Coronation of Richard II from Jean de Wavrin Chroniques d’Angleterre BL Royal 14 E IV f. 10: Wikipedia

As the old biblical saying goes, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child”. The stresses on the country are easy to see, but no one seems to talk about how difficult it was to BE that child. Growing up without a (or at least, an active) father must have been compounded by all the expectations heaped upon that little head. In Richard’s case, he wasn’t even the first-born son. His elder brother, Edward, had died at the age of five just before his family’s return to England in 1371; Richard was not quite four. There were to be no more children, so the pressure was on.

Both Edward, the Black Prince and the ailing Edward III had real concerns about the succession. Primogeniture, as we know it, was not yet the law of the land. Young Richard had three uncles, and John of Gaunt, the next brother after Edward had already made plenty of enemies. So not only did the Black Prince on his deathbed oblige everyone to swear to support his son, King Edward is said to have put together an entail delineating the succession along male lines. He declared Richard the next heir and bypassed the descendants from his second son Lionel (already dead) through the daughter. According to historian Michael Bennett, because of Gaunt’s unpopularity the entail was kept secret from the general public. How many copies were made was unknown, for a badly burned original (from the Cotton Library fire of 1731) wasn’t even discovered until the 20th century. Surely all of Edward III’s descendants knew about it.

Richard was ten years old when he was crowned king. Apparently because so many people feared that Gaunt would seize the crown for himself, there was no regency. The business of government was conducted by a Continual Council, at least until the Peasants’ Revolt broke out in 1381. By then Richard was fourteen, and he suddenly found himself thrust into a position of leadership. Gaunt was in Scotland, the next uncle Edmund Langley was on his way to Portugal, and the youngest uncle Thomas of Woodstock was in Wales. The chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, immediately resigned his post—not that he was fit for the job in the first place. There was no army to call on—only the soldiers manning the Tower of London. Richard had to face the marauding rebels on his own, and with a couple of false starts along the way, he ultimately manage to save London from their depredations. He had proved himself worthy of the name Plantagenet.

Froissart, Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: Wikipedia

One would think that his courage would have impressed his elders. Not a whit. Promises had been made along the way that couldn’t be kept, and Richard was to blame for making them—not that anybody else had a better idea. The king was dragged along as the government reasserted itself, holding judgement on the rebels who felt themselves betrayed. Many ringleaders were hanged and the king was held responsible. His moment of glory was fleeting and now he was on the defensive.

Richard kept his few friends and advisors close, making them the target of jealous and unscrupulous magnates. The most unscrupulous of all was Richard’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock, made Duke of Gloucester in 1385. The new title—which he felt he deserved—did nothing to counteract his conviction that the king was badly advised. As soon as John of Gaunt left the country to pursue the crown of Castile, Gloucester went on the offensive. Gathering together a powerful faction led by himself, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick, Gloucester “appealed” (accused) Richard’s favorites, initiating a legal procedure to drive them from the king’s presence. (Even he couldn’t attack the king directly.) The trio became known as the Lords Appellant, and were soon joined by Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. Gaining steam, their scheme was extravagantly successful, culminating in the Merciless Parliament of 1388. By the time the dust settled, eight of Richard’s friends and favorites had been put to death, three had fled the country, and over forty others had been ejected from court. The king was all alone, and friendless. Except for his queen.

Nonetheless, Richard trusted in his special eminence. He was an anointed king, after all, and nobody could take that from him. After licking his wounds for a year, he came back stronger and wiser, declaring his majority and taking his place back at the head of the government. The Lords Appellant could do nothing against him, and they had pretty much lost interest anyway. Their job was done.

For the next seven years, England was quiet and prosperous. As professor Hutchison would say, political executioners were unemployed. But suddenly, without warning, Richard launched a brutal revenge against the Lords Appellant, throwing his government into a tailspin. What happened? Why ruin a good thing? Historians have been baffled ever since. Perhaps the death of his queen removed any restraint over his bad tendencies. Some think the king went insane; others wondered if he was planning his revenge all along and just waited for the right moment. It’s possible that the Duke of Gloucester was fomenting trouble again. He got his “just desserts”, and it’s possible that Richard would have gotten away with his private retribution except that he didn’t stop there.

Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester
Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester BL, Harley 4380, f. 181v Creative Commons License

For the last three years of his reign, King Richard exhibited an incredible paranoia, fearing retaliation at any moment and practically holding the whole populace responsible for his earlier humiliation. This period of his reign is usually called his Tyranny. He collected over 600 Cheshire archers as his personal bodyguard (who terrorized the country wherever they went). He imposed fines on whole communities and slapped them with “blank charters” to be filled in at his discretion if they caused any trouble. He initiated forced loans to pay for his upcoming campaign to Ireland (though he was not the first nor the last king to do so). Once he exiled Henry Bolingbroke and took possession of the Lancaster endowments, he went too far. For the second time in his life Richard found himself alone and abandoned—with the exception of a handful of supporters. This time there would be no coming back. The king’s experiment with absolute monarchy was a failure, not to be revived until Henry VIII applied it to “perfection”.

King Richard II’s Court

Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray Earl Marshal
Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray the Earl Marshal, BL Cotton MS Nero D VI, f.85r.

It seems that at some point in every reign, political factions grew up around the king. Sometimes they were minor annoyances and could be ignored. Often they turned toxic—especially when a baron started to throw his weight around. Occasionally the overmighty baron was a member of the royal family, as in the case of Richard II, and he was able to attract powerful friends. As the great historian Kenneth McFarlane put it*: “The nuisance of the overmighty subject was in fact a feature of the rule of weaklings and vanished with the accession of those who had the personal authority to deal with it…To Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VIII the problem did not exist; to Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, it was insoluble.” This seems harsh, but I can’t argue with it. The court was more dangerous to King Richard than it was to his subjects.

Of course, during the first ten years of Richard II’s reign the country had to deal with his minority; that didn’t help matters. There was no regent—only a continual council. How can a testy teenager gain control over his opinionated uncles? During the early part of his reign, Richard mistakenly saw John of Gaunt as his primary antagonist—actually, Gaunt had managed to rub almost everybody the wrong way until he gained some humility after his debacle in Spain. Once Gaunt had left the country to chase his crown of Castile, his younger brother the Duke of Gloucester stepped forward, and Richard found himself challenged by an even more unscrupulous opponent. This is when the real trouble began.

Up until then, King Richard was content to surround himself with a tight-knight group of friends and confidants. That in itself might not have rankled, except that he shut himself away from those who considered themselves his proper advisors. The young Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford emerged as the most obvious scapegoat; Richard was very attached to him and it was rumored there might have been some unsavory behavior, reminiscent of Edward II. Also, that commoner Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s chamberlain, kept a firm control over access to the king’s inner chambers. The overmighty barons felt excluded. Something had to be done.

So in these critical first ten years, the faction against the king gained ground, and those faithful to Richard remained a pitiful minority. The Duke of Gloucester joined forces with the irascible Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick; soon they gathered their retainers together and marched on London. Although they insisted that Richard get rid of his bad advisors, the king demurred while Robert de Vere attempted to raise an army to defend him. This perceived betrayal was enough to persuade Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray to join the Lords Appellant, as they all became known.

The Lords Appellant before King Richard II
Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick, Before the King Source: Wikimedia

At the time, the king had no standing army; he was totally dependent on his nobles to do his fighting for him. Who would have been on his side? Already Robert de Vere’s army had surrendered almost without a fight; the Earl of Oxford had no experience in warfare. The Duke of York, Richard’s other uncle, was notoriously ineffectual and could only offer moral support. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was in Spain. That’s it for the Dukes; there were only three—all Richard’s uncles. How about the earls? Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was far in the north; he didn’t get involved. John Holland, Earl of Kent and Richard’s half-brother, was with Gaunt in Spain. Roger Mortimer, Earl of March was in Ireland. Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was on the run. The last four earls were Appellants. That’s it. Richard was alone.

After making short work of de Vere, the Appellants closed in on Richard who had taken refuge in the Tower. There was no way out; the king was their prisoner. It was their moment of triumph and they didn’t hesitate to threaten his crown. What could he do? Richard was forced to bend to their will, sacrificing all his supporters. Burley was executed, along with at least eight others, including Chief Justice Tresilian and ex-mayor Nicholas Brembre. Queen Anne begged on her knees for Gloucester to spare Burley, but to no avail. Servants and knights of the chamber were imprisoned or exiled. The Ex-Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, was the lucky one. He found refuge on the Continent and was joined by Robert de Vere. By the time Richard’s government had been purged, the king had no one to turn to except his wife.

Execution of Robert Tresilian
Execution of Robert Tresilian from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques (Wikimedia)

The desolate King Richard spent a year licking his wounds before daring to step forward. But step forward he did. After all, he was twenty-two, and no one could deny it was time to declare his majority. By then, the Lords Appellant had lost interest in governing. After all, they had achieved their goal and their attention was demanded elsewhere. The transition to Richard’s full control was smooth and effortless, and the king had learned his lesson—or so it seemed. For the next seven years, England experienced a rare stretch of peace and prosperity.

But it was not destined to last. Richard had learned an even better lesson from the Lords Appellant. He determined that never again would he find himself alone and defenseless. It was time to retain some men of his own, and he started with the Cheshire Archers. Oh, dear. It was not going to end well…


*McFarlane, K.B., THE NOBILITY OF LATER MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973, p.283.



The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r, British Library Creative Commons license

Aside from a slight digression to Scotland in order to prove his manhood, Richard II was not interested in warfare. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Age of Chivalry had reached its apex by the end of the fourteenth century. When we think of knights armored from head to foot in articulated plate with splendid crests atop their helmets and gay caparisons flowing from their stallions, this is the period that comes to mind. Europe may have experienced a brief hiatus in warfare, but the knights gave themselves plenty of opportunity to excel in arms: the tournament.

I would say the most famous tournament of all time were the Jousts of St. Inglevert, held in 1390 and described in detail by Jean Froissart. Three famous French knights, Jean Boucicaut (soon to be marshal of France), Renaud de Roya, and the lord de Sempy challenged one and all to meet them at St. Inglevert, a religious house between Boulogne on the sea and Calais. This was to be a month-long event, and all of Christendom were keen to attend.

The French knights erected three rich vermilion-colored pavilions. Each was hung with two shields, emblazoned with their arms: one shield represented the “joust of peace”, requiring blunt lances, and the other, the “joust of war” requiring sharpened steel lances. Each challenger (or his squire) was to ride up and touch his shield of preference with a special wand, and the resident herald would record his name, country, and family.

King Richard II did not attend; he was still recovering from the trauma of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, led a solid contingent of over one hundred knights and squires, including John Holland, earl of Huntingdon (the king’s half-brother), Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, John Beaufort, Thomas Swynford, Harry (Hotspur) Percy and his uncle Thomas Percy.

According to Froissart: “Sir John Holland was the first who sent his squire to touch the war-target of Sir Boucicaut, who instantly issued from his pavilion completely armed. Having mounted his horse, and grasped his spear, which was stiff and well steeled, they took their distances. When the two knights had for a short time eyed each other, they spurred their horses and met full gallop with such force that Sir Boucicaut pierced the shield of the Earl of Huntingdon, and the point of his lance slipped along his arm, but without wounding him. The two knights, having passed, continued their gallop to the end of the list. This course was much praised. At the second course, they hit each other slightly, but no harm was done; and their horses refused to complete the third. The earl of Huntingdon, who wished to continue the tilt, and was heated, returned to his place, expecting that sir Boucicaut would call for his lance; but he did not, and showed plainly he would not that day tilt more with the earl.

Sir John Holland, seeing this, sent his squire to touch the war-target of the lord de Sempy. This knight, who was waiting for the combat, sallied out from his pavilion, and took his lance and shield. When the earl saw he was ready, he violently spurred his horse, as did the lord de Sempy. They couched their lances, and pointed them at each other. At the onset, their horses crossed; notwithstanding which, they met; but by this crossing, which was blamed, the earl was unhelmed. He returned to his people, who soon re-helmed him; and, having resumed their lances, they met full gallop, and hit each other with such force in the middle of their shields, that they would have been unhorsed had they not kept tight seats by the pressure of their legs against the horses’ sides. They went to the proper places, where they refreshed themselves and took breath.”

After Holland chose the shield of war, no one else chose the shield of peace for fear of being declared coward. There were lots of sparks flying from helmets, shattered lances, and pierced targets. Most knights ran up to 5 courses. All told, 137 courses were run during the month and all three French challengers survived the ordeal, to their everlasting glory (somewhat the worse for wear but intact). At times they needed a few days to heal from wounds, whereupon their surviving companions covered for them. Henry Bolingbroke was said to have made a spectacular showing and Boucicaut later invited him to accompany him to two crusades.

Not to be outdone, King Richard II hosted another famous tournament at Smithfield in October of the same year. This was the same location where he confronted Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt nine years previously. Sixty fully-armored knights paraded through the streets from the Tower, down Cheapside to Smithfield, led by sixty ladies mounted on palfreys, richly ornamented and dressed. The ladies led their knights by a silver chain, and all were accompanied by minstrels and trumpets. The king and queen attended, accompanied by dukes, counts, and lords, and after a full day’s jousting entertained their guests with a magnificent banquet. The jousting went on for five days, then the court moved on to Windsor castle.

Solemn_Joust_on_London_Bridge tapestry by Richard Beavis, Wikipedia

One of the more interesting jousts was actually held on London Bridge. Many Scots and English participated in the tournament, but the main event was a personal challenge between the English Ambassador to Scotland, Lord Wells, and Sir David de Lindsay, a Scottish knight; they engaged to  joust a l’outrance, or to the death. Held before King Richard, the knights ran two courses without incident, and on the third pass Lord Wells was unhorsed. They proceeded to fight on foot and again Sir David held the advantage. But just as the Scot was ready to deliver the killing blow he relented and helped Lord Wells to his feet, gaining the approval of the crowd.

The most famous trial by combat in the fourteenth century was between Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately, the combat never took place; the King stopped it at the last minute. But the ceremony and protocol were all there; we get a colorful description in the Chronicque de la Traison et Mort de Richart Deux Roy Dengleterre (the author was probably an eye-witness).

According to la Traison, “The lists were to be sixty paces long and forty wide; the barriers seven feet high. The sergeants-at-arms were not to let the people approach within four feet of the lists… the penalty for entering the lists, or making any noise, so that one party might take advantage of the other, was the loss of life or limb, and also of their castles, at the pleasure of the King.” This was serious stuff! Again, according to la Traison, “The weapons allowed by the marshal and constable were the “Glaive”, long sword, short sword, and dagger. The long sword was straight, and called by the French “estoc”, whence estocade, a thrust.”

The King ordered that they take away the pavilions and “let go the chargers, and that each should perform his duty”. Apparently Bolingbroke first advanced a few paces when the King threw his threw his staff (warder) into the list, crying, “Ho! Ho!” For the King to interfere in the duel was not unheard of, though it seems that the crowd was bitterly disappointed to be denied their entertainment; never mind that the fight was to the death. Apparently there were no other amusements on the agenda. The contestants were equally skilled in tournament fighting, and by no means was the result a foregone conclusion. The king withdrew with his council—including Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt—and discussed the matter for two hours while the attendees waited. Finally it was announced that Bolingbroke was to be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life. From most accounts, the crowd was incensed at Bolingbroke’s treatment; after all, he had done nothing wrong. Few seemed to object to Mowbray’s fate; was he guilty until proven innocent? Nonetheless, everybody went home unhappy, not least of all the main contestants.

Trial by combat seems to have died out by the 15th century, and I haven’t found anything quite as dramatic as this contest. The amount of preparation for such a non-event was staggering. If you happened to be versed in medieval French, you can learn more about tournament ceremonies in this book, reproduced in Google Books: “Ceremonies des gages de batailles selon les constitutions du bon roi Philippe de France”.

Further reading: ROYAL JOUSTS AT THE END OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY by Steven Muhlberger, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton IL, 2012

Who Were the Last Plantagenets?

Portrait of Henry IV
Portrait of Henry IV- National Portrait Gallery (Creative Commons license)

Many people get confused when they read that Richard II was the last Plantagenet king. How can that be? During the Wars of the Roses, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were Plantagenets. And that’s true. However, Richard II was the last in the direct line—and that’s the difference.

One could almost say that Edward III had too many sons. If his heir, Edward the Black Prince hadn’t died prematurely, all would probably have gone a different route. Lionel, the second son of Edward III (who survived infancy) also predeceased his father, leaving a daughter Philippa from his first wife. It was through Philippa that we have the Mortimers, arguably the true heirs to the throne if you follow the “laws” of primogeniture (see below). The next son was John of Gaunt, the father of the future Henry IV (the Lancastrians). After him came Edmund Langley, later Duke of York (yes, those Yorkists), and lastly, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

What is primogeniture? According to historian K.B. McFarlane, “a son always preferred to a daughter, a daughter to a brother or other collateral.” So the daughter’s heirs should come before the brother’s heirs (hence the Mortimers). Of course, it didn’t always work that way, even among the royals. As far back as King John, we see the youngest brother of a previous king mount the throne rather than the son of an elder brother (Arthur of Brittany—son of Geoffrey—should have ruled if the tradition of primogeniture were followed).

The Black Prince took nothing for granted, and on his deathbed he asked both his father and his brother John of Gaunt to swear an oath to protect nine year-old Richard and uphold his inheritance. Even this precaution didn’t guarantee Richard’s patrimony, and Edward III felt obliged to create an entail that ordered the succession along traditional male lines. This meant that the Mortimers were excluded. It also meant that John of Gaunt was next in line after Richard, and after him, Henry of Bolingbroke. This entail was kept secret at the time because of Gaunt’s unpopularity, and it’s possible that Richard later destroyed at least his own copy. It might have been lost to history until the last century when a badly damaged copy was discovered in the British Library among the Cotton charters (damaged by a fire in 1731). It clearly gave the order of succession as Richard, then Gaunt and his issue, then probably Gaunt’s brothers; parts of the manuscript are lost. According to historian Michael Bennett, “While crucial pieces of the text are missing, it is tolerably certain that the whole settlement is in tail male…”

John of Gaunt by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock
John of Gaunt with his coat of arms attributed to Lucas Cornelisz de Kock source: Wikipedia

Why is this important? It’s more than likely that at least members of the royal family knew about the entail. King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke never got along, and as Richard continued to remain childless, the thought of Henry succeeding him was anathema. He still refused to name an heir, and since he remarried in 1396 the 29 year-old king was still young enough to father a child, even though his new queen was only seven at the time. It’s interesting that he never gave the Mortimer line much credence; he only mentioned them once in his own defense when his barons grew rebellious in 1385: why usurp Richard and replace him with a child? (The Mortimers had a history of dying young and the current heir was just a boy.) Nonetheless, many of his countrymen assumed Roger Mortimer was heir presumptive and didn’t think to question it. By 1397 the grown-up Roger was very popular, but was killed in Ireland shortly thereafter.

Fast forward to Henry IV’s usurpation. Legally, he had a problem. There was another living under-aged Mortimer heir (he quickly took the boy hostage and raised him alongside his own children). Richard abdicated the crown to Henry but only under duress. The new king was advised against claiming the crown by right of arms, because the same thing could be done to him. His reign was riddled with rebellions, and because things didn’t improve like he promised, people started remembering Richard with nostalgia. They wanted the old king back, and rumors of his escape to Scotland only added fuel to the proverbial fire.

Henry IV only ruled for a little over thirteen years, and the last half of his reign he was a very sick man. There were times he couldn’t rule at all and had to depend on his council. His son, the future Henry V, was ready and willing to take over; he even tried to persuade the old man to retire. But that miscarried and Henry dragged himself back into action for a short time, dismissing his son from the council and taking control again. But his days were numbered and everyone knew it. Henry V’s short and glorious reign was cut short by dysentery, and the long and pitiful reign of his infant son Henry VI drove the country into civil war. So much for the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists were descended from both Edmund Langley, the first Duke of York and Philippa, ancestor of the Mortimers. That’s why they felt they had a superior claim to the throne. But by the Wars of the Roses, the Plantagenet line was pretty much diluted. It’s ironic that Henry Tudor, father to the next dynasty, was himself actually descended from a Plantagenet through his mother. Margaret Beaufort was the last surviving member of the bastard line issuing from John of Gaunt (and legitimized by Richard II). It sounds like poetic justice to me.


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

When Henry IV took the throne, he wasn’t exactly the natural successor to Richard II, although he certainly had a place on the list! I’m being a little facetious here; there wasn’t really a “list”, and a lot had to do with whether the crown was inherited by absolute primogeniture (where the sex of the heir is not relevant) or in tail male (where males only can inherit). This was not etched in stone during the high middle ages. In 1290 Edward I made a settlement permitting his daughters to succeed. Then Edward III made an entail only allowing the succession in the male line. Allegedly this entail was kept secret, because John of Gaunt, next in line, was very unpopular at the end of Edward III’s reign. Both kings’ original entails have been lost, possibly destroyed by a later monarch. After all, how long was an entail supposed to last? Forever? Or until it was superseded by another?

One thing is for sure: Richard II absolutely did not want Henry Bolingbroke to succeed him. As early as 1394, before his first expedition to Ireland, he appointed Edmund Langley, Duke of York as keeper of the realm. (York was the younger brother of Gaunt.) This overrode John of Gaunt’s request that the post go to Henry. Traditionally the keeper of the realm was heir presumptive, so this was a real slap in the face to Gaunt. All the way to the end of Richard’s reign, York was unofficially his choice of heir, and after him, Edward Rutland, the king’s cousin and favorite. If Richard ever made it official, this too was lost.

But this wasn’t the only complication. Gaunt’s older brother Lionel died in 1368 leaving only a daughter who married Edmund Mortimer, the 3rd Earl of March. They had a son, Roger, who many thought was the heir to the throne. Since Roger was descended from the daughter, according to Edward III’s entail he was disqualified. But few knew about the entail, and Richard had little interest in the Mortimers. Roger was killed in Ireland in 1398, leaving behind a young son.

So when Richard was usurped in 1399, Mortimer was too young to stand up for himself. Edward Rutland never made a fuss over the succession. This left Henry Bolingbroke, who took young Mortimer under his “protection”. Ironically, the Yorkists, who will resurface during the Wars of the Roses, are descended both from the Duke of York and the Mortimers, giving them a somewhat stronger claim than Lancaster. But that’s another story.

Who was Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester?

The Lords Appellant Before the King Source: Wikimedia

King Edward III had eight sons—five of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest, Edward (later known as the Black Prince) predeceased the king in 1376; he was the father of Richard II. The next in line was Lionel; the Mortimers were descended from him through his daughter Philippa—and later, Edward IV. The third surviving son was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of the future Henry IV. The next son was Edmund of Langley (later the first Duke of York), and the last son was Thomas of Woodstock.

Thomas was the youngest of all thirteen known children; there were seven years between him and the next older sibling. So by the time he came along, he must have been a surprise! He was fourteen years old when his mother died. Because of his late arrival, it would be safe to say that pretty much all the income-producing royal possessions had been divvied out between his elder brothers. He was predominately reliant upon the exchequer for his annuities—when the money was available, that is. It wasn’t until he married the wealthy heiress Eleanor de Bohun that he acquired some property: the great Castle of Pleshey. So it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say this may have contributed toward his irascibility.

Even his prospects through marriage were upset. His wife was co-heiress of her great fortune; why not pressure her younger sister Mary into joining a convent, in which case the whole fortune would default to Eleanor? Alas for Thomas, his older brother John had other ideas. Waiting until Thomas was on the continent serving the king, Gaunt concocted a plot with Mary’s aunt to spirit the girl away and marry her to his own son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Finding his plans in ruins, Thomas was hard put to forgive his older brother for cheating him.

Thomas was created Earl of Buckingham at Richard II’s coronation. He had little use for his royal nephew who was only ten at the time, and he always treated the lad with scorn. Even when Richard made him Duke of Gloucester in 1385 (along with his brother Edmund, who was made Duke of York), relations did not improve between them. The following year, when John of Gaunt sailed to Spain to claim his crown of Castile, the main impediment to Gloucester’s ambition was removed. The road was clear to put his nephew in his place and get some control over his troublesome favorites—as he saw it. First, it was time to impeach the chancellor Michael de la Pole, then he and his allies would force the young king to submit to a Great and Continual Council who would implement necessary reforms.

Needless to say, Richard was incensed, though he conceded when Gloucester threatened him with usurpation like his great-grandfather Edward II. The king’s solution was to absent himself from London and travel around the country trying to drum up support. At the same time he had the clever idea to consult with eminent judges and determine whether Gloucester’s actions were treasonous. Under pressure, they agreed. In the end, this gave Richard’s enemies enough ammunition to denounce his evil advisors (they couldn’t go after the king directly) during the Merciless Parliament. Gloucester was the principal mover; he was one of five Lords Appellant, as they were called, who managed to kill or eliminate all of Richard’s friends and allies. I wrote about this at length in my novel, A KING UNDER SIEGE:

But the Lords Appellant weren’t really interested in running the country. Once they had their revenge against the king’s supporters, they quickly lost interest and failed to pursue their advantage, leaving their (illegal) Continual Council in charge. Almost exactly a year later, the king summoned a Great Council and reminded them that he had reached his majority. He declared that he was in charge now, and that the chancellor, Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were relieved of their duty, thank you very much. It was as simple as that!

Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester
Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester BL, Harley 4380, f. 181v

For the next seven years, thing went pretty smoothly. The country was prosperous, there were no major disturbances, and Gloucester kept a fairly low profile, seemingly content to annoy the king on occasion just to stay in practice. But something was apparently going on behind the scenes, though historians are far from certain exactly what happened. Nonetheless, in early 1397 Richard began to suspect the Appellants were stirring up trouble again—and his natural paranoia took over, with dire consequences. Without warning, he decided to take his long-delayed revenge on his enemies, arresting Gloucester, the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick. They were to be tried by Parliament and declared traitors. The other two Appellants—Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray—were off the hook, for the moment. Bolingbroke was protected by his father, and Mowbray had managed to worm himself back into Richard’s good graces.

Gloucester provided a bit of a dilemma. After all, he was John of Gaunt’s younger brother, and Richard knew it would be next to impossible to get a condemnation from the Duke of Lancaster. While deciding what to do, he sent Gloucester across the Channel to Calais, where he was safely out of sight. Mowbray, who was Captain of Calais, was sent as his jailer. It was all very cleverly arranged; Gloucester was persuaded to write his confession, and when it came his time to appear in Parliament, Mowbray declared that he had died in prison.

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

Did it look sufficiently suspicious? I’m sure it did, but Richard got away with it anyway—at least, until his usurpation. During Henry IV’s first Parliament, the truth came out and everybody learned that the Duke of Gloucester had been murdered. The only witness who told the story was immediately hustled to his execution, though he claimed he was only guarding the door. Someone had to pay!

All of this is described at length in THE KING’S RETRIBUTION. If Richard hadn’t sent Bolingbroke into exile and appropriated his inheritance, he might have really gotten away with the whole irregular coup. There wasn’t a tremendous outcry at the time; the condemned Lords Appellant had been out of the public eye for many years. Gloucester still managed to stir up trouble, but for the most part he was yesterday’s news. It seemed that nobody gave him much thought except for Richard, who was so traumatized that he just couldn’t let go. In the end, Gloucester’s fate became a rallying cry for Bolingbroke’s rebellion, and the duke’s long shadow overtook his nemesis.

The King Just Won’t Stay Down

Funeral of Richard II
Funeral of Richard II from BL Royal 18 E II, f. 416v

When Henry Bolingbroke took the crown, he was beset on all sides by well-wishers who urged him to put Richard II to death. After all, it was understood that disgruntled nobles and troublemakers could easily stir up rebellions in favor of an ex-king. And it didn’t take long for that to happen. Just three months after Henry’s coronation, the first revolt nearly cost him his life. Richard was secretly isolated in Pontefract Castle, a Lancaster stronghold in the north, but his favorites—generously pardoned by Henry IV—planned to kill the king and his family during the tournament scheduled for the Epiphany (Jan. 6) at Windsor Castle. They would use Richard’s look-alike cleric as a figurehead until the real Richard could be released. Only a last-minute betrayal derailed their plans.

Alas for Richard, this revolt sealed his fate. Or did it? In reality, no one knew what happened to the ill-fated ex-king.  Rumors abounded. Finally, the first week of February, the great council attempted to resolve the question once and for all (or were they making an oblique suggestion?). They said, “that if he was still alive—as it is supposed that he is—he should be secretly guarded, but that if he were dead this should be demonstrated to the people”. Since Richard was already secretly guarded, it seems a little strange to me. All of a sudden, by February 17, it was announced that he was dead and on his way back to London. Just for the record, Richard’s death was recorded on February 14, though this seems to be a convenient date lacking any confirmation. Why? No one even knows how he died. If there were any witnesses, their lips were sealed.

The Death of Richard II by Francis Wheatley
Francis Wheatley. The Death of Richard II, Memorial Art Gallery, Univ.of Rochester

There are at least four stories regarding this crucial event—and they are as far apart as you can get. The first, recounted by Shakespeare, was that King Henry sent an assassin, the otherwise unknown Sir Peter Exton with seven henchmen. The murderers burst into Richard’s cell and the king grabbed one of their weapons and put up a good fight, killing four of them before Exton smashed him in the head with an axe. Most historians disbelieve this story, especially since, upon exhumation in the 19th century, Richard’s skull was not damaged. The second story was that, hearing of the failure of the revolt and the death of his friends, Richard fell into a depression and stopped eating. At the very end, a priest convinced him that suicide was a mortal sin, and he tried to eat; but his condition was so far gone that he was unable to swallow and so expired. The third story is that Henry ordered him to be starved to death and he lingered for fifteen days in agony. Needless to say, the new king didn’t appreciate being called a regicide!

The fourth story is the most controversial of all. It was said that Richard escaped before the rebellion started and made his way to Scotland, where he was kept in honorary confinement for the next nineteen years, first by Robert III, then after the Scottish king’s death by the Duke of Albany. Needless to say, King Henry and the government scorned this assertion, but the fact remains that somebody played the part of the king in exile. Whether it was Richard himself or a pretender called Thomas Ward of Trumpington, his presence in Scotland was to harass Henry IV for the rest of his reign and into the next. According to this story, King Richard died at Stirling Castle in December 1419 and was buried at Black Friars in the same town.

In order to convince the people that Richard was truly dead, King Henry staged an elaborate procession where the body—encased in lead except for his face from the eyebrows to the throat—was set on a bier and drawn on a carriage from Pontefract to London, exposed for all the populace to see. A solemn funeral was held for two days at St. Paul’s Cathedral which was attended by the king. Afterwards, the corpse was taken to the royal manor of Chiltern Langley and handed over the Black Friars, who privately buried him in the church; the only witnesses were the Bishop of Lichfield and the Abbots of Waltham and St. Albans. Richard’s tomb at Westminster Abbey was finished and waiting for his royal body, but the usurper didn’t want to draw attention to such a royal setting for a deposed king.

So if Richard was still alive, whose face was on the funeral bier? Why, Maudeleyn, of course, his look-alike cleric who had been decapitated after the rebellion. From a distance, who would have been able to tell the difference?

Funeral effigies of Richard and Anne at Westminster Abbey
Funeral effigies of Richard and Anne at Westminster Abbey

Almost immediately, reports of Richard’s escape proliferated throughout England. Repercussions were quick to follow. In 1402, a priest from Ware was drawn and quartered for spreading such rumors. Not long afterwards, eight Franciscan friars were hanged in London for asserting that Richard was still alive. But the most damaging to Henry came in 1403, when Sir Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, raised a rebellion predominately from Chester, swearing that King Richard was returning from Scotland to lead his army. At the last minute he admitted that Richard was dead, but apparently he was able to rely on the soldiers’ fondness for the late king—or maybe he used coercion—because they went on to fight a horrific battle at Shrewsbury that nearly toppled Henry from his throne. The potential for Richard’s return continued to inspire disgruntled rebels, though eventually, the cry was that they fought for Richard if he was still alive, or else the Earl of March if he was dead. (March was the heir presumptive and kept in Henry’s custody for years.)

When Henry IV died in 1413, the first thing his successor did was transfer Richard at great expense from Langley to his real tomb at Westminster Abbey, thus symbolically putting Richard to rest and establishing Henry V as the rightful successor to the throne. Rumors were to follow him for the next couple of years, but by then they had lost most of their influence. The last time Richard was invoked was during the Southampton Plot in 1415, and it was March himself who exposed the conspiracy.

The slippery Edward, Earl of Rutland Part 1: Richard II

Edward of Rutland-Detail from “Bolingbroke Claiming the Throne” in Froissart, BL Harley 1319 f. 57

OK, it’s only fair to call him by his full title, Edward, 2nd Duke of York. But, for the purposes of this article, he wasn’t Duke of York yet; his father died in 1402. So, during most of Richard II’s reign he was the Earl of Rutland, and for a short time, from 1397-1399, he was Duke of Aumale (or Albermarle). Of course, that came to an end after Richard’s deposition. How much did he contribute to his king’s downfall?

Edward was undoubtedly Richard’s favorite. It was even rumored that the king was considering announcing Edward as his heir, which would have shoved Henry Bolingbroke and Edmund Mortimer aside. The king certainly showered his cousin with titles and responsibilities; Edward was admiral of the northern fleet, constable of Dover castle, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, constable of the Tower, and Lord of the Isle of Wight. And these were just some of his greatest honors. On the down side, he was obliged to do much of the king’s dirty work, such as being held responsible for dispatching the Duke of Gloucester (to put it judiciously). Even that didn’t really come to light until after Richard’s deposition, though a few insiders knew about it.

When Richard decided to wreak revenge on the three senior Lords Appellant he recruited his most intimate followers to accuse them; historians have called them the Counter-Appellants. Rutland was among their number. During the Revenge Parliament of 1397, Richard Earl of Arundel, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, and Thomas Earl of Warwick were convicted of treason for their actions during the Merciless Parliament ten years previously. Warwick’s death sentence was remitted because he begged for mercy, but the other two were not so lucky. After a lively defense Arundel was dragged off to the scaffold, and the Duke of Gloucester died in prison—after he wrote a confession. Was he murdered? Most everyone thought so, but who was going to accuse the king? It was much easier to point to the finger at Richard’s accomplices.

Most of the Counter-Appellants were given new titles; all were rewarded with lands forfeited by the traitors. Rutland was doing pretty well for himself. He had just been appointed Warden of the West Marches toward Scotland and was busy doing his duty when the king crossed over to Ireland on his second expedition. For the first few weeks, Richard looked anxiously for his cousin; Edward was running very late. When he finally showed up in Dublin, Rutland claimed he had needed more time to ensure that the Scottish border was quiet. Was this really the case, or was he up to something suspicious? No one knew for sure. But shortly after Edward’s arrival, Richard received word of Henry Bolingbroke’s invasion, which threw him into a panic. The king was all for dropping everything and immediately returning to England, but Rutland was the main dissenter to this plan; they needed time to reorganize the troops, and recall the scattered ships. Why not send the Earl of Salisbury ahead to gather an army in Cheshire and North Wales, and the king could join him later? Let Richard return via Milford Haven in South Wales and join the Duke of York—the acting regent—who was planning to wait for him in Bristol. Then together they could march north and join forces with Salisbury.

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

Reluctantly, Richard agreed to his suggestion, which turned out to be an utter disaster. Unbeknownst to him, the Duke of York had already gone over to Bolingbroke. There was no army waiting for the king in the south. In fact, he was denied entrance to Bristol altogether. Worse than that, Salisbury was unable to hold his recruits together for as long as it took Richard to get to Conway. Of course, the king didn’t know that, either, until it was too late.

As soon as Richard landed at Milford Haven with as many ships as he could muster—more were still to come—his army started to desert. Attempts to recruit more Welshmen failed miserably, and once Richard discovered that York had abandoned his cause, he decided to make a dash for Conway and Salisbury’s army. He traveled along the coast of Wales, accompanied by only a handful of men in an attempt to disguise himself and move as quickly as possible. Edward stayed behind to take command of the forces that were left. Apparently Richard still trusted him.

Later, it was reported that Rutland had received a letter from his father, telling him that all was lost and that he had changed sides. This would certainly account for the sudden reversal, for the morning after Richard disappeared, Rutland and Thomas Percy—steward of the royal household—announced the king’s abandonment to the army. In tears, Percy disbanded the royal household and broke the baton of office. Richard’s army dispersed and Rutland and Percy rode north and joined Bolingbroke.

This was Richard’s worst betrayal and he afterwards suspected Rutland of collusion all along. Did Edward intentionally give him bad advice in Ireland, thus stalling him and giving the Duke of York enough time to change sides? No one ever knew.


Different Layers of Knighthood

Jousts Between Knights on Horses and on Foot
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
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!

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




Clashing cousins: Richard II and Bolingbroke

Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke at Flint
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 over 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 King Richard declared his majority, he 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.