Post-classical history


High Sparks of Honour

For though mine enemy thou hast ever been,

High sparks of honour in thee have I seen.

Richard II, Act 5, Scene 6

The day on which Henry was crowned – 13 October 1399 – was one of special significance. It was exactly a year since he had said goodbye to his father for the last time at Dover, and had stepped on board the boat taking him into exile. It also marked the feast of St Edward the Confessor, the saint-king with whom Richard had repeatedly tried to associate himself. It was thus a statement of regal as well as personal importance, and an invocation of the saint’s protection of Henry and his dynasty in the years to come.

Henry and his advisers knew exactly what they were doing when it came to making him a king. He himself had been close to the ceremonies of royalty all his life, and understood them. In addition, his had been a most unorthodox accession, and so every symbol of kingship – both secular and divine – was employed to underline the correctness of the ceremony. He wore cloth of gold, and made the traditional procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the day of his coronation. He went bareheaded as custom dictated, despite the autumn rain. Six thousand men followed him, it was said, and nine water fountains were made to run with red wine in Cheapside. In Westminster Abbey, seated on the throne, he received the insignia and swore the same four-part coronation oath as Richard had done. It was all scrupulously correct, in line with parliament’s advice that ‘nothing which ought to be done should be left undone’.1

The ceremony was not without innovation. Four swords of state were employed, rather than the traditional three. The two swords of justice, ‘wrapped in red and bound with gold straps’, were carried by the earls of Somerset and Warwick. Curtana, the blunt sword of mercy, was held by Henry’s eldest son, Henry.2 But before them all went Lancaster Sword, borne by the earl of Northumberland. Another innovation took place on the eve of the coronation. Henry knighted about fifty men, creating a second royal order of knighthood, the Order of the Bath, in emulation of Edward III’s Order of the Garter, created fifty years earlier.3 To add weight to his family’s royalty, three of the first knights were his younger sons, Thomas, John and Humphrey.

In the most famous of all these innovations, Henry was anointed with a sacred oil, the oil of St Thomas. Almost a century earlier, the duke of Brabant had brought this oil to England, with the intention that it would be used at Edward II’s coronation. It had supposedly been given to St Thomas Becket by the Virgin, who appeared to him in a dream. She had told Becket that it was for the benefit of the fifth king of England after St Thomas’s time (Edward II) and his successors, to help them fight for God’s Church and recover the Holy Land.4 Despite the duke of Brabant’s good intentions, Edward II had not been anointed with the oil. Instead it had been given to the Black Prince, then sealed in a chest in the Tower and forgotten. It had eventually been rediscovered by Richard II himself. Richard had asked the then archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, to anoint him with it. Arundel had refused, but Richard had kept the oil with him nonetheless and had only parted with it after his capture. That Henry now became the first king to be anointed with this holy oil – lying down in front of the high altar, his clothes being opened in four places to receive it – added divine sanction to his regal promotion.5

The feast which followed the coronation was a grand affair. The four sword-bearers stood around the king throughout.6 Lord Latimer stood alongside them holding the sceptre; the earl of Westmorland held the rod. Every bow of ceremonial etiquette was rigidly observed. One took place even though it was unplanned. As the duke of Aumale and the young earl of Arundel were dispensing wine to the king, there was an almighty crash and much shouting as a knight rode into the hall in full armour. He was arrayed as if for war, and his horse too was in armour. His name, he announced to all present, was Sir Thomas Dymocke, and he claimed the right by inheritance of his mother, the lady of the manor of Scrivelsby, to challenge to a duel anyone who doubted the king’s right to the throne. No one spoke, even though Sir Thomas rode around the hall several times looking for an opponent. It was Henry himself who brought this display of chivalric fervour to an end, saying, ‘if need be, Sir Thomas, I shall personally relieve you of this duty’.7


Parliament resumed its session on the day after the coronation. It had previously met on 6 October, when the restored archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, had delivered the opening speech. Henry was a ‘wise and prudent man’, the archbishop had declared. He had been ‘sent by God through his great grace and mercy to govern the realm … and wished to be ruled and advised by the wise men and elders of the realm, for his own advantage and assistance and that of all his realm’.8 These were high ideals indeed, especially as Henry was about to preside over a parliament which included men who had plotted against his life. Therefore it is important to ask what Henry’s intentions as king actually were. How far did he wish to be ruled by the ‘wise men and elders’? What was his vision of his kingship?

The most important element of Henry’s kingship was his intention to end his cousin’s experiment in autocratic rule. It comes as no surprise to see that one of Henry’s first acts as king was to repeal the proceedings of the Revenge Parliament. This of course reduced the power of the monarch, for it wiped out Richard’s perpetual grant of the wool subsidy. Henry also repealed the judgements on those who had been condemned in the Revenge Parliament, and reinstated the decisions of the Merciless Parliament as lawful and correct, even though he himself had not agreed with all of the verdicts at the time. He annulled the blank charters by which Richard had sought to control the sixteen counties and London, and had them publicly destroyed by the chancellor. All this was expected of him: it was the understanding upon which he had been welcomed back to England.

Henry’s plans for governing in future (as opposed to undoing the wrongs of the past) may be connected back to the oath he swore at Doncaster, and in particular his policy of not levying direct taxation in peacetime. Through Sir Thomas Erpingham and the earl of Northumberland, he assured the prelates of his intention not to levy taxes except in times of war. Unlike Richard, Henry would ‘live off his own’, as he put it: from the revenue of customs duties, the royal estates, the royal treasury and his own great Lancastrian inheritance.

At the same time as promising the prelates that he would not levy taxes, he promised them that he would not tolerate heresy. This religious dimension to his vision of kingship is in keeping with everything we know about his religious orthodoxy prior to his accession: from his washing paupers’ feet on Maundy Thursday to his journey to Jerusalem. But his very accession enlarged his spiritual conviction. As Arundel had proclaimed, it had been by God’s grace that he had redeemed England from Richard’s rule. In fact, his personal crisis in 1398–9 seems to have brought out the sense of the divine particularly strongly in him, marked by a number of references to the Trinity. The peace treaty he had sealed with the duke of Orléans in France earlier in the year had been agreed ‘in the name of the Almighty and the most holy Trinity’.9 The motto he gave to his new order of chivalry – Tria juncto in uno (‘the three joined in one’) – was a direct reference to the Holy Trinity. Occasionally he ended his letters not with a wish that the Almighty would keep the recipient in good health but that ‘the Blessed Trinity would grant you joy and health always’.10 Others wrote to him with this same salutation, including his lifelong friend Richard Kingston, his sons Henry and John, his half-sister Catalina, and his future wife, Joan of Navarre.11 Later in life he continued to make his devotions to the Trinity, and to incorporate images of the Trinity into his buildings. Parliamentary petitions were offered to him ‘in honour of the Trinity’.12 Most significantly of all, he requested to be buried at Canterbury Cathedral and was laid to rest alongside his uncle and fellow Trinity follower, the Black Prince, in the Trinity Chapel. Indeed, he may have originally been attracted to the Trinity precisely because it had been famously sponsored by the Black Prince, a chivalric hero.13 Whatever the reason for it, such particular and consistent devotion to the Trinity points to a firm and pious outlook, underlined by his declaration against heresy.

These elements of Henry’s kingship – the determination to rule in conjunction with the great men of the realm, taxation only in wartime, religious orthodoxy, and the establishment of a chivalric order – are all reminiscent of Edward III’s kingship. Even the language in which he made his speeches – English – harks back to Edward III’s use of English to stir up nationalist sentiment. These parallels between Henry in October 1399 and Edward III are not a coincidence. By 1399, Edward III’s reign had come to be seen as a golden age, being peaceful at home and glorious abroad: everything which Richard II’s reign was not.14 Hence we find Henry likened to his grandfather out of hope as well as the obvious parallel between their knightly virtues. Edward III’s epitaph in Westminster Abbey recorded that he was ‘the undefeated warrior, a second Maccabeus’. When Arundel preached Henry’s virtues to the people, he described him also as ‘another Maccabeus’.15 Similarly, Edward III’s epitaph states he was ‘a merciful king, the bringer of peace to his people’. On the day of the coronation, Adam Usk overheard Henry promising Archbishop Arundel that he would ‘strive to rule his people with mercy and truthfulness in all matters’.16 As will be seen, mercy was perhaps the most pronounced of all the elements of Edward III’s kingship which Henry now adopted for his own, and it was present from the start.

In this light of modelling his reign on that of Edward III, it is no surprise to see that Henry’s vision of kingship included warfare. Just as Edward III had won great victories in France and Scotland, so Henry promised to win them too. As it happened, the Scots attacked Wark Castle during the parliament, taking advantage of the fact that the wardens of the Marches (the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland) were both at Westminster. The Scots seized the wife and family of Thomas Grey and held them to ransom, and destroyed Wark, in contravention of the truce. Shortly after this, on 10 November, Henry received a letter from the king of Scotland, Robert III, refusing to acknowledge him as king and loftily declaring that past breaches of the truce should be discussed at Haddenstank, a point well within English territory, as if that was now the official border.17Henry’s reaction was uncompromising. In an emotional speech to the lords on 10 November, Henry declared his intention to lead an army against the Scots.18 As for the war with France, although his initial move was to make peace, and to secure that peace through a marriage between one of his sons and Isabella, when that hope foundered he stated his warlike intentions in a speech during a procession through London. ‘I swear and promise to you that neither his highness my grandfather King Edward, nor my uncle the prince of Wales, ever went so far forward in France as I will do, if it please God and St George, or I will die in the attempt.’19

As a result of all this, we have a clear picture of Henry’s vision of his kingship at the outset of his reign as that of a pious and conservative leader, merciful to his people, leading them in victorious battles overseas, maintaining peace at home, working with parliament and facilitating the economic prosperity of the nation. This innate conservatism goes a long way to explain why Henry was so popular at his coronation, in the wake of the radically individual Richard. His ideas about kingship were familiar to all: reminiscent not only of Edward III but also of the Old Testament kings: ‘merciful to their people and terrifying to their enemies’. Yet this was a form of kingship whose most vivid colours had already begun to fade. An early fifteenth-century king could not hope to impose spiritual orthodoxy on his people and avoid controversy. Lollardy had affected the religious outlook of the Church in England too much for there to be complete unity ever again. Similarly, it was increasingly hard to equate overseas warfare with economic prosperity at home. Overseas wars cost a lot of money, and that meant direct taxation. Victories over the French, Scots and Spanish still had their place (as shown at Agincourt in 1415), but such conflicts were difficult to justify economically. The mechanics of war were changing too, with guns and longbows replacing the massed charge of knights, so that chivalry had lost much of its purpose. Lastly, the relationship between king and parliament had changed. Whereas Edward III had been forced to work closely with parliament, Henry unwittingly compromised himself at the outset, in declaring his objective of cooperating with parliament as a matter of principle (a position from which he later had to withdraw). Therefore, although Henry’s vision reflected the greatest form of kingship then known, it was already out of date. Even if he managed to satisfy a few or all of his competing priorities for a short while, he could not continue to do so for long. It sounded magnificent to his people, and resounded in parliament, but it was much easier to announce than to perform.


Henry’s principal aims in his first parliament were to make his dynasty secure and to administer justice for those who had benefited from, or been victimised by, the old regime. In line with the first of these, he created his eldest son prince of Wales, duke of Aquitaine and earl of Chester – the traditional titles for the king’s son to bear – and had him recognised in parliament as heir to the throne. He also gave him the title of duke of Lancaster. All four of his sons were nominated as Knights of the Garter. No matter what happened to Henry himself, his dynasty was as safe as he could reasonably make it.

Justice was a much more complicated issue. Many people at that parliament wanted Richard to be put to death. Many more wanted those who had benefited from his reign to be punished as traitors. Part of the problem was that the very concept of treason had been greatly enlarged by Richard to encompass anyone who dared disagree with him: in Richard’s own words ‘he is a child of death who offends the king’.20 Thus the first step towards re-establishing justice in such matters was to reaffirm Edward III’s Statute of Treasons as the proper measure by which traitors should be judged. This was done on 15 October.

Nothing, however, could entirely smooth the path which Henry and those at that parliament had now to tread. When the Speaker, John Doreward, asked that all of Richard II’s ‘evil counsellors’ be arrested, many saw an opportunity to revenge themselves on Richard’s companions. William Bagot, who had been captured in Ireland and brought back in chains by Peter Bucton, was the first ‘evil counsellor’ summoned before parliament, on 16 October.21 He had already submitted a bill to Henry which outlined a defence of sorts, based partly on his alerting Henry to Richard’s ill will in March 1399. But the main thrust of his defence was that the duke of Aumale had been the principal ‘evil counsellor’. He directly accused the duke of at least two treasonable acts (being an accessory to the murder of the duke of Gloucester and expressing a desire that Henry himself might be killed). He was asked whether he stood by the terms of his bill, and he swore that he did. ‘It was you’, he said to the duke in person, ‘who said that if the duke of Gloucester, and the earls of Arundel and Warwick, and others were not killed, the king would never be able to exercise his regal power to the full.’ In addition, he stated that Mowbray and himself had urged Richard to resign in favour of Henry. Richard had retorted that he would never do so on account of his belief that Henry ‘is a worthless man at heart, and will always remain so. Besides, if he were to rule the kingdom, he would want to destroy the whole of God’s Holy Church.’22

Henry felt the need to defend himself on this point. ‘With the grace of God, I will show such a prediction to be quite false’, he declared, adding that he had taken a vow to uphold, protect and support God’s Church with as much zeal as any of his predecessors. ‘But I hope to see men appointed to churches who are worthy of their position, unlike many of those who were appointed in Richard’s reign.’23

Meanwhile Edward, duke of Aumale, was seething with fury at Bagot’s accusations. He knew he was now on trial for his life. ‘If the duke of Norfolk maintains that I sent two yeomen to Calais to see to the duke of Gloucester’s death’, he bellowed, referring to Bagot’s informant, ‘then I say that he lies falsely, and I shall prove it with my body!’24 And with that he flung his hood at the feet of Bagot in the middle of the hall, challenging him to a duel.

Henry was in a difficult position. Both men were guilty. But Bagot had probably saved Henry’s father from being murdered in January 1398 and had subsequently been a useful informer. As for the duke of Aumale, despite being Richard II’s adopted brother, he had been part of the plot to arrest the king in July, triggering his flight to North Wales. His father, the duke of York, had practically acted as kingmaker at Berkeley. Despite their guilt, Henry could not afford to punish either man severely. He ordered the duke to pick up his hood and return to his seat.

Bagot was asked why he had consented to so much of the bad advice which the king had received. His reply is revealing of the fear which had prevailed at court during the last days of Richard’s rule. ‘Is there any one among you all who, if King Richard had demanded a certain thing from you, would have dared to disagree with him, or not have complied with his order?’

John Norbury, whom Henry had appointed treasurer, stepped forward and claimed that he for one would have refused. But Norbury was a mere esquire, and protected by Henry. It was hardly fair to compare him in his current safe position with the dukes and earls in Richard’s line of sight a year earlier. Henry himself had been forced to accede to the proceedings of the Revenge Parliament. He knew that Bagot was speaking the truth.

Bagot went on to incriminate other great lords present, especially those who had been among the Counter-Appellants. The dukes of Surrey and Exeter threw down their hoods, challenging him for accusing them of being complicit in the murder of the duke of Gloucester. Again, Henry ordered them to step forward and pick up their hoods themselves. Bagot saw that he had an opportunity to prove the substance of what he was saying. ‘If you really want to know who was responsible for the murder, then you ought to question a valet named John Hall, who is now in prison in Newgate’, he said. Hearing this, Henry gave instructions to his clerk, James Billingford, to interrogate Hall.

The following day, while Hall was being questioned, Henry summoned all the lords with the exception of the three dukes whom Bagot had accused (Aumale, Surrey and Exeter). He wanted to know whether these three should be arrested or not. Lord Cobham, a victim of the Revenge Parliament, was firmly of the opinion that they should. Those who had incited or encouraged the king in his malice should be punished too. They had referred to themselves as the ‘foster-children’ of Richard, and, Cobham claimed, ‘as the foster-parent is, so shall the foster-children be’. He added that he said this not for the sake of revenge but for common justice. The other lords unanimously agreed.25

Henry was picking his way shrewdly between the potential pitfalls of royal judgement. After the discussion about the dukes, he considered a petition of the earl of Warwick to delete the record of his shameful confession in the Revenge Parliament. He refused, on the grounds that he could not justify obliterating the record of what so many knew to have taken place. Next he showed similar wisdom in responding to the commons’ calls for all the evil counsellors who had advised Richard to be brought to justice. He replied that some were already in custody, and others could be arrested at short notice, if the commons would be more explicit as to whom they suspected. That silenced the commons, who realised that there would be no general blood-letting by the new king to purge the country of his predecessor’s crimes.

Bagot appeared again on 18 October and was questioned further by Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester. He resorted to a defence based on letters of pardon he had received, which were then at Chester. Henry ordered that he be held in custody while parliament attended to its next item of business: the confession of John Hall.

Poor John Hall was one of the most unfortunate men of the fourteenth century. He was not only in the wrong place at the wrong time but also in the service of the wrong man, Thomas Mowbray, who ordered him to do a very wrong thing. Hall had been asleep in his house at Calais when Mowbray came to him and demanded to know what he had heard of the duke of Gloucester. Hall replied that he had heard that he was dead. Mowbray then told him that he was not, but the king and the duke of Aumale had sent men to kill him. Hall was one of six valets who would represent Mowbray at the murder, along with two valets of the duke of Aumale and William Serle, Richard II’s man. Hall was horrified, and prayed that he might be forgiven for not doing this, even to the loss of all his goods, but Mowbray struck him hard and ordered him to obey. Hall himself played no part in the actual killing (or so he claimed). But he stood by with the others as William Serle and one of the duke of Aumale’s valets named Frauncis smothered the king’s uncle.

Hall’s confession was deeply shocking. The mismatch between the royal status of the victim and his lowly murderers was deeply troubling to the lords present. As he waited there in shackles and manacles, not knowing his fate, Hall saw the bitter recriminations fly. The duke of Aumale tried to exonerate himself, but Lord Fitzwalter launched into a tirade. ‘It was you who appealed him of treason’, he shouted at Aumale, ‘you who brought accusations against him, and you who made the king hate him; and for all these reasons it was you who brought about his death, which I shall prove in battle.’

At this the duke of Surrey, realising that the Counter-Appellants’ only hope was to stick together, defended Aumale. ‘You are always interfering’, he snapped at Lord Fitzwalter, ‘you talk too much. Why are you so eager to accuse us on the grounds of this appeal when in fact there was no way that we could have avoided doing what we did at the time? When we were so much in the king’s power, and in so many ways under his authority, how could we dare disobey any command that he gave us?’ Then the duke accused Fitzwalter of also acquiescing to the appeal against Thomas of Woodstock. There he fell into a trap, as Fitzwalter was able to claim he had not been present at the time. So Surrey was forced to sit down.

Lord Fitzwalter resumed his attack on Aumale. ‘You were cause of the duke of Gloucester’s death. You were midwife to his murder. And this I shall prove by battle!’ he declared, throwing down his hood. Aumale, angered and fearful, responded by throwing down his own hood. But even without Hall’s testimony, many lords there believed that he had indeed countenanced the royal murder. A wave of outrage and shouting rose through the hall. The earl of Warwick, Lord Morley and Lord Beauchamp were just three of the lords who threw down their hoods, and the commons roared like men so angry that it seemed as if a battle would break out there and then, if justice was not done.

Amid this, Henry called for silence. He stood up. First he begged them not to do anything that was against the law. Then, with a growing sternness, he warned them of the consequences if they lynched the duke of Aumale or anyone else in parliament. Finally he ordered them to act legally and to restrain themselves until proper discussions had taken place. It was an impressive speech, and it stopped all those who had been about to seize the duke of Aumale. Unfortunately for John Hall, it focused attention back on him. When Henry called for judgement by the lords upon the wretch, there was only one fate suitable to the moment. Despite having done nothing but witness the murder – and that against his will – Hall was ordered to be drawn to Tyburn, hanged and then cut down and disembowelled alive, with his entrails being burned in front of him. Then he was to be beheaded and cut into quarters, and the parts of his body publicly displayed, with his head being sent to Calais, where the murder had taken place. It was the full traitor’s death, the disembowelling being a particularly harsh treatment reserved for those of the worst kind.26 The sentence was carried out immediately.

The next day was Sunday, and so parliament did not sit. On the Monday the king’s ceremonial bath took place, it being a week since his coronation. No parliamentary business was conducted that day, but Henry had all six surviving Counter-Appellants arrested: the dukes of Aumale, Exeter and Surrey, John Beaufort, marquis of Dorset, Thomas Despenser, earl of Gloucester, and John Montagu, earl of Salisbury. They were questioned over the following week.

Meanwhile parliament deliberated the future of Richard II. The commons wanted him brought into parliament to be tried, but Henry did not agree. Instead he replied that he wished to consult with the prelates before making a decision. The commons responded by asking Henry to assign legal advisers to help them deliberate further on the matter. Henry did so, and for three days they debated the ex-king’s fate. Henry in the meantime asked the earl of Northumberland to consult the lords about the same issue. In particular the lords were asked how the ex-king ‘should be kept in safekeeping, saving his life, which the king wished to be preserved to him in all events’.27 They were not at liberty to demand the death penalty. Archbishop Arundel made a preliminary address, requiring them all to keep their advice secret.

On 27 October parliament met again – lords, prelates and commons together – to hear the judgement on Richard II. The lords had come to an opinion, to which all fifty-eight of them had set their names: two archbishops, thirteen bishops, seven abbots, Prince Henry, the duke of York, six earls, twenty-four lords and four knights. In their view, Richard should be ‘kept under safe and close guard, in some place where there was no coming and going of people; and that he should be guarded by reliable and competent men’; and that none of his previous companions should be allowed to come into his presence; and that everything concerning his keeping ‘should be done in the most secret manner possible’.28 The commons unanimously agreed. Richard would be confined in isolation in perpetuity. Two days later, in accordance with parliament’s wishes, the ex-king was secretly removed from the Tower by night and taken via various castles to Knaresborough, and finally to the great Lancastrian stronghold of Pontefract, to be guarded by Henry’s trusted friends, Robert Waterton and Thomas Swynford.29

With Richard’s sentence agreed, the trial of the Counter-Appellants could go ahead. A good deal of hood-throwing ensued, as several men challenged each other to mortal combat. Each of the accused lords claimed that they had never consented to, nor known about, the murder of the duke of Gloucester, and that they had only participated in the Revenge Parliament out of fear of the king. Henry asked the lords to deliver judgement; but they declined, and passed the problem back to him. They only stipulated that the security of the kingdom should be his top priority. The prelates added that they hoped the men’s lives would be spared. On 3 November, Chief Justice Thirning delivered judgement on them. They were to lose all their new titles acquired in September 1397, and any grants of land they had received since then. Otherwise they were to retain their old titles and inherited lands, and go free.

It was an incredibly lenient sentence, so much so that it needed an official explanation. Three key points were made: (1) that the foremost consideration had been the security of the realm, as the lords had requested, for leniency would incline these men to support the new king; and besides, it was specifically laid down that any attempt by the Counter-Appellant lords to restore Richard would be regarded as treason; (2) that the commons had intended that the evils of the Revenge Parliament ‘should be reversed and amended in this parliament’, which had been done; and (3) that, if these men were traitors, then the full penalty of the law should also be meted out on others not yet accused. On this point, Henry explained that he did not want to threaten the people ‘but should make his judgements in righteousness and truth, with mercy and grace’.

The key in all this seems to be Henry’s understanding that a great king should be merciful. Indeed, one might go so far as to call it the ‘Merciful Parliament’. He had promised mercy, and he had delivered it. This is most clearly revealed in his treatment of Richard’s closest advisers. Six prelates and five secular lords had witnessed Richard II’s last charter (dated 23 June 1399), and these same eleven men had witnessed most of Richard’s charters during the period of his tyranny.30 Of the prelates, four – the archbishop of York and the bishops of London, Winchester and Exeter – continued to witness Henry’s charters as if there had been no change of regime. The other two were dealt with very leniently: Roger Walden, who had presumed to take Archbishop Arundel’s place in his exile, was only temporarily arrested, and four years later was nominated by Henry for a bishopric. Guy Mone, bishop of St Asaph, suffered no loss of status or property and was reappointed as treasurer by Henry in 1402. As for the secular lords, only one (William Scrope, executed for armed resistance) had been killed in the course of the revolution. The Counter-Appellants John Beaufort and John Montagu, earl of Salisbury, were dealt with very leniently, as mentioned above. John Beaufort was actually given the office of royal chamberlain, despite being stripped of his marquisate. The last two – Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester, and Richard Clifford, keeper of the privy seal – were also given royal appointments by Henry. Percy was chosen to lead an embassy to France to negotiate a marriage between the French royal family and Henry’s own children, and Clifford remained in post as keeper of the privy seal. Thus of the ten surviving charter witnesses none suffered a dire punishment. They were all treated leniently, even though they were among Richard’s closest companions and supporters. Bagot too was spared the axe. Most significantly, Richard II himself was allowed to live, at Henry’s personal command. In fact, Henry was thought to have been too merciful. A number of those present in the parliament accused him of accepting bribes to save these men’s lives, and an anonymous letter was found not long after in the king’s chamber, threatening him with deposition for treating Richard’s supporters so leniently.

At the end of his first parliament, on 19 November 1399, Henry could feel very satisfied with his performance. He had shown great tact in dealing with tricky matters, such as the earl of Warwick’s repeated requests to erase the official record of his confession, and the calls for the duke of Aumale to be executed. In matters of judgement, no victim had been dealt with harshly except John Hall, whose bloody fate met with universal approval. Thomas Haxey at last received a full pardon for presenting his petition for reforming the royal household, and William Rickhill was exonerated for obtaining the confession of the duke of Gloucester. Henry had also shown he had personal authority too. When parliament had almost collapsed in disarray, he had taken control of proceedings in person and impressed the assembly with an impromptu speech. And he had proved himself a man as good as his word in living up to his oaths not to levy direct taxes except in wartime. The only significant shadows in his first parliament were an awareness voiced by the commons that he was rewarding those who had supported him with more than he could afford, and an unease that he might have been too merciful in dealing with the Counter-Appellants.


On 17 December a group of men secretly met in a chamber of the abbot’s lodging at Westminster Abbey. They included five of the six Counter-Appellants who had been tried in the parliament and who had forfeited their titles. Only John Beaufort, Henry’s half-brother, was not there. With these five were the abbot of Westminster, the ousted archbishop of Canterbury, Roger Walden (who was being looked after by the abbot), the bishop of Carlisle, Master Pol (Richard’s physician), Sir Thomas Blount and Richard Maudeleyn, an esquire.31

The reason why lowly Maudeleyn was present in such noble company was that he looked very like King Richard – so much so that he could impersonate the ex-king. Hence he was essential to the plan which these men now discussed. On 6 January 1400, Epiphany, Henry was planning to hold a great tournament at Windsor. The lords had been invited to attend. They planned to assemble their forces quietly at Kingston from 1 January. The lords themselves would go to Windsor on the evening of the 4th to assassinate Henry, the archbishop of Canterbury, and all four of Henry’s sons, and give the signal for their armies to advance and seize several leading towns. Richard Maudeleyn’s role was to dress in armour and act the part of the king so that Londoners would gather to the royal banner and march against anyone who continued to support Henry, until they could recover the real Richard from his place of imprisonment.

What happened on 4 January is not exactly clear. According to one chronicle, the former duke of Aumale, Edward, dined with his father, the duke of York, on the evening of the 3rd and left an indenture of his confederacy confirming his involvement in the plot on the table, where his father could see it, prompting father and son to agree to betray the plot.32 According to another, a royal man-at-arms spent that night with a London prostitute and heard of the plot from her, she having slept the night before with a man in the service of one of the rebel lords.33 There are problems with both stories. With regard to the first, which is a deeply biased French source, it is extremely unlikely that men plotting treason would seal indentures of confederacy, for to do so would be an unnecessary security risk; it would be enough for them all to swear a solemn oath together. Rather this seems to be a literary device introduced by the chronicler to explain why it was that Edward betrayed the conspiracy and brought the news of the plot to the king. What is certain is that Edward was the only one of the lords gathered at that meeting on the 17th who was never punished by Henry. In fact he was not even charged with having been part of the conspiracy.34 Thus we may be confident that he broke the news to the king, as at least two other chronicles state.35 This might explain the second story, which seems to be a smokescreen to conceal the identity of Henry’s informant. It is very possible that Henry did not want anyone to know that Edward had betrayed his co-conspirators because he wished to continue to use him as a spy (which is what he did).

Henry took action immediately on hearing the news. He sent a messenger directly to find Archbishop Arundel and to warn him of the likely attempt on his life. Then, taking his sons and Edward with him, he rode hard for London. The rebel lords set out at dusk with the intention of arriving at Windsor that night; Henry rode through the darkness by a long, circuitous route, to avoid them. On the road near the city he met the mayor of London, who was travelling with four attendants to inform the king that the rebel lords had six thousand men in the field. Henry and the mayor rode through the gates of London at nine o’clock that night, and roused the citizens. Henry ordered his sons to be safely lodged in the Tower and all the ports to be closed. He issued writs for the arrest of the rebel lords. Then he ordered a proclamation to be made, throughout the city, that whoever would ride with him on the following day would be well paid: eighteen pence per day for a mounted man with a lance, nine pence for an archer. The Londoners responded with determination. By the morning, Henry had an army.

Henry marched out of London on 5 January. He sent Edward to meet the conspirators, to find out what their plans were by pretending to remain faithful to them. After him he sent two vanguards, one commanded by his half-brother, John Beaufort, and the other commanded by Sir Thomas Erpingham. The remainder of his army was ordered to follow him. No one was to ride ahead of the king’s horse on pain of death, he announced, for he himself wished to be the first man to engage the rebel army in battle. Edward told the rebel lords that two vanguards of the royal army were approaching and behind them was a huge force of men. Thomas Holland resolved to hold the bridge at Maidenhead as long as he could, but after darkness that evening, before Henry’s full army arrived, he fled towards Oxford.

The rebels had badly miscalculated. They had believed that the whole country felt as aggrieved at Richard’s deposition as they did, and thus they convinced themselves that the people would rise in their favour. The opposite happened: the people rose in favour of King Henry. Henry’s quick thinking and strong leadership was crucial, but the real force to defeat the rebels came from the people. In Cheshire, the heartland of Ricardian support, the rebels took arms on 10 January and were in flight by the 12th.36 Thomas Despenser tried to flee from Cardiff by ship but the crew had no wish to help a traitor, and took him instead to Bristol, where the citizens beheaded him. In London, Richard Maudeleyn and a few other conspirators were rounded up by the authorities and hanged. In Devon, the forces of John Holland (formerly duke of Exeter) failed to rouse the people. Holland himself, who had remained in London, fled in a small boat hoping to reach the Continent but was twice blown back on the Essex coast. Deserted by his men, he tried first of all to find refuge with the earl of Oxford at Hadley Castle, but was fearful of being betrayed and so sought refuge in the house of the Ricardian sympathiser John Prittlewell. There he was arrested. He was placed in the custody of Joan, dowager countess of Hereford, Henry’s mother-in-law and mother-in-law of the murdered duke of Gloucester. She was in no mood for mercy. She had him dragged to Pleshey Castle, where Gloucester had been arrested, and assembled a mob to cut off his head. Thus died Richard’s half-brother. His nephew, Thomas Holland, earl of Kent and formerly duke of Surrey, died in Cirencester with the earl of Salisbury. The inn in which they were staying was surrounded by the townsfolk during the night. In the morning the two earls were arrested and handed over to Thomas Berkeley, but a fire started in the town. One story goes that the townsmen were afraid that the rebel lords’ servants were trying to burn down their houses to distract them and facilitate their lords’ escape, so they took the precautionary measure of beheading them. Whether true or not, their ultimate fate is not in doubt. The heads were sent to Henry in a basket.

The failure of the Epiphany Rising, or the Revolt of the Earls (both names are regularly used to describe the rebellion), was predictable from the moment Henry heard that his life was in danger. If the rebels had succeeded in killing Henry and his four sons, they might have stood a chance of success. But even then it would only have been a slim chance. So fervent had been the public in support of Henry since his landing that not even the law and the idea of divine legitimacy had been sufficient to preserve Richard. To murder the man commonly seen as the saviour of England, especially after he had been so merciful to the Counter-Appellants, would have resulted in civil war. The cold-blooded murder of four innocent boys of the royal blood – aged fourteen, thirteen, eleven and ten – would have caused widespread revulsion. And the majority of the fifty-eight lords who had attested to the sentence of perpetual imprisonment on Richard would not have acquiesced in Richard’s restoration but would have fought against him in the name of either the aged duke of York or the earl of March, Edmund Mortimer, if only to avoid Richard’s retribution.

Rebels from Cirencester and other places were brought to Henry at Oxford Castle on 13 January. He personally sat in judgement. One of the captives deserved special attention. He was John Ferrour, the man who had saved Henry’s life in the Tower during the Peasants’ Revolt. We do not know whether he entreated the king to save him, reminding him of his earlier duty, or whether Henry recognised him. All we know is that Henry now repaid his debt, and ordered him to be released and pardoned. It is interesting that, despite the man’s change of allegiance, Henry’s loyalty and indebtedness after nineteen years remained paramount.

In all twenty-six men were beheaded. Many more were pardoned. The clergymen involved (the abbot of Westminster, the bishop of Carlisle and Roger Walden) were arrested and tried in the Tower of London on 4 February. Walden and the abbot were released soon afterwards without charge; the bishop was condemned to death – despite his clerical status – but was kept in the Tower for a while and eventually pardoned. Nicholas Slake, who had been arrested by the Lords Appellant in 1388, then again in 1399, and yet again now, found himself forgiven a third time by Henry. As one modern commentator has written, it is difficult to account for this except by pointing to Henry’s consistent magnanimity.37 Only six men, including Sir Thomas Blount, received the full traitor’s death of being drawn, hanged, disembowelled, and forced to watch their own entrails burned before being beheaded and quartered. Blount’s execution resulted in one of the greatest displays of wit in the face of adversity ever recorded. As he was sitting down watching his extracted entrails being burned in front of him, he was asked if he would like a drink. ‘No, for I do not know where I should put it’, he replied.38

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