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 Or until it was superseded by another?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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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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It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to connect the two English usurpations of the fourteenth century—both Plantagenets, both accused of letting their favorites unduly influence them, both probably murdered while in prison. (And both of whose murders are debated to this day.) We can be sure the association was very much on Richard II’s mind, especially during the latter half of his reign. But Edward’s fate was most forcibly shoved in his face during the standoff between him and the “Wonderful” Parliament in 1386. This was when the Commons decided to impeach the chancellor, Michael de la Pole—the first official in English history to be removed by impeachment.
Richard was highly indignant that the Commons dare pass judgment on his great officers. He was quoted as saying, “I will not dismiss so much as a scullion from my kitchen at your request!” And he meant it. Taking his friends and household to Eltham, he removed himself from Parliament, making it impossible for them to get any business done without his presence. But this state of affairs could not last long, and the Lords and Commons sent the Duke of Gloucester and Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely to persuade the king to return. Richard hated Gloucester, his youngest uncle, who was overbearing, arrogant, and brutal with his criticism. This day proved no exception. Unbeknownst to Richard, before he left Parliament, Gloucester had sent for the archives to see if he could find a precedent from Edward II’s deposition which he might use against his nephew. He found none, but proceeded to fabricate one anyway, to frighten Richard into cooperating. He told Richard, “If ever the king, through evil counsel or wanton ill will, alienates himself from the people—if he does not wish to be ruled by the laws of the land, then it is lawful for them by common consent to remove that king from the royal throne, and substitute another close relative of the royal line in his place.” It worked. Shocked and intimidated, Richard meekly returned to London and permitted Parliament to impeach Michael.
However, Richard was no milksop. He soon learned about Gloucester’s deception and used it against him, precipitating the whole Lords Appellant episode that nearly cost him his throne. Time and again, Gloucester threatened Richard with usurpation like his great-grandfather. The menace never lost its effectiveness. However, the boy king grew up. After he achieved his majority and began reigning in his own name, one of his primary concerns was redeeming Edward II’s reputation and restoring dignity to the crown; it had been badly tarnished by the usurpation and by Edward III’s dotage. What would be the best method to redeem Edward II? Why, nothing less than declaring him a saint. Then nobody could cast aspersions on him again.
Richard sent agents to Pope Urban VI, petitioning him to start the canonization process. Needless to say, the pontiff was lukewarm, but he needed the king’s support so his answer was for Richard to gather evidence of miracles. Edward’s tomb was erected in Gloucester Abbey Church, and soon after his death pilgrims visited the site in great numbers, leaving so many offerings that the church was able to complete St. Andrew’s aisle with their contributions. Richard commissioned a book of miracles performed at Edward II’s tomb and it took five years to complete; by then, there was a new pope and the supposed proof was presented to Boniface IX, who was unimpressed. A second embassy in 1397, headed by Richard Scrope, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, fared no better than the first.
It was certainly not unusual to attempt to confer saintly attributes on high-profile medieval “martyrs”. Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II’s arch enemy—whose decapitated body at Pontefract attracted thousands of pilgrims—was serious competition for Edward II. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham even stated in 1390 that he had been canonized (he had not). They couldn’t both be saints! It seemed that popular candidates for sainthood were usually those who rebelled against the crown, and Lancaster fell squarely into that category. After much consideration, Richard concluded that his best chance to beat Thomas Lancaster’s cult was to reverse the judgments of 1326-27 that had vindicated Thomas (and morally condemned Edward II). This reversal would serve two simultaneous purposes: rehabilitate his great-grandfather, and uphold the forfeiture of the Lancastrian inheritance—thereby returning all the estates to the crown. Naturally, this would disinherit all Lancastrian heirs down to Bolingbroke.
Easier said than done! Ultimately, Richards’s grand schemes blew up in his face and his greatest fear came to pass: Bolingbroke came back from exile to reclaim his inheritance and Richard ended up a dethroned prisoner. Apparently, no one aside from the king was interested in Edward II. As historian Chris Given-Wilson said, “With the King’s downfall in 1399, his great-grandfather’s canonization process stopped dead in its tracks, never to be revived.”*
*C.Given-Wilson’s“Richard II, Edward II, and the Lancastrian Inheritance”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 432 (Jun., 1994), pp. 553-571