In Dan Jones’ book on the Plantagenets, he describes Richard II as the worst of the Plantagenet kings. Certainly, Richard II’s reign ended in disaster and civil war. It was also the case that Richard died with no clear heir, thereby casting a shadow of uncertainly over royal succession for decades to come. But is Dan Jones right? Can Richard really be regarded as the worst Plantagenet king? How should we assess his reign and, perhaps more importantly, his legacy?
These are the questions I’ll be exploring in this article. Before we start, if you are unfamiliar with the key events of Richard’s reign, you might want to read my earlier articles on the subject:
Read Part 1 – Richard II, the boy king here – this article covers the early part of Richard II’s reign, his role in the peasants revolt and his confrontation with the Lords Appellant.
Read Part 2 – The tyranny of Richard II here – this article covers the later part of Richard’s rule and the final chaotic years that led up to his downfall.
Richard’s reign hardly began under ideal circumstances. He inherited the crown as a boy of just 10 from his grandfather (his father having died young). Clearly too young and inexperienced to rule alone, the government of England was placed in the hands of a council of grandees. The council was preferred to a regency mainly because the obvious choice for a regent was his uncle, John of Gaunt. Gaunt, in 1377, was the most powerful (and perhaps the most capable) political figure in England. However, he also had many political enemies who feared trusting Gaunt with too much power. The result was a fudge. Gaunt still dominated the council in practice but not with the formal authority of regent.
All this created a slightly confused situation in the early reign of King Richard. No one person could be said to be ruling the country and the council that supposedly was, was sometimes divided in its opinions.
The result was that Richard grew into his role as a teenage king lacking any formal authority figure (father or regent) to guide him. Many of the criticisms of Richard’s early reign were therefore unsurprising. Chroniclers report complaints that he was immature, he spent too much time partying with his young friends and too little time on the affairs of state.
Clash of cultures
Richard’s grandfather, Edward III, had ruled England for half a century by 1377. During this time a court culture had evolved which had been moulded very much in his image. Edward was a martial man who dedicated himself to war. His court had been a serious place, where men of stature met to plan the next great military campaign in France. To be taken seriously in Edward’s day, it helped to be a soldier with a proven track record.
Richard, although not a pacifist, did not share his grandfather’s love of the martial lifestyle. As a teenager he was more interested in partying than war. He also loved to spend money on art, jewellery, and fine clothes to project a suitably regal image. And so, a new court culture emerged under Richard – one very different from that which the ‘old guard’ from his grandfather’s time had been used to.
The old lords and campaign veterans from Edward’s time found Richard’s new court culture rather unsettling. To them it seemed clear that Richard was not taking the job seriously enough.
Richard’s lack of experience (and lack of any practical education in how to be a king) was clearly a problem. He came to the throne not really knowing how to manage the expectations of his nobility. In his early years he bestowed titles on some of his friends without thinking of the potential consequences. In giving grand noble titles to young men from relatively lowly backgrounds he was acting against convention.
When Richard elevated his friend Robert de Vere to the rank of Duke it caused an uproar. De Vere was the son of an lesser Earl and had done very little in his career, beyond being Richard’s friend, to merit such high rank. In fact, de Vere was only the second man in history to be made a Duke who was not a close relative of a regnant king. The only other had been Henry of Grosmont, who had earned his title on the back of being one of the wealthiest men in the country with an impressive military record.
Such acts might be regarded as naïve, perhaps immature, perhaps undiplomatic. But what might we reasonably expect from a teenage boy?
Conflict with the Lords Appellant
The clash between Richard and the establishment old guard came to a head in 1388. Following a mediocre campaign against the Scots and a lack of any serious attempt to re-invigorate the war with France, Richard’s regime was effectively overthrown by the Lords Appellant.
Principal amongst these men were the king’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick. These were all men who’d had respected military careers and all foreign policy hawks. They resented the favours Richard granted to his friends – friends who, by and large, had little or no military experience and had done little else of any note to earn their positions. They also wanted a far more aggressive foreign policy. The lack of any serious planning for campaigning in France, in their view, was firm evidence that Richard was neglecting his duties as king.
Having gained control of the government however, the Appellants went about putting things to rights in a most extreme way. They purged the court of Richard’s favourites, executing and exiling many of them. They even executed Sir Simon de Burley, Richard’s former tutor.
The actions of the Appellants in bringing their wayward young king to heel and re-imposing council rule were undeniably extreme. Perhaps it was only to be expected given that the Appellants were all men who’d forged their careers in the warlike regime Edward III. They were men for whom war and violence was the norm, not the exception. However, their violent actions must have been traumatising for the young King Richard (who was just 20 at the time).
Later in his reign Richard can be accused of similarly violent actions, instigating witch-hunts prompted by paranoia. One must wonder the extent to which the bloody events of 1388 contributed to the violent extremes of Richard’s later rule. It would certainly be surprising if the acts of the Appellants had not caused at least some psychological damage.
Part of the clash with the Appellants had been prompted by an inherent disagreement over foreign policy. The Appellants wanted a vigorous prosecution of war with France. Richard had been reticent to do this early in his reign and, later, Richard actively developed a policy of peace with France. This would serve as an ongoing source of friction with the more hawkish sections of the nobility (and especially with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock).
But how sound was Richard’s peace policy?
By the end of Edward’s rule, despite the glorious victories at Crecy and Poitiers, the English were losing the war in France. The French had regained most of the territory they had lost and were very much in the ascendancy. The reality was that, as much as men like the Appellants would have been reluctant to admit it, the war policy was failing.
Peace with France
War with France did not really make a lot of sense for England in the long run. War was expensive. Even maintaining garrisons to defend the territory you had taken was expensive. Taking the offensive in such a war was even more expensive. These were expenses that England could not afford. It was also a war that was virtually unwinnable. The stark truth was that France simply had far more resources than England; in a long war of attrition France would always have the advantage.
As glorious as the reputation of Edward III was, his wars in France had ramped up large debts. The reality was that Richard II’s government could ill afford to carry on spending vast sums of money on a sustained campaign in France.
Richard II’s peace policies, as unpopular as they no doubt were, made sense. In this respect, although we might criticise Richard for presentation and diplomacy in his dealings with the hawks, it is hard to criticise the policy itself.
Attitudes to Richard’s foreign policies were not all negative, however. The English establishment was typically fickle – critical of Richard’s failure in Scotland but highly praiseworthy of Richard’s military success in Ireland in the mid-1390s. Even Richard’s peace policies gained popularity as they began to bear fruit.
Of course, there remained a core of hawks for whom Richard’s policies in France were always an anathema. However, it would be wrong to assume that these individuals were always (or indeed ever) in the majority.
Richard received some criticism for lavish spending and the profligacy of his court. Some took this as a symptom of immaturity early in his reign and a sign of straight forward greed later. Certainly, Richard spent significant sums on fine clothes, jewellery, and artworks in order to promote a magnificent regal image. Richard’s belief in elevating his royal personage to an almost semi-divine status was at least partly behind this. It is hard to argue that this kind of self-aggrandising behaviour is anything other than autocracy writ large.
Richard’s reign also saw his government take several unusual and exceptional measures to raise money. This was partly to finance Richard’s lavish spending but also to finance genuine necessities such as paying off war debts and financing military action in places like Scotland and Ireland.
The poll taxes early in Richard’s rule were mainly the work of John of Gaunt. They proved a successful way of raising money to pay off Edward III’s war debts but were ultimately highly unpopular. The policy was abandoned following the peasants’ revolt.
Later on, Richard raised direct income taxes through Parliament during peacetime. This measure was also highly irregular. At the time, the custom was that income tax should only be levied to raise money for a specific emergency (such as to finance a war). The idea that you would raise such a tax just to finance the day-to-day running of government was viewed with extreme scepticism. This too was taken as evidence of royal avarice – a symptom of autocratic tyranny.
The seeds of problems to come
However, if we set aside the noise from the Chroniclers, something else was happening during the reign of Richard II that contributed to the desire of his government to find innovative and unusual ways to raise additional revenue.
In England during the Middle Ages, the royal treasury obtained its income from a variety of sources. But, at the time, a direct tax such as an income tax or a poll tax could only be raised under special circumstances (such as war). Even then direct taxation required the agreement of parliament. Under more normal circumstances the king could expect to raise a certain amount of money from the management of royal estates, from clerical taxes and from a variety of other lesser sources. However, the main source of income for the exchequer was indirect taxation – specifically duties levied on the wool trade.
The wool trade was the lifeblood of the English economy during the Middle Ages. It had reached its zenith during the first half of the C14th and consequently, it became a highly significant source of royal income.
However, from the late C14th onwards, revenues from wool duties began to decline. Richard’s unprecedented step of raising income tax simply to finance the day-to-day running of the government was really an attempt to redress this fiscal imbalance.
Richard’s government was an innovative and reforming one when it came to fiscal policy. The number of items subject to cloth customs duties were permanently extended and parliament was persuaded to consistently re-grant the levy of tonnage and poundage. These measures were sufficient, in Richard’s time, to off-set the decline in revenue received from indirect taxation.
Richard’s administration was the last medieval government that made any serious attempt at fiscal innovation. In 1400, wool revenues had not yet declined to a stage where ordinary royal income was consistently falling below ordinary royal expenditure. However, this would later become a very serious problem. In the end it would be the primary cause of the enormous financial debts run up by the late Lancastrian government of Henry VI in the 1440s.
Richard II’s government, as it turns out, was more financially savvy than any of its later medieval successors.
A simplistic analysis of Richard’s reign would label him as an unpopular king.
However, the truth is more complex. Richard’s popularity waxed and waned during his reign. His confrontation of the mob during the peasants’ revolt was widely respected by the nobility at the time. On the other hand, his ruthless suppression of the rebels likely made him unpopular and even feared by the common folk in those counties most directly affected.
Richard’s wayward teenage years caused him to be viewed as irresponsible and immature. His peace policies made him unpopular with the hawks. However, the success of his peace policies ultimately gained him much respect and admiration from many parts of the establishment. His successful campaign in Ireland in the mid-1390s greatly added to his reputation and, arguably, by 1396 he was actually a very popular English king.
His popularity declined only after he arrested and took his revenge on the Appellants in 1397. Even then, it is likely that his popularity only really declined significantly once his paranoia led him to persecute an increasingly wide circle of people for harbouring supposedly treasonous intentions.
It was the tyranny of the last two years of his reign that eventually turned so many people against him. By the time Henry IV landed in England to reclaim his inheritance, Richard’s unpopularity had reached such a level that his regime disintegrated virtually overnight.
However, Richard only became desperately unpopular during the final two years of his reign. It would be wrong to view him as a monarch who’d been despised by his people throughout his reign.
That Richard sought to take revenge on the Appellants who had humiliated him in 1388 is understandable. The form of that revenge, when it came in 1397, was every bit as bloody as the actions of the Appellants a decade earlier.
Arguably Richard bided his time until he was powerful enough and secure enough to act against his enemies. However, the behaviour of some of the Appellants probably gave Richard cause to be paranoid. His uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, continued to criticise Richard for his policies in France. At the time Richard acted against the Appellants it is possible that some form of conspiracy against him was indeed being planned – certainly there was dissent.
Perhaps Richard’s purge was a violent over-reaction. But if it was, one can argue that it was no worse than the actions of the Appellants themselves a decade before.
But what ultimately made Richard a tyrant was not his actions against the Appellants. It was the fact that, during the following two years, he increasingly saw enemies and plots against him everywhere. During this period, he bullied people into coming forward to ‘confess’ their guilt and buy their way back into his good graces with hard cash. His treatment of Bolingbroke – first to exile and then to disinherit him – made an unnecessary enemy of a dangerous man. The way he dealt with Bolingbroke appeared arbitrary at best and a devious attempt to steal Lancastrian lands at worst. If Bolingbroke, the king’s own cousin, was not safe then no one was. Once Richard had sown such seeds of doubt in the minds of a large enough section of his nobility, his fate was sealed.
However, the ultimate cause of Richard’s downfall was not down to his mistreatment of any one person. In the end his paranoia caused him to accuse entire communities, forcing them to pay significant fines to buy their way back into his favour. It was that which ultimately lost Richard the support of the mass of common people. Because it was that, ultimately, that led people to conclude that Richard could and probably would hit them hard in the coin purse at some point. It was only a question of when, not if.
Richard II had no children and hence no direct heir to succeed him. This stark fact meant that the whole issue of royal succession represented an area of dangerous uncertainty.
Richard was not the first Plantagenet king to have been overthrown. His grandfather, Edward II, had met a similar fate. However, Edward II had a son, an obvious direct successor.
For two centuries the Plantagenet dynasty had consisted of an unbroken line of kings, each inheriting the throne from his father. When the old king died, it had been obvious to everyone who should succeed him. The only exception had been when Richard I died leaving no legitimate children and the throne passed to his brother John.
When Richard II was deposed the throne passed not to his son, or even to a brother, but to his cousin. Furthermore, it passed to a cousin who had engineered Richard’s downfall.
Under the circumstances anyone who succeeded Richard would have been open to the accusation of being a usurper. Henry IV tried hard to legitimise his power grab but his claim of descent from a Plantagenet line senior to Richard himself stretched the bounds of credibility.
Richard II’s rightful heir
Legally it is likely that Henry IV was Richard’s rightful heir. The will of Edward III would apply if Richard failed to formally nominate a successor and that will favoured Henry. Of course, the fact that Henry took the throne from Richard by force inevitably cast a shadow over the manner of his succession.
However, aside from nominating Henry under duress, there is no firm evidence that Richard ever formally nominated any successor.
In informal conversation it appears that Richard favoured Edward of Norwich (the Duke of York’s son) as his heir by the late 1390s. However, Edward was not formally named. In any case, he had come to be regarded as one of Richard’s lackeys by the end and would have represented an unpopular choice with the nobility in 1399.
A further possibility would have been Edmund Mortimer. Mortimer was the great-grandson of Lionel of Antwerp (Edward III’s second oldest son after Richard II’s father). According to the custom of male preference primogeniture, Edmund stood next in line to the throne after Richard II. Indeed, his father may well have been favoured as the heir early on in Richard’s reign. However, again, we have no firm evidence of him ever being formally named as such by Richard. Furthermore, Edmund’s father had clearly been losing favour by the late 1390s and it is very unlikely Richard would have considered him as his heir by this time.
Another boy king?
Perhaps most significantly, Edmund was only a child of eight at the time of Richard’s downfall. The English nobility would have hardly been enthusiastic about the prospect of another boy king after the disastrous experience of Richard’s early years.
The truth is, after the removal of Richard, there were no good choices. Henry IV claimed the throne largely unopposed in 1399. However, to a large extent he became king on the basis of being the least worst choice. It was hardly a solid foundation for the future.
However necessary the removal of Richard II had become, his removal was nevertheless a violent coup d’etat. The Rubicon had been crossed. A precedent had been set. If a king proved himself to be a poor ruler, he could be replaced by any prince of the blood strong enough to seize the crown.
Ultimately, Richard II’s legacy was negative. However, some of the most important negative consequences of his failure are less obvious.
Most obviously, Richard’s downfall led to the establishment of the Lancastrian dynasty of Plantagenet kings. Founded on Henry IV’s power grab, it would be a regime that would be troubled by doubts about its legitimacy. Ultimately, Henry IV was a usurper. The usurpation may well have been necessary. At the time it may well have been the only practical choice – the least worst option. But a least worst option is never a good one.
A popular, strong king like Henry V could easily brush such concerns aside. But the question of legitimacy would return to haunt a weaker Lancastrian king in the form of Henry VI.
Less obvious was the fact that Richard II’s policies inevitably became tainted by association with his regime. However, despite the obvious problems with Richard’s style of government, some of his key policies were sound ones.
Richard II’s Policies
Richard had attempted to broker a permanent peace with France. Had he succeeded he would have removed a significant burden from his successors. In the end, it was a policy that his Lancastrian successors would be reluctant to adopt. Henry IV avoided open conflict but made no serious effort to find a permanent peace. Henry V opted for war and Henry VI’s government only reluctantly sought a temporary truce. Richard’s peace policy, however sensible it may have been, effectively died with him.
Richard’s fiscal reforms became seen as symptomatic of his greedy, avaricious excesses. As a result, subsequent Lancastrian and Yorkist regimes shied away from any kind of serious fiscal innovation. Even though reform became increasingly urgent as the C15th wore on, successive governments avoided it. Richard’s willingness to experiment with fiscal innovation, however necessary it may have been, effectively died with Richard.
In many ways the real tragedy of Richard’s downfall was not so much his own death but the death of some of his policies.
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References & further reading:
The Fiscal Constitution of Later Medieval England – Alex Brayson, 2013
Richard II and the Revolution of 1399, Michael Bennett, Sutton Publishing, 1999
The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, Dan Jones, William Collins, 2013
Richard II at prayer – Henry Shaw 1843 (from wiki commons)
The Lords Appellant confront Richard II – James W E Doyle (wiki commons)
Richard II confronts the Peasants Revolt – James W E Doyle (wiki commons)
Man and woman sheering sheep – Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Juillet the Musée Condé, Chantilly. (from wiki commons)
Abdication of Richard II – unknown artist C15th. (from Wiki Commons)
Well researched and written. Thanks for sharing!
Very nice piece. Thanks so much. Big S-speare fan so what happened IRL helps give context. I posted to S-speare Fakebook groups but no one reads anymore so….
Great article as usual. I am really enjoying reading your series, it’s very well written and very clearly presented. Keep it going!
P.s.: there might be a typo in the Succesion paragraph, where you write that Edward II was Richard’s grandfather. If I am not mistaken, he was his great-grandfather