Post-classical history

ONE

The Hatch and Brood of Time

There is a history in all men’s lives

Figuring the nature of times deceas’d;

The which observ’d, a man may prophesy,

With a near aim, of the main chance of things

As yet not come to life, which in their seeds

And weak beginnings lie intreasured.

Such things become the hatch and brood of time …

(Henry IV Part Two, Act 3, Scene 1)

Their fires had been burning days, most fiercely in Kent and Essex. Maidstone was in flames. Canterbury was under attack. Thousands of rebels were on the march, and rumours were flying in and around London. In every village and town in the south-east people spoke of the outrages committed by royal tax collectors as they went from place to place demanding fourpence or more for the poll tax from every adult man and woman. They went armed, and they were a law unto themselves. They sought out potential evaders ruthlessly. John Legge was one of the worst. He would line all the inhabitants up in a village and inspect them. If told that a girl was under age, and thus exempt from the charge, he would lift up her skirts and find out in his own rough way whether she was ‘under age’ or not.1 Most fathers would rather pay than have such an indignity forced on their daughters. The hostility was bitter, and it ran like a seam of anger from rural Essex and Kent right into the heart of the city.

The year was 1381. Henry of Lancaster – the future Henry IV – was fourteen, and in London. He may have been at his father’s great house, the Savoy Palace, he may have been at his own house in Coleman Street, or he may have come to London with the king. We do not know for certain. But what we do know is that he was in the capital during those fateful days in the second week of June. He was there when the full force of more than ten thousand aggrieved men tore into the city. The memory of those days would remain with him for the rest of his life.

The advisers with young Henry – his guardian, Thomas Burton, his military tutor, William Montendre, his clerk Hugh Herle and his young companion Thomas Swynford, and possibly the family surgeon, William Appleton – knew that there was no force strong enough to defend their young lord from the rebels. Five hundred men armed with longbows could defeat ten times as many men-at-arms in battle. So what hope did Henry’s guards have against several thousand bowmen, roaming at large? As servants of Henry’s father, the duke of Lancaster, they were in particular danger. The duke was one of the most hated figures in the realm. He was personally blamed for many of the injustices which had sparked the revolt. Had he not imprisoned Sir Peter de la Mare, Speaker of the House of Commons, for daring to oppose him? Did he not command the council which directed the rule of the young king? Did he not parade in and out of the city in a haughty and conceited manner, squandering money in the pretence that he was the king of Castile? The crowd wanted the duke and all the chief officers of state destroyed. They wanted the nobility disempowered. They believed that they were now the greatest force in the realm. They had shown their strength on the battlefields of France in the service of the late king, Edward III. In return, Edward had shown them the virtue of being English, in their language, in their parliament, in resisting the power of the pope, and in their collective fighting power. That was the most frightening thing of all: these men were not just a rabble, they were an organised fighting force. Moreover, they had a firm belief that King Richard II would understand them, and that he was only prevented from helping them by his advisers. So they paraded the fact that they would have no other king but the fourteen-year-old Richard. They were armed, idealistic and frenzied with anger. Anyone who got in their way was killed, regardless of rank.

As the countrymen marched towards the city, Henry and his guardians went to the Tower of London, the strongest castle in the region. There too the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury – who was also the chancellor – sought refuge, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. The duke of Lancaster himself was in Scotland with an army, and so was in relatively little danger. King Richard II and his advisers came downstream from Windsor to the Tower on 11 June, believing they could talk their way out of trouble. But all attempts to persuade the peasant armies to disband failed. The Kentish rebels massed in their march from Canterbury, and although they paused to discuss terms with the bishop of Rochester on Blackheath on the 12th, they were set on demonstrating their destructive power. Likewise the Essex men. The two forces linked up, and coordinated their advance on the capital, as they had been trained to do in campaigns in France. There they had killed and destroyed mercilessly in order to exert political pressure on the government. They might have looked like a rabble of peasants but they were capable of systematic devastation on a scale which London had never seen before.

On the morning of Thursday 13 June the armed countrymen reached Southwark, the suburb of London which lay directly to the south of the Thames. At that moment Richard II was sailing to a point between Rotherhithe and Greenwich to talk with their leaders. His advisers, including Archbishop Sudbury, prevented him leaving the royal barge. Richard called to the rebels from the safety of the river, asking why they had gathered. The leaders sent a list of men whose heads they wanted. First named was the duke of Lancaster, next the archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer. They also wanted the heads of the keeper of the privy seal, the chief baron of the exchequer and ten other individuals. Obviously, Richard could not agree with such a request. The men of Kent watched the royal barge rowed slowly back to the Tower, their king unwilling to help.

Then the destruction began. Although the mayor of London had given orders for the gates to the city to be closed and the bridge defended, many of the poorer Londoners had every sympathy with the rebels. The men of Southwark did not want a violent mob to be trapped in the streets outside their houses; so they forced the men on the bridge to give way. The gates were opened. Early in the evening of the 13th, crowds of men broke into the city. They were joined by thousands of poor workers within the walls. Overwhelmed, the mayor gave orders that the wine cellars should be left open to the armed mob, hoping that they would drink themselves into a disorganised and confused rabble. But as they drank, half-demented in the heat of what had been a very hot summer’s day, the rebels sought out their hated targets. They broke down the gates of prisons, letting everyone go free and killing the custodians, or chasing them to sanctuary. One royal sergeant-at-arms, Richard Imworth, was found in Westminster Abbey, clinging to a pillar. They dragged him outside and cut his throat. The men of Essex ransacked the priory of St John at Clerkenwell, because its prior was Sir Robert Hales, the treasurer. The men of Kent destroyed the manor of Lambeth, which belonged to Archbishop Sudbury. Wherever the citizens pointed out the house of a hated public figure, torches were set to it, the contents were destroyed and the inhabitants killed.

None of the rebels needed any Londoner to point out the house of the duke of Lancaster. The Savoy Palace stood tall and proud in the Strand, halfway between London’s city walls and the Palace of Westminster. In the words of one contemporary, it was ‘a house unrivalled in the kingdom for its splendour and nobility’.2 It was, in addition to a residence, the duke’s treasury and his wardrobe. Five cartloads of gold and silver were kept there, together with innumerable tapestries, woven cloths, armour, jewels and items of furniture. Now the rebels gathered towards it, like moths attracted to a great beacon of Lancastrian power. In the chambers and hall they cut the rich paintings and tablecloths with their knives and smashed the furniture with their axes. They ripped the tapestries and crushed the gold and silver vessels and threw them into the Thames. They took one of the precious jewel-encrusted padded jackets belonging to the duke and set it up on a lance for the archers to use as target practice. Then the building itself was set ablaze. Those in the wine cellars drinking the duke’s wine were crushed to death as the burning building above them collapsed through the floor, probably helped by the barrels of gunpowder stored within. Two men caught looting were thrown into the blaze. It was a systematic destruction of the emblems and insignia of the duke’s status and authority.

Henry watched from the walls of the Tower of London. Had he any understanding of what was going on, he would have seen that it was the result of extreme discontent arising from ruthless law enforcement and overtaxation. He could see his father’s palace burning and would have heard the explosions as the barrels of gunpowder ignited. Much of Fleet Street was alight. So too was the priory at Clerkenwell, the prisons, the houses of John Butterwick and Simon Hosteler and many other men associated with the regime. Here the shop of a chandler was ablaze, there the shop of a blacksmith.3 In the streets, men were murdered wherever they met an enemy. The Londoners began to cull their own. A number of houses around the Temple were set on fire, many more to the south of the river, at Southwark. Roger Legget, a royal tax collector, was found and dragged, kicking and shouting, to Cheapside where his head was cut off. Then his house in Clerkenwell was set alight.

Henry would have heard the screams of terror nearby as the citizens took the opportunity to purge themselves of foreigners. Thirty-five Flemish people who had fled to sanctuary in the church of St Martin in Vintry were pulled out of the building, one by one, and dragged across the churchyard to a single block, where they were decapitated, the heads and bodies lying on the ground as the next terrified victim was dragged out of the church. The financier Sir Richard Lyons was sought out and killed.4 Lombards were pulled from their houses and murdered by the dozen. More than one hundred and fifty Flemings lost their lives. A whorehouse run by Flemish prostitutes was set on fire. Thirteen Flemings were pulled out of the church of the Austin friars and beheaded in the street outside by the drunken rabble, as the burning sun began to set on the burning city.5

That night the young king gathered his advisers in the Tower. They had a few hundred men-at-arms with them.6 Some of the nobles tried to persuade Richard to fight his way out, in a full-scale charge. Others suggested that he should talk to the rebels and draw them away from the city. Henry was there; perhaps he was able to listen as his young cousin accepted the advice of those who suggested another meeting. The next day Richard would ride out from the Tower with the men-at-arms, his half-brothers, his mother and the mayor of London, and talk to the rebels at Mile End.

On the morning of Friday 14 June Richard and his men departed from the Tower, leaving Henry and a few others there with nothing but the stone walls and a few guards to protect them. Most of the lords went with Richard and the mayor. Henry was left with all the men whose heads were sought by the rabble: Archbishop Sudbury, Hales and various other royal enforcers, such as John Legge. They did not know about the jostling of the king’s men by the crowds on the way to Mile End. Only when the king’s mother returned, escorted back by some men-at-arms when the jeering crowds became too much for her, did they learn about the hostile mood out to the east of the city. Henry would have waited, perhaps looking out for signs of messengers hurrying back. None appeared. Hours passed. Then a mass of armed rebels came running, hungry for blood. In his discussions at Mile End, the king had told the peasants to go through the realm and bring all traitors to justice, wherever they were. Those inside the Tower had effectively been condemned to death.

What Richard had actually said, of course, was that the rebels should go away, or, specifically, ‘go through the realm and bring all traitors to him safely, and he would deal with them as the law required’.7 The rebels’ view was that they did not need to go ‘through the realm’ but only as far as the Tower. They were the law, and judgement was theirs; there was no need for a trial. Armed with longbows and staves, it was not long before the gates to the Tower had been forced and they were going from room to room, looking for their victims. Some went into the king’s chamber and lay down on his bed, laughing. The king’s mother, renowned thirty years earlier as the most beautiful woman in the land, in whose presence the greatest knights at King Edward III’s court had jousted, now found herself roughly kissed and manhandled by the peasants.8 The few guards remaining were powerless to defend their masters as hundreds of commoners pulled their beards or made faces at them. The archbishop and Prior Hales could do nothing but go down on their knees and pray in the chapel. Henry himself could only watch and wait.

The archbishop could expect no mercy. He had prevented Richard from disembarking at Greenwich to meet the rebels the previous day. On the list of men to die, his name appeared second, just below that of Henry’s father, the duke. He knelt and prayed in the chapel of St John in the White Tower. Those who were with him had already heard one Mass; now they listened to another. They could hear footsteps running through the keep. The archbishop chanted prayer after prayer, the seven psalms and the litany. As he said the words ‘all saints, pray for us’, the rebels burst in. In scenes which must have been truly terrifying for everyone present, the archbishop was seized and dragged out by his arms and hood along the passages of the castle, across the bailey and out to the yelling masses on Tower Hill, where they set up a makeshift block. It was said that they took eight blows to cut off his head. They took Hales too, dragging him away to a similar bloody execution. The Lancaster family physician, William Appleton, was likewise hacked to death for no other reason than that he had served Henry’s father. Four others were singled out and butchered.

Then the mob turned to the Lancastrian heir, Henry. If at that moment John Ferrour, one of the remaining guards, had not boldly come between the mob and Henry, and spoken up for him, and persuaded them to let him go, Henry’s fourteen-year-old head would have been stuck on a spear on London Bridge, alongside those of the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Robert Hales and William Appleton.9 As it was, Ferrour persuaded the crowd, and Henry lived. Many years later, he would repay the debt and save Ferrour’s life in return.

*

There is no doubt that seeing the Peasants’ Revolt at first hand and coming within an inch of death had the most profound effect on Henry. It affected his thinking about the current reign and conditioned his own policies in later years. But it also leads us to ask one very important question. At that moment, when Richard left him in the Tower, practically unguarded, did Henry blame the young king? And did he forgive him? One chronicle – written by an eyewitness – states that the king told those he left behind to take a boat from the water gate and flee for their lives. But when the archbishop attempted to do this he was spotted by ‘a wicked woman’, and had to rush back into the Tower.10 With so many longbows at the ready on the river banks, there was no escape on the water. So it could be said that Richard deserted those in the Tower. In fact it could be said that he did this twice, for when he returned from Mile End he did not go back to the Tower but went to the great wardrobe (one of the offices of his household), situated near Blackfriars.11Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, Richard was guilty of one major error of judgement. By apparently giving in to the rebels, and encouraging them to go off and seek traitors, he placed those in the Tower in very great danger. We may understand what Richard was trying to achieve, but to look at matters from Henry’s point of view, having seen the archbishop of Canterbury dragged out and beheaded, would that have been good enough?

The reason why this question is so important is that it is impossible to begin to understand Henry’s life without seeing it in relation to that of his cousin, the king. In 1399 Henry took action to dethrone Richard. In so doing he risked not only his own life but the status of his children and the lives of many of his followers and the political stability of the entire realm. No one takes such a decision lightly. But this was not the first time that Henry and Richard had faced each other in anger. Carefully examining Henry’s life before 1399 we find a number of instances when Henry and Richard were either weighing one another up or in outright hostility to one another. If we really want to understand why Henry acted the way he did in 1399, and especially in relation to Richard, we need to look far beyond the evidence of that year and understand how these two men saw each other and co-existed, right from the very start of their lives.

Henry and Richard were born rivals. For a start, they were almost exactly the same age. Richard was born at Bordeaux, in Gascony, on 6 January 1367; Henry was born at Bolingbroke, in Lincolnshire, just three months later.12 Although they would not have met until they were five or six, they were regarded as a pair, on account of their both being the king’s grandchildren and the same age. Moreover, they were the only two royal children of this age; the next eldest, Roger Mortimer, was seven years younger. They would therefore have seen each other as having very similar royal identities. Each threatened the uniqueness of the other’s royal status.

There was a historical dimension to their rivalry too. They were the heirs of King Edward’s two most favoured sons, Henry the son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Richard the son of Edward, the Black Prince, the heir apparent. In addition, they were the heirs of the two most important dynasties in England. More than a hundred years earlier, King Henry III had had two sons. The elder had been crowned Edward I. The younger, Edmund, had been endowed with a massive inheritance in the north of England, centred on Lancaster, which gave rise to his title of earl of Lancaster. In time, Edward I’s throne passed to his eldest son, Edward II, and the Lancastrian inheritance passed to Thomas of Lancaster, Edmund’s eldest son. The resultant rivalry between these two royal cousins – Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster – developed in intensity, to the point of war. Lancaster’s incessant attempts to intervene in royal affairs meant he was anathema to the king, and Edward II’s bitter hatred for Lancaster following his part in the murder of his best friend, Piers Gaveston, never diminished. That rivalry came to an end at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, when Lancaster was captured and beheaded in public, and all his estates were confiscated. After such an outrage the dead earl’s younger brother, Henry of Lancaster, had no choice but to join with the arch-rebel Roger, Lord Mortimer of Wigmore, and the queen, who invaded the kingdom in 1326 to put an end to Edward II’s tyranny. Together they removed the king from power and, in January 1327, forced parliament to sanction the king’s deposition. Edward II then abdicated. That Richard II was the great-grandson and heir of the disgraced king, and Henry the great-grandson and heir of the Henry of Lancaster who had forced him to abdicate, gave a context of ancestral hostility to their relationship of which neither boy could have been ignorant and which neither of them could have totally ignored.

To modern readers coming anew to the story of these two boys, it is easy to forget how characters in the past were so keenly aware of their history. We look back at their lives searching for the seeds of later events, ‘our’ history. But of course we find the culmination of much earlier developments too. Each boy would have known the above-mentioned stories of rivalry, war, humiliation, execution and deposition. Every chronicle available would have described the deeds of their ancestors. Their intimacy with history was not like that of scholars, aware of the finer points of detail; it was a sense that these chronicles had meaning for them personally. These were not just fanciful tales about knights in days of yore. Edward II had ruled badly and had lost his kingdom. Edward III had ruled well and defeated all his enemies in battle. If you wanted to know how to be a good king, a good knight or a good earl, and if you wanted to know how to avoid failure, you needed to understand the lessons of the past.13

And then there were the prophecies. Most people think of prophetic utterances as the stuff of the Old Testament, Nostradamus, or the oracles of the ancient world. In fourteenth-century England prophetic stories were politically relevant, widely circulated and taken very seriously, even by those who did not believe in them. The reason for this is simple: if you happened to be mentioned in one of these prophecies, how you conducted yourself might be interpreted according to your anticipated fate. For example, if you were prophesied to be a great warrior, then acting like one would undoubtedly strengthen the confidence and resolve of your forces. Conversely, a king prophesied to be politically divisive had to tread very carefully in case those whom he disappointed should start claiming or believing that the prophecy was coming true. Therefore it is particularly relevant that the most popular prophecy of the fourteenth century – the Prophecy of the Six Kings – predicted civil war in the next reign.

The Prophecy of the Six Kings was supposedly Merlin’s response to King Arthur’s question about the ultimate fate of the kingdom. It likened the six kings to follow King John to six beasts. Henry III was portrayed as a lamb, Edward I as a dragon, Edward II as a goat and Edward III as a boar. These emblems and the provenance of the story might seem a very shaky background for any belief system, but it was widely accepted as a framework for God’s plan for the English monarchy. It also has to be said that the most recent part had spectacularly come true. The prophecy had originally been written down at the time of Edward III’s birth, and various versions written before 1330 reveal it in its near-original form.14 Edward III was characterised as a boar: the animal which had represented King Arthur himself. He would be renowned for his ‘holiness, fierceness and nobility’ while at the same time being ‘humble, like the lamb’. This was a strange combination of qualities, and one which probably no one could have reasonably expected the infant Edward of Windsor to fulfil. So it was extraordinary that he did.15 ‘Spain would tremble’, the prophecy said, and at Winchelsea in 1350 Edward defeated the Spanish fleet. This boar would ‘sharpen his teeth on the gates of Paris’: Edward’s forays into France indeed brought him to the suburbs of the French capital. Ultimately he ‘would regain all the lands which his ancestors had held, and more’. For Edward this meant nothing less than reconquering the entire Angevin empire, including more than a third of France. Yet this too came to pass: the territory of the empire was ceded to him in 1360, at the Treaty of Brétigny. At the same time he was humble and pious. That such a remarkable and popular prophecy could be fulfilled in its self-contradicting entirety was astonishing. It also made people look at the continuation of the prophecy with some foreboding.

The king after Edward III was foretold to be another lamb. The land would be at peace at the start of his reign. Within a year of his accession he would found a great city, of which all the world would speak. But then there would be a civil war, and the lamb would lose the greater part of his kingdom to a ‘hideous wolf’. Eventually he would recover these lands and give them to ‘an eagle of his dominion’, who would govern them well until overcome by pride. At that point the eagle would be murdered by his brother, and the lamb would die, leaving his lands once more at peace. He would be succeeded by the next king, a mole, under whose reign the kingdom would be wrenched apart and plunged into civil war, between three warring factions.16

The next king a lamb? In the 1360s this seemed ridiculous, as no one doubted that the next king would be Edward’s son, Edward, the Black Prince. How could he be described as a lamb? He had won one of the most extraordinary battles in European history at Poitiers, capturing the king of France in the process. He had fought in the front line at the battle of Crécy in 1346 and carried on fighting when on his knees. No one on earth was less lamb-like than the Black Prince. To Englishmen this suggested that the prince would not inherit. There would be some calamity and he would die before his father. His successor – whoever that might be – would be the lamb. That in turn gave rise to rumours. Variations on the prophecy sprang up. In late 1361 the chronicler Froissart was at Berkhamsted, immediately after the prince’s marriage. Seated on a bench in the hall he overheard Sir Bartholomew Burghersh say to some of the queen’s ladies that ‘there was a book called the Brut, which many say contains the prophecies of Merlin. According to its contents, neither the prince of Wales nor the duke of Clarence [Edward III’s second surviving son] will wear the crown of England, but it will fall to the house of Lancaster.’17

It is quite possible that the seeds of Richard and Henry’s rivalry lie within this ancestral antagonism between their two houses, and that it was exacerbated by the prophecies of political turmoil between them. In later years, Richard certainly took such prophecies very seriously.18 Obviously this does not mean that their actual hostility to one another was a result of prophetic writing: personal issues such as their shared royal identity were of an even greater importance. But even before they were born, prophecies were circulating about the house of Lancaster supplanting the line of primogeniture, and there was an ancestral precedent for just such a revolution. All of this adds up to a tension which could have gone one of two ways. Either Henry and Richard would be content to share the royal stage, and support each other, or they would look for separate identities of their own, reflecting their maternal ancestries and personal alliances. In short, the ancestral, moral and prophetic rivalry into which they were born was something which only a genuinely close personal friendship could have transcended, and that was something Henry and Richard never shared.

*

Henry and Richard did have one obvious thing in common: they were both grandsons of Edward III, the man regarded in the late fourteenth century as ‘Edward the Gracious’, the greatest king England had ever had.19 In life Edward had modelled himself on the legendary King Arthur, the paragon of chivalry, and after his death the enhanced character of the literary King Arthur was based on him.20 Although in his later years, in declining health, he had to weather some terrible criticism for his steadfast loyalty to his mistress (Alice Perrers), before the age of fifty he had earned the respect of the whole of Christendom. He had taken on the Scots and French in battle and defeated them both, capturing the kings of Scotland and France in 1346 and 1356 respectively. He had overseen the development of a method of fighting which for many years proved unbeatable, earning the nation a pre-eminent position in Europe. He had resisted papal intervention, recognised English as the language of the nation, overseen the development of parliamentary representation and introduced the modern system of local justice. Most of all, he had developed a new form of demonstrative nationalist kingship, in which the unity of nation and royal government was expressed through the king commanding nation and army alike, through building castles and palaces, living in splendour, directing taxation and fighting conflicts on foreign soil to protect the homeland. Perhaps the most eye-catching manifestation of this civil and military kingship was his position as head of the Knights of the Garter, the chivalric order which he had founded at Windsor Castle in 1349.21 Henry and Richard were not just the grandsons of a king: they were the grandsons of the most successful king Christendom had ever known.

One of the reasons for the phenomenal success of Edward III as a military leader was his ability to command and inspire a band of knights who themselves were able to inspire men to run extraordinary risks. Foremost of all these knights was the man after whom Henry was named: his other grandfather, Duke Henry of Lancaster. In 1337 this Henry was created earl of Derby in a ceremony in which King Edward dramatically created six earls at once. In the early 1340s he became the king’s most respected friend and trusted commander. In 1345, having inherited the Lancastrian title, he set out for Gascony and began the campaign which was to change his life. He was stunningly successful. Battles at Montcuq, Bergerac and Auberoche secured him fame which was both lasting and far-reaching. His friendship with King Edward catapulted him even further into prominence. He became the chief English diplomat as well as the principal English commander in war. His piety and sincerity won him widespread admiration: he wrote a book of religious devotion – The Book of Holy Medicines – and once, having taken a solemn vow not to depart from the siege of Rennes until he had placed his standard on the battlements, refused to withdraw even when the king himself ordered him to do so. Instead, he negotiated with the garrison to let him into the castle alone so he could put up his standard on their battlements for a minute or two, in fulfilment of his vow. He was the very epitome of the chivalric knight, and it was quite possibly his garter which became the symbol of Edward’s great chivalric order.22

Young Henry of Lancaster therefore could be very proud of both his grandfathers. Unlike Richard, whose maternal grandfather had died under the executioner’s axe in 1330, Henry’s maternal grandfather was no less a hero of the golden age of English chivalry than the king himself. He had been of royal blood too, being a great-grandson of Henry III. This gave young Henry a feeling of complete royalty: his lineage was royal on both sides. Moreover, being named after the great Duke Henry of Lancaster meant he did not need to draw attention to this other, maternal line of distinction; it was evident in his name. For this reason, although Henry and Richard were both grandsons of Edward III, this in itself does not fully explain their respective royal standings. It was not what they had in common which mattered; it was what made each of them unique.

The varying degrees of royalty and dignity were equally to be noted in the boys’ respective parents. Richard’s father was the famous Black Prince, a great warrior – something to be proud of, one would have thought, except that Richard was so unlike his father that the associations may well have been a burden to him. His mother, Joan, ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, was renowned for her colourful marital career. This involved having been married to two men at the same time in the 1340s, neither of whom was Richard’s father. Richard II himself in later years seems to have been very concerned by his legitimacy, for he kept a strongbox with all the papers and documents relating to his parents’ marriage, as well as his mother’s divorce documents.23 It was not just that his mother had already been bigamously married before marrying the prince, and had four surviving children by one previous husband, Sir Thomas Holland; the dispensation for her to marry the prince had not been properly formulated.24 It could be said that they had married illegally. Both of Richard’s parents’ legacies were burdensome, the one highlighting his distinct lack of military prowess, the other casting a shadow over his birth.

Henry’s mother, in contrast, was popularly regarded as one of the most lovely adornments of the English court. She was Blanche, one of the two daughters of the great Duke Henry. In describing her and Queen Philippa (wife of Edward III), Froissart said, ‘I never saw two such noble dames, so good, liberal and courteous, as this lady [Blanche] and the late queen of England, nor ever shall, were I to live a thousand years’.25 This was praise indeed for Blanche, as Philippa was considered the perfect example of womanly virtue. Henry cannot have been unaware that he alone was the grandson and son of the two most ‘noble … liberal and courteous’ women to have lived in recent times. Chaucer famously paraded Blanche’s many virtues in his Book of the Duchess, written in her memory. If ever Henry read this poem, or listened as Chaucer read it to him, he would have heard line after line referring to his mother’s beauty, and her whiteness ‘that was my lady’s name right’, and her ‘goodly sweet speech’. Chaucer likened her to ‘Penelope of Greece’, called her ‘the fairest and the best’, and remarked that, when they argued and he was in the wrong, she would always forgive him. In one his most famous passages he described how

I saw her dance so comely

carol and sing so sweetly

laugh and play so womanly

and look so debonairly

so goodly speak and so friendly

that certain I am that evermore

Ne’er has seen so blissful a treasure.26

And he went on to talk of her golden hair, and her wide eyes, ‘good, glad and sad’, her honesty in everything, her kindness and her wonderful beauty.

Henry thus had every reason to be as conscious of his mother’s and grandmother’s virtues as his grandfathers’ glorious deeds of arms. With such a background, we might regard him as lucky in the extreme. But no. For he never knew his royal grandmother, nor the glorious grandfather after whom he was named, nor his maternal grandmother, or even his mother. The duke of Lancaster died in 1361, in the second wave of plague to hit England. The duke’s wife, Isabella Beaumont, died at the same time. Queen Philippa died in 1369, when Henry was just two. And, most tragic of all, Blanche of Lancaster, Henry’s mother, died the year after he was born.27 He would have been reminded in songs and poems of his mother’s and grandmother’s grace and liberality, their kindness and beauty, but he never saw their faces, except in unfocused babyhood, nor heard their ‘sweet voices’. These deaths, and the infant deaths of two of Henry’s brothers, Edward and John (both of whom died before he was born), are a sad reminder that in the fourteenth century to be a member of the richest, most celebrated and most powerful family in England was no safeguard from personal tragedy or physical suffering.

*

Henry was born at Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, in April 1367, almost certainly on Maundy Thursday (15 April). He was placed in the care of a nurse, Mary Taaf of Dublin.28 His father was out of the country at the time, fighting alongside the Black Prince on behalf of King Pedro of Castile. He did not return to England to see his newborn son until October.29 Even this would have been nothing more than a brief visit; John was constantly travelling on royal business and usually stayed at his London residence, the Savoy Palace. In 1369 he took charge of the army at Calais for six months. In 1370 he sailed to Gascony, and remained there for over a year. By the age of four, Henry had probably spent no more than three or four weeks with his father. It is very unlikely that he would have recognised him on his return to England in 1371.

With his mother dead and his father absent, Henry’s infancy was not spent in a close family environment. All Henry’s grandparents except the king had died by the time he was three. So had all but three of his uncles, and all but one of his aunts. Of these uncles, one, the Black Prince, was resident in Gascony. The prince’s sons, Edward and Richard, had never been to England. The elder son, Edward, never came, as he died in Bordeaux in 1371. Following that, the Black Prince did return but by then he was a severely disabled, dying man. Similarly, the king was practically confined in his old age to his palaces, cared for by no fewer than seven physicians and surgeons, the royal household servants, and his mistress, Alice Perrers. Henry’s upbringing must therefore have been a little strange. A modern equivalent might be sketched by imagining a boy growing up as the grandson of people like Winston Churchill, President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, the son of Princess Diana and the nephew of Field Marshal Montgomery, and to hear people talk about them everywhere – yet never to have seen them or to have known them except by the conversation of adults, and through poetry, chronicles and art.

Henry’s closest relations in his infancy were his sisters Philippa and Elizabeth. Philippa, the elder, was seven when Henry was born. She was the steady, dependable one. Elizabeth, four years older than Henry, was more flighty. All three children were looked after by their great aunt, Blanche, Lady Wake. She had no children of her own but, as one of the six sisters of Duke Henry, she was well positioned to introduce her young charges to other members of the extensive Lancastrian family. Besides Henry, Blanche’s great-nephews included John and Thomas Mowbray, John Arundel, Henry Percy (the future Hotspur) and his younger brothers, Thomas and Ralph Percy, all of whom were between one and three years older than Henry. It was probably through Blanche that Henry first met his much older cousins, the children of the earl of Arundel: Richard, Thomas, Alice and Joan. In later years Richard and Thomas Arundel had the greatest influence on young Henry, as did their friend and kinsman, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick. Joan Arundel grew particularly close to Henry, for one of her two daughters by her husband, the earl of Hereford, later became Henry’s wife.

In this way we can build up a picture of Henry’s early childhood, travelling around the Lancastrian estates with his older sisters in Lady Wake’s household. Their governess was a young Hainaulter woman, Katherine Roët, whose sister Philippa was married to Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine had entered Lancastrian service before Henry’s birth, and married a Lancastrian knight, Hugh Swynford. She had two children: Thomas and Blanche.30 Thomas Swynford was born within a year of Henry, and remained a faithful friend throughout his life. So even though Henry almost entirely lacked the attention of a father and mother, he was not without close companions in his governess, his sisters and all his Lancastrian cousins and companions.

*

In November 1371 Henry and his sisters were taken to London to stay at the Savoy Palace with their father, who had just returned from Gascony. John had not returned alone. While he had been away, he had married Constanza, heiress of the ousted King Pedro of Castile. Two months later he claimed the title king of Castile and León in right of his new wife, and added the arms of Castile to his own.31

John did not bring Constanza into his household immediately. Instead he spent the Christmas season at the Savoy with his children and their governess. When he did welcome Constanza to his London palace, all those who saw her remarked on how attractive the new duchess was. But at about this time John fell for the attractions of the young widow Katherine Swynford, whose husband had died in Gascony that November.32 Quite what twelve-year-old Philippa thought of this introduction of a stepmother into the family, and her father’s method of comforting her own widowed governess, we can only guess. But she and her younger siblings now found themselves and their governess transferred from Lady Wake’s household to Constanza’s, with an allowance of £200 per year for their expenses.33 The Mowbray brothers now became Lady Wake’s full-time charges.34

The other collective development for all these young aristocratic children and their cousins was the arrival of Richard of Bordeaux. Until now, the younger son of the Black Prince had been nothing more than a name to them. But in 1371 he returned from Gascony with his parents, and it is highly likely that at some point in 1372, Henry, his sisters and his peer group of four- to seven-year-olds all came face to face with the five-year-old prince.

What did they make of him? He was strange, insecure and very French. His accent was different; and, unlike most of them, he spoke no English. He was both lacking in confidence and extremely self-conscious.35 Meeting Henry and the other English noble children cannot have been easy. Here were all these boys and girls who knew each other already, who played together, and spoke differently from him. There were some boys, like Thomas Mowbray, Ralph Stafford and Robert de Vere, with whom he got on well. But there were others – and Henry was probably one – with whom he felt uneasy. These children were confident in their status and surroundings. Furthermore, they were used to each other’s company. Richard was not used to any company but that of his father, mother and servants. Until now his closest companion had been his recently deceased elder brother. It is not clear that he was a boy who welcomed a mass of new playmates.36

Henry only met Richard occasionally before 1376. Richard remained in the household of his father, the Black Prince, based at Kennington, south of London. Henry, his sisters and governess lived with Constanza, probably at Hertford Castle, twenty-five miles to the north of the city. Their lives and their expectations were very different. Although no memoirs of the period survive, it is not difficult to imagine the Lancastrian hall echoing with children shouting and playing, and a comparatively large number of women in and around the castle attending to them and the duchess. Every time the duke appeared, a mass of Lancastrian men would arrive, for John liked to be surrounded by a huge entourage, maintaining as many as 150 retainers. In contrast, at Kennington there were no other children and very few visitors. Normally there was just Richard, his mother and her ladies, and the regular staff of their household, with physicians and nurses attending his invalid father. Knowing how Richard developed in later years, it would not be surprising if the princess and her ladies made rather a fuss of the boy.

Between Christmas 1371 and April 1373 Henry spent much more time with his father.37 This must in part have been due to his governess being his father’s mistress. John was a great lover of women, and, though proud and haughty, he was also a deeply loyal man. Most mistresses of the royal family were discarded as soon as they had ceased to give delight but John of Gaunt, like his father the king, was different. In fact John showed surprisingly little shame in recognising Katherine as his concubine. In May 1372 the letters in his register refer to her as ‘our very dear demoiselle’, the ‘very dear’ echoing the form in which he described his wives and closest companions.38 In about 1373 Katherine gave birth to her first child by him, John Beaufort, and he acknowledged the child as his own without any qualms.39 Three more illegitimate children followed: two boys and a girl. In 1372 John also had a daughter by Constanza, baptised Catalina, and a short-lived son by her in 1374. Given that he had already sired five children by Blanche and another illegitimate daughter by one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, it is easy to appreciate why these four children by Katherine Swynford and two by Constanza caused one medieval writer to refer to him as a ‘great fornicator’.40

On 13 April 1373, on the eve of Maundy Thursday, Duke John gave out a number of gifts to members of the royal family and Lancastrian retainers. To Henry he gave a silver hanaper (a stemmed drinking goblet with two handles and a lid).41 That summer he left England at the head of an army. Henry did not see his father for over a year, as he made his brave but ultimately futile march all the way across France from Calais to Bordeaux. It was a miserable expedition, as the French resistance prevented him from approaching Paris or joining up with his allies in Brittany. The English were forced to march east and then south. John forbade his troops from looting, thus depriving them of food, and weakening them. Hundreds of horses died. Men bashed their armour out of shape – to stop the enemy using it – and then threw it away rather than march with so much weight. It took John until December to arrive in English-held Gascony. He did not return to England until the summer of 1374.

John spent several weeks at Hertford in December 1374 and January 1375. Henry was then seven and a half years old, and his father decided it was time for his formal education to begin. On 10 December 1374 he appointed Thomas Burton to be Henry’s governor.42 By so doing, he placed his son in the care of an esquire who had served the great Duke Henry, thus strengthening Henry’s Lancastrian identity. At about the same time his clerk and chaplain, Hugh Herle, was given the responsibility of teaching Henry to read and write. Clearly Henry attended to his lessons. Later examples show he had no aversion to writing comments on his own formal letters on occasion (whereas most aristocrats, even those who could read and write, normally delegated the task of writing to others). His writing exists today in three languages: English, Latin and French.43 There can have been few worries for the young, confident Henry, looking out from the towers of Hertford Castle, attending to his grammar and spending occasional days with his father, hunting and talking, or practising sword-play, and listening to Thomas Burton telling him again how Duke Henry had won his battles in Gascony.

*

It was in 1376 that the first cracks appeared in this picture of privileged existence. Everyone knew that old King Edward was dying; now it became apparent that the prince was even nearer to death. This raised a very important question: if the prince died before the king, who would succeed? A nine-year-old boy, Richard? Or would it be John of Gaunt, the ‘great fornicator’?

Until recently, historians did not consider that there was any doubt about the succession in 1376. Richard was, after all, the eldest son of the eldest son. But although this became the established pattern of legitimacy thereafter, the situation at the time was not so clear. Law books were divided on the issue, even the oldest and most respected ones. In 1199 the throne had passed to Henry II’s fifth and youngest son, John, despite the existence of Arthur, the twelve-year-old son and heir of Geoffrey, the king’s fourth son.44Subsequently the succession had not been interrupted, and so the question had not arisen. In 1290 Edward I had forced his daughters’ husbands to swear an oath that the heirs of his eldest son were to take precedence over any other sons he might have, and that his daughters should only succeed to the throne failing his sons and their heirs. But the male line had not failed and so Edward I’s provisions had not been put to the test. Richard had been acknowledged as keeper of the realm in 1373, but in 1376 he had yet to be recognised as the official heir over and above Henry’s father.

The problem for the Lancastrians was that John of Gaunt was hugely unpopular. Compared to his brother, the dying Prince Edward, hero of the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, he was a disappointment. He had not been a military commander of any great note; his most notable individual achievement had been the great march across France in 1373, during which many men and horses had starved to death. His role in the peace negotiations at Bruges in 1375 was seen as unsuccessful, resulting only in the withdrawal of an English army led by the earl of March. He was considered arrogant and proud, and his claim to be king of Castile did not help. Why did a great English lord need to pretend to be a foreign king? As the richest man in England, he did not need a greater realm, people said, unless it was a matter of greed. Worse still, he had protected and helped a number of unpopular royal officials. As King Edward III slipped further into melancholy he could not help but be manipulated by his mistress Alice Perrers and men like William Latimer (his chamberlain), John Neville (his steward) and Richard Lyons (Warden of the Royal Mint). John’s friendship with Latimer especially, at the very moment when people were beginning to realise that their beloved Prince Edward would not live to inherit and that John might be the next king, led to widespread shifting of opinion against him.

Henry, aged nine, was probably only vaguely aware of the political danger his father was facing. For John it was nothing short of a crisis. The king and Prince Edward were both too ill to attend the parliament of 1376, both turning up only for the opening ceremony. John was appointed the King’s Lieutenant to hold the parliament.45 This exposed him to criticism from the Speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare, the steward of the earl of March. De la Mare accused various royal officials of corruption, in particular Latimer and Lyons: men associated with John. With the support of the commons essential for the provision of taxation, John was left with no option but to acquiesce to demands that the corrupt officials be brought to justice. Latimer and Neville were stripped of their offices of state. Lyons was imprisoned for life and Alice Perrers ordered to leave the king’s presence. In addition, a council was appointed to oversee all royal business. And John himself was not to serve on it. Instead it was to be led by the earl of March.

While this was going on, the Black Prince neared death. Although he and John had been close in earlier years, their friendship had waned since the prince’s weakness had left him bedridden. The prince’s dislike of the royal officials now under attack further highlighted their differences. And then there was the succession question. On his deathbed, the prince called both the king and John to him and asked them to recognise the right of his son, Richard, to succeed in his inheritance.46 Both men solemnly did so, and furthermore swore that they would protect him. Prince Edward died on 8 June and parliament immediately called for the king to recognise Richard as his heir.

John’s oath, together with parliament’s acclamation of Richard as the heir, eliminated the Lancastrians from the direct line of succession. John could not inherit now, not while Richard lived. But there remained the question of who would succeed Richard if he remained childless. Would it be John? Or would it be Philippa, the daughter and heiress of his deceased older brother, Lionel? John sought to tackle this issue head on, in parliament. He asked for it to be enacted that no woman should be allowed to succeed to the English throne, as was the custom in France.47 This was a direct threat to the earl of March, Philippa’s husband. They now had a son, Roger Mortimer, born in 1374. What John was saying was this: very well, Richard is now the heir – the king and I have both recognised him as such and sworn to support him – but if Richard dies without an heir of his own, who should inherit then? Philippa? Her son, the three-year-old Roger Mortimer? Or me?

John no doubt expected that, in return for ratifying the charges against the royal officials, his own position as second in line to the throne would be ratified by parliament. But he was to be disappointed. Parliament refused to decide on this issue and passed it over to the council. As the council was headed by the earl of March, it is not surprising that its view was contrary to John’s hopes. They declared that there was no point even in deliberating such things as the king was not yet dead and his heir was young and could be expected to have children. ‘Since they are alive, we have no need to trouble ourselves over matters of this kind.’48 With that crushing dismissal John not only failed, he was humiliated.

John of Gaunt was not a man to suffer humiliation for long. And he had one enormous advantage over all his adversaries. He was now the king’s favourite surviving son. The king himself was distraught at the actions of what later became known by chroniclers as the ‘Good Parliament’, especially at the banishment of his much-loved mistress and chamberlain, and he welcomed John’s presence and attempts to overturn the judgements against the court circle. When Edward fell gravely ill later in 1376, and had to face making a will, John persuaded him to rule on the succession problem once and for all. The dying king had a settlement drawn up for the rightful inheritance of the throne. Only half of this remarkable document survives today, and that in a charred fifteenth-century copy,49but what is left is enough to show that in late 1376 the king settled the inheritance of the throne of England upon his male descendants only. This nullified the rights of the Mortimer family and recognised John of Gaunt as next in line after Richard. It also meant that Henry, after his father, was third in line to the throne.50

The implications of this for understanding Henry IV’s life are huge. At some time, probably in late 1376, young Henry was told by his father that, if Richard died without issue, then he (Henry) would become king. This profoundly affected Henry’s thinking, and it allows us to see Henry’s life in a wholly different context, so that almost everything written about his character for the last 550 years is open to question. For example, for Shakespeare the single most important fact about Henry was that he was a usurper. But in Henry’s mind, he was Richard’s legal heir. Whether Henry believed in 1376 that he would actually inherit the throne is another matter, as Richard could yet have had sons, but there can be no doubt that Edward III’s settlement greatly influenced Henry’s thinking about the throne from the moment he was told about it.

*

Until now Henry would have seen Richard and himself as roughly comparable in status: both were royal grandchildren, heirs to great estates and contemporaries in age. But suddenly Richard had been promoted way above him, to become prince of both Aquitaine and Wales, duke of Cornwall and earl of Chester, and to be acknowledged in parliament as next in line to the throne. Great men bowed to him. Henry himself received his father’s title of earl of Derby at about the same time, but that did not begin to compare with Richard’s elevation.51 Moreover, Richard’s pre-eminence was forced on Henry in a very personal way. John now decided that Henry should live in his cousin’s household. Henry would learn how to serve his future king by being educated alongside him.52

Henry was not alone in being sent to the young prince’s household. John Arundel was also placed there, and probably so were the Mowbray brothers and Robert de Vere.53 The court of Richard II was gathering around the future king. They did not all like him, and he did not like all of them. In later years John Arundel was never summoned to parliament, even though he should have been entitled to his father’s seat. Richard simply never recognised him, let alone advanced him. Much the same can be said for Henry. Richard had plenty of opportunities to show favour to his cousin, if he wished to do so, but he never did. We should thus imagine this entourage in 1377 as a group of boys and young men who were all finding their feet in the world but who at the same time were wary of one another, knowing that the future king had favourites and enemies, and that they all had favourites and enemies of their own.

In April 1377 this band of youths made their way to Windsor Castle for the feast of St George, to attend the annual ceremonies of the Order of the Garter. The dying king, who had just completed his fiftieth year on the throne, was desperate to attend one last ceremony. His sight, dimmed though it was, was fixed on the future. Twelve of the most prominent young men of the realm were to be knighted in a special service. On 23 April 1377, Henry, Richard and ten of their companions, dressed in ceremonial scarlet robes, processed through the doors of St George’s Chapel at the heart of the great chivalric palace that was Windsor Castle. They were to receive the honour of knighthood from the white-bearded king.

If ever there was an event which demonstrated Henry’s position at the very heart of the English aristocracy, it was this ceremony. Imagine the oak doors to the chapel closing behind them, and each of the twelve youths casting sideways glances at each other as they stood ready to be knighted. No one, not even the king, was so well connected as Henry. He was related to all but one of them. First to kneel before the king was, naturally, his cousin Richard. Then knelt his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the king’s youngest son. Henry himself was next to go down on his knees and repeat his vows, followed by his second cousin, Robert de Vere, the fifteen-year-old earl of Oxford. Then came John, Lord Beaumont, Henry’s second cousin twice over. Of the remainder, John Mowbray and Henry, Thomas and Ralph Percy were all second cousins, and Ralph Stafford was a third cousin once removed. The only boy knighted that day who was not of Henry’s blood was William Montagu, son of the earl of Salisbury. Even the last and least in status – John Southeray (the king’s son by Alice Perrers) – was Henry’s illegitimate uncle.

This knighting ceremony was just a prelude to a greater honour for Henry and Richard. Both were nominated to become Knights of the Garter. Why Henry was preferred over his uncle Thomas has been something of a mystery until recently. After all, Thomas was the only one of the king’s sons not to be a Garter knight in 1377, so why was a ten-year-old boy preferred over him? The discovery of Edward III’s settlement of the throne explains why, for it shows that Henry stood higher in the line of inheritance than Thomas, only preceded by his father, John, who was already a Knight of the Garter. Thus it was that Henry and Richard found themselves kneeling side by side in the chapel that day, each looking to the stall which would one day be theirs. Richard would assume the one in which the king now sat. And Henry would take that of the famous Gascon knight Jean de Grailly, better known as the Captal de Buch, one of the heroes of the battle of Poitiers.

*

Two months later, when Henry and Richard were at Kennington, a messenger brought news. The old king was dead; Richard was now king of England. If Henry observed the niceties of the situation, he would have gone down on his knees immediately and acknowledged his cousin as his lord. So too would everyone else. Suddenly Richard would have found everyone kneeling and making obeisance before him, forbidden from sitting if he was standing, nor permitted to turn their backs on him. For a ten-year-old boy, whose deceased father had been unable properly to prepare him for such a situation, it must have been both intoxicating and frightening at the same time. For Henry it must have been similarly confusing. He had known Richard since he had been an awkward five-year-old recently arrived from Gascony. Now Richard was his sovereign lord. And having lived under the same roof, Henry cannot have been unaware that this final advancement of his cousin would reveal aspects of Richard’s character which were not wholly in line with the public expectations of a king.

King Edward’s funeral was a magnificent state occasion. For three days his corpse was in procession. The three royal uncles – John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock – processed into the city behind the hearse and the embalmed corpse, with the earl of March alongside them. The king’s body rested on a catafalque in St Paul’s, viewed by thousands, until taken to Westminster Abbey for the funeral service on 5 July. Three tons of wax was burned in the candle-lit abbey and by the torch-bearing mourning populace. But underlying all this ceremonial solemnity was a hope for the future: that at last England had a young king again who, in time and with luck, would lead them to be victorious once more in every sphere of activity: commercial, diplomatic and martial.

Henry attended Richard’s coronation on 16 July, and almost certainly took part in the new king’s procession from the Tower to Westminster on the previous day. So many thousands crammed the streets that John of Gaunt had to ride ahead with a body of men-at-arms to clear the route for the young king and his entourage. On the morning of the coronation day itself the new king was led along a covered and carpeted route into the abbey. As the high steward of England, John had the right to bear Curtana in the procession. This was the ancient blunt-tipped sword of mercy which, according to legend, had belonged to St Edward the Confessor. John delegated this responsibility to Henry. So ten-year-old Henry had an official role in turning this cousin into an anointed monarch. He might not have been brought up to be a king but no one was in a better position to see at first hand how kings were made.

*

It was a strange theatre, the court of Richard II. The principal player was a boy, surrounded by many other boys and their more modest but mature advisers interspersed with great lords, all humbling themselves before the king, and bowing before many of the king’s under-age courtiers. The council continued to function, and that body made the majority of the governmental decisions. Henry’s father – although he had no official position on the council – exercised a heavy influence over proceedings. Sir Peter de la Mare was arrested and thrown into prison at Nottingham Castle, and those he had sought to undermine were restored to power or acquitted. But everything was done in the name of the king. It was thus a court of ceremony, in which there was a universal acceptance that the king was a symbolic figure and an unspoken acknowledgement that real power lay elsewhere.

The mismatch of Richard’s regal privileges and regnal responsibilities would have been obvious to Henry. It became even more noticeable soon after the accession, when the French attacked Calais, Gascony and the ports on the south coast of England. It was widely believed that a good king was a fighting king, like Edward III had been in his heyday: a leader who could draw together the forces of the entire nation and inspire them to take the fight to their enemies. If the king was too young or too old, the leadership of the armies fell to men of lesser status who could not easily instil in their men the sort of confidence needed to make expeditions deep into enemy territory. In this way an under-age king like Richard was not only incapable of living up to his regnal responsibilities, his incapability detracted from the authority of the principal military leaders. One tends not to want to fight for a commander who, if he is unsuccessful, will simply be made a scapegoat for a council’s poorly thought-out strategy.

The reason why this predicament must have been apparent to young Henry is that his father was given overall command of the English forces in 1377. Criticism of John over the years had weakened people’s eagerness to fight for him, and even made them reluctant to provide the ships in which he was to sail.54 As a consequence, he was delayed, with the inevitable result of further criticism. The chronicler-monk Thomas Walsingham presumed that John was too fond of his womenfolk to set out to fight. But trying to fight an offensive without the king’s leadership was like the lion of England lifting a paw but refusing to show its head. Henry, as the nominal lieutenant of the Lancastrian estates during his father’s absences abroad, cannot have been ignorant of John’s frustrated attempts to gather sufficient ships for an expedition, nor of the vicious circle of popular criticism underlying that failure.55

Another reason for Henry to note the mismatch between his cousin’s regal privileges and regnal responsibilities lies in the boys’ military education. Over the four years between his coronation and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Richard revealed himself to be unwilling to practise the art of war. He never took part in tournaments at any time in his career, which is strange considering jousting was regarded as the benchmark of individual military prowess.56 Given the age at which he became king, it would appear likely that initially his youth excused him this duty, and later he used his royal authority to refuse to take part in such a violent manifestation of kingly responsibility.

Henry, in stunning contrast, stands out as one of the most remarkable exponents of the joust the English royal family ever produced. The reason for this emphasis lies not only in the honours he won in future years but in the very first reference to his jousting, in January 1382. He was at that time just fourteen years and nine months old, and thus the youngest public exponent of the joust in England for whom we have documentary evidence.57 No one else – not even the Black Prince – is known to have taken part in public jousts at the age of fourteen.58 Some men are recorded to have won fame in the joust at fifteen, and this suggests that they had been taking part in public jousts at an earlier age, but, even so, Henry’s participation is remarkable, especially considering his proximity to the throne and that he was his father’s only legitimate son. In fact, he had probably been learning ever since the age of nine, when William Montendre had been appointed as his military tutor.59 The contrast between Henry’s eagerness to become a military leader and the king’s reluctance was obvious to all. Henry was learning the skills expected of a king; Richard was refusing to compete.

We do not know for certain how long Henry remained in this situation, living in the royal household, training to be a war leader while the real king shifted uneasily beneath the weight of expectations he could not meet. Henry was still with the king in December 1377, when he, Richard and Robert de Vere visited St Albans Abbey together.60 From this we may tentatively postulate that he was still in the royal household. But after 1377 there is little trace of him in the royal records. He was present with his father at Windsor in March 1380 for the wedding of the king’s half-sister, Maud Holland, to the count of St Pol, but this may well be because he had entered his father’s household by then.61 One would have expected the name of a royal cousin to crop up occasionally if he was continually with the king, even if such references amounted to nothing more than requests by Henry on behalf of his many kinsfolk or servants. But there is only one such reference in the whole period 1377–81, and this was on a day when his father was also present, as parliament was in session.62 It is possible that Henry remained with Richard from 1377 right up until the Peasants’ Revolt, but judging from the lack of evidence it is more likely that he joined his (by now doting) father in 1378.63 Either way, at Michaelmas 1381 he was no longer in the royal household. By then, whatever advantages John hoped his son would gain from being with Richard were outweighed by the disadvantages and dangers. The direct cause of his removal is very unlikely to have been a breakdown in relations between John of Gaunt and the king, for John remained a trusted adviser. It seems more likely that there was some animosity between Richard and Henry. They were not friends. There were still tokens of respect for each other’s rank: Richard lent John the use of ten royal minstrels for use at Henry’s wedding in 1381, for example, and Henry always politely included the king in his annual New Year presents, but that was about all.64 They were chalk and cheese, radically different in outlook, friends, maternal ancestry, personal identity and martial prowess.

As a result of all this, we may say with some confidence that when the fourteen-year-old king left Henry at the Tower on that fateful day in the second week of June 1381, it may have been with the best intentions, to protect the life of his cousin and one of the great heirs of the realm. But if so, it was a mark of respect accorded to Henry’s rank, not to him personally. It is far more likely that Henry simply did not appear on Richard’s list of priorities. To have his cousin and rival there at that time, when his own position was in crisis, was an unwelcome distraction for Richard. As Henry watched London burn, and heard the gunpowder kegs in the Savoy explode, he may well have wondered whether a Gascon-born boy who showed no aptitude for military leadership and who took the privileges of monarchy without taking the responsibilities, was the right person to be king of England. If so, when the hordes rushed towards the Tower, murdered the archbishop of Canterbury and threatened to kill Henry himself, he had his answer.

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