Post-classical history


The Breath of Kings

How long a time lies in one little word!

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs

End in a word: such is the breath of kings!

Richard II, Act III, Scene 3

At some point between February 1397 and January 1398, Henry paid his goldsmith to make a gold chain for a ‘medicinal stone’ to protect him against poison.1 This was probably a bezoar, from the Middle East, which the owner dunked into a wine goblet to nullify the harmful effects of the potion.2 For such a payment to appear in Henry’s accounts in this year is a telling fact. He was in fear of his life, and one of the forms of attack he feared was poison.

To judge from Henry’s recorded public behaviour, he was unconcerned by any of the intrigues of the court, and as confident as ever. He gave the appearance of being utterly loyal. His dukedom even suggests that he and Richard were getting on well at this time. Yet the wearing of jewellery containing stones to protect him from poison gives a very different impression. The fear prevalent in Richard’s ‘Revenge Parliament’ and the murder of Henry’s man, William Laken, on the day of his elevation similarly alerts us to the fears concealed behind his courtly smiles.

One day in December 1397 Henry was riding on the road between London and Brentford in the company of his household staff and knights. Towards him came the party of Thomas Mowbray, the newly created duke of Norfolk. According to Henry’s own testimony, given later under oath in parliament, Mowbray told him ‘We are about to be undone.’3

‘Why?’ asked Henry.

‘Because of what was done at Radcot Bridge.’

Henry, aware that Mowbray had close links at court, was alarmed. ‘But the king has given us a pardon, and declared his will to uphold that pardon in parliament. He even said that we had been true and loyal to him.’

Even as he said these words, Henry must have known what was going on. To get rid of the senior Lords Appellant, Richard had not taken action against Henry and Mowbray, saying they had deserved their pardons for they had restrained the others, and had tried to prevent them from killing Burley. But now the senior Appellants had been dealt with, Richard could turn his thoughts to them.

‘He will do with us what he has done with the others’, replied Mowbray. ‘He wants to wipe clean any trace of our opposition.’

Henry was aghast. ‘It would be a great wonder’, he said, ‘if the king went back on what he said in parliament.’

‘It is a wondrous world, and a false one’, Mowbray agreed. And then his nerve broke. Maybe he should have stopped there, and not said what he said next. But what followed changed the political state of England forever. ‘It is a false world indeed’, he declared, ‘for I know well, that, had several of us not taken action, you and your father would have been murdered on the way to Windsor after the parliament. But Edward, duke of Aumale, John Holland, duke of Exeter, Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester and I all swore that we would never agree to destroy a lord without a just and reasonable cause …’

Henry suspected that Mowbray had already killed his uncle ‘without a just and reasonable cause’, but for the moment he let that matter lie as he listened to this stunning revelation. Who were those behind this plot?

‘The duke of Surrey, the earl of Wiltshire and the earl of Salisbury were against us. They persuaded the earl of Gloucester to join them. They mean to destroy all of us, including you and me, your father, John Holland, John Beaufort and the duke of Aumale. They mean to reverse the pardon of Earl Thomas of Lancaster, for this would be to the disinheritance of us all.’4

‘God forbid!’ Henry exclaimed, ‘it would be a great wonder if the king agreed to that, after promising to be a good lord to us, and even swearing so by St Edward the Confessor.’

‘He has often sworn – even on the Holy Sacrament – to be a good king to me, but I no longer trust him’, said Mowbray, adding that the king had decided to lure the earl of March back from Ireland to join the others in their plot.

‘We will never be able to trust them again’, Henry said.

‘Certainly not’, agreed Mowbray. ‘Even if we succeed in thwarting them now, they will still be intent on destroying us in ten years’ time.’


Stunned by Mowbray’s revelations, Henry went to see his father.5 Under such pressure, he could hardly not tell him that there was a plot against them. It was not just the threat to their lives either; the dignity of Henry’s ancestors on his mother’s side was under attack, and that meant the dignity of his grandfather, the great duke of Lancaster. If Thomas, earl of Lancaster, had been a traitor, then it followed that the Lancastrian titles and estates should not have passed to his brother Henry, the father of Duke Henry. That meant that no one but the king should have enjoyed the benefit of the Lancastrian titles and estates since 1322. If the Lancastrians still carried any hope that Edward III’s entail would place Henry or his eldest son on the throne after Richard’s death, then that hope was about to be extinguished.

John must have been furious when heard the news. He was angry with Mowbray for killing his brother. Now to hear from Henry that Mowbray believed ‘they were about to be undone’ made him reflect not only on Mowbray’s responsibility for Gloucester’s murder but also Mowbray’s own actions in February 1385, when he and de Vere had sought to murder him (John). With this new information, it was obvious to John what he needed to do. Rather than allow both his son and Mowbray to be ‘undone’, he would make sure it was just Mowbray. He went to see the king.6

Richard’s state of mind in the days after the parliament was not steady. He was feeling more vulnerable than ever. It was said that the earl of Arundel’s head had miraculously reattached itself to his body. Hundreds were congregating around the tomb, to demonstrate their opposition to the king through fidelity to a man who was deemed to have given his life resisting Richard’s tyranny. Most kings would have tried to weather such demonstrations, but not the insecure Richard. He demanded John come with him to the church where the earl was buried. Under the cover of night, they watched as workmen dug up the earl’s decomposing body and carted it away.7

When Mowbray discovered that John had reported his words to the increasingly paranoid king, he was terrified. He probably went to the king and threw himself on his mercy. According to the later testimony of the duke of Exeter (Richard’s half-brother), a plot was now made between Richard, Mowbray and William Bagot to kill John before he reached Shrewsbury.8 With John out of the way, Richard would be free to act against Henry and the Lancastrians (by reversing the pardon on Thomas of Lancaster), and Mowbray could hope to be forgiven for his indiscretion.

Mowbray’s plot to kill John failed. Although the details are not clear, it seems likely that Bagot betrayed him. Although Bagot served Mowbray, his loyalties were changeable: he had once been a Lancastrian retainer. He had served Henry at the time of Radcot Bridge.9 He must have been worried that Richard was looking not only for Henry’s and Mowbray’s destruction in revenge for 1387 but his too. Later, Henry went to some lengths to save Bagot’s life after he was accused of treason, and he may have done so in return for Bagot betraying Mowbray in January 1398. Either way, Bagot was discovered, forced to confess his crimes and to swear that he would never again try to murder John or any of his family, nor to try and disinherit him or them. So routine had murder plots become at the court of Richard II that Bagot sealed two official documents promising not to murder or disinherit the duke of Lancaster and had them enrolled in chancery as if they were the usual business of the day.10

It was in this atmosphere that Henry proceeded with his father to Shrewsbury. Between 18 and 23 January 1398, at Great Haywood in Staffordshire, Henry entered Richard’s presence. Richard announced that he had heard that Henry had accused Mowbray of slandering the king. Henry boldly repeated what Mowbray had said to him, and was told to draw up his accusations in writing. Henry probably delivered his testimony to Richard at Lilleshall Abbey on 25 January, when he received a renewed pardon for anything that he had done against the king in the past.11

On Monday 28 January, Henry and his father entered the thronged hall at Shrewsbury and listened to the chancellor remind them of the proceedings of the previous sitting of parliament, including a strict exhortation that there should be no more than one ruler in the realm.12 The chancellor announced that further taxation for the defence of the realm would be required. After a few further preliminaries, all the proceedings of the Merciless Parliament were revoked, and the questions to the judges of the preceding year were reinstated. The crushing wheel of Richard’s will had begun to turn once more.

On Tuesday 29 January, the newly created earl of Wiltshire, William Scrope, was appointed proctor for the clergy, so that parliament could proceed to try Lord Cobham for treason, or, more particularly, to sentence him to death for participating in the commission of 1386. Richard played the part of a merciful monarch and granted him his life. As in the previous session of parliament, the trial was a show trial, and the death sentence and its revocation a publicity stunt. No one was left in any doubt about Richard’s deadly form of justice.

On Wednesday 30 January, the Speaker Sir John Bussy announced that, although in the past many parliamentary decisions had been reversed and revoked, this should not happen to any Act of this present parliament, and if anyone in any way sought to reverse, repeal, invalidate or annul any of the judgements, he would be guilty of treason and punished as a traitor. Parliament was sober and wary. Certain prelates explained to the king that he could not oblige his successors as kings of England to abide by his will. To this Richard replied coldly that he would write to the pope and ask him to excommunicate those who sought to repeal any Act of this parliament. In this chill atmosphere, Henry was called to present his bill against Mowbray. Standing before the throne, he resolutely repeated the words which had passed between them on the road between Brentford and London.

Everyone was aware of the seriousness of the libel. Henry was accusing Mowbray of saying that the king himself was involved in a plot to destroy the Lancastrians. Even if this were absolutely true, Richard could not acknowledge it had anything to do with him, and so he had no option but to present it as a slander against him by Mowbray. Mowbray was so terrified of being impeached in parliament and summarily executed that he did not even turn up to defend himself. The best Richard could do to protect the instrument of his scheming was to delay matters. The following day, with the assent of parliament, Richard declared

that the matters contained in the said writing should be determined and finally considered by the good advice and discretion of our lord the king and the advice and discretion of certain commissioners appointed in the matter by authority of parliament; namely, the duke of Lancaster, the duke of York, the duke of Aumale, the duke of Surrey, the duke of Exeter, the marquis of Dorset, the earl of March, the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Northumberland, the earl of Gloucester, or six of them, the earl of Worcester and the earl of Wiltshire, the proctors of the clergy, or one of them, and John Bussy, Henry Green, John Russell, Richard Chelmeswyk, Robert Teye, John Golafre, knights, coming for the parliament, or three or four of them.13

Extraordinarily, as soon as he had referred this ‘slander’ to himself and the commissioners, Richard did something to support the truth of Mowbray’s statements. He reversed all the judgements passed against Hugh Despenser and his father in 1326. At a stroke, the enemies of Thomas of Lancaster were vindicated. It follows that Richard believed they had been correct to advise Edward II to march against the Lancastrians, and that the 1320s condemnations of Thomas and Henry of Lancaster as traitors should be upheld. There can be little doubt that, had Henry not produced his bill and upset proceedings, the Lancastrian pardons of 1327 would have been repealed, if not at this parliament, then soon afterwards.

With such accusations looming, and deep discontent in the air, Richard brought the parliament to a sudden end. Henry went down on his knees and confessed that he had taken part in the ‘uprisings and troubles’ of 1387, and pleaded that he had done so with no intent of harming the king. Richard pardoned him again, and added that he would offer a general pardon to everyone throughout the realm who had taken part in the troubles. In return he demanded that he should be able to levy the wool subsidy for life, plus one and a half subsidies of ‘a tenth and a fifteenth’ of people’s goods. (This was the usual means of levying extraordinary taxation: a tenth of the value of the moveable goods of townsmen and a fifteenth of the value of country dwellers’ goods.) Such requests were shocking in themselves; a life grant of the wool subsidy – about £30,000 per annum – effectively meant that, as long as he did not go to war, he could rule without having to summon parliament. In reality, he was not so foolish as to announce his intention of ruling alone, but the political bond between king and people – forged over the last century in the furnace of parliament – had been weakened. In future, petitions could be presented to the commissioners. No more would the king need to consent to the wishes of his people. No more would they be able to hold his ministers and favourites to account. The king’s rule was now, in theory, absolute.


Although Henry was pardoned for his acts in 1387–8, Richard nonetheless had him arrested. The reason was that the matter of the ‘slander’ had yet to be resolved. As far as Richard was concerned, the question was this: had Mowbray slandered the king? Or was Henry slandering Mowbray? On 4 February, Richard demanded that Mowbray appear before him within two weeks. Mowbray did so, and was stripped of his office of Earl Marshal and lost his lands. On 23 February, at Oswestry, Richard made an attempt to reconcile the two dukes. He asked Henry if he stood by his accusations. Henry removed his black hood. ‘My lord’, he said, ‘as the petition I have given you makes clear, I declare that Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, such as he is, is a traitor, false and recreant towards you and your royal majesty, to your crown, to the nobles and to all the people of your realm.’ When asked to reply, Mowbray declared that ‘Henry of Lancaster, duke of Hereford, has lied in what he has said and wishes to insinuate against me, like a false traitor and disloyal subject that he is’. ‘Ho!’ said the king, ‘we’ve heard enough of that’, and he promptly gave orders for both of them to be arrested.14 Three days later the constable of Windsor Castle was ordered to take both men into custody.15 In Henry’s case, four dukes – his father and uncle, his cousin Edward and Thomas Holland – stood bail for him. He remained free, for the moment at least.16

The level of dissembling around the court now reached its most extreme. Here was Henry, in fear of his life, pretending loyalty to the king. Here was Mowbray, murderer of one of the king’s uncles, who had twice now attempted to kill another (John), protesting that he was not a traitor. And here was John of Gaunt pretending that nothing was wrong, despite two attempts to murder him in the last six months. When Roger Mortimer, the earl of March, had arrived at parliament in January, he had apprehended that he too was vulnerable, and had professed his loyalty even though he detested the form of rule which Richard had assumed. He swiftly realised that Richard was plotting against him, and, far from drawing him over to support the anti-Lancastrian cause, was planning to arrest him.17 Although March’s only crime was to protect his ageing uncle, Thomas Mortimer, whom the Counter-Appellants had accused in 1397, Richard deprived him of office and sent the duke of Surrey to Ireland to arrest him. March never knew that his suspicions of Richard were well founded, for by the time his arrest was ordered he was dead. At Kells, on 20 July 1398, he fell fighting bravely in the vanguard of his army against the Irish. Any claim to the throne through him – denied by Richard – now passed to his sons, Edmund and Roger, aged seven and five. Their claim was practically unenforceable, throwing Henry even more clearly into the position of heir apparent.

For Henry, however, inheritance required staying alive, and that was looking a less likely prospect by the day. His argument with Mowbray was considered by the parliamentary commission at Bristol on 19 March 1398. It was decided then that the matter would be put to the Court of Chivalry, unless Henry could prove the slander or Mowbray could prove his innocence. That meant a duel. Henry returned with his father and the king to London at the beginning of April, and remained in the city until setting out for the Order of the Garter feast at Windsor.18 Shortly afterwards, on 28 April, he faced the parliamentary commissioners once again. This time he openly accused Mowbray of embezzling funds for the protection of Calais and, astoundingly, of murdering the duke of Gloucester.19

This new accusation was extremely dangerous. Froissart records that Richard had announced that anyone even mentioning the deaths of the duke of Gloucester and the earl of Arundel would be deemed a traitor.20 Mowbray had been acting on Richard’s orders. Would he now betray the king? Henry hoped perhaps to present Mowbray with such a difficult situation that he confessed to some lesser element of his crime and was judged the culprit. But Henry had struck a raw nerve: the king was incandescent with rage. Richard demanded an explanation from Mowbray. One of Mowbray’s knights answered for him, and accused Henry of lying. Richard directly asked Mowbray himself if these were his own words, and Mowbray answered that he had accepted money for the defence of Calais, but had never misappropriated any. He also admitted trying to kill John of Gaunt, and claimed he had been forgiven. That was all he wished to say. Richard did not press him on the matter of the murder. Instead he asked whether either of them would withdraw their accusations. They could not; as Mowbray said, honour was too deeply involved. Richard dismissed them. The following day they were told that their dispute would be settled by a duel to be fought at Coventry in the autumn.21

Each man must have felt betrayed. In return for warning Henry of a murder plot against him and the disinheritance of his entire family, Mowbray was now in prison, in disgrace, had lost his position as Earl Marshal, and would have to fight for his life. He had been openly accused of murder, which he had committed out of loyalty to the king. Henry, having reported to his father what had been said about a plot to kill them both, was now being treated as if he was the traitor. These two men were now to fight a duel, a joust of war. The lances would not be capped.

Henry’s physical state seems now to have taken a turn for the worse. Payments appear in his accounts for mending his brass astrolabe on 17 May and again on 8 July.22 They do not necessarily indicate that Henry was intent on having his future told, for the position of the stars was a factor taken into consideration by physicians when deciding the most propitious time to use medicine, or to let blood; but it is good evidence that he was either ill or consulting the stars for some other purpose. In support of the illness interpretation, medicines were bought for him in London on the last day of May.23 Other medicines were transported to him at Hertford in the summer.24 It is likely that the stress of the situation was making him ill. Another example of his concern might be a payment for a figure of St Christopher – the protector of travellers – which he bought for one of his messengers, John Elys, when he sent him to the king.25 On Maundy Thursday in this year (4 April) he gave alms to as many paupers as were in his age not nextbirthday but the year after that: thirty-three paupers, although he was only thirty-one.26 In later years, the payment by the king of an extra year’s alms was described as ‘the Year of Grace’, that is, the next year which the king hoped that by God’s grace he would live to see.27 Henry’s example in 1398 might be the first instance of such a hopeful donation.

We may ask why Henry was so worried, given that he was one of the most proficient jousters in the realm, and had done nothing wrong. Mowbray was hardly any less a jousting champion than Henry.28 At St Inglevert, eight years earlier, Mowbray had dared to ride one of the first jousts of war against Renaud de Roye, and had broken one of the Frenchman’s lances. Thus the forthcoming duel was not only the first in England between two dukes, it was between two of the best jousting champions in the kingdom. Another reason for Henry to be worried was Richard’s reaction. If he survived, he would be the last of the Appellants whom Richard had sworn to destroy, and more vulnerable than ever. If he lost this joust, he would be either dead or guilty of slander, and thus ruined.

For the forthcoming duel, Henry understandably wanted nothing but the very best military hardware. Thus he sent to his old friend Gian Galeazzo Visconti, duke of Milan. The Italian esquire Francis Court, who had devoted himself to Henry’s service since 1393, was now sent back to his old master to request the finest Italian armour available.29 Later that summer a group of Italians from Duke Gian Galeazzo arrived, and were entertained at Henry’s expense, probably bearing the equipment.30 At the same time, Mowbray was soliciting the help of the best German armourers. The forthcoming duel was set to be the greatest chivalric event of the age: two dukes, two jousting champions, the two leading manufacturers of armour, and a fight to the death over a matter of honour.

Over the next five months Henry travelled around the country. Froissart states that both his father and the king kept their distance from him at this time.31 However, Henry was with the king in London in April, and with John at Pontefract on 9 July.32 A month later he was in London, presumably at his house in Bishopsgate Street.33 On 22 July he was ordered, on pain of death, to present himself to the king in person on 2 August at Shrewsbury, with no more than twenty men in his company. Mowbray – still in custody – received the same order.34 It is not known what happened at that meeting. Perhaps it marked a last attempt to reconcile the two men. Writs to attend the duel had yet to be sent out, and it seems that Richard understood that Henry’s charge against Mowbray’s misuse of the Calais money was provable.35 He may have asked that Henry withdraw the accusation of murder against Mowbray in return for Mowbray admitting he had misappropriated the Calais money. If this was the case, then Henry refused. There was nothing for it now but to do battle.


Henry arrived at Coventry on 15 September, the day before the duel.36 He stayed in a large house just within the town gates. The excited townspeople craned to see in but could only catch a glimpse of the wooden pavilion sited in its grounds, not those coming and going. Many lords and knights had come to witness the fight, and many others had come from overseas with entreaties to stop it. The count of St Pol had come from France for just such a purpose. French feelings were mixed. On the one hand, a fight between two dukes was too much of a horror to be contemplated, for it threatened to divide two major families of the realm, so Richard was a fool to let them fight. On the other, there was the view that it did not matter if they fought, on account of the English being ‘the most perverse and proud people on Earth’.37 Opinion was divided in England too, for different reasons. The mass of the people, who had come to regard Henry as a hero, were of the opinion that he should avenge the death of his uncle on the murderer Mowbray. Others, who realised the risk to themselves of Henry being killed in such a fight, and the possible disinheritance of the Lancastrians, were of the contrary view.

On the morning of Monday 16 September, Henry’s esquires strapped him into his Italian armour. Mowbray set out at eight o’clock to say farewell to the king, who was lodging at Baginton, William Bagot’s house, just outside the town. Henry had performed the same duty the previous evening. Thus it was Mowbray whom the crowds saw first: splendidly arrayed in his German steel, his war horse covered with crimson velvet embroidered with silver and mulberry trees. An hour later Henry appeared, even more spectacularly armed, on a white war horse, draped in a livery of blue and green velvet embroidered with gold swans and antelopes.38 Behind him followed six other war horses with various exotic trappings.39 The crowd was ecstatic, and the popular support behind Henry immediately became apparent.

The lists themselves were set up in an area sixty paces long by forty wide, with a central barrier seven feet high. There stood the constable of England (the duke of Aumale) and the marshal of England (the duke of Surrey). They and their sergeants-at-arms and heralds were all dressed in red Kendal cloth, with belts embroidered with a near-quotation of the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honniz soit celluy qui mal pense (‘shame on him who thinks evil’). First they addressed Henry, as he rode up on his white charger. The constable and marshal demanded that he show his face and announce himself. With the visor of his helmet open, Henry declared in a loud voice, ‘I am Henry of Lancaster, duke of Hereford, and I have come here to prosecute my appeal in combating Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, who is a traitor, false and recreant to God, the king, his realm and me.’ Henry then swore that his bill was true in all respects, and that he had no other weapons but those allowed, and that he would either kill his adversary or force him to surrender. Having sworn these oaths, he was asked to present his arms. He lifted his shield arm, bearing not the royal arms but those of St George: a red cross on a white background. He was fighting in the arms of the martial saint, under whose banner Edward III had fought. There could be no surer sign of his belief that he was in the right.

With his arms acknowledged, Henry entered the lists and rode straight for his pavilion, a huge tent decorated with red roses (later to become the most potent Lancastrian symbol of them all). There he awaited the arrival of his adversary. With the king and thousands of people watching, Mowbray rode up and announced himself. He uncovered his face and swore his oaths. The herald in charge then proclaimed from the heralds’ stand that it was the king’s will that anyone who touched the lists should forfeit his hand, and anyone who entered the lists should be hanged. Mowbray then shouted ‘God speed the right!’ and rode to his pavilion, dismounted and hung his shield up. The constable and marshal measured the lances of each combatant, to make sure they were the same length. This done, Henry rode to the end of the lists.

Henry’s war horse had only advanced seven or eight paces, and Mowbray had not yet moved at all, when suddenly a shout went up. ‘Ho! Ho!’ called the king from his seat, rising to his feet. Henry came to a halt. Incredibly, Richard was ordering the fight to be stopped.

Henry sat there, shocked, as the king gestured for his lance to be taken away from him, and for him to be conducted to his pavilion. With thousands of onlookers wondering what was going on, the pair of them had been made to look like fools.

The morning drew on. Noon came, and nothing happened.

After two hours of waiting, the herald of the duke of Brittany mounted the heralds’ stand with a long roll of parchment in his hand. He began to read, as follows:

Listen! My lords, I inform you by order of the king and council, the constable and the marshal, that Henry of Lancaster, duke of Hereford, Appellant, and Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, defendant, have both appeared here valiantly and that each was and is ready to do his duty like a brave knight. Nevertheless, our lord the king, considering the reason for the battle is so high, that is to say treason determined by parliament, and the dukes of Hereford and Norfolk being so close in blood to the king and of his arms, our lord the king, as one who has always trusted in the worth and honour of all those of his blood and of his arms, and grieving in his heart, as a good and gracious lord … to avoid complete dishonour befalling one of the said dukes … of his special grace has taken the battle into his own hand. And our said lord the king, with the full advice, authority, and assent of parliament, wills … that the said Henry of Lancaster duke of Hereford should quit his realm for ten years. And that he should be outside the said realm before the day of the octave of St Edward the Confessor, upon pain of incurring the penalty for treason by authority of parliament.40

It is difficult for a biographer to reflect the full crushing weight of this announcement. As Henry’s reactions are not recorded, it is difficult to say anything certain about how it affected him. Certainly we cannot say that it unleashed a burst of violence; with two thousand Cheshire archers present, he could hardly attack the king. But nor would it be right to say that he accepted this judgement, or his banishment, with equanimity. What had just happened was one of the grossest acts of tyranny in English history. Richard was not going to let him fight for the justice of his case. Instead, the king was apportioning blame for the slander, as if both men were partly responsible. Thus Henry shared a fate which carried all the stigma of treason, loss of royal favour and dishonour. All for mentioning another man’s accusations against the king.41

In the heat of the moment it is unlikely that Henry fully comprehended what had happened. The injustice, we may imagine, consumed him too much. But if Henry was astonished, his father must have been astounded. John had only told the king of Mowbray’s indiscretion in order to focus the king’s retribution on the real culprit, Mowbray, the murderer of the duke of Gloucester. John’s strategy was in tatters. Moreover, his long-term policy of remaining absolutely faithful to the king, so that Richard would never have any reason not to recognise Henry as heir to the throne, had been wrecked. His life’s work was about to be undone. He had often petitioned Richard in council to recognise Henry as his heir, but Richard had always fobbed him off with some excuse.42 Now everything was laid bare. Richard never meant to acknowledge Henry, rather he intended to get rid of him; and he did not care if he had to commit a gross injustice to do so.

Henry went with his father to Nuneaton, where the king was staying, but soon after their arrival the king departed for Leicester.43 It seems probable that they tried to convince Richard that he was being unjust, that Henry did not deserve to be banished, but Richard refused to change his mind. Perhaps he believed John had only reported the conversation between Mowbray and Henry in order to stir up trouble, and, by apportioning the treason, sought to answer John’s implied criticism that he, Richard, had ordered the death of Gloucester. Either way, he stuck to his decision. Nor was Henry’s sentence commuted from ten years to six, as Shakespeare claims.44 Henry and Mowbray were told to say farewell to the court at Windsor on 3 October, and then to depart, Henry to go via Dover to France or Spain for ten years, and Mowbray from an east coast port, to Germany or the Mediterranean, for life.

It is in the length of time that the desperation of Henry’s situation becomes clear. Some writers have suggested that he did not mind being banished, as it allowed him to get out of England again and visit people, as he had so enjoyed doing in the early 1390s. Such writers are lacking in sensitivity to the facts and sympathy for the man. Ten years was ten times the duration of his journey to Jerusalem via Prussia and back again. It was more time than he could have spent constructively travelling, especially as he had a reduced income of just £2,000 to spend (less than half of his expenditure on his travels in 1392–3). More importantly, it meant that he would never see his beloved father again. He would not see his children grow up. They had already lost their mother; it seemed they were now to lose their father too. Richard, who had himself lost his father at a young age, and who had no children of his own, had no regard for such things. Henry, it seems, did. We may read of him buying two ABC grammar books for his daughters in this year, a sure sign that he wanted them to learn to read and eventually to be as well educated as their mother had been.45Looking through his most recent New Year present lists, we may read the name of one of his sons, Thomas, high up in the list of recipients.46 There too we may read of Henry’s presents for his beloved father, stepmother and sister, the duchess of Exeter. Henry was losing not only his immediate family but a great number of supportive kin, and many more friends, many of whom would be dead within ten years.

Another point we need to remember is that the very fact of banishment would have wholly changed Henry’s attitude to travel. How could he show his face in a foreign court, after he had been banished for a supposedly traitorous act? Richard claimed this had been agreed in parliament, and even though this was a lie, foreign potentates were going to judge Henry’s character by the favour his king showed him, not the justness of his case. The more he thought about his position, the more awful it must have seemed. All he had was £2,000 a year and the prospect of living in exile in France, at his half-sister’s court in Castile, or his eldest sister’s court in Portugal.

Henry and his father travelled to Windsor to see the king on 3 October. There he received a direct promise from the king that, when his father died, his representatives would be able to take possession of his inheritance on his behalf.47 Then he and his father went on to London. Henry spent a week there making arrangements, paying rewards and giving presents to his faithful followers and friends. He appointed his attorneys on 8 October, and witnessed two of his father’s charters on 9 and 10 October.48 Then it was time to go.

On the day of his departure, he could not but have realised how he had become a hero. Crowds gathered and cheered him: it was said that forty thousand people lined the streets of London when he departed, and the citizens declared that the nation would not be safe until he returned from exile.49 This was in marked contrast to the king, who was detested in the south-east. Even before the duel, there had been a peasant uprising in Oxfordshire aimed directly at ambushing the king, who was seen as a tyrant and an arch-traitor to the realm.50 By his own admission, Richard was unable to ride around his own realm because of the enmity of the people of London and all the south-eastern counties. Consequently, he had excluded the people of London and sixteen other counties from the general pardon of 1398, and demanded that they each pay large sums to regain his favour.51 The fact that they had already paid for this pardon through the lifelong grant of a wool subsidy was of no concern to Richard. If forty thousand is an exaggeration of the number who actually turned out to see Henry go, it is not an exaggeration of the number who despised the king for exiling him.


Henry said farewell to his father for the last time on 13 October, at Dover.52 That day he embarked with his most faithful followers and servants, including the knights Thomas Rempston, John d’Aubridgecourt, Thomas Erpingham, John Tuchet and John Norbury, and his other lifelong followers, Henry Bowet, William Loveney and Robert Challoners.53 No doubt he had many more men with him than this – the king authorised him to take ‘no more than two hundred persons’ – but few of them could have been of knightly status. His permission to stay in the castle at Calais allowed him to be accompanied by no more than twelve men, and then they could stay there only for a week. His whole company was allowed to stay no more than six weeks at Sangatte.54 Then he was on his own.

According to Froissart, Henry had sent envoys to the French king in Paris before leaving England. King Charles in response sent a messenger saying that he sympathised with Henry’s present disgrace, and invited him to Paris. The count of Ostrevant heard Henry was heading to Paris and sent Fier-a-Bras de Vertain to invite Henry to Hainault. Henry, however, felt an obligation to go to Paris. The dukes of Orléans and Berry met him as he approached the city, and accompanied him a little distance, and then the dukes of Burgundy and Bourbon did the same, and a great number of prelates and barons. The brilliant array accompanied Henry to the Hôtel de St Pol, where he was favourably received by King Charles. So impressed was the king with his charming manners that he allowed Henry to wear the livery of his order, and gave him the use of a house, the Hôtel de Clisson, and offered him financial support.55 But despite this magnificent reception, Froissart notes that Henry

was at times very melancholy, and not without reason, on thus being separated from his family. He was impatient to return, and much vexed that for such a frivolous cause he should be banished from England, and from his four promising sons and two daughters. [He] frequently dined with the king, the duke of Orléans and other great lords, who did everything they could to make his time pass agreeably.56

One of the ways in which the French royal family helped him ‘pass the time agreeably’ was to involve him in their attempt to heal the schism in the Church. At that time there were two popes trying to exercise authority. England supported one, France the other. The issue had exercised the greatest minds since the schism had first occurred in 1378. The French royal family joined in the debates, and Henry did too, attending discussions at the University of Paris. Philip, duke of Burgundy, was particularly impressed with Henry’s ability to weigh the theological arguments he heard. ‘Though we have clerics in England who are more subtle in their imaginative suggestions, these here in Paris have the true and sound theology’, Henry remarked to Duke Philip, who afterwards repeated it as if, coming from Henry, the dictum carried special weight.57

The French also tried to brighten Henry’s mood with discussions of his possible marriage to a member of the French royal family. Mary of Berry was proposed, the daughter of the duke of Berry, in whom Henry is supposed to have placed special trust.58 Henry seems to have been very positive about the match. Mary was the same age as him, an attractive widow and of royal blood.59 Her father was the duke who commissioned Les Très Riches Heures de duc de Berri, probably the most famous illuminated manuscript of the late middle ages. He was also the younger son of King John II. From the duke’s point of view, the match was an excellent one: his proposed son-in-law or his eldest son was likely to succeed to the throne of England in the event of Richard dying without a male heir. But when Richard heard about the proposed marriage, and was made aware of how favourably Henry was being treated, he instructed John Montagu, earl of Salisbury, to speak to the French king. At Christmas, the earl presented his letters of credence to Charles and spoke to him privately, referring to Henry as a traitor, and urging that no marriage should be contemplated. He then delivered the same message to the duke of Berry. When he had received assurances that the French council had decided to break off the marriage, he hastily returned to England, without seeing Henry.60

According to Froissart, no one broke the news to Henry for a month. It was only when Henry himself sought to proceed with the arrangements that he was told what had happened. Philip, duke of Burgundy, uncle to the king of France, was charged with delivering the news to him. He chose an unfortunate way to express himself. In the presence of the court, he declared, ‘we cannot think of marrying our cousin to a traitor’.

Henry was appalled. ‘Sir, I am in the presence of my lord the king, and must interrupt your speech, to answer your accusation. I never was, nor ever thought of being, a traitor; and if anyone dares to charge me with treason, I am ready to answer him now, or at whatever time the king may appoint.’

‘No, cousin’, replied the king himself. ‘I do not believe you will find a man in all of France who will challenge your honour. The expression my uncle has used comes from England.’

At this Henry is supposed to have sunk down on his knees and exclaimed, ‘My lord, I believe you. May God preserve all my friends and confound my enemies!’

The king then made Henry rise, ‘Sir, be appeased; this matter will end well. And when you are on good terms with everyone, then we will talk of marriage. But first you must obtain your inheritance, for it will be necessary for you to make provision for your wife.’61

Henry, on returning to the Hôtel de Clisson, was exceedingly angry. He was furious with the duplicity of the whole business, and the false charge of treason, and the stain on his character implied by his banishment. The undeserved shame of his exile was appalling and distressing. No one at the French court knew how to treat him. Normally medieval kings did not banish great lords for no reason. Henry was an anomaly in being exiled, and pitiable as a political liability.

It was probably as a result of this humiliation that Henry decided to leave Paris.62 His friend Boucicaut was planning to undertake another crusade, to help the king of Hungary in his fight against Bayezid. He wrote to his father asking for permission to go with Boucicaut, but John suggested it would be better for him to visit either his sister Philippa, queen of Portugal, or his half-sister, Catalina, queen of Castile.63 The letters from his father concerned Henry so much that he read them twice over. The knight who had brought them from England watched him, and told him that he should prepare himself for bad news. The physicians and surgeons attending his father had told the knight that John had only a matter of weeks to live.

John fell grievously ill over Christmas, at Leicester Castle. Richard was at Lichfield, a day and a half away. A massive feast was in progress, and jousts continued day and night, culminating on the king’s birthday, Twelfth Night. Richard declared to William Bagot at this time that he would never allow Henry to return to England.64 But despite this bitterness towards Henry, it seems Richard paid a visit to John on his deathbed.

Richard probably saw John in early January.65 In fact, he gave out advance news of his burial between 8 and 19 January while John was still alive.66 The most likely explanation for this seems to be that it was at John’s own request. The announcement of his forthcoming burial would have been outrageous and pointlessly antagonistic if it had been made without his permission, and John’s generous personal bequests to the king are confirmation that he was not angered by it. In addition, the long period of time before the date for the funeral – about two months – and the place of burial would suggest that Richard had prior knowledge of John’s funeral instructions: namely, that his body should remain unembalmed for forty days and that he wanted to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, alongside his first wife.67 John’s motive in having his funeral announced by the king so far in advance was probably his hope that Henry would be able to make peace with Richard and return from France to attend. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

John of Gaunt died on 3 February 1399, surviving just long enough to force the delay of his funeral by a couple of days, to Saturday 15 March.68 Henry did not attend the ceremony.69 By then he had received a message from William Bagot informing him that ‘the king was his sworn enemy, and that Henry must help himself by force’.70 Receiving this sort of information is unlikely to have tempted Henry to return to England to attend his father’s funeral, in the king’s presence. Froissart notes that Richard wrote an account of John’s death ‘with a sort of joy’ and that, when he sent a messenger to announce it to the French court, the messenger did not let Henry know the news.71

The entire French royal family joined with Henry in attending a Mass to pray for his father’s soul. They pitied him, but they could hardly have comforted him. Their real interests lay in supporting Richard, the rightful king, whose queen was the daughter of the king of France. Justice had to take second place to political expediency. Thus, although we have no written record of Henry’s feelings at that moment in March 1399 when he received news from Bagot, we can have little doubt that he was torn between emotions: grief for his father and anger at the way Richard had treated him, together with a sense of frustration at being stuck in Paris.

He had lost everything because of Richard. He had been kept back from having a prominent position as an international diplomat, which he could have reasonably expected. He had been prevented from winning as much fame in arms as he could have achieved. He had had to put up with plots against him and his father, constant worry, and seeing his uncle murdered and his friends summarily executed. He had been banished from his estates and separated from his father and children. And yet he had been wholly loyal to the king for ten years. What did he have to show for such loyalty? A ducal coronet and ten years in exile. It was a poor return for a man who was so highly educated, well-travelled, pious and militarily skilled.

And therein lies the explanation of 1399, one of the most momentous years in English history. Richard personally hated Henry. According to a French contemporary, he felt ‘an implacable hatred’ for him.72 According to an English contemporary, he ‘vehemently hated’ him.73 Reflecting on their lives from their first meeting, it is obvious that their characters were totally conflicting: Henry was so dutiful, almost ploddingly obedient to his father, Richard so mercurial. Henry was so logical and self-disciplined, Richard so flighty. Henry was so physically confident, Richard so insecure, needing to cocoon himself within his royal self-righteousness. But beyond these reflections, we have to suspect that the very root of Richard’s active hatred (as opposed to passive dislike) was his own fear. He was afraid of Henry as the hero of the joust. He was afraid of his confidence, his affable nature, his logical mind and his strength. And he was afraid of his royalty, and the prophecies concerning the two of them. To impress his fellow men, and to get their obedience, Richard had to terrorise and cheat, to push himself forward and demand obedience. Henry was quite the opposite. It had been that way ever since they were children.

Thus it was a long-lasting hatred which brought the crisis to a head now. On 18 March 1399, twenty-eight years after he had first come to England, Richard sat on the throne, glowering at his subjects, and ordering them to address him in no other fashion but as ‘your majesty’, terrifying those around him, and demanding that his close friends be addressed as ‘magnificent’ and that the duke of Aumale should be referred to as his ‘brother’.74 At the same time, Henry sat in his chamber in a borrowed house in Paris, having been unable even to attend his father’s funeral. And as they sat in their respective states – one haughty, the other reduced to waiting modestly on a foreign king – Richard announced that Henry’s pardons were all revoked. The entire Lancastrian inheritance was confiscated. Everything Henry possessed was forfeit. And Henry himself was to be regarded as a traitor, and banished from England for the rest of his life.

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