Between 3 February and 4 June 1388, the so-called Merciless Parliament effectively stripped Richard II of power. The Parliament asserted that the 21-year-old monarch was too immature and too easily influenced by corrupt hangers-on to rule in his own name. The Parliament purged Richard’s favourites, removing many from office, exiling some and executing others.
Richard became little more than a figurehead. The government of England now lay in the hands of a Great Council of his leading nobles.
If you would like to read about the events that led up to this dramatic coup, you can catch up by reading my previous article on the early reign of Richard II here.
The Appellants Triumphant
The driving force behind this coup d’état were the five Lords Appellants. Of these the king’s uncle Thomas Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Earl of Arundel were the clear ringleaders. By the summer of 1388 the government of England was firmly in their hands. But what would they do with the power they had worked so hard to win?
The Appellants represented a coalition of interests bound together mainly by the fact that they disapproved of Richard II’s court favourites. Part of their motivation was undoubtedly straightforward jealousy. However, they also objected to the high levels of taxation and expenditure of the Ricardian regime. This had become particularly galling in the light of a relative lack of military success in wars with France and Scotland.
Gloucester and Arundel were both advocates of a more vigorous pursuit of war with France; a policy Richard II and his courtiers had been unenthusiastic about. Arundel, as Admiral of England, had bolstered his reputation by winning a major naval victory over the French in March 1387. Gloucester had significant experience of fighting in France. So part of the appeal of the Appellants to the wider nobility depended on their ability to deliver results when it came to war. Results that stood in stark contrast to the mediocrity of Richard’s own costly campaign in Scotland in 1385.
For the time being Richard had little option but to work with the Council. Nevertheless, he was still king and would remain so as long as he lived. The Appellants on the other hand were reliant on the support of Parliament to maintain their influence.
However, support for the Appellants began to erode almost immediately. A section of the nobility may well have felt that, on reflection, perhaps the Merciless Parliament had gone too far. To have executed and exiled quite so many people had been an extreme reaction.
Perhaps more significantly, the Appellants were unable to produce any significant military successes over the summer of 1388. Arundel’s navy achieved little and cost a lot, drawing criticism that echoed those that followed Richard’s Scots fiasco. Conflict with the Scots erupted again and the English suffered a disastrous defeat at Otterburn in August, undermining the Appellants’ reputation as effective war leaders.
Peace with France
By November, Gloucester had been forced to accept that ongoing hostilities with France were unlikely to enjoy any tangible success any time soon. He despatched an embassy to France in an attempt to negotiate a truce. It was a diplomatic mission that Richard supported, providing, as it did, an opportunity for him to rebuild his credibility.
In his pursuit of peace Richard would find support from an unexpected quarter. John of Gaunt, although still overseas, had not expressed any strong endorsement of the actions of the Appellants. Furthermore, Gaunt himself was increasingly coming around to the view that peace with France was a wise policy.
By May 1389, Richard was sufficiently confident to declare himself ‘mature’ enough to take up the reins of government again. There would still be a council, but Richard took the lead in appointing its members. He was careful to appoint several respected political figures who he knew many in Parliament would support. He also gave a show of statesmanship by refraining from demanding any punishment for the Appellants. However, he nevertheless excluded Gloucester and Arundel from his council.
On 18th July 1389, the Truce of Leulinghem was signed. Richard had achieved peace with France, at least on a temporary basis. Both sides agreed to continue negotiations with a view to reaching a permanent settlement.
In the autumn John of Gaunt returned to England. Richard found an ally in his uncle when it came to the issue of peace with France. It was a start from which Richard could re-establish his royal authority.
Robert the Hermit
By 1392 Richard had carefully rebuilt his powerbase. He made every effort to appear statesmanlike and mature. He had successfully brokered peace with France and used an alliance of convenience with Gaunt to effectively side-line Gloucester and Arundel. Richard had learnt that it was not possible for him to rule without the support of at least some of the leading nobility. However, he had also learnt that the accepted role of a king was to act as an arbiter when it came to disputes between his nobles. By playing this role carefully Richard realised that he could keep any potential enemies divided and weakened and still appear a consummate statesman.
Now, more secure on his throne, he could afford to dream of greater things.
On 22nd August 1392 Richard II wrote to the French king. In this letter he set out his vision for the future relations between France and England. Not only was Richard proposing a permanent peace, but a vision of a higher destiny for both countries.
In this letter he mentioned a certain Robert le Mennot, otherwise known as Robert ‘the Hermit’. Robert was a Norman knight who claimed to have experienced a religious revelation in the Holy Land. Robert’s vision, which Richard now appeared to champion, was a vision of Christian unity. Not only should England and France make peace, but they should also join forces to heal the schism in the Church between the two rival Catholic Popes. And, if that were not enough, they should send a joint army into the east to defeat the Turks in a righteous new crusade.
Richard’s vision was temporarily de-railed, however. Not through any fault of his own but because of the poor mental health of the French king. There could be no possibility of any further negotiations with France as long as its king was in such a condition.
Richard received further bad news towards the end of 1392, his exiled friend (and possibly his former lover), Robert de Vere, died in a hunting accident in France.
Nevertheless, Richard’s overtures to France at this time demonstrated that he now felt secure enough on his own throne to dare to dream of grander things. Grander and incredibly ambitious. These were the dreams of a king who imagined a glorious destiny lay ahead of him.
A divine calling
Richard was deeply inspired by Edward the Confessor – the only English monarch to have been canonised. From an early stage in his reign, he adopted Edward as his special patron saint. As he grew older, he became increasingly obsessed with harnessing the Confessor’s aura of divine grace for his own self-aggrandisement.
So taken was Richard with the saint that he adopted the emblem of Edward the Confessor into his personal coat of arms in the mid-1390s.
Richard’s fascination with Saint Edward was just one indication of his passion for divine signs and mysticism. He consulted astrologers, pored over old prophecies, and, on at least one occasion, even became obsessed with the portentous meanings of his own dreams. Often, he used such divinations to validate or even guide his decision making.
It is within this context that we need to see Richard’s willingness to champion the evangelism of Robert the Hermit. The fact is that Richard was increasingly coming to believe that he was destined to fulfil some kind of glorious divinely appointed destiny.
Richard believed that the rebelliousness of their subjects had, for a long time, undermined the kings of England. The events of 1388, far from convincing him that a king should rule in partnership with his nobles persuaded him of quite the opposite. Richard was now certain that it was essential for him to restore the regal authority of the throne of England to that of an absolute monarchy.
Circumstances may have forced him to work in partnership with his magnates for a time, but Richard only played this game because he had to. By the mid-1390s, Richard’s vision of an autocratic, divinely appointed, monarchy was already taking shape in very tangible ways.
In early 1394 Richard began work on a grand re-imaging of Westminster Hall. He would update and convert it into a place of suitable magnificence and splendour to fit his vision for the future.
At some point during the mid-1390s, Richard commissioned an incredible, slightly larger than life size, portrait of himself seated in full royal regalia. This he had installed in a prominent position as a panel in Westminster Abbey. It provides a clear indication of how Richard wanted his subjects to regard him – regal, serene, a figure of reverence and splendour, entirely detached from the mundane world of lesser men.
Death of a Queen
On 7 June 1394, Richard’s wife, Queen Anne died suddenly (quite likely from plague). Although, there are some grounds to believe Richard may have been homosexual, or at least bisexual, he was undoubtedly very close to his wife. After the Merciless Parliament in 1388, Queen Anne probably represented the only one of his close friends to survive the purge of his court. His response to her death would be dramatic.
Richard immediately ordered the destruction of the palace of Sheen (the place where Anne had died). He also vowed that, for the next year, except for Churches, he would not visit any building in which he had ever stayed with Anne.
At Anne’s funeral, Richard was clearly in an emotionally volatile state. Most of the senior nobility of the land attended to pay their respects. This included the Earl of Arundel, one of the Lords Appellants who had humiliated Richard in 1388. Arundel showed up late. To add insult to injury, Arundel indicated that he wished to leave early. Richard snapped.
Taking a cane from an attendant Richard attacked Arundel, striking him a heavy blow to the head. Richard flew into a violent rage, knocking down and thrashing the earl repeatedly as he lay helpless on ground. According to one chronicler, those present believed the king would have killed him had he not been restrained.
It was a grim reminder that, behind the facade of regal serenity that Richard liked to project, was an emotionally volatile and potentially very violent young man.
In the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland to deal with rebellious local lords. He would remain in Ireland on campaign until May 1395. Unlike the fiasco of the Scots campaign of 1385, his campaign in Ireland was a success. After a year, Richard brought Ireland firmly back under his rule.
Nothing makes an English king more popular with his nobles than military success. By the middle of 1395 Richard’s royal credibility was stronger than it had ever been.
By the autumn of 1395 Richard was ready to embark on even greater and more magnificent ventures.
A letter book of this time relates a prophetic narrative concerning the subjugation of Ireland. It went on to foretell victory over the Scots, the re-conquest of the holy land and the conquest of Egypt and Babylon. All to the greater glory of England. This book, produced with Richard’s approval if not his specific request, gives a telling insight into the king’s mindset.
Visions of glory
Richard now felt confident enough become a key actor in international affairs. His first priority was to achieve a permanent peace with France now that the French king appeared recovered from his breakdown. Once there was peace between the two countries, they could start to heal the Catholic schism. After that, a righteous crusade against the Turks promised even greater glories.
To help pave the way for these grand schemes, Richard married the daughter of the French king in 1396. The prospect of such an alliance and the marriage itself was not especially popular with the wider English nobility, however. For one thing Queen Isabelle was a child of just six, so no prospect of consummation of the marriage for years – and hence no prospect of an heir. For another, there remained a section of English magnates who were inherently uneasy about the idea of peace with France, let alone any kind of military alliance.
Nevertheless, marriage to Isabelle brought with it a sizable dowry. Furthermore, the goal of healing the Great Schism and crusading against the Turks certainly had powerful appeal in England. In certain quarters, there can be no doubt that Richard’s vision of the future was highly popular.
Delusions of Grandeur
Richard’s dreams of glory may well have been even more ambitious than they appeared at the time. He seems to have sent embassies to Germany during 1496 to meet with several German electors. These were the men whose responsibility it was to elect the Holy Roman Emperor. Richard may have been sounding these men out about the possibility that perhaps they might consider Richard himself for the job.
One Chronicler, Walsingham, believed Richard’s ambassadors had indeed spoken with the electors about this possibility. However, Walsingham reported that two of the electors had expressed grave doubts about Richard’s suitability on the grounds that Richard could not even govern his own subjects. It was a clear reference to the coup of 1388 and that fact that the orchestrators of the coup had never been brought to justice.
At around this time troubling rumours began to circulate. The king’s policies dissatisfied certain sections of the nobility, especially in relation to France. The Duke of Gloucester was implicated as one of the principal malcontents.
One chronicler suggested that, in July 1396, Gloucester and others met in secret to discuss their misgivings about the king’s plans. Perhaps they even discussed the possibility of acting against the king, just as they had during the Merciless Parliament of 1388. At some later point, word of this meeting appears to have reached the king’s ear, possibly via the earl of Nottingham who had been party to these discussions.
It is uncertain as to whether the matters discussed amounted to anything more than a bit of grumbling. If it was true, such dissent, at the very least, would serve to hold back Richard’s grand plans. At worst, however, it raised the prospect of what Richard feared the most – rebellion.
Richard II was in a far stronger position by 1397 than he had been in 1387. He had enjoyed a significant military success in Ireland in 1394/5 and his French policies, although they may have been unpopular in some quarters, were undeniably making progress.
Whether prompted by rumours of treason or simply acting because he felt he was now strong enough to do so, Richard struck in July 1397.
The king had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick, the three original Lords Appellant, arrested. At the time Richard proclaimed that they had not been arrested because of their role in the events of 1388 but for their part in this new plot that had been brought to his attention. He would explain, Richard said, in a parliament to be held in September.
However, Gloucester was not destined to live that long. Richard had Gloucester conveyed to Calais, safely away from England. Whether Gloucester was plotting against Richard or not, the fact remained that he was Richard’s uncle. If he were to be put on trial, it would not look good. So, in August, Richard despatched Thomas Mowbray, the Earl of Nottingham, to Calais to arrange for Gloucester to meet with a ‘mysteriously sudden natural death’.
Most people, of course, suspected foul play at the time and Mowbray later confessed to the murder, claiming he had gone along with the plan out of fear of Richard. However, the official line adopted was ‘natural causes’.
Richard II’s justice
In the September parliament, Richard had a speech read out to the house. Good government, the assembled members learned, required that there should be ‘one king for all’. Furthermore, that king should be at liberty to fully enjoy his traditional powers and prerogatives. If, for any reason, there was an infringement of these prerogatives , a remedy must be sought. And, of course, there was an obligation on parliament to punish anyone who threatened to undermine regal authority.
These veiled threats were followed by an assurance that the king was inclined to be merciful. The king would pardon any guilty person who asked his forgiveness, provided they sued for their pardons before January 1398. However, there were apparently fifty people whose crimes were so great that they could not be pardoned. The names of these fifty people would be revealed ‘at a later date’.
It was soon clear that the earl of Arundel was one of the fifty. He was brought before parliament, charged with treason, found guilty and executed in short order. Shortly thereafter the death of Gloucester was announced to a stunned parliament. Gloucester, they were told, had confessed his guilt in prison and died almost immediately afterwards of ‘natural causes’.
The Earl of Arundel’s brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, was also implicated. Despite personal assurances he had previously received from Richard, he was stripped of his rank and exiled.
Then Warwick was brought before parliament to face judgement. Having had time to contemplate the fate of his fellow appellants, he broke down and begged Richard for mercy. He admitted his guilt and blamed Gloucester for having led him astray. This time Richard was merciful and spared Warwick’s life, nevertheless condemning him to life imprisonment.
Before the parliament ended, Richard was asked again about his list of fifty guilty persons. He declined to provide any further clarification but stated that Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, the remaining Lords Appellant, were not on this list. As far as Richard was concerned, both men were of good standing.
Favour and disfavour
In the immediate aftermath of the September parliament, it became clear that a new inner circle of favourites had emerged, several of whom benefitted from the demise of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick.
Henry of Bolingbroke was elevated to the title of Duke of Hereford. Edward of Rutland (the uncle of the future Richard of York) became the Duke of Albemarle. Thomas Holland, the king’s nephew, became Duke of Surrey and his half-brother, John, the Duke of Essex. Mowbray, perhaps as a reward for his role in dealing with Gloucester, became the Duke of Norfolk.
But others were clearly out of favour. Roger Mortimer, who at one time may well have been favoured as Richard II’s potential successor was now cold-shouldered. The Earl of Salisbury was in dispute with Mortimer for the lordship of Denbigh and asked Richard to arbitrate. Richard sided with Salisbury.
The latter half of 1397 brought an atmosphere of tension, suspicion, and fear. Who was on Richard’s list? No one except Richard himself knew.
In a letter to Albert of Bavaria, from around this time, Richard explained that he had for too long been constrained by traitorous nobles, who had long conspired to undermine his regal authority. He claimed that he had bided his time and given them every chance to change their ways, but they were beyond redemption. As a result, Richard wrote, “our avenging severity has been meted out to the destruction and ruin of their persons”.
Richard’s reign now descended into tyranny. In October he established a personal retinue of 300 Cheshire men that would serve as permanent bodyguards and enforcers, accompanying the king everywhere. It was a worrying development.
Even more worrying was Richard’s apparent reason for forming this retinue. He claimed to have been sent prophetic dreams in which he saw Arundel rising from the grave as a ghost to haunt him. So seriously did he take these nightmares that he eventually had Arundel’s tomb exhumed to check he was still dead (and beheaded).
Richard now set aside a bag. Those who felt they may have wronged the king in some way in the past were invited to come forward to seek pardon. To buy their way back into the king’s good graces they would be expected to make a ‘contribution’ to the bag.
The men of Essex and Kent, mindful of the role their counties had played in the peasants’ revolt, were among the first to come forward. Richard pardoned them for all past wrongs … provided each county contributed £1000 to the bag.
A fateful conversation
At some time in December 1397, Henry Bolingbroke was riding from Windsor to London. He encountered Mowbray on the road at Brentford and the two spoke for a while, trying to make sense of the turbulent events of the past few months.
Mowbray observed that of the five Lords Appellant who had opposed Richard in 1388, only himself and Bolingbroke now remained at liberty. Bolingbroke assured Mowbray that they had both received pardons for the deeds done at that time. Mowbray, however, pointed out that the king had rescinded pardons before and would likely do so again. “We”, Mowbray warned Bolingbroke, are “on the point of being undone”.
Bolingbroke now had only two options.
He could keep quiet about the conversation and risk becoming party to some conspiracy or other that Mowbray was planning. Perhaps Mowbray had been put up to mentioning these things to Bolingbroke by Richard himself, to test Bolingbroke’s loyalty? In the tense atmosphere of paranoia that engulfed England in late 1397, anything was possible.
Bolingbroke’s only other choice was to report the conversation to the king. This he did.
Richard responded to Bolingbroke’s revelation by setting up a committee to further consider the matter. Richard’s final judgement would be deferred. The dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray added yet another trouble to already troubled times.
During the first half of 1398 Richard continued to rule as an autocrat. He had parliament vote him unprecedented tax levies. He also continued his policy of encouraging people to buy their way back into his royal favour. His doubts concerning the loyalty of his subjects were no doubt further stoked by Bolingbroke’s revelation. And, if he was not already distrustful enough, a botched local uprising in March 1398, must have added to his paranoia.
That summer entire communities were encouraged to come forward to seek the king’s pardons. A total of 16 different communities, including the city of London, were invited to contribute around £1000 each to buy their way back into the king’s good graces.
The dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray rumbled on for several months. Bolingbroke alleged that Mowbray had spoken treasonously. Mowbray denied it. In the end it was agreed that the matter should be settled in a trial by combat between the two men. A date was set for 16th September 1398.
When the date came, the two men appeared before the king, fully armed and ready for combat. Then, at the eleventh hour, the king had the combat stopped. He then passed judgement. The idea that two senior lords of the land should fight in this manner was, in Richard’s view, a great dishonour upon the kingdom. It was therefore the king’s judgement that both men be exiled from the kingdom. Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years.
That autumn, Bolingbroke set out on his way into exile. Before he left, Richard reduced his sentence from ten to six years and gave him a gift of £1,000. Richard assured Henry that he would be fully restored to the king’s good graces on his return.
As Henry rode through the streets of London on his way into exile, thousands of sombre Londoners lined the streets to bid him farewell. An anonymous voice from the crowd shouted, “this country will never be happy until you return”. The scale of Bolingbroke’s send-off did nothing to sway Richard, save perhaps to make him even more wary of his cousin.
Richard’s self-image in the latter part of his reign reached a level of self-aggrandisement never seen before in any English king. The kings of England, until this time, had traditionally been addressed as ‘my Lord’ by their subjects. This, Richard felt, did not convey the correct level of reverence and respect. So Richard insisted that he be addressed as ‘your Majesty’.
At court, Richard adopted a uniquely detached form of regal serenity which was remarkable enough to draw comment from the chroniclers of the day:
“…on solemn festivals when by custom [Richard II] performed kingly rituals, he would order a throne to be prepared for him in his chamber on which he liked to sit ostentatiously from after dinner until vespers, talking to no one but watching everyone; and when his eye fell on anyone, regardless of rank, that person had to bend his knee towards the king …”Continuatio Eulogii
A Christmas feast
The king’s Christmas feast for 1398 was a truly magnificent affair.
Either at this Christmas feast, or possibly earlier in the year, one of the king’s favourites, Sir William Bagot, reported having a most extraordinary conversation with the king. Richard began by explaining the motivation for his actions over the past months, saying that his main desire was only:
“…to live long enough to see the crown held in such high respect, and obeyed with such lowly humility by all his lieges, as had been the case under previous kings, for he considered that he had been humiliated and disobeyed by both lords and his commons, so that it might be chronicled forever that with skill and with strength he had recovered his royal dignity and his honourable estate; and should he achieve this, he would renounce his crown the following day.”Chronicles of London
The subject of who might succeed Richard, should this happen before he had a son of his own, then came up. The king was now in his early thirties, but his young French bride was still only eight. There would clearly be no heir for years yet. So, who would Richard nominate as a successor if he chose to abdicate?
The issue of succession
In around 1385/6 one chronicler reported that Richard had named Roger Mortimer as his successor in parliament. However, there is no parliamentary record of this. It was therefore far more likely that Richard simply indicated no more than an informal preference for Mortimer. However, Mortimer had been slain in Ireland in the summer of 1398 and his only male heir was still just a child. There was no question of an English king naming any child other than his own son as heir. So who then did Richard favour?
According to the will of Edward III, John of Gaunt stood next in line to the throne. However, by this time John was on his death bed, so logically it would be Bolingbroke who would inherit the crown. Richard, however, had other ideas.
According to Bagot, Richard told him that he thought his cousin Edward of Rutland might make a worthy successor. Bolingbroke was also discussed but Richard expressed doubts about him, although he did not rule him out.
This conversation is the only real indication we have as to who Richard favoured to succeed him. It seemed he had made no clear decision on the matter by the end of 1398, although his favoured candidate was Rutland.
Death of a statesman
On 3rd February 1399 John of Gaunt finally died. He had been a towering figure in English politics for the better part of four decades. In many ways his passing marked the end of an era.
Henry Bolingbroke, now an exile in France, petitioned for his father’s inheritance as it was his right to do. But, in March 1399, the king decided that Bolingbroke would be disinherited. The same fate befell the exiled Mowbray. Richard ordered that John of Gaunt’s lands and great wealth should become property of the crown.
In was a decision that sent shockwaves through an already shaken English nobility. If the king could exile and disinherit even his own cousin – then no one was safe.
The Irish crisis
By 1399 Ireland was once more plagued by rebellion. Richard again set his sights on bringing the Irish to heel.
At the end of May 1399, Richard set sail for Ireland. He left his decrepit uncle, Edmund of York, in charge of England. In many ways Richard’s decision to campaign overseas at this time seemed a dangerous gamble. Certainly, the situation in Ireland was bad but the England he left behind him was far from stable. The atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia over the past two years had claimed many victims and fermented a great deal of ill-feeling.
In Richard’s absence, all manner of rumours concerning what the tyrant might do next began circulating. Would he sell Calais to the French? Could he make one of his lackeys king of Ireland? Would he remain in Ireland and bleed England dry of her resources? And of course, everyone now knew no one was safe.
However, the king’s campaign in Ireland was to prove no glorious repeat of his triumphs of 1394/5. The Irish avoided any major confrontation and adopted guerrilla style hit-and-run tactics. As June wore on, Richard would find himself increasing bogged down with little prospect of any quick victory.
Over the Channel in France, Henry Bolingbroke saw his chance. Disinherited as he now was, he had nothing left to lose. As Richard was preoccupied with his Irish adventure, Henry began making his plans. He reached out to the exiled Archbishop Arundel and enlisted the aid of two powerful English lords, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland and Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland. The conspirators agreed to combine forces to overthrow the tyrant.
Henry, for his part, stated that his only aim in the affair was to claim his rightful inheritance. The matter of what was to be done about Richard, once he had been overthrown was parked for the time being.
On 4th July 1399, Henry Bolingbroke landed back in England with Archbishop Arundel and a small force of around 100 men. As he marched through England, however, his army’s numbers quickly grew. Men flocked to Henry’s standard in incredible numbers. The people were clearly sick of Richard and probably knew full well that Bolingbroke represented the best chance to get rid of him.
On hearing the news Richard scrambled together what he could of his army to return to England and deal with the situation. However, he gravely underestimated the speed at which the situation was deteriorating. The Duke of York had done what he could to raise a force to resist Bolingbroke, but by mid-July Henry’s army was so large that there was clearly no hope of defeating it. York met Bolingbroke on 27th July at Berkley where he effectively capitulated and threw in his lot with his nephew.
Richard arrived in south Wales on 24th July, yet unaware of the full scale of the disaster. He had previously sent the Earl of Salisbury ahead to raise an army for him in Chester. However, Salisbury came to him in south Wales with bad news. He had indeed raised a force in Chester some two weeks before but, alarmed by the news of Bolingbroke’s rapid advances, the army had deserted.
Richard eventually found himself cornered at Conway where he was forced to surrender to the Earl of Northumberland. All support for his cause had disintegrated. On around 16th August Richard was escorted to Chester, where Bolingbroke was waiting to take him into custody.
Henry Bolingbroke was now master of England.
As Bolingbroke returned to London, with Richard safely in custody, he now faced the problem of what to do with the king.
The option of stripping Richard of his powers and imposing some kind of parliamentary rule was not really viable. It had been tried before in 1388 and that clearly had not worked. The only realistic course of action was to force Richard to abdicate. But that posed another problem – if Richard were to abdicate, who would replace him?
In 1399 there were not so many obvious choices. The young Mortimer boy was even younger than Richard had been when Richard had come to the throne. England was in no mood for another boy king. Richard’s favoured successor, Edward of Rutland, was tainted by his close association with Richard. Edward’s father, the Duke of York, was an old man in poor health. Gloucester’s only son Humphrey died on 2nd September 1399. That left only Bolingbroke.
At a parliament held on 30th September 1399, Richard II was formally deposed. Henry Bolingbroke then reclaimed not only his rightful inheritance but also the throne of England. Richard’s reign was at an end. The reign of Henry IV had begun.
King Henry IV
It was perhaps unsurprising that Henry had claimed the throne for himself in the end. What was surprising was the manner of his claim. It would have been relatively easy to claim that entail of Edward III still applied, as this clearly identified Henry as next in line to the throne after Richard. This, coupled with Richard’s abdication in Henry’s favour would have been a reasonably credible line to take. However, Henry didn’t do this.
Instead, Henry claimed that he actually had an even stronger claim to the throne than Richard! The claim was dubious to say the least but essentially argued that Henry’s ancestor, Edmund Crouchback, was the elder brother of Edward I. Therefore, Henry had been the rightful king all along!
It was not an especially believable argument, but it was necessary for one key reason. Henry felt he needed to demonstrate that he was the rightful king and not a usurper. The only way he could do that was to show he had a stronger claim to the throne than Richard himself.
The end of a king
Richard now languished in prison. In December 1399 the closest of Richard’s remaining lackeys, realising how much they stood to lose in the new Lancastrian regime, attempted a coup. It had no popular support and was quickly crushed by Henry. Edward of Rutland had been party to it but, realising it was doomed to fail, jumped ship and betrayed his co-conspirators to Henry at the last minute.
The other conspirators suffered ignominious fates. The earls of Kent and Salisbury holed up in an Inn at Cirencester. The townsfolk took matters into their own hands, dragged the earls to the town square and hacked off their heads. The Earl of Huntingdon attempted to flee down the Thames but was captured and brought to Pleshy, where he was executed. Lord Dispenser was lynched by an angry mob in Cardiff. The people of England were done with Richard and his cronies.
Richard II died sometime in January or early February 1400. In all probability he had either been deliberately starved to death or, perhaps, he had starved himself to death as a final dramatic act of misguided martyrdom.
As the old king and the old century died, a new king and a new dynasty had begun. The age of the House of Lancaster had dawned.
We’ll continue our story of the fall of the Plantagenets by looking at the reign of Henry IV.
In the atmosphere of euphoria and relief that accompanied the end of Richard’s tyranny no one really questioned Henry’s decision to claim the throne. No one cared. Everyone was just happy to see the back of Richard.
However, once people had the chance to reflect on what had happened, some would start to question the legitimacy of the new Lancastrian regime. This would present Henry IV with some significant challenges in the future.
Read the next article in this series here
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References & Further Reading
Gwilym Dodd – Richard II and the Fiction of Majority Rule
Michael Bennett – Richard II and the Revolution of 1399, Sutton Publishing, 1999
The issue of the Mortimer succession
Portrait of Richard II – Anon Artist c.1620 (from Wiki Commons)
Battle of Otterburn (1388). Miniature from Jean Froissart, Chroniques – maître d’antoine de bourgogne et collab (from Wiki Commons)
Edward the Confessor – Image by Aidan Hart (from Wiki Commons)
Westminster Abbey Panel Portrait of Richard II – Anon Artist c.1395 (from Wiki Commons)
Murder of the Duke of Gloucester – from Froissart, Chroniques, BnF MS Fr 2646, fol. 289. Anon. Artist. (from Wiki Commons)
Abdication of Richard II – unknown artist C15th. (from Wiki Commons)
House Plantagenet family tree – Paul Watts