Richard II and Primogeniture

British Library: MS Harley 4205 f.6V

At first glance, one might not question the law of succession in England during the Middle Ages, but in reality the rules were open to interpretation, which is one reason the Wars of the Roses were fought with such intensity. 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). Even Edward I, after the death of his three eldest sons, declared an order of succession that included his daughters. When it was Richard II’s turn, the issue was far from settled.

In 1376, Edward the Black Prince was dying. His child Richard, who was himself the second son (the first son Edward had died two years previously), was only nine years old. 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 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, descendants of Gaunt’s deceased elder brother Lionel (through his only daughter Philippa) were excluded. It also meant that John of Gaunt was next in line after Richard, and after him, Henry of Bolingbroke.

By this time, Edward III was an enfeebled old man and Gaunt had already started attending Parliament in his name. At this stage of his life, John of Gaunt was an overbearing, arrogant bully and he was incredibly unpopular. There were great fears—probably unfounded—that he would usurp the throne from his nephew; most historians believe that because of this, Edward III’s entail was not publicized. Presumably only the inner family and the great officers knew about its existence. After all, why inflame the public unnecessarily? If Richard were to sire an heir, the whole entail would be moot.

Coronation-Richard-BL-Royal-20-C-VII-f.-192v

So the ten year-old Richard was crowned king; nobody wanted to take a chance on a less-than-secure regency. But this was not the end of the story. In the short run, of course, there was no reason to give the succession much thought. Richard married at age fifteen and his queen was only a year older than him. But after five or six years of infertility, it was beginning to look like there might be a problem. Queen Anne’s untimely death after twelve years of marriage and Richard’s subsequent espousal to the 8 year-old Isabella of France made it obvious that a child could not be expected for a long time—possibly never.

Many people, including our primary chroniclers of the period, took it for granted that the Mortimers were next in line for the throne. But Richard made no effort to show favor to Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, nor did he make reference him to him as heir except possibly once in 1385 or 1386 (historians are not in agreement on this). When threatened with deposition, Richard could well have declared Roger his successor, a political ploy to remind his opponents that a 12 year-old would not rule any better than him. Although the Earl of March was well liked by the general population, after 1394 he seemed to have lost political clout. He moved to Ireland, where he served as Lieutenant mostly for the rest of his life. Roger was killed in a skirmish in 1398, leaving behind a seven year-old son. This effectively removed the Mortimers as candidates—for the time being—but they were destined to come back and haunt Henry IV in the rebellions of 1403 and 1405. (Also, their bloodline descended to Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York on his mother’s side.)

But even this wasn’t the end of the story. Richard was antagonistic toward John of Gaunt and this ill-will was transferred to his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, especially after Henry joined the Lords Appellant and nearly cost him his throne in 1388. After the Appellant crisis, when Gaunt returned from Portugal, Richard received him joyfully back into the country; he had finally discovered that Gaunt’s presence was the only factor that kept his rebellious magnates at bay. In this time frame, by all indications, he restored Edward III’s entail and treated Gaunt as his heir—at least for the next five years.

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

But this favor did not extend to Bolingbroke. In 1394, as Richard was planning his expedition to Ireland, Gaunt petitioned Parliament to appoint Bolingbroke as Keeper of the realm. The Keeper was traditionally the heir to the throne, so Gaunt was fishing for a commitment. He couldn’t serve as Keeper himself because he was due to leave for the Aquitaine, so naturally Henry—next in line according to the entail—would take his place. However the Earl of March raised a strong objection, for he felt that he was heir apparent (it is possible he did not know about Edward III’s entail). Richard told them both to be silent and instead decided that his uncle Edmund of Langley, Duke of York (Gaunt’s younger brother) would be Keeper in his absence.

This was a whole new turn of events! Suddenly Gaunt was out and Edmund was in. From that point on, relations between Richard and the House of Lancaster began to sour. The King showered favors on his cousin, York’s son Edward, and created him Duke of Aumale. Whether Richard had intended to make York his heir, as Ian Mortimer concluded, remains speculation. If this was the case, it’s puzzling that Edmund defected to Bolingbroke, thus giving up his own—and his son’s—potential claim to the throne. Perhaps he had no inclination to be king; he was thought by many to be an indolent, irresolute fellow. Nonetheless, it was Edmund of Langley who fathered the House of York which proved so formidable in the Wars of the Roses.

Richard found it useful to keep everyone in suspense about the succession and never did proclaim a definite heir, though for the last several years he favored his fair-weather cousin Edward Duke of Aumale. When Bolingbroke invaded England, Aumale eventually went over to his side. That was the end of Edward’s possible aspirations!

After Richard’s usurpation, Henry IV chose to justify his claim—not by force of arms, but by citing his double descent from Henry III (through Edward III on his father’s side and Edmund “Crouchback”—younger son of Henry—on his mother’s side). Nonetheless, the Lancastrian line petered out in two generations, leaving the country ripe for a dynastic struggle—precipitated, many say, by the murder of the last true Plantagenet king.

In the end, could it be said that Richard II was usurped by his natural heir? He certainly wouldn’t have thought so! His reckless decision to disinherit Bolingbroke showed all the characteristics of personal enmity. Many historians think he was only waiting for Gaunt to drop dead before confiscating the Lancastrian inheritance and eliminating Henry’s influence forever. But he reckoned without his own unpopularity, and without Bolingbroke’s courage and decision. It’s ironic that the one person he strove so carefully to eliminate from the succession turned out to be the very man who destroyed his rule, his life, and his reputation.

 

FURTHER READING:

Bennett, Michael, Edward III’s Entail and the Succession to the Crown, 1376-1471, from “The English Historical Review, Vol. 113, no. 452 (June 1998), pp.580-609

Given-Wilson, Charles, Richard II, Edward II, and the Lancastrian Inheritance, from “The English Historical Review, Vol. 1009, No. 432 (June, 1994), pp.553-571

Mortimer, Ian, Richard II amd the Succession to the Crown, from “History”, Vol. 91, No. 3 (303) (July 2006), pp. 320-326

 

What is Bastard Feudalism?

Roland pledges fealty to Charlemagne. Source: Wikipedia

Bastard Feudalism is a term I kept bumping into during my recent research into the fourteenth century. I finally had to stop and investigate. Just what is it, and how does it differ from feudalism as I’ve always known it? It turns out that this was originally used in the Victorian era; the term “bastard feudalism” was derogatory—implying a corruption of feudalism, debased and degenerate. But as time went on, historians came to define it more as a term implying a superficial imitation of the original social order, though different in its essence.

Just to review, Feudalism was brought to England with the Norman Conquest. Like everything else, I’m sure the Anglo-Saxons had a hard time making the adjustment, but the concept of Feudalism was harshly efficient. The king owned everything, and the system is based on land tenure (coming from the French word tenir—to keep), the relationship between the tenant and the lord. The king chose to lease out portions of his kingdom to loyal barons; in return they offered military service, paid rent, and served on the royal council. They had complete control of their Manor, as it was often called; they meted out local justice, minted coins, and collected taxes. The Baron, in turn, divided up a portion of his Manor among his knights, who agreed to offer protection and military service when called upon. The knights lorded it over their villeins, or serfs, who owed them service and provisions. This went on pretty much until the Black Death disrupted the abundance of available workers on the Manor and created a situation where cash was becoming more important than labor.

The term “bastard feudalism” was coined in 1885 by historian Charles Plummer, when he needed a term to define the changing relationship between lord and vassal in the two centuries after the death of Edward I. Slowly but surely, the tenurial bond gave way to a social tie depending on a personal contract. Mutual benefit became the keyword. Although military service was important, the relationship between master and retainer became more of a matter of reciprocal services; the lord offered patronage and contracted to protect and defend his vassal in court—maintenance—as well as in combat. He would pay his retainer an annuity, or a fee for specific services rendered; he would often feed and house his annuitant. The retainer was usually expected to contract for life, but by no means was this universal and the indenture was not expected to be binding on the heirs of either party. By the end of the fourteenth century, according to K.B. McFarlane (England in the Fifteenth Century, Collected Essays), there is “evidence to suggest that under the Lancastrians less permanent forms of contract were coming into favor.” Stipends were paid to household officers and servants, civil servants, surgeons, chaplains, falconers, cooks, and even minstrels.

John Balloil before Edward I, from BL Royal 20 C.VII, f.28

When it came to the lesser gentry, ties between them and the great lords often followed their feudal connections. According to Simon Walker (The Lancastrian Affinity 1351-1399), “bastard feudal loyalties were often the legitimate heirs of fully feudal ties. Precisely how often is rather more difficult to say. By the late fourteenth century, territorial proximity was usually more important than tenurial dependence in creating links between the magnates and the country gentry… it was the expectation of such additional fiscal benefits, not the mere possession of land, that bound the duke’s tenants more closely to his service.” At the same time, if a man owned several manors scattered throughout the country, McFarlane tells us “by this date tenurial relations were so interwoven that a man with several manors could scarcely avoid holding them of nearly as many lords.” If there was a potential conflict, one can only assume the vassal went with the lord who had the most to offer.

By Lancaster’s time, it was not at all unusual for a retainer to collect fees from more than one master for specific duties; think of today’s lawyers, accountants, or estate managers. This could very well be of benefit to both parties; the retainer could make money from several sources, and the magnate could stay informed. Simon Walker tells us, when Gaunt paid annuities to some of King Richard’s chamber-knights: “the king’s household was a center of gossip and accusations against the duke and it was by having his own men there that Gaunt was best able to thwart the efforts of his enemies.” It sounds a lot like spying to me, but if everyone agreed on the arrangement, I suppose it was routine.

From what I can gather, the whole concept of “bastard feudalism” is fluid; not every historian uses it, nor do we find an easy definition. It does make sense that cash was a strong incentive. It was a precious commodity and major magnates like John of Gaunt—not to mention the king—still represented a powerful influence.

 

 

What was the Marshalsea court?

Mâcon, Bibl. mun., ms. 1, f. 211

Today when we hear about the Marshalsea we think of the infamous 19th century Southwark prison with all its associated tortures. But come back with me to the 14th century and you’ll see that the word has a totally different meaning—at first, anyway. Originally, the marshalsea (not capitalized—also known as the avenary) was the largest department of the household, in charge of taking care of the horses: feeding, grooming, and stabling. At the same time, the Marshal was a great officer of the royal and noble household, who functioned as the enforcer—the policeman, if you will—and the jailer. Where the Marshalsea (capitalized) came into play was in relation to the court of the verge (or the court of the steward and Marshal of the household). The steward presided over the court of the verge and the Marshal enforced its will.

The Marshalsea court can be traced back to the second half of Edward I’s reign; it was the legal arm of the household. In practice it tried cases involving servants of the crown, whether sinning or sinned against: theft, debts, contracts, acts against the royal dignity, and trespassing—anything short of murder. This involved activity that took place within the verge, which was a twelve mile radius from the king’s presence. If anyone refused to cooperate with the king’s servants—such as Purveyors—they could be tried at the Marshalsea court. Interfering with Purveyors was one of the bigger offenses. Their job was to gather supplies for the itinerant court, such as food, wood for heating, oats and hay for the horses, etc. and these purchases were almost always a bone of contention. They rarely paid in cash; instead, they often gave the long-suffering supplier a note to be cashed at the exchequer—when the funds were available, that is. The supplier could wait months to get paid, if he got paid at all. But if that long-suffering merchant refused to contribute,  the penalty could be severe. At the same time, the steward investigated complaints of extortionate behavior by the king’s servitors, though one can only wonder how often they decided in favor of the offended party.

Cases tried in the Marshalsea court were exempted from the common law courts; it became a separate tribunal, free from the technicalities and costs of traditional courts. Because of the itinerant nature of the king’s household, cases had to be tried quickly. Pleas of trespass and debt concerning outsiders often reverted back to the common law courts if the king moved on, taking the verge with him. Within the verge local officials were forbidden to trespass on the duties of the king’s officers; at the same time, they were found guilty of “contempt of the king” if they permitted the escape of suspected felons. There were plenty of conflicts between the local municipalities who wanted to try their own cases and who temporarily fell within the verge, and the government which didn’t always mind the boundaries.

Needless to say, the Londoners were often within the influence of the Marshalsea since the king was frequently in or near the city. Criminals were known to have crossed the Thames to Southwark to avoid punishment, since they could not be brought before the city authorities when the Marshalsea was present. The government tried to extend the Marshalsea’s jurisdiction into the city of London, but this was violently resisted and eventually dropped. Nonetheless, many formal protests were raised in successive Parliaments well into Henry IV’s reign. In 1373 Edward III ordered a building 40 feet long and 30 feet wide to be constructed “in the high street” for his own convenience, to hold pleas, keep prisoners, and hold other king’s courts.  It was one of the first of London’s symbols of oppression to suffer the wrath of the Peasant’s Revolt, though it was rebuilt the following year. The king’s sergeant-at-arms and keeper of the Marshalsea, Richard Imworth, was brutally murdered by the rebels two days after they destroyed the prison.

As time went on, reportedly by 1430, the Marshalsea became known as a debtor’s prison, and was notorious by the 18th century, when it was rebuilt about 130 yards south of its original site. You can learn all about it from Charles Dickens whose father was imprisoned there in 1824.

 

King Richard II’s Household: the Retinue

British Library: MS Harley 4205 f.6V

My interest in “The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413” by Chris Given-Wilson goes way beyond what I can discuss in a book review. In Part One I talked about the king’s servants, from the lowest page to the great officers. When we move on to the chapters about the king’s affinity—or his retinue, for lack of a better word—we learn about the different layers of intimates: courtiers, knights, retainers, and so on. Some of them received annuities (the chamber knights) and some of them were only called upon in case of specific need and were paid accordingly.

The chamber knights were intimates of the king and were often sent away on special missions (as ambassadors, for instance, or in Burley’s case to negotiate his marriage). At the start of Richard’s reign there were about ten chamber knights, mostly left over from the Black Prince’s household; the most famous of them were also victims of the Appellants in 1388: Simon Burley and John Beauchamp of Holt. Two others were beheaded and three more were ordered to leave court. In the ’90s a new generation of intimates formed around the king—closer to his age—and by the end of Richard’s reign he had about 18 chamber knights in service. According to the author, “they actually had regular duties at court, either in the chamber or in the hall, and that they were obliged to remain at court for certain periods of each year (perhaps this was organized on a rotational basis, perhaps it was as other duties allowed, but certainly some of them would have been with the king all the time).” Chamber knights were rewarded with “temporary grants such as wardships, the custody of royal lands or castles (with attached fees), life annuities, and salaried posts in the king’s gift.” This was not a path to great landed wealth, though Richard did reward them whenever he could.

The author thinks about the royal affinity in terms of concentric circles around the king. The inner circle, most of the time, controlled access to the king—much to the annoyance of those who thought they deserved better. The king’s intimates—aside from chamber knights—were great officers of state, royal councilors, great magnates (in his favor), esquires of the chamber, and clerks of the royal chapel. Included among his inner circle were the bachelerii—or bachelors—”a distinct group of retainers in whom their lord reposed a special trust”. Some (perhaps all) were indeed chamber knights, but not all of them are recorded as receiving fees and robes. Perhaps they were just close personal friends; it’s difficult to say for certain. The second circle “may be defined as those who were bound to the king by ties of service, and by the fact that he paid them a regular wage…and expected them to serve him on a regular basis.” These included department officials, sergeants-at-arms, and lesser clerks; the majority of the household of 400-700 total belonged to this circle. The third (and outer) circle included those called upon for specific needs as mentioned above: the king’s knights, the king’s esquires, archers, and yeomen. They mostly did not live at the court and were called up as required, but here too there were layers of service. You had the bannerets (a superior rank of knight with a personal retinue of up to 20 men; he received 4s a day wages on campaign), simple knights (who received 2s a day on campaign), and esquires.

The king’s knights were the military men who mostly received annuities, “who were not of the royal household but who were attached to the person of the king”. After the episode with the Appellants, Richard started retaining knights for life; he realized that “he wanted to be sure of a loyal core of followers in a crisis” which was sorely lacking in 1387. In the last couple of years of his reign during his “second tyranny” he surrounded himself with the turbulent Cheshire archers, thus contributing greatly to the costs of the exchequer and wreaking havoc with the locals. In the same time frame he started retaining squires for life as well, in somewhat greater numbers; they were about half as expensive to maintain as knights.

So the king’s knights were among his lay courtiers. But not to be overlooked were his clerical courtiers, those of the king’s chapel, numbering up to 50 at any one time. The clerics were the ones who did the departmental work, i.e. clerks of the chancery, clerks of the exchequer, the privy seal office, the marshalsea, the chapel, etc. The clerical position was often a stepping-stone to higher religious posts, and they usually held prebends or canonries outside of the court from which they received the bulk of their livings. Many went on to be bishops; in fact, “by the end of the reign Richard had secured bishoprics for so many of his household clerks that the episcopacy must almost have come to resemble an extension of the household.” It is interesting that in his last few years, “the number of clerks among the king’s closest companions and advisors was considerably greater than the number of chamber knights”. They were to become a thorn in the side for Henry IV, many going so far as to assist the rebels in 1400.

It was contemporary opinion that Richard was much too impressionable and influenced by his “evil councilors”. It was the purpose of the Lords Appellant to remove his inner circle so they themselves could exert some influence over the king. They certainly succeeded in eliminating (one way or the other) more than 40 people from his household, but they fell short of their ultimate goal once he reached his majority and took control of the government in 1389.

King Richard II’s Household: The Servants

Medieval Merchants, from 15th C. MS
Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen

The more I research, the better I understand that what goes on behind the scenes is just as important as the high-profile episodes defining a king’s reign. So naturally, I was thrilled to discover “The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413” by Chris Given-Wilson; this book brought me as close to the 14th century court as a layperson could hope to get. I’m highlighting the book’s major components, for there is a lot to learn here and I’d like to emphasize the parts that I found critical to my understanding. The author tells us that the king’s permanent staff numbered between 400-700 members, though when you add in the servants of the senior household officers, the foreign dignitaries with their staff, guests and hangers-on, the number of people at court could easily have surpassed 1000. That’s a lot of mouths to feed! 

Bear in mind that in this period the king did not have a permanent address. King Richard tended to use residences within thirty miles of London, and he would typically stay in one place for maybe two weeks up to two months. Favored palaces were Windsor, Ethan and Sheen. Other royal houses included Havering, King’s Langley, Clarendon, Easthamstead, Woodstock, Henley-on-the-Heath, Kennigton and Berkhamstead. Richard also favored spending a few nights along the way at religious houses—at the monasteries’ expense; perhaps this gave the Exchequer some breathing space! All this moving around meant his household servants considered travel, or “removing”, as a regular part of everyday life. But when you add up all that went with the move—”many hundreds of horses, and a massive store of baggage: crockery and cutlery, hangings, furnishings, clothes and weaponry, wax, wine and storage vessels, parchment and quills, weights, measures, and so on”—the concept is staggering to the modern mind.

As laid out in the reign of King Stephen, the household was divided up into five main departments as depicted below.There were changes along the way, but I found this chart to be most helpful (before the mid-14th century, the Chancellor had detached itself from the chamber and kept a separate office). In Richard II’s time, the five chief officers of the household were the Steward, the Chamberlain, the Controller, the Keeper of the Wardrobe (or treasurer), and the Cofferer. The Steward was responsible “for the efficient running, discipline, and general organization” of the king’s household. The Chamberlain had overall charge of the chamber; he controlled written and personal access to the king. Both of these officers were the king’s close personal friends, and both were probably of equal status. Naturally they were incredibly powerful, but often contemporaries believed that they abused their position to enrich themselves and gave bad advice to the king; Sir Simon Burley, John Beauchamp of Holt, and William le Scrope paid for their royal influence with their lives. The Controller(s) kept the accounts and was responsible for “supervising purveyance, harbinging, (see below) and eating arrangements in the hall”. The Keeper of the Wardrobe was responsible to the Exchequer for all monies that passed through the household. The Cofferer was the deputy to the Keeper, and held the keys to the money box.

Each great office had its lesser servants: “they were not just ‘valets’ or ‘garcons’ but ‘valets of the buttery’ or ‘garcons of the sumpterhorses’ and so forth.” Each job was departmentalized, apparently with little cross-over. “By far the largest department of the household was the marshalsea, or avenary (to be distinguished from the Marshalsea Court) which throughout this period employed at least 100 valets and grooms, and sometimes nearer 200.”

Most of the household servants traveled with the king, though a large group went ahead to prepare the way. The 30-40 harbingers‘ job was to requisition lodgings for everyone; the nine purveyors commandeered supplies within the verge (12 mile radius from the king’s actual presence). “Then came the king himself, preceded by his thirty sergeants-at-arms and twenty-four foot-archers marching in solemn procession, surrounded by his knights, esquires and clerks as well as any other friends or guests who happened to be staying at court, and followed by all the remaining servants of the household, driving and pulling the horses and carts which carried the massive baggage-store.” With luck, the itinerary was planned several weeks or months in advance or else the king would have to lower his standard of living. 

The purveyors had a particularly difficult job, for their activities were almost always a bone of contention. They rarely paid in cash; instead, they often gave the long-suffering supplier a note to be cashed at the exchequer—when the funds were available, that is. The supplier could wait months to get paid, if he got paid at all. And what are the purveying offices? “The Pantry, or bakehouse, for corn and bread; the Buttery, for wine and beer; the Kitchen, for all food not covered by other offices; the Poultery, for poultry, game-birds, and eggs; the Stables (or avenary, or marshalsea), for hay, oats and litter for the horses; the Saucery, for salt and whatever was needed for sauces; the Hall and Chamber, for coal and wood for heating, and rushes; the Scullery, for crockery, cutlery, storage vessels, and coal and wood for cooking; and the Spicery, for spices, wax, soap, parchment, and quills.”

It’s hard to get our hands around the everyday living arrangements of the king’s servants, but the author likened the king’s residence to the “upstairs and downstairs”. The chamber was the upstairs (quite literally) and the hall was the downstairs (where the servants congregated). The king would descend to the hall and feast communally during banquets and ceremonial occasions, but for the rest of the time he would be secluded in his chamber with his intimates. Edward III had taken to building private apartments for his high-ranking officers and guests. As for the bottom end of the household, “meals were served in the hall in two shifts…it was forbidden to remove food from the hall.” It seems pretty certain that the servants slept anywhere they could: “those who did not sleep in the hall probably distributed themselves around the passageways and vestibules, huddled in winter around the great fireplaces, lying on their straw mats (pallets) which may have been single or double.” Four sergeants-at-arms slept outside the king’s door and a further 26 slept in the hall. “No member of the household staff was to keep a wife or other woman at court”, though prostitutes were regularly ejected.

The king’s affinity embraces his great officers of state, magnates, clerks of the royal chapel, councilors, knights, servants, retainers, and other followers. In the next post I’ll concentrate on the many layers of knights in the king’s affinity and their assorted duties.

 

 

 

The Lords Appellant Part 3: The Merciless Parliament

Queen Anne Intercedes for Sir Simon Burley, from A Chronicle of England (Wikimedia)

The Merciless Parliament, convened in Feb 1388, was a successful attempt by the barons and the commons to clean house, so to speak, and bring the king totally under their control. It was very much an “us versus them” scenario, and Richard II did not have the resources to fight the powerful nobles backed by large, private armies, and London, too. In Part 2 we saw the dissipation of Richard’s only royal force at Radcot Bridge, and his subsequent humiliation at the hands of the Appellants. By the time Parliament met, he was lucky to still be wearing his crown, and he had no means to resist any of the terrible condemnations against his friends and supporters.

At the beginning, Parliament declared against the five defendants, four in absentia. Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford had scooted out of the country after the fiasco at Radcot Bridge. Michael de La Pole and Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York had slipped away even before de Vere marched east with his army. Chief Justice Robert Tresilian had disappeared, but Nicholas Brembre, a powerful London Vintner, stood his ground for he was a brave man and the case against him was weak. Since he was the only defendant present Parliament gave it their worst, but his defense was strong and it was beginning to look like he might be dismissed.

Alas, as the prosecution was beginning to falter, someone ran into the courtroom and declared that they had just discovered the missing Tresilian right there in Westminster. The room emptied out as the vengeful prosecutors chased down the Chief Justice and, because he had been condemned in absentia, he was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn gallows and hanged on the spot.  By the time Parliament went back to their case against Nicholas Brembre, apparently his defenders lost heart and he, too was condemned to death.

But it wasn’t over for King Richard; they were just warming up. The Appellants’ goal was the complete removal of Richard’s “bad counselors”—from his chamber knights down to the household clerks. Firstly, John Blake, the sergeant who drafted the questions to the judges (see Part 2) and Thomas Usk, under-sheriff were condemned and executed; their charges were not noted in the record. The judges themselves were quickly condemned, as well as the king’s confessor, the Bishop of Chichester. The commons wanted to execute them, but the other Bishops intervened and they were exiled to Ireland instead.

The fate of Richard’s chamber knights was not so simple, for there was much division among the Lords and even between the Appellants themselves. It took over a month before all were condemned and executed. Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s vice-Chamberlain, was the king’s tutor from childhood and an old comrade-in-arms of The Black Prince. Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray fought bitterly to save his life; the Duke of York quarreled with his brother in open Parliament; even Queen Anne went down on her knees and begged Gloucester to spare Burley—reportedly for three hours. The best response she got was to pray for both herself and her husband. According to Knighton (Chronicles, Vol. II pp.266-70), a petition from the men of Kent threatening a popular uprising and demanding Burley’s execution (he was Constable of Dover) intimidated his supporters into dropping their plea for mercy. In the end, Burley was condemned but allowed the axe instead of a traitor’s death. He was soon followed to the block by Sir John Beauchamp of Holt, the king’s Steward, and Sir James Berners; they were accused of suborning young Richard and encouraging him to conspire against the Appellants. Sir John Salesbury was accused of conspiring with France and was drawn and hung.

Having achieved their major objectives, the Appellants were content to release the remaining lesser knights and clerks under the surety of good behavior. Richard’s household was cut in size by almost half, and yet another committee was appointed to oversee the king’s personal affairs. The Appellants continued to govern under dubious authority, and as events were to prove, their performance was lackluster. Oh, and they were granted the phenomenal sum of £20,000 “for their great expenses in procuring the salvation of the realm and the destruction of the traitors.”

As viewed by many historians, all this legal skulduggery exposed the Appellants as “desperate men… handicapped by the weakness of their own cause” (Harold F. Hutchison, The Hollow Crown p.117). In other words, the Appellants tried to prove the validity of their proceedings by consulting their own lawyers and were told “that it was illegal both by civil law and by the law of the land” (Anthony Steel, Richard II p.150). So, instead, they declared that their appeal could be dealt with “by the Law of Parliament”, which superseded all Civil and Common Law. This was totally without precedent and created many problems, for as Steel said, because of the “absence of any known rules when difficulties arose, no one knew what to do when there was a hitch in the proceedings, because all laws had been thrown overboard.” Because this new Law of Parliament was so irregular, the Appellants attempted to ensure that it would not set a precedent (they didn’t want to find themselves on the receiving end), and yet that no future Parliament would be able to reverse their decision. In other words, they wanted to have it both ways. Good try. It would take Richard ten years to accomplish his revenge, but in the end he used many of their devices against them.

 

The Lords Appellant Part 2: Radcot Bridge

Battle of Radcot Bridge (saved from BerkshireHistory.com)

In Part 1, we saw the first year of the Appellants’ attempt to control the kingdom by a ruling council. Richard spent most of that year traveling around the kingdom, trying to secure support (mostly from York, Chester and north Wales). He questioned eminent judges concerning the legality of the last Parliament, trying to reestablish his royal preeminence. Knowing this approach was explosive, Richard swore all parties to secrecy, but in a couple of months the story leaked out, and the Appellants knew that their very existence was threatened unless they struck the first blow. As Anthony Steel tells us in his Richard II, “if the old, lax conception of treason were going to be revived, it was vital for them to make the first use of it.”

By the time Richard returned to London, the three senior Lords Appellant (Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick) had already made their move and gathered with their forces at Waltham Cross, about twelve miles north of the city. This was on November 14, 1387. A meeting was arranged for three days later, and Richard met the Appellants at Westminster hall. There they formally initiated their appeal against five defendants:
Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Richard’s close friend. Robert was a few years older than Richard and had no experience in government but had already been created marquess of Dublin and duke of Ireland for life, a status which exasperated the entitled peers to no end.
Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, impeached from the chancellorship in 1386. He was accused of influencing the king against Gloucester and Warwick.
Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the king’s bench. Historians remember him as the pitiless judge during the aftermath of the Peasant Revolt. He was the main man who influenced the judges who pronounced against the Merciless Parliament.
Sir Nicholas Brembre, former mayor of London, member of the Grocer’s Company. He frequently supported the king in his disputes against London.
Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, irascible and uncompromising, who seemed to have the uncanny ability to offend almost everybody. Except the king.

Apparently, the Appellants intended to pursue their complaint in the Court of Chivalry, over which Gloucester presided. However, Richard had a different answer: he proposed, according to Professor Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility), “that the matter be referred to a parliament, an intelligent move, for it gave de Vere time to bring his army south and perhaps reverse the whole situation. It also gave the other accused time to escape, and Pole and Neville used the breathing space to flee overseas.” The next Parliament was scheduled for the following February. It must be remembered that Richard had no standing army, nor even armed retainers to oppose the bristling forces standing by at Waltham Cross. Nor did London agree to support him. The king was vulnerable and he knew it. Sending de Vere to Chester, Richard waited while his friend gathered around 3000-4000 men and tried to march them to London.

Alas, although Robert de Vere seemed brave enough, he had no military experience. Arundel soon discovered what he was up to and the knowledge apparently shocked Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray into action, bringing the number of Lords Appellant up to five. In fact, it was Henry who succeeded in trapping de Vere at Radcot Bridge (in Oxfordshire), where the royalist forces—those who hadn’t already deserted—were swiftly routed, captured, and disarmed. De Vere made a dash for freedom; unable to find a ford he stripped his armor off, abandoned his gear, and swam his horse across the Thames. His possessions were found, along with a letter from the king authorizing de Vere’s actions. For the moment, it was assumed that he drowned in the river, but it was later discovered that de Vere managed to limp his way over to France (never to return alive).

That was the end of Richard’s resistance. The Lords Appellant marched their army back to London where they encamped at Clerkenwell and paid a visit to the king who had taken refuge in the Tower. In the last week of December, the five lords entered the Tower with 500 heavily-armed followers and shut the gates behind them. Richard took them into the privacy of his chapel and nobody really knows what went on behind that closed door. There’s a story that Bolingbroke drew Richard to the window and showed him the mob outside waiting to depose him. Undoubtedly the lords berated him for his duplicity and insisted that he arrest the five “traitors”. It seems there is a consensus among historians that Richard ceased to rule the last three days of 1387; a strong probability exists that he was actually deposed for two or three days—at least Gloucester admitted such in his last confession ten years later. It is thought that Gloucester wanted the crown for himself, but Henry of Bolingbroke wouldn’t go along; his father’s claim—and therefore his own—was stronger. So in the end, they decided to put Richard back on the throne. The immediate crisis was over, but Richard would neither forgive nor forget his humiliation and degradation. Sadly for him, the worst was yet to come. Click Here for Part 3.

 

and tried to

The Lords Appellant Part 1: A Great and Continual council

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

Although the word appellant in modern terms refers to a petitioner appealing to a higher court, when we look at the fourteenth century the whole concept takes a left turn. First of all, you always see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, and it only seems to refer to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II’s reign. The Lords Appellant “appealed” (in essence, accused) Richard’s supporters of treason. Not only were their motives questionable, but the whole process had no legal basis from which to act, and the Appellants were forced to make up the rules as they went along, twisting the system to accommodate their self-serving objectives.

Initially there were three Appellants: Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel (who served in the wars with Edward III, mostly as admiral), Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III), and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick (also served with Edward III in the French war). Later on they were joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (son of John of Gaunt and future Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, 1st Duke of Norfolk (great-great grandson of Edward I and son-in-law to Arundel). All these Lords had impressive pedigrees, but the first three had age and experience on their side and considered the young king more of an upstart than a man to be respected. After all, when the Merciless Parliament was called in 1388, Richard may have been 21 years of age but he still hadn’t officially reached his majority.

I’ll refer to events leading up to this pivotal moment in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that the barons wanted to control the young king who was attempting to rule in a way that was detrimental to their interests. Richard’s advisors, supporters, and friends were accused of giving him bad advice; since the nobles didn’t have enough ammunition to go against the king himself, they would have to be satisfied with eliminating his close supporters. The lords were determined to clean house, so to speak, and appoint a council of their choosing to take over the ruling of the country.

This happened in several steps. The king wasn’t to know it until later, but when John of Gaunt left the country in 1386 to pursue his Castilian interests, Richard lost the only impediment to the barons’ collaboration. Their first target was Michael de la Pole, Chancellor and newly created Earl of Suffolk. Alas, his long service to Edward III accounted for nothing once the Appellants had their hackles up and they “called for his dismissal—adding that they had ‘business to do with him which they could not transact so long as he remained in office'” (Nigel Saul’s Richard II  p.157). What business was this? Why, nothing less than the first impeachment of any official in English history! Richard was furious and stood his ground: he would not dismiss so much as a kitchen scullion at their request. And at that, he withdrew from the Wonderful Parliament, as it was called, and went to his manor at Eltham. Ultimately, Gloucester and Arundel followed him there, and with a combination of bullying, falsehoods and cajoling, they persuaded him to return to Parliament—primarily because of their veiled reference to Edward II’s fate. Cowed, Richard dismissed Michael and the commons launched immediately into impeachment proceedings against him, alleging embezzlement and dereliction of duty in office. He was found guilty and briefly imprisoned, but Richard procured his release and kept his company for much of the next year. Arundel’s brother Thomas became chancellor in Michael’s place.

Satisfied with the first part of their strategy, the nobles and commons insisted on a “great and continual council” to implement financial reforms, clear up the backlog of debt, and curb the king’s expenditures. Their commission was to last one year and their powers were wide; they had control of both the great and privy seals. After some tiresome attempts to interfere with their efforts, Richard took off on a long tour of the north, only returning nine days before the expiration date. Although contemporaries thought he was wandering around aimlessly, in reality it seems he was trying to consolidate his power base and start the recruitment of an army loyal to himself. In the process, he also called two meetings with eminent judges in which he questioned them as to the legality of the previous Parliament; did the House infringe upon the royal prerogatives? Did they have the authority to impeach a Crown officer without the consent of the king? Whether the judges acted under pressure or not is unknown, but their response was that Parliament overstepped its bounds and the offenders should be punished ‘as traitors’.

This was an interesting development, because the Statute of Treason from 1052 “had limited the definition of treason to such acts as aiding the king’s enemies and levying war against the king in his realm” (Nigel Saul p.166). This is why the judges did not call the Appellants traitors per se, for the definition wouldn’t fit. But Richard’s questions did give him some ammunition to use against his enemies, though in the end his strategy backfired. Click here for Part 2.

 

 

 

 

What was Livery and Maintenance (or Retaining)?

Medieval court scene from BL MS Harley 4375 f.141. Source: Wikipedia

Livery and Maintenance went hand-in-hand with chivalry, and created problems throughout the high middle ages. Once I realized that “retaining” was the verb for “retainer” I started to get the idea. The noble or king had his retainers, who were either in his household (given food and clothing) or part of his social and political network (fee’d retainers, paid an annuity for fealty and service). The retainer looked to the lord for “livery”—or clothing (hoods or “chaperons”, cloth, and more specifically, badges; think of Richard III’s white boar)—and “maintenance”—or maintaining the cause, or dispute, of the client. The lord was their protector; if they misbehaved, the retainers were pretty sure they could get off scot free, so to speak, usually by interfering with justice. Not only were judges and juries intimidated and bribed, but, according to Anthony Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility) “there was a great trade in pardons in the fourteenth century to produce revenue”. This was applicable only when the accused showed up for trial, which rarely happened, anyway; there was no way to force the offender to cooperate.

As might be expected, wearing a lord’s livery fostered a lively atmosphere of competition, faction-fighting, and strife. The armed livery retainers were starting to look and act like thugs. I keep thinking about the incredible sword-fight in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt and Mercutio led their howling followers in a violent brawl up and down the streets. Innocent bystanders had to fend for themselves. When convenient, anyone could be threatened or abused depending on the inclination of the liveried bully. Law and order was a farce.

All the way back to Edward I’s days, attempts were made to control this disregard for the law. By Richard II’s reign, Parliament tried to order the nobles to cease the practice of liveries, but the Lords insisted they could control their own offenders. Of course, they couldn’t and this caused a constant conflict between the Lords and the Commons which Richard took advantage of, even offering to abolish his own livery if the nobles would do the same. This offer was scorned by the Lords, but it served to create a badly-needed rapprochement between King and the Commons.

from British Library, MS Royal 14 E IV f. 252

In Richard’s reign, retaining took on a special urgency. In return for his loyalty, a retainer expected patronage, advancement, or even acquisition of lands. If the lord couldn’t extend his patronage (for instance, if the king denied him access or offered a better deal), he might very well lose the allegiance of his retainers. This was one of the major grievances of the Lords Appellant, for as young Richard II distributed lands and honors to just about anybody who asked for them, the great magnates saw their influence waning. As Anthony Goodman tells us (The Loyal Conspiracy): “As he (Richard) progressed, he retained… The nervousness it aroused was reflected, too, in the arrest near Cambridge of a servant of the king who had been distributing liveries to the gentry of East Anglia and Essex, on receiving which they swore to do military service when summoned by the king, no matter which lords had retained them.” This became especially true in the 1390s, after the Merciless Parliament when Richard obsessively built a powerful support base. By the end of Richards’s reign, he had retained so many followers that he beat his enemies at their own game; he alarmed London by filling it with an army of Cheshiremen, and in his last two years, their behavior was ungovernable. Alas, for Richard, the more easily acquired, the easier they were lost, and when the final showdown occurred, his standing army evaporated and he faced the usurper alone.

It wasn’t until the Tudors that an end was put to maintenance, and enforceable laws were introduced. By then, chivalry had run its course and the Wars of the Roses had wiped out the overweening might of the aristocracy, leaving a more pliant nobility.

The Poll Tax, Part 2: The Peasants’ Revolt is sparked

The Death of Wat Tyler: Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175

As we saw in Part 1, by the Parliament of 1380, the Commons were up against the wall. The government under the new Chancellor Sudbury was desperate for money. In France, the earl of Buckingham had squandered the money raised from the last Poll Tax; the army was a half year in arrears; Gaunt needed money in Scotland; the coast needed to be protected against invasion; and the wool subsidy was not producing any funds because of a riot in Flanders. They needed £160,000 to make ends meet, including—unknown to the Commons—about £60,000 for Gaunt’s proposed Castile campaign. Impossible! After much discussion, the commons agreed to grant £100,000 if the rest was raised by the clergy, and it was decided a third poll tax would be put in place.

Unlike the second Poll Tax, which didn’t raise enough money, this one would demand three groats per person (the first poll tax was one groat), again on a sliding scale, though this time no specifics were outlined: “the sufficient shall (according to their means) aid the lesser…” (RB Dobson). This may have worked in the towns where a great landowner happened to reside (as long as the landowner helped out), but in the areas where there were no wealthy residents, the poorest households faced the most onerous burden. No one was happy. Since the tax was collected based on the population of a town or shire, here is where the infamous evasion was practiced all over the country: the population numbers between 1377 and 1381 suddenly dropped—on paper. For instance, Kent went from 56,557 to 43,838; Somerset fell from 54,604 to 30,384. Try Cumberland, that went from 11,841 to 4,748 and Devon, that fell from 45,635 to 20,656. Taken as a whole, “the adult population of the realm has ostensibly fallen from 1,355,201 to 896,481 persons” (Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381). It seems that many quit counting unmarried daughters, widowed mothers, etc. Or who knows? It soon became obvious that all was not as it should be!

The Peasants (Wat Tyler) burn Palace of the Savoy. AD 1381 by Alfred Garth Jones. Source: Wikimedia

So the government appointed new commissioners in March, 1381 to investigate the widespread tax evasion. Commissioners were hard to find, for this was a task bound for trouble. But they were reportedly allowed to keep the profits raised above and beyond their quota, so ambitious men came forward, each accompanied by two sergeants-at-arms to provide additional persuasion. Not only were they bitterly resented, for the people declared they had already paid their taxes, but ugly rumors abounded about their methods. It was even said that one commissioner lifted girls’ skirts to test whether they were virgins or not! Huh? Maybe he was looking for pubic hair? By the end of May, resentment had reached the boiling point.

It wasn’t an accident that when Sir John de Bampton came to Brentwood to start his commission in Essex, there was a crowd of about 100 waiting for him from the surrounding towns. They were angry, rudely armed, and ready for resistance. Bampton ordered his sergeants to make some arrests, the mob promptly attacked, stoning and beating the offenders until they headed back to London, their proverbial tail between their legs. And so started the Great Revolt.