Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Four


Madness and Usurpation

Between 1383 and 1401, Charles VI loses his wits, and Richard II loses his throne

JOHN OF GAUNT had lost his palace to the Peasants’ Revolt, but not his hopes of a throne.

His first wife, the heiress Blanche of Lancaster, had brought him the title Duke of Lancaster. After her death at the age of twenty-three (she had already borne John seven children, three of whom survived), he had remarried the seventeen-year-old Constance of Castile, daughter of the deposed and murdered king of Castile, Pedro the Cruel. The pretender to the throne, Pedro’s half brother Enrique of Trastámara, had seized the throne of Castile with the help of the French; he knew that John of Gaunt hoped to claim it in the name of his wife.

“John, duke of Lancaster, made an urgent request [that] money should be entrusted to his charge . . . ,” the Chronica Maiora says, “claiming that with this same money he would keep back the enemy from the coasts of England for a whole year. . . . The nobles, although unwillingly, agreed to this importunate request with . . . some bitterness of heart. . . . [T]he duke held such power in the kingdom that it was extremely inadvisable for them to go against his wishes.” The fleet was not merely for defense of the coast from the French, which Enrique of Trastámara knew; when he heard of John of Lancaster’s new fleet, it gave him a “great fright. . . . He judged that the duke would be sailing not only in defence of the sea but also in an attempt on his kingdom, seeking to claim it by force on behalf of his wife.”1

He was perfectly correct. John of Gaunt intended to seize the throne of Castile, and to do so, he negotiated an alliance between England and the king of Portugal. “We cannot gain a more convenient entrance to Castile than through Portugal,” one of his advisors remarked; the Portuguese were consistently suspicious that Castile would try to absorb them again, and a war against Castile would help assure them of independence.2

Actual war between the two countries did not begin until 1383; by then Enrique of Trastámara had died, and his son John sat on the throne of Castile. A combined English-Portuguese army, led by John of Gaunt and the Portuguese John of Aviz, who claimed the right to rule in Portugal, marched on Castile. And, as before, French soldiers came to reinforce Castile’s defenses; the Duke of Bourbon, young Charles VI’s uncle, was their commander in chief.

But the war turned into an assertion of Portuguese independence against Castilian might, of John of Aviz’s right to rule as sole sovereign against Castilian ambitions to control Portugal. In August of 1385, John of Aviz defeated the French-Castilian forces at the Battle of Aljubarrota, bringing a crashing end to Castilian attempts to reclaim Portuguese land. The victory made John of Aviz a hero in the eyes of his people and strengthened his claim on the throne.


84.1 The Battle of Aljubarrota

But it did nothing for John of Gaunt. Castile remained in the hands of Enrique Trastámara’s son, and John of Gaunt was still without a crown. The king of Portugal offered to keep on fighting against Castile, and Parliament reluctantly agreed to fund another invasion force for John of Gaunt: twelve hundred knights, two thousand archers, a thousand foot soldiers, and enough money to pay them all for at least six months.

In answer, the king of Castile appealed once again to the court of France for help. Eighteen-year-old Charles VI decided that an invasion of England would serve to draw the English away from Castile. “Do not be uneasy,” he wrote back to the king of Castile, “for we will occupy the English at home, until they do not know which way to turn; and when England is completely destroyed, we will come to your aid.”

“With this answer the King of Castile contented himself as well as he could,” Froissart tells us. “Indeed, he could not help himself, for no knights and squires came to him from France, all were so anxious to invade England.” The invasion was planned for the August of 1386. A new tax was declared in France, to fund the building of more warships; Charles VI ordered vessels commandeered from every port in France. (“Never since God created the world were there seen such number of large ships together,” Froissart adds.) Months were spent baking ship’s biscuit, salting meat, and drying egg yolks so that they could be powdered and stored on board. In England a new rumor arose every day: the French were just about to land in Dover or at Sandwich; the fleet would depart any day now; the fleet would first surround and besiege Calais; Charles himself would lead the attack.3

The whole glorious enterprise fizzled out abruptly. The French fleet did not catch a fair wind until the end of October. On All Saints’ Eve, the entire fleet sailed out of the harbor of Sluys, where it had been assembled for an entire year. Twenty miles out of port, says Walsingham, “a contrary wind began blowing in their faces, and drove them all back home . . . and also drove them into collisions with each other so that some of them were wrecked in the very entrance to the port of Sluys.”4

No second attempt followed. No French force ever arrived at Castile either, although by 1387 John of Gaunt had realized the fruitlessness of his attempts to get Castile’s throne, and instead had arranged for the marriage of one of his daughters to the king of Portugal’s son. He would not gain a throne, but perhaps one day he would be the grandfather of a king.

The invasion-that-wasn’t was symptomatic of the complete lack of leadership in Paris. Charles VI was a flighty and uninterested ruler, his uncles constantly jostled each other for more power at court, and intrigues, private agreements, and feuds prevented any unified war strategy from taking place. In London, Richard II was no more effective. He made unwise favorites, quarreled with the two uncles still in England, and plotted to get rid of unwanted council members. Clashes and spats took place along the French and the English coasts, but neither king was capable of planning, let alone carrying out, a grand strategy.

In 1391, the French chamberlain opened tentative discussion of a possible peace treaty. “The French . . . knew very well that they were not enough to conquer the kingdom of England,” Walsingham says, “and that the English were no way strong enough to subjugate France, and that both countries were being impoverished time after time by useless expeditions.”5

Officials from both countries had endless lists of bullet points to be ticked off before any peace treaty could be sworn out, and discussions dragged out. They were still limping along the following summer, when Charles VI began to suffer from a chronic fever. “His physicians and uncles noticed that at times his intellects were deranged,” Froissart says, “but they could not do any thing, for he would not listen to what they proposed.”

Despite his poor health, in the first week of August 1392 the twenty-four-year-old king insisted on leading a troop of soldiers on a punitive expedition against the Duke of Brittany, who had insulted the Chief Constable of France. It was a hot day, but he was fully dressed in black velvet jacket and crimson hood, and the young pages who rode behind him were elaborately dressed in silks and armor, with polished steel caps; one of them carried the king’s lance.

“As they were thus riding,” Froissart writes, “the pages, who were but children, grew negligent of themselves and their horses; and the one who bore the lance fell asleep . . . and let it fall on the helmet of the page before him.” Steel clattered against steel. Charles, startled by the sound, suddenly hallucinated an attacking horde of traitors. “Advance, advance!” he bellowed, and then turned on his own pages. They scattered in terror, at which point Charles spurred his horse directly towards his own brother, twenty-year-old Louis, Duke of Orleans, bare sword in hand.

Panicked, the Duke of Orleans spurred his horse away and then rode back around in a circle so that the squires and knights could surround the king. He seemed to recognize no one; they backed away and circled, letting him chase them, until he was sweat soaked and exhausted. Finally his chamberlain came up behind him and caught him by the arms so that others could take his sword away.

“His three uncles and brothers approached,” says Froissart, “but he had lost all knowledge of them, showed no symptoms of acquaintance or affection, but rolled his eyes round in his head without speaking.” He was carried on a litter to nearby Le Mans, where he lay in a coma for three days. When he recovered consciousness he had no memory of the event; he was weak, but completely rational.6

But he was never again the same. He suffered from sudden severe attacks of pain, as though he were being stabbed with “a thousand spikes.” He had fits in which he recognized no one, turned on his friends and family, ran through the palace for hours until he collapsed. The madness was unpredictable and never lasting, making it impossible for a regent to legally claim power for long. Instead, his uncles again returned to court, and the country fell into their hands.7

The spells of insanity slowed peace negotiations even further. Finally, in March 1396, the final stamp was put on a twenty-eight-year truce between the two countries. It froze hostilities between the two countries and prohibited the building of any new castles along the existing frontiers. Richard II, now twenty-nine, agreed to marry Charles VI’s six-year-old daughter Isabella; this would create a marriage alliance between the royal families, but Isabella’s children were to have no claim to France.

The wedding was celebrated in November, the child given her own household in the southern English castle of Portchester. “The kingdom of England seemed about to enjoy a period of unbroken peace,” Walsingham notes, “on account of the recent royal wedding and the riches that it had brought with it, [and] the thirty years of peace that had been arranged. . . . But suddenly everything was upset by the deviousness of the king.”8

Without warning, Richard II arrested and imprisoned three men he distrusted; the earls of Warwick and Arundel, and his own uncle, the Black Prince’s youngest brother Thomas. He accused the three of plotting against him; no one was completely convinced of the charges, but Richard was determined to get rid of possible rivals. The Earl of Warwick was imprisoned for life, and Arundel was beheaded. The royal Thomas died unexpectedly in prison; Richard had dispatched a hired assassin to smother him without leaving marks.

“What the king was afraid of is not known,” Walsingham remarks; and it is possible that Richard was suffering from paranoia. His behavior afterwards was not exactly rational. He became preoccupied with the possibility that Arundel’s head might have been miraculously rejoined to his body, and ordered a couple of earls to go dig up the coffin at four o’clock in the morning to check. (It was still detached.) He also grew increasingly autocratic; he borrowed money in vast amounts from his subjects and made no effort to repay it; he expected any man who caught his eye to fall on his knees; he forced some of his courtiers to sign and seal blank sheets of paper so that he could write accusations later, should he need an excuse to rid himself of them. He was, says Adam Usk, “ever hastening to his fall.”9

In 1398, he ordered his cousin Henry Bolingbroke to leave England. Henry, the oldest son of John of Gaunt, was a hothead. He had challenged another nobleman, the Duke of Norfolk, to a duel over a chance remark. To prevent the duel from taking place, Richard II sent both men out of the country.

The following year, John of Gaunt died. He was sixty; he had returned to England a tired and weary man, making no protest either over the murder of his younger brother or the exile of his son. At his death, Richard II confiscated his vast Lancaster estate, which now belonged to the exiled Henry, for the crown.

Henry, who had gone to Paris, heard the news and set out for home. “He could now see that the king was being unjust to all his subjects,” Walsingham says, “[and] he showed himself to his countrymen now in one part of the kingdom, now in another, to see if men were preparing to resist him.” When Henry finally landed near Ravenspur, ready to make his grand entrance, earls and dukes flocked to his side; within a matter of days he had six thousand soldiers and was collecting more.

Richard II did not even try to fight back. He was rational enough to know just how unpopular he was; he took to the roads, staying ahead of Henry and his supporters by going farther and farther north. Finally he gave up. He sent an envoy to Henry, offering to resign the crown in return for his life and “a livelihood suitable to his position.”10

Henry had arrived in England on July 4; on September 29, Richard formally abdicated the throne in a ceremony at the Tower of London. He released all of his subjects from their loyalty to him, and announced that he wished the new Duke of Lancaster to follow him on the throne. He did this, says Walsingham, with “seeming gladness and a cheerful countenance.”

The next day, Henry accepted the crown. “I lay claim to this kingdom,” he told the gathered knights, clergy, and earls, “through the royal blood which comes down to me . . . and through the just cause which God of his grace has sent me for recovering the kingdom . . . [which] was on the point of destruction, owing to the failure of its government.” He said this in English—the first time, since the Norman Conquest, that an English king had used his native language for the coronation address.11

Afterwards, Richard made a single remark on the proceedings. “After all this,” he said, “I hope that my kinsman is willing to be a good lord and friend for me.”

By February 1401, the deposed king was dead. Henry IV had confined him to Pontefract Castle, far to the north in Yorkshire; there, say contemporary accounts, he sank into a deep despair, his mind unbalanced, and starved himself to death. Not everyone believed this. “It was well known that he would never come out . . . alive,” Froissart says, and rumors floated that Henry IV had sent assassins to dispatch his predecessor. The sixteenth-century chronicler Ralph Holinshed suggests that the knight Piers of Exton had heard Henry sigh, “Have I no faithful friend who will deliver me from him?” and had instantly set off to do the deed; the deliberate echo of Henry II and Becket makes this story suspect.12

Regardless, Henry at once put Richard’s body on display. It was drawn from Pontefract all the way down to London on a litter hitched to four black horses, so that all the towns between could confirm the death. He intended for there to be no doubt, no tales of Richard’s miraculous escape, no reappearance of a pretender. Richard had died childless, the Plantagenet line had come to an end, and the House of Lancaster possessed the throne of England.*


*Richard II and Henry IV were cousins, but because Henry’s father John of Gaunt had been a younger son of the king, Henry IV was considered a member of a different family. The House of Lancaster was a “cadet branch” of the Plantagenets (a branch made up of the descendants of the younger sons of a monarch or patriarch).

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