Richard II and John of Gaunt

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

Richard’s relationship with his uncle, John of Gaunt was fraught with uncertainties and misunderstandings, though throughout it was bound by strict royal precepts. In retrospect, historians have noted that Gaunt’s behavior showed he would never have done anything against the king’s prerogative, no matter how he felt about him personally. But contemporaries—including the king himself—believed otherwise.

This misunderstanding went back to the reign of Edward III. In the old king’s dotage, Gaunt increasingly took on his father’s responsibilities in Parliament, though unlike Edward III, his conduct was overbearing and threatening. The magnates were so afraid that Gaunt might seize the throne for himself that on Edward’s death they hurriedly crowned the 10 year-old Richard rather than risk a regency.

It’s true that John of Gaunt was interested in a crown, but it was the crown of Castile he coveted, in right of his wife Constance. Ever since his marriage to her in 1371 he took on the title of King of Castile and León, and in 1386, circumstances permitted him to go to Spain and make a bid for his crown. He failed, but succeeded in a different way: John married his eldest daughter Philippa to the King of Portugal and his younger daughter Catherine to the future King of Castile. In return for giving up his claim to the Castilian throne, Gaunt accepted a huge payoff of 600,000 francs of gold which was paid in full over the next three years.

But before he took his family to Spain, John had some unpleasant run-ins with young King Richard. In 1384, there was the infamous scene where a Carmelite friar gained access to the king and told him that John of Gaunt was plotting to kill him. In a fit of rage, Richard ordered his uncle’s execution and was only restrained by the urging of his wife and favorites. When an astonished Gaunt stumbled into this frantic scene he forcibly denied the accusation, giving Richard pause and turning all the attention onto the friar. No one ever found out what prompted this accusation, because the Carmelite died under torture that night. But for Richard, his own conduct cast serious doubts on his judgment. Some months later, after a bungled murder plot against Gaunt (planned by the king’s friends), the duke confronted Richard in person and castigated him for permitting such despicable behavior in his court; he stopped short of accusing the king of involvement. Luckily, Richard’s mother Princess Joan was still alive and able to smooth things between them.

The following year, there was a big ruckus between Richard and Gaunt over the upcoming campaign into Scotland. John wanted the king to invade France, but under heavy resistance from the chancellor and Richard’s counselors, his advice was ignored. At first John stormed out of the council, exclaiming that he would have no part of the Scottish campaign. But he soon relented and brought a huge retinue with him, though the antagonism between him and the king would soon rise to the surface again. They fought bitterly once they reached Edinburgh and discovered that the Scots had withdrawn and ravaged Cumberland instead. John wanted to pursue them and Richard stoutly proclaimed that he wouldn’t expose his army to hunger and deprivation for a pointless venture. It didn’t help that his friend Robert de Vere implied that Gaunt hoped the king would meet with an accident along the way. Chase them if you want, Richard told his uncle, you have enough men. I’m going home. Once again, Gaunt gave in and assured the king he was his faithful servant and would follow where Richard would lead. It must have been very difficult for him to swallow his pride.

John of Gaunt arriving in Spain, from Chronique d’Angleterre, BL Royal MS 14 E IF, f.236r

When the opportunity arose for Gaunt to try his luck in Spain, Richard was so thrilled he gave his uncle a royal send-off, presenting the Duke and Duchess with gold crowns. Finally, his uncle would be out of the way and Richard could rule on his own! Little did he realize that the Duke of Lancaster was the only power propping up his throne. Once Gaunt’s formidable presence was removed, disgruntled magnates—led by Richard’s youngest uncle, Thomas of Woodstock—quickly took his place. There was nothing to hold them back and they immediately went after Richard’s advisors—starting with his chancellor, Michael de la Pole. Over the next two years, powerful nobles known as the Lords Appellant conspired to rid the king of his “bad counselors” and forced him to give up control of his government and accede to their leadership in all things. The judicial murder, outlawry, and dismissal of his friends and advisors left him completely alone and at their mercy. Luckily for the king, the Appellants failed to follow up on their victory. After a year, once it was evident that England was no better off than before, Richard was able to take back full control in a quick coup, reminding the Council that he was well past his majority.

One of the first things he did was recall Gaunt from the continent; Richard had learned his lesson and he needed his uncle’s protection. Although the Duke of Lancaster still had much to accomplish, he obliged his nephew and returned to a hero’s welcome from the king; never again would there be any serious antagonism between them. At the same time, Richard was forced to swallow any antipathy he might have felt against his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who was one of the Lords Appellant, albeit an unenthusiastic one. Any retribution against Henry would have to come later, after his father was dead.

It took several years for Richard to feel comfortable enough to launch his retribution against the Lords Appellant, and when it finally came about in 1397 it all happened like a cyclone. Richard’s primary targets were Thomas of Woodstock the Duke of Gloucester (and Gaunt’s younger brother), Richard Earl of Arundel, and Thomas Beauchamp Earl of Warwick. John of Gaunt, as Lord High Steward of England, presided over the Parliamentary trials of the king’s great enemies. He was spared the litigation against his brother; Gloucester died mysteriously while in prison at Calais and Gaunt seems not to have made a fuss over it—at least not in public. Arundel, on the other hand, was a bitter enemy of Gaunt. Although he put up a lively defense, he was treated most harshly by the Duke of Lancaster. Bolingbroke threw in his two cents as well, reminding Arundel of treasonous statements—even though ten years previously he had been on Arundel’s side.

Richard visits Gaunt on his Deathbed, Watercolor by Alexandre Bida, Folger Shakespeare Library

But Henry of Bolingbroke would not escape the king’s retribution. The following year Bolingbroke faced his fellow Appellant Thomas Mowbray in trial by combat at Coventry. This is another story, but suffice it to say that when the king interrupted the tournament (as portrayed by Shakespeare), he decided to exile both parties—Henry for ten years, and Mowbray for life. Richard made this announcement after consulting with his Council for two hours; Gaunt was among their number and gave his assent. Why did he do this? Some said he disapproved of his son, but I find little verification of this in his biographies. Perhaps he thought to send his son safely away from all the scheming and back-stabbing in Richard’s court. Perhaps he had no choice. Regardless, Henry left the country with a heavy heart, for he knew he would probably never see his father again. And so it was; Gaunt died just a few months later.

It was said that King Richard visited Gaunt just before his end. Shakespeare had him gloating over the sick old man, but I don’t think it happened that way. At least on the surface, he and his uncle had an amiable relationship the last several years. Once Gaunt was back on the scene, there was no way the Lords Appellant could start up their trouble-making again, and Richard knew it. I do believe he was waiting for his uncle to pass on before moving to his next agenda: eliminating the threat of the overpowerful Lancastrians. But that, too, is another story.

Bolingbroke and Mowbray Trial by Combat

Lancelot 1440 BN Manuscript français 120, folio 118 Source: Wikipedia

I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid mesmerized by jousting knights, though I never gave the practice much thought. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that Trial by Combat, at least in the 14th century, was a strictly regulated function of the Court of Chivalry, which was the household court of the constable and marshal of England (also known as the Curia Militaris, the Court of the Constable and the Marshal, or the Earl Marshal’s Court). In Richard II’s day, the position was held by Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester and the King’s uncle. He even wrote a treatise on the duties involved with this office.

In court, if evidence in an appeal (accusation), whether of treason or any other offense, was insufficient or unprovable—no witnesses, for example, nor tangible evidence—the case would often be settled by judicial battle. (As far as I can determine, this is the only circumstance where Trial by Combat was invoked.) Some think of this as a precursor to the duel (of honor) fought in later centuries. The most famous trial by combat in the fourteenth century was between Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Of course, the combat never took place; the King stopped it at the last minute. But the ceremony and protocol were all there; we get a colorful description in the Chronicque de la Traison et Mort de Richart Deux Roy Dengleterre (the author was probably an eye-witness).

The tournament, to be held at Coventry, was announced far and wide. It was the event of the year; the Duke of Albany’s son came from Scotland; the Count of St. Pol and other nobles came over France. Preparations were extensive; the King’s armory was placed at their disposal. Bolingbroke was sent armorers from the Duke of Milan, and Mowbray engaged armorers from Germany or Bohemia.

According to la Traison, “The lists were to be sixty paces long and forty wide; the barriers seven feet high. The sergeants-at-arms were not to let the people approach within four feet of the lists… the penalty for entering the lists, or making any noise, so that one party might take advantage of the other, was the loss of life or limb, and also of their castles, at the pleasure of the King.” This was serious stuff! Bolingbroke entered the lists on a white charger followed by six or seven knights on white horses, his was caparisoned in blue and green velvet embroidered with swans and antelopes. Mowbray’s horse wore crimson velvet, embroidered with lions of silver and mulberry trees. There was an exact wording the contestants were required to state (I remember it well in Shakespeare): Bolingbroke said, “I am Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, and am come here to prosecute my appeal in combating Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who is a traitor, false and recreant to God, the King, his realm, and me.” The constable opened Henry’s visor to determine he was the man he supposed to be, “the barrier was then opened, and he rode straight to his pavilion, which was covered with red roses, and, alighting from his charger, entered his pavilion and awaited the coming of his adversary.”

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

At this point, the King arrived, accompanied by a great retinue. Once they were settled, his herald announced, “Oez, oez, oez… It is commanded  by the King by the Constable, and by the Marshal, that no person, poor or rich, be so daring as to put his hand upon the lists, save those who have leave from the King and council, the Constable, and the Marshal, upon pain of being drawn and hung… Behold here Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, appellant, who is come to the lists to do his duty against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, defendant; let him come in the lists to do his duty, upon pain of being declared false.” At once, Mowbray came forward and swore the same oath as Bolingbroke then went to his own pavilion. The constables measured the length of the lances and the two squires presented them to their knights. According to la Traison, “The weapons allowed by the marshal and constable were the “Glaive”, long sword, short sword, and dagger. The long sword was straight, and called by the French “estoc”, whence estocade, a thrust.” The King ordered that they take away the pavilions and “let go the chargers, and that each should perform his duty”. Apparently Bolingbroke first advanced a few paces when the King threw his threw his staff (warder) into the list, crying, “Ho! Ho!”

For the King to interfere in the duel was not unheard of, though it seems that the crowd was bitterly disappointed to be denied their entertainment; never mind that the fight was to the death. Apparently there were no other amusements on the agenda. The contestants were equally skilled in tournament fighting, and by no means was the result a foregone conclusion. The king withdrew with his council—including Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt—and discussed the matter for two hours while the attendees waited. Finally it was announced that Bolingbroke was to be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life. From most accounts, the crowd was incensed at Bolingbroke’s treatment; after all, he had done nothing wrong. Few seemed to object to Mowbray’s fate; was he guilty until proven innocent? Nonetheless, everybody went home unhappy, not least of all the main contestants. Both were promised large annuities and given a few weeks to put their affairs in order.

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

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

My Review: The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-made King

Henry IV is one of those kings best remembered because of Shakespeare, and even there he was overshadowed by more colorful characters. But in reality, he played a pivotal role in English history; without Henry of Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses would probably never have taken place. Ian Mortimer gives us a thorough and sympathetic biography of this unfortunate man, who started out so magnificently and ended up so pathetically. It seems that the antagonism between Richard II and Henry of Bolingbroke went all the way back to their childhood; interestingly enough, they were only a few months apart in age. Richard, raised quietly in his sick father’s (the Black Prince) isolated household, never had the benefit of interacting with children his own age: “He was both lacking in confidence and extremely self-conscious.” Henry, on the other hand, had everything a noble son expected, surrounded by boisterous siblings and companions, traveling around the family estates, and of course learning skills of arms including jousting. Just before Edward III’s death, Henry was sent to court and was knighted alongside Prince Richard; he and Richard became Knights of the Garter together in 1377. But the boys never really got along, and during the Peasants Rebellion in 1381, Henry was left behind in the Tower of London while King Richard went to meet the rebels at Miles End; it was only by the quick-witted intervention of one of the tower guards that Henry didn’t meet the same grisly end as Bishop Sudbury and Treasurer Hales. Did Richard leave Henry behind to protect him, or was he indifferent to Henry’s fate?

Although Henry of Bolingbroke was one of the five Appellants who threatened Richard’s rule in 1387, his participation was late in coming and not as virulent as the other earls. In fact, he was the one who argued against Richard’s deposition with his uncle Gloucester, who coveted the crown for himself. The author tells us why: because Edward III’s missing entailment of 1376 had settled the inheritance on male descendants only—which put John of Gaunt next in line. “If Richard was deposed, the Lancastrians might lose their position in the succession forever.” The royal succession was the key to Henry and his father’s behavior, for even though Richard did everything to supplant them over the years, their position was strong and Henry would not be easily displaced. Richard thought he got rid of the problem by banishing Henry for ten years, but when he changed that sentence to banishment for life, Richard crossed the line. By dispossessing the most powerful noble in the land, the king threatened everyone. Nobody was safe from his tyranny. As far as Henry was concerned, Richard had left him no choice. Either he acted the landless exile for the rest of his life, or he would have to take his inheritance back. And the rest of the barons were on his side. Once Henry invaded England, he had no choice but to depose Richard. The dilemma was clear: “If he was successful, and forced Richard to restore his Lancastrian inheritance, Richard would only hate him more intensely. One day the king would seek revenge, just as Edward II had done against Thomas of Lancaster.” We know the rest of Richard’s story, but Henry was in for rude awakening: from now on, “He would have to learn for himself what it was to be a hostage to the mood of the people, especially a people who now knew they had the power to dethrone a king.” The tables were turned; Henry was to discover that criticizing a king was much easier than ruling in his stead.

Halfway through the book, we transition from Henry of Bolingbroke to Henry IV. He had all the attributes of a great king: he was the richest man in England because of his Lancastrian inheritance; he was strong and handsome; “he was the ultimate thoroughbred warrior”, respected all over Europe—although he was soon to be disappointed when few European rulers recognized him as king. And his problems at home began almost immediately. First, what was he going to do with Richard? Not three months after Henry’s coronation, the first rebellion known as the Epiphany Rising was led by nobles who sought to release King Richard from prison. The deposed king had to go, and the author believes that Henry personally ordered him starved to death. But rumors of Richard’s escape to Scotland plagued Henry for years to come. Rebellion after rebellion took their toll on both Henry’s fortune and his health, so that by the end of his fourteen-year reign, he was a broken man, scorned even by his son and heir Henry of Monmouth. Although father and son patched things up at the end, this was only after Parliament tried to wrest the power from his hands, forcing Henry to bounce back from his sickbed with almost superhuman effort and retake control of the country. He had gone through so much to keep his crown, it wasn’t possible for him to relinquish his power when his body failed him.

I found this to be a thoroughly informative book which addressed a lot of issues normally overlooked in a rush to get to the next reign. Henry IV was a powerful influence on his age, and if he hadn’t been struck down in his prime by a still unidentified disease, I believe there’s much more he would have done to bring back the monarchy to a semblance of what it was before Richard II tried his experiment in autocratic rule.