between the country and bankruptcy. It can only be assumed he didn’t get rich on his benefices alone, and he was accordingly castigated by his detractors.

Although the official ban on usury wasn’t lifted until the eighteenth century, in practice everyone pretty much looked the other way. After all, even the pope needed to borrow money. As long as it was for a good cause, usury could be rationalized…somehow.

 ¹ McFarlane, K.B., Loans to the Lancastrian Kings, the Problem of Inducement, from England in the Fifteenth Century, Collected Essays, The Hambledon Press, 1981, p.72
² ibid, p.77