Thomas Mowbray, Bolingbroke’s adversary

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

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.

Robert de Vere fleeing Radcot Bridge, from Gruthuse Froissart, BN FR 2645, fol.245V

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.

The Challenge of Mowbray and Bolingbroke from Froissart Chronicles, BnF ms. Francais 2646, fol.295

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.

  1. “The Politics of Magnate Power” by Alastair Dunn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 40
  2. “Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400” by Chris Given-Wilson, p.86

Who—and What—were the Lords Appellant?

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

When I first bumped into the Lords Appellant I was confused because as far as I knew, an appeal was filed after a court conviction in an attempt to reverse the decision. But as it turns out, in the fourteenth century an appeal was the starting point—an indictment or an accusation against someone, initiating a legal procedure. What made the case of the Lords Appellant so special was that this was the first time the appeal was introduced into Parliament; up until then, it was used in common and civil courts.

When you see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, it refers to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II’s reign. Their case was against Richard’s friends, counselors, and officers who were accused of giving the king bad advice—misleading and deceiving him. Most historians agree that the Appellants were driven by resentment, ambition, and dissatisfaction. Here they were, some of the most powerful magnates in the realm, shut out of Richard’s inner circle. No influence with the king, no power, no opportunities to reward their retainers—all these obstacles put them in a bad position. However, they weren’t powerful enough to go after Richard directly; there was no popular swell of discontent as in the case of Edward II. The second best solution was to eliminate the king’s despised supporters and get him under their control.

The only person that stood between the Appellants and the king was John of Gaunt, the eldest surviving son of Edward III and a stickler for protocol. However, in 1386 when he sailed for Spain to pursue a crown of his own, his absence left Richard exposed to his enemies. They immediately went on the offensive and the young king was too inexperienced to know how to deal with them. Nonetheless, the Lords Appellant had a problem. If they went through the courts, the rulings wouldn’t be permanent enough. The only way to completely destroy their enemies, take away their titles, lands—even their lives—and dispossess the heirs was through Parliament. 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.

Woodstock receives King Richard from Froissart Chronicles BL MS Harley 4380, f.117

The driving force behind the Lords Appellant was Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III). One would think that the king’s uncle would not be his worst enemy, but Gloucester was a bitter, aggressive man. He reminds me of John Lackland because he, too, came out on the losing end of land distribution after all his siblings were taken care of. He only became duke two years before all this unpleasantness started, and even so he was dependent on the exchequer for his revenue. If it weren’t for his wife, one of the great Bohun heiresses, he would have had nothing at all. His only hope of prominence would have been from the French wars like his brother the Black Prince and his father Edward III; but here, too, the king disappointed him. There was to be no major campaigning in this reign, and Gloucester became the spokesman for warmongers amongst his peers. As the Appellants gained the upper hand, Gloucester even went so far as to put himself forward as a possible replacement (after having deposed Richard), but young Henry of Bolingbroke put an end to that scheme. There were stronger claimants to the throne, himself included.

Richard Fitzalan, from Froissart Chronicles, Getty MS Ludwig xiii, fol.311v.

In almost total accord with Gloucester, Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel was a stout collaborator. He was an experienced, if unexceptional warrior and served under John of Gaunt, mostly as admiral. Although he won brief popularity by sharing a year’s worth of wine with all of England at rock-bottom prices (from 100 captured Flemish vessels), his brusque and overbearing personality made him few friends. From the beginning of Richard’s reign he was on the council of regency, and in 1381 he was appointed co-councilor in constant attendance upon the young king, ironically alongside his future victim Michael de la Pole. Although Richard warmed up to Michael he found Arundel detestable, which I suspect contributed to the crisis.

Thomas Beauchamp (Luminarium.org)

The third original Appellant was Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick. He was the son of the famous Thomas Beauchamp known for his bravery at Crecy and Poitiers. Rather mediocre and undistinguished, Thomas never lived up to his father’s reputation. But he was, after all, a noble from a great family and hence valuable as an ally. He pretty much went along with everything Gloucester said and didn’t rock the boat.

The three Appellants originally appealed five of Richard’s supporters: Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk and chancellor of England, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Richard’s closest friend, Robert Tresilian, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Sir Nicholas Brembre, wealthy London magnate and former Mayor, and Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York. After the Lords Appellant made their formal appeal, Richard arranged for Neville, de la Pole, and Tresilian to slip away, and secretly sent Robert de Vere to Cheshire to raise an army to defend him. Brembre stayed put, certain of his innocence, and sought to gain support in London for the king (he paid for that with his life).

Once the Appellants discovered that de Vere was putting together an army, the last two “junior” members came on board. Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (son of John of Gaunt and the future Henry IV) posted himself at Radcot Bridge and succeeded in blocking de Vere from crossing the Thames; the royal army dispersed after a brief and pathetic battle and de Vere escaped over the Channel. Why did the non-political Bolingbroke join the Appellants? He later claimed he needed to protect this father’s interests. It’s also difficult to discover the motives of Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, 1st Duke of Norfolk (great-great grandson of Edward I and son-in-law to Arundel). He could have been driven by jealousy of Robert de Vere, who supplanted him in Richard’s esteem. His early friendship with the king had definitely cooled, especially after he married Arundel’s daughter; I imagine his father in-law put pressure on him to join the party of resistance. These last two Appellants tended to take a back seat, so to speak, and never wholeheartedly agreed with all the knavery that attended these trials. Nonetheless, they were committed and so the three became five.

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

From besieging the king in the Tower of London to the Merciless Parliament of 1388, the Lords Appellant pursued a bloody campaign against the king’s supporters, culminating in the outrageous execution of Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s vice-chamberlain and lifelong mentor. (By then they had gone way beyond their initial condemnations.) Bolingbroke and Mowbray publicly objected to Burley’s conviction, as well as the Duke of York, Gloucester’s brother; even Queen Anne got on her knees and begged Gloucester for Burley’s life, to no avail. In the end, eight of Richard’s supporters were executed—for no good reason. Three more fled to permanent exile, and over forty others were ejected from court (some returned later as Richard took back his authority). The king was reduced to a figurehead and withdrew to lick his wounds. For one year the three original Appellants tried to run the government their way (Bolingbroke and Mowbray had lost interest by then), but it soon became obvious that they were doing no better than before. Worse, actually: it was under their watch that the disastrous Battle of Otterburn was lost and Henry Hotspur taken prisoner along with his brother Ralph. Their ransom was a huge hit to the already depleted exchequer, which had been obliged to pay the Lords Appellant 20,000 pounds to reimburse them “for their great expenses in procuring the salvation of the realm and the destruction of the traitors”.

When Richard declared his majority in 1389, he was able to take over and dismiss his enemies without a protest. But, though Richard was obliged to “forgive and forget” on the surface, in reality his anger festered for ten years until he was strong enough to wreak revenge on the men who humiliated him.

You can read more about the Lords Appellant in my novel A KING UNDER SIEGE.

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.