Post-classical history


Richard II: A Lost Peace 1380-1399


For ye [Richard] be always inclined to the pleasure of the Frenchmen and to take with them peace, to the confusion and dishonour of the realm of England.


For the people of England ... said how Richard of Bordeaux would destroy them all if he be let alone. His heart is so French that he cannot hide it, but a day will come to pay for all.


In 1380 the Kings of England and France were both minors. Richard II, born at Bordeaux in 1367, grew up to be fastidious and overbearing, with a streak of megalomania and a neurotic flair for making enemies. Charles VI, a year younger, took after his grandfather John II in combining an excessive love of pleasure with a pugnacious and unbalanced temperament. Both these monarchs were surrounded by greedy, opinionated uncles. In England the enormously rich and powerful John of Gaunt so obviously thought that he deserved a throne himself that some contemporaries suspected him of seeking to supplant young Richard ; the Earl of Cambridge was a timid nonentity—‘a prince that loved his ease and little business’—but the youngest uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham and future Duke of Gloucester, was as ambitious as he was violent-tempered and would later intrigue murderously against his nephew’s government. The three English royal Dukes reluctantly acquiesced in the realm being ruled by a council chosen by Parliament. In France, on the other hand, Philip the Bold of Burgundy soon governed the kingdom as he pleased, the Duke of Anjou becoming more interested in pursuing a claim to the Neapolitan throne, while the Duke of Berry was immersed in a lavish patronage of the arts.

The War in these years was an international struggle which was not restricted to England and France. At the beginning of Richard II’s reign the English Parliament spoke fearfully of all the wars in ‘France, Spain, Ireland, Aquitaine, Brittany and others’—which would soon extend to Flanders, Scotland and even Portugal. The conflict was further complicated by the schism between Rome and Avignon ; there was no longer an impartial Pope to mediate. Moreover by now it was the French rather than the English who were the aggressors in Guyenne and at sea, and England went in fear of invasion.

The most urgent tasks of Richard II’s Council were to find ships to fight the combined French and Castilian fleet which was raiding the south coast, and to maintain the garrisons on the French coast which kept open the sea-route to Guyenne. The latter were Calais, Cherbourg, Brest and Bayonne, the ‘barbicans of the realm’, and in 1377 their yearly maintenance cost no less than £46,000. The Commons complained that it was not their duty to find money for foreign wars, and by 1380 the Crown Jewels were in pawn, several large loans for defence could not be serviced and the royal treasury was completely exhausted ; none of the troops in the French garrisons had been paid for twenty weeks, while the Earl of Buckingham’s army in Brittany was six months in arrears. Reluctantly Parliament agreed to a graded poll tax on every soul in the kingdom save paupers ‘as well for the safety of the realm as for the keeping of the sea’.


Beverstone Castle, (Gloucestershire. ‘A castic builded by one of the Berkeleys of spoil that he won in France ... a pile at that time very pretty.’ (Leland)


Bodiam Castle, Sussex. Said to have been built from the proceeds of French plunder by Sir Edward Dallingridge, Captain of Brest.


A tax of a groat (4d) a head was a cruel burden on serfs who toiled on the land without wages. They were already unsettled by the depopulation of the Black Death ; it had made their labour saleable, yet they were unable to leave their masters’ manors for paid employment. In May 1381 the bondsmen of Kent, Sussex, Essex and Bedford rose in revolt, marching on London under the banner of St George and bringing their bows. (It is revealing that in Kent they would take no one living within twelve leagues of the sea, whose job it was to guard the coast.) En route the ‘true commons’ killed any tax collectors they could catch, sacked manor houses and monasteries and molested the Queen Mother. In London they killed some Flemings and a number of rich citizens, released prisoners from the gaols, burnt John of Gaunt’s Palace of the Savoy and the Priory of the Knights of St John, and stormed the Tower of London where they hacked off the heads of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the Lord Chancellor, and of the Prior of St John who was the Treasurer. Froissart says that ‘England was at a point to have been lost beyond recovery’ but adds disdainfully, ‘three fourths of these people could not tell what to ask or demand but followed each other like beasts’. They forced the young King to meet them at Smith-field, but when their leader Wat Tyler was cut down before their eyes by the Lord Mayor ‘these ungracious people’ scattered in panic and the rising was over. Hangings continued all through the summer. Undoubtedly war taxation was the spark which had set off the Peasants’ Revolt.

Taxation caused similar risings in France. Anjou was President of the Council until his departure for Naples in 1382 and during his brief regime re-introduced the taxes abolished by Charles V. The enraged Parisians broke into the arsenal, seized weapons and made themselves masters of the capital, hunting down the tax collectors ; there were risings of the same sort in other northern towns and a full-scale insurrection in the south. Only Philip of Burgundy’s firmness saved the situation. He quickly gathered troops and crushed the mobs. For the next six years he ruled France.


Economic troubles were crippling England’s ability to fight, let alone to conquer. The wool trade had been throttled by excessive taxation, while people were paying nearly double for their wine ; many vineyards in Guyenne had been abandoned because of French devastation, and shipments between Bordeaux and Southampton were much more expensive as vessels had to sail in armed convoys to protect themselves. In 1381, 1382 and 1383 Parliament again refused to grant taxes for war. In consequence the garrisons suffered-during this time the Captain of Cherbourg’s pay was reduced from £10,000 to £2,000-and the troops had to live almost entirely off ransoms and the pâtis.

Meanwhile the Duke of Burgundy was closing his grip on Flanders. Since 1379 his father-in-law Count Louis de Male had been fighting the weavers of Ghent, and in 1382 they defeated him ; soon their ruwaert (or regent) Philip van Artevelde, the son of Edward III’s old friend, had overrun the entire country. Louis appealed to his son-in-law for help, Artevelde to the English. King Richard prepared to lead an army to Flanders but the Commons refused to grant the money. At Roosebeke in November 1382 the French overwhelmed the Flemish pikemen ‘and slew them without pity, as though they had been but dogs’ : Artevelde was among the slain. Count Louis himself died the year after, and henceforward Philip of Burgundy was Count of Flanders.

The impecunious English government found an ally in Pope Urban VI, who, alarmed at the success of the French ‘Clementists’, wrote to the English bishops ordering a tax on clerical wealth to subsidize a crusade against the Anti-Pope’s supporters. They preached with such eloquence that many Englishmen believed they could not enter paradise unless they contributed to so holy a cause ; in the diocese of London alone ‘there was gathered a tun full of gold and silver’. The ‘Crusade’ was led by a young Bishop, Henry Despenser of Norwich, who had a taste for war and flew a splendid personal banner. He landed at Calais in April 1383 with perhaps 2,000 men, including Sir Hugh Calveley. They advanced along the Flemish coast, taking several towns and besieging Ypres, although Flanders was impeccably Urbanist. When a large French army advanced to meet them, they retreated with inglorious haste, to be besieged in their turn at Gravelines from where they had to be rescued by the Bretons. The Bishop returned to England and was impeached for his pains.

There was now a new Chancellor, Sir Michael de la Pole —son of the great Hull merchant—and a new policy of appeasement. Pole saw that the monarchy was sinking further and further into debt because of the War, that in consequence it might lose control of central government which would pass to Parliament. He was right about the cost of war, but his attempts to secure peace were to prove disastrous ; at home he divided the English into a war party and a peace party, while abroad he abandoned England’s most loyal allies.

When Ghent asked for an English Prince of the Blood to come and be her ruwaert, Pole merely sent Sir John Bourchier with a derisory force of 400 men. Ghent gave in to Philip of Burgundy at the end of 1385 and the Duke soon controlled most of the Low Countries, acquiring the reversion of Brabant, a territory as big as Flanders, by marrying his younger son to its heiress. England now had to fear economic blockade and the disruption of the wool trade. Pole then infuriated Duke John IV of Brittany—Edward III’s protégé—by releasing the Blois claimant to the duchy from captivity in England; in 1386 John’s troops invested the English garrison at Brest. By then the policy of detente had not only cost England all her allies in Flanders and Brittany, but was encouraging her enemies to attack her. A Franco-Scottish army had already raided northern England and there was obviously worse in store.

Pole, now Earl of Suffolk, still did not appreciate the extent of the danger. He allowed John of Gaunt to lead an expedition to Castile, in pursuit of the crown which he claimed by right of his second wife, Pedro the Cruel’s daughter. Gaunt’s departure in July 1386 was sheer madness, as England was facing the greatest invasion threat of the century. A French army 30,000 strong had gathered in and around Sluys ; men came from all over France—‘Let us now invade these miserable English folk who have caused such mischief and destruction in France, and avenge ourselves for our fathers and mothers and friends whom they have killed.’ Vast amounts of food, munitions and horses were collected at special depots ; there was even a collapsible wooden fortress made in sections, with keep, watchtowers and curtain walls, to be used in establishing a bridgehead. To transport this enormous concentration of men and material, an armada of 1,200 cogs, galleys and sailing-barges assembled in the harbour at Sluys.

When the English realized the threat they were terrified. The people of London, ‘as though maddened by wine’, demolished the suburbs to make the City defensible, although the French had not even landed ; many went on a spending spree, wasting ‘thousands of pounds’, so certain were they that England was lost. The troops called up by the commissioners of array were not paid and roamed through the countryside robbing and looting to such an extent that they were forbidden to go within fifty miles of London ; many northern units were disbanded and sent home as soon as they reached the south, though the French were expected hourly. England was in uproar.

Nevertheless the English Council had an excellent plan of defence. The King’s Ships were to lie in the Thames until the enemy troops had been lured inland and then attack their fleet to cut off any hope of escape. Meanwhile small English forces scattered along the coast were to retreat before the French until they could rejoin the main English army near London.

However, the invasion was delayed until the autumn because of the illness of Philip of Burgundy. When the time came the sailing-masters told the French high command that the weather was by now too unreliable. ‘Most dread and powerful lords : of a truth, the sea is foul and the nights be too long, too dark, too cold, too wet and too windy. We are short of victuals, while we must have a full moon and a favourable wind with us. Moreover the English coast and the English havens are dangerous. Too many of our ships are old and too many are small and might be swamped by those that are large. And the sea is at its worst between 29 September and 25 November.’ In mid-November 1386 the French decided to call off the invasion.

No doubt had the French managed to land they would have perpetrated atrocities like those of the English in France. Some historians emphasize that French troops behaved just as badly to their own people as the English, and in this context it has been argued that late medieval France was not a nation but a collection of nations. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that Frenchmen of every region blamed the anarchy and bloodshed of the War exclusively on the English ; it is significant that throughout France the routiers were known as ‘the English’, although there were many Frenchmen among them. This hatred gave rise to such strange legends as the story that the English had tails (probably due to Welsh footmen hanging their long knives from the back of their belts).

The War played an important role in the growth of English nationalism. As the English began to regard the French as their natural prey, they developed feelings of hatred and contempt; in a poem Eustache Deschamps (who died in 1410) credits an English soldier with the words:

‘Dog of a Frenchman, you do nought but drink wine.’ As with the French, a common hatred came to override local loyalties.

Even so, some of the noblest English minds of the time rejected the War. In De Officio Regis the Lollard heresiarch John Wyclif condemned all warfare as contrary to God’s Commandment to love one’s neighbour ; he also questioned any man’s right to claim a kingdom and to hazard lives in pursuit of such a claim. The Dominican John Bromyard, by no means a heretic, was concerned in his Summa Predicantium (Points for Preachers) with the corruption caused by warfare—the greed, contempt for life and lack of scruple which it engendered, especially among ill-paid troops.

Hatred of the French was much in evidence at the Parliament of October 1386, which met when England still thought itself threatened by invasion. The absence of the moderating influence of John of Gaunt, away in Castile, was only too apparent. The King’s uncle Buckingham, now Duke of Gloucester, led the opposition to the Chancellor, Suffolk. Richard reacted with characteristic arrogance, saying that his people were in rebellion and he would ask ‘our cousin, the King of France’ to help put them down. This provoked the retort that if a monarch ’rashly in his insane counsels exercise his own peculiar desire‘, it was lawful for lords and magnates ‘to pluck down the King from his royal throne and to raise to the throne some very near kinsman of the royal house’. Gloucester, who seems to have meant himself by this, also reminded his nephew of Edward II’s fate. He warned Richard that: ‘The King of France is your chief enemy and the mortal foe of your realm. And if he should set foot on your land, he would rather work to despoil you, seize your kingdom, and drive you from your throne, than lend you helping hands ... Recall to your memory therefore how your grandfather King Edward III and your father Prince Edward worked untirely all their lives, in sweat and toil, in heat and cold, for the conquest of the realm of France, which was their hereditary right and is yours by succession after them.’ Gloucester continued, saying how innumerable Englishmen, lords and commons, ‘have suffered death and mortal peril in that war‘, and ‘how the commons of the realm have ceaselessly poured out countless treasures’ to wage it.

Obviously the Duke had plenty of support-if the English disliked paying for war, they liked the prospect of invasion even less. Reluctantly Richard yielded, dismissing Suffolk who was impeached for crimes ‘committed to the grave prejudice and injury of the King and kingdom’. A new Council was appointed, dominated by the fire-breathing Gloucester and his chief ally, the Earl of Arundel-Richard’s detested former governor—and embarked on a year’s campaigning against France. In March 1387, at Cadsand off Margate, Arundel and only sixty ships attacked a Flemish wine-fleet which was sailing from La Rochelle to Sluys. The Earl captured fifty Flemish ships with 19,000 tuns of excellent wine which was immediately sent back to England and sold at a token price, to the joy of the public and brief popularity of the new Council—‘The praises of the Earl grew immensely among the commons’. However, Arundel went on to raid the Flemish coast and missed the opportunity of occupying Sluys which would have put all maritime Flanders at his mercy. He then went to Brittany, to relieve Brest and to try to effect a reconciliation with Duke John, suggesting an Anglo-Breton attack on France. But John remained hostile and Arundel was forced to return to England.

In August 1387 Richard II announced his intention of ruling in his own name and appointed a Council from his favourites. Gloucester and Arundel thereupon raised an army and defeated the favourites at Radcot Bridge. Next year the Lords Appellant (accusers), among them Gloucester and Arundel, condemned them to death in the Merciless Parliament, despite Richard’s pleading. Gloucester and Arundel then mounted a supreme effort against the French, having at last obtained a promise of assistance from Brittany. But John of Gaunt, who had returned from Castile and was Lieutenant in Guyenne, refused to attack in the south-west, which so alarmed the Duke of Brittany that he too decided not to fight. Unaware of their defection, Arundel sailed in June 1388, but all he could do was raid the Isle of Oléron and the region round La Rochelle ; he was unable to advance inland because the Bretons would not supply him with horses. Even this petty skirmishing was only done by ignoring the Council’s order to return. The campaign’s dismal failure, together with astronomical demands for fresh subsidies, finally antagonized the Commons, while a crushing defeat inflicted by the Scots on the Percys at Otterburn in August terrified all northern England. Gaunt and other magnates grew more disposed again to make peace.

Across the Channel Charles VI was maturing, in his own way—growing into a lover of luxury and magnificence like his grandfather John II. He was encouraged in his taste for pleasure by his beautiful, sluttish wife, Isabeau of Bavaria. In November 1388 he dismissed his uncles from his Council, much to their anger, and reinstated his father’s ministers (who were popularly known as the Marmosets, their old gnarled faces being said to resemble doorknockers of that name). There were some extremely able and cool-headed men among the Marmosets and they decided on peace.

Overruling Gloucester and Arundel, the English Council began to negotiate. In May 1389 Richard II was able to assume power and govern for himself, and he too wanted peace. The King had little taste for battles; the Monk of Evesham says specifically that he was ‘timid and unsuccessful in foreign war’. Richard also seems to have genuinely admired the French; as an aesthete he may well have respected the most civilized society in northern Europe. Furthermore his treasurers must have shown him the enormous cost of the War, and how much this exceeded ordinary royal revenues and made him dependent on the Lords and Commons.

On 18 June 1389 French and English envoys signed a truce at Leulinghen near Calais. Henceforward Richard did his best to keep the peace. Cherbourg was sold back to the new King of Navarre in 1393 (who promptly resold it to the French), Brest to the Bretons in 1396. Both sides tried to find a lasting settlement. King Charles and his lords wanted one so that they could go on crusade against the Turks. Even Philip of Burgundy was enthusiastic, as he was well aware of what a price his subjects set on good commercial relations with England.

But there was still an English war party. On hearing that France was ready to cede lands in Aquitaine for English territories elsewhere, Gloucester protested: ‘The French want to pay us out of what is already ours. They know this : we hold charters sealed by King John and all his children, that all Aquitaine was given over to us to hold in sovereignty, so that which they have since retaken they have obtained by fraud and trickery; for they are constantly plotting both night and day to deceive us. If Calais and the other lands which they are demanding were given back to them, they would be masters of all their maritime frontiers, and all our conquests would be lost. So I shall never agree to peace for as long as I live.’ Arundel likewise declared that he would never change his views.

But Richard was determined and saw Guyenne as the key. John of Gaunt had by now abandoned all hope of Castile but he still wanted a throne. One way of establishing peace between France and England would be to settle Guyenne on Gaunt and his heirs, separating the duchy from the English crown. Even Gloucester supported the idea if only to keep Gaunt abroad, after which Gloucester ‘would have shifted well enough in England’—at least that was Froissart’s impression. In 1390 Richard created Gaunt Duke of Guyenne for life and in 1394 gave him the succession as well. But the Guyennois had unhappy memories of the Black Prince and were also afraid that Gaunt’s heirs might marry into the Valois and that the duchy would be absorbed by France. They rose in rebellion and Gaunt was unable to bring them to heel. In 1398 the English and French reluctantly settled for a truce of twenty-eight years.

Richard had gone ahead with his marriage to Charles VI’s nine-year-old daughter Isabel in 1396, accepting a dowry of nearly £170,000. At the wedding near Calais, an earlier Field of Cloth of Gold, he was obviously deeply moved by his meeting with Charles, so much so that he made the disastrous mistake of promising to persuade the English Church to submit to Avignon and to try to make the Urbanist Pope at Rome abdicate. It is probable that historians have underestimated the shock and horror which this caused Richard’s subjects. Some English clergy murmured, ‘Our King is become French; he intendeth to do nothing but dishonour and destroy us, but he shall not !’ Ordinary Londoners grumbled how Richard ‘had a French heart’.


Froissart, who obviously disliked Gloucester, had to admit that he was extremely popular. The irrepressible Duke ‘whose heart was by no means inclined to the French’ continued to wage a private war. When news reached England in 1396 of the slaughter of the largely French crusade at Nicopolis by the Turks, Gloucester was delighted, commenting that it served ‘those rare boasting Frenchmen’ right ; he added that were he King he would attack France at once now that she had lost so many of her best troops. Many Englishmen shared the Duke’s opinions. They had been fighting France for over half a century ; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession ; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income : if the War had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people, for many of whom peace meant more than just unemployment. In modern terms, refusing to continue the War was as though a government were to decide to abolish football pools and horse-racing.

Richard II finally destroyed the leaders of the war party in 1397. The Duke of Gloucester gave the King his opportunity during a banquet at Westminster in June. Some of the garrison of Brest, which had just been sold to Brittany, were present and in his cups the Duke asked his nephew what they were going to live on, adding that they had never been properly paid. The King answered that they were living at his expense at four pleasant villages near London and would certainly receive their arrears. Gloucester exploded. ‘Sire, you ought first to hazard your life in capturing

The routier Sir Nicholas Dagworth. Captain of Flavigny in Burgundy in 1359, he led a ‘free company’ of mercenaries into Spain in 1367. Ironically, he negotiated a truce with the French for Richard II in 1388. From a brass of 1402 in the parish church at Blickling, Norfolk.

a city from your enemies before you think of giving up any city which your ancestors have conquered.’ Richard was furious and the Duke realized he had gone too far. In August Gloucester, Arundel and their friends met secretly at Arundel Castle in Sussex to discuss how to seize power and imprison the King. They were soon betrayed and arrested. Arundel was beheaded while Thomas of Gloucester, despite begging for mercy ‘as lowly and meekly as a man may’ was smothered in a feather-bed in his prison at Calais. (Though Froissart heard that he was strangled with a towel.)

Richard had now become almost insanely tyrannical, flouting the established laws and customs of the realm. ‘The King did what he would in England and none dared speak against him.’ A figure even more tragic than that portrayed by Shakespeare, not only did he lose a kingdom but he lost it from wanting to possess it more completely. He finally overreached himself by exiling Henry of Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son and heir, and then when Gaunt died in 1398, making Bolingbroke’s banishment lifelong and confiscating all his estates. This and other blatant injustices, such as making anyone he disliked pay a crippling sum for a pardon, outraged the English magnates. In 1399 Bolingbroke returned to England while Richard was away in Ireland and found so much support that he was able to depose the King, who, a modern biographer suggests, became ‘a mumbling neurotic sinking rapidly into a state of complete melancholia’. Bolingbroke ascended the throne as Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian dynasty. Richard died a few months later, probably of self starvation-‘some had on him pity and some none, but said he had long deserved death,’ observes Froissart. Whatever his faults Richard II had been genuine in his attempts to make peace with France, and his failure meant the revival of the War.

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