On Saint George’s Day in 1377 two young boys representing the future of England stood before the altar at Windsor Castle to receive knighthood into the Royal Order of the Garter (Edward III’s prestigious order). Richard (aged 10) was heir to the throne, and Henry Bolingbroke (aged 11) was Richard’s cousin and heir to one of the most powerful aristocratic families in England. Henry was called Bolingbroke because he was born at Bolingbroke Castle. Both boys promised never to take up arms against one another -a promise neither could keep. The next 100 years of the English monarchy became a period of extraordinary tumult. It was an era of civil war, forming the backdrop of Shakespeare’s History Plays: the weak Richard II, the heroic Henry V, and the pathetic Henry VI. The failures of King Richard II were felt strongly in Richard’s day, but more importantly, his failures spawned a century of discord and strife for future generations.
Richard II was the son of the late Edward “The Black Prince” (in other words Richard was the grandson of Edward III). He was a yellow-haired, soft-faced king with a stammer. For all his royal faults, Richard was an extraordinary patron of the arts: including Geoffrey Chaucer (whose other patrons included Edward III and John of Gaunt), the poet John Gower, and the chronicler Jean Froissart.
Richard succeeded to the throne at the age of ten in 1377. He was led to Westminster Abbey under a canopy of blue silk and upon arrival he lay prostrate before the altar while the litany was sung. It was an exhausting ceremony for the boy.
He assumed the crown during a time of great dissatisfaction among the common people. Richard’s first great test came in 1381 with the Peasant’s Revolt. At the time there were great resentments brewing throughout the land. There was a widespread attempt to return to feudal power and the people grew distrustful of their superiors, especially toward the extravagance of the House of Lancaster. Rents were untenable and taxes were too high. The peasants protested against a variety of measures: the poll tax (literally a tax on every head or “poll” that fell hardest on the poor), and the policies of deflating wages amidst a labor shortage resulting from the Black Plague. Bands of peasants from Kent and Essex spilled into widespread riots. The people stormed London and there was violence in the streets. Richard remarkably met with the peasant rebel leaders to listen to their grievances, the most notable of them being Wat Tyler, a laborer from the Canterbury region. Richard II promised to address the concerns of the peasants, and in turn the mob raised the flag of Saint George and pledged to follow Richard. However, immediately following the meeting, Richard turned an about-face and ordered the rebel leaders all killed. He attended several of their executions. This is often considered the high point in Richard II’s kingships -an otherwise ineffectual rule.
In addition to the Peasants Revolt, the epoch of the 14th century was marred by massive upheaval: the invention of gunpowder had dramatically transformed warfare (a turn away from the victorious longbowmen of Crecy and Poitiers in the Hundred Years War), the expansion of literacy in native English rather than French and Latin (i.e. the age of Chaucer, Gower, and the Pearl Poet). The Black Death Plague left many millions dead in its wake (including Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and Richard II’s first wife) while newfangled cults and conspiracy theories proliferated among the people. The Church was wounded because it remained affluent, and many began to question why a loving God would cause so much wanton death. Academia reacted to the unchecked power of the Church –John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar and master of Balliol College, sought to curb the material wealth of the church as well as the claims the Church held over men’s souls. Wycliffe, an early predecessor to the Protestant Reformation, gained large bands of young followers who went about the countryside preaching against the abuses of the Church, while Wycliffe had the Bible translated into the common vernacular (Middle English) for the first time -he and his associates directly translated the text from Jerome’s Vulgate. The new English Bible was called the “Wycliffe Bible.” His followers were called the “Lollards” and they fought with the Church for the better part of the next century (“Lollardy” became a derogatory name for uneducated people with heretical beliefs). However students from Bohemia came to Oxford and learned of Wycliffe’s teachings (John Hus, another predecessor to the Protestant Reformation, notably brought Wycliffe’s doctrine to the national consciousness of the Czech people).
Following the Peasant’s Revolt, Richard II quickly developed an inflated and autocratic sense of himself. He surrounded himself with an echo-chamber clique of supporters, led by his favorite Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. Factions developed over time and rebels to the crown grew. They became known as the ‘Lords Appellant’ -including the earls of Warwick, Arundel, and Gloucester. Things came to a head in 1386 when the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’ nearly deposed Richard II. They succeeded in purging Richard’s followers from government, including Richard’s Chancellor, Michael de la Polle. Some were executed and others were banished. Robert de Vara was exiled and he died shortly thereafter much to Richard’s sorrow. In humiliation, Richard patiently waited for his chance to gain revenge on his political enemies. After the death of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia who caught the plague in 1394, Richard remarried the six year old Isabella of Valois in 1396 (a political arrangement). By 1397, Richard had carefully regained enough support among the nobles. He exiled, imprisoned, and executed his enemies in Parliament. The following year in 1398 a feud arose between Richard and the two remaining Lords Appellant: the duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke (son of John of Gaunt). Richard exiled them both in France and seized their estates -John of Gaunt died the following year in 1399.
Unwisely, Richard felt his reign was finally secure so he launched a military campaign in Ireland. Once Richard was deep into the campaign Henry Bolingbroke took his chance at the throne. With the support of France and many alienated English noblemen, Henry invaded England and easily claimed the crown. He crowned himself King Henry IV of England in 1399. Richard II quickly attempted a return from Ireland but with little support and no power remaining, his kingship was doomed. Richard was taken prisoner in North Wales and he was paraded through the streets of London while pelted with garbage by the commoners. He was ordered to read aloud an abdication proclamation on September 30, 1399:
“I Richard by the grace of God king of England and of France and lord of Ireland… resign all my kingly majesty, dignity and crown… And with deed and word I leave off and resign them and go from them for evermore, for I know, acknowledge and deem myself to be, and have been, insufficient, unable, unprofitable, and for my deserts not unworthily put down.”
Richard was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire and within four months he was dead (likely murdered or perhaps he starved). Richard II was unceremoniously buried at the church in Kings Langley, but in 1413, Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, exhumed Richard’s body and gave the former king a proper burial at Westminster Abbey. It was a deliberate effort to atone for the sins of the past.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1327-1400), Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Monk of Evesham’s History and Life of Richard II (15th century).