Post-classical history



The Absolutist – Richard II

Richard II, there can be little doubt, not only determined to act as though he were an absolute monarch, but had a theory of absolute monarchy

F. W. Maitland1

Reburying a friend

Walsingham describes how in November 1395 Richard II went to Colne Priory in Essex for the reburial of Robert de Vere, killed in exile three years before – by a wild boar when hunting. The king had the coffin opened, to look at his friend’s face for a last time, holding bony hands whose fingers gleamed with costly rings.

The story recalls Edward II and Gaveston and, although a very different personality from his great-grandfather, Richard was fascinated by Edward, making a pilgrimage to gaze on his effigy at Gloucester. Hoping to have him canonized, he ordered lists to be compiled of the miracles performed at his tomb.

In the national myth, Richard is the king of the Peasants’ Revolt, the boy ruler who made them lay down their arms. (A recent exam question is said to have been ‘empathize with the agony of a fourteenth century peasant’, indicating modern obsession with the Revolt.) No less tragic in real life than in Shakespeare’s play, he lost his kingdom through trying to possess it more completely.

Born at Bordeaux in 1367, the Black Prince’s son, Richard was crowned at Westminster a month after his grandfather’s death. ‘The City had been decorated with so many golden, silver and silk banners, and other toys to dazzle spectators that you would have thought you were watching a Roman Emperor’s Triumph’, comments Walsingham.2 His uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was in the forefront, carrying the sword Curtana. During the ceremony the ten-year-old boy made a touching attempt to look dignified.

Richard’s early reign was dominated by his uncle Gaunt, who had been England’s real ruler for some time. Born at Ghent (Gaunt) in 1340, he married his cousin Blanche of Lancaster, the greatest heiress in the land, but after her death acquired a second wife who was the daughter of Pedro the Cruel, so that he hoped to become King of Castile. The only person of sufficient weight to challenge him in England was the Earl of March, who had married the only child and heiress of Gaunt’s elder brother Lionel, Duke of Clarence. However, March was too busy trying to manage his wife’s enormous Irish estates. The duke hated and feared him (his son was the young king’s heir), but he died campaigning in Ireland in 1381.

Lancaster was notoriously unpopular in London, where his Palace of the Savoy, in the Strand between the City and Westminster, magnificently rebuilt and hung with wonderful tapestries, was thronged by a huge staff. He was blamed not only for the defeats in France, but for failing to stop the French from sacking seaports and the Scots from raiding the North. Londoners saw the Savoy’s opulence as the fruit of corruption, chasing men in Lancaster’s livery through the streets. There was a general lack of trust in the man who ran the government.

The Peasants’ Revolt

First levied in 1377 at a groat (4d) per head, the poll tax was raised to 3 groats in 1381, a heavy burden on the mass of the population, who toiled in the fields, earning no more than a shilling a week. Brutally collected, it caused fury. Hedge priests fanned the flames, such as mad John Ball from Kent with his rhyme:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then a gentleman?

In May 1381 thousands of home counties men marched on London under the banner of St George, bringing their bows and led by Wat Tyler (who took his name from his job). Lancaster was away in the North, while the authorities were taken by surprise. En route, the ‘true commons’ murdered tax collectors and sacked manor houses and abbeys. When they arrived they broke into wine cellars, becoming not so much drunk as demented. One casualty was the unsavoury financier Sir Richard Lyons, who had his head sawn off in Cheapside. Having burned the Savoy to the ground, they stormed the Tower, where they beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer.

Similar revolts broke out elsewhere, Froissart commenting that ‘England was on the point of being lost beyond recovery’.3 Then the fifteen-year-old Richard summoned the rebels to meet him at Smithfield and discuss their demands. Swollen headed, declaring that all laws would soon come from his own mouth, Wat Tyler demanded an end to villeinage, equality of all men, abolition of every bishopric save one and division of Church lands among layfolk. When Richard and his escort arrived at Smithfield, a knight told Wat to repeat his demands. The rebel leader pulled a dagger, threatening to stab the knight for not being sufficiently obsequious, whereupon the mayor, William Walworth, knocked Wat off his horse, someone killing him as he lay on the ground.

Wat’s men drew their bows, but Richard spurred his horse towards them, crying, ‘I will be your king, I will be your captain and your leader – follow me and you can have everything you want.’4 Bewildered, they followed him into the fields outside the City, then threw down their arms and begged for pardon. Wisely, he forbade his troops to attack, allowing them to disperse, aware the Essex men had not arrived and Kent was still out of control. Within a short time, the revolt collapsed, but it was weeks before the disturbances ended. There were surprisingly few executions, although the men who had been most responsible were hanged, drawn and quartered, including John Ball.

Before his execution, one of the leaders, Jack Straw, confessed that they had planned to kill all landlords, including monks and rectors and, finally, the king. They meant to keep the friars who were their friends, however, to say Mass and christen, marry and bury them. There would have been new laws for a society without rich or learned men.

The south-east and east had seen ‘a kind of tribalism almost reminiscent of the age of Bede’5 – Straw said that Tyler would have become King of Kent. But the underlying reason for the Revolt had been the peasants’ wish to exploit the labour shortage caused by the Black Death and the landlords’ determination to thwart them. They were also unsettled by French raids and the threat of invasion – in Kent no men who lived within 12 miles of the sea were recruited by the rebels because it was their job to guard the shore.

The man

Richard II is the hardest Plantagenet to fathom. One historian suggests that despite a weak physique he hoped to be a great king, and that the effort unbalanced him.6 Identifying narcissistic tendencies, another argues more plausibly that Richard was a man of only average intelligence, whose wish for absolute power doomed him. ‘It was not wisdom and prudence that were the characteristics of his rule; it was chastisement and tyranny.’7

He has had few admirers. An exception was the architectural historian John Harvey who considered him the greatest Plantagenet because of his belief in ‘Divine Kingship’, ‘a highly intelligent and supremely cultured man, fully abreast of the intellectual attainments of his age’.8 In reality, the king’s reading was limited to chivalric romances such as Le Roman de la Rose and some hagiography, the English verse of John Gower and possibly Chaucer, with a few pages from law books. The only ‘science’ in which he showed any interest was astrology. What impressed Harvey was Richard’s building – the new Westminster Hall, with a new nave for Westminster Abbey and another for Canterbury Cathedral, but these had more to do with his grandiose concept of kingship than aesthetic sensibility. Westminster Hall was rebuilt to outdo John of Gaunt’s hall at Kenilworth, while the abbey was the dynasty’s mausoleum and the cathedral the Black Prince’s burial place.

His pleasures were hunting, hawking and horse-breeding, and often he drank far into the night. (He never jousted, presumably because of poor health.) He owned an even more expensive wardrobe than his grandfather and loved good food, ordering his master cook to produce a book of receipts,The Forme of Cury. Unusually clean, he frequently visited bath-houses and had new ones built at Sheen and Eltham, besides introducing handkerchiefs.

In religion Richard was ultra-orthodox, founding a charterhouse at Coventry. (The Carthusians were admired because unlike other monks they had not relaxed their way of life.) When the Church reacted to Wycliffe’s heresies, he encouraged its persecution of ‘Lollards’. He also adopted his ancestors’ cult of the royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England – the Wilton Diptych shows him kneeling at the feet of Edward the Confessor and Edmund of East Anglia.

From Richard’s skeleton, we know he was nearly 6 ft tall, big for his time. We know, too, that he had curly fair hair. Otherwise, his appearance is elusive. Painted long afterwards, the portrait at Westminster Abbey shows him at his coronation, as a boy. The Monk of Evesham says he was pale complexioned, with a round, feminine countenance. He looks handsome in the Wilton Diptych from the last years of the reign, in which he appears in profile, clean-shaven and with delicate features including a sharp, retroussé nose. In contrast, the effigy he commissioned for his tomb in the abbey gives him a full face with an incipient double chin and small eyes, its strangeness accentuated by a tiny forked beard.

Nobody could have resembled Edward III less. Arrogant, aloof, abrupt, Richard stammered when he lost his temper with servants or courtiers, which happened all too often. A highly strung, sexless, self-obsessed exquisite with a very lofty idea of his dignity, he was not exactly gifted with charm.

He got on well with his mother – he was distraught when she died in 1387 – and liked women, but did not take mistresses. In January 1382 he married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Emperor Charles IV, King of Bohemia – son of the blind king killed at Crécy. The court at Prague where she grew up was French and German speaking with Slavonic undertones, and her mother was Polish. The couple became devoted to each other, but there were no children – perhaps she was barren. (The crown Richard commissioned for her is among the most superb pieces of medieval goldsmiths’ art to survive.) From the start, she had a good influence. ‘The land was reeking with the blood of the unhappy peasantry, when the humane intercession of the gentle Anne of Bohemia put a stop to the executions.’9 ‘Beauteous her form, her face surpassing fair’ is how Richard describes Anne in her epitaph.10 Highly intelligent, not only did she read German, Czech, Latin and French, but she even owned an English Bible. Richard always took her with him on progress, and when the couple were apart they wrote to each other regularly.

They presided over a magnificent court. Looking back, Walsingham grumbled that Richard behaved as if his resources were inexhaustible, employing 300 men in his kitchen alone. Among the courtiers was Chaucer, who in 1389 became Clerk of the King’s Works. While English was Richard’s first language (although Froissart comments on his good French), there is no proof that he ever read Chaucer’s verse, but it is likely since he commissioned Chaucer’s friend, John Gower to write a long English poem, Confessio Amantis.

Richard rules for himself

Surprisingly, Richard’s minority lasted until he was twenty-one, under the tutelage of Gaunt and the council. When he asserted himself, sacking the chancellor, Lord Scrope, whom he replaced by the biddable Michael de la Pole – created Earl of Suffolk in 1385 – there was strong opposition. In the parliament of 1384, Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel denounced the king’s extravagant court and ineffective government. Richard responded by shouting at the earl, a fire-eating veteran of the French campaigns who had been his governor, that he was a liar and could go to the devil.

During the same year a Carmelite friar informed the king that Gaunt was planning to kill him. Richard ordered the duke’s immediate execution, but changed his mind when courtiers protested that the friar must be a liar. In 1385 he decided to arrest Gaunt, changing his mind again when confronted by him at Sheen. The duke rebuked his nephew for listening to evil counsellors and contemplating the murder of a loyal subject. He received an apology, which was followed by a formal reconciliation.

In autumn 1385, provoked by a French expedition that encouraged the Scots to attack across the border, Richard invaded Scotland, burning Edinburgh and some villages, together with the abbeys of Melrose and Newbattle – and falling out with Gaunt over tactics. The campaign did nothing to stop Franco-Scottish cooperation. Brief as it was, Richard took the opportunity to create his uncle Edmund of Langley Duke of York and his uncle Thomas of Woodstock Duke of Gloucester.

Many people suspected that England, her wool trade increasingly crippled by taxes and her wine trade by privateers, was losing the Hundred Years War. Her Flemish and Breton allies abandoned her. The French constantly raided the south coast, burning seaports, and in 1386 the English grew terrified when Charles VI assembled an invasion armada – luckily dispersed by bad weather. Some magnates decided the country needed stronger government.

Gaunt, who on the whole had been a moderating influence, left England in 1386 to pursue his dream of a Spanish throne. Richard was so delighted to see the back of his uncle that he gave him a golden crown. His departure left a vacuum, filled by another uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who became the king’s unrelenting enemy. That autumn, the parliament, already upset by invasion scares, grew panic-stricken at a ridiculous rumour that Richard was plotting to murder all the knights of the shire. Supported by a politically minded prelate, Bishop Thomas Arundel of Ely, Gloucester seized the opportunity to attack the chancellor.

‘Your people have an ancient law which, unfortunately, had to be invoked not so long ago’, they warned Richard – meaning Edward II. Should a monarch ‘rashly do just what he wants, then, with the people of the realm’s assent and approval it is lawful to pull him down off his throne and put some near kinsman in his place.’ (Gloucester meant himself.) They insisted on the dismissal of Suffolk, who was replaced by Bishop Arundel, the royal council being taken over by Gloucester and the Earl of Arundel – the bishop’s brother.11 Their policies were war with France and evicting Richard’s cronies.

The foremost crony was Robert de Vere, Earl of Essex, brought up as a ward in the royal household, who had become the king’s inseparable companion – allegations of homosexuality circulated, belied by Oxford’s womanizing. Despite his ancient title, he had been very poor until Richard made him Marquess of Dublin (the first English marquess) and the next year Duke of Ireland. What upset Gloucester and his allies was de Vere’s monopoly of royal favour: they compared him to an otter in a pond, ‘grabbing all the fish it can find’.12

Another crony, if not so close, was Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, three years older than the king, who had also begun his career as a royal ward. Others included knights of the household, men from the middling gentry, for some of whom Richard displayed real affection. When Sir James Berners, a chamber knight, was blinded by lightning during a visit to Ely Cathedral in 1383, the king asked its monks to pray for him to their patroness St Etheldreda, which they did so fervently that his sight came back the next morning.13

The Appellants revolt

A commission was set up to reform the royal household – to purge the cronies. Richard reacted by announcing in August 1387 that he would rule in his own name, with five advisers. These were the Duke of Ireland, Chief Justice Tressilian, Archbishop Neville of York, a former lord mayor of London, Sir Nicholas Brembre, and his old tutor, Sir Simon Burley. Gathering troops, they forced a panel of judges to declare the commission unlawful.

Gloucester, with the Earls of Arundel, Warwick and Derby (Gaunt’s son, otherwise known as Bolingbroke), assembled an army and were joined by Nottingham, who was jealous of the Duke of Ireland. Known as the ‘Appellants’, they enjoyed considerable popularity since they promised strong measures against French invasion. In December, trying to intercept them, Ireland was routed by Bolingbroke at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire and fled to France. Arm in arm, the five ‘lords appellant’ confronted a tearful king in the Tower of London’s chapel, insisting on the dismissal of the ‘traitors’. For a few days he no longer reigned. Gloucester wanted to take the throne, but Bolingbroke, who was senior to the duke in line of succession, would not let him, and Richard survived.

In February 1388 the ‘Merciless Parliament’ sent Tressilian, Brembre, Burley and other household members to the block, despite Queen Anne pleading for Burley on her knees. But the new regime under Gloucester and the Arundels lasted barely more than a year. It achieved nothing in France as Gaunt, who had come back from Castile (without a crown) and was now Lieutenant of Gascony, refused to help while the Scots defeated the Percys at Otterburn in August 1388, terrifying the north country. Further demands for subsidies to pay for the war across the Channel angered the Commons, who felt they had paid enough already. Ignoring Gloucester’s fury, the council opened negotiations for peace.

Richard regains control

Richard suddenly seized control in May 1389, ordering Bishop Arundel to return the great seal and sending letters to the sheriffs. ‘We have reached the age of our majority, already in our twenty-second year,’ he proclaimed. ‘Accordingly, we wish and desire to rule and govern our person and inheritance . . . choosing and appointing our officers and ministers.’14 The king did not show any desire for revenge, pretending his wife had persuaded him to forgive the appellants. Gloucester and Lord Arundel were invited to rejoin the council, while he let Bishop Arundel become Archbishop of York.

At council meetings Richard needed self-control to tolerate the behaviour of Gloucester, who disagreed with whatever was decided. Made Lieutenant of Ireland to keep him out of the way, he refused to go there. In his view, the Irish were ‘a nasty, beggarly people with a perfectly beastly country which is quite uninhabitable – even if we conquered all of it within a year, they’d take the whole lot back from us inside another’.15

For a time Richard governed with restraint, helped by Gaunt, who approved of his policy towards France, a truce being signed in June 1389. Cherbourg was sold to the French in 1393, Brest three years later. Richard also hoped to settle Gascony on Gaunt and his heirs as an independent duchy, making him Duke of Guyenne in 1390. But the Gascons, who had bad memories of the Black Prince at Bordeaux, rose in revolt, so the king abandoned the plan.

When Queen Anne died of the plague at Sheen in the summer of 1394, Richard refused to go into any room where she had been, ordering the palace’s demolition. The epitaph he composed for her tomb in Westminster Abbey contains a reference to her skill at settling disputes, which hints at how much he had depended on her for support and advice:

Strife she assuaged, all swelling feuds appeased.16

She had been the one person the king really trusted. There was an unpleasant scene at her requiem. The Earl of Arundel, scarcely Richard’s favourite subject, arrived late at Westminster Abbey after missing the procession from St Paul’s and begged to be excused – there were private matters that required his attention. Seizing a cane, the king hit the earl so hard on the head that he fell down, his blood running over the pavement, and only refrained from killing him because they were in a church. Arundel spent several weeks in the Tower before being bound over for good behaviour in the huge sum of £40,000.

That autumn, the king led an expedition to Ireland. Landing at Waterford in October 1394 with 7,000 men, he defeated a group of south-eastern Gaelic chieftains, whereupon every lord in the country, Gaelic or Anglo-Irish, pretended to submit. After announcing futile measures to ‘civilize’ the natives (who were to learn English and wear English clothes) he left in March the following year, having achieved nothing.

At home there were religious troubles. In 1378 a group of cardinals had repudiated Urban II, returning to Avignon where they elected a rival pope – beginning the ‘Great Schism’. England and the Empire recognized Rome; France and Scotland looked to Avignon. In 1395 the late Dr Wycliffe’s disciples posted ‘Twelve Conclusions’ on the doors of Westminster Hall. Among them were Scripture’s superiority to tradition, that the Host was simply bread and any man could act as a priest, that monasticism and prayers for the dead were nonsense, and that the Church must not own property. Several courtiers were Lollards, including the Earl of Salisbury and a number of knights, but secretly since the king detested heresy.

Richard kept on good terms with Gaunt. When in January 1396 the duke took as his third wife Katherine Swynford, who had been his children’s governess, Richard arranged for their bastard offspring (the Beauforts) to be legitimized by parliament. Because Katherine was of comparatively humble birth, the marriage outraged great ladies, who said Lancaster had disgraced himself by marrying a concubine. His brothers of York and Gloucester grumbled, too, although York – a lightweight interested only in pleasure – soon accepted it. Gaunt gave the appearance of being grateful, but had his eye on his son’s succession to the throne. He was rumoured to have commissioned a forged chronicle, placing copies in important monastery libraries. This claimed that Edmund Crouchback, the ancestor of his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and supposedly Edward I’s younger son, had really been the eldest but was set aside because of his deformity.

The Duke of Gloucester and the opposition

In contrast, Gloucester openly criticized his nephew and wanted to depose him. A Blimp-like figure, the duke was compulsively indiscreet. Cursing the king’s failure to fight ‘those rare boasting Frenchmen . . . his backside has grown too fat, he’s only interested in eating and drinking’, he predicted that ‘Matters can’t go on like this. He’s saddled merchants with such impossibly big taxes that they’re facing ruin, and nobody knows where the money goes. But I can tell you for a fact that he’s spending too much, on silly, useless things, while his subjects foot the bills. There’s going to be serious trouble all over the country – people are starting to grumble, saying they won’t put up with the situation for much longer.’17

The duke wanted Richard to be replaced by the Earl of March, who was heir presumptive. (March’s mother was the heiress of the Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second son.) Meeting the earl in secret, Gloucester told him he had been appointed to see that England got a new king – Richard must spend the rest of his life in prison. Terrified, March said he would think about the idea, and was very relieved to escape to Ireland as lieutenant.

In October 1396 Richard married Charles VI’s seven-year-old daughter Isabel, part of his plan to end the Hundred Years War during which, in his view, too many brave men had been killed and too many crimes committed – an opinion shared by few Englishmen. He went to Calais for the wedding, an earlier Field of Cloth of Gold. While the marriage was happy enough in its way, Richard treating the little queen as a daughter, it was resented by his subjects, and not only from xenophobia. Charles persuaded him to try and force English churchmen to submit to the pontiff at Avignon who was favoured by the French. ‘Our king has become a Frenchman – he wants to destroy and dishonour us, but he won’t succeed!’ was the reaction of many clergy.18

Laymen as well as clergy were unsettled. Some London merchants asked Gloucester if Calais would be surrendered because of Richard’s marriage. ‘Highly likely’, he answered mischievously. ‘The French won’t care if he has all their king’s daughters, so long as they can keep hold of Calais.’ He advised them to ask Richard. ‘You speak up and don’t be shy!’ added the duke. ‘There’s something shabby going on.’ If they came back and let him know what the king had said, he would tell them how to deal with his foolish nephew.19

Richard was aware of Gloucester’s ravings. So were Lancaster and York, who begged him to be patient with their brother. While admitting that he was the most difficult man in England, they insisted he was harmless – everybody knew Gloucester was off his head. For the moment, they succeeded in calming the king’s fear of him. Luckily, Richard was more worried about the Londoners, of whom he had grown so frightened that he began to think of moving the capital to York.


Increasingly detached from reality, Richard spent whole days in silence amid his courtiers, seated on his throne with his crown on his head, from dinner (at 9.00 am) until dusk. Those who caught his eye had to kneel while he was addressed as ‘Majesty’, a new style. He even dreamed of replacing his late wife’s half-brother Wenzel the Drunkard as Holy Roman Emperor.

Suddenly the king decided that Gloucester, the Arundels and the Earl of Warwick were planning a coup. In July 1397 he arrived unexpectedly at Gloucester’s castle of Pleshey, in Essex, making the duke go back with him to London on a pretext of needing his advice. Nottingham, whom Richard threatened with death if he did not help, then took Gloucester under arrest to Calais, where he was smothered in a feather bed despite begging for mercy ‘as meekly as a man may’. It was announced that he had died from an apoplexy.

The next move against the Appellants was to ‘appeal them of treason’, with calculated irony. At Westminster in September 1397, parliament was ringed by royal archers, who at one point bent their bows and drew their arrows back to their ears, terrifying everybody – as Richard had forbidden on pain of death anyone attending to bear arms apart from his own retinue, so neither peers nor MPs were able to defend themselves. A show-trial took place.

‘The pardon is revoked by the king, by the lords and by us, the faithful commons’, announced Sir John Bussy, referring to the pardon in 1389. The Earl of Arundel groaned, ‘Where be those faithful commons?’ Even his former ally Bolingbroke accused him of proposing Richard’s arrest in 1388, remaining unshaken when Arundel retorted that he was lying through his teeth. ‘Ye are all liars, I am no traitor’, protested the earl, but he was found guilty and beheaded on Tower Hill.20 Warwick, another Appellant, was sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Man after grovelling for mercy, while everything he possessed was confiscated, reducing his wife to beggary. Thomas Arundel was deprived of his see of Canterbury and sent into perpetual banishment.

The king rewarded those who had made his revenge possible. There were five new dukedoms, Bolingbroke becoming Duke of Hereford and Nottingham Duke of Norfolk, while Lancaster’s son by Katherine Swynford, John Beaufort, was created Marquess of Dorset. There was some amusement at their elevation, Walsingham recording that people called them ‘dukelings’. (When the crunch came, however, Richard would find he could rely on only three magnates – his half-brother John Holland, Duke of Exeter, his nephew Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey and John Montague, Earl of Salisbury.)

In January 1398 another parliament at Shrewsbury posthumously pardoned the king’s disgraced chancellor, Michael de la Pole, besides granting Richard the customs on wool for life. Later his enemies charged him with packing the Commons by nominating knights of the shire for the sheriffs to return: modern research shows that a large proportion of the 27 sheriffs who took office at the end of 1397 had links with the royal household, while most of the others were retainers of magnates trusted by Richard. They knew they had been selected to bring government under the Crown’s control.

‘Not even the greatest in England dared question anything done by the king’, recalls Froissart. ‘He kept a paid retinue of 2,000 archers who guarded him day and night, because he did not entirely trust his uncles, let alone the earl of Arundel’s kindred.’21 These were the Cheshire men, who wore his livery of the White Hart. A chronicler credits them with telling him, ‘Dickon, sleep secure while we wake and dread nought while we live.’22 Adam of Usk says they were ‘wholly malevolent, roaming round uncontrolled and doing whatever they wanted, molesting, beating up and robbing’.23

Richard believed he was Christ’s vicar on earth, above the law, and that his subjects were in duty bound to obey him implicitly, an idea developed by Giles of Rome in the previous century. (A copy of Giles’s De Regimini Principum had been owned by the king’s tutor Simon Burley.) Writing to the Emperor of Byzantium, Manuel Paleologus, in 1398, Richard expressed outrage at the rebelliousness of England’s magnates, whom he swore to crush.24 By then he was making sheriffs take new oaths that promised stricter obedience to him, forcing his lords to swear to uphold the recent parliament’s acts to the letter. Behind this lay a conviction that he alone could make the laws, that the lives and goods of every man, woman and child in England belonged to him. He thought he was restoring the Crown’s authority, incapable of seeing that he was destroying its very foundations.

Richard’s views did not make him feel any more secure. At St Albans Walsingham heard a rumour that the king’s slumbers were so disturbed by Arundel’s ghost that he had the earl’s body dug up at night and buried further away from the Tower. There were signs of a growing loss of self-control. When Lady Warwick came to plead for her husband, Richard brandished a sword, yelling that he would have killed her had she been a man – scarcely the behaviour of someone who prided himself on his dignity.

Just before the Shrewsbury parliament, Norfolk told Bolingbroke (Hereford) that the king would never forgive Radcot Bridge and meant to destroy them as he had the other Appellants. When Bolingbroke said they had been granted pardons, Norfolk replied that Richard’s word could not be trusted even if he swore on God’s body – the Host. This was Bolingbroke’s version, but it might have been the other way round: perhaps Bolingbroke warned Norfolk of Richard’s unreliability and then, fearing he might be reported, slandered him to the king.25

Whatever the truth, at the end of February 1398, in the king’s presence, Norfolk told Bolingbroke he was a liar, after which a court of chivalry ordered a trial by combat at Coventry in September. When the two dukes appeared on the tournament field for what promised to be the most dramatic duel in English history, Richard stopped it, not daring to risk the prestige Bolingbroke would gain should he win. He banished Bolingbroke for life and Norfolk for ten years, although both were allowed to transfer large sums of money abroad. Norfolk, once the king’s boon companion, died at Venice shortly after. However, Bolingbroke received such a warm welcome from the French court on installing himself in the Hôtel de Clisson at Paris that it drew a formal protest from Richard’s envoys.

‘Time honoured Gaunt’ (not yet sixty) died in February 1399. The king turned his death into a disaster by refusing to let Bolingbroke inherit his father’s duchy of Lancaster, which was confiscated, altering his term of banishment to one for life – without an allowance.

Think what you will, we seize into our hands.

His plate, his goods, his money and his lands.

(King Richard II, Act II, scene i)

Richard made a mortal enemy, who had to regain his inheritance or die a beggar. Such flagrant injustice caused every magnate in England to fear his own estates might be confiscated in the event of royal displeasure – not even King John had dared to flout the common law like this. Ignoring the general outrage, Richard granted former Lancastrian estates to his favourites, but kept a substantial portion for himself.


By now he had acquired very large sums of money, not only Lancastrian and Appellant revenues, but over £130,000 from his wife’s dowry.26 It made him over-confident, and in May 1399 he took another expedition to Ireland, leaving his ineffectual uncle York as regent. Writing only five years later, Froissart claims that law and order broke down while he was away. Courts were suspended, while gangs of brigands roamed the roads and plundered farms. Rich men took refuge in London. Everyone grumbled that if things went on like this they would starve, and blamed the king for letting it happen. ‘All he worries about is enjoying himself – he doesn’t care what happens to anybody else so long as he gets his own way.’27

Disguised as a pilgrim monk, the ex-Archbishop Arundel went to Henry of Bolingbroke at Paris, urging him to go home and recover his inheritance. Supporters sent ships. Landing in Yorkshire at the end of June with Arundel and 300 men, Bolingbroke rode south. After taking an oath on the Host at Doncaster that he sought only to recover his inheritance, he was joined by the northern lords and Archbishop Scrope of York, and then by the Duke of York. Retainers from the Lancastrian estates rallied to him, making a formidable army. Instead of going to London, the rebels first captured Bristol, where they expected Richard would land on his way home from Ireland, then marched to Chester.

After the Duke of York came over to his side, Henry behaved as though he had replaced the duke as ‘Keeper of the Realm’, executing the regime’s key henchmen. These were the Earl of Wiltshire, who was Richard’s treasurer, with two members of the royal council, Sir John Bussy and Sir Henry Green, popularly considered to be the ‘chief aiders and abettors of his malevolence’.28

Froissart thought that Londoners played a key role. Henry had become their hero, a royal prince who was untarnished by pro-French policies. Since the king’s heir presumptive, the Earl of March, was only eight and not a male Plantagenet, it was easy to see Bolingbroke as a likely alternative – they knew that Edward III had wanted Lancaster or his sons to inherit the throne if Richard died without issue. The mayor was overjoyed when he received news of Henry’s landing, telling the City’s notables they must help him. According to Froissart, more than 500 Londoners, who by now referred to their sovereign as ‘Richard of Bordeaux’ instead of ‘King Richard’ and drank to his damnation, rode off to enrol in Bolingbroke’s army.29

Many other Englishmen thought like the Londoners, but Henry, a subtle politician who kept even his friend Archbishop Arundel in the dark, concealed his plans until he had Richard safely in his hands. Shrewd folk guessed what he had in mind, however. Among them was a Welsh protégé of Arundel called Adam of Usk, a lawyer at the Court of Arches, who left London to join Bolingbroke despite his sympathy with March’s claim.

Delayed by lack of a fleet, Richard landed in Wales on 24 July, to find England had gone over to Henry. His troops deserted him, even his Cheshire archers, while his enemies had occupied Chester, the one city that might have supported him. He took refuge at Conwy Castle in north Wales, hoping the Earl of Salisbury, whom he sent ahead, could raise a Welsh army. When he reached Conwy, however, he found that Salisbury had rallied fewer than a hundred Welshmen.

The king might have found refuge at Dublin or Bordeaux, but was sure he could outwit his enemies, confiding to a French visitor that one day he would skin them alive. Under this delusion he let himself be lured out of Conwy by Archbishop Arundel and the Earl of Northumberland, who swore on the Host he should keep the throne if he restored the duchy of Lancaster to Henry. But as soon as he emerged Richard was seized and brought to Henry at Chester. His household abandoned him. When his favourite greyhound licked his rival’s face, he muttered it was a bad omen.

The king was taken to London, trying unsuccessfully to escape en route – being caught climbing out of a window. When he arrived in the City (at night, by his own request, to avoid being jeered at by the Londoners) he was put in the Tower under guard. In contrast Henry received an ecstatic welcome, partly because he announced he would abolish taxes and ‘live of his own’ on Crown revenues. A delegation led by Henry came to the Tower where they read out a list of charges. Panic-stricken, the king blamed four household knights for the deaths of Gloucester and Arundel and for suggesting Calais should be surrendered to the French. The four were arrested, tried in an adjoining room by the mayor and then, each tied to a horse’s tail, dragged to Cheapside where their heads were hacked off on a fishmonger’s slab.

‘King Richard was in terrible anguish, knowing he was trapped and in danger from the Londoners’, Froissart tells us. ‘He thought every man in England was against him . . . he began to cry.’30 His frightened followers told him to give the Crown to Henry. Adam of Usk, who served on the committee for deposing the king, went to see him dine at the Tower. Here he heard Richard, possibly the worse for drink, lamenting, ‘My God, this is a false, treacherous country, toppling, destroying and killing so many kings, rulers, great men. It never stops being torn apart by quarrels, strife and hatred.’ Then he named the men he had in mind, describing what happened to them. ‘I took my leave deeply moved’, says Adam, ‘recalling his former splendour’.31


After arguing that kingship was inalienable, Richard yielded on 29 September – his opponents having made clear that otherwise he would be killed. Entering the hall at the Tower in royal regalia, he took off his crown. ‘Henry, good cousin and duke of Lancaster’, he said in a loud voice. ‘I give and deliver to you the crown with which I was crowned king of England and all rights belonging to it.’32

Next day, the king’s resignation was read out before parliament, in Westminster Hall. Thirty-three articles of deposition were then recited, the first indicting him for his evil rule, after which Henry made the sign of the cross and, in English, claimed the throne. ‘In the name of God, I, Henry of Lancaster, challenge this realm and the crown with all its dependencies and possessions, by right line of blood from King Henry III.’33 He produced the ex-monarch’s ring as proof of his approval. One after another, the peers gave assent. Finally, Arundel took Henry by the hand and led him to the throne, whereupon the assembly acclaimed Henry IV.

On 21 October a committee of fifty lords spiritual and temporal condemned their former sovereign to perpetual imprisonment, in ‘safe and secret ward’. Eight days later, records Adam of Usk, ‘The lord Richard, late king, after his deposition was carried away on the Thames in the silence of dark midnight, weeping and loudly bewailing he had ever been born. At which a certain knight who was there told him, “You may remember how you treated the earl of Arundel in just the same way, always with the utmost cruelty.”’34


Henry ‘had never dreamed of taking the crown and would not have done so if Richard of Bordeaux had behaved in a proper and friendly way towards him’, comments Froissart. ‘Even then, it was the Londoners who made him king, to put right the cruel injustice done to him and his children.’35But it is also true that many other Englishmen besides Londoners wanted Henry of Bolingbroke to become their king.

Richard II’s inability to rule according to the laws and customs he had sworn to defend meant that even without Bolingbroke his regime would have imploded. The man who claimed to represent Edward the Confessor, quartering what was thought to be his coat of arms, destroyed himself by ignoring the ‘laws of King Edward’ – governing without consent. The demon was in Richard, and it destroyed him.

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