It was the summer of 1377, and the old king was dead. His grandson, a boy of just 10 years old, succeeded him as Richard II.
Richard’s reign would end with his violent overthrow and the Plantagenet succession split between two separate branches (York and Lancaster). His downfall cast a dark cloud over the English crown for years to come and set a very dangerous precedent. It is no exaggeration to say that the underlying causes of the Wars of the Roses can be traced back to events in Richard’s reign.
But how and why did Richard become so unpopular as to incite open rebellion? And how and why did his downfall confuse and poison the whole issue of the royal succession for generations to come? This article explores the first half of Richard’s tragic reign as we search for answers to these questions.
If you missed the first article in this series (which introduces the story and covers the last years of Edward III’s reign), you can read it here.
A new regime
As the new Ricardian regime dawned, no one could have predicted the tumultuous times ahead. Even so, it was apparent that the kingdom faced some serious challenges in 1377.
The first and most obvious of these challenges were that Richard was just 10. He was clearly far too young and inexperienced to rule in the same way as an adult king. But how then should he rule?
One answer was to appoint a regent. But the obvious candidate for a regency was his uncle, Edward III’s eldest surviving son – John of Gaunt. Gaunt was a highly experienced statesman. He’d been a dominant force in English politics during the latter years of his father’s reign. However, he was also unpopular, and a large section of the nobility was wary of his ambition.
Then we have the ongoing conflict with France in the Hundred Years’ War. How could such a war be prosecuted with a boy king? Would the French seek to take advantage?
Finally, we have the question of financing. The wars with France were expensive and even providing enough money to defend English territories represented a major ongoing commitment.
The king’s council
To avoid a John of Gaunt regency, the English magnates came up with a fudge. They decided that Richard should rule with the ‘guidance’ of a continual council. The council initially consisted of 9 members representing a mix of statesmen drawn from the English establishment. Several on the council had strong links to John of Gaunt, men like Ralph Ergham, the Bishop of Salisbury. However, to counterbalance this, men less well disposed to Gaunt were also included. Most notable of these was William de Courtenay, the Bishop of London.
Even though formally excluded from the council, Gaunt would nevertheless exert a significant influence over government. He exercised his will indirectly through his political allies such as Ralph Ergham and Richard le Scrope. Gaunt acted as regent in all but name.
France and finance
The death of Edward III disrupted English plans for renewed fighting in the Hundred Years’ War.
Fortunately, similar issues also distracted the French. The French king, Charles V, was unable to muster the necessary support (especially by way of taxes) to finance a major offensive war against the English. He was also preoccupied by a schism in the Catholic Church that involved the French clergy. Finally, in 1380, Charles himself died, and the new French king, Charles VI, was another boy king, much the same age as Richard.
Nevertheless, with war debts to service and garrisons in France to maintain, the English needed money.
In November 1380, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, parliament authorised a new poll tax. By this time Richard II was considered old enough to rule in his own name. However, although he was king and Sudbury was Chancellor, many believed Gaunt’s influence was still driving policy.
There had been poll taxes before (in 1377 and 1379) but the tax proposed in 1380 was to be the largest and most painful yet devised.
Even before the poll tax, the lower classes had some significant grievances. The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century depopulated England to the extent that it created a serious labour shortage. This led to wage inflation. However, the landowning classes had successfully petitioned parliament to impose a wage freeze, in the form of the 1351 Statute of Labourers.
These laws were hard to enforce, although when implemented, they always seemed to penalise the poor most harshly. Added to this, in the 1360s came sumptuary laws. These aimed to prevent lower class people from wearing clothing and adopting fashions deemed to be ‘above their station’.
With the new poll tax in the mix, the people reached breaking point. The counties of Kent and Essex rose in rebellion.
The Peasants’ Revolt
A large mob of peasants, led by Wat Tyler, marched on London, seeking to bring their complaints directly to the king. Whipped up by a firebrand sermon delivered on Blackheath by John Ball, the mob stormed London. Ministers most closely associated with the poll tax and other prominent people linked to John of Gaunt were their targets.
The mob sacked Gaunt’s London residence, the Savoy Palace, although Gaunt himself was not in London at the time. They then hunted down and killed unpopular notaries such as Richard Lyons (a former Privy Councillor with close ties to Gaunt), Archbishop Sudbury (Lord Chancellor) and Sir Robert Hales (Admiral of England).
The young King Richard met with the mob at Clerkenwell fields. Things looked like they might spiral out of control when a struggle broke out in which Wat Tyler was slain. Nevertheless, Richard himself somehow managed to placate the mob by addressing them in person and making several concessions. With their leader dead, compromises seemingly made and the threat of a mobilised London militia to contend with, the mob dispersed.
The Peasants’ Revolt was over.
The bloody assize
The revolt had seriously damaged Gaunt’s reputation. By contrast, Richard’s personal success in dispersing the rebels, bolstered his political capital and doubtless fuelled his teenage ego.
The young king, now 14, began to take a much more active role in the affairs of government. As it turned out, Richard had no intention of keeping any of the promises he’d made to the rebels. Instead, he devoted his energy to hunting down the rebel ring leaders and executing them.
Richard’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, was tasked with restoring order. He accompanied the king to Essex where they conducted what became known as a ‘bloody assize’. Tresilian ruthlessly pursued rebel ringleaders, sometimes pressuring juries and trumping up charges to get the desired results. In all nineteen rebels were hung, drawn, and quartered.
It was a grim portent of things to come.
Tresilian was just one of an emerging group of ‘new men’ who would come to wield considerable influence at Richard II’s court. They were men largely drawn from outside the grandees of the ranking nobility. Men like Sir Simon de Burley, the King’s former tutor and an old retainer of the Black Prince. Michael de la Pole, who came from a family of wealthy wool merchants, and the young earl of Oxford, Robert de Vere, only a few years older that the King himself.
Despite their relative inexperience, lack of high noble rank and, in some cases, youth, this inner circle quickly acquired impressive titles, power and wealth.
Sir Simon Burley became Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle.
Michael de la Pole helped arrange the young king’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382. This was despite the match being unpopular with the establishment. To further rub salt into the wound, Richard appointed de la Pole, a common merchant, Chancellor in 1383 and granted him the Earldom of Suffolk in 1385.
Perhaps, the most meteoric rise all was reserved for the young Robert de Vere. Richard made him Marquess of Dublin in 1385 and later elevated him to the Dukedom of Ireland, a promotion in rank that was virtually unprecedented for such a young and inexperienced member of the lesser nobility.
Lords of the bedchamber
Richard II’s clique did much to encourage the young king to ignore the great lords of the land and take his own council with his friends. They were particularly hostile to the influence of John of Gaunt, but it was not only Gaunt whose position they sought to undermine. The king’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock and the Earl of Arundel both found their past martial efforts openly mocked by Richard and his courtiers.
To make matters worse, the court clique quickly acquired a reputation for drinking, carousing and debauchery. In the Christmas feast of 1386, de la Pole (now the Earl of Suffolk) reclined at the table drinking and feasting in a toga. There were even rumours of a homosexual liaison between Richard and Robert de Vere. Whether this was true or not, de Vere certainly embroiled himself in some very public sex scandals. Most notoriously, he abandoned his wife, a granddaughter of Edward III, for the bedchamber of one of the queen’s Bohemian ladies in waiting.
The chronicler Walsingham summed up the poor reputation of the king’s favourites when he wrote:
“more knights of Venus than of Bellona, worthier in the chamber than in the field, sharper in tongue than in lance.”Thomas Walsingham
Richard’s court was very different from that of his grandfather Edward III. Gone were the old soldiers and the grand lords making sober plans for conquest and glory on the continent. In came the young carousers and social upstarts, more interested in revelries, personal fortune seeking and conquests in the bedchamber.
The fact that he was, after all, a fatherless teenage boy with incredible personal wealth can probably explain many of the excesses of Richard II’s court. Given such circumstances, should we really be that surprised by the culture of late-night parties and material largesse that flourished at his court?
Over time Richard II formulated a vision of kingship quite different from anything England had seen before. His success in handling the Peasants’ Revolt perhaps played a role in convincing the young King that he always knew best. Certainly, Richard began to become obsessed with the special primacy of his regal powers.
Above all Richard strived to promote an image of a grand and magnificent monarchy. And so he set about commissioning artworks, building projects and acquiring an extensive collection of jewels, fine clothing and other riches.
By the end of his reign the inventory of jewels and plate belonging to Richard was recorded on a treasure roll fully 28 metres long. This glittering horde was worth £209,000 by 1400 (equivalent to £128 billion in modern terms).
Richard had a keen sense of history and took a particular interest in the fate of his great-grandfather, Edward II. Richard believed that his subjects had greatly wronged and betrayed Edward and, enthusiastically campaigned to have his ancestor canonised as a martyr. He believed that Edward II’s fall had sorely eroded the powers of kings in England; a situation he dreamed of putting right.
Richard wins his spurs
By the mid-1380s the French had forged an alliance with the Scots. Despatching an expeditionary force to Scotland, they hoped to tie down English resources and prevent any future interference on the continent.
For Richard, it was an opportunity to prove his mettle as a military leader. Given the potential danger, it was easy enough to persuade parliament to finance a military expedition.
In 1385 Richard marched north and invaded Scotland at the head of a grand army. However, it soon became clear that things weren’t going to plan. The Scots adopted a scorched earth policy and refused to give battle. Richard’s army got as far north as Edinburgh, then occupied and pillaged the city. However, despite advancing so far north, they still hadn’t managed to defeat the Scots. And now Richard’s army found itself running dangerously low on provisions.
With no immediate prospect of forcing a decisive outcome, Richard decided to order his army to return south, much to the chagrin of many of his lords.
John of Gaunt strongly advocated continuance of the campaign until such time as they forced a decisive battle of some sort. However, there was no indication that this would have been possible and, with supplies running so low, Richard’s decision may well have represented the more practical course. Richard can also be credited for showing genuine concern for his troops. According to one chronicler, Richard told Gaunt and the other hawks:
“…though you and the other lords might have plenty of food for yourselves, the rest, the humbler, and lowlier members of our army, would certainly not find such a wealth of victuals as would prevent their dying of hunger”Westminster Chronicle
Despite the mediocre results, Richard returned south claiming a glorious victory. With a typical sense of theatre, he made a point of draping his battle standard over the tomb of Edward the Confessor on his return.
But the truth was the entire venture appeared to most people to have been a costly fiasco. To make matters worse, almost as soon as the English army returned south, the Scots followed and began raiding across the border again.
Ultimately the Franco-Scots alliance failed only because the two sides fell out. The French wanted to incite a long, draining war that would tie up English resources. However, the prospect of a long war with England held no more appeal for the Scots king, Robert II, than it did for Richard.
Although the feared Franco-Scots invasion never materialised, one uncomfortable fact stood out. Richard’s failure to achieve a notable victory in the campaign sat in stark contrast to the glorious triumphs of his father and grandfather.
Gaunt’s influence declines
As the 1380s wore on, the relationship between Richard’s court and John of Gaunt deteriorated. The king’s courtiers continued to work to undermine his position. At one time Gaunt had to rebuff accusations that he was plotting against the King; accusations voiced by a friar who was a known associate of de Vere. Gaunt even took the precaution of wearing a breastplate under his gown when visiting the king, for fear of assassination.
Sometime during the mid-1380s (possibly in 1386) Richard may have expressed a preference for Roger Mortimer as his heir in parliament. There is no surviving parliamentary record of this, so the king may have only stated an informal preference rather than making a definitive pronouncement. Either way, the aim was likely to further undermine John of Gaunt (who was Richard’s heir according to Edward III’s will).
In 1386 Gaunt left England to pursue his claims to the throne of Castile. Richard II openly encouraged this and made positive noises about supporting Gaunt’s claims. He probably saw it as a mutually agreeable way to manoeuvre Gaunt out of the English political arena.
However, Gaunt’s absence did nothing to defuse tensions between the court and the ranking members of the English nobility. Whilst there were many who were pleased to see Gaunt’s influence diminished, they were far from happy with what appeared to be replacing it.
William de Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been one of the most outspoken of Gaunt’s political opponents during the 1370s. But by the mid-1380s he was becoming increasingly uneasy with the behaviour of Richard’s court. When he voiced his concerns, the young king flew into a violent rage. The archbishop was not injured, but the experience demonstrated just how volatile Richard could be.
In October 1386, things finally came to a head. Michael de la Pole, the newly created Earl of Suffolk, came to parliament with demands for large tax increases. Ostensibly, these were to finance the defence of England against the threat of renewed French aggression. However, the demands for more money, coming as they did on the back of several years of excess at the king’s court and the fiasco of the Scottish campaign, created uproar.
Parliament responded, not only by refusing to consider Richard’s requests but also by petitioning for the dismissal of the chancellor, the treasurer, and several other key ministers. Richard was furious. He scornfully rejected the petition, saying that he would not dismiss so much as a kitchen scullion at parliament’s request.
Adding fuel to the fire, he promoted his favourite, Robert de Vere, to the illustrious rank of Duke of Ireland with vice-regal powers. Richard was no doubt well aware that the wider nobility would disapprove. The message to parliament could not be clearer – the king intended to do precisely what the king wished, and parliament should do as it was told.
With Gaunt absent, parliament now looked to one of the king’s other uncles, Thomas of Woodstock (now Duke of Gloucester), for leadership. Gloucester had increasingly been styling himself as an opponent of the court clique. However, his style was more abrasive and provocative than his more politically astute brother. The stage was set for an unpleasant confrontation.
The king’s powers
Gloucester and Thomas Arundel, the Bishop of Ely went to the King to negotiate with him on parliament’s behalf. Arundel forcefully reminded the king of the important role played by the English parliament and that, if the worst came to the worst, the traditional customs of England allowed for the replacement of an unsuitable king with another of royal blood.
Initially Richard seemed to concede to the demands of parliament. De la Pole was removed and replaced by Bishop Arundel. Parliament appointed a Great Council to govern on behalf of the king for a period of twelve months. Parliament even went so far as to imprison de la Pole, accusing him of failing to attend to his duties and misuse of funds.
However, no soon had parliament imagined it had successfully brought the wayward young monarch to heel, than Richard started going back on his word. He had de la Pole released by Christmas and showed little sign of paying much attention to the will of the new council.
Richard used his Chief Justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, to convene a council of judges to provide a legal ruling as to the prerogatives of the king. This council asserted that the King had the power to summon and dismiss his ministers at will and that parliament had no power to interfere. It further ruled that any attempt to interfere with the king’s regal powers was tantamount to treason.
Richard now felt he had the legal basis to summon a parliament, dismiss the Great Council and punish those most responsible for its establishment. In the autumn of 1387 he returned to London, determined to assert his royal authority.
The Lords Appellant
The architects of the Great Council now knew that confrontation was inevitable. On 17th November 1387 the King’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, along with Richard Fitzalan (Earl of Arundel and brother of Bishop Arundel) and Thomas de Beauchamp (Earl of Warwick) rode to Westminster with 300 men-at-arms to face the king.
The three lords came before the king in full armour and invoked an ancient legal procedure known as ‘the appeal’. Under this law it was possible for them to initiate a prosecution of the king’s unpopular favourites. They accused a total of five of the king’s courtiers of treason – Robert de Vere, Michael de la Pole, Sir Robert Tresilian, Nicholas Brembre and Archbishop Neville. Under the rules of this antique chivalric law, the three lords challenged the accused men to prove their guilt or innocence by personal combat.
In particular, the three lords alleged that Richard’s favourites were…
“…false traitors to and enemies of the king and kingdom, perceiving the tender age of our said lord the king and the innocence of his royal person, so caused him to believe many falsities devised and plotted by them against loyalty and good faith, that they caused him to devote his affection, firm faith, and credence entirely to them, and to hate his loyal lords and lieges, by whom he ought rather to have been governed.”The appeal of the Lords Appellant, February 1388 (C 65/47, m.8)
Richard did not lose his temper on this occasion but instead referred the matter to a parliament to be called for the new year. He then dismissed the three lords whilst he considered his next move.
By virtue of the law invoked, Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick would become known as the Lords Appellant.
The King had no intention of allowing the Lords Appellant the opportunity to undermine his regal prerogative. And so, De Vere was despatched to Cheshire to raise an army to enforce the king’s will.
The Lords Appellant, aware of the danger, based themselves in Huntingdon to recruit their own army. Two other notable members of the nobility and their retinues joined their ranks. The new recruits were Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and Thomas Mowbray, the Earl of Nottingham. They soon began to attract support from the wider nobility. Sir Thomas Mortimer threw in his lot with them on behalf of the Mortimer family, and they attracted much support from the eastern counties.
The showdown came of 20th December. De Vere led his army south to join the king but was intercepted by the Appellants at Radcot Bridge. The Royalists were only slightly outnumbered but were nevertheless decisively defeated. The victorious rebels then marched south, entering London on 27th December.
Richard had no choice but to surrender. To all practical intents and purposes, the King had been removed from office by a coup d’état. All the Lords Appellant had to worry about now was what to do with him.
The Merciless Parliament
Some contemporary sources claim that, for a brief time, the Lords Appellant seriously considered deposing Richard. However, the Whalley chronicle claims that Bolingbroke and Gloucester could not reach an agreement on who should replace him. In the end it was decided that it would be best to refer the matter to parliament.
What became known as the Merciless Parliament was held in early February of 1388. Richard’s courtiers were accused of a wide range of abuses and misconducts. Many of the accusations were undoubtedly exaggerated or even fabricated, but they had enough of a ring of truth to them to gain widespread parliamentary support.
Over the next few weeks many of Richard’s closest friends and advisors would be condemned. Of the five men accused by the Appellants, Nicholas Bembre was tried and executed. Tresilian was dragged out of hiding and executed without a trial. De Vere and de la Pole, having escaped overseas, were both sentenced to death in absentia. Archbishop Neville, who’d also escaped overseas, was permanently exiled.
The purge did not stop there. Richard’s childhood tutor and close companion, Sir Simon Burley was arrested. Despite impassioned pleas from Queen Anne who begged for Burley’s life on her knees, he was beheaded.
Others followed. In total around 40 of Richard’s courtiers were executed, exiled, imprisoned or otherwise removed from office.
As to Richard himself, parliament set up a special commission to govern him. Richard would continue to rule but as little more than a figurehead. The hope was that perhaps now Richard would learn his lesson and listen to the councils of the higher ranking and more experienced members of the establishment.
Richard II was just 21 years old in the spring of 1388. He had had his regal powers stripped in a most humiliating manner and many of his friends had been executed or exiled. His closest friend and quite possibly his lover, Robert de Vere, had been forced to flee and live as an exile in France. Richard would never see Robert again. His wife had been forced to grovel on her knees for the life of one of his friends – but to no avail. These traumatic events undoubtedly left deep psychological scars on the young man.
Nevertheless, in 1388, Richard had little choice but to acquiesce to the inevitability of his circumstances. But that did not mean that he would either forget or forgive the actions of the Lords Appellant. Particularly galling to Richard, was the fact that his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, had played such a leading role in the rebellion.
Richard, as it turned out, had learnt a lesson – but certainly not the lesson the Lords Appellant had hoped for.
In the next article in our series, we will look at the second half of the reign of Richard II. This traces the story of how Richard re-establishes his regal power, takes bloody revenge on his enemies and establishes a tyranny that eventually leads to his downfall.
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References & Further Reading
Coronation of Richard II – from Jean de Wavrin’s Chronicles (wiki commons)
Plantagenet family tree 1377 – Paul Watts
Richard II confronts the Peasants Revolt – James W E Doyle (wiki commons)
The Lords Appellant confront Richard II – James W E Doyle (wiki commons)