It’s hard to decide whether Thomas Arundel was a villain or an asset. On the one hand, he was a brilliant administrator. On the other hand, he tended toward despotism. If you read Terry Jones’ entertaining but very biased Who Murdered Chaucer? he was practically the devil incarnate: “The war on heresy, which Archbishop Arundel announced in that winter of 1401, added a new dimension to a period already characterized by fear and intimidation. Gone was the experimental and questioning ‘blue skies’ intellectual environment of Richard II’s court, to be replaced by repression and censorship. The country slid into a regime of Orwellian thought-control and MacCarthyite witch-hunting.” Wow. Colorful though this opinion is, I couldn’t find anyone else who agreed with it—at least to the extent of the archbishop’s oppressiveness. And I looked for it. Yes, anti-Wycliffe dogma was prevalent in Henry IV’s reign—with the approval of the king—and Arundel did attempt to control the curriculum at Oxford with varied success. Yes, the first heretic was burned in Henry’s reign (two total, I believe). But wholesale burning of heretics would have to wait until Mary Tudor.
Thomas Arundel was the younger brother of Richard Earl of Arundel, one of the Lords Appellant in Richard II’s reign who traumatized the king during the Merciless Parliament of 1387. Thomas was serving his first of five stints as Lord Chancellor. He sided with the Appellants against the king, an error he was to pay dearly for ten years later during the Revenge Parliament. By then he was Archbishop of Canterbury, which probably saved his life; Richard shrunk from executing an archbishop. He was sentenced to forfeiture and outlawry instead, commanded to leave the country. A new archbishop was raised in his place.
When Richard outlawed Henry Bolingbroke, he demanded that the exiles never contact each other. Of course, who was going to enforce that? Just as soon as Richard left the country for Ireland, Arundel showed up on Henry’s doorstep in Paris and together they plotted Lancaster’s return. Would Henry have had the audacity to take such a risk without Arundel’s prodding? Many historians wonder. Up until that point Henry had been the obedient son, apolitical and relatively carefree (at least, before his exile). Now he was about to launch a major rebellion, with Arundel beside him every step of the way. Not long after they landed in England, Arundel took up his role as archbishop again (without any official appointment) and proceeded to preach against Richard II, allegedly spreading propaganda lies to encourage the people to rebel. You can see the dubious faces of his listeners…
Of course, all went according to plan and Arundel is credited for putting together the means to legitimize Henry’s usurpation. Over the course of his reign, Henry came to depend on him more and more, though at first their association was more political than friendly. But as Henry’s health declined after 1405, he began to spend extended periods of time at the archbishop’s residences. While the king faded into the background, Arundel took a major role in governing the council as well as serving as chancellor from 1407-10 and again from 1412-13. The gap in his official duties was due to the opposition of Prince Henry, who was gaining ascendance as his father was increasingly unable to rule. In fact, the very day Henry V became king, he sacked Arundel and replaced him with his uncle, Henry Beaufort, who was the archbishop’s bitter political opponent. Arundel died a year later and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. Interestingly, his tomb and chapel were destroyed by Archbishop Cranmer in 1540, presumably as revenge for his repression of heresy.
It goes without saying that any usurper will have to deal with resistance. Considering the wave of popularity that thrust Henry Bolingbroke onto the throne, I imagine he never would have suspected the number of rebellions he would have to confront in the first five years of his reign. Some were major, others were minor. Two nearly condemned him as the shortest reigning monarch in English history. All must have been disheartening to the man who saw himself as an honorable, chivalric knight.
What could possibly have gone wrong?
The first rebellion wasn’t much of a surprise—though the timing was shocking. Only three months after his coronation, King Richard II’s favorites launched the Epiphany Rising of January, 1400. Their aim was to capture and kill the king and his family on the eve of a tournament at Windsor Castle. Unfortunately, they were in too much of a hurry; Henry was still at the height of his popularity. At the very last minute, King Henry was warned and he made a frantic escape to London. Nonetheless, the ringleaders were committed; after they found their prey had flown they continued with their revolt, though they weren’t able to attract as much support as they expected. Rather, most of them suffered the indignity of being killed by the citizenry, who took the law into their own hands.
Needless to say, the Epiphany Revolt put an end to Richard. Or did it? Although he was reported dead by February 14 and a very public funeral was held, rumors spread that he had escaped to Scotland and was going to return at the head of an army. Disgruntled rebels were quick to challenge the usurper in his name, and the spectre of a vengeful Richard haunted Henry for the rest of his life. Or, if Richard was dead, the young Earl of March—considered by many the true heir to the throne—served the same purpose. As far as the rebels were concerned, one figurehead was as good as the other.
During most of Henry’s reign, the country was bankrupt—or nearly so—and the first few years were the worst. It didn’t take long for the populace to cry foul, for as they remembered it, he promised not to raise taxes (untrue). Things were supposed to get better (they didn’t). Mob violence was everywhere. Even tax collectors were killed. Meanwhile, a fresh source of rebellion reared its head: the Welsh.
On his way back to London after his first (and only) campaign into Scotland, the king learned of a Welsh rising led by one Owain Glyndwr, who visited fire and destruction on his recalcitrant neighbor Reginald Grey of Ruthin. Turning immediately to the west, Henry led his army into Wales, chasing the elusive enemy deep into the mountains. Unfortunately, lack of funds and terrible weather forced them to turn back. But this just added fuel to the proverbial fire. Repeated Welsh raids unsettled his border barons, who were quick to complain. During parliament—only one year after Henry’s coronation—the Commons insisted on enforcing the most repressive anti-Welsh legislation since Edward I. None of these laws would have been enacted in Richard’s reign. The Welsh were in no mood to acquiesce, and their rebellion gained steam for the next several years, sapping an already exhausted exchequer.
Then there were the Percies. The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Harry Hotspur were instrumental in putting Henry on the throne. They also ruled the north as though it was their own kingdom. This would not do, and Henry followed his predecessor’s strategy of raising up other great families as a counter to their ambitions. Disappointed that Henry did not appreciate them as much as they expected—especially after they won Homildon Hill, the most significant battle against the Scots since Edward I days—the Percies launched a totally unexpected assault in 1403. It was Harry Hotspur who drove this insurrection, using Richard II’s imminent return as a means to raise the restive Cheshiremen to his cause. Once his soldiers realized that Richard wasn’t coming, they fought to avenge him instead. The resulting Battle of Shrewsbury was a very close call; if Henry hadn’t unexpectedly traveled north from London that week to join Henry Percy, he never would have been close enough to intercept the rebels when he learned about the uprising. The fighting was ferocious; it was only Hotspur’s death on the battlefield that determined which side had won the day. As it was, Percy’s ally, the Earl of Douglas, allegedly killed two knights who wore Henry’s livery, giving their lives to save the king in the confusion of battle.
The Earl of Northumberland was still in the North when the Battle of Shrewsbury took place. Historians can’t decide whether Percy’s failure to assist his son was planned or unplanned. But one thing was for sure; Henry Percy was still a force to be reckoned with. Although the king reluctantly pardoned him (with the urging of the Commons), he was back two years later, leading another rebellion in conjunction with a rising led by Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York, and Thomas Mowbray, son of Henry Bolingbroke’s old rival. Northumberland’s thrust was repelled before he gained much speed, yet Scrope’s forces waited at York for three days before being tricked into disbanding by the Earl of Westmorland, Percy’s nemesis. Poor Archbishop Scrope became the focus of King Henry’s rage. Despite resistance from all sides, the king ordered him to be executed, creating a huge scandal and a new martyr.
Henry Percy suffered outlawry at that point, but he returned three years later, fighting one last battle, so pathetic one wonders whether he had a death wish. He was killed on the field and subsequently decapitated.
These were the major rebellions. Other disturbances were usually dealt with without Henry’s presence. In 1404, Maud de Ufford, Countess of Oxford—mother of the ill-fated Robert de Vere, Richard’s favorite—organized an uprising centered around the return of King Richard. This was in conjunction with Louis d’Orleans, the French duke who planned to invade the country in December. Alas, he was held up by the weather and Richard failed to materialize. In 1405, Constance of York, sister of Edward (Rutland), Duke of York concocted a plot to kidnap the young Earl of March (remember him, the other heir to the throne?) and his brother from Windsor Castle. She was taking them to Owain Glyndwr but got caught before they entered Wales. She implicated her brother who was imprisoned for several months, but no one knows for sure whether he was complicit or not (he probably was).
Bad weather, failed crops, an empty exchequer, regional disorders, piracy that disrupted the wool trade, all contributed to general unrest that plagued the fragile Lancastrian dynasty. Henry’s willingness to accept criticism from friends and supporters—and sincerely try to act upon it—could well be one of the reasons he survived and King Richard failed.
For a long time my only knowledge about Henry IV came from Shakespeare. How typical! I suspect he would have been amazed at how literally we took his memorable characters. Interestingly, although Shakespeare wrote two plays about Henry IV, the king played a minor role in both. It is thought that because Henry was a usurper, the great bard didn’t want to ruffle Queen Elizabeth’s feathers by giving him prominence; too many of his fellow playwrights ended up in prison. Besides, it was much more diverting to give the spotlight to Falstaff! And of course, Prince Hal was safe, since he wasn’t responsible for his father’s actions.
It seems that other scholars followed Shakespeare’s example and gave Henry IV short shrift—possibly because his reign was sandwiched between two much more dynamic kings. Fortunately, modern historians have taken another look and discovered there is plenty to talk about (though much credit is due to the Victorian historian James Hamilton Wylie who wrote a four-volume biography about him. Try finding it!).
Originally, I had only planned to write my first two volumes about Richard II’s life. But I got caught up in the whole usurpation story and realized that Henry’s point of view was just as interesting as Richard’s. It was too much to include in volume two; in fact, Henry’s story covers two books on its own. Naturally, I soon realized that I might as well take the Plantagenets all the way to the end. Every one of them had a story to tell—even Henry VI (we forget that he reigned 40 years).
I found Henry IV’s story to be very sympathetic. Although it was more than a little unethical for him to break Thomas Mowbray’s confidence and start the whole brouhaha that got them exiled (see THE KING’S RETRIBUTION), the punishment was certainly disproportionate to the offense. What was the crime? Why was he declared a traitor? It was all so unfair! Once he returned to reclaim his lost inheritance, he realized that he had to go “all the way” or else risk losing his head to a vindictive Richard. There were to be no half-measures here. Luckily for him, practically the whole country rallied behind his banner.
But that’s only part of the story. All the good-will built up between him and the populace was exhausted pretty quickly. Promises were broken, expectations disappointed, the exchequer was empty, law-and-order disintegrated. Repressive measures led to even more discontent. Poor Henry was quick to learn that that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it.
But the proverbial die was cast. Once he had established the Lancastrian dynasty, Henry was determined to make it stick. However, on more than one occasion he nearly came to disaster, and his reign might have become the shortest-lasting kingship in English history. The Epiphany Rising—a mere three months after his coronation—and the Battle of Shrewsbury were only two of the rebellions he had to face in the first four years of his reign. And all this happened before the infamous execution of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Henry’s subsequent attack of leprosy (or so everyone thought). More to come in The Accursed King which I am working on as we speak.
In Part I, Edward Earl of Rutland abandoned King Richard’s cause after the forsaken monarch left his rapidly declining army in South Wales and dashed north to join the Earl of Salisbury in Conwy—where he expected to find another army waiting for him. Richard was too late, for Salisbury couldn’t hold his force together. Frantic, the king sent for Rutland to bring the southern army, only to learn that his cousin had deserted to Bolingbroke. The rest, as they say, is history.
Edward could congratulate himself on joining the winning side. But his trials were far from over. During Henry IV’s first parliament, he was among the six surviving Counter-Appellants brought to task for the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. There was quite a ruckus as lord after lord threw their hoods on the floor and challenged him to a duel until King Henry put a stop to the disturbance. All the Counter- Appellants suffered the loss of their new ranks—awarded by King Richard after the Revenge Parliament—but further retribution was avoided. Henry didn’t want to start his reign with a blood bath. After a brief imprisonment, all were released.
Unfortunately for Henry, their rancor had not diminished as a result of his leniency. Within three months of the coronation, they were plotting to kill the usurper and put Richard back on the throne. Their plan was to infiltrate Windsor castle during the Epiphany tournament, where they would dispatch the king and his family. They might have succeeded except at the last minute, someone told Henry and he fled Windsor just hours before the assassins showed up. Who betrayed the conspirators? No one knows for sure. Some thought an indiscrete accomplice told his mistress who passed it on. But most contemporaries point the finger at Rutland. Did he only pretend to be part of the conspiracy so he could tell the king? Did he change his mind at the last minute and tell his father? Or, as Shakespeare portrayed, did he give himself away by accident, whereas his father forced him to confess to the king? He apparently confirmed his guilt by abandoning his confederates later on, when King Henry showed up with his army. One thing’s for sure: he wasn’t punished. The rest of the rebel leaders were lynched by the mobs, showing their loyalty to the king. Whatever Henry felt about Rutland’s participation has been lost to history.
Though apparently the king trusted him, or at least found him useful. Soon afterwards he was sent to Guyenne as lieutenant for two years. On his return he was made Duke of York, for his father had died in his absence. Then the king made him lieutenant of South Wales, where he worked closely with Prince Henry. But this was certainly not a favor! The exchequer was out of funds and Rutland had to dig deep into his pockets to pay his men (he was still owed money from Guyenne). This could well have stretched his loyalty to King Henry.
In February, 1405, his sister Constance abducted the two Mortimer boys, kept hostage at Windsor Castle; the eldest was considered by many the true heir to the throne and kept in close confinement. Since she was apprehended taking them to Wales, there was no doubt that she was planning to deliver them to Owain Glyndwr (and their uncle Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had joined the rebellion). Constance immediately implicated Rutland, who initially denied any knowledge of her plot, but later he confessed and was imprisoned for seventeen weeks at Pevensey Castle. By October the king showed signs of forgiveness and two months later Rutland received his lands back. A year later he was made Constable of the Tower, landing on his feet again!
Apparently the Prince favored Rutland as well, for after Henry IV’s death he was involved in diplomatic matters for the new king. He accompanied Henry V to Agincourt in 1415, where he was killed on the battlefield.
One can only assume he was a man of considerable ability, which would help explain why he was given so many positions of responsibility despite his dubious reputation among his contemporaries. As an aside, Rutland was an authority on hunting and made an English translation of Gaston Phoebus’ Livre de Chasse, with the addition of several chapters he wrote, himself.
My short story in the BETRAYAL anthology, Family or Fealty?, is about Thomas Percy, probably the most able—if the least flamboyant—member of the Percy clan in this period. But, Shakespeare notwithstanding, I don’t really think he was the motivating force behind the rebellion that led to the Battle of Shrewsbury. He had much to lose, and nothing to gain. So what led to this disastrous conflict?
The Percies were such a powerful force in the North they practically acted like rulers in their own kingdom. For much of Richard II’s reign and the beginning of Henry IV’s, Earl Henry Percy and his son, Sir Henry (nicknamed Hotspur) alternated between the wardenships of the East Marches and the West Marches toward Scotland. They were experienced in dealing with the tempestuous Scots, and their retainers were fiercely loyal. When Henry IV returned from exile and began his campaign that led to the throne, the Percies were his staunchest supporters; they provided a large portion of his army. Henry Percy was directly responsible for persuading King Richard to turn himself over to Henry Bolingbroke—the beginning of the end of Richard’s fall.
Naturally, this was not done out of sheer kindness. Henry Percy expected to be amply rewarded for his services, and at the beginning he was. But the king was uncomfortable about the potential threat of this overweening earl. He soon began to promote his brother in-law, Ralph Neville the Earl of Westmorland as a counterbalance, chipping away at Percy’s holdings and jurisdictions. Additionally, the Percies felt that they were not being reimbursed properly for their expenses; by 1403 they claimed that the king owed them £20,000. But even with all this going on, it’s likely that the earl may have contained his discontent, except for the belligerence of his impetuous son.
One possible catalyst was Hotspur’s refusal to turn over his hostages taken at the Battle of Homildon Hill. This battle was a huge win for the Percies in 1402, where so many leaders were taken—including the Earl of Douglas—that it left a political vacuum in Scotland for many years to come. Once he learned of this windfall, King Henry insisted that the Percies turn over their hostages to the crown. It was his right as king—even if it was against the code of chivalry. Though his highhanded demand was probably not the wisest choice, considering the circumstances. There were many possible reasons he did so. He was desperately short of funds—as usual. It’s possible he may have wanted to retain the prisoners as a means of ensuring Scottish submission. Earl Henry agreed to turn over his hostages, but Hotspur absolutely refused to surrender Archibald Douglas, letting his father take the blame. One can only imagine that all was not well in the Percy household, either.
There was more at stake. The king had just returned from a humiliating fiasco in Wales, where he had campaigned in response to the English defeat at Pilleth, where Edmund Mortimer was captured by the Welsh. Mortimer was the uncle of the eleven year-old Earl of March, considered by many the heir-presumptive to the throne (and in Henry’s custody). Edmund was also the brother of Hotspur’s wife. By the time Henry demanded the Scottish hostages, it was commonly believed that the king had no intention of ransoming Mortimer; after all, he was safely out of the way and couldn’t champion his nephew’s cause. This rankled with Hotspur, and it is possible that he thought to use Douglas ransom money to pay for Mortimer’s release himself.
Hotspur finally rode to London in response to the king’s demands, but he went without Douglas. Needless to say, this immediately provoked an argument. When Hotspur insisted that he should be able to ransom his brother in-law, Henry refused, saying he did not want money going out of the country to help his enemies. Hotspur rebutted with, “Shall a man expose himself to danger for your sake and you refuse to help him in his captivity?” Henry replied that Mortimer was a traitor and willingly yielded himself to the Welsh. “And you are a traitor!” the king retorted, apparently in reference to an earlier occasion when Hotspur chose to negotiate with Owain Glyndwr rather than arrest him. Allegedly the king struck Percy on the cheek and drew his dagger. Of course, attacking the king was treason and Hotspur withdrew, shouting “Not here, but in the field!” All of this may be apocryphal, but it is certainly powerful stuff.
The whole question of Mortimer’s ransom became moot when he decided to marry the daughter of Glyndwr and openly declare his change of loyalties on 13 December, 1402. No one knows whether Hostpur’s tempestuous interview with King Henry happened before or after this event; regardless, a bare minimum of eight months passed before Shrewsbury. Were they planning a revolt all this time? It is likely that early in 1403 one or both of the Percies were in communication with the Welsh. Owain Glyndwr was approaching the apex of his power, and a possible alliance between him, Mortimer, and the Percies could well have been brewing. It would come to fruition later on as the infamous Tripartite Indenture (splitting England’s rule between them), but by then Hotspur was long dead.
No one has been able to satisfactorily explain just why the Percies revolted against Henry IV. If they were so supportive of young Mortimer—as was stated in Hotspur’s manifesto before the battle—why did they work so hard to put Lancaster on the throne? All evidence points to their self-aggrandisement. And looking at the three years following his coronation, it became evident that King Henry was not willing to serve as their puppet, nor was he willing to enhance their power at the expense of the crown. The Percies’ ambitions were thwarted by the king’s perceived ingratitude, and the consensus of modern historians is that they hoped to replace him with someone more easily manipulated.
Where did Thomas Percy fit into all this? His family’s fortunes were his own. Win or lose, there’s a better-than-even chance that he would rise and fall along with them, whether he participated in the rebellion or not. In the end, I suspect he couldn’t conceive of fighting against his own kin.
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.
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
Bolingbroke’s decision to go for the crown has puzzled historians for the last 600 years. Certainly his contemporaries were led astray by his declaration that he was only returning from exile to recover his inheritance. Or were they? Many of them probably were—at first. After all, an outlaw ran the risk of losing his head if caught returning illegally, and anyone supporting him ran the same risk. So when Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur around July 4, 1399 accompanied by a small but faithful retinue, the outlawed Archbishop of Canterbury, and the son of the executed Earl of Arundel, all were fair game to any loyalist looking to stop them. Nonetheless, the insistence that he was only seeking to regain his Lancastrian patrimony garnered a tremendous amount of sympathy from anyone who had something to lose. No one was safe from a king who could destroy their inheritance on a whim. But landowners weren’t the only ones who worried about their status. All Lancastrian retainers and servants stood to lose their positions. They could expect to find themselves replaced by vassals of new royal appointees who were to manage the estates until Bolingbroke’s eventual return—if he was ever allowed back.
Henry wasn’t about to let that happen. Once Richard left the country for Ireland, the time was ripe for Lancaster’s return. The first big encounter—and it happened very soon after Bolingbroke’s landing—was with Sir Harry Percy, known as Hotspur, the son of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. This happened at Bridlington, a town about thirty miles north of Ravenspur on the coast. His appearance was a big surprise, and if he had been so inclined, Bolingbroke’s expedition could have come to a screeching halt. But he was not so inclined. Over the last several years, Richard II had been steadily attempting to diminish the Percies’ influence in the North by removing them from key positions, and they were already disgruntled. They were quick to anticipate a golden opportunity—even though Henry assured Hotspur that he only wanted his inheritance back. Did they believe him, or were they already thinking ahead?
And so it began. Bolingbroke quickly garnered more support from the Northerners, making a wide berth around York and stopping off at Pontefract, his family’s stronghold. By now he was sure of his strength and moved on to Doncaster, where he met the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland among many other powerful local magnates. Northumberland had brought with him a large contingent—some said 30,000 men—which gave Bolingbroke the army he needed to challenge the royalist forces. In a very public ceremony he swore an oath that he had only returned to claim his inheritance, and did not have any designs on the crown. This wouldn’t be the last oath he was to make before changing his mind. It’s more than probable that at this point he also declared his intention to put the king under their control and impose a continual council, as they had in 1386.
Did his followers believe him? Historians conjecture that even if Henry had already decided to go for the crown (some think he did even before he landed, though there is no solid evidence), it was too soon to declare his intentions to a guarded populace. They had just barely recovered from Richard’s recent burst of tyranny; would they be willing to expose themselves to another series of threats? But if Bolingbroke came to assert his own rights, unfairly trampled upon, surely this was not treason?
And so, bolstered by a strong army that grew as he marched south, Bolingbroke solidified his credibility when he convinced the regent, Richard’s uncle the Duke of York, to come over to his cause. All along the regent was sympathetic to Henry’s grievances and was seriously distressed by this conflict of interest. After all, he was Henry’s uncle, too. Once again, it is thought that Bolingbroke repeated the same oath to York, convincing him to change sides.
The first action Bolingbroke took that indicated a possible change of intention came along shortly thereafter when they subjugated Bristol and executed three of King Richard’s close advisors—an action quite illegal unless ordered by the king. Afterwards, on their way north to Chester, he appointed Percy Warden of the West Marches toward Scotland—another custom reserved for the king. Yet still, Bolingbroke professed that he had no designs on the crown.
When Percy was chosen to approach King Richard who was by then holed up at Conwy Castle, again it was said that Henry swore the same oath. Did Percy really believe him? He certainly repeated this oath to Richard over a consecrated host, convincing the king to meet Bolingbroke in person. Too bad for Richard! He hadn’t traveled far from his sanctuary when Percy’s hidden soldiers surrounded him and and escorted his little party to Flint Castle, prisoners in fact. When meeting the humiliated king in person, according to the eye-witness Jean Creton, Henry said, “My Lord, I am come sooner than you sent for me: the reason wherefore I will tell you. The common report of your people is such, that you have, for the space of twenty or two and twenty years, governed them very badly and very rigorously, and in so much that they are not well contented therewith. But if it please our Lord, I will help you to govern them better than they have been governed in time past.” And Richard answered mildly, “Fair cousin, since it pleaseth you, it pleaseth us well.” If this wasn’t an acquiescence, I don’t know what more would have been needed!
The game was up, and although Bolingbroke treated the king like a prisoner, he still did not declare himself. With the king in tow, they all returned to Chester where Henry sent out summonses for a Parliament—in the king’s name—to be held the 30th of September. This would be about a month-and-half later. While in Chester, he received emissaries from London, who declared that the people renounced their allegiance to Richard and pledged their loyalty to Henry. It was said they even demanded that Henry put the king to death, but of course he refused. Three days later, Bolingbroke returned to London with his prisoner king, who rode a nag rather than his own horse, and was still dressed in the clothes he was wearing when arrested. When they reached London, Henry turned Richard over to the mayor and another delegation. By now the citizens must have come to their senses, because the officials escorted the king to the Tower, guarding him from the menacing crowd.
Richard was out of his hands. Now Bolingbroke could concentrate on finding a legal way to stage the deposition. By the time he reached London he had undoubtedly decided to go all the way.
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.
Considering that Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham (and later 1st Duke of Norfolk) participated in almost every major event of Richard II’s reign, it’s surprising that he’s been given so little attention by historians. It is evident that Thomas had a checkered career, in favor then out of favor then back again until his final outlawry. He is often depicted as a slippery character, though it’s not clear whether he was motivated by ambition, jealousy, or was he driven by circumstances? It’s hard to say, considering how difficult it was to maintain one’s equilibrium during Richard II’s tempestuous reign.
Orphaned at age two, Thomas and his elder brother John were brought up in the royal court alongside future rival Robert de Vere (another ward). All became close friends with Prince—soon to become King—Richard. John died in 1383, passing on the title Earl of Nottingham to Thomas, who was elected knight of the Garter in the same year. Two years later he was granted the title of Earl Marshal for life. Not bad for a nineteen year-old. He even had an apartment all his own at Eltham, the royal palace—reserved, naturally, for high-ranking nobles.
Nonetheless, trouble was brewing. Robert de Vere had managed to capture Richard’s affection and Thomas was increasingly left out. Rather than fight a losing battle he went over to the opposite court faction and married Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. I would assume he couldn’t have found a wife more calculated to alienate the king, though Richard did “distribute liveries of cloth to the earl’s wedding guests in 1384” (1). Nonetheless, Mowbray’s association with Arundel put him squarely in the Lords Appellant camp, just in time to march against Robert de Vere who was attempting to bring a force from Cheshire to protect the king against his rebellious nobles. Alas, de Vere was no general and his army made a pitiful showing at Radcot Bridge, eventually surrendering with very little loss of life. Robert fled to the Continent; that thorn in Mowbray’s side was removed forever.
By then, Henry of Bolingbroke (future King Henry IV) had joined forces with the Lords Appellant, making their number five. After Radcot Bridge the victors confronted King Richard in the Tower, forcing their agenda down his throat and threatening to depose him. Cowed after three days’ isolation in the Tower, the king agreed to call parliament. It met in January of 1388, ushering in the worst year of Richard’s life.
Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the junior Appellants, mainly kept quiet during the Merciless Parliament, only asserting themselves against their elders when it came time to condemn Richard’s beloved vice-chamberlain, Sir Simon Burley. By now, the Merciless Parliament had become a bloodbath and the senior Appellants knew that unless their purge was total, the survivors would demand retribution. Too bad for them that the king himself would take on the mantle of avenger ten years later.
But Richard had noted Mowbray’s reticence and decided to bring him back into the fold. In 1389 he made Mowbray Warden of the East March toward Scotland; later Thomas became Captain of Calais and royal lieutenant in the north-east of France. He accompanied the king to Ireland in 1394 and was credited with many successful assignments; he even came within a hair’s breadth of capturing Art MacMurchadha abed with his wife. Shortly thereafter, Mowbray went to France to negotiate a truce and Richard’s marriage to Princess Isabella.
But Mowbray’s uneasy favor with Richard was sorely tested in 1397 when the king launched his tardy retribution against the senior Lords Appellant. Conniving with his new affinity of noble supporters (including Mowbray), Richard initiated a new Appeal against Gloucester, Warwick, and Arundel. Capturing Warwick was easy; the king invited all three to a formal dinner and Warwick was the only one who showed up. A polite, entertaining evening ensued, at the end of which the king ordered the unwary Warwick’s arrest. Immediately afterwards, Arundel was persuaded to give himself up. Richard dealt with Gloucester in person. Collecting a large retinue including Mowbray, the king rode all night to Gloucester’s Pleshy residence, dragging the sick duke out of bed and arresting him as well. Gloucester was placed into Mowbray’s charge and taken to Calais where he was imprisoned in the castle.
The king was adamant; he did not dare appeal Gloucester in person in front of parliament. Politically, that was too volatile. But he needed proof of the duke’s guilt relating to the Merciless Parliament of 1388. A lot of suspicious activities took place in Gloucester’s prison under the unwilling direction of Thomas Mowbray, Captain of Calais. Eventually a confession was extracted from the duke, and shortly thereafter a sullen Mowbray announced before parliament that Gloucester was dead. No further explanation was forthcoming and after the confession was read Gloucester was condemned as a traitor in absentia. But naturally rumors abounded and Mowbray was implicated beyond a doubt.
After the Revenge Parliament, as it came to be called, the king created a slew of dukes to reward his supporters—sneeringly called “the duketti” by contemporaries. Even Mowbray was created Duke of Norfolk. But it wasn’t enough to reassure Thomas. After all, he was one of the five Appellants; now that the king was finished with the instigators he was bound to cast his vengeful eye on the remaining two. From then on, Thomas feared for his own life and stayed away from court as much as he could.
But he finally broke under the stress. In December that same year, Mowbray caught up with Bolingbroke on the road to London. He wasted no time in getting to the point. “Henry, we are about to be undone!” he is said to have declared. When Henry asked him why, he replied, “for what was done at Radcot Bridge”.(2) Pretending astonishment (or was he pretending?) Bolingbroke objected: look at the honors Richard showered them with; they had all received pardons. But Mowbray believed none of it. He even told Henry there were men plotting the destruction of him and his father. He hoped Henry would help devise a plan for their mutual defense.
But poor Mowbray had badly miscalculated. Far from allying himself with his former Appellant, Bolingbroke made a report to the king (or he told his father who went to the king). Then followed a series of accusations and denials, counter-accusations and further denials. Unable to settle this argument amicably, the court of chivalry decided on a trial by combat. It was to be the event of the decade. Held at Coventry, the tournament was attended by knights from as far away as France, and the two challengers went to great lengths to acquire the very best and most expensive armor and trappings. But all was for naught. As depicted by Shakespeare, as soon as Mowbray and Bolingbroke started their charge, King Richard threw in his baton and halted the fight. After discussing the matter with his council, the king declared that Bolingbroke would be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life.
It was a devastating decision for the Duke of Norfolk. He took his leave shortly thereafter with a small retinue, forbidden to make any contact with Bolingbroke—not that he was very likely to. One wonders if he would have been recalled to England after Henry became king, but we’ll never know. He died in Venice just a year later, somewhere around the 22nd or 27th of September in 1399—just a few days before Richard was forced to abdicate. His young son, another Thomas, was not permitted to assume his father’s titles and soon involved himself in political turmoil, finally joining the ill-fated revolt of Archbishop Scrope in 1405, where he was beheaded alongside the prelate.
“The Politics of Magnate Power” by Alastair Dunn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 40
“Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400” by Chris Given-Wilson, p.86