Post-classical history


A Deed Chronicled in Hell

For now the devil that told me I did well,

Says that this deed is chronicled in hell.

Richard II, Act 5, Scene 6

Henry rode back into London to rapturous applause, and shouts of ‘God preserve our lord King Henry and our lord the Prince!’1 But the Epiphany Rising had been deeply damaging. It had also been a distraction. His priority in January 1400 should have been the defence of the realm. Charles VI of France had refused to recognise him as king, and had refused even to meet his ambassadors, Thomas Percy, earl of Worcester, and Walter Skirlaw, bishop of Durham. Nor would he confirm the truce. Instead he had strengthened the castles on the borders of Picardy, forbidden all trade with Englishmen, and had gathered a fleet at Harfleur ready to invade South Wales and take possession of Pembroke and Tenby castles. Thus, when Henry processed into London and made his speech about taking an army further into France than even his grandfather and uncle had done, it was not a sudden whim.

On 9 February 1400, Henry held a council meeting at Westminster. One William Faryngton was admitted into the royal presence: an envoy from Henry’s ambassadors in France. He brought with him letters of credence from the ambassadors with their seals attached, supporting the authenticity of the copy of a letter they had received from Charles VI.2 Extraordinarily, this letter was a confirmation of the truce which Henry had offered to renew at the end of the previous year. It had been sealed by Charles in Paris twelve days earlier, on 29 January.3 The ambassadors did not know what to make of such a sudden reversal of French policy. They did not believe that it boded well for peace. As they made clear through Faryngton, they still had not received safe-conducts to meet Charles. The council concluded that ‘it was more reasonable to expect war than a truce’.4

It was not just the sudden unilateral acceptance of the truce which troubled the ambassadors. In Charles’s letter, the name of Richard II was followed by the expression ‘on whose soul God have mercy’, implying that he was dead. Their confusion is not surprising: exactly how did the French king, their enemy, know of Richard’s death before they did? Was it a mistake? They had no way of knowing. But with the benefit of access to the French records, we know that Charles had instructed his representative, Pierre Blanchet (by letters also dated 29 January), to tell the English ambassadors ‘that he had been advised of the death of King Richard’.5 Three other letters dated that day also show that Charles was disseminating news of the death to others. This was intentional; there had been no mistake.

This brings us to the problem of Richard’s death, for about this time he did indeed die. There is no doubt about this; there is no possibility that he escaped or was rescued from Pontefract and went to live in Scotland, as was later claimed.6 But most historians rely on timing and motive in deciding whether Henry was guilty of murder or not. This is unfortunate, for motive is not the same as evidence, and to pretend it is is to risk introducing modern prejudices into a historical argument. While it is obvious that Henry had a motive to kill Richard – if Richard was dead, no one would be able to restore him – we can equally find motives for Henry not to kill Richard at this time. Henry was no fool, and he and his advisers would have been aware that to kill the ex-king immediately after the Epiphany Rising might prove counter-productive, for it might make people suspicious and perhaps even sympathetic for Richard’s cause. In particular, Henry would have been suspected of the same sort of arbitrary killing as Richard, who had murdered his uncle Gloucester. Thus there were good political reasons why Henry should not have killed Richard. This is not to say that he did not give the order, only to remind us that one cannot judge innocence or guilt on the strength of motive alone.

The leading scholars in late fourteenth-century studies are, at the time of writing, quietly at variance over the issue of Richard’s death, one writing that he died ‘almost certainly on Henry’s orders’, another stating that it was the council’s direction that ‘Richard was to be disposed of’, another that ‘it is possible that Richard died a natural death’.7 The authors of his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography state that ‘there is no evidence that he was murdered and his skeleton showed no sign of violence. He could have been starved to death or even starved himself.’ Notwithstanding this scholarly caution, there is hardly any subject more important in a study of Henry IV’s life than whether he murdered his cousin or not. Therefore the question must be dealt with in greater detail and with a sterner methodology than simply presenting a range of options.

To begin with, it is necessary to stress that no chronicler was familiar with the details of the death at first hand. What each man wrote depended on his own point of view and what he had heard, and these things depended very much on what milieu he was part of. The pro-Ricardian French chroniclers, for example, were anxious to present Henry as a murderous usurper, and so they claimed that Richard had been killed on Henry’s orders. In the story circulated by the French author of The Betrayal and Death of Richard II,Henry sent one ‘Sir Piers Exton’ on 6 January to the castle in Kent where Richard was being kept, with instructions to kill him. When told that Richard was waiting for his dinner, Exton announced that the ex-king ‘should never eat again’. After a fight, in which the ex-king valiantly wrestled an axe from one of the seven men who now set about him, Sir Piers gave him repeated blows to the head, from which he died. This chronicle goes on to state that Richard was buried at Pontefract. In other French accounts, the killing took place not in Kent but at the Tower of London. But whatever the variations, the stories of violent death have long been recognised as propaganda.8 There was no knight called Piers Exton. It is exceptionally unlikely that a Ricardian sympathiser was allowed to witness the murder. And a forensic examination of Richard’s skeleton and skull revealed no sign of violence.9 The murder story was derived from a few circumstantial details and concocted for a French audience, in order to strengthen popular feeling against Henry.10 Unfortunately for Henry’s reputation, the same story served as excellent propaganda against his dynasty in England seventy years later, and thus it eventually found its way into sixteenth-century English historical works, and Shakespeare’s Richard II,whence it passed into popular currency.

The information circulated in England in the immediate aftermath was that Richard voluntarily went without food and water, and died on 14 February 1400. Even the French chronicles which refer to the violent murder include some reference to starvation, such as that Richard ‘will never eat again’.11 Most chroniclers referred to his self-starvation, including those who did not believe it. The author of the Historia Vitae et Regni Ricardi Secundi stated that he ‘declined into such grief, langour and weakness that he took to his bed and refused any food, drink or other sustenance. Thus on 14 February … he died there [Pontefract] in prison. Others say, however, and with greater truth that he was miserably put to death by starvation there.’12 The Brut notes that he was ‘enfammed unto the death by his keeper’, dying after four or five days.13 Jean Creton wrote that, after the Epiphany Rising, Richard ‘was so vexed at heart by this evil news that from that time onwards he neither ate nor drank and thus, so they say, it came to pass that he died’.14Similarly, a contemporary Londoner wrote that ‘for sorrow and hunger he died in the castle of Pontefract’, and the Dieulacres chronicler said that he died on 14 February, after twelve days without food and drink.15 Adam Usk also had him dying of hunger, partly out of sorrow and partly due to the tormenting of his keeper.16 Thomas Walsingham stated that he starved himself so that ‘the orifice leading to his stomach closed up … and he wasted away through natural debility, and finally died at the aforesaid castle [Pontefract] on 14 February’.17

But did Richard really starve himself? Or was he killed on Henry’s orders? And how can the official version of his death on 14 February be squared with the French king’s statement that he had heard of the death by 29 January?

The council debated the death in early February. Astoundingly, Henry neither confirmed nor denied the French message that Richard was dead. Our evidence for this is the minutes of a council meeting, which was held on or after 3 February 1400.18 It contains two relevant entries. The first reads ‘if Richard, former king, still be living as some suppose [or ‘as may be supposed’], then it is ordered that he be well and securely guarded for the safety of the estate of the king and of his realm’.19 That such doubts about Richard’s survival were entertained by the councillors themselves (and not just by people outside the council) is shown by an even more illuminating passage on the other side of the folio, which states that: ‘it seems to the council necessary to speak to the king that, in case Richard [the] former king etcetera is still living, he should be kept in security agreeable to the lords of the realm and if he be gone from life then he should be shown openly to the people at the end so that they may recognise him’.20

This raises the question of why the council did not seek further information from Henry as to what had happened to Richard. The council’s order that ‘he should be kept in security’ shows that their doubt was not due to his escape (otherwise we would read of orders for his recapture). We might conclude that Richard had indeed taken the initiative and started to starve himself to death (and, of course, the council may have been told this, whether true or not). But the key phrase here is ‘it seems to the council necessary to speak to the king’. This shows that the council considered Richard’s fate separately, without Henry being present.21 It demonstrates a possible difference between the information communicated to the council and that available to the king. It follows that either the whole council, including Henry, did not know for certain whether Richard was dead or not, because the matter was beyond Henry’s control and could not be clarified; or knowledge that Richard was already dead was known only to Henry and those members of the council who were privy to his secrets, who would not clarify the matter to the others.

Let us now consider the instructions issued by Charles VI to his ambassador Pierre Blanchet on 29 January, particularly ‘that he had been advised of the death of King Richard’. How did Charles know this? Firstly, and most probably, there may have been a French spy in contact with someone connected with Richard’s killing. There are very few alternatives. It is possible that Henry secretly informed the French king, in order to restart peace negotiations. But why then did his messenger not inform his own ambassadors on the way, especially as Charles was on the verge of invading England? He would have been undermining his own diplomatic position by giving this information to the French. Thus this explanation is hardly credible. Even more difficult to accept is that the French acted on an unsubstantiated rumour.22 Although Charles was periodically mad, the rest of the French royal family – who ruled in his name when he was unwell – would not have accepted a mere rumour unquestioningly. There is no sign of any doubt on the part of the French government of the veracity of the information. They certainly would not have reversed their entire policy to England, confirmed the truce and initiated negotiations unless they were confident that their information about Richard’s death was shared by Henry.

Scholars have traditionally referred to the French information as a mere rumour, and presumed that we cannot connect it with the actual death. But though the French information may have prompted a rumour, in itself it was more reliable than hearsay, for the originator triggered an entire reversal of French royal policy. It is important to remember this when considering the alternative narratives of Richard’s death. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Richard did starve himself in Pontefract on hearing of the news of the failure of the Epiphany Rising. This would tally with Richard’s reaction on his arrest – he refused to eat – and so would be believable. It would explain the council’s doubt about whether he was alive or not in February 1400, because no one at that council meeting – at least three days’ ride from Pontefract – knew whether he would go through with his self-starvation. However, the theory that Richard starved himself cannot be reconciled with the French king confidently circulating news of his death on 29 January. It would imply that it was a complete coincidence that, within a few days of Richard choosing to starve himself to death at Pontefract, someone close to the French royal family invented a spurious story that he had died and persuaded the French king to circulate the news without first checking it. This is simply not credible, especially in the light of their reversal of policy in the wake of the report. The French must have had some intelligence which they considered trustworthy, and that cannot have originated with Richard or his guards in the dungeons of Pontefract.

With this in mind, we can return to the question of why the English council was uncertain whether Richard was alive or dead at the time of their early February meeting. It is very difficult to accept that the reason was because the matter could not be clarified, for the French already had information which they considered reliable. Henry’s closest friends on the council must have claimed that they had no certain knowledge of it, or simply said nothing. Why? If Richard was already dead, and the French were circulating the information, why did Henry not confirm or deny his death to the council? The could not/would not question above would appear thus to be answered. The matter was left in doubt because those in the know would not clarify it. For this reason, the minutes of the council meeting, coupled with the French evidence, are very suspicious, if not damning.

Now let us tighten the final screws in this investigation. In searching for a source for the French information about Richard’s death, we have no option but to return to the contemporary French chronicles mentioned above, for they alone give an early January date for Henry ordering Richard’s death. According to the original of all of these French texts – preserved in The Betrayal and Death of Richard II – the name of the man whom Henry ordered to do the killing was Sir Piers (or Peter) Exton. As mentioned above, no man of this name is known, but it bears resemblance to that of Sir Peter Bucton (or Buxton), Henry’s old friend, fellow crusader and erstwhile steward. This is important for Bucton was one of the very few men who knew where Richard was secretly being held.23 The specific entry reads ‘on the day of Kings (6 January), when Henry had taken the field, outside London, with all his people who were about to fight the lords who had risen to support King Richard, he commanded a knight called Sir Piers Exton to go and deliver [Richard] straightaway from this world’.24 The man who recorded that command was a Frenchman who was in London at the time, and whose source was with Henry in person on that day.25 Furthermore, the Frenchman in question had excellent connections with the highest-ranking members of the English court. If he or one of his French contacts sent word of Henry’s order to France, this could have been the source of Charles VI’s knowledge that Richard was dead. In other words, it might not have been news of the death itself which persuaded the French king, it might have been trustworthy intelligence that Henry had issued an order for Richard to be killed. Certainly in The Betrayal and Death of Richard II we have evidence that the French had intelligence of such an order being issued in early January. Furthermore, if the French king knew that Henry had given this order, then presumably some members of the English court – and some members of Henry’s council – knew too. Hence the doubt in early February about whether Richard was dead. The royal council needed clarification as to whether Henry’s order had been carried out. The French presumed that the order had already resulted in Richard’s murder.

We cannot be certain that this is the true basis for the French information, but it would explain a great deal, including the otherwise intractable problem of the timing of the French announcement. It also allows us to reconstruct in outline the circumstances leading to Richard’s death. On or about 6 January, while riding against the rebels during the Epiphany Rising, Henry ordered Bucton to go to Pontefract and kill Richard, or at least to be prepared to kill him if the rebellion got out of hand. The essence of this order was overheard by the French agent in London, and the news was sent to Paris that Henry had secretly ordered Richard’s death. The French king, having no regard for the sensitivity of the matter in England, used the information to try to persuade Henry to return his daughter, Isabella, on the grounds that she was now a widow. He sent his messages to Henry’s ambassadors via his own representatives on 29 January. The French king’s letter would have been received by the English delegation at Calais on or about 1 February, and they lost no time in sending a copy to Westminster with William Faryngton. Henry, seeing the French king’s statement that Richard was dead, allowed the question to be discussed by the council at the early February meeting, to determine what they believed should be done with the king in the event of his death. Having no clarification of the matter, the council responded as best they could, providing for each eventuality.

The remainder of the story is evidenced in the Issue Rolls. About this time Henry sent William Loveney to Pontefract and back ‘on the king’s secret business’ with a small company of men.26 Loveney was the keeper of the great wardrobe, a faithful Lancastrian, who had been in Henry’s service since 1381.27 The task Henry now gave him was either to organise the process of announcing the death to the council (if Bucton had already killed Richard) or to outline to Thomas Swynford what to do about the ex-king (if he was still alive). On 14 February, Swynford sent a valet from Pontefract to ‘certify’ to the council that Richard was dead. He arrived in Westminster three days later, on 17 February. That same day Henry authorised the payment of one hundred marks to bring the body to London.

Taking all this evidence into account, two narratives are possible. Henry’s order to Bucton may have been simply to go to Pontefract and be ready to kill Richard if the Epiphany Rising looked like freeing him, this order being misinterpreted by the French agent in London. When news of this led the French king to infer that Richard was dead, and to offer a renewal of the peace, Henry realised the opportunity to avert both a war and the risk of Richard being rescued, and sent Loveney to Pontefract to arrange Richard’s final demise. Alternatively, Richard may have been killed by Bucton on or shortly after 9 January, as a direct consequence of Henry’s first order, issued on or about the 6th. Following that, Henry may have delayed announcing the death until it was safe for him to do so, after the heat of the Epiphany Rising had died down.

In determining which of these narratives is most likely to be correct, we have two final pieces of evidence to consider. First, there is the text of the Percy family manifesto.28 This was written in 1403, after the Percy family declared their hostility to Henry. In it the earl of Northumberland – a member of the king’s council and one of Henry’s strongest supporters in 1400 – stated that Henry ordered Richard to be killed by starvation, and that the ex-king lingered for fifteen days before he died. It goes without saying that the manifesto is an inherently biased document; nevertheless, if Bucton had killed Richard suddenly on Henry’s orders, Northumberland could have said so, rather than falsely claiming that Henry had starved Richard to death, for he was in a very good position in February 1400 to know the truth.29 The second piece of evidence tallies with this. When Thomas Swynford’s valet came south to confirm to the council that Richard was dead, he hired an extra horse ‘for speed’.30 Why would there be a need for extra speed if this was simply a ruse to cover up a death which had happened a month earlier? The council would not have known how many horses Swynford’s valet had used on the journey.

In conclusion, it appears that Richard did die on 14 February, and that Henry’s order to Bucton on 6 January was a precaution, to kill him only if it looked like he might fall into rebel hands.31 It would follow that the French agent misinterpreted this order, and that Henry did not issue the command actually to kill him until later, probably after 3 February (the earliest possible date for William Faryngton’s arrival at Westminster). That the order was taken north by Loveney, and yet news of the death did not come south until brought by Swynford’s valet, suggests that there was a period of delay between the receipt of the order and the death, and this correlates with the starvation story as officially announced and as claimed by the Percy family. More than this it is not possible to say. But whatever other details we might wish to know, and whatever clarifications of the foregoing conclusion are desirable, there can be no doubt about one thing. Richard II did not starve himself to death in Pontefract Castle; he was killed on Henry IV’s instructions.


How do we account for this? A man who was a pious believer in the Trinity, who enjoyed discussing morality, who went on crusades and even made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – how come he turned into a murderer? What drove him to it? This question takes us right into the heart of what Henry was, or rather what he had become by January 1400. It is thus one of the most interesting aspects of his life.

Richard’s hatred of Henry in the past was not a critical factor in determining his death. If Henry had wanted Richard killed for past grudges, insults and attempts on his and his father’s lives, he had every opportunity to bring this about in the parliament of 1399. Indeed, it would have been far easier to let parliament execute Richard than to murder him secretly a few weeks later. Thus we may be sure that it was not a personal vendetta but a political assassination. On 4 January Henry finally realised that the die-hard Ricardian faction would never accept him as their monarch. Worse, they were prepared to murder all four of his sons to achieve their aim. Henry’s children were a part of his political world: they embodied his hope of founding a dynasty. So, now he was king, he had a duty to maintain stability and the political order, and that meant his own personal wishes were subsumed within the interests of the Crown. He had no choice but to do all he possibly could to preserve himself and the royal family, and that included eradicating the destabilising threat which was Richard II.

In this light it is striking that Richard was probably not killed on a whim, but only after the precaution of sending Bucton to Pontefract. Even if one takes the Percy manifesto literally, so that Henry starved Richard for fifteen days, he did not issue the command to begin the starvation until 27 or 28 January. The precautionary order may be seen as a strategic move, that of a general on the field of battle, which is indeed what Henry was on 6 January. The order actually to starve Richard – issued probably in early February – was more considered, after the immediate danger had passed, to make safe his position. The immediate advantages of the assassination were obvious, the long-term disadvantages less so. When news arrived of the French king’s understanding that Richard was already dead, and that Charles was now more concerned with his daughter’s return than with invading England, the opportunity to make peace with France and at the same time safeguard his throne from pro-Ricardian fanatics persuaded Henry that bringing about Richard’s death ‘by natural causes’ was the best course of action.

Although the killing of Richard was actuated by political necessity rather than personal hatred, that necessity in itself points to a profound change in Henry. To most critics, Henry weathered the Epiphany Rising with relative ease: the support of the country was never seriously in doubt, and support for Richard withered quickly. But the rising itself shattered Henry’s image of himself as a universally popular king, and seriously ruptured his faith in the value of mercy. It forced him to see political reality: that he might be required to stoop to underhand methods for the sake of the safety of the realm, including the assassination of a kinsman. Far from being the new Edward III, he was vulnerable. Of course, kings do not write letters revealing their weaknesses, so there is no overt evidence of his fear; but there can be no doubt that in Henry’s case his vulnerability was suddenly and violently exposed. The attempted revolt cannot but have raised the question in his mind of another attack. When might it come? And would the next attacker seek also to kill all his sons?

Unsurprisingly, Henry did not lament Richard’s passing. He ordered the body to be brought to London with its face exposed, so that all who saw it could recognise the ex-king, in accordance with the council’s directions. The face was exhibited from the forehead down to the neck.32 The corpse was taken first to St Paul’s, where it arrived on 12 March.33 A Mass was sung there for the dead king’s soul, which Henry respectfully attended, bearing the pall himself. After two days on open display at St Paul’s, the body was taken through the main street, Cheapside, where it was left on its carriage for all to see it for two hours. Following that it was conducted to Westminster Abbey, where another Mass was sung for the late king, before being taken for burial at King’s Langley.

Henry’s refusal to allow Richard to be interred in the tomb in Westminster Abbey which he (Richard) had constructed for himself and his first wife has occasioned much debate and speculation among historians.34 One view is that Henry did not believe Richard was worthy to lie in the special circle of tombs around the shrine of the Confessor. The other Plantagenet kings there – Henry III, Edward I and Edward III – were all more deserving monarchs than Richard (the weakest of them, Henry III, had rebuilt the entire abbey church). But debate on this point has overlooked the fact that Henry did not remove Richard’s tomb, which he would have done if he had meant Richard never to lie in it. It lay half-empty, housing only the body of Richard’s queen, Anne of Bohemia, until Henry himself was dead. Moreover, Henry did not even move it from the innermost ring of royal tombs, where it filled the last of the six places of honour around the royal saint’s shrine.35 He was not at all averse to moving tombs: at about this time he shifted the duke of Gloucester’s body to a place more in keeping with his royal status.36 So it appears that he meant Richard only temporarily to lie at Langley. He also paid for a thousand masses to be said at Langley for the salvation of Richard’s soul, a number fully in keeping with his kingly status.37 It is therefore unlikely that the explanation for Richard’s burial at Langley was his unworthiness and far more probable that Henry simply did not wish Westminster Abbey to become a focus for political supporters of the late king. Richard had rebuilt the hall of the Palace of Westminster in a very impressive fashion, and filled it with kingly statues. He had also been a patron of the abbey, and installed his huge gilt portrait there. Thus for Henry to separate Richard’s body and the physical remains of his kingship was – like the murder itself – a political act. His successors could rebury Richard where they liked in due course, but Henry himself was not going to risk adding to Richard’s potency in death by allowing his royal body to lie at the centre of his self-glorifying art and architecture.


In the spring of 1400, Henry moved to Eltham Palace, which now became his favourite residence.38 The accommodation and facilities had been extensively remodelled and extended by Edward III and Richard II, so that it was already one of the most comfortable royal houses in England. Henry improved it still further. He added a large study and a great chamber for himself, above a cloister leading to the chapel, together with a kitchen, a buttery, a larder and a parlour. These were all built of timber with stone chimney stacks. The parlour had six stained-glass windows decorated with birds and ‘baboons’ or grotesques. The great chamber was heated by two fireplaces and lit with three bay windows, the middle one bearing stained-glass emblems of his kingship and the Lancastrion motto,Souveignez vous de moi (‘remember me’ or ‘will you remember me?’). A window beside the door was decorated with figures of the Trinity and the Salutation. More Trinity and Salutation figures gazed down at him from the seven windows of his study, along with four saints. He had two desks constructed to furnish the study, one specifically for him ‘to keep his books in’. He also had a small private oratory built, with a rood-loft (for musicians to perform) and a spiral staircase for ease of access from his chamber.39 Such additions are reminiscent of Henry as he appears in the accounts of his youth: bookish, pious, conscientious, musical and a relatively private man for a medieval king.

How much quiet time he had in which to enjoy his study and private quarters was a different matter. He had an armed expedition to Scotland to organise. His resolution to carry through this plan was hardened when his second offer to open negotiations with the Scots was ignored in early January.40 The Epiphany Rising, the threat of war with France and the burial of Richard then distracted him, but by May he was again thinking that he should demonstrate in Scotland that he was worthy of the crown of England, and capable of living up to the high standards which he had publicly set himself at his coronation.

Two pieces of good fortune in the spring assisted him in organising this campaign. The first was a letter from the Scottish earl of March, George Dunbar, which he received at the beginning of March.41 Dunbar had fallen out with the duke of Rothesay, son and heir of Robert III, on account of the duke’s rejection of his daughter as a prospective bride. In his letter he offered to switch his loyalty from the king of Scotland to Henry. Dunbar was clearly a valuable ally, being a sound military commander and in possession of secret information of particular importance to Henry.42 Seeing a great opportunity, Henry wrote back warmly, issuing a safe-conduct for him to come to England. The other piece of good fortune was that Henry’s negotiators in France managed to bring about a mutual confirmation of the twenty-eight-year truce, which still had twenty-four years left to run. With this finally agreed on 18 May, Henry could march north without fear of leaving England open to a French invasion.43

Despite these turns of events, Henry still had a significant problem to overcome. He had no means to pay for an army. This perhaps explains why, on 24 May, he offered Robert III a third opportunity to renew the peace between England and Scotland, as the French had just done. Once more King Robert ignored him. In theory Henry could have solved his financial predicament by summoning a parliament and asking the commons for a grant, but in practice that would take far too long. Just to summon parliament required forty days’ notice, and, presuming there was a grant, it would take time for the money to be gathered. So he decided to use a different method for organising the defence of the realm. Summoning an army to muster at York on 24 June, he asked the magnates to supply men for his expedition directly. All those lords who had received a grant from Henry himself or his predecessors (Edward III, the Black Prince, John of Gaunt, or Richard II) would lose their lands if they refused to fight in Scotland. It was a clever way of testing loyalty and raising a cheap army at the same time. But it also had the side effect of putting Henry’s popularity to the test. It became essential that all those participating should gain in some way from the expedition. If they did not, Henry would have lost a measure of their loyalty, as well as their respect.

The army was large. A total of 13,085 fighting men attended, not including the mariners and other support staff who kept the forces supplied.44 Of these, 1,771 were men-at-arms; the remaining 11,314 were archers. Henry’s two eldest sons – Henry (aged thirteen) and Thomas (twelve) – also travelled with the army, as part of their military education. They took eight single and six double cannons (the latter having two barrels) and eight hundred pounds of gunpowder.45 Such was the size and scale of the force that the Scottish king sent negotiators at the last moment; but their instructions were to try and delay the army’s progress rather than to present realistic terms. They offered a perpetual peace along the lines agreed by Edward III and Robert Bruce in 1328.46 Henry naïvely believed that Robert III was in earnest, and wrote to the council asking for further details of the treaty in question. That meant a long delay. Jousts were held to keep the men occupied, and Sir John Cornwaille performed so impressively that Henry awarded him the hand in marriage of his own sister, the recently widowed Elizabeth.47 All the while his army was eating up its supplies, and the wages he had promised the men were depleting his small reserves. Henry had to ask for loans from the bishops and his trusted Lancastrian supporters. And the waiting was all in vain. The treaty of 1328 was unworkable – it had not been called the ‘Shameful Treaty of Northampton’ for nothing – and Henry could hardly use it as the basis for further negotiations. Realising he had been fooled, he demanded that Robert III do homage to him for Scotland in Edinburgh on 23 August, and gave the order to march north.

Henry crossed the border on 14 August and advanced to Leith. The duke of Rothesay offered ‘to avoid Christian bloodshed’ in the traditional way by fighting him in person with one, two or three hundred supporters, but Henry did not take him up on his offer. Instead, he merely reissued his demand that the king of Scotland perform homage. Henry approached Edinburgh, expecting obeisance. The king of Scotland stayed away. The Scots reverted instead to their time-honoured tactic of withdrawing in the face of an English army. They knew from centuries of experience that no English force could stay in the north perpetually; there was a limit to their patience as well as to the king’s purse and their food supplies. Seeing Edinburgh Castle fully garrisoned by the duke of Rothesay himself, and knowing his small financial resources were all but exhausted, Henry realised the extent of his strategic predicament, and agreed to talks at the cross between Edinburgh and Leith.

Henry had already shown himself to be naïve in two respects: believing that the Scottish emissaries were sincere in seeking peace and expecting the Scots would do battle against his eleven thousand archers. Now he showed his lack of kingly experience a third time. Despite never having led a diplomatic embassy before, he took charge of the English negotiations in person. The Scots ambassadors tricked him. Two years later, when one of them, Sir Adam Forrester, was brought to him in chains at Westminster, Henry stated that Forrester, ‘by many white lies and subtle promises, had suddenly caused the king to leave the land of Scotland’ in 1400.48 What these ‘subtle promises’ were may be deduced from matters arising from the colloquium between Edinburgh and Leith issued to a later set of English negotiators. The principal question was whether the king of Scotland owed homage and service to the king of England, and, if so, whether he should be summoned to attend parliament in England.49 Forrester seems to have argued to Henry that the king of Scotland had assumed that he was not a subject of the king of England as he had not been summoned to parliament. Maybe he promised Henry that Robert III would obey a future summons? Either way, Forrester must have offered some form of political bait. And Henry fell for it. He returned to England almost immediately, recrossing the border with his army on 29 August.

Henry had failed. There is no other way to look at this expedition. There were some slight advantages – at St Albans, the chronicler Thomas Walsingham was left with the impression that he had ravaged the north, and there were some naval successes during the campaign – but otherwise all Henry had achieved was to demonstrate that the English still had the ability and will to muster a large, well-equipped army.50 All those whose loyalty he had drawn on had nothing to show for their efforts. There was no glory, no strategic victory, not even a diplomatic settlement. Why? After all, it was not yet a year since the commons and lords had collectively cheered him at his coronation. And it had been a huge army. Henry was not a rash man; how could he have miscalculated so badly?

For a start he probably ran short of provisions.51 His Lancastrian officers were not used to supplying armies on this scale. For this Henry himself must take the blame; great war leaders make sure they delegate to officers who will not fail to supply the army in the field. But there were other reasons for the failure. Henry was primarily a tournament fighter – an individualist – and had some way to go before he could be considered a fully-fledged general. This is not to say that he was weak tactically; later events would prove that he had lost none of the sharp battlefield thinking he showed at Radcot Bridge. But on the broader strategic front he had much yet to learn. Had he known about his grandfather’s continual warfare strategy, he would not have withdrawn entirely from Scotland but would have kept up the pressure on the Scots, to make sure they made good their promises. Similarly, he overestimated his skills in taking on the negotiating role personally. However clever he was, he simply did not have the experience. The Scottish negotiators ran rings around him.

To add to these problems, he had difficulty coming to terms with money. His attitude was that financial matters were beneath him. ‘Kings are not wont to render account’, he later declared.52 We can understand where this attitude came from: he had grown up as the son and heir of the richest man in England, and had never had to shuffle his funds to make ends meet, let alone go without. So he had no way of realising at the time how his promises not to levy taxation would tie his hands as king. Not only could he not raise further money for his campaign, what money was coming in was still being diverted to pay for his own invasion. Grants to his supporters had already exceeded £22,000, and the duchy of Lancaster itself was in debt.53 The customs revenues were in free-fall, and the harvest of 1400 had not been good.54 If Henry had not had his loyal Lancastrian supporters to call upon, and substantial loans from the prelates, he would have found it difficult to keep the army in the field as long as he did.

But probably the most important reason for Henry’s failure in Scotland was the man himself. His character was not what men expected in a warrior-king; he was just too serious. Henry was never ‘a blithe hero’, as some historians have suggested; he was logical, scrupulous and fervent, and (at this juncture) sincere to the point of naïvety. However much he had studied kingship, he was no Edward III. His grandfather had understood the value of books but he never built himself a study. Rather Edward built halls and roasting houses, hunting lodges and dancing chambers, and spent his time with his companions feasting, jousting, hunting and planning the next campaign. Then he delegated to his leading lords missions in which they could compete for glory. Henry’s friends were fewer in number, and many of those who pretended to be his friends were untrustworthy, and he knew it. His companions did not want to serve him; they wanted to control him, or even remove him. How could Henry display an ease of manner with his subjects, and inspire them to feats of glory, when he was waiting for one of them to stab him in the back?

No English king ever again led an army into Scotland. The age of asserting English sovereignty (as opposed to merely claiming it) was over. The claim itself was not dropped until the sixteenth century, but from now on the kings of England had to prioritise domestic security over the sovereignty of Scotland. Partly this was a result of Henry’s actions: having destabilised the realm by dethroning a monarch, no English king for the next hundred years felt sufficiently secure at home to mount a northern expedition on the scale required. By then Scotland was firmly established in its independence, and English sovereignty of Scotland was as unrealistic as English sovereignty of France.

Henry was back at Newcastle by 2 September. He was at Durham for the next two days, and at Northallerton for the next two. By then his army had disbanded, each group of men wending their ways over the rain-soaked roads to their villages. As they retreated, a large number of Scotsmen gathered to inflict a massacre, but they were met in Redesdale by Sir Robert Umfraville on 29 September, who routed them, killing two hundred men and taking many prisoners. Henry issued writs from Pontefract summoning a parliament to meet at York on 27 October, perhaps hoping to resolve his failure in Scotland. Then he rode further south. At Northampton on 19 September, he stopped. Urgent messages had reached him, about a rising in Wales.55 A gentleman of Welsh birth had defiantly claimed the title ‘prince of Wales’ three days earlier, and had sworn to kill him and his eldest son. That man was now marching with nearly three hundred followers to burn the town of Ruthin.

Such an insurrection could not be ignored. Nor could its charismatic leader. His name was Owen Glendower.

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