Richard II

Richard II, grandson of Edward III was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, and also a grandson of Edward III. Several generations later Henry IV’s Grandson, Henry VI, and Richard of York, a descendent of Edward III’s sons Lionel Duke of Clarence and Edmund Duke of York would fight over the English throne in the War of the Roses.

Richard II (1367–1400), king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine, was born in the abbey of St André at Bordeaux on the feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 1367.

Infancy and early life, 1367–1377

Richard II Coronation portrait
Richard II Coronation portrait

Richard was the second son of Edward, prince of Wales (the Black Prince) (1330–1376), and Joan, the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’ (c.1328–1385), widow of Thomas Holland, earl of Kent (d. 1360). His father had been created prince of Aquitaine in 1362 and established his court at Bordeaux. According to the chronicle of William Thorne, a monk of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, three ‘magi’ were present at his birth, ‘the king of Spain, the king of Navarre and the king of Portugal, and these kings gave precious gifts to the child’ (Thorne, 91). The symbolism of the story meant much to Richard and throughout his life the feast of the Epiphany remained of special significance to him. He was baptized three days later, on 9 January 1367, by the archbishop of Bordeaux, with Jaume, the titular king of Majorca, acting as his chief sponsor. Richard remained at his father's court in Bordeaux for the first four years of his life. In January 1371, however, his elder brother, Edward of Angoulême, who had been born in 1364, died, and shortly afterwards Richard left for England with his father and mother.

With his elder brother dead Richard stood in the direct line of succession to the English throne, and the prospect of his succeeding while he was still a child was brought appreciably nearer by the deepening illness of his father, who played only a limited role in politics after his return to England, and who died on 8 April 1376. Richard was now heir to the throne, and with the health and mental capacity of his 63-year-old grandfather, Edward III, beginning to fail, his accession would probably not be long delayed. With this in mind, and perhaps to silence rumours that Edward III's eldest surviving son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, had designs on the crown, the Commons in the Good Parliament of April–July 1376 required Richard to be brought before them on 25 June that they ‘might see and honour [him] as the true heir apparent’ (RotP, 2.330). Later that year, on 20 November, his father's titles of prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall, and earl of Chester were conferred on him, and he presided over the next parliament on 27 January 1377 in place of the ailing king.

Little is known about the companions of Richard's childhood. His household first emerges into the light with his creation as prince of Wales in 1376. Sir Simon Burley, a long-standing retainer of the Black Prince, was one of Richard's tutors and was appointed chamberlain of his household in 1376; Sir Richard Abberbury, another servant of the Black Prince, was described as Richard's ‘first master’ in 1376, and another close associate of the Black Prince, Sir Guichard d'Angle (d. 1380), was also named as his tutor. The influence these men had upon the young Richard is largely a matter of conjecture, though some historians have argued that Richard's personality and his ideas of kingship were shaped by them. Anthony Steel, for instance, suggested that the Black Prince's choice of Burley and d'Angle as Richard's tutors was intended to ensure that ‘the son was to be formed in the image of his father’ (Steel, 41), though if this is so they clearly failed in their task. R. H. Jones, on the other hand, has suggested that Burley may have introduced Richard to the quasi-absolutist ideas of kingship in the writings of Giles of Rome. Unfortunately little of this can be shown to have any substance. Richard's reluctance to lead military campaigns in France as his father had done probably owes more to financial and diplomatic considerations than to any physical or psychological aversion to warfare. The development of his concept of kingship probably derives from the pressure of events and, in the 1390s, from the influence of the French court, rather than from books which his tutors may or may not have read and understood.

The king's minority, 1377–1381

Richard succeeded to throne on 22 June 1377. The day after his accession was the vigil of the feast of St John the Baptist, and throughout his reign he showed particular devotion to the saint. The most significant evidence for this is the Wilton diptych, in which the Baptist is one of the three saints who present Richard to the Virgin, but there are other representations of Richard in association with the saint, and Richard invoked him in the preamble to his will. His coronation took place nearly a month later, on 16 July. The record of the ceremony in the Liber regalis is the earliest detailed account of the English coronation ritual to survive, and several contemporary chroniclers describe the elaborate pageantry of the occasion. More significantly for the future, perhaps, the bishop of Rochester, Thomas Brinton, preached a sermon on the following day exhorting the nobles to show loyalty to their young and innocent king, and to strive to ensure that king and kingdom were not brought into danger.

The accession of a child king was acknowledged as a time of political peril, and there were few precedents to guide the English nobility in establishing an appropriate form of government during the king's minority. In 1216, when Henry III became king at the age of nine, William (I) Marshal had been appointed rector regis et regni, and discharged the functions of kingship until his death in 1219. Nine years later in France, at the death of Louis VIII, the queen dowager, Blanche, had acted as regent for the young Louis IX. In England in 1377, however, neither of these precedents was followed, and Richard nominally exercised all the powers of kingship from the time of his accession. The implications of the lack of a formal regency were substantial. A series of continual councils held office between 1377 and 1380 and discharged much routine government business, while the leading nobles, especially Gaunt and his youngest brother Thomas of Woodstock, earl of Buckingham, exercised informal influence and attended great councils from time to time. The royal household, however, increasingly became the centre of real, rather than just formal, power. Burley and Aubrey de Vere, who were both knights of the new king's chamber, dealt with petitions submitted to the king, signing those that were successful and sending them on to the council for action: from very early in the reign these two courtiers were able to exercise some control over the direction of royal patronage.

The influence which Burley and Aubrey de Vere, along with other chamber knights who were also former servants of the Black Prince, exercised over Richard soon attracted the critical attention of the Commons. In October 1378 the Commons asked to be told ‘who would be the king's councillors and governors of his person’ (RotP, 3.35), and in order to establish closer links between the household and the council Aubrey de Vere and another chamber knight, Sir Richard Rous, were appointed to the third continual council which took office in November 1378. The Commons continued, however, to complain about the extravagance of the royal household, and following the parliament of April 1379 Sir John Cobham was appointed ‘to remain in the household for the safeguard of the king's person’ (TNA: PRO, E 403/475 m. 8). There is little sign that his supervision had any effect, and in January 1380 the Commons successfully sought the ending of the continual councils, on the ground that Edward III at his accession had had no councillors except the five principal officers of state. They also asked for another committee of inquiry into the crown's finances and the state of the royal household. Although their petition was accepted, there is no evidence that the committee ever got down to business.

The criticisms of the Commons in the early years of Richard's reign were focused not just on the royal household but also on the heavy taxation that was levied to finance England's standing military commitments such as Calais and the Scottish border, and to fund various military expeditions to France which achieved very little. Resentment over taxation with little or nothing to show for it was not new, however, and no major military or diplomatic initiative could have been expected until the king himself came of age. Yet the perception that the country was suffering under the burden of heavy taxation was widespread, and was enhanced by the imposition of three poll taxes between 1377 and 1381 which substantially extended the range of those liable to pay.

The peasants' revolt, 1381

Although the revolt was sparked off by the activities of the poll-tax collectors in south Essex in late May and early June 1381, the demands which the peasants put forward during the revolt, notably for the emancipation of the serfs, had their roots in the growing tensions between landlords and peasants that followed the widespread mortality from successive outbreaks of plague. In early June there was rioting in Essex and Kent, and bands of rebels from both counties headed for London. Within London there was some sympathy for the rebels among the commons of the city, who had their own grievances with the merchants, and the Kentish rebels were able to enter the city on Thursday 13 June, and to make common cause with the Londoners. They showed particular hostility to John of Gaunt, burning his palace of the Savoy to the ground. Richard, meanwhile, was in the Tower of London with a group of nobles and councillors, who urgently discussed with him how to deal with the rebellion. Richard's own part in the discussions is almost impossible to determine, though some historians have suggested that he took the initiative in seeking to negotiate with the rebels, despite the fact that he was only fourteen when the rebellion occurred. Even before the Kentish rebels entered London, Richard had apparently suggested negotiation with their leaders at Greenwich, but the talks had broken down almost as soon as they began. Faced with an even more serious situation once the rebels had begun creating mayhem within the city itself, Richard undertook on Friday 14 June to ride to Mile End to seek to disperse the Essex rebels by offering them charters of freedom and pardon for their rebellion. Although the Anonimalle chronicle attributes the proposal to the king himself, it is not certain that it emanated from him. Even if it did, it may have been merely a tactical device to persuade the rebels to go home rather than an indication of genuine sympathy with their grievances. The danger inherent in this course of action is well conveyed by the contemporary chroniclers: indeed, Henry Knighton records that the knights who should have accompanied Richard to Mile End lost their nerve and stayed in the Tower. Richard's outwardly courageous bearing did much to ensure that the meeting achieved its immediate purpose. The rebels' attitude to the king was one of respectful loyalty: the hostility they showed to royal officials and to the landowning nobility did not extend to the king, whom they affected to perceive as ill-advised, and his apparent willingness to grant them charters of freedom brought about their dispersal. But while Richard was at Mile End a group of rebels within London broke into the Tower and murdered the chancellor, Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, and the treasurer, Robert Hales.

Richard and his party took refuge in the great wardrobe, near Blackfriars, and on the following day (Saturday 15 June) had it proclaimed in the city that all the rebels who were still in London should assemble before him at Smithfield. The intentions of the king and those round him have been the subject of some controversy. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Kentish rebels in London, approached the king and addressed him as Frer (‘brother’; Anonimalle Chronicle, 147) . The king asked why he and his fellows would not go home, to which Tyler replied that they would not disperse until their demands had been met. Tyler's demeanour antagonized some of those round the king; an altercation took place, and William Walworth, lord mayor of London, struck Tyler and killed him. With some presence of mind, Richard then rode towards the rebels saying, according to the monk of Evesham, ‘I am your leader: follow me’ (Historia vitae et regni Ricardi secundi, 66). This drew many of the rebels away from the fracas around the dead Tyler; the London militia now arrived and under the command of Walworth and Sir Robert Knolles dispersed the rebels, with Richard still promising them their charters of freedom.

Whether the sequence of events at Smithfield was as unplanned and unexpected as the chroniclers suggest may be doubted. The rapid arrival of the militia suggests some element of advance planning, and those around the king, even perhaps the king himself, may have intended to create an opportunity to kill or capture Tyler and separate him from the main body of his followers. If this is so, it was a risky strategy, as the Mile End meeting had been, and again Richard's personal courage is not in doubt. His promise both at Mile End and at Smithfield to give the rebels their charters of freedom might suggest that he had some sympathy with them. However, at the end of June he accompanied his chief justice of king's bench, Sir Robert Tresilian, into Essex to witness the execution of some of the rebels, and on 2 July he formally revoked the charters of manumission and pardon. It seems likely that the promises of freedom he had made at Mile End were empty, designed to placate the rebels and make it easier to disperse them. Serfs were the property of their lords and, as was pointed out in the subsequent parliament, manumission was a matter for individual lords rather than the king. In all probability the conclusion Richard drew from the revolt was not that the serfs deserved their freedom, but rather that disobedience was a threat to order and stability in the realm and should not be tolerated. In the parliament of October 1383 Michael de la Pole, who was one of the more influential of Richard's courtiers, observed that ‘obedience is the foundation of all peace and quiet in the realm’, and that ‘disobedience … was the source and chief cause of the treasonable insurrection recently made by the commune of England’ (RotP, 3.150). As Richard's own ideas of kingship developed, so this interpretation of the revolt perhaps gained ascendancy in his mind.

Marriage, 1381–1382

Richard's own part in bringing the revolt to an end had been significant, and showed that he was no longer a child. Although he had been formally competent to discharge all the functions of kingship from the day of his accession, the revolt marked an important stage in the development of his personal authority and, perhaps, of his idea of kingship. At the same time, as befitted a king of fourteen years of age, the question of his marriage was being resolved. A number of proposals had been discussed since his accession, including marriage to a Navarrese princess and to the daughter of the ruler of Milan. But for the English government, a marriage between Richard and Anne of Bohemia (1366–1394), daughter of the late Emperor Charles IV (d. 1378), and sister of the emperor-elect and king of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV, seemed to offer several advantages. The house of Luxembourg had traditionally been allied to France, but the outbreak of the schism in the church and rivalry over the succession in Hungary drove a wedge between the courts in Prague and Paris. England and the empire both recognized Pope Urban VI, in Rome, whereas the French supported the claim of his Avignon rival, Clement VII. The English perhaps hoped for a revival of an Anglo-imperial alliance directed against the French, whom both parties now regarded as schismatics. Negotiations between Wenceslas and the English, in which Burley and Michael de la Pole played a leading part, went ahead successfully and a marriage treaty was agreed on 2 May 1381. Anne arrived in England in December, and the marriage took place on 20 January 1382.

The marriage aroused little enthusiasm in England. Some of the queen's Bohemian retinue made themselves unpopular; the desired Anglo-imperial alliance never bore fruit, and the marriage seemed a financial liability, for Richard promised to lend Wenceslas over £16,000. Several chroniclers maintained that the marriage merely served Wenceslas's financial interests. Richard's own relationship with Anne, however, seems to have been based on genuine affection. She did not produce an heir (there are no reports of stillborn children, or children who died in infancy: in all probability she never became pregnant), but no chronicler reports any other liaisons on the king's part. When she died, on 7 June 1394, Richard gave himself over to an outburst of destructive grief and ordered Sheen Palace, where she had died, to be razed to the ground. Richard may also have seen the marriage as enhancing his status in Europe: his wife was the daughter of an emperor and sister of the emperor-elect, and after the death of his mother-in-law, the dowager Empress Elizabeth, the Westminster chronicler records that Richard had ‘a very unusual imperial shrine’ of a hitherto unheard-of design constructed in St Paul's Cathedral (Westminster Chronicle, 516–17).

The king and his courtiers, 1381–1386

In the months that followed the peasants' revolt and Richard's marriage some of those who had served the king in the early years of his reign moved away from the court. Many of these men were former servants of the Black Prince, and it was only to be expected that as Richard grew to manhood he would wish to surround himself with people of his own choosing. Young knights of the chamber such as James Berners, John Beauchamp of Holt, and John Salisbury now came to prominence at court. Some of the courtiers of Richard's youth, such as Simon Burley, remained close to the king and indeed increased their influence, but the king himself was largely responsible for his choice of advisers and friends from 1381 onwards.

The chamber knights were an important and distinctive group around Richard, but perhaps even more influential were two men, Michael de la Pole and Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, who came to enjoy the king's favour and patronage above all others. De la Pole was the son of the Hull merchant and financier William de la Pole, but he had chosen a military career and had been a follower of the Black Prince. His association with the king probably began in November 1381 when parliament appointed him, together with Richard (III) Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, to ‘advise and govern’ the person of the king. He seems, however, to have identified himself with the circle around the king, and he soon rose high in Richard's favour: he was appointed chancellor in March 1383. De Vere was a younger man, only five years older than the king; he had probably been introduced to the king by his uncle Aubrey de Vere, and Richard evidently found him a most congenial companion. None of Richard's courtiers in these years was as much disliked as de Vere. Little in his personality or career seemed to justify the lavish favours he received from the king, and the parallels that were drawn in 1386 with the events of Edward II's reign suggest that he was regarded as a second Gaveston.

Richard's patronage of his courtiers and friends in these years was lavish to the point of foolishness, not least in view of the financial demands that the government continued to make on its subjects to finance the war. De la Pole was created earl of Suffolk in 1385, despite the feeling in some circles, recorded by Thomas Walsingham, that he was not worthy of such an honour. At the same time de Vere was promoted to the hitherto unheard-of rank of marquess, taking his title from Dublin and receiving quasi-regal authority over Ireland. The title of marquess gave him precedence over all the earls, but when in October 1386 he was created duke of Ireland he ranked alongside the king's three uncles of Lancaster, York, and Gloucester. In all probability only parliamentary opposition prevented Richard conferring the earldom of Huntingdon on Simon Burley in 1385, and in 1387 Richard succeeded in elevating another of his chamber knights to the peerage, when he created John Beauchamp of Holt Baron Kidderminster. These grants of titles were accompanied by grants of lands and offices to the point where nobles such as Thomas of Woodstock, who depended on exchequer annuities for part of his income, felt increasingly excluded from royal patronage.

Growing unpopularity, 1383–1386

The direction of royal patronage in these years was one reason for the growing unpopularity of Richard's associates. Royal resources, it seemed, were being lavished on favourites, and the king's chamber was increasing its income while at the same time falling into debt. Such apparent extravagance, in years when the Commons were being asked to vote taxes for the defence of the realm and for expeditions to France, was unacceptable to a wide body of opinion. Furthermore, hostility to the king and his advisers on these grounds was compounded by criticism of their lack of success in the war with France. In 1383 an inept attempt by the bishop of Norwich to prevent Flanders falling under the control of the duke of Burgundy, the king of France's uncle, failed ignominiously, and although Ghent held out against Burgundy until 1385 the government made little effort to send help to the town. In the circumstances de la Pole's advocacy of negotiations for a peace with France made sense, and he evidently had Richard's support; but the policy of peace was unpopular with nobles such as Arundel and Woodstock, who still perhaps had hopes of a successful military career in France, and who believed that more might have been done to maintain English influence in Flanders.

At this stage, however, neither the French nor the Scots were seriously prepared to negotiate a lasting settlement with England, and in 1384, as Richard neared his eighteenth birthday, he was encouraged to undertake a military expedition himself. A campaign in France in 1384 or 1385 was scarcely feasible but, following the renewal of the Anglo-Scottish war in 1384 and Scottish incursions into England, the council resolved that in July 1385 Richard should lead an expedition to Scotland. Richard now prepared to lead his nobles in war as his father and grandfather had done; at his army's entry into Scotland he ceremonially created new knights, and bestowed the titles of duke of York and duke of Gloucester on his uncles Edmund Langley (d. 1402) and Thomas of Woodstock (d. 1397). From the symbolic point of view, the expedition was intended to mark Richard's coming of age as a warrior and the opening of his military career. The expedition cut a swathe of destruction from the border to Edinburgh, but ended in acrimony when Richard rejected Gaunt's advice to advance beyond the Forth. Richard is said to have insisted that his men, who had loyally accompanied him thus far, should not be exposed to danger and privation by marching further into Scotland as autumn approached; the expedition had achieved its aim of retaliation for Scottish raids into northern England, and Richard declared that he was now going home.

The tension between Richard and Gaunt, which the Scottish expedition revealed, had been rising since the previous year. Rumours of plots against Gaunt had circulated at court, and it is possible that de Vere was seeking to exclude Gaunt from any influence over the king. Richard, who was too ready to listen to de Vere, did little to prevent the deterioration in his relationship with the most powerful of his nobles, and in July 1386 Gaunt set sail for Spain in pursuit of his claim to the Castilian throne.

Murmurings of hostility against Richard's advisers had surfaced in parliament in 1384, and in the parliament of October 1385 which followed the Scottish expedition the Commons complained about the king's extravagance and his misuse of patronage. They demanded an inquiry into the finances of the royal household, but although a committee of nine was appointed to investigate royal finances it never met, and it was later alleged that de la Pole had sabotaged its proceedings. Gaunt's departure, however, left the way open for more overt hostility to make itself felt. Although Gaunt's influence over the king had been waning over the previous two years, he still represented a powerful force for political stability in the realm, and only with his departure did his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, together with Woodstock's political ally the earl of Arundel, come to the forefront of politics and assume the leadership of those who sought to break the influence over the king exercised by de la Pole and other favourites.

The Wonderful Parliament of 1386

The policy of rapprochement with France made little headway in 1385 and 1386. Indeed, Gaunt's expedition to Castile may have encouraged the French to prepare an invasion of England in the summer of 1386 which was to be led by Charles VI himself and which was intended to force the English to accept peace on French terms. The French assembled the largest force so far raised by either side during the war, and their preparations induced widespread panic and insecurity in England. Although in the event the invasion never took place, these feelings were at their height when parliament opened in October 1386. The Commons were immediately confronted with a request from the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, for an unprecedented quadruple subsidy to cover the cost of defence against the threatened invasion, and the hostility to him that had been gathering over the past two years now came to a head. The Commons, probably with the support of Gloucester and Arundel, refused to proceed with the business of parliament until the chancellor was removed from office. Richard for his part refused to meet parliament and from his manor of Eltham sent his famous message that he would not dismiss so much as a scullion from his kitchen at parliament's request.

The demand made by the Commons for de la Pole's removal raised the issue of the king's prerogative to appoint and dismiss ministers, and the situation now escalated into a major crisis. Gloucester, with Arundel's brother Thomas, bishop of Ely (d. 1414), confronted Richard at Eltham and told him that if he did not attend parliament it could dissolve itself after forty days. Richard then apparently raised the temperature still further by ill-advisedly threatening to seek help from the French against those who infringed his liberty. It is not clear what Richard meant by this: even in the bad-tempered and emotional atmosphere of the Eltham meeting it is unlikely that he seriously contemplated invoking the aid of those who had been threatening to invade his kingdom. Perhaps, as has sometimes been argued, he was recalling the precedent of Louis IX's arbitration between Henry III and Simon de Montfort in the mise of Amiens of 1264; perhaps, on the other hand, it was no more than a spontaneous but foolish riposte to Gloucester and Arundel.

Richard's threat, however, provoked Gloucester and Arundel into raising the stakes still further by reminding him of the fate of Edward II. In effect, they threatened him with deposition if he did not give way. The threat was sufficient. Richard agreed to meet parliament, and to dismiss not only the chancellor but the treasurer and the keeper of the privy seal as well. The chancellor was then impeached by the Commons on charges arising out of his conduct in office. These charges have sometimes been dismissed as trivial or trumped-up, but detailed analysis has shown that most of them had substance. De la Pole was condemned to imprisonment, but Richard set aside the penalty and de la Pole remained at the king's side. Parliament then established a commission which was to hold office for a year and which was to conduct a thorough review of royal finances. It was to have control of the exchequer and the great and privy seals, and Richard was required to take an oath to abide by any ordinances it made.

The king's ‘gyration’, 1387

In Richard's eyes the dismissal, impeachment, and imprisonment of his minister and the imposition upon him of the commission constituted an infringement of his prerogative, in that they had been undertaken against his will and without his genuine consent. His reaction, however, need not imply that he had developed any novel or exaggerated concept of his royal rights and powers. Although his resistance to parliament's demands had been expressed in ill-judged and intemperate language, the removal of ministers and the restriction on royal power implicit in the commission's terms of appointment would have been regarded by his predecessors as unacceptable infringements of the prerogative. Richard's protest at the end of the parliament that nothing that had been done should be to the prejudice of his person or his crown, so that the liberties and prerogatives of his crown were safeguarded, would not have seemed out of place to Edward I or Edward III. The rhetoric of the conflict of 1386 may have been more colourful and violent than in earlier political crises, but the issues were not substantially different.

Had Richard acquiesced, at least outwardly, in the work of the parliament and merely allowed the commission to serve its time out before he resumed personal power, the crisis might have blown over. However, his response to what he saw as the infringement of his prerogative not only prolonged the crisis but did much to provoke its escalation from constitutional measures to violence. While the commission set about its duties in Westminster, Richard embarked on a progress, or ‘gyration’, round England which took him away from the centre of government for nine months between February and November 1387. If part of the purpose of his progress was to avoid personal contact with the commission, another and more important part was to assess the extent of support for him in the country and plan a counter-attack against his opponents. An attempt to recruit supporters in East Anglia came to nothing when one of his agents was captured and imprisoned in Cambridge, and there was little evidence that the shire gentry were prepared to rally to Richard's cause. However, by appointing de Vere as justice of Chester on 8 September, Richard took the first step towards recruiting a force in a county where men felt a personal loyalty to the king as their earl.

Richard was concerned, however, not just to gauge the extent of support for his cause, but also to obtain assurance about his legal rights. In August 1387 he twice sought the opinion of his judges, first at Shrewsbury and then at Nottingham. According to Knighton, his question to them at Shrewsbury was couched in general terms and asked whether he could oppose and resist the ordinances which he had been compelled to accept in the last parliament. They replied that he could annul and change them because he was ‘not subject to those laws’ (supra jura) . Encouraged by this Richard put a series of more specific questions about the parliament of 1386 to the judges at Nottingham on 25 August. This time, led by Chief Justice Tresilian, they told him that the commission of government was an unlawful infringement of his prerogative because it had been imposed against his will, and that those who had accroached the royal power in this and other ways should be punished ‘as traitors’ (ut proditores) . Such a declaration implicitly widened the scope of the treason law, for the Statute of Treason of 1352 had not included accroaching the royal power as a treasonable offence, and it presented those who had demanded de la Pole's dismissal and the establishment of the commission with a threat to their lives and property.

Radcot Bridge and the Merciless Parliament, 1387–1388

In November Richard returned to London and both sides began to prepare for armed conflict. Richard had little support: the Londoners refused to rally to him, despite the efforts of their mayor, Nicholas Brembre; few nobles were willing to fight (as some saw it) for de Vere; and the sheriffs had earlier stated that they could not raise troops for the king because the commons all supported the lords. Gloucester and the earl of Arundel, together with the earl of Warwick, met at Harringay on 13 November, and four days later, in a formal audience with the king at Westminster, presented an indictment of treason in the form of an appeal (a civil law procedure) against five of the king's favourites, de la Pole, de Vere, Brembre, Chief Justice Tresilian, and Alexander Neville, archbishop of York (d. 1392), who had been closely associated with the court over the previous two years. Richard's response was to play for time, to give de Vere a chance to raise troops in Cheshire.

The three lords appellant assembled in arms at Huntingdon on 12 December, where they were joined by Gaunt's son Henry, earl of Derby (the future Henry IV), and the earl of Nottingham, Thomas (I) Mowbray (d. 1399); some chroniclers reported that they discussed whether Richard should now be deposed. The immediate threat, however, came from de Vere's Cheshire army which was marching south to support Richard. The appellants intercepted and routed it at Radcot Bridge on 20 December. De Vere escaped and fled overseas, while the appellants marched triumphantly to London and confronted Richard in the Tower on 27 December. Some chroniclers suggested that Richard was deposed for three days at the end of the month and was restored to the throne only because the appellants could not agree on a successor. Gloucester's confession in 1397 lends some support to the story: it is possible that he had designs on the crown but was forestalled by Derby, who as Gaunt's heir represented the senior male line of descent from Edward III.

Richard survived with little but his formal kingship intact. He agreed to summon a parliament in which his favourites would be put on trial for treason. The lack of widespread support for him in the country, and the superior military force of the appellants, had put him at the mercy of his opponents, and the judges' declaration about his prerogative counted for little in the face of his opponents' determination to destroy Richard's inner circle of favourites and courtiers once and for all.

De la Pole, Neville, and de Vere, however, had all fled overseas when the so-called Merciless Parliament opened on 3 February 1388 and the appeal of treason was formally presented. De la Pole and de Vere were condemned to death in their absence and all three sentenced to loss of their lands and property. Of those against whom the appeal was directed, only Brembre and Tresilian (who was dragged out of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey) were in the hands of the appellants, and they were now condemned and executed. With strong support from the Commons the appellants then turned their attention to Richard's chamber knights. Burley, Berners, Salisbury, and John Beauchamp of Holt were impeached on sixteen counts, most of which amounted to accroaching the royal power. They, too, were sentenced to death and executed, though Richard, with support from some of the more moderate nobles, struggled hard to persuade Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, and the Commons, to spare Burley. His pleas were in vain, however, and Richard never forgave them for sending his former tutor to his death. The judges who had suggested at Nottingham in the previous year that accroaching the royal power might incur the penalties of treason were now themselves arraigned on charges of treason; they too were sentenced to death, but their lives were spared and they were exiled to Ireland.

The appellants had achieved their goal of destroying the group of favourites around the king, and they had encountered little opposition in doing so. Few nobles, and few of the shire gentry who sat in the Commons, were willing publicly to declare their support for the king and his unpopular courtiers. Indeed, over forty members of the Commons can be shown to have had links with the appellants. Yet the appellants made no attempt to institutionalize their power by establishing a council with responsibility for government, and with the removal of de la Pole, de Vere, and Burley much of the venom went out of the opposition to the king and his court.

The recovery of royal authority, 1388–1389

By the autumn of 1388 there were signs that power was beginning to move back towards the king, and on 3 May 1389 Richard formally assumed responsibility for the conduct of government. According to the monk of Westminster, he declared that now he had reached the age of twenty-one he was entitled to claim his inheritance, and the lords agreed that he should assume sole responsibility for government. He disavowed personal responsibility for past events by saying, somewhat disingenuously, that for twelve years he and his kingdom had been ruled by others: such an assertion enabled him to make a fresh start and claim that he now intended to work tirelessly for the well-being and profit of his people.

Although Richard had now formally regained power, he made no attempt over the next seven years to revive the style of government which had brought about the crisis of 1386–8. De la Pole, de Vere, and Neville were left to die in exile; the judges were not recalled from Ireland until 1397; and for the time being no new inner circle of courtiers emerged to enjoy Richard's favour and patronage. Outwardly at least, political stability had been restored. Richard was apparently reconciled with Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, and Arundel's brother the bishop of Ely returned in 1391 to the chancellorship which he had first held from 1386 to 1389. John of Gaunt's return to England in November 1389 was another factor making for stability. He and Richard exchanged the kiss of peace, and Richard placed upon himself Gaunt's livery collar in the form of a double S. Gaunt now attended the council regularly, and his conciliatory role was important in preventing any simmering tensions between Richard and his former opponents from coming to the surface.

Although Gaunt's influence was important in maintaining stability and upholding the authority of the crown, Richard sought in the early 1390s to broaden the basis of support for the crown by retaining members of the shire gentry. This policy was prompted by his failure to win much support from this section of society between 1386 and 1388. Between 1391 and 1393 he retained thirty-six knights and thirty-three esquires; they were recruited from all parts of the country, and many of them were prominent in local administration. They were expected to provide an important nucleus of support for the crown in any future political conflict.

In the early 1390s, too, Richard developed the ceremonial and cultural aspects of monarchy. Perhaps in imitation of the French court, the language of address at court became more elaborate: the king was frequently addressed as ‘royal majesty’, or ‘high majesty’, rather than just ‘highness’, and the author of the continuation of the Eulogium presents a vivid picture of the king sitting enthroned in state in his chamber after dinner and requiring anyone upon whom his glance fell to bow the knee to him. His court also became a centre of artistic and literary patronage: Froissart visited the court in 1395 and presented Richard with a manuscript of his poems; the poetry of one of Richard's courtiers, Sir John Montagu, was admired in France by Christine de Pisan; and Gower's Confessio amantis was said to have been written at Richard's request. Perhaps the most important visual expression of Richard's patronage was the rebuilding of Westminster Hall, in the form which survives today.

This work was put in hand in 1393 under the direction of two of the most important architect–masons of the day, Henry Yevele and Hugh Herland. Yevele had already worked on the reconstruction of the nave of Westminster Abbey. The work had been initiated in 1376, and Richard made a contribution of £1685 towards the cost. He perhaps intended that the buildings at Westminster should express the wealth and magnificence of the English monarchy. Richard also identified his kingship with the royal saints of England. About 1395 he had the royal arms of England impaled with those of Edward the Confessor. Many representations of this symbol of his cult of the Confessor survive at Westminster and elsewhere, and he invoked the royal saint in the opening phrases of his will. He also expressed his devotion to the cult of St Edmund, the martyred king of the East Angles who, like Richard, had become king in his youth. The two royal saints, together with John the Baptist, are portrayed presenting Richard to the Virgin and Child in the Wilton diptych, painted perhaps around 1395, which represents more than any other surviving work the image of sacred majesty which Richard sought to create. Richard also took some steps towards the establishment of the cult of another murdered king, Edward II, whose experiences at the hands of his nobility had obvious significance for Richard. He sought to ensure that the abbey of Gloucester, where Edward was buried, observed his anniversaries, and in 1395 he proposed to the pope that Edward should be canonized. Political resonances from Edward's reign punctuated the 1380s and 1390s: Walsingham reported the execution and subsequent veneration of the earl of Arundel in 1397 in terms that are reminiscent of the cult of Thomas of Lancaster, but Richard's wish to canonize his predecessor was not to be granted.

Relations with France: second marriage, 1389–1396

It is likely that some of Richard's ideas about court ceremonial and the majesty of kingship derived from the court of France, and it is no coincidence that the two courts drew closer in the 1390s as both sides embarked on a series of negotiations designed to bring about a lasting peace between the two kingdoms. In 1387, during discussions about the possibility of a final peace with France, the monk of Westminster reported Richard as saying that ‘if he was going to have to maintain a ceaseless state of war against the king of the French, he would inevitably be compelled to be for ever burdening his people with new imposts, with damaging results for himself’ (Westminster Chronicle, 204–5). The political and financial arguments for a lengthy truce or a final peace were powerful. The lesson of October 1386, when the Commons had resisted de la Pole's demand for a subsidy to meet the costs of the threatened French invasion until he was removed from office, had not been lost on Richard. The series of truces from 1388 onwards were accompanied by a lower level of taxation, and by significantly less friction between Richard and his parliaments than had been the case in the early 1380s.

The French, too, saw advantages in a final peace. Their belligerent attitude in 1386 had not brought a settlement any nearer, and the abortive invasion had proved costly. Furthermore Charles VI's uncle the duke of Burgundy wished to consolidate his authority in Flanders and ensure good relations with England, the source of most of the wool on which the prosperity and social peace of the Flemish towns depended. Both sides therefore were genuinely prepared to seek a final peace. Whether this is evidence of a more general aversion to war, or war weariness, on the English side is open to doubt. Although the rhetoric of both sides dwelt on the need to avoid the shedding of Christian blood, and although some writers opposed the war for its destructive effects, and some Lollards on religious principle, there is little sign of any general will to end the war except on favourable terms. Richard himself was not averse to war on principle, as his expeditions to Scotland in 1385 and to Ireland in 1394–5 and 1399 show. His court embodied the chivalric and military ethos to a significantly less obvious degree than the courts of Edward III and the Black Prince, but this probably reflected the experience and circumstances of his generation. Some twenty years later Henry V was to have little difficulty in marshalling the nation once again for war against the French.

A draft treaty was drawn up in 1393 which sought to settle the status of Aquitaine, the most intractable of the issues in contention between England and France. The territory to be held by the English king would be greatly enlarged, but in a crucial concession Richard agreed that he would hold the duchy of the king of France by liege homage. However, the draft was severely criticized by parliament in England in 1394; the suggestion that the king should perform liege homage to the king of France was particularly unpopular, and in the face both of this hostility at home and of the simmering resentment of the Gascons the peace proposals were abandoned. Neither side had the will to resume the war, however, and in 1396 they concluded a twenty-eight years' truce. The truce was accompanied by an agreement for Richard, a widower since 1394, to marry Isabella (1389–1409) the seven-year-old daughter of Charles VI.

The close relationship between the two kings which followed the truce and the marriage treaty was unpopular in England. The new queen was not seen as a suitable bride for Richard, not least perhaps because she was unlikely to produce an heir for some years. Furthermore, Richard now acted as though the war was over. Brest, which had been ceded to England ‘until the end of the war’ was handed back to the duke of Brittany; Cherbourg, leased from the king of Navarre, had been returned in 1393, and rumours began to circulate that Richard intended to surrender Calais as well. The draft treaty may have provided some basis for this, for it left the status of Calais to be determined by the two kings.

However, the ending for the time being of the French war gave Richard the opportunity to turn his attention to Ireland, where the English lordship was on the defensive against the resurgent Irish. The government in Dublin had made several appeals to Richard to come over in person and rescue the lordship from the threat of extinction. In the autumn of 1394, free from other preoccupations, he took an army of about 5000 men to Ireland. In the few encounters that took place the English archers put the Irish forces to flight, and over the first five months of 1395 Richard received the submissions of most of the Irish rulers. He had apparently restored the English lordship and the authority of the crown quickly and easily, and although the settlement soon broke down he returned home in May 1395 with his reputation in many quarters enhanced. On the other hand, if Froissart is to be believed, the duke of Gloucester took a less sanguine view of the Irish campaign. He had accompanied Richard on the outgoing voyage in 1394, but he had returned early. He later asserted that Ireland was ‘a land neither of conquest nor of profit’ and that what was gained in one year in Ireland would be lost in the next (Œuvres, 16.5). The political and personal advantages which Richard gained from his Irish expedition proved short-lived.

The destruction of the king's opponents, 1397

Richard's relationship with the French court contributed to the raising of political tension in 1396 and the early months of 1397. Froissart stresses the duke of Gloucester's opposition to the rapprochement with France, but others also had misgivings. Richard's proposal to send an expedition to Milan in support of Charles VI's ambitions there was received coldly by the Commons in the January parliament of 1397, and the Commons presented a petition complaining about the extravagance of the royal household. Richard's reaction revealed once again his sensitivity about his prerogative. He accused the Commons of giving ‘great offence’, and the Lords declared that whoever engaged in such criticism was guilty of treason. The ostensible author of the petition, a clerk named Thomas Haxey (d. 1425), was convicted of treason but spared because of his cloth.

In July 1397, without any warning, Richard arrested the duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick. Contemporary interpretations of his actions differed sharply. Walsingham portrayed Richard as wilfully plotting the downfall of his opponents, the arrests coming out of a clear blue sky. The Kirkstall chronicler, however, linked the arrests with the events of 1386–8, saying that Richard now ‘called to mind’ his former humiliations. French writers, on the other hand, especially the author of the Chronique de la traison et mort de Richart Deux roy Dengleterre, sought to portray Richard as a Christlike king betrayed and destroyed by his opponents. They suggested that Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick had plotted to seize Richard along with Gaunt and other nobles, and depose him: Richard's arrest of the three lords was thus a pre-emptive strike. There is, however, no evidence that a plot was hatched against Richard, and the three lords were never accused of plotting in the way described by the Traison.

It is possible that Richard believed the three lords might move against him if he did not strike first, but such an argument rests on an assumption about Richard's state of mind rather than any objective evidence. It is not, however, incompatible with the view that Richard intended to revenge himself on those who had violated his prerogative and humiliated him between 1386 and 1388. He was well prepared: the truce with France meant there was little likelihood of any unexpected military emergency, and his policy of retaining members of the shire gentry should have ensured him a body of supporters in the country. He had the loyal support of John of Gaunt, and also of a group of younger nobles including his half-brothers John Holland (d. 1400) and Thomas Holland (d. 1400), earls of Huntingdon and Kent, John Beaufort (d. 1410), Gaunt's eldest son with Katherine Swynford, Edward, earl of Rutland (d. 1415), the heir to the duke of York, John Montagu, now earl of Salisbury (d. 1400), and Thomas Despenser (d. 1400), a name with a resonance from a remoter past. The promotion of these earls to dukedoms, and of Despenser to an earldom, in 1397 aroused public hostility, and according to Walsingham they were derisively known as ‘duketti’ (Johannis de Trokelowe … Chronica, 223).

Parliament opened at Westminster on 17 September 1397. The monk of Evesham describes how the building was surrounded by 200 of the king's Cheshire archers, and both he and Adam Usk convey the sense of terror they were evidently intended to induce. The chancellor, Edmund Stafford, set the tone for the parliament by preaching a sermon in which he declared that the power of the king lay singly and wholly with the king, and that those who usurped or plotted against it were worthy of the penalties of the law. These penalties were now to be visited on Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick. The three lords were appealed of treason by the king's noble supporters in a trial presided over by Gaunt, as high steward of England. Arundel was condemned and executed after a trial which included a bitter exchange of words with the king, who attacked him for his part in Burley's death in 1388. When Gloucester's trial began, however, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, announced that he was dead. After his arrest he had been taken to Calais, of which Mowbray was captain, and imprisoned there. In all probability he was murdered there, on Richard's instructions, for Richard perhaps feared the reaction both of the populace and of Gaunt if Gloucester was brought to stand trial. On the same day Thomas Arundel, now archbishop of Canterbury, was accused of treason for his participation in the events of 1386–8 and sentenced to exile for life. Finally, Warwick was arraigned and condemned, but his life was spared and he was sentenced to exile in the Isle of Man.

The tyranny of Richard II, 1397–1399

Richard now rewarded his friends with the spoils of victory. The estates of the three lords were confiscated; many of them were granted to Richard's supporters, who were also rewarded with enhanced titles. Arundel's lands in north-east Wales, however, were annexed to the earldom of Chester, which was elevated to the status of a principality. Finally, in a ceremony of symbolic significance, the Lords and Commons were required to swear an oath on the shrine of St Edward at Westminster that they would uphold the judgments and ordinances of the parliament or suffer the penalties of treason.

Richard's triumph, it seemed, was complete. His prerogatives had been upheld and those who violated them condemned as traitors. He had lived up to his epitaph, which he had composed for his tomb in Westminster Abbey, commissioned in 1395: ‘He threw down all who violated the royal prerogative; he destroyed heretics and scattered their friends’ (Inventory of the Historical Monuments, 1.31). It had all been accomplished with surprising ease: Richard had had Gaunt's support, and the support of a carefully managed Commons. The speaker, John Bussy, was a life retainer of both Richard and Gaunt, and twenty-nine of the knights were royal retainers or crown office-holders. Yet Richard now acted as though he had little confidence in his own security. He believed that the affinities of Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick presented a threat to him, and between October 1397 and September 1398 many of those who had ridden with the appellants in the Radcot Bridge campaign were summoned before the council and required to pay a fine in return for a pardon. The men of Essex and Hertfordshire, where Gloucester's influence had been strong, were collectively pardoned in return for a payment of £2000, and in the summer of 1398 the inhabitants of London and sixteen counties in the south and east of England were required to seal charters giving the king carte blanche to do what he wished with them and their goods. Chroniclers alleged, though there is no firm evidence, that under colour of these ‘blank charters’ Richard extorted fines of £1000 or 1000 marks from the sixteen counties.

The treason law was used as a means of political oppression: in March 1398 the dukes of Albemarle and Surrey (formerly earls of Rutland and Kent respectively) were given power to arrest all traitors and punish them according to their deserts. Albemarle, as constable of England, was also empowered to use the court of chivalry, which employed civil law, to hear cases involving alleged slander of the king. It was measures of this kind that gave substance to the accusation at Richard's deposition that he had violated clause 39 of the 1215 text of Magna Carta (clause 29 of the reissue of 1225) guaranteeing that an offender would be be dealt with ‘according to the lawful judgement of his equals and the law of the land’. Richard also sought to escape from the financial insecurity which arose from the Commons' grant of customs revenue for only a year or two at a time. When the adjourned parliament of September 1397 reconvened at Shrewsbury in January 1398, the general pardon promised in September was made conditional upon a grant of the customs revenue to the king for life, and if at any time in the future the grant was revoked the pardon would lapse.

These measures in themselves were unlikely to bring Richard down. It is difficult to assess how unpopular they were in the country; oppressive government was nothing new, and most of the surviving accounts were influenced by hindsight and in particular by Henry Bolingbroke's use of the evidence for Richard's ‘tyrannical’ government to fashion a case for deposing him in 1399. In 1398 and early 1399 there was no obvious figure around whom opposition could rally, and the steps Richard took to impose his authority, however tyrannical they may have seemed, were apparently effective.

At court, however, there were rumours of plots against the house of Lancaster. It is possible that Richard wanted to get the duchy of Lancaster into his own hands, but it is also possible that the murmurings against Gaunt and his son Henry, who had cautiously supported Richard in 1397 and had been rewarded with the title of duke of Hereford, may have arisen because of a wish on the part of some of Richard's courtiers to exclude Gaunt and his son from the succession to the crown. Richard's childlessness inevitably raised some speculation about who might succeed him. Roger Mortimer, earl of March (d. 1398), was Richard's heir-general, being descended from Edward III's second son, Lionel, duke of Clarence (d. 1368), but through the female line. Richard may have nominated Mortimer as his heir in the Michaelmas parliament of 1385, at a time of some tension between him and Gaunt. Gaunt, however, was Richard's heir male, and in 1376 Edward III had entailed the crown on his heirs male. Gaunt must have been aware of this entail, and might well have believed that he (or his son Henry) should be regarded as Richard's heir if he died childless.

At some time in December 1397 Thomas (I) Mowbray, who had been created duke of Norfolk in 1397 but whose position at court was insecure, spoke to Henry about plots at court and the dangerous position he believed both of them were in. Henry reported the conversation to his father, from whom it presumably reached the king. Henry's action precipitated a quarrel with Norfolk, and each accused the other of treason. In the absence of evidence, Richard ordered the matter to be put to trial by battle at Coventry on 16 September 1398. A large crowd assembled to watch the eagerly anticipated spectacle, but Richard ordered that the combat should not begin. Instead, he imposed sentence of exile on both parties: Norfolk for life and Henry for ten years. Henry was, however, given leave to sue for livery of his inheritance if Gaunt died before Henry's term of exile came to an end.

The overthrow of the king, 1399

John of Gaunt died on 3 February 1399, and his death presented Richard with an awkward dilemma. Henry was now entitled in law to claim his inheritance, and though in exile he would control the revenues and patronage of the vast duchy of Lancaster. An exiled but wealthy and influential duke of Lancaster posed an obvious threat to Richard's security, but the alternative was disinheritance. This was the course that Richard chose: by altering the terms of reference of the committee set up to deal with business outstanding at the end of the Shrewsbury session of parliament, Richard gave a cloak of legality to the repeal of the letters allowing Henry to sue for his inheritance, and his term of exile was extended to life. Richard may have believed that Henry could do little about his disinheritance. He had taken up residence in Paris, where he was under the surveillance of the duke of Burgundy, who had no wish to see Richard, who was committed to the rapprochement with France, once again brought under the control of a council dominated by his aristocratic opponents and supported by a bellicose Commons. In May 1399 Richard believed that he was safe from any counter-move on Henry's part, and began preparations for an expedition to Ireland to rescue what remained of his settlement of 1395. He landed at Waterford on 1 June 1399.

At this point, however, events in France took a turn which Richard could not have foreseen. Burgundy's enforced absence from Paris in May and June allowed his rival, the duke of Orléans, to establish his ascendancy over the intermittently insane Charles VI, and Orléans now allowed Henry freedom to prepare an invasion of England. He concluded an alliance with Henry, and may secretly have given him some help. His motives were opportunistic: he hoped to destabilize Richard's regime in England, undermine the Anglo-French accord, and thereby weaken Burgundy's standing at court in France. With a small body of supporters, including Archbishop Arundel, Henry landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire about 1 July 1399. Many duchy of Lancaster retainers rallied to him, and he was soon joined by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, who had their own grievances against the king. With the north thus quickly secured, Henry marched south, gaining support as he went.

The duke of York, who was keeper of the realm during Richard's absence, had kept himself well informed about Henry's movements, and even before Henry landed he had begun to muster an army from the shire militias and the few pro-Ricardian nobles left in England. However, many of the knights and esquires whom Richard had retained in earlier years were with him in Ireland, along with most of the nobles who were most deeply committed to his cause. Richard's real supporters never got the chance to fight for him; York threw in his lot with Henry, perhaps believing that the localized pockets of resistance to Henry's advance could not halt or delay it, and by the end of July England was Henry's. Although Henry may initially have allowed his supporters to believe that he had returned to England only to claim his inheritance as duke of Lancaster, by the time he took Bristol on 28 July he had little compunction about usurping royal authority. He had three of Richard's councillors, William Scrope, earl of Wiltshire, John Bussy, and Henry Green, executed there, and a few days later he made a grant of the wardenship of the west march to the earl of Northumberland under the great seal of the duchy of Lancaster.

News of Henry's invasion probably reached Richard by 10 July. He sent the earl of Salisbury across to north Wales to rally troops, but he himself did not leave Waterford until some time between 20 and 25 July. It has sometimes been argued that Richard was persuaded to delay his departure by the earl of Albemarle, who was allegedly in league with Henry; but, whether or not the earl was disloyal, the assembly of Richard's scattered army necessarily took some time. Richard landed in south-west Wales, perhaps at Milford Haven or Pembroke, but his movements thereafter are uncertain: all we can be sure of is that he had reached Conwy by 11 August at the latest. What is more certain is that much of Richard's army now deserted him, and when he arrived at Conwy he found that most of Salisbury's troops had deserted too. News of York's defection and the executions at Bristol probably persuaded most of Richard's followers that his cause was lost.

Henry meanwhile had moved from Bristol to Chester, and from there Northumberland, probably accompanied by Archbishop Arundel, went to Conwy to negotiate with the king. Contemporary sources give widely varying accounts of this meeting, but it seems likely that Northumberland mendaciously promised Richard that Henry sought only his inheritance, and on the strength of this promise persuaded Richard to leave Conwy and meet Henry at Flint. But, in leaving Conwy, Richard in effect walked into a trap and arrived at Flint on 16 August as a virtual prisoner. From Flint, Henry took him to Chester and thence to London, where on 2 September he was lodged in the Tower.

The deposition of Richard, 1399

Henry's intentions were now clear. While still at Chester he had authorized the issue of writs summoning a parliamentary assembly for 30 September 1399. After his arrival in London, according to Adam Usk, he set up a committee to inquire how Richard was to be set aside, and for what reasons. It concluded that his ‘perjuries, sacrileges, sodomitical acts, dispossession of his subjects, reduction of his people to servitude, lack of reason, and incapacity to rule’ (Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 63) were sufficient grounds for his deposition in accordance with canon law as established in the deposition of the emperor Frederick II by Pope Innocent IV at the Council of Lyons in 1245. Usk also reported that, although the committee believed that Richard was ready to abdicate, it was determined ‘as a further precaution’ that he should be deposed ‘by authority of the clergy and people’ (Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 63). The official record of the deposition proceedings also insisted that Richard declared at Conwy that he was willing to resign his crown. A deputation of lords, including Henry and Archbishop Arundel, visited Richard in the Tower on 29 September and Richard supposedly repeated the promise to abdicate which he had allegedly made at Conwy. He then, it was said, expressed a wish for Henry to succeed him, and as a token of his goodwill gave Henry his signet ring. Other sources, however, give a different impression. Usk himself visited Richard in the Tower on 21 September and heard him denounce a country which had ‘exiled, slain, destroyed, and ruined so many kings, so many rulers, so many great men’. ‘Seeing therefore the troubles of his soul,’ Usk went on, ‘I departed much moved at heart’ (Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 65). The author of the Traison portrayed a furious Richard, accusing his captors of treason and becoming almost speechless with rage. In a more elegiac account, the Dieulacres chronicle suggested that Richard placed his crown on the ground and resigned his right to God rather than to Henry. The official version is almost impossible to believe: Richard was probably resigned to his fate, but not at all disposed to co-operate with his supplanter or voluntarily resign his God-given kingship.

Although Henry had not obtained from Richard the voluntary resignation which he sought, the assembly that opened on 30 September was none the less told that Richard was willing to abdicate. His abdication was formally accepted; thirty-nine accusations against him were then read out, and it was agreed that they formed sufficient grounds for his deposition. The charges began with a recital of the king's coronation oath, and their purport was to argue that by his actions between 1397 and 1399 Richard had broken his oath and thus broken the legal bond between himself and his people. The charges amount to the prosecution version of events, mainly in the last two years of his reign, and they singled out his treatment of Henry himself, Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, and Archbishop Arundel. But they also criticized the principles underlying Richard's kingship. Article 16 in particular maintained that the king did not wish ‘to uphold or dispense the rightful laws and customs of the realm, but [preferred] to act according to his own arbitrary will and do whatever he wished’, and that he ‘frequently replied and declared expressly … that his laws were in his mouth … or in his breast, and that he alone could change or make the laws of his kingdom’ (RotP, 3.419). The issue of the relationship of the king's will to law had been raised in the crisis of 1386–7, and in returning to it in the articles of deposition the king's opponents were condemning him not just for his practice of government but also for the ideology of his kingship which had first been articulated in 1386 and 1387.

The proceedings in the assembly were conducted with no overt opposition. Several of the knights elected to the assembly were retainers of Henry or former retainers of Gaunt, and the sheriffs whom Henry had appointed in August may have played their part in ensuring that a nucleus of pro-Lancastrian members were elected to the Commons. The author of the Traison suggested that Thomas Merks, the bishop of Carlisle, spoke up in Richard's defence and called for him to be brought before the assembly to answer the charges against him in person; but this is not confirmed in any other account and may be a misunderstanding of a speech the bishop subsequently made in his own defence. There are hints in a later source that the earl of Northumberland and his son were unhappy about the proceedings, but this was probably a view heavily influenced by the Percys' later enmity towards Henry IV; it is hard to believe in face of Northumberland's evident willing participation in the plan to lure Richard out of Conwy. The day after the assembly agreed on Richard's deposition, a deputation led by William Thirning, chief justice of the king's bench, brought Richard news of what had happened. According to the official record, which for once has the ring of truth, Richard said that ‘he looked not hereafter, but hoped that his cousin would be a good lord to him’ (RotP, 3.424).

Imprisonment, death, and burial

Little is known for certain about the rest of Richard's life. He evidently remained in the Tower for some weeks, but before Christmas 1399 he was taken under escort first to Knaresborough and then to the duchy of Lancaster castle of Pontefract, where he was guarded by two trusted duchy retainers, Sir Robert Waterton and Sir Thomas Swynford. His fate was probably sealed by the Epiphany rising of 1400. The earls of Huntingdon, Kent, and Salisbury, and Sir Thomas Despenser (all now reduced to their former ranks), plotted to seize and murder Henry and his sons, and to restore Richard to his throne. Henry, however, was forewarned of the conspiracy, which received little popular support, and the leaders were seized and executed by townspeople in Bristol, Cirencester, and Pleshey. In February the council ordered that if Richard were still alive he should be ‘placed in appropriate safe keeping’, but if dead he should be ‘shown openly to the people’ (Proceedings … of the Privy Council, 1.111). Most chroniclers believed that he died on 14 February, but how he died will never be known for sure. The Traison's story that he was hacked to death by Sir Piers Exton is almost certainly fictitious; three accounts, by John Hardyng, the Whalley Abbey chronicler, and the monk of Evesham, suggest he was deliberately starved to death; while other chroniclers, including Walsingham, describe how he refused food and drink and gradually starved himself to death. On 17 February instructions were given for his body to be transported to London, and on 6 March his obsequies were performed at St Paul's. In his will, drawn up before his departure for Ireland in 1399, he had expressed a wish to be buried in the tomb in Westminster Abbey that he had commissioned in 1395. Henry, however, ignored Richard's wishes and had him buried in the priory of the Dominican friars at the royal manor of Kings Langley. The priory had been founded by Edward II, and Edward III had made substantial contributions towards the cost of building the church and the conventual buildings.

Rumours persisted, however, that Richard was still alive. Some suggested that he had escaped to Scotland, and these rumours were given particular currency by the Franciscans, who had enjoyed Richard's patronage during his reign. The Scots, for their own purposes, gave a pension to an impostor (believed by the English to be Thomas Warde of Trumpington) who survived until 1419. It is impossible to credit these stories: they are not dissimilar to other survival legends that gathered round kings who died in mysterious circumstances and which proved useful to politically disaffected elements within the realm and to external enemies.

Kings Langley did not prove to be Richard's last resting place. The tomb that he had commissioned for himself in 1395 remained in Westminster Abbey, and in early December 1413 Henry V had him ceremonially reburied there, beside the tomb of Queen Anne. The reburial was intended to symbolize a healing of the political wounds opened by Richard's deposition, and to be a gesture of piety towards a king who is said to have knighted the young Henry when he had been taken to Ireland with Richard in 1399, in effect as an honourable hostage.

Richard's tomb was opened in 1871 and when his remains were examined they suggested that he had been a man almost 6 feet in height. Perhaps the effigy of the king on his tomb is the best likeness of him as a mature adult, and with other surviving portraits suggests that he was bearded from c.1386. However, the idealized representations of him in the Wilton diptych, and in the so-called coronation portrait in Westminster Abbey, which are both icons of kingship and which both date from c.1395, perhaps reveal more than a true likeness would of a king whose belief in the majesty of kingship and the sanctity of his own prerogative ultimately brought him to destruction.

The significance of the reign and Richard's historical reputation

The deposition of Richard II cast its shadow over much of fifteenth-century English history. Although Henry IV was succeeded on the throne by his son and grandson, none was free from challenge on the grounds that he was not the true heir of Richard II and that the dynasty had gained the throne by an act of usurpation. By 1460 Henry VI's ineptitude had brought the dynastic issue to the forefront of English politics. In that year Richard, duke of York, formally claimed the throne on the ground that he and not Henry was the legitimate heir of Richard II, and York's son repeated the claim the following year when he became king as Edward IV. Edward declared that Henry IV had ‘usurped and intruded upon the Roiall power’ even though the ‘right and title’ of the crown after Richard's death belonged to Edmund Mortimer, and therefore all three Lancastrian kings had reigned unlawfully (RotP, 5.463). Richard's deposition thus introduced an element of uncertainty, and potential instability, to the fifteenth-century monarchy which was exploited with varying degrees of conviction and success by nobles who wished to undermine royal authority. This was perhaps the abiding legacy of Richard's reign. Parallels can be drawn, in terms of misuse of royal patronage and lack of enthusiasm for the French war, between Richard and Henry VI, and there are certain similarities between Richard's emphasis on the subject's duty of obedience and that of the Tudors, though this is not to suggest that Richard was a premature exponent of the Tudor approach to government. Richard's manner of rule in the last two years of his reign, however, was not imitated by his successors: it was the deposition, the consequence of that manner of rule, that had the greatest impact on the monarchy in the fifteenth century.

In Elizabethan and Stuart times writers and rulers continued to draw lessons from the fate of Richard II. Shakespeare's Richard II, probably written in 1595, has been interpreted as a political allegory, and it was certainly seen in that light by Elizabeth I in 1601, when associates of the earl of Essex financed stagings of the play to whip up support for the earl. ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ asked the indignant queen (Nichols, Progresses, 3.52–3). Holinshed's view of the king was friendly, perhaps because of his knowledge of the French narratives of Richard's last years; but Edward Hall adopted a distinctly hostile tone in his interpretation of the king: both chroniclers may have had some influence on Shakespeare's characterization of Richard. In the early 1640s both Thomas Favent's pro-appellant account of the Merciless Parliament and the Traison's account of the bishop of Carlisle's defence of Richard in 1399 were translated and printed, while in 1681 an anonymous life of Richard referred to Richard's courtiers as a ‘cabal’, a reference to the group of courtiers whose influence over Charles II attracted hostility in the late 1660s and early 1670s.

Only in the nineteenth century did a full-length biography of Richard appear. This was Richard II: épisode de la rivalité de la France et de l'Angleterre, by Henri Wallon, published in 1864. Perhaps influenced by whig historians in England, Wallon argued that Richard's reign was: ‘l'époque où commence, avec le premier example d'un roi mis en tutelle et à la fin jugé en parlement, la longue histoire de la Révolution en Angleterre’ (‘the point at which, when for the first time a king was brought under control and eventually judged in parliament, the long history of the English revolution begins’; Wallon, 1.iv) . Wallon portrayed a king brought down by his own poor judgement and his alienation not just of ambitious nobles but of the whole political community. At much the same time William Stubbs delivered his verdict on the king. He argued that Richard had tried to act on a theory of the ‘supremacy of the prerogative’; in doing so, he had ‘resolutely, and without subterfuge or palliation, challenged the constitution’, and this had brought about his downfall (Stubbs, 2.533).

In the twentieth century historians began to consider Richard's personality rather than the place of his reign in constitutional history. Perhaps the most original assessment from this point of view was provided by Anthony Steel in his Richard II, published in 1941. Steel attempted psychoanalysis of the king, suggesting that he felt unable to live up to the standards of knightly prowess exemplified by his father, was traumatized by the murder of his friends in 1388, and in his later years became ‘a pitiful neurotic’ (Steel, 8) probably suffering from schizophrenia. V. H. Galbraith, in a celebrated review which showed how good a book on Richard he could have written, criticized this colourful interpretation of Richard as lacking any real basis in the evidence; in particular, he argued, there is no justification for the belief that he went mad at the end of his reign. None the less, Steel's interpretation has had some influence on subsequent accounts. May McKisack, for example, in her volume on the fourteenth century in the Oxford History of England, argued that Richard's actions in his last two years suggest ‘a sudden loss of control, the onset of a mental malaise’ (McKisack, 498). Historians who worked on the reign in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Anthony Goodman and Anthony Tuck, eschewed this approach, but it came once again to the forefront of discussion about the king with the publication in 1997 of Nigel Saul's biography of the king. This is the most substantial treatment of Richard since the nineteenth century, and represents the state of knowledge of the king and his reign at the end of the twentieth century. Saul rejects Steel's assertion that Richard was insane, but suggests that the king had a ‘narcissistic’ personality, and that by the end of his reign his grasp on reality ‘was becoming weaker’ (Saul, Richard II, pp. 459–60).

The character of the king and his reign

However, it remains doubtful whether the impetuousness and touchiness which characterize Richard's adolescent years as king, the concern about his prerogative rights which is apparent in 1386 and 1387, and the image of kingship which he cultivated in the 1390s amount to evidence for a personality disorder, though they made for an uneasy political relationship with his nobility. Indeed, his courage at the time of the peasants' revolt and his effective conduct of the limited military campaigns he undertook in Scotland and Ireland suggest qualities which would have been readily comprehensible to his contemporaries, though they might have preferred him to fight in France. Many of the difficulties of the early years of his reign arose from misjudgements of men and events that suggest parallels with earlier and later rulers who met similar fates, such as Edward II and Henry VI. His emphasis on the majesty and sacred character of kingship may have been received uneasily by some of his nobles—although there is no direct evidence for this—but it was not dissimilar from, indeed may have been derived from, ideas of kingship current at the French court, and his concern for his prerogative rights would not have seemed unusual to some of his English predecessors, notably Edward I.

Richard's patronage of literature and the arts, too, was perhaps similar to that of his royal predecessors, but it has particular significance because several of the poets who enjoyed the patronage of the court wrote in English. Chaucer especially developed English into a language suitable, in the distinction that Dante made in De vulgari eloquentia, for ‘eloquence’ rather than mere ‘speech’. This is not to say that Richard specifically encouraged the use of English: like most contemporaries of noble birth he was probably bilingual in English and Anglo-Norman, and he was probably able to read Latin: his cousin and supplanter, Henry IV, was certainly competent in all three languages.

In his tastes and beliefs Richard appears to have been conventional. Although some of the knights of his chamber sympathized with Lollardy, Richard's own piety was orthodox. His cult of royal saints has already been discussed, but he seems to have shared the enthusiasm of some of his nobles for the Carthusian order, which was also fashionable on the continent, and in 1385 he laid the foundation stone of the Coventry Charterhouse. Like many of his contemporaries he had an interest in astrology and divination. The Libellus geomancie, a treatise compiled in 1391 ‘for the solace of our lord king Richard’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Bodley 581 fol. 9) contains material on astrology, geomancy (divination by casting earth or small pebbles and drawing conclusions from the random patterns they form), and physiognomy (how a person's character may be deduced from the shape of his limbs and his facial features).

Thus Richard was a king who shared many of the tastes and interests of his generation, yet aspects of his personality prevented the emergence of the same rapport with his nobility that had contributed so much to Edward III's popularity, especially in the 1340s and 1350s. His failure to lead his nobles in arms against the French is one reason for this, however explicable such failure may be in political and financial terms. In explaining his eventual downfall, however, both contemporaries and modern historians have focused attention on the unwisdom and extremism of his actions in the last two years of his reign, when he sought to impose his own concept of kingship on a reluctant community, and to enforce his authority by means considered by many in the community as barely lawful. It is the immoderation of his behaviour in these years that has persuaded some historians that by then Richard was inhabiting the borderlands of sanity. Yet although at his deposition his rule was condemned as oppressive, unjust, and contrary to law, running through the charges against him is the assumption that his conduct had been rational, if unacceptable. Walsingham maintained that in 1397 Richard had begun to ‘tyrannise’ his people (Johannis de Trokelowe … Chronica, 199). In terms of the Aristotelian definition of a tyrant as one who rules for his own advantage rather than the well-being of his people, such an accusation was an understandable judgement on Richard's kingship during the last two years of his reign. When Henry Bolingbroke claimed the throne on 30 September 1399, he maintained that ‘the realm was on the point of being undone for default of governance and undoing of the good laws’ (RotP, 3.423). Richard's rule from the summer of 1397 onwards was characterized by a combination of ideology and a sense of insecurity which in the eyes of his opponents amounted to a lack of good governance, and for this he was rejected.

Anthony Tuck

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