Post-classical history


The Virtue of Necessity

All places that the eye of heaven visits

Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.

Teach thy necessity to reason thus;

There is no virtue like necessity.

Richard II, Act 1, Scene 3

This biography began by referring to the character portraits of Henry IV and Richard II with which we are most familiar, namely those conveyed by Shakespeare’s plays. It has to be said that Shakespeare sympathises more with Richard, portraying him as unable to come to terms with the fragility of his power and the failure of his identity as a king. Shakespeare’s Henry – or, more accurately, his Henrys – are never in need of our sympathy, even when (as duke or king) they are politically weak. Rather it is Harry Hotspur with whom Shakespeare sympathises in Henry IV Part One: a rebellious but doomed subject. In Henry IV Part Two it is the prince. In Henry V, the king becomes the object of Shakespeare’s sympathy because of the weight of responsibility he has to bear. Shakespeare focused on the key problems facing his historical characters to create a sense of sympathy for them. In other words, he explores them through the struggles they faced, and we have come to see Richard as one such struggling man: a victim of his rebellious subjects’ oppression, worthy of our sympathy.

In ignoring Henry at this point in time, Shakespeare missed a great opportunity. Had he construed the beginning of this series of four history plays differently, and written Richard II from Henry’s point of view, as a preliminary ‘Henry IV Part One’ (of three parts), we would see Henry and Richard in a very different light. Henry would be the wronged man, the ‘struggling man’, and Richard a detestable tyrant. The four plays would then have had a dynastic unity, charting the rise of Lancastrian fortunes from their nadir of 1399 to culminate in the victory at Agincourt, the climactic point of the fourth and final play of the sequence, Henry V. Such a progression would have truly glorified the Lancastrians. It would also have been closer to the truth.

Consider Henry’s thoughts in the long nights of March 1399. He had been robbed of everything. Knights, tradesmen and clerks in England could rely on the king’s protection and some level of justice, but not Henry. What could he do about it? Nothing. His enemy was above the law. But nor could he accept his disinheritance. He knew well that to live under a sentence of perpetual banishment and forfeiture – however unjust – was an admission of guilt. He could not journey around the courts of Europe for the rest of his life, saying how wronged he had been, if he meant to do nothing about it. His personal capital would be worthless. He would lose the one thing he had left, his dignity.

Yet what should he do? Invade England? Presuming he could raise an army – which in itself was open to doubt – what could he hope to achieve? If he was successful, and forced Richard to restore his Lancastrian inheritance, Richard would only hate him more intensely. One day the king would seek revenge, just as Edward II had done against Thomas of Lancaster. Few would dare to fight against the royal banner if the king was in command. As we picture Henry in the long nights of March 1399, in the Hôtel de Clisson, we must picture a man in this plight. He knew that he had to dethrone Richard. He had no choice; it was either an end to Richard’s rule or an end to everything Henry held dear: his royalty, family dignity, status and self-respect. But the means at his disposal were negligible. Assassination was out of the question; the risks were too great, and in any case it would simply confirm Henry as a traitor, no better than the murderer Richard himself. So he had no choice but to try and provoke a revolution, and for that there was no guarantee of success.

The English were not particularly given over to revolution. Only once since the Conquest had anyone dethroned a king of England. In 1327 Roger Mortimer had overseen the parliamentary deposition and enforced abdication of Edward II. But Mortimer, political genius though he was, had been unable to do more than put Edward II’s legitimate heir on the throne. If Henry was successful in provoking a revolution, would he be accepted as Richard’s heir? Richard had always refused publicly to accept him as such, despite the agreement they may have reached in the Tower at the end of 1387. Indeed, Richard had for several years now given preference to his last surviving uncle, Edmund of Langley, duke of York, with the idea that his son Edward, duke of Aumale (Richard’s adopted brother), would eventually succeed.1

Herein lies another aspect of Henry’s plight. Even though he had been brought up to believe that he would be the heir of a childless King Richard, he could not produce Edward III’s entail, let alone enforce it. As Richard had never acknowledged that such a document existed, and had probably destroyed the original, the potency of Edward III’s wishes was hugely lessened. Moreover, King Edward’s intentions now had to be set against King Richard’s. When Richard drew up his will on 17 April 1399, he did not name his successor but indicated whom it should be (his uncle, the duke of York) in a separate settlement of his own.2 In addition, Richard tried to impose a condition on his successor: that he should uphold the sentences of the 1397–8 parliament and the later meetings of the commissioners, including the decision by which Henry was declared a traitor and banished forever. Richard did not just demote Henry in the order of succession, he removed his right even to have a place in it.

Here, then, was a wonderful opportunity for Shakespeare to champion the cause of an oppressed man. Rather than the ‘king unking’d’ we would have had the banished heir fighting for his right. Instead of the downfall of an autocratic king we would have had the victory of natural justice. What great speeches Shakespeare could have made of that! But Shakespeare refrained from taking Henry’s side. He ignored him in his plight. Even though it would have given the four plays a better structural unity, been more accurate and allowed him to contrast the champion of justice against the tyrant, he could not do so. The reason becomes clear when we realise the enormity of the task facing Henry in March 1399. To dethrone an anointed king he had to destroy part of the very fabric of society. Fundamental ideas of loyalty, service and divine right would have to be overturned if Richard were to be disempowered. It could be done – Roger Mortimer had done it – but it could only be done by setting the will of the people against the laws of God and the kingdom. Had Shakespeare written such a play, championing a man who was prepared to do such things, it would have been banned immediately, and the author would have been arrested. Even as it was, Richard II caused great uneasiness, often being played without the deposition scene, and being performed on the eve of attempted rebellions (such as that of the earl of Essex). If that play had been written from the point of view of the ‘traitor’ defeating the legitimate government of the realm, it could not have been performed in England until the mid-seventeenth century, as it would have been a justification of armed rebellion against a divinely anointed monarch. In 1599 the publication of John Hayward’s prose history of Henry’s life and reign resulted in the author being thrown in the Tower and the burning of all the unsold copies.3 Thus the task now facing Henry was something which people could not even write about two hundred years later. What Henry himself was thinking in those long nights in the Hôtel de Clisson was such a fundamental break with the world in which he lived, it was almost beyond his comprehension. It was only through reflecting on those resolute leaders he had met in his long travels, such as Vitold of Lithuania and Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan, and the example of Roger Mortimer, seventy years before, that he had any grasp of what was needed to accomplish such a task.


Henry was fortunate in one respect. His adversary was not only personally insecure and politically unreliable, he was a poor strategist. Nor was he willing to take advice from others. At the same time as he banished Henry for life and revoked his pardons – a decision which outraged and further alienated Henry’s many supporters across the country – he summoned a prestigious army with which to invade Ireland and bring the rebellious Irish lord Art McMurrough to heel. In so doing he created his own two-front war. On the one hand he took a number of his most loyal fighting men to Ireland, and on the other he left England angry and sympathetic to Henry, whom he had now given no option but to return and start a revolution.

Richard did take some precautions. He drew up a set of ‘blank charters’ for London and the sixteen counties which he had decided to remove from the provisions of the general pardon.4 Representatives of these places were required to set their seals to these blanks charters, so if Richard required more money, or wanted to punish or threaten these counties, all he had to do was to fill in the details of what he decided they should give him. Another precaution was to take hostages from families whose lords might rise against him. Henry’s own son and heir, Henry of Monmouth (now aged twelve), and seventeen-year-old Humphrey, son of the late Thomas of Woodstock, were taken into Richard’s household. There was a blanket prohibition on sending letters abroad unless they had first been vetted by the privy council.5 Despite this last precaution, it is still likely that Henry and members of his household were fed information from those remaining in England. Moreover, because Richard’s Irish plans had been in progress from before the death of John, there can be little doubt that Henry knew at the time of his disinheritance that Richard was about to leave the country. Richard’s precautions were thus too slight to pose any significant disincentive to Henry, who could see his opportunity.

Thomas of Arundel, the exiled archbishop of Canterbury, was staying in Utrecht on the day that John died. That night he had a vision of John apologising for his harsh treatment of him in 1397.6 Hearing of Henry’s disinheritance, he travelled to Paris to find his cousin. He arrived there at roughly the same time as the message from William Bagot stating ‘that Henry must help himself by force’. Thomas Arundel agreed with that advice, fully sympathising with Henry. They were in similar situations: Arundel’s ‘crimes’ amounted to representing the views of parliament to the king in 1386 and taking an active part in the trials of Richard’s friends in 1388. Like Henry he had been forbidden from trying to clear his name. He had lost his position as archbishop, had all his worldly possessions confiscated, and had been banished for life. He now was prepared to say openly to Henry that Bagot was right. Something had to be done.

With Thomas Arundel came another lord: his nephew, Thomas Fitzalan. He was the son and heir of Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, whom Richard had had beheaded during the Revenge Parliament. Henry and his father had, of course, been instrumental in bringing him to his fate, and it is fair to say that Henry had acted without dignity in turning on the earl, his kinsman. But there had been mitigating circumstances – namely, Richard’s tyranny – and that was what now brought these three men together. They had all lost their lands and honour due to Richard’s willingness to destroy anyone and everyone who challenged his authority. These three also were innocent of any blame in the public mind. Henry had never been charged with any crime. Nor had Thomas Fitzalan; instead he had been prevented from inheriting his ancestral title and had been imprisoned in Reigate Castle (from which he had escaped). And Thomas Arundel had been wrongfully removed from his see.

However much these three might have been in the right, they were all dissidents from the legitimate English regime as far as the French were concerned. Herein lies the first major difference between their situation and that in which Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella had found themselves in 1326. The French royal family in 1399 had every intention of supporting the king of England, who was married to their own Princess Isabella. In 1326, Queen Isabella had been one of the dissidents from the rule of her husband Edward II, and the French royal family had done nothing to stop her taking an army against the king of England. After all, Edward II had been at war with them at the time. Richard, in contrast, promised peace between the English and the French. Henry showed some of the letters smuggled out of England to the duke of Berry, but the duke was horrified to read them, as they implored Henry to return and depose Richard. The duke urged him to do nothing of the sort, and told him that ‘brave souls do not allow themselves to be downhearted by reversals of fortune, but resign themselves to waiting for better times’.7

There was one notable exception to this collective French stance. Louis, duke of Orléans, entered into a secret pact with Henry. This at first seems very strange: Louis was the brother of the king of France. But Louis and Henry got on well in Paris. Perhaps Louis could sympathise with Henry’s plight, himself having little or no respite from the rule of an unstable king who was also a close kinsman. He and Henry had Milanese sympathies in common too. They were both friends of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Louis being married to his daughter (she of the poisoned apple incident). However, it is far from clear that Louis fully appreciated in 1399 that Henry might put himself forward for the throne. Their formal ‘treaty and alliance’, which the two men sealed on 17 June 1399 stated only that they promised to love and help one another, and to defend each other against their enemies, with certain exceptions, including the kings of England and France.8 Thus the agreement did not imply that Henry expected Louis to help him attack Richard, even if he did make clear his plans to him, as he later claimed.9 Nor did the exception clauses imply that Henry would not attack Richard himself. Given Louis’ altercations with the duke of Burgundy over the regency, the ‘treaty and alliance’ probably had more to do with French politics than Henry’s plans (as Henry later pointed out).10 Thus it would appear less of an immediate strategic alliance for Henry’s benefit than a pact for mutual support at some date in the future when things had settled down.

If Louis knew that Henry was returning to England, he was one of very few. Henry had no option but to conceal his real plans from the French. On announcing his departure from Paris, he stated that he intended to go to Spain, and in this way obtained the king’s leave. Froissart’s story that he departed by way of Brittany, and sailed in Breton ships to Plymouth, is incorrect, and cannot have any more truth to it than an echo of a visit by Henry to Brittany earlier in 1399, if that.11 Rather he seems to have sailed in a small fleet gathering near Boulogne. Before leaving Paris, he first stopped at the abbey of Saint-Denis. There the abbot asked him to help the abbey to recover the Gloucestershire priory of Deerhurst, which had been taken into lay hands. Henry agreed ‘to do what he could’, and later, as king, was as good as his word.12 Then he set out for Boulogne, and his ships.


Few writers who have described the events of 1399 mention the key attribute which was all-important to the success of Henry’s expedition, namely his personal courage. This is strange, for it contrasts so completely with Richard. The king may have had moral courage in abundance but there was nothing physically brave about him. The sheer audacity of Henry returning to England at this point is impressive, and it impressed contemporaries too. That he did so in the wake of Mortimer, risking not just his life but the danger of being labelled a traitor, is particularly striking. Yes, he had seen the crowds lining the streets as he left London to go into exile. Yes, he probably had assurances from the earls of Westmorland and Northumberland that they would support him. But he had no guarantee that those crowds would risk their lives for him now. Nor could he be certain that the earls of Westmorland and Northumberland would raise an army larger than that of the duke of York, the guardian of the realm. And what if Richard returned from Ireland? No Englishman had marched against the king on English soil and won a full-scale battle for more than 130 years.13Henry could not even be sure that he could disembark in safety. The first town he came to after landing – Kingston upon Hull – refused him admittance. Added to these problems, he was risking the king killing his eldest son, Henry. He might have been taking action to put an end to Richard’s systematic destruction of him, his family and his estate, but action in itself increased his vulnerability.

This point about his courage alerts us to its corollary, his resolution. When Henry went into exile, he was followed by a loyal band of men who had been with him for years. At least three men – Thomas Rempston, John Norbury and Thomas Erpingham – were old comrades-in-arms, having accompanied Henry on his crusade in 1390. But would those who had followed him into exile now follow him into revolution? The answer was not in doubt as long as Henry was fully resolved to go through with what he planned. For that, courage alone would not be enough. At Vilnius in 1391, Henry had shown courage, leading his men to capture the citadel. But then, six weeks later, he and the army had withdrawn to the comparative refinement of Königsberg. Determination to see the job through to the end was lacking then. No half-measures would be adequate now.

For this reason, if we want a picture of Henry as he was on the ship that brought him to England in July 1399, we should envisage him not as the frustrated and submissive heir of John of Gaunt, obediently following his father’s command to do nothing contrary to his oaths of loyalty. Nor should we see him as the brow-beaten character delicately treading on eggshells as Richard revenged himself on the senior Lords Appellant in 1397. Instead we should recall the terrifying determination of his grandfather, Edward III, in the campaign of 1346, which culminated in the battle of Crécy; and the resolve of his other grandfather, the duke of Lancaster, as he refused to give up the siege of Rennes before he had fulfilled his oath to place his standard on the battlements. Henry was of a similar disposition now: a man fully resolved to save England from its misfit king or die in the attempt.


Henry landed ‘where the town of Ravenspur once stood’, now Spurn Head (at the mouth of the Humber), on or about 4 July 1399.14 Intelligence that he was gathering men in Picardy had reached the duke of York at Westminster by 28 June, for on that day the duke sent out letters warning the sheriffs that Henry was likely to invade, and ordering them to muster at Ware, in Hertfordshire.15 According to Walsingham, Henry had spent some days sailing up and down the coast, searching for undefended landing places. On the south coast, a group of men under Sir John Pelham seized Pevensey Castle in Henry’s name, probably to divert attention away from the north until Henry had managed to make contact with his supporters there. Henry’s ships put in at Cromer too, to buy provisions, but also to create false news of his landing.16 He had to depend on such ruses; he had very few knights – Walsingham estimates no more than fifteen – and in total he had no more than three hundred companions.17 With so few soldiers, a single lord could have stopped and overpowered him immediately, had he known when and where Henry would come ashore.

As it was, Henry’s strategy was good. Edmund, duke of York, had no idea where he was intending to land, and the information he received from various places only confused him. He may have actually set off westwards at one stage, completely in the wrong direction. When Henry did land, it was on a beach between two and three days’ hard ride from London.18 This gave him time to meet up with the northern lords, at least some of whom had been primed by letters sent from France, and then to ride to the comparative safety of the Lancastrian heartlands.19 He probably went north first to Bridlington Priory, then to Pickering Castle, which opened its gates to him without resistance. At Knaresborough Castle he had more difficulty gaining access – the castle was held against him for a short while – but he prevailed, and left his own garrison there before marching on. He arrived at the great Lancastrian fortress palace of Pontefract Castle on 13 or 14 July.20

By this time, a large number of men had rallied to his cause. His loyal knight Robert Waterton had joined him very soon after landing, and it is possible that he met the earl of Northumberland and his son, Hotspur, at Bridlington.21 At Pontefract itself, ‘crowds of gentlemen, knights and esquires from Yorkshire and Lancashire flocked to join him with their retinues’, so many that, when he left Pontefract and marched south to Doncaster, it was said he had thirty thousand with him.22 Although this is an exaggeration, there is no doubt that thousands of men did muster under his banner.23Another chronicler wrote, ‘so many retainers who had served his father flocked to join him, that within a short time he was in command of an almost invincible army’.24

It was almost certainly at Doncaster, on 15 or 16 July, that Henry was forced to face the key question about the revolution. Now it was clear that he had the support of the country, what exactly did he hope to achieve? The Percys – the earl of Northumberland and his son Hotspur – demanded an answer. They were in a particularly ambiguous situation. Being of Lancastrian descent, they had felt directly threatened by Richard’s plans to reverse the pardons granted in the 1320s to the Lancastrians, for they, like Henry, would have been rendered the descendants of a traitor. Richard also threatened their political domination of the north of England.25 Hence they were keen to put an end to Richard’s prejudicial form of government. On the other hand, Hotspur’s wife was Elizabeth Mortimer, aunt of the eight-year-old Edmund Mortimer, the Mortimer claimant to the throne. With Henry’s army gathered around him at Doncaster, and growing larger every day, both the earl and his son must have begun to realise that soon they would be in no position to restrain Henry from taking the throne himself. Thus they came up with the idea of asking him to swear an oath.

No one knows exactly what Henry swore at Doncaster, or even if he swore his oath only there and not elsewhere. One source states he swore ‘on the relics of Bridlington that he would never try to seize the throne, and that if anyone could be found who was more worthy of the crown than he was, he would willingly stand down for him; the duchy of Lancaster was all that he wished for’.26 Another source states that he swore an oath at Knaresborough never to levy lay or clerical taxation in his lifetime.27 The Percy manifesto recorded by Hardyng strongly supports the idea that Henry swore an oath of some sort in the house of the White Friars at Doncaster but it is highly dubious with regard to the wording.28 It claims on the one hand that Henry personally held and kissed the holy gospels and swore that Richard would remain king for the duration of his life under the direction of the lords spiritual and temporal. On the other it states that Henry promised to reform the royal household and not to levy taxes upon the people without the assent of parliament, thus according him quasi-regal status.29

Putting these sources together, there is no doubt that some sort of oath was sworn by Henry concerning both his claim to the throne and his liberty to tax the people. The same oath (or different versions) may have been sworn more than once, at Bridlington and Knaresborough as well as Doncaster. But we can be confident of just two of the terms, and these only in outline. Clearly he promised not to take the throne by force. Secondly, whatever he swore to do or not to do with regard to Richard, it involved the complete disempowerment of the king. From now on, Henry had ‘sovereign’ power: literally, authority above that of the king.30 Beyond these two points it is possible only to see a correlation between later events and the testimony of the Dieulacres chronicle: that Henry would not ‘seize’ the throne but would stand aside for anyone ‘more worthy of the crown’. This is what happened. When Richard resigned, Henry did not seize the throne, he claimed it as the ‘nearest male relative and worthiest blood-descendant of Henry III’.31That he did all he possibly could to influence the decision to make his claim appear ‘the worthiest’ suggests that the Dieulacres chronicler was exactly right: he had sworn to lay aside his claim if there was someone ‘more worthy’ to be king. Worthiness, of course, was an ill-defined concept, relating to character and experience as well as birth. At the time of swearing the oath, however, that ambiguity was left unexplored. It suited both the Percy family and Henry to carry on as before, without exploring their differences too closely until Richard’s authority was overthrown.

Whatever fractures there were in Henry’s army at the time of the oath, they remained hidden. Indeed, just swearing the oath reinforced Henry’s position. It confirmed him as the leader of the revolution. Rarely have historians ever felt the need to say why it was Henry who led the opposition to Richard in 1399. But as earlier chapters have shown, there was much more to Henry than a disaffected duke. Contemporaries would have recognised his double royal inheritance, his seniority in the male line of the royal family, the prophecies that the line of Lancaster would inherit the throne, and his experience as a battle leader and a crusader. The crowds which turned out on the day of his departure from London must have confirmed in many people’s minds that Henry was the natural leader of opposition even before he went into exile. That he had been wrongly disinherited by Richard the following March simply reinforced this position. No one else could easily have assumed it.

The other important point about this oath, or series of oaths, was that it gave Henry a platform on which to present himself, to state clearly what he stood for. Henceforth he was not simply reclaiming his patrimony; he was championing the restitution of lands for all the disinherited. He stood for a non-taxing or low-taxing government. He stood for the reform of the royal household, and the disbandment of the bands of Cheshire archers, Richard’s enforcers. And most of all he stood for an end to tyranny. If Richard was permitted to reign any longer, it would be in name alone. Royal authority would be vested in the person of Henry of Lancaster.


Henry moved further south, arriving at his own castle of Leicester about 20 July. His army was growing larger every day, but in order to use it effectively he had to move quickly. Given enough time, the men would lose interest and return home, especially as it was very difficult to feed so many of them. He wisely capitalised on rumours of the forces attending him by sending out persuasive letters to lords, abbots and mayors, telling the Londoners in particular that they could only expect Richard’s rule to grow worse.32 But his real strategic options were limited to marching on the capital and seat of government at London and Westminster or against the regent and council. He decided on the latter, to make straight for the regent, his uncle.

Duke Edmund was still with his army at Ware, in Hertfordshire. Initially he set out north-west, to Bedford, but then on 13 or 14 July, while Henry was at Pontefract, he had turned south-west to take the road through Oxford to Gloucester. It is probable that his plan – seeing as he had not mustered a large enough army to crush the forces which he now heard were gathering to Henry’s banner – was to meet with Richard on his return from Ireland. He had no will to fight Henry. Not only was he a very reluctant military commander, he was also an invalid, suffering from an extreme arthritic condition which had left five of his lower dorsal vertebrae fused together.33 He arrived in Oxford on the 16th and spent four days discussing the situation with the rest of the council. Edmund by now wanted to disassociate himself from them. He despatched them to Bristol, perhaps to await the king’s return. Edmund himself headed to Berkeley Castle.

Had Edmund wanted to maintain a united front against Henry, he should have remained with the other members of the council. But he did not. Moreover, his choice of Berkeley was significant. To the English royal family, Berkeley Castle was synonymous with the captivity and reputed murder of Edward II, the king with whom Richard most identified. Now Duke Edmund chose to await his nephew’s arrival in that same castle, along with Lord Berkeley and other men who refused to join the royal council at Bristol. There was no strategic advantage to this; rather it was a sign of Duke Edmund’s willingness to acknowledge the wrong which had been done to Henry. From the 24th he waited at Berkeley. Henry rapidly advanced through Coventry, Warwick, Evesham and Gloucester. Edmund did nothing.

On Sunday 27 July, in the church which stands just outside the walls of Berkeley Castle, Henry met his aged uncle. Standing among the silent tombs of the Berkeley family, they came to an agreement. What Henry said we cannot know for certain, but the result of the meeting was that Edmund agreed to let Henry proceed against Richard. This had been in his mind from the moment he divided his forces and those of the rest of the council at Oxford. In fact, he may have been considering his position even before this, when at Bedford he realised that most of the country was prepared to join Henry. According to one chronicler, he had already declared that he believed Henry’s attempt to reclaim his inheritance was just and right. According to another, his army was breaking up. On top of these problems, it would have been obvious by mid-July that defending the king would have led to civil war.34 Edmund was not prepared to go that far to defend his tyrannical nephew.

After the meeting at Berkeley, Henry despatched his uncle to take custody of Richard’s young queen. He himself marched towards Bristol. His half-brother, John Beaufort, marquis of Dorset, who had travelled westwards with the duke, came to him and begged forgiveness. The earl of Northumberland and his son Hotspur both wanted John put to death immediately but Henry stayed their hand. Pulling a letter out of his blue velvet pouch, he said to them, ‘Harm him not, I beseech you; for he is my brother and has always been my friend. Look at the letter which I received from him in France.’ Then Henry embraced his half-brother. If he was going to win this fight against Richard, he needed to make sure no potential ally shunned him out of fear of retribution.35

The following day Henry’s army encircled Bristol Castle. Those inside could see the standards and heraldic banners of the duke of Lancaster and the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland and knew that there was no escape. There were four thousand English archers in the army.36 But when Henry demanded that the castle be surrendered, the castellan, Peter Courtenay, refused. The earl of Northumberland proclaimed outside the walls that anyone who wished to surrender now would be allowed to go free; anyone who did not would be beheaded. A few men let themselves down on ropes from the castle ramparts. Moments later, others began to make their escape from windows, and soon the entire garrison was in flight, leaving the castle by any means they could. The gates were flung open. Courtenay gave himself up. Henry’s men entered and arrested William Scrope, earl of Wiltshire, John Bussy and Henry Green and the few friends who had remained with them. On the 29th they were all brought before Henry. They could expect no mercy: they all had witnessed and thus approved of the deeds whereby Richard had confiscated Henry’s inheritance and banished him for life. In addition, Scrope had accepted Henry’s castle and honour of Pickering, and Bussy, who had once been close to Henry, had proved himself personally untrustworthy. All three men were executed as traitors, their severed heads displayed at York, London and Bristol.


Just as Richard’s accession in 1377 had been compared to the coming of Christ, now Henry was himself compared to the Saviour. His arrival was described as ‘miraculous’. Crowds shouted ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, our king of England!’.37Poets compared him to the Emperor Augustus. Chaucer in particular wrote about how he had come ‘to mend all harm’.38 The poet Gower – who was an ardent Lancastrian even before Henry landed – recorded how, on his landing at Ravenspur, Henry had knelt and kissed the ground.39 Prophecies were searched out in old chronicles and reinterpreted to show that it was God’s will that Henry should put an end to Richard’s rule. He was universally regarded as the champion of the Church and the people, a rescuer of good government and a promise of better times to come.

Yet Henry’s position was far from safe. He had not faced the king, and thus the kingdom had not yet had to choose between the good government he promised and the legitimate government represented by Richard. The crucial question was this: when the king returned, would the army surrounding Henry march in defiance of the royal standard? To do so would be treason – there was no doubt on that score. So it was now, at the very end of July 1399, that the battle lines were drawn. The king had landed in the far south-west of Wales, at Milford Haven, and was marching to Carmarthen. Which path would the kingdom choose: tyranny in the name of loyalty? Or treason in the name of justice?

As it happened, the kingdom would not fight the battle implied in this choice. Extraordinarily, Richard abandoned his army at Carmarthen. He fled north with about two dozen men, including the dukes of Exeter and Surrey, the earl of Gloucester and three bishops (Carlisle, St David’s and Lincoln). That was all. He had no army. At the very point when he was required to show resolve and determination, he ran.

This decision proved fatal for Richard’s cause, and it is tempting to rank it among the greatest failures of royal judgement in the middle ages. But it is very likely that there was more to it than a complete failure of nerve. For a start, there was some logic to his destination: North Wales was not far from Chester, the administrative centre of his Cheshire archers and arguably the most loyal region in the realm. More significantly, by fleeing he narrowly escaped a plot to seize him in Carmarthen.40 The key agent in this plot was probably none other than Richard’s own adoptive brother, Edward, duke of Aumale, acting with the support of Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester.41 What is not in doubt is that these two men rode to join Henry soon after Richard had fled. Men whom Richard had regarded as loyal were now deserting his cause and supporting Henry, regardless of their oaths of loyalty.

Richard’s attempts to raise a force in North Wales were in vain, his strategy hopeless. He rushed between the empty shadows of Edward I’s great castles, desperately searching for the core of an army. Meanwhile Henry began to head north, through Ross-on-Wye, Hereford, Leominster and Ludlow. On 2 August, Henry appointed the earl of Northumberland as warden of the Marches of Scotland. What capacity he was acting in when he did this is not clear. He may have done so as hereditary steward of England, with a responsibility to maintain the safety of the realm in times of crisis.42 However, it is more likely that he made this appointment in the capacity of holding ‘sovereign’ power. By 31 July he was using a seal which had the motto ‘sovereign’ engraved on it.43 He may only have claimed to be ‘duke of Hereford, earl of Derby and Northampton and Lord of Brecon’ on this seal, but the motto suggests that sovereign power was now vested in him (as it probably had been since swearing the oath at Doncaster).

The stress and strain were already beginning to tell on Richard. He was waiting for the net to close in, and fearing it, knowing there was nothing he could do. At Conway Castle, pale and barely himself, he implored his half-brother, the duke of Exeter, to advise him. They agreed that Richard would send two negotiators to Henry. Richard sent Exeter and his nephew, the duke of Surrey. Then he departed for Beaumaris Castle. Feeling too vulnerable there, he went on to the great fortress of Carnarvon. He was on the run. There was no furniture in these castles; they were little more than empty shells. The handful of men still with Richard slept on straw, anticipating a cold and bloody end. After a few days Richard returned to Conway, and waited for news.

The dukes of Exeter and Surrey met Henry at Chester. He had marched up the Welsh border to Shrewsbury, where he was when the citizens of Chester saw fit to surrender their town to him before he took it by force. The two dukes met him in the castle. He greeted them cordially, and asked Exeter the reason for his visit. Exeter told Henry that the king was prepared to forgive him this outrage against his royal authority, and to restore his lands and titles to him, if he would do his duty, disband his army and submit to the king. Henry of course did not believe a word. He had every reason to distrust Richard. Rather than reply to the duke, he detained him. Surrey was arrested and locked up in the castle. Exeter was taken to witness the removal of the king’s enormous treasure of £40,000, which had been hidden in Holt Castle.

All the cards were now in Henry’s hands. Richard had nothing left with which to bargain. He did not even have the means with which to approach Henry, for Henry could just as easily imprison the next man Richard sent, and then the next. It was down to Henry to make the decisive move. A siege of Conway could take some time, and his army was so unwieldy and expensive that already he had had to send some men home. So he decided to lure Richard out into the open. On or about 15 August he sent the earl of Northumberland to the king at Conway with a large force of men with orders to arrest him.

Northumberland had a plan, devised by Thomas Arundel (according to Jean Creton, a Frenchman staying with Richard).44 He concealed the bulk of his forces at the foot of a mountain, guarding a pass. Then he went ahead to the castle with only five men, and asked to see the king. When admitted to the royal presence he promised Richard that all Henry wanted was his inheritance and that justice be meted out to the five men who had procured the death of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock. The earl proposed that Henry and Richard would ride together and hold a parliament at London at which Henry would be reinstated as duke of Lancaster and Hereford, and steward of England, and the criminals would be punished. To impress Richard with the sincerity of this offer, Northumberland swore upon some relics that Henry would honour these terms to the letter.45

Richard had little choice. The alternative was flight, but he knew he was unlikely to be able to escape Henry that way for long. So he decided to go along with the earl’s suggestion, thereby luring Henry into a false sense of security. According to Jean Creton, Richard said to the earl of Salisbury, after Northumberland had withdrawn, that he would persuade Henry to take the route south through Wales. Then, at his order, certain Welshmen would rise and capture him. ‘I swear to you’, he said to Salisbury, ‘that whatever assurances I may give him [Henry], he shall surely be put to a bitter death for this outrage and injury that he has done to us. Doubt it not, there shall be no parliament held at Westminster on this matter.’46 But Richard spoke too soon. Soon after setting out, he found himself surrounded by Northumberland’s men, who now formed his escort. He had fallen into the trap.

Henry received news of Richard’s capture via a messenger who had travelled through the night, reaching Chester at daybreak on the 16th. He summoned his lords and captains and set out shortly afterwards, following the coastal road towards Flint Castle, to which Richard had been taken. The army which accompanied him that morning was overjoyed at the news. They set out in ordered columns, playing horns and trumpets as they marched. Richard heard the noise, and watched them approaching from the top of the castle. He now had visible proof that it was all over. There were no bushes or trees to obscure his view: he could see for himself the substantial forces Henry had at his command. The realisation that the nation had deserted him affected him deeply. As he watched the armysurrounding the castle, he began to pray, according to Creton. ‘Good Lord God! I commend myself into your holy keeping, and cry you mercy, that you may pardon all my sins; since it is your pleasure that I should be delivered into the hands of my enemies; and if they cause me to die, I will take death patiently as you took it for us all.’47

Richard at this point declined to take food. He had been reluctant to eat at Rhuddlan (where he had stopped briefly on the way to Flint), perhaps for fear of being poisoned, and had only accepted bread and wine when Northumberland himself had offered it to him. Now again he chose to fast. Northumberland reported this to Henry, and Henry decided to wait outside the castle until Richard had eaten. So Richard was forced to sit down and dine. Fearing the worst, he bade his fellow prisoners sit down with him, and eat. The king sat at the table solemnly. But still he did not eat. Eventually Henry went to the gate of the castle and sent his herald in to fetch out the unimportant men with the king. Creton was one of them. By his own admission, he was more frightened than he had ever been in his life. The herald announced to Henry in English that these men were French. Henry spoke to them in their own language, and assured them that their lives would be spared. Then he went into the chamber in which the king was sitting at the table.

Henry bowed low before the king, and approached. He bowed low again, sweeping his cap to the floor.

Richard took off his own hat. ‘Cousin of Lancaster, you are right welcome’, he declared.

Henry bowed again, and addressed the king in English. ‘I have come without being summoned by you for the following reason. The common report of your people is that you have for the last twenty or twenty-two years governed them very badly and very rigorously, and they are not content with this. But if it please the Lord, I will help you to govern them better than they have hitherto been governed.’

In the words of Jean Creton Richard responded, ‘fair cousin, since it pleases you, it pleases us as well’.

Then Henry spoke to everyone else there individually, including the bishop of Carlisle. There was only one person to whom he refused to speak. He told an elderly knight of his to pass a message to the earl of Salisbury. The knight announced that the earl should not expect to be spoken to any more than he had spoken to Henry when he had been in Paris. Reference to that event, when Salisbury had told the French king that Henry was a traitor, and asked him to refuse to let Henry marry Mary of Berry, caused the earl to be silent and afraid.

Henry led Richard to Chester, and had him secured in the castle keep. The royal party remained there for three days, agreeing that parliament should be summoned, as the earl of Northumberland had promised the king. The notice required to hold a parliament was forty days; writs of summons dated 19 August were sent out announcing a parliament would be held on 30 September, the day after Michaelmas. With that important element of government again in place, the bureaucracy which had stopped functioning since 9 August started slowly to regain its usual efficiency. The civil servants knew who and where their king was, and they knew in whom sovereign power lay. That these two facts were not embodied in the same man was not essential for them to do their work.

Henry, his companions and the remainder of the army took Richard and headed towards London on the 20th. The first night after leaving Chester there was an unsuccessful attempt to liberate the king. At Lichfield, on or about 23 August, Richard himself made an attempt to get away, lowering himself from a window. After that there were no more chances. The king was placed under a twenty-four-hour armed guard, with ten or twelve men detailed to watch him closely. In this state he was conducted to London.

On the last day of August, two miles out of the city, Henry was met by the mayor and aldermen. He presented Richard to them. ‘What would you have me do with him?’ he asked, probably referring to the request of an earlier embassy asking him to have the king beheaded.48 ‘Take him to Westminster’, they replied. So Richard was conducted to the Palace of Westminster and lodged there for the night. The following day he was led to the Tower, with a mass of people surrounding him at a distance and jeering. Men-at-arms kept the space around him clear, so that everyone could see his face. The hatred of the crowd was bitter. They called him a ‘little bastard’, or a ‘wicked bastard’.49 An attempt to murder him as he was paraded through the city was narrowly averted by the mayor and aldermen.

While Richard was being taken to Westminster, Henry entered the city of London in triumph. He rode around to the principal gate of the city, Aldgate, in order for his procession to be seen to best effect. ‘Long live the good duke of Lancaster!’ shouted the rapturous crowds, ‘God bless Henry of Lancaster!’ Jean Creton, who recorded the procession, declared in dismay: ‘had the Lord Jesus Christ himself arrived, he could not have been greeted with more pleasure by the citizens’.

With the crowds’ shouts and blessings ringing in his ears, Henry rode to St Paul’s Cathedral and dismounted. He entered the old cathedral in full armour and walked solemnly towards the high altar, where he knelt and prayed. Then, rising, he turned to his left. There stood a stone tomb. Nearby hung a lance and a shield. The shield bore the royal coat of arms. In this tomb his father had finally been reunited with his much-loved mother. Henry looked at it, and remembered his father, and perhaps recalled Chaucer’s stories of his mother’s dancing and singing. At that point the tension gave way, and all the stress and fears poured out of him in tears and uncontrollable emotion. With all the crowd watching, Henry wept.50


The months of July and August 1399 rank as the most important yet in the life of Henry of Lancaster. Through deliberate and well-planned action he had transformed himself from an exiled traitor into a national hero. He had been acknowledged as the sole and undisputed leader of the popular movement for justice, and he had been recognised as the man who would wield royal power when (and not if) Richard’s ability to rule was officially terminated. Finally, he had received the king as his prisoner and placed him under guard in the Tower of London. They had been the most extraordinary two months.

Nevertheless, September was to be even more important, for it was now that Henry had to reckon the full weight of what he had achieved. That meant not just taking stock of the situation but identifying what to do next. Some things were clear. The king’s position had to be diminished, so that he would never again be able to exert his personal form of government. Henry had to be restored to all his titles and estates, as did the other disinherited lords, including Thomas Arundel, who had to be reinstated as the archbishop of Canterbury. But what of the future? Indeed, the one question which mattered above all others – the defining question of the rest of Henry’s life – now had to be addressed. What were his own intentions with regard to the throne?

This is a hugely difficult question. Paradoxically, this is not because it is difficult to come up with an answer; it is because there are so many answers. For a start, we could say simply that the strength of support he had received since marching south from Pontefract had convinced him that he could and should make himself king in place of Richard. But this does not mean that he had always intended to supplant him. If we ask ourselves the question when Henry decided to make himself king, the complexity of the question is revealed. It is not hard to envisage Henry as a boy dreaming of taking his cousin’s place and leading a chivalric nation in war, like his grandfather Edward III. Likewise there is no reason to doubt that his grandfather’s entailment persuaded him absolutely that he was Richard’s legitimate heir. A man who grows up believing he is the heir to the throne is unlikely ever to be able to let go of such an idea. As the years passed, and Richard showed no sign of producing a child, Henry’s awareness of his position and responsibility as the heir must have grown stronger. But desire, belief and duty are not the same as intention, and even an intention needs the context of a particular set of circumstances in order to be understood. Although one popular historian has claimed that Henry’s promise to the abbot of Saint-Denis to help him recover Deerhurst Priory was a clear indication of his intention to take the throne, these two things cannot be directly connected; Henry only promised to ‘do what he could’, and this may have related to his future status as a duke rather than as a king.51 Had the huge army which had gathered around him at Doncaster sought the coronation of the eight-year-old earl of March, he would have had difficulty in resisting such demands. As a result it is fair to say that, while he had hoped since childhood that he would one day become king, and had every intention of ascending the throne if he could, he was not a conqueror in the sense that he would now make himself king against the will of the governing classes. It was, rather, their support which convinced him that it was the best course of action both for him and them.

It is this combination of the necessity of removing Richard from power and the widespread support for Henry as a leader that best answers our question about his intentions towards the throne in September 1399. The people had not called for another boy-king like Richard, nor for an old man like Duke Edmund; they wanted a responsible warrior-leader like Edward III had been in his thirties and forties. Given the death of the popular earl of March in 1398, Henry (aged thirty-two) was the obvious candidate. Thus it is likely that Henry swore the Doncaster oath on the basis that, while he had promised not to seize the throne, he knew that once Richard had abdicated, the way would be clear for him to inherit it. If parliament accepted the king’s abdication, Henry would become king.

It all sounds perfectly straightforward. But there was a problem. Despite everything he had been told all his life, and despite his personal conviction that he was next in line for the throne, it now emerged that Henry was not Richard’s legal heir.

This statement needs some explanation, for, by the terms of Edward III’s entail, Henry was the heir, without any doubt. The reason we can be so categorical in saying that circumstances had changed is because, when it came to actually claiming the throne, he did not use this document. In fact, he did not even mention it. He claimed the throne not as the heir of his grandfather, Edward III, but as the heir of Henry III, his double great-great-great-grandfather, who had died in 1272.52

Many writers down the years have puzzled over the problem of Henry’s succession. Some have suggested that Henry wanted to draw attention to his double royal descent from Henry III, through both his father and his mother, in contrast to the single royal descent of Edmund Mortimer (which was through his grandmother). This is very doubtful. If Henry claimed a right of inheritance through his mother, he would only add strength to Mortimer’s claim to the throne, which rested entirely on a woman’s ability to convey a right of succession. Thus any reference to a claim through a woman rendered Henry lower in the order of succession than all the Mortimers. For this reason it is not possible to accept that Henry’s claim to the throne through descent from Henry III was due to a wish simply to demonstrate his mother’s as well as his father’s royal ancestry.

The other most frequently cited explanation is equally problematic. Three chronicles – the continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum and the chronicles of John Hardyng and Adam Usk – refer to a Lancastrian belief that Edmund Crouchback, earl of Lancaster, was not the second son of Henry III but the first, and that because of his supposed imbecility he was set aside for the inheritance of the throne, and his brother, Edward I, was made king instead.53 But as contemporaries knew, Edward I was definitely the elder of the two boys. In early September Henry called together a team of lawyers and clergymen to investigate two questions: how to depose Richard and how Henry might claim his inheritance. One of the above-mentioned chroniclers, Adam Usk, was among them. As Usk made clear, there were many chronicles and other documents which showed that the Edmund Crouchback story was false.54 In addition, there was the unequivocal evidence of Henry III’s will, a copy of which remained on hand in the exchequer.55 Henry would have been left in no doubt that this claim was without foundation. So why did he stake his claim on descent from Henry III and not Edward III? Did he present a flawed claim to the throne?

The answer to this last question is not a straight yes or no, but it is much more of a yes than a no. Clearly there was an overriding reason why Henry could not claim the throne as the heir male of Edward III, in line with the settlement of 1376. We might speculate that he did not have the original document (which Richard had probably destroyed) but even if he did not, this cannot be the full answer because the official order of precedence in the royal charters of 1394 recognised Henry and all the male heirs of Edward III taking precedence over the Mortimers. In addition, one or two of those who had witnessed Edward III’s entail were still alive.56 There was a far simpler and stronger reason why Henry had to forget about Edward III’s entail. It was legally invalid.

This point has not been made in the historical literature before, and so it needs to be explained carefully. In 1290 Edward I had made a settlement of the Crown in which he had stipulated that the throne should pass to his son Edward and his heirs – not necessarily just male heirs – in preference to any younger sons whom the king himself might yet sire.57 Furthermore, he clearly stipulated that his own daughters and their heirs should inherit in preference to his brother, Edmund Crouchback, and his sons. This could have been considered a legal precedent, so that not only would female heirs thereafter have been able to be queens in their own right, but a daughter of an elder son would have taken precedence over the son of a younger son. John of Gaunt had himself admitted as much in 1376 when he petitioned first parliament and then the council to decree that women could not transfer a right to the throne.58 By this reckoning, Edmund Mortimer should have taken precedence over Henry until Edward III drew up his entail in late 1376. However, if Edward I’s settlement of 1290 could have been legally supplanted by Edward III’s of 1376, it followed that it would in turn have been supplanted by any subsequent settlement made by Richard II. It is highly probable that, by April 1399, Richard had indeed made a settlement of his own.59 In such circumstances, Henry’s chief legal adviser – Justice William Thirning – would have strongly advised Henry against depending on Edward III’s entail for his claim to the throne.

The only legal avenue open to Henry was to question whether English kings had the right to appoint their successors. If they did, then Richard II’s settlement took precedence over Edward III’s, and Duke Edmund was the legal heir. If they did not, all of these settlements were irrelevant. In these circumstances, and with little time to spare, Henry cut the Gordian knot and opted for the latter interpretation of the law. He claimed the throne as the heir male of Henry III on the grounds that all subsequent settlements had been without a legal foundation, and that the original male-only law of inheritance prior to the reign of Edward I should be restored. It was the only way in which he could claim to be next in line to the throne.60

As a result of this, we can be sure that Henry’s claim was not wholly lawful, for it depended on the dubious assumption that kings had never had the right to entail the throne away from their male line of descent.61 That is not to say it was unlawful – the subject was far beyond being legally black and white in 1399 – but it was a fudge at best, for never before had a king’s right to settle the throne on a specific line of the royal family been questioned. It is hugely ironic that, although Henry had believed all his life that he and his father were Richard’s legitimate heirs – and, in doing so, had trusted a king’s right to appoint his successor – when it actually came to claiming the throne he was forced to do so in defiance of this very principle.


In all this business Henry was heavily reliant on legal advice, especially that of Justice Thirning. According to one account, when Henry suggested that he could solve the technical problem concerning his inheritance by claiming the kingdom by right of conquest, Thirning warned him that ‘this would arouse the anger of the entire population …’ because ‘it would appear to the people that he had the power to disinherit anybody at will, and to change the laws, establishing new ones and revoking old ones, as a result of which no one would be secure in his possessions’.62 He might have added that Henry would be guilty of perjury too, for he had sworn at Doncaster not to seize the throne by force.

Thus it was the lawyers who guided Henry’s actions over the course of September 1399. There may have been a meeting at the Tower between Henry and Richard on 3 September, at which Richard railed bitterly against Henry and the dukes of York and Aumale, declaring them all to be traitors and asking to be brought to trial.63 Certainly Henry summoned the royal council in order to discuss how to deal with Richard.64 The question of a trial was a moot one. Could a king be tried for treason? No, for the king was above the law, as the law proceeded from the king. But Richard was clearly too fickle to be allowed to keep the title of king. By 10 September it had been decided that he would be deposed.65 This decision raised another problem. Parliament was due to assemble on 30 September. When it did, the king’s presence was necessary to give it the status and power of a parliament. Obviously no one would allow Richard to take the throne when it assembled. But if the king did not attend, there was nothing to stop Henry’s enemies – or more particularly, supporters of the Mortimer claim to the throne – from leaving. Therefore, instead of following the precedent of 1327, and using parliament to force the king to resign, the council (led no doubt by Henry) decided to do the reverse. The king would be required to resign first, before parliament even assembled, nullifying the writs which had been sent out in his name. And then he would be deposed by a ‘parliament’, or representatives of the estates, acting in their own name.

On the evening of 28 September a delegation led by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland and the archbishop of York, and including representatives of the barons, clergy, knights and gentlemen of the realm, entered the Tower in the company of two lawyers and two notaries. They asked the king whether he would resign the throne. Richard’s response was measured; he wanted to see a copy of the terms first. The lawyers with the delegation produced the document and presented it to him. He said he wished to study it, and would give them a reply in the morning. The delegation departed, promising to return the following day.

The following morning they found Richard in an angry mood. He refused to abdicate. Exactly why should he, a king, resign his throne? And to whom? Should he resign it to his designated heir – Edmund of Langley – or to Henry, his conqueror? The lords presented him with further arguments. The chronicler who recorded the details of Richard’s outburst unfortunately did not record what these were, but it is possible that they threatened him with being declared illegitimate, either on the grounds that there were irregularities in the permission for his father and mother to marry or (more probably) because his mother was a woman easily linked with adulterous liaisons because of her first two marriages.66 Faced with some such dire prospect, Richard began to waver, and after a time asked the delegation to bring Henry to him, stating that he was willing, upon certain conditions which he would explain to him, to give up the throne.

Henry arrived in a large cavalcade that evening. The archbishops of Canterbury and York were with him, along with the bishop of Hereford, Justice Thirning, and many other abbots, priors, lords and lawyers. With this assembly watching him, Richard repeated that he would resign the throne if Henry agreed to observe certain conditions. Henry immediately replied that he would accept no conditions. Richard had to abdicate simply, and without argument.

The pressure on Richard was tremendous. He tried to put a brave face on his plight and assumed a cheerful countenance. He read aloud the whole of the abdication document. Certain passages must have caused him to feel angry and perhaps remorseful, such as ‘I confess, acknowledge and recognise and from my own certain knowledge truly admit that I have been and am entirely inadequate and unequal to the task of ruling and governing the kingdom …’ But he read it to the end. Then he assented, and signed the document, stipulating that he reserved the right to withhold from the grant certain lands he had purchased with which to endow a priest to pray for him at Westminster after his death.

Immediately clerks were brought forward to record the names of the witnesses. As this was done, Richard spoke again. It was impossible for him to renounce those special dignities of a spiritual nature which had been bestowed upon him at his coronation, he explained. For example, he could not renounce his anointment. Justice Thirning answered, firmly stating that Richard had himself admitted in the renunciation to which he had just assented that he was not worthy or adequate of government. Richard, now a pathetic figure, replied that this was not true; it was just that he was not loved by the people. Justice Thirning reiterated the absoluteness of the renunciation. Richard smiled, and said nothing more on the subject. He simply asked to be allowed sufficient income to maintain himself honourably.

In that solemn, shattering act, a king was unmade. Henry left the Tower that night. He never saw his cousin alive again.


The following morning, between noon and one o’clock on Tuesday 30 September, Henry took his place in the great hall of the Palace of Westminster. It was the seat reserved for him as the duke of Lancaster, which his father had always occupied. But he did not do this humbly, as a mere duke; it was important for him to appear like a king if he wished to be accepted as one. The monks of Westminster had come out to meet him as he had arrived at Westminster that morning. They had sung responses as they accompanied him into the church to hear Mass. After the service, Henry was led in procession to Westminster Hall by the two archbishops, his own four sons and Sir Thomas Erpingham carrying a magnificent jewelled sword before him. This sword was ‘Lancaster Sword’, a new sword of state, being the one Henry himself had carried at Ravenspur. Behind him came the three Counter-Appellant dukes: Exeter, Surrey and Aumale. The whole of the yard outside was filled with people, thronging to catch a glimpse of Henry as he entered the hall.

The throne, draped in cloth of gold, stood vacant. Everyone present knew what was happening; the writs to this parliament had been withdrawn, on account of the king’s resignation. They were all aware that this was not a parliament but an assembly, and its sole purpose was the ratification of the old king’s deposition and the confirmation of the inheritance of his successor.

The atmosphere was exhilarating; a ‘frenzy’ gripped Westminster.67 As Thomas Arundel had not formally been reinstated as archbishop of Canterbury, it fell to the archbishop of York to open proceedings. He took his theme from Isaiah 51: 16 – ‘He has put his words into my mouth’ – and charged the assembly with a sense of divine responsibility as well as political momentousness. The lawyer John Burbach solemnly read out Richard’s renunciation of the throne. He explained that Richard had resigned ‘cheerfully’ – no mention was made of the king’s initial refusal to abdicate – and stated that Richard had expressed a wish that Henry be his successor. Whether or not this was the case, there was no doubt that it was the will of almost everyone present that Henry be crowned. At that moment it did not matter whether he was first, second or tenth in line to the throne: he was the leader of the opposition and the hero of the hour. When Thomas Arundel stepped forward, and dramatically asked them whether they assented to the king’s resignation, he was merely giving the people the chance to express the mood of the whole country. ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ they all shouted, in loud and excited voices.68

When the calls for the king’s resignation to be accepted had died down, Thomas Arundel declared that, for the benefit and advantage of the realm, the specific wrongdoings and shortcomings of Richard’s government should be clearly set down and confirmed. Although it might be said that deposition was unnecessary in the light of Richard’s resignation, there was an awareness that Richard might at some point in the future claim he had acted under duress, and change his mind. He had revoked pardons to others; there was a good likelihood he would revoke his own resignation if he got the chance. So the lawyer John Ferriby stepped forward to read out a list of thirty-three charges against the king.

Although the charges were framed by lawyers, and not written up by Henry himself, there is no doubt that Henry was involved in the discussions leading to their creation. So it is interesting that the first three all relate to the events of 1386–7. Just as Richard had never forgiven those who had taken action against him in parliament in 1386, so Henry too was still motivated by the events of that year. Whatever deals Henry and his father might have tried to negotiate along the way, whatever compromises had been sorted out, these were nothing more than rope bridges over deep chasms in the relationship between the king and the nobility. The events leading up to Radcot Bridge, which had taken place when both Richard and Henry were under age, were now among the principal reasons for deposing the king.

The next charges against Richard concerned his treatment of the Lords Appellant since 1387. The unlawful seizure and murder of the duke of Gloucester was mentioned, as well as the imprisonment of the earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham. The impeachment of the earls of Arundel and Warwick after they had received pardons was denounced, and so too was Richard’s use of Cheshire archers to threaten people attending parliament and as instruments of his terror elsewhere in the kingdom. The seventh charge drew attention to other communities which had paid for letters of pardon, in compliance with the king’s demands, only to find that they could not benefit from such pardons until they had paid the king yet more money. The eighth pointed out that Richard had falsified the rolls of parliament in order to give his actions in this regard greater authority.

Three of the charges related to crimes committed by Richard against Henry himself. Contrary to his coronation oath, the king had decreed that no one should intercede with him to try and obtain a pardon for Henry in his exile. Clause eleven stated that Richard ‘without any legitimate cause, ordered the said duke of Lancaster to be banished for ten years, contrary to all justice’. Doing this against the law of arms – refusing to allow Henry to fight his duel – was construed as an act of perjury as well. Clause twelve was similarly phrased as an act of perjury: although Richard had given Henry letters guaranteeing that he could receive his inheritance through his attorneys, these had been revoked, contrary to the law.

The language of the charges against Richard is certainly legalistic but the message overall was clearly Henry’s. On many matters of justice, Richard had acted in a selfish and arbitrary way, like a spoilt child. After thirty-three counts of tyranny, perjury, misappropriation of funds, murder, harassment, maintenance, toleration of violence and rape committed by his Cheshire archers, deception, dishonesty, theft, wrongful imprisonment (contrary to the terms of Magna Carta) and the removal from office and exile of the archbishop of Canterbury without trial – nearly all of which are supported by damning evidence extant today – there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the man they were removing was one of the worst rulers England had ever known.

It is in this light of popular exuberance that we should see Henry stepping forward to claim the throne. Rarely has parliament been so charged with energy. Henry was not only the foremost living victim of Richard’s tyranny, he was the leader who had put an end to it. His reputation as the deliverer of England, which had been growing since he had reached Doncaster, was now at its absolute height. Thus, as much as Richard was now openly derided, Henry was championed. When the bishop of St Asaph declared on the behalf of the representatives of the estates that the throne of England was now vacant, Henry rose from his seat. Standing before the assembly, he made the sign of the cross on his forehead and on his breast, and made a speech in English. The officially enrolled version of this is as follows:

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster claim this realm of England, and the Crown with all its members and appurtenances, as I am descended by right line of the blood coming from the good lord King Henry the Third, and through that right, God of his grace has sent me, with the help of my kin and my friends, to recover it; the which realm was at the point of ruin for the default of governance and the undoing of good laws.

Henry’s exact words are open to question. He probably claimed to be the ‘nearest male heir and worthiest blood-descendant of Henry III, son of King John’.69 He may also have displayed a copy of his own descent from Henry III. But whatever he actually said, the essence of his claim is clear. So too is the approbation with which it was received. He was not only king by strict male inheritance, he was king by election too.70 When the members of parliament were collectively called upon to deliver their judgement as to Henry’s right to be king, they responded with shouts of ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ as enthusiastically as they had done when asked whether they assented to the old king’s resignation.

Even that collective vote of confidence in him was not enough for those orchestrating this transition of power. Henry’s advisers sought to capitalise on the spirit of the moment by asking for everyone present to affirm their support for the new regime. According to Creton, each man was asked in turn whether he would have the duke of York for his king, or whether the duke of Aumale, or York’s younger son, Richard. To all these alternatives the people said ‘no’: to Henry, they said ‘Yes, we will have no other’.71 Henry seems to have been embarrassed by this demand for such personal demonstrations of loyalty.72 ‘We beg you not simply to speak these words with your mouths if they do not come from your hearts, but to agree to them with your hearts as well as your mouths’, said Henry, adding ‘should it happen that some of you do not in your hearts assent to this, it would be of no surprise to me’. Nevertheless the prelates were all asked by John Norbury whether they agreed with Henry’s claim and, with the possible exception of the bishop of Carlisle, each of them said yes.73 The earl of Northumberland asked the same question of the secular lords, with the same unanimous response.

There could be no doubt now. The climactic moment had come. The duke of York, the archbishop of York and Thomas Arundel (shortly to be restored as the archbishop of Canterbury) went to Henry, kissed his hands, and led him up to the throne. Standing there, before the gold-covered seat, Henry bent his knee and said a prayer. Rising, he made the sign of the cross on both the front and back of the throne, and then, flanked by the two archbishops, he sat down. It was the visual signal the crowd were looking for, the culmination of the revolution. Inside the hall and out, the people were jubilant, those inside cheering enthusiastically and those outside adding a massive crescendo of support which Henry could not have failed to hear. There was clapping and throwing of hoods in the air. Thomas Arundel, ready with his sermon on God’s approval of Henry’s accession, tried to quieten the crowd but they would not have it. The applause was an outpouring of relief. If this was ‘usurpation’ – as it is usually described – it was the most popular usurpation in English history.

Arundel finally called for silence, and began to preach his sermon. A flood of biblical lines poured forth, all delivered by a confident and conscientious prelate to an assembly which was awestruck by the events of the day. Significantly, the key theme of the sermon was of the preference for a nation to be ruled by a man and not a boy. ‘It is certain that a child is inconstant in speaking, he easily speaks the truth, easily tells lies; he easily promises with a word but that word he quickly forgets. These things are inappropriate and extremely damaging to a kingdom …’ Perhaps the most telling lines were, ‘When therefore a boy reigns, will alone reigns, and reason is exiled … From this danger we have been freed because a man rules, who rules not as a child but as one perfect in reason.’ No one present could have failed to recognise what Arundel was saying. Richard had been a child when he had acceded to the throne and his rule had been one of will over reason. Edmund Mortimer was also still a child, younger even than Richard had been when he had inherited. The sermon was principally a justification of the pragmatic decision to have Henry as king rather than to follow the common law (allowing female inheritance) or royal successor-designation, and risk another turbulent reign.

Following Arundel’s sermon, Henry thanked the assembly, and promised them that ‘it is not my will that any man should think that by way of conquest I would disinherit him from his inheritance, his franchise, or any other rights that he ought to have, nor would I put him out of that which he has and has had by the good laws and customs of the realm’. Those who had been office holders under Richard surrendered their marks of office and received them back from Henry, their positions confirmed. Finally Arundel announced that Henry’s first parliament would sit on 6 October, and his coronation would take place on the 13th.

After years of living in Richard’s shadow – after years of trying to prove himself with a lance, or in crusades and pilgrimages – Henry was king of England. The prophecy which Froissart had heard in 1361 – that the house of Lancaster would inherit the throne – had come true. And more than that, Henry had lived up to his father’s expectations. Looking down from the throne at the empty seat of the dukes of Lancaster, he no doubt realised that a chapter in English history had come to an end. What he could not possibly have realised was what the new chapter would hold. No one had ever done what he had accomplished, so he had no idea what the terrible consequences would be for him and his family. He would have to learn for himself what it was to be a hostage to the mood of the people, especially a people who now knew they had the power to dethrone a king.

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