Post-classical history


The Succession to the Crown, 1386–99

Many writers have considered the question of the succession in the reign of Richard II. Few, however, have considered it in the light of Edward III’s 1376 entailment of the Crown upon his male descendants. Even fewer have considered the question from Henry’s point of view, and no one (as far as I know) has fully considered the implications of Richard II making his own entailment in early 1399. As research on this book progressed it became clear that this was a significant problem, and so time was taken to examine the question in depth, attempting to ascertain how Richard’s fickle attitude to the succession affected Henry. The result, published as ‘Richard II and the Succession to the Throne’ in the July 2006 issue of the journal History, reveals several deliberate moves by Richard to eliminate Henry from the order of succession, the first dating back to the parliament of 1386. Readers who want an in-depth understanding of the matter prior to 1399 should refer to that article. What follows is a summary of the key turning points in Richard’s attitude to Henry as his potential heir.

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the discussion is a single entry in the continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum that Richard II declared the Mortimer boys to be his heirs presumptive in the parliament of 1385. Many writers have taken this at face value. Many others have dismissed it as unsupported nonsense, asking why no other chroniclers and no official sources record such an important announcement. Richard certainly believed he had the right to appoint his successor, and there is some corroborative evidence in the Westminster Chronicle in an entry relating to the year 1387. However, if we check the text, a startling point emerges, previously unnoticed. There are at least two layers to the continuation of this chronicle. A lost original, written before 1404, was copied and substantially altered by one or more later writers, the last of whom was definitely writing after 1428 (as shown by his reference to the exhumation of Wycliffe in that year). If we examine the part relating to the announcement concerning the Mortimer boys, it turns out to have been made in the parliament of October 1386, not 1385, and to have been the work of the original pre-1404 chronicler. The writer of the original (lost) chronicle had made a mistake in placing the creation of the earl of Suffolk in the October 1386 parliament. The copyist corrected this by adding a new phrase of his own, which reads ‘however in the ninth year of Richard’s reign [June 1385-June 1386], the king held a great parliament at Westminster in which … Michael de la Pole was made earl of Suffolk’. With the use of the word ‘however’ (autem) and his reference back to the 1385 parliament, there is no doubt that this is a later interpolation, included to correct the pre-1404 continuator’s dating of Suffolk’s creation. But by inserting this detail, the later writer has dislodged the next entry from the original chronicler’s account of the 1386 parliament and inadvertently associated it with the 1385 one, for it states that ‘it was in this parliament’ that Roger Mortimer was declared the heir to the throne. Thus it can be seen that the original pre-1404 included the entry that Mortimer was declared the heir in the parliament of 1386, not that of 1385.

Redating Richard’s declaration to the parliament of 1386 explains many things. Obviously it is clear why Gaunt (Richard’s heir, according to Edward III’s entail) and Richard did not fall out over this matter: Gaunt was not at the October 1386 parliament, being in Castile. Henry was present, and reacted by joining the Appellants the following year. In addition, he was both a blood relation and a close ally of the two men who went to the king from the 1386 parliament to threaten him with deposition, namely Thomas of Woodstock and Thomas Arundel. This gives a context to the declaration, for the accepted process of deposition was to force the king to abdicate in favour of an heir. Richard was hardly likely to acknowledge Henry as his heir if he had an alternative. Thus there were good reasons for Richard to declare publicly that his successor would be Roger Mortimer, a twelve-year-old boy. It was a swiping blow to Henry’s kinsmen and allies and a sharp reminder to parliament that his youthful successor’s ruling abilities might be no greater than his own.

Following the success of the Appellants in 1387, Richard was forced to accept the terms of Edward III’s entail. Evidence from the charter rolls’ witness lists for 1394 shows that Richard gave precedence to the heirs male of Edward III’s fourth and fifth sons (John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley) over the heir general of his third son (Lionel of Antwerp). However, in that same year Richard resisted John of Gaunt’s request to recognise Henry as heir presumptive by appointing him keeper of the realm. Instead he appointed his uncle, Edmund of Langley. That he continued to regard Edmund as his heir is shown by three pieces of evidence. The first is Edmund’s precedence over Henry in late 1397 and early 1398 (when they were both dukes and so precedence can be compared). The second is Richard’s will (April 1399), which does not name Edmund as his successor but indicates him by default, for it includes a phrase about who was to act if his successor refused the throne, and the men who were next in the order of precedence after Edmund were all named in this capacity. The third is a petition submitted by Bagot in 1399 in which he described a discussion between him and Richard in 1398 in which Richard spoke of one day resigning in favour of Edward, duke of Aumale, Edmund’s son and heir. Crucially this discussion took place before the death of Roger Mortimer was known and before Henry’s own exile; it thus is further evidence of Richard’s propensity to favour the line of York over the lines of March and Lancaster.

As a result of all this there were three clear turning points in Richard’s view of the succession. The first was his declaration in favour of Roger Mortimer, expressed in the parliament of 1386. The second was his decision in December 1387 – at the persuasion of the Appellants – to acknowledge Gaunt as his heir, in line with Edward III’s entail. The third was his decision to subvert the entail and elevate Edmund of Langley over Henry in 1394. This remained his preferred order of succession thereafter, during which years he was probably planning to charge Henry with treason (for joining the Appellants) as soon as John of Gaunt died. When this happened, Richard very probably destroyed the original of Edward III’s entail. Either way, Henry was finally removed from the order of succession on 18 March 1399 by being branded a traitor and exiled for life.

The foregoing is the substance of the article in History. Unfortunately it was not until later, after this article had been published, that I realised that one very important piece of the jigsaw was missing. This only emerged in reconsidering Henry’s inheritance claim from Henry III. As the Crouchback legend was known at the time not to be correct (and thus a weak basis for establishing a dynasty), and as Henry’s claim from Henry III could not relate to his maternal descent (which would have implied the Mortimer family were the legal heirs), there had to be some other reason for the reference back to Henry III (who died in 1272). It is now known that in 1290 Edward I made a settlement which permitted females to inherit the throne, so Henry’s concentration on his status as the male heir seems to have been the key to understanding his claim all the way back to Henry III (as one contemporary source specifies).1 But Edward III’s settlement of 1376 would have supplanted that of 1290, and restored the male-only line of succession, so again we have to ask why Henry did not even mention it. Even if he did not have the original document, Richard II had himself observed its contents in the early 1390s. What should have been spelled out was the implication of Richard II’s recognition of the duke of York as his heir. If Richard officially settled the throne on Edmund and his family in 1399, Edward III’s entail would have been supplanted, and thus rendered void, even if Henry had had possession of the original.

Although no settlement by Richard exists today, this does not mean one never existed, especially as we should expect it to have been destroyed by Henry. (The originals of both Edward I’s settlement of 1290 and Edward III’s of 1376 have been lost, almost certainly destroyed by those who did not agree with them.) In Richard’s case we may be reasonably confident that he did draw up a settlement of the throne, for two reasons. One is the logical argument outlined above: Henry’s failure to use Edward III’s settlement suggests it had been rendered void by a later royal decree. The second reason is that Richard’s will of 16 April 1399 – through not naming a ‘successor’ but implying his identity – suggests that the succession was clarified by a separate document. The reason for a separate document in 1399 was not just to supplant the 1376 entail; there was a real risk that the ageing and arthritic duke of York might die while Richard was in Ireland, so there was a need for the succession beyond him to be clearly delineated. This was especially the case as the next in line after the duke was his eldest son Edward, who was with Richard in Ireland.

Given these circumstances, it is likely that Richard drew up a settlement of the throne in conjunction with his will in April 1399, in much the same way as Edward III had drawn up his entail in conjunction with his will in October 1376. Richard’s settlement apparently threw out the Lancastrian claim altogether (Henry had been declared a traitor by this time) and designated Edmund of York as the heir apparent, followed by Edward, duke of Aumale (Richard II’s adopted brother). Edward’s younger brother, Richard of Conisburgh, was probably named as well, as third in line and a potential keeper of the realm in case Edward became king while still in Ireland. Evidence that such a settlement was widely known in September 1399 and that it named all three of these men is to be found in the chronicle of Jean Creton, who noted that the assembly of 30 September 1399 was asked whether they would prefer any of these three – Edmund, Edward or Richard of Conisburgh – to be king instead of Henry. The gathering preferred Henry, of course, and in so doing they set aside the king’s right to appoint his successor. In line with this, when Henry himself made provision for the succession in the summer and autumn of 1406, it was done on both occasions in parliament. This, then, was the basis of the Lancastrian claim in 1399: that only males could inherit the throne and all attempts by previous kings to settle the inheritance without consulting parliament were without any basis in law and thus void.

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