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King Richard II

King Richard II

Richard, the second son of Edward, the Black Prince and Joan of Kent, was born on 6th January, 1367.

His elder brother, Edward of Angoulême, died in 1371 and Richard stood in the direct line of succession to the English throne, and the prospect of his succeeding while he was still a child was brought appreciably nearer by the deepening illness of his father, who died on 8th April 1376. (1)

Parliament feared that Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, would usurp the throne and for this reason, he was quickly invested with the princedom of Wales and his father's other titles. (2)

Richard's grandfather, King Edward III, was having serious problems with what became known as the Hundred Years War. Fighting the war was very expensive and in February 1377 the government introduced a poll-tax where four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. "This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days' labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourers". (3)

King Edward died soon afterwards. Richard, his ten-year-old grandson, was crowned in July 1377. Thomas Walsingham described it as "a day of joy and gladness.... the long-awaited day of the renewal of peace and of the laws of the land, long exiled by the weakness of an aged king and the greed of his courtiers and servants." (4)

Richard's main advisers were his uncle, John of Gaunt and his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock. Other important figures included Simon de Burley and Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland. However, the appointment of a regency council was chosen so no one person could gain permanent control of policy. (5)

John of Gaunt was closely associated with the new poll-tax and this made him very unpopular with the people. They were very angry as they considered the tax unfair as the poor had to pay the same tax as the wealthy. Despite this, the collectors of the tax seem not to have had to face more than an occasional, local disturbance. (6)

In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another poll tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.

The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. "There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes." (7)

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions. John Wycliffe gave a sermon where he argued: "Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... and they perish from hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also. And in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood." (8)

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. (9) At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be "released by twenty thousand armed men". (10)

In May 1381, Thomas Bampton, the Tax Commissioner for the Essex area, reported to the king that the people of Fobbing were refusing to pay their poll tax. It was decided to send a Chief Justice and a few soldiers to the village. It was thought that if a few of the ringleaders were executed the rest of the village would be frightened into paying the tax. However, when Chief Justice Sir Robert Belknap arrived, he was attacked by the villagers. (11)

Belknap was forced to sign a document promising not to take any further part in the collection of the poll tax. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's: "The Commons rose against him and came before him to tell him... he was maliciously proposing to undo them... Accordingly they made him swear on the Bible that never again would he hold such sessions nor act as Justice in such inquests... And Sir Robert travelled home as quickly as possible." (12)

After releasing the Chief Justice, some of the villagers looted and set fire to the home of John Sewale, the Sheriff of Essex. Tax collectors were executed and their heads were put on poles and paraded around the neighbouring villages. The people responsible sent out messages to the villages of Essex and Kent asking for their support in the fight against the poll tax. (13)

Many peasants decided that it was time to support the ideas proposed by John Ball and his followers. It was not long before Wat Tyler, a former soldier in the Hundred Years War, emerged as the leader of the peasants. Tyler's first decision was to march to Maidstone to free John Ball from prison. "John Ball had been set free and was safe among the commons of Kent, and he was bursting to pour out the passionate words which had been bottled up for three months, words which were exactly what his audience wanted to hear." (14)

Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out that it was very important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: "For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people." John Ball was needed as their leader because alone of the rebels, he had access to the word of God. "John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics." (15)

On 5th June there was a revolt at Dartford and two days later Rochester Castle was taken. The peasants arrived in Canterbury on 10th June. Here they took over the archbishop's palace, destroyed legal documents and released prisoners from the town's prison. More and more peasants decided to take action. Manor houses were broken into and documents were destroyed. These records included the villeins' names, the rent they paid and the services they carried out. What had originally started as a protest against the poll tax now became an attempt to destroy the feudal system. (16)

The peasants decided to go to London to see Richard II. As the king was only fourteen-years-old, they blamed his advisers for the poll tax. The peasants hoped that once the king knew about their problems, he would do something to solve them. The rebels reached the outskirts of the city on 12 June. It has been estimated that approximately 30,000 peasants had marched to London. At Blackheath, John Ball gave one of his famous sermons on the need for "freedom and equality". (17)

Wat Tyler also spoke to the rebels. He told them: "Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice." Henry Knighton records: "The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell... and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them... One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves." (18)

Charles Poulsen praises Wat Tyler as learning the "lessons of organisation and discipline" when in the army and in showing the "same pride in the customs and manners of his own class as the noblest baron would for his". (19) The medieval historians were less complimentary and Thomas Walsingham described him as a "cunning man, endowed with much sense if he had applied his intelligence to good purposes". (20)

Richard II gave orders for the peasants to be locked out of London. However, some Londoners who sympathised with the peasants arranged for the city gates to be left open. Jean Froissart claims that some 40,000 to 50,000 citizens, about half of the city's inhabitants, were ready to welcome the "True Commons". (21) When the rebels entered the city, the king and his advisers withdrew to the Tower of London. Many poor people living in London decided to join the rebellion. Together they began to destroy the property of the king's senior officials. They also freed the inmates of Marshalsea Prison. (22)

Part of the English Army was at sea bound for Portugal whereas the rest were with John of Gaunt in Scotland. (23) Thomas Walsingham tells us that the king was being protected in the Tower by "six hundred warlike men instructed in arms, brave men, and most experienced, and six hundred archers". Walsingham adds that they "all had so lost heart that you would have thought them more like dead men than living; the memory of their former vigour and glory was extinguished". Walsingham points out that they did not want to fight and suggests they may have been on the side of the peasants. (24)

John Ball sent a message to Richard II stating that the rising was not against his authority as the people only wished only to deliver him and his kingdom from traitors. Ball also asked the king to meet with him at Blackheath. Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, the treasurer, both objects of the people's hatred, warned against meeting the "shoeless ruffians", whereas others, such as William de Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, urged that the king played for time by pretending that he desired a negotiated agreement. (25)

Richard II's biographer, Anthony Tuck, has pointed out: "Richard's own part in the discussions is almost impossible to determine, though some historians have suggested that he took the initiative in seeking to negotiate with the rebels, despite the fact that he was only fourteen when the rebellion occurred. Even before the Kentish rebels entered London, Richard had apparently suggested negotiation with their leaders at Greenwich, but the talks had broken down almost as soon as they began." (26)

Richard II agreed to meet the rebels outside the town walls at Mile End on 14th June, 1381. Most of his soldiers remained behind. Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906), pointed the "ride to Mile End was perilous: at any moment the crowd might have broken loose, and the King and all his party might have perished... nevertheless, though surrounded all the way by a noisy and boisterous multitude, Richard and his party ultimately reached Mile End". (27)

When the king met the rebels at 8.00 a.m. he asked them what they wanted. Wat Tyler explained the demands of the rebels. This includes the end of all feudal services, the freedom to buy and sell all goods, and a free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. Tyler also asked for a rent limit of 4d per acre and an end to feudal fines through the manor courts. Finally, he asked that no "man should be compelled to work except by employment under a regularly reviewed contract". (28)

The king immediately granted these demands. Wat Tyler also claimed that the king's officers in charge of the poll tax were guilty of corruption and should be executed. The king replied that all people found guilty of corruption would be punished by law. The king agreed to these proposals and 30 clerks were instructed to write out charters giving peasants their freedom. After receiving their charters the vast majority of peasants went home. (29)

G. R. Kesteven, the author of The Peasants' Revolt (1965), has pointed out that the king and his officials had no intention of carrying out the promises made at this meeting, they "were merely using those promises to disperse the rebels". (30) However, Wat Tyler and John Ball were not convinced by the word given by the king and along with 30,000 of the rebels stayed in London. (31)

While the king was in Mile End discussing an agreement with the king, another group of peasants marched to the Tower of London. There were about 600 soldiers defending the Tower but they decided not to fight the rebel army. Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury), Robert Hales (King's Treasurer) and John Legge (Tax Commissioner), were taken from the Tower and executed. Their heads were then placed on poles and paraded through the streets of cheering Londoners. (32)

Rodney Hilton argues that the rebels wanted revenge on all those involved in the levying of taxes or the administrating the legal system. Roger Leggett, one of the most important government lawyers was also killed. "They attacked not only the lawyers themselves - attorneys, pleaders, clerks of the courts - but others closely associated with the judicial processes... The hostility to lawyers and to legal records was not of course peculiar to the Londoners. The widespread destruction of manorial court records is well-known" during the rebellion. (33)

The rebels also attacked foreign workers living in London. "The commons made proclamation that every one who could lay hands on Flemings or any other strangers of other nations might cut off their heads". (34) It has been claimed that "some 150 or 160 unhappy foreigners were murdered in various places - thirty-five Flemings in one batch were dragged out of the church of St. Martin in the Vintry, and beheaded on the same block... The Lombards also suffered, and their houses yielded much valuable plunder." (35)

It was agreed that another meeting should take place between Richard II and the leaders of the rebels at Smithfield on 15th June, 1381. William Walworth rode "over to the rebels and summoned Wat Tyler to meet the king, and mounted on a little pony, accompanied by only one attendant bearing the rebel banner, he obeyed". When he joined the king he put forward another list of demands that included: the removal of the lordship system, the distribution of the wealth of the church to the poor, a reduction in the number of bishops, and a guarantee that in future there would be no more villeins. (36)

Richard II said he would do what he could. Wat Tyler was not satisfied by this reply. He called for a drink of water to rinse out his mouth. This was seen as extremely rude behaviour, especially as Tyler had not removed his hood when talking to the king. One of Richard's party shouted out that Tyler was "the greatest thief and robber in Kent". The author of the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's claims: "For these words Wat wanted to strike the valet with his dagger, and would have killed him in the king's presence; but because he tried to do so, the Mayor of London, William of Walworth... arrested him... Wat stabbed the mayor with his dagger in the body in great anger. But, as it pleased God, the mayor was wearing armour and took no harm.. he struck back at the said Wat, giving him a deep cut in the neck, and then a great blow on the head. And during the scuffle a valet of the king's household drew his sword, and ran Wat two or three times through the body... Wat was carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St Bartholomew's, and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in the presence of his companions, and had him beheaded." (37)

The peasants raised their weapons and for a moment it looked as though there was going to be fighting between the king's soldiers and the peasants. However, Richard rode over to them and said: "Will you shoot your king? I will be your chief and captain, you shall have from me that which you seek " He then spoke to them for some time and eventually they agreed to go back to their villages. (38)

Chroniclers such as Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham suggested that these events were unplanned and unexpected. However, modern historians have doubts about this version of events. Anthony Tuck has argued: "The rapid arrival of the militia suggests some element of advance planning, and those around the king, even perhaps the king himself, may have intended to create an opportunity to kill or capture Tyler and separate him from the main body of his followers. If this is so, it was a risky strategy, as the Mile End meeting had been, and again Richard's personal courage is not in doubt." (39)

An army, led by Thomas of Woodstock, John of Gaunt's younger brother, was sent into Essex to crush the rebels. A battle between the peasants and the King's army took place near the village of Billericay on 28th June. The king's army was experienced and well-armed and the peasants were easily defeated. It is believed that over 500 peasants were killed during the battle. The remaining rebels fled to Colchester, where they tried in vain to persuade the towns-people to support them. They then fled to Huntingdon but the towns people there chased them off to Ramsey Abbey where twenty-five were slain. (40)

King Richard with a large army began visiting the villages that had taken part in the Peasants' Revolt. At each village, the people were told that no harm would come to them if they named the people in the village who had encouraged them to join the rebellion. Those people named as ringleaders were then executed. Apparently the king stated: "Serfs you are and serfs you will remain." A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) has pointed out: "The promises made by the king were repudiated and the common people of England learnt, not for the last time, how unwise it was to trust to the good faith of their rulers." (41)

The king's officials were instructed to look out for John Ball. He was eventually caught in Coventry. He was taken to St Albans to stand trial. "He denied nothing, he freely admitted all the charges without regrets or apologies. He was proud to stand before them and testify to his revolutionary faith." He was sentenced to death, but William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, granted a two-day stay of execution in the hope that he could persuade Ball to repent of his treason and so save his soul. John Ball refused and he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (42)

In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement. (43) Archbishop William Courtenay urged Parliament to pass a Statute of the Realm against preachers such as Wycliffe: "It is openly known that there are many evil persons within the realm, going from county to county, and from town to town, in certain habits, under dissimulation of great holiness, and without the licence ... or other sufficient authority, preaching daily not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, many sermons, containing heresies and notorious errors." (44)

Although initially it failed to achieve its aim, the Peasants' Revolt was an important event in English history. For the first time, peasants had joined together in order to achieve political change. The king and his advisers could no longer afford to ignore their feelings. In 1382 a new poll tax was voted in by Parliament. This time it was decided that only the richer members of society should pay the tax. (45)

After the Peasants Revolt the lords found it very difficult to retain the feudal system. Villeinage was already crumbling due to economic and demographic pressures. (46) Labour was still in short supply and villeins continued to run away to find work as freemen. In 1390 the government attempt to keep wages at the old level was abandoned when a new Statute of Labourers Act gave the Justices of the Peace the power to fix wages for their districts in accordance with the prevailing prices. (47)

Even the villeins who stayed were much more reluctant to work on the lord's demesne. In some villages the villeins joined together and refused to carry out any more labour services. Several towns and villages saw outbreaks of violence. However, as Charles Oman has pointed out, these were "scattered and sporadic, instead of simultaneous". (48)

As an economic means of cultivating the soil for profit, villeinage was doomed. "With such surly and mutinous labour and no police to enforce it, it proved impossible to make it pay." (49) Unable to find enough labour to work their demesne, lords found it more profitable to lease out the land. With smaller areas to farm, the lords had less need for the labour services provided by the villeins. Lords started to "commute" these labour services. This meant that in return for a cash payment, peasants no longer had to work on the lord's demesne. During this period wages increased significantly. (50)

Richard married 16-year-old Anne of Bohemia on 20th January 1382. She was the daughter of the late Emperor Charles IV. Anne's father had been the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, ruling over about half of Europe's population and territory. The marriage was against the wishes of many members of his nobility and members of parliament, and occurred primarily at the instigation of Richard close associate, Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk. "She did not produce an heir (there are no reports of stillborn children, or children who died in infancy: in all probability she never became pregnant), but no chronicler reports any other liaisons on the king's part." (51)

At the time of his marriage he was described as being "fair-haired and self-consciously youthful, keeping his face clean-shaven when it was conventional for grown men to wear a beard". A contemporary said he was "abrupt and somewhat stammering in his speech, capricious in his manners... prodigal in his gifts, extravagantly splendid in his entertainments and dress." (52)

According to Henry Knighton, Queen Anne requested that Richard should forgive the rebels: "In the following year, 1382, at the special request of Queen Anne and other magnates of the realm, especially the pious Duke of Lancaster, the lord King gave a general pardon to all the aforesaid rebels and malefactors, their adherents, abettors and followers. He granted charters to this effect and through God's mercy the previous madness came to an end." (53)

Richard was very interested in fashion and pioneered the codpiece, worn over tight hose, embroidered doublets with padded shoulders and the houpelande (a long coloured robe with a high neck that replaced the more traditional cloak). "Such fashions were designed to display the male physique to perfection, emphasising long legs, a slim waist and powerful shoulders." (54)

Richard II was not a very successful military commander. His biographer, Peter Earle, points out: "Richard, son of the Black Prince, inherited only his father's outward appearance and none of his skills at war. Not that he was the coward or weakling of legend - on many occasions in his reign he was to display outstanding courage - but his was the courage of pride, not military prowess." (55)

This was reflected in a failed military expedition to Scotland in 1385. This encouraged the French to consider invading England. Charles VI assembled the largest force so far raised by either side during the Hundred Years War. This induced widespread panic and insecurity in England. Parliament met in October 1386, to consider the request from the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, for an unprecedented quadruple subsidy to cover the cost of defence against the threatened invasion. This was refused and the barons began to question the way Richard was ruling the country.

At first Parliament blamed Richard's advisors and his chancellor was impeached by the House of Commons on charges arising out of his conduct in office. De la Pole was found guilty and condemned to imprisonment, but Richard set aside the penalty and he retained his freedom. "Parliament then established a commission which was to hold office for a year and which was to conduct a thorough review of royal finances. It was to have control of the exchequer and the great and privy seals, and Richard was required to take an oath to abide by any ordinances it made." (56)

Richard raised an army against Parliament. Led by Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland it was said to contained no more than 4,000 men. Rumours began to circulate that Richard had agreed to accept military support from France, and that he would place England under French military occupation. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and several other nobles, including Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, mobilized an army of their retainers numbering 4,500 and marched on de Vere's army. The king's army was defeated at the Battle of Radcot Bridge on 19th December 1387. (57)

Richard was arrested and Woodstock threatened to have him executed because of his dealings with France. They eventually decided against it and instead forcing him to call a session of Parliament. Henry Knighton described it as the Merciless Parliament as it resulted in several of Richard's leading advisors, including Sir Nicholas Brembre, Simon de Burley and Robert Tresilian were executed. Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole, all managed to escape to France where they died in exile. (58)

On 3rd May 1389 Richard was allowed back on the throne. This time he made no attempt to revive the style of government which had brought about the crisis of 1387 and for the time being no new inner circle of courtiers emerged to enjoy Richard's favour and patronage. John of Gaunt returned to England in November 1389 and pledged his support to Richard. The atmosphere of peace was to last for six years. During this period he had some diplomatic success. This included a settlement in Ireland in 1394 and two years later negotiated a truce with France. (59)

As soon as he felt strongly enough, Richard fought back against those who were responsible for ousting him from power in 1387. He ordered the arrest of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick. Gloucester was murdered soon afterwards and Arundel was executed on 21st September, 1397. Warwick made a full confession to attempting to overthrow the king, was banished for life to the Isle of Man. (60)

In June 1399, Henry of Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspurn in Yorkshire. As his army moved across the middle of England, all resistance disappeared. Richard and most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility were in Ireland and did not land in Wales until 24th July. Outnumbered, the King surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Richard was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London. (61)

An assembly opened on 30th September to discuss what was to happen to Richard. His abdication was formally accepted; thirty-nine accusations against him were then read out, and it was agreed that they formed sufficient grounds for his deposition. It was argued that by his actions between 1397 and 1399 Richard had broken his oath and thus broken the legal bond between himself and his people. Article 16 claimed that the king did not "uphold or dispense the rightful laws and customs of the realm, but preferred to act according to his own arbitrary will and do whatever he wished". (62)

Henry was crowned as King Henry IV on 13 October, 1399. Richard remained in the Tower until he was taken to Pontefract Castle in December. It has been suggested that Henry initially intended for Richard to live. However, when he heard from Edward of Norwich, 1st Earl of Rutland, that there was a plot organized by John Montagu, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, John Holland, 1st Earl of Huntingdon, Thomas Holland, 3rd Earl of Kent and Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, to overthrow Henry and put Richard back on the throne, he arranged for him to be murdered. This took place in February, 1400. (63)

Richard II said to Wat Tyler: "Why will you not go back to your own county?" Wat Tyler answered that neither he nor his fellows would leave until they had got their charter as they wished to have it... And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England... and all the lands and possessions (of the church) should be taken from them and divided among the commons... And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom... that all men should be free.

Subjects and others of the county of Hertford, freed each and all of their old bondage... pardoned them all felonies, treasons, and extortions committed by any and all of them.

Then the king ordered thirty clerks to write letters, sealed with his seal. And when the people received the letters, they went back home. But Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball said they would not leave. More than 30,000 stayed with them. They were in no hurry to have the King's letters. They meant to slay all the rich people of London and rob their homes.

Wat Tyler, in the presence of the king, sent for a jug of water to rinse his mouth... as soon as the water was brought he rinsed out his mouth in a very rude and villainous manner before the king... At that time a certain valet from Kent... said aloud that Wat Tyler was the greatest thief and robber in all Kent... For these words Wat wanted to strike the valet with his dagger, and would have killed him in the king's presence; but because he tried to do so, the Mayor of London, William of Walworth... And during the scuffle a valet of the king's household drew his sword, and ran Wat two or three times through the body...

Wat was carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St Bartholomew's, and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in the presence of his companions, and had him beheaded.

When the commons saw that their leader, Wat Tyler, had been killed in this way, they fell down there among the corn, like beaten men. They asked the King for pardon for their crimes and he kindly granted them mercy. Then most of them ran away.

But the King appointed two knights to lead the other Kentish men through London and over London Bridge. The rebels were not harmed, but each was allowed to go quietly to his own home.

Sir John Newton came up to him on a war horse to hear what he (Wat Tyler) proposed to say. Tyler grew angry because the knight had approached him on horseback and not on foot, and furiously declared that it was more fitting to approach his presence on foot than by riding on a horse. Newton, still not completely forgetful of his old knightly honour, replied, "As you are sitting on a horse it is not insulting for me to approach you on a horse." At this the ruffian brought out his knife and threatened to strike the knight and called him a traitor...

On this the king, although a boy and of tender age, took courage and ordered the mayor of London to arrest Tyler. The mayor, a man of spirit and bravery, arrested Tyler and struck him a blow on the head which hurt him badly. Tyler was soon surrounded by the other servants of the king and pierced by sword thrusts in several parts of his body. His death... was the first incident to restore to the English knighthood their almost extinct hope that they could resist the commons.

Walworth strikes, once, twice, and Tyler falls back on his horse, wounded in the neck and head. Now the whole royal mob runs amok.... He who had been so strong, so alive, so vital... he who had felt... the pain and agony of the branding, the hunger and poverty of his comrades and the tears of their families; he who had devoted his life to revolution so that all might live in peace and happiness. They were murderers, murdering in cold blood the man who had approached them in good faith.

Tyler stayed close to the king and spoke on behalf of the other rebels. He had drawn his knife, commonly called a dagger, and kept throwing it from hand to hand like a boy playing a game. It was believed that he would take the opportunity to stab the king suddenly if the latter refused what he demanded; those who stood near the king certainly feared what would happen. The rebels asked the king that all water, parks and woods should be made common to all: so that throughout the kingdom the poor as well as the rich should be free to take game in water, fish ponds, woods and forests... When the king paused to consider these demands, Wat Tyler approached the king and spoke threateningly to him. When John de Walworth, mayor of London, noticed this, he feared the king was about to be killed and knocked Wat Tyler into the gutter with his sword. Thereupon another squire called Ralph Standish pierced his side with another sword... When Tyler was dead, he was dragged by his hands and feet like a vile thing into the nearby church of St Bartholomew.

John the tiler, leader of the peasants... did not show due honour to his royal majesty. Rather he addressed the king's person with his head covered and with a threatening expression. The mayor... resenting the lack of reverence due to a king from his subject, addressed John in these words: "Why do you show no reverence to your king?" The rebel leader replied, "No honour will be shown by the king to me." To which the mayor responded, "Then I arrest you." The tiler drew his knife and tried to strike the mayor. The mayor then rushed to him and wounded him with a sword, while another squire who was present seized the head of the leader and threw him from his horse to the ground... When the whole mob shouted out, "Our chief is killed", the king replied, "Be still: I am your king, your leader and your chief."

When Wat Tyler saw the King, he said to the rebels, 'Sirs, there is the King: I'll go and speak to him. Stay here unless I give you a sign - in which case kill all the knights, but not the King, He is young and we can lead him around England and act like lords.'

Then he spurred his horse and came so close to the King that their horses touched. Then he said, 'Sir king, do you see all those people? I can order them and all the ones in London to do what I want - and do you think we will go home without getting signed guarantees from you?' The King said, 'You shall have them: I have ordered them to be made out and you will each get one. So now you must all go quietly home, including your men in London.'

Then Tyler saw a squire who was carrying the King's sword, and said, 'Give me that sword.' The squire said, 'No, it is the King's sword and you are not worthy to have it because you are a common man.' Tyler replied, 'I'll kill you - or never eat again.'

At that moment the mayor of London appeared with twelve knights on armoured horses who pushed through the crowd. He said to Tyler, 'How dare you speak like that in the King's presence? You are a lying, stinking criminal and by my life you'll pay for those words.'

The mayor then drew out his sword and hit Tyler such a blow on the head that he fell to the ground at his horse's feet. Then the knights gathered round Tyler, so the rebels couldn't see him. One of the King's squires, called John Standish, dismounted from his horse and stuck his sword into Tyler's stomach, killing him.

Then the unruly mob saw that their leader was killed, so they began to mutter and said., 'Our leader is dead. Let's go and kill them all.' And they got themselves in battle order, with the bowmen in front.

The King then rode alone up to this mob who were determined to revenge their leader's death. He said, 'What is wrong? You will have no leader but me: I am your King. Keep calm.'

Most of the rebels who heard the King speak were ashamed of themselves: they began to go quietly away. But some were evil and would not move: instead they looked as if they meant to make trouble.

When the commons saw that their leader, Wat Tyler, had been killed in this way, they fell down there among the corn, like beaten men. The rebels were not harmed, but each was allowed to go quietly to his own home.

Medieval Historians and John Ball (Answer Commentary)

The Peasants' Revolt (Answer Commentary)

Death of Wat Tyler (Answer Commentary)

Taxation in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Medieval and Modern Historians on King John (Answer Commentary)

King John and the Magna Carta (Answer Commentary)

Henry II: An Assessment (Answer Commentary)

Richard the Lionheart (Answer Commentary)

Christine de Pizan: A Feminist Historian (Answer Commentary)

The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Women and Medieval Work (Answer Commentary)

The Medieval Village Economy (Answer Commentary)

Women and Medieval Farming (Answer Commentary)

Contemporary Accounts of the Black Death (Answer Commentary)

Disease in the 14th Century (Answer Commentary)

King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Answer Commentary)

The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)

William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)

The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)

The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)

Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)

Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)

(1) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Nigel Saul, Richard II (1997) page 17

(3) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 21

(4) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

(5) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 84

(6) G. Kesteven, The Peasants' Revolt (1965) page 27

(7) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 10

(8) John Wycliffe, sermon (1380)

(9) Andrew Prescott, John Ball : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 70

(11) Bonamy Dobrée, English Revolts (1937) page 46

(12) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(13) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 88

(14) Mary R. Price, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 35

(15) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 11

(16) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 101

(17) Ronald Webber, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) pages 58-59

(18) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(19) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 14

(20) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

(21) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

(22) Bonamy Dobrée, English Revolts (1937) page 49

(23) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 17

(24) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

(25) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 101

(26) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 63

(28) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 115

(29) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) G. Kesteven, The Peasants' Revolt (1965) page 54

(31) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

(32) Mary R. Price, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 35

(33) Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (1973) page 195

(34) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(35) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 69

(36) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) pages 128-129

(37) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(38) J. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 94

(39) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(40) Ronald Webber, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 94

(41) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 102

(42) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 41

(43) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.

(44) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 71

(45) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 171

(46) Martyn Whittock, Life in the Middle Ages (2009) page 51

(47) A. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 102

(48) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 156

(49) Arthur Bryant, The Fire & the Rose (1965) page 64

(50) Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (1973) page 232

(51) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(52) Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008) page 322

(53) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(54) Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008) page 322

(55) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 84

(56) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(57) Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War: Divided Houses (2009) page 635

(58) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(59) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 87

(60) Gerald Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England, 1360–1461 (2005) page 479

(61) Nigel Saul, Richard II (1997) page 417

(62) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(63) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)


Page options

The reign of Richard II illustrates the changing nature of the crown and society after the Black Death wiped out almost half the population from 1348. Richard's downfall has also been called the first round in what the Victorians named the 'Wars of the Roses,' the bloody, noble civil wars that devastated England from around 1450 to 1487. But the legacy of his rule laid the foundation for that conflict and together with the impact of the plague achieved a social transformation that changed Britain forever.

Richard's rule can be viewed as a critical moment in Britain's history. It provides the first opportunity to assess the impact of the Black Death on all levels of the nations as society realigns itself, the young king struggles to restore the prestige and authority of the crown. Key issues of the day colour Richard's reign: the ongoing war with France, the power of the nobles, religious change, extending royal authority into the regions and the continuing conflict in Ireland and with Scotland.

The Peasants' Revolt. was a judgement on those who were governing the country in Richard's name.

There is significant cultural and linguistic advance, new social groups such as the 'gentry' are emerging and by 1500, leave us with a pubescent modern nation state, firmly in possession of defensible borders and one 'common' language. The Peasants' Revolt, the first major 'headline' result of the series of plagues that swept across Europe, was a judgement on those who were governing the country in Richard's name. However, the king's reaction to the revolt was perhaps the highpoint of his personal activity. But it is the rapid fall of Richard II, from his position as a secure, wealthy and respected monarch that sheds the most light on the reality of medieval power.


Heraldry in the diptych

The Wilton Diptych: exterior

On the outside (exterior) of the diptych the heraldic decoration relates to Richard II. The king's arms on the panel behind the Virgin and Child consist of shield, cresting and mantle. This panel has sustained heavy use at one or another time. The fictive (invented) arms of Edward the Confessor are impaled impaled - two coats of arms set side by side on a shield with the arms of England, an indication of date. Richard began to display his arms in this way only from 1395 onwards.

On the other panel is a white hart, Richard II's badge. Around its neck is a crown with a chain attached. The antlers stand out from the gold ground through the effect of light and shadow created in pointillé . The hart lies in a grassy meadow strewn with flowers and mingled with rosemary thought to be in remembrance of Richard's first wife, Anne of Bohemia. The green pigment has discoloured with age.

Detail from the The Wilton Diptych showing the white hart brooch and broomcod collar

Symbolism on the interior of the Diptych suggests that the painting dates to around the time of Richard's second marriage to Isabelle of France in 1396. Richard wears a brooch with his own badge of the white hart and a collar with the badge of broomcods broom - ('genêt') one of the heraldic badges of Charles VI of France in the form of branches, seed pods (broomcods), or broom flowers. Adopted by Richard II in 1396. of the French king, Charles VI. Richard's red mantle is depicted as if embroidered in gold with the two badges combined. The angels wear white hart brooches and broomcod collars.


Geoffrey Chaucer is named chief clerk by Richard II

King Richard II appoints Geoffrey Chaucer to the position of chief clerk of the king’s works in Westminster on July 12, 1389.

Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, served as a page in an aristocratic household during his teens and was associated with the aristocracy for the rest of his life. In 1359, he fought in France with Edward III, and was captured in a siege. Edward III ransomed him, and he later worked for Edward III and John of Gaunt. One of his earliest known works was an elegy for the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, Book of the Duchesse.

In 1372, Chaucer traveled to Italy on diplomatic missions, where he may have been exposed to Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He also visited Flanders and France, and was appointed comptroller of customs. He wrote several poems in the 1380s, including The Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde. In the late 1380s or early 1390s, he began work on the Canterbury Tales, in which a mixed group of nobles, peasants, and clergy make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The work, a compilation of tales told by each character, is remarkable for its presentation of the spectrum of social classes. Although Chaucer intended the book to include 120 stories, he died in 1399, with only 22 tales finished.


Shakespeare’s King Richard II: Drama Versus History

Scholars place Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Second in approximately the middle of the 1590s, around the same period that he was writing The Rape of Lucrece, the sonnets, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Love’s Labours Lost. This proximity may explain why Richard II has been considered the most poetically lyrical of Shakespeare’s history plays. The storyline is also arguably the most politically controversial work of Shakespeare’s career in its treatment of Richard’s abdication and Henry Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne to become King Henry IV. In fact, the play quartos published prior to Queen Elizabeth’s death don’t actually include Richard’s abdication.

Even so, Richard II was viewed as a dangerous play to produce in Elizabethan England supporters of the Earl of Essex paid to have Shakespeare’s company perform the play the day before Essex marched on London to force an audience with the queen. This act, known as the Essex Rebellion, ended the same day it began with a brief skirmish. Essex was captured, tried for treason, and executed. As a result, English royalty seemed to view the play with suspicion for decades afterward.

Shakespeare primarily drew from Holinshed’s Chronicles for his characterization of Richard, with some lesser influence likely from Halle’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York and Daniel’s The First Fowre Books of the Civile Wars. There does not appear to be a direct dramatic source for the play, although there is some debate among scholars about an anonymous, incomplete manuscript titled Thomas of Woodstock–sometimes called The First Part of Richard II. Some propose that the play, which deals with events preceding Shakespeare’s Richard II, may be an earlier work by Shakespeare himself. The majority view, however, is that the play is a secondary source at best (if it was any influence at all).

Shakespeare’s representation of Richard is hardly a flattering portrait. Throughout the course of the play, Richard sows the seeds for his own downfall. His indecisiveness–ultimately, his weakness as a king–is at the heart of the plot, and Bolingbroke represents the foil that drives the action. The tragedy, of course, is that Richard only comes to realize his failings and the “true” responsibility of a monarch after he has lost the throne, and he will pay for that failure with his life.

But how does Shakespeare’s Richard II compare with the historical record? Although basing his work in history, Shakespeare never frets over rearranging events, characters, or facts in service of drama and theme.

Shakespeare’s Plot
Shakespeare’s story begins with a conflict Henry Bolingbroke has accused Thomas Mowbray of treason. Richard allows the two men to settle their feud in a trial by combat, but before the battle can ensue, the king stops the fight and banishes them both from the realm. When Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard seizes his estates to pay for a military campaign in Ireland. While Richard is away, Henry returns to claim the inheritance he feels he is rightfully due. Many nobles side with Henry against the king.

Richard, who is forced to retreat to Flint Castle, agrees to meet with Henry. He submits to returning to London as a prisoner to stand trial in Parliament. Richard eventually confesses to crimes against the state and cedes the crown to Henry. Following a thwarted plot against Henry, the new king imprisons Richard in Pontefract Castle. There, Sir Pierce of Exton murders Richard, believing he is acting in accordance with Henry’s wishes. Henry, however, mourns Richard’s death and exiles Exton for his deed, vowing to make a Crusade in the Holy Land to “wash this blood off from my guilty hand.”

Historical Variances
Shakespeare starts with Holinshed’s account of the last two years of Richard’s reign, so the overall story is narrowly focused from the onset. The feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray closely follows Holinshed’s account. The compression of time and events is especially notable in the second act, when John of Gaunt dies, Richard leaves for Ireland, and Henry Bolingbroke returns from exile in rapid succession. What Shakespeare presents as occurring over the course of one scene actually took months to unfold. Likewise, the play shortens the time between Richard’s surrender, subsequent trial in London, and the abdication–and Richard may not have been as easily persuaded to relinquish the crown as Shakespeare would have us believe.

Shakespeare changes a few ages here and there. Northumberland’s son, Henry Percy, is presented as much younger in Shakespeare’s play, and Henry Bolingbroke’s son, Hal–the future Henry V–is presented as much older. Also, Richard’s queen, Isabel, is an adult in Shakespeare’s story, whereas in reality, Isabella of Valois was a child bride who was married to Richard in 1396 at the age of six, largely to broker some peace between England and France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Lastly, Richard II was not murdered at Pontefract Castle. Richard allegedly starved to death in captivity in February of 1400 although there are certain lingering questions about his death, subsequent examinations of Richard’s remains have never pointed to a violent demise.

Analysis
Ironically, Shakespeare’s dramatically themed portrait of Richard II has largely overshadowed the historic persona. By focusing on the very end of Richard’s reign and the thematic undertones of the play, Shakespeare manipulated the story to create a poetically tragic character. That character, however rooted in history it may be, is ultimately a construct in which history is subservient to Shakespeare’s dramatic purpose. Richard II is a grand, lyrical allegory and a poignant exploration of character. But it remains a historical play rather than history.

Sources
Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC’s Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996)


Anne of Bohemia and Her Arrival in England

According to the English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, Anne’s arrival in England was accompanied by an ominous sign. As soon as she disembarked, her ship was smashed to pieces. In spite of all this, the marriage went ahead, and the king is said to have been extremely fond of his wife. Unlike Richard, his subjects were not too pleased with their new queen.

As the years went by, however, they too grew fond of Anne. While litte is known about Anne’s character as a queen, she has been described as being an intelligent and inquisitive young girl. She was also devout, loved reading, and was able to read the Scriptures in three languages. Moreover, she was kind and generous, especially towards the poor. Consequently, her English subjects referred to her fondly as “Good Queen Anne.”

As queen, Anne almost always accompanied Richard on his travels around England. She is said to have exerted a good influence on her husband, and would intercede on behalf of hose who had incurred the king’s wrath. In short, Anne performed the traditional role of a queen. Yet, as a queen, Anne did not produce an heir. The marriage between Richard and Anne was childless, though this did not seem to have been too big an issue at the time. In 1394, twelve years after her marriage to Richard, Anne died, apparently from the plague. Richard is reported to have been so greatly affected by Anne’s death that he ordered the manor where she died to be torn down. In 1395, Richard commissioned a double royal tomb for himself and Anne, the first of its kind in England.

Only two years after Anne’s death, Richard married Isabella of Valois, who was only six years old at the time. This was meant to secure peace with France. The king was willing to wait for his new wife to reach adulthood before he consummated the marriage, though this was not meant to be, as the king would in dead in four years.


Richard II

The future King Richard II was born at the Archbishop's Palace, Bordeaux, Aquitaine, at Epiphany, on 6th January 1367. The product of a first cousin marriage, he was the son of Edward III's eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince and his wife, Joan, Countess of Kent. Joan, known as the 'Fair Maid of Kent', was the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, the youngest of Edward I's sons by his second wife, Margaret of France. This gave Richard a double descent from Edward I, due to previous cousin marriages in his family, his grandparents had also been first cousins, Richard was, therefore, a highly inbred individual.

Richard II from the Wilton Dyptich

His mother, Joan of Kent, has been described as one of the most beautiful and scandalous women of her age. Unusual for the day, Richard's parent's marriage was a genuine love match and not a political alliance. Joan of Kent had previously been married to Thomas Holland and through this former marriage, Richard had half-siblings.

Joan caused quite a scandal by entering into a clandestine marriage with Holland at the age of twelve. The following winter, while her husband was serving abroad, Joan married again to William Montacute, the Earl of Salisbury's heir. When Holland returned to England a few years later, he revealed his secret marriage to Joan and appealed to Pope Clement VI for his wife's return, Joan supported his appeal. Salisbury resorted to keeping her a prisoner in his home. The Pope annulled Joan's marriage to Montacute and ordered to return to Thomas Holland, with whom she lived for the next eleven years. The marriage produced four children.

Richard had an elder brother, Edward of Angouleme, who had died in infancy of bubonic plague, leaving Richard his father's sole heir. Edward, the Black Prince predeceased Edward III, dying of dysentery in June 1376. He had obtained a promise from his father that Richard should succeed him. After his grandfather's death, the ten-year-old Richard was duly crowned at Westminster Abbey on 16 July 1377.

Richard II

His charismatic grandfather and martial father were a hard act to follow. Artistic and sensitive, Richard was a pacifist, not an attitude to endear him to those of his barons who looked back to a heroic past.

Richard is the first English monarch for whom a contemporary painting survives. He was built in the typical Plantagenet mould, around six feet tall, auburn-haired and good-looking, with finely chiselled features and beautiful, long, tapering hands. The chronicler Adam of Usk described him as being ' as beautiful as Absalom.' Richard was also volatile and unstable, brooding and vengeful, and in him, the famed Plantagenet temper boiled into a frenzy.

A description by a Monk of Elvetham relates King Richard was of the common stature, his hair yellowish, his face fair and rosy, rather round than long, and sometimes flushed abrupt and somewhat stammering in his speech, capricious in his manners, and too apt to prefer the recommendations of the young, to the advice of the elder, nobles. He was prodigal in his gifts, extravagantly splendid in his entertainment and dress, timid as to war, very passionate toward his domestics, haughty and too much devoted to voluptuousness. So fond of late hours, that he would sometimes sit up all night drinking."

Richard II during the Peasant's Revolt

The country was governed by Richard's uncle John of Gaunt and a council during his minority. In 1381, when Richard was fourteen, the Peasants Revolt, probably the first socialist movement in English history, broke out in Kent due to simmering resentment of a highly unpopular poll tax. The rebels marched up to London, their leaders, Watt Tyler, Jack Straw and a priest, John Ball, demanded the abolition of serfdom and a pardon for all participants in the uprising. Discontented recruits to the cause were many and their army swelled to what is estimated at around ten thousand.

All those connected with the hated poll tax were summarily executed on the peasants progress to London. John Ball chose as his text :- "When Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The rebels were welcomed by the majority of Londoners and the army camped at Blackheath on 14th June, threatening London.

Watt Tyler met Richard and his terrified retinue at Mile End. The young King's position was precarious and having little choice, he ordered charters drawn up granting all of Tyler's requests. A further meeting was arranged at Smithfield. Tyler attended alone and repeated further demands. Richard wearily conceded to grant them all. Washing out his mouth with water, Tyler proceeded to spit it out in the king's presence, at which Walworth, the Mayor of London, incensed at what he saw as impertinence, stabbed Tyler to death. The rebel army was unclear at what was happening in the distance, seizing the initiative, Richard advanced alone, calling out loudly "I am your King follow me." and led the rebel army away. The revolt was put down with severity, the young king, in a characteristic outburst of venom, wreaked a terrible vengeance and the heads of its leaders were displayed on pikes at London Bridge.

At fifteen, Richard married Anne of Bohemia in St. Stephen's Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Anne was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, and the sister of King Wenceslas of Bohemia. The couple were to become devoted to each other and the queen exercised a moderating influence on her husband but their union produced no issue. King Richard II, like Edward II before him, was unfortunately reckless in his generosity to favourites, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford was raised to a Duke. Anger smouldered and came to a head in 1387 when Richard failed to bring certain of his favourites to trial, he was subjected to force. He was defeated by a rebel army led by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, Gloucester had been joined by John of Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke. At the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388, the Lords Appellant demanded radical changes in the royal household, the execution of the king's principal supporters and de Vere's estates confiscated. The House of Commons feared the King's attempts to undermine the authority of parliament and he was placed under the control of a council. Their intransigence fueled a smouldering desire for revenge in the unstable Richard.

Richard delighted in lavish dress and extravagant jewels. He is popularly credited with introducing the use of the pocket-handkerchief. In common with his ancestor Henry III, he venerated the memory of the Saxon King, Edward the Confessor and adopted his coat of arms, which were quartered with his own.

Tomb of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Westminster Abbey

Tragically, his beloved Queen, Anne, died of the plague in 1394, aged but twenty-eight. Richard's grief was terrible, distraught and emotionally unstabilized, he had Sheen Palace, where Anne had died, razed to the ground. The Queen was buried at Westminster near to St. Edward's shrine. An embarrassing incident marred the funeral service, Richard was angered by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, who had the audacity to arrive late. When he tactlessly asked the King to excuse his attendance, Richard completely lost control. In his passionate grief and fury he seized a wand from one of the vergers and struck Arundel so violently about the head with it that he fell to the ground dazed.

Richard's mental state has long been an issue of historical debate the Victorian historian Bishop Stubbs has stated that towards the end of his reign, Richard's mind "was losing its balance altogether". Historian Anthony Steel, who wrote a full-scale biography of the king in 1941, took a psychiatric approach to the issue, and concluded that the king suffered from schizophrenia. This opinion was challenged by V.H. Galbraith, who argued that there was no historical basis for such a diagnosis, a line that has also been followed by later historians of the period, like Anthony Goodman and Anthony Tuck. Nigel Saul, who wrote the most recent academic biography on Richard II, concedes that - even though there is no basis for assuming the king had a mental illness - he showed clear signs of a narcissistic personality, and towards the end of his reign "Richard's grasp on reality was becoming weaker".

Two years after Anne's death, Richard married again, taking Isabella of Valois, the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI of France, as his second wife. Richard treated her with great kindness and they were to become extremely fond of each other.

Richard II and Isabella of Valois

Richard's brooding on past slights culminated with his taking action with ruthless suddenness in 1397. His old opponents were placed under arrest and his uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, was murdered. He exiled his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who was one of the five Lords Appellant, in 1399. On John of Gaunt's death, the following year, Richard disinherited Henry and confiscated the vast Lancastrian estates.

Henry reacted by invading England, landing at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, on the pretext of recovering his estates, but in reality, he intended to seize his cousin's throne. Richard, in Ireland at the time, sailed to Wales. The King met Henry's representatives at Conway Castle and was informed that if he restored Henry's estates and surrendered certain councillors for trial, he could remain in power. He agreed but was betrayed and instead of being returned to power found himself the inhabitant of a dungeon in the Tower.

A Parliament was called at the end of September, at which Henry claimed the throne. Richard was declared a tyrant and deposed. He was taken up to Pontefract Castle, in Yorkshire and there it is certain, he met his end around the second week in February 1400. Although Henry of Lancaster may have been prepared to let Richard live, the situation changed when it was discovered that the earls of Huntingdon, Kent and Salisbury and Lord Despenser, and possibly also the Earl of Rutland, were planning to murder the new king and restore Richard in the Epiphany Rising. Although averted, the plot highlighted the danger to Henry of allowing Richard to live. His body was taken south from Pontefract and displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral on 17 February before burial in Kings Langley Church on 6 March. His skeleton was examined in 1871 by Dean Stanley of Westminster but showed no marks of violence. Starvation was the most likely cause, although this has never been proven.

After being displayed at St. Paul's, Richard's body was buried in King's Langley Church, Hertfordshire. His child queen, Isabelle of France mourned him deeply and sincerely. Henry IV wished to form an alliance between herself and his eldest son, Henry, now Prince of Wales, but loyal to the memory of her husband, she was inflexible in refusing to even contemplate it. Isabelle was eventually returned to her father in France. She was married to Charles of Angouleme and tragically died in childbirth.

Richard II's body was later moved to Westminster Abbey by Bolingbroke's successor, Henry V, who had been close to him in his boyhood, there it was reburied beside his beloved first wife, Anne of Bohemia. The tomb was opened in 1871 during restoration work to the abbey. There were no marks of violence on Richard's skull and even some of the teeth were preserved. A staff, sceptre, part of the ball, two pairs of royal gloves, and fragments of their peaked shoes remained. Several relics which seem to have taken from the tomb opening in 1871, were recently discovered in a cigarette box in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery. The contents of the box, dated 31 August 1871, included fragments of wood, some fabric, and a piece of leather from one of the gloves.


Historical Variances

Shakespeare starts with Holinshed's account of the last two years of Richard's reign, so the overall story is narrowly focused from the onset. The feud between Bolingbroke and Mowbray closely follows Holinshed's account. The compression of time and events is especially notable in the second act, when John of Gaunt dies, Richard leaves for Ireland, and Henry Bolingbroke returns from exile in rapid succession. What Shakespeare presents as occurring over the course of one scene actually took months to unfold. Likewise, the play shortens the time between Richard's surrender, subsequent trial in London, and the abdication&mdashand Richard may not have been as easily persuaded to relinquish the crown as Shakespeare would have us believe.

Shakespeare changes a few ages here and there. Northumberland's son, Henry Percy, is presented as much younger in Shakespeare's play, and Henry Bolingbroke's son, Hal&mdashthe future Henry V&mdashis presented as much older. Also, Richard's queen, Isabel, is an adult in Shakespeare's story, whereas in reality, Isabella of Valois was a child bride who was married to Richard in 1396 at the age of six, largely to broker some peace between England and France during the Hundred Years' War.

Lastly, Richard II was not murdered at Pontefract Castle. Richard allegedly starved to death in captivity in February of 1400 although there are certain lingering questions about his death, subsequent examinations of Richard's remains have never pointed to a violent demise.


John Wycliffe

Religious unrest was another subversive factor under Richard II. England had been virtually free from heresy until John Wycliffe, a priest and an Oxford scholar, began his career as a religious reformer with two treatises in 1375–76. He argued that the exercise of lordship depended on grace and that, therefore, a sinful man had no right to authority. Priests and even the pope himself, Wycliffe went on to argue, might not necessarily be in a state of grace and thus would lack authority. Such doctrines appealed to anticlerical sentiments and brought Wycliffe into direct conflict with the church hierarchy, although he received protection from John of Gaunt. The beginning of the Great Schism in 1378 gave Wycliffe fresh opportunities to attack the papacy, and in a treatise of 1379 on the Eucharist he openly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He was ordered before a church court at Lambeth in 1378. In 1380 his views were condemned by a commission of theologians at Oxford, and he was forced to leave the university. At Lutterworth he continued to write voluminously until his death in 1384. The movement he inspired was known as Lollardy. Two of his followers translated the Bible into English, and others went out to spread Wycliffe’s doctrines, which soon became debased and popularized. The movement continued to expand despite the death of its founder and the government’s attempts to destroy it.


Thomas Holand – Richard II’s King of Ireland?

In June 1541 King Henry VIII began to style himself ‘king of Ireland’, abandoning the title of ‘lord’ which English kings had used for four centuries. It has long been assumed that the English kings from Henry II to Henry VII were content to rule Ireland as lords, but the events of the later years of the reign of Richard II show that this may not have been the case. In order to understand the significance of Richard’s designs for Ireland in the 1390s, it is first necessary to consider the origins of English overlordship.

‘Lords of Ireland’

In 1155 Henry II received the bull Laudabiliter from Pope Adrian IV—the first and only English occupant of Peter’s chair—mandating him to assert his overlordship in Ireland, in the cause of bringing its eccentric church customs into line with those of the Latin west. By way of encouragement in this enterprise, Adrian also sent Henry an emerald ring for the investiture of Ireland’s putative conqueror. However, Henry was a reluctant conqueror, and both papal bull and emerald ring lay unused for sixteen years, until the dramatic polarisation in Irish politics caused by the stormy career of Dermot Macmurrough, king of Leinster. Henry II’s alarm at the violence raging in Ireland in the late 1160s was heightened by the role of some of his own subjects, especially a group of Anglo-Norman adventurers, headed by Richard de Clare (the famous ‘Strongbow’), who had been recruited by Dermot to aid him in his wars against Rory O’Connor, king of Connacht.
Henry II’s great expedition of 1171–2 did much to lay the foundations of English domination, but the question of the nature of the royal title remained a matter of ambiguity.

Although popularly referred to as ‘the coronation portrait’, this was in fact painted c. 1395, when Richard II adopted the invented armorial bearings of Edward the Confessor as his own. (Westminster Hall)

Henry may have long cherished the addition of ‘king of Ireland’ to his already impressive string of dignities, and he certainly believed that this is what Adrian IV had intended. However, by the 1170s Pope Alexander III was unwilling to sanction the creation of a new kingdom, and, moreover, Ireland already had a high king (albeit a far from undisputed one) in the person of Rory O’Connor of Connacht. However, Henry was less concerned with the semantics of styling than with the realities of power, and in the Treaty of Windsor of 1175 he accepted Rory as high king of the Irish, but as his own sub-king—a title contingent on his good behaviour. When Henry’s son John, the future king, was sent to Ireland at his father’s expense in 1185, he went as ‘lord of Ireland’. Thus until 1541 the kings of England were, by ‘the grace of God’ and by the terminological imprecision of Adrian IV, ‘lords of Ireland’.
However, the failure of the Angevins to establish a separate kingdom did not deter challengers from emulating the career of Rory O’Connor and aspiring to the high kingship of Ireland. In the 1250s Brian O’Neill proffered his own claim, but undoubtedly the most dangerous of the pretenders was Edward Bruce, brother of Robert, king of the Scots. His coronation as king of Ireland, in May 1316, inaugurated a reign of fratricidal and murderous violence which came to an abrupt end at Dundalk, the very place of his coronation, on 14 October 1318. In 1374 O’Brien of Thomond attempted to resurrect the high kingship in his own person, but the claim came to nothing.

More active English royal engagement

However, the second half of the fourteenth century heralded a more active English royal engagement in Ireland. In 1361 Edward III had sent his second son, Lionel, to govern Ireland as his lieutenant. Married to Elizabeth, heiress of the defunct de Burgh earls of Ulster, Lionel transmitted his father’s authority both through the official channels of the Dublin bureaucracy and through his wife’s kinship networks until his death in 1369. Whereas Edward, prince of Wales, had been advanced from duke to prince of Aquitaine, his brother Lionel had remained duke of Clarence and earl of Ulster. Also, there is no indication that Edward III considered alienating the lordship of Ireland to his son.

Wilton Diptych, painted c.1395–9. Richard II is depicted as a much younger man, kneeling before his three favourite saints (left to right)-St Edmund the Martyr, St Edward the Confessor and St John the Baptist.

After Lionel’s death the earldom of Ulster and the lieutenancy passed into the hands of his son-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, who held the office until his death in 1381. For the first few years of the reign of Richard II the governance of Ireland was carried on through the lieutenancy, but, owing to the extreme youth of the Mortimer heir, Earl Roger, the office was held by a succession of English noblemen and royal servants.
This suddenly changed in 1385, when Richard II created his favourite, Robert de Vere, marquess of Dublin and, in the following year, duke of Ireland. The 27-year-old de Vere was already earl of Oxford, but his landed inheritance was a woefully depleted holding in Essex, and he had no pre-existing connection with the country of which he was now not merely duke but also full palatine lord. It would seem that Richard II had decided to afford his friend (and alleged lover) the plenitude of power that Henry II had envisaged for John in 1177. Whereas Edward Bruce was destroyed by his subjects, de Vere had virtually no contact at all with the Irish, and during his brief rule he governed entirely through his appointees to Dublin bureaucracy. However, the English chronicler Thomas Walsingham—a source with a keen ear for gossip—claims that, but for the universal hatred of de Vere within the English political community, Richard II would have made a king of his duke. Quite how de Vere would have been received as king of Ireland can never be known, as he ended his days as a forfeited traitor and exile in Louvain in 1392.
The fall of Robert de Vere in 1388 marked the reversion to the conventional mechanisms of rule through the royal lieutenant, but the manner of the duke’s destruction left Richard with a lingering sense of bitterness against Ireland’s most powerful dynasty, the Mortimer earls of March and Ulster. Throughout the campaign of the lords appellant against Richard II, the Mortimer estates had been under the administration of a trust headed by the king’s most hated enemy, the earl of Arundel. The link-man between Arundel and the Mortimer connection in Wales and Ireland was Sir Thomas Mortimer, who, although an illegitimate cadet of the family, was its effective chief and steward of its estates. In November 1387 the army raised by Arundel and his friends was almost certainly funded from the revenues of the Mortimer inheritance, as the payments of cash by Thomas Mortimer can be traced in the surviving household records. In 1390 Arundel strengthened his connections with the Mortimers through his marriage to Philippa, sister of the young Earl Roger. Although Richard made no immediate move to punish his enemies once he had regained power in 1389, it is undoubtedly the case that he did not forget the involvement of the Mortimers in his humiliation and in the destruction of his friends, especially de Vere.

Richard II’s 1394 expedition to Ireland

Richard II’s expedition to Ireland in 1394 was the first by an English king since that of John in 1210. The sudden reawakening of Richard’s personal interest in Ireland is difficult to explain, as only two years previously he had considered using its lieutenancy as a means of keeping his hated uncle and recent enemy, Duke Thomas of Gloucester, away from court.

King of Leinster, Art Macmurrough (right), sallies forth to parley with Thomas, earl of Gloucester (left), Richard II’s envoy on his second (1399) Irish campaign. From the illustrated eye witness account of the campaign by Jean Creton. (British Library)

By the early 1390s the vacuum of English royal authority was such that Art Macmurrough, king of Leinster, had free rein to pursue his quarrels, and especially to erode the lordship of the young earl of Ulster, who had only recently come of age. The scale of Richard II’s intervention, at the head of at least 7000 men, and its duration, from October 1394 to May 1395, enabled him to secure the submission of the leading Irish princes, including Macmurrough himself, who at one point had been pursued into the night with only a shirt to preserve his kingly dignity. But Richard had also succeeded in achieving a significant political realignment by delivering to the Irish the disinterested justice that they could not obtain through the established judicial system dominated by the crown’s servants and the vested interests of the English nobility. A major consequence of this intervention was to marginalise the royal lieutenant, Roger Mortimer, who was doubtless counting on royal help to recover some of his family’s authority in Ulster. When Richard II set sail for England in May 1395, he left behind his friend Sir William Scrope as justiciar—as much for the surveillance of Mortimer as for the upholding of the agreements with the Irish princes.
Richard II’s fateful return to Ireland, in the late spring of 1399, has long been identified as the window of opportunity that allowed Henry of Lancaster to usurp the throne of England. By the end of 1397 Richard II had wrought vengeance upon the men who had humiliated him ten years previously. Gloucester and Arundel were dead, Warwick was imprisoned for life on the Isle of Man, and their heirs had been disinherited in perpetuity. However, the political situation in Ireland had deteriorated gravely since the expedition of 1394–5. In Ulster Niall Mor O’Neill was at war with the Mortimer earl and was clamouring for royal protection, while Art Macmurrough was making hay in the sunshine of royal absence.

Thomas Holand

But what really transformed the political situation in Ireland was Roger Mortimer’s slaying, at Kellistown, on 20 July 1398. By this time Mortimer was a marked man, and in reality he would have been little safer back in England. On 27 July, and still apparently unaware of Mortimer’s death, Richard II issued letters dismissing him from the lieutenancy of Ireland. In his place Richard appointed his nephew—and the brother of the widowed countess of March and Ulster—Thomas Holand. If we are to believe the chronicler Adam Usk, a well-connected lawyer whose Oxford education had been funded by the Mortimer family, Holand had already been sent to Ireland to arrest his brother-in-law.

The tower of Mountgrace priory, Northallerton, Yorkshire, added c.1415 by Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, the second founder of the priory. Thomas Holand’s initial foundation of 1398 was intended to pray for the souls of King Richard II, Queen Isabella, Holand himself and his uncle John Holand, duke of Exeter. The three men all perished in 1400 after Henry IV’s usurpation. (Andy King)

Thomas Holand was Richard II’s nephew, the son of his half-brother, Thomas, earl of Kent, who had died in 1397. Throughout the 1380s and 1390s Richard II had been very close to his elder half-brother Thomas, whom he had appointed constable of the Tower of London. In spite of this proximity to Richard, the elder Thomas Holand had not been a political man, and by the time of his death in April 1397 he had been living a leisurely existence for many years. Even before Thomas Holand the younger had succeeded to his father’s honours in 1397, he had been marked out for royal favour. By 1395 he was already in receipt of a 200 mark annuity, enough to enable a 24-year-old to cut a reasonable dash at court. That same year the king allowed the Holand family to quarter their arms with those of his beloved saint, Edward the Confessor, a special mark of favour. But what really transformed Holand’s fortunes was Richard II’s destruction of his enemies in September 1397.
Although Holand had only recently inherited the earldom of Kent and a handsome landed inheritance worth at least £2000 annually, his support for Richard II earned him the newly created dukedom of Surrey, and one of the finest spoils of the recent royal triumph—Warwick Castle and its estates. If Richard had hoped to establish his nephew as a great power in the West Midlands, then events in Ireland completely changed his plans. From the autumn of 1398 Thomas Holand, the new lieutenant of Ireland, saw nothing more of his recently acquired English honours but started to play a role on a much larger stage. In his 1997 biography of Richard II Nigel Saul described Holand’s role as ‘an interim one’ and relegated Holand to the status of a ‘stalking horse’ for Richard himself. But a closer examination of the grants made to Holand show that Richard was planning a far more significant role for his nephew. Saul tells us that Holand was not endowed with great estates in Ireland—in fact he was entrusted with the keeping, rent-free, of all the Mortimer estates, including the lordships of Ulster and Trim, for the duration of the minority of the infant earl of March and Ulster, who would not in fact attain his majority until 1413. More significant still was the royal order of 22 January 1399 empowering Thomas Holand to accept all the homages due to the English king for the remainder of his term as lieutenant.
Traditionally, this appointment has been regarded as a forerunner to Richard II’s own return to Ireland, by which time the preparations for the crossing were well under way. Richard II landed at Waterford on 1 June 1399, and it has long been accepted that the purpose of the mission was to bring to heel those Irish princes who had broken their submissions of 1394–5. But an examination of the hitherto neglected indentures for the army of 1399 show that it numbered about 3000, less than half the size of that which he had brought with him four years before. Even more striking is the composition of the army’s leadership—three dukes (including Thomas Holand), three earls, and all five captains of the king’s bodyguard. This was a gallant company, to say the least.

Preparations for a coronation?

In his chronicle Adam Usk offered a dramatically different explanation for the expedition—that it was intended to pave the way for the coronation of Thomas Holand as king of Ireland, in the Great Hall of Dublin Castle, on 13 October 1399. Usk’s claim has long been ignored by historians, but a compelling corroboration can be found in a set of accounts in the London Public Record Office, relating to Holand’s Irish lieutenancy. On 16 May and 17 June 1399, Robert de Farrington, the treasurer of Ireland, received £139 and £40 of royal funds from Thomas Holand, described as ‘that noble prince’, ‘for the work at Dublin Castle and the great hall of the same’. On 22 May, while preparations for the royal crossing were at their height, a clerk of Thomas Holand’s called William Glyn received from the treasury a consignment of jewels, valued at £200, which his uncle, the executed earl of Arundel, had lodged with his sister, the countess of Kent, Holand’s own mother, at the time of his arrest and trial. The most striking object in the collection is a coronet, which was a famous possession of Holand’s maternal grandfather, the great financier and wool magnate earl of Arundel, who had died in 1376.
Are these the preparations for the coronation of a king of Ireland in the Great Hall of Dublin Castle? Sadly we have only these fragments of evidence, but the concordance of Usk’s claims and the financial records cannot be ignored. Of course, Thomas Holand never had his day in Dublin Castle, as news reached Richard II in early July 1399 of the landing of Henry of Lancaster, the event which precipitated the collapse of his kingship. The capture of Richard II in Wales in the middle of August 1399, and his subsequent deposition, is a well-known story, but what became of the putative king of Ireland?

Epiphany Rising débâcle

Like Richard II’s other closest allies, Thomas Holand was brought to account for his complicity in the king’s actions in the final two years of his reign. He suffered the loss of all that he had gained under Richard’s patronage since 1397, but his very considerable inherited wealth and honours, including his earldom of Kent, remained intact. Although Richard II’s other leading allies forfeited their promoted titles, Thomas Holand lost more than all of the others if his expectations in Ireland are taken into account. Perhaps this is why Thomas Holand and his uncle, John, earl of Huntingdon, were the prime movers behind the abortive re-adeption of Richard II in January 1400. The débâcle of the Epiphany Rising of 1400 sealed the fate of the captive Richard, while his chief advocates met violent deaths at the hands of ordinary Englishmen. Thomas Holand and the principal group of conspirators were lynched by the townsmen of Cirencester, where they had fled after a failed attempt to assassinate Henry IV during the New Year celebrations at Windsor Castle. Holand’s head, together those of the other leading Ricardians, was displayed on London Bridge, while his trunk was buried at Cirencester Abbey, where he had met his end. After three months of grisly display, Holand’s head was returned to his widow, Joan, for burial with his remains.
The final resting-place of Ireland’s king-who-never-was is far removed from the dramatic scenes of his meteoric rise and fall. In February 1398 Holand had been granted a licence to found a priory for the Carthusian Order at Mountgrace, beneath the Cleveland Hills, not far from the Yorkshire town of Northallerton. At Holand’s death the priory was incomplete, but by the time of his reburial there, in 1412, its buildings are likely to have been well advanced. To this day the remains of the 23 individual cells, in which the monks lived alone, can be seen at Mountgrace, although no traces of Holand’s tomb remain. Perhaps the most telling sign of the pride that his family had invested in his foundation was the remarkable water supply, fed from a nearby spring, covered with a stone building, and feeding into a dedicated water-tower in the cloister.
In the fifteenth century the English crown’s interest in Ireland waned, and royal authority was mediated through the well-established administrative channels. Although Mortimer blood flowed richly in the veins of Richard of York, the royal lieutenant in the late 1440s, no further experiments were made to alter the title of English royal overlordship until the time of Henry VIII.
Did Richard II really plan to install his nephew as king of Ireland? He was certainly not afraid to make grand gestures, and had already conferred the palatinate lordship of Ireland on an alien in 1385. In 1397 he made a principality of his favourite county of Chester, and endowed it with the trappings of a high steward and constable, and even its own herald. An investiture in the Great Hall of Dublin Castle would have satisfied his tastes for political ceremony and drama, and would have been a grand culmination to his second expedition of 1399, much as the princes’ submissions had been four years before. Whatever the exact nature of Richard’s plans, the vanished tomb at Mountgrace Priory once held the remains of a man whose political destiny had lain far to the west.

Alastair Dunn is Research Associate at the Department of History, University of Durham.


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