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Richard II








In his play Richard II Shakespeare wrote of King Richard moving through a tragedy of deception and counter deception, until he is finally deposed by Henry Bolingbroke. Richard ends up alone in a dungeon at Pontefract Castle. Here in his final desperate moments he ponders on who he is: "Thus play I in one person many people/ And none contented" (5.5. 31-32). Writing about the history of Richard II is a bit like wandering round in the dark at Pontefract Castle. Richard seems in many ways to have been a remarkable ruler, and yet he was deposed by men who comprehensively distorted history to give the appearance of a king who was weak, wasteful, unpopular, tyrannical, authoritarian and mad. When Shakespeare wrote his portrayal of Richard many of these faults, real or imagined, were included. But Richard II was a play about truth's indefinable nature. The truth, as Shakespeare knew, was not necessarily that portrayed in a play. By definition a play is an illusion, and as such a play becomes useful in exploring history. This is because the distortion of truth is a fundamental reality of history. Rulers know that the important thing about history is not what happened but what was thought to have happened.

Richard II, born 6th Janaury 1367, was from an early age inclined towards culture, the arts and peace. His peaceful sensitive nature was in stark contrast to that of his grandfather Edward III , and his father, Edward the Black Prince. It was this contrast, obvious from an early age, that would create the basic struggles of Richard's life. If the Black Prince had survived to take the throne, and if Richard's elder brother Edward of Angouleme had lived, Richard could perhaps have enjoyed a quiet, artistic life. Instead in January 1371 Edward of Angouleme died. Then the Black Prince became ill with dysentery during the early 1370s, finally dying in June 1376. Only a year later Edward III died at Sheen Palace. Richard was crowned king at Westminster Abbey on July 16th 1377. He was ten years old.


Oxford - home of John Wyclif

With England being ruled by a group of powerful nobles, the country had a difficult time during the early years of Richard's reign. France and Spain mounted raids against the south coast, burning Rye, Rottingdean and Hastings. Alongside aggression from foreign powers, internal tensions were also building. The Black Death which reached England in 1348 had led to labour shortages, and a consequent shift of power away from lords of the manor towards people who worked for them. Meanwhile resentment towards an arrogant, rich and corrupt Catholic Church was also growing. Just as people were feeling more economically independent, there was also a tendency to want to be more independent in a religious sense. The Oxford theologian John Wyclif led opposition to Church corruption, and challenged the idea that ordinary people could have no access to a Latin Bible.

Richard as a young boy had to sit on the sidelines and watch. While religious powers-that-be tried to keep a lid on things, Richard probably felt some sympathy for would be reformers. It is usually claimed that Richard was an orthodox catholic who did not approve of opposition to established Church authority. While Richard does not seem to have been a revolutionary, neither was he a "crusher of heresy," which is how he is described on his memorial at Westminster Abbey. It is probable that the memorial's wording was added later, possibly by the religiously orthodox Henry V. Richard was at the very least tolerant of new ideas. Wyclif's teachings influenced some of Richard's best friends - John de Montague and the Earl of Salisbury for example - and his mother Princess Joan. Later in his reign we shall see that Richard opposed all attempts by archbishops Courtenay and Arundel to start burning those with unorthodox religious views.



Members of the public wandering inside the Tower of London as they did during the Peasant's Revolt

As tensions started to come to a head, many discontented people decided that they wanted to present their grievances directly to their young king. The last straw was imposition of a poll tax in 1380. Summer 1381 saw a huge rebellion, led by radical preacher John Ball, and a retired soldier named Wat Tyler. Accounts of the revolt in contemporary sources vary according to prejudices of chroniclers. We can, however, be sure that idealism quickly gave way to a darker reality. The people's army gathered on Blackheath, just above Greenwich, with London stretched out below, seemingly defenceless. The only royal army in existence was at Plymouth waiting to leave for a war in Spain against France. Fourteen year old Richard seemed quite willing to talk to the mob, but was taken for safety to the Tower of London. The mob, perhaps 30,000 strong swept into London on June 13th 1381. This was a day of riot, pillage and anarchy. As well as taking out their frustrations on anyone considered rich, the rebels indiscriminately killed Flemings and Lombards simply because they were foreigners. The king sat in the White Tower with his advisors. It was eventually decided that Richard should leave the Tower and talk to the rebels at Mile End. Showing great bravery Richard rode to the mob, and said: "Good people, I am your lord and king. What do you want of me?" Meanwhile back at the Tower, defences were overwhelmed. Archbishop Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, were dragged out of St John's Chapel and beheaded on Tower Green. The situation sat on a knife edge. But disconcerted by Richard's self possession, the mob lost confidence. At a meeting at Smithfield, Wat Tyler, while talking to Richard, was stabbed by the mayor of London. Twenty thousand or so men behind him did not react. With false assurances of pardons and a repeal of taxes, the mob dispersed. Ruthless retribution followed. Terry Jones thinks that a thousand killed in armed encounters, and three hundred executed is probably an underestimate. How influential Richard himself was in this is unclear. It seems that events took on a momentum of their own, with people using the volatile, fearful nature of the time to condemn neighbours, husbands, wives, for all kinds of grievances.

In the years that followed the Peasants Revolt Richard struggled to impose his own power on an aggressive nobility. In 1386 the Duke of Gloucester used a supposed threat of French invasion to pose as the only trustworthy defender of England. This appeal to patriotism had great power, then as now. Richard in contrast was an instinctive internationalist, which angered many of the violent nobles, and lost him sympathy with ordinary people, a proportion of whom liked a good war. Richard was not a complete pacifist. In 1385 Richard led an army into Scotland, and it seems ordered the destruction of abbeys at Melrose, Newbottle, and Holyrood. Generally though Richard wanted to take the peaceful way. This inclination was strengthened when he married Princess Anne of Bohemia in 1383. In the years to come Anne almost certainly lay behind much of Richard's preference for peace and cultured activities.



Tower of London

But enjoyment of literature and an appreciation of fine clothes provided no protection against powerful nobles. By the mid 1380s it seemed that the nobles had Richard at their mercy. He was kept in the Tower, outwardly treated with deference but having no real influence. Many of the king's friends were executed or fled abroad, accused of giving the king misleading advice. Ironically, however, it was the nobles' natural aggression that eventually gave Richard an opportunity to impose his own gentler rule. Falling out amongst themselves, the nobles became vulnerable. Then Richard's powerful uncle, John of Gaunt returned from the Iberian Peninsula, where he had been trying to sort out his claim to the throne of Castile. With Gaunt's rather enigmatic support from 1389 onwards Richard was finally able to rule as king.





Leeds Castle

The reign that followed is a battleground for historians. John of Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke, was to usurp the throne in 1399 and comprehensively rewrite history to show Richard in a bad light. Many historians have followed this story. But there is another story, told for example by writers such as Terry Jones in Who Murdered Chaucer. He presents Richard's reign as a dream of peace and culture in a dark age. Richard continued to struggle with his enemies, and life no doubt still fell far short of paradise, but the better world he dreamt of was not one of conquest and military glory. It was a world of beauty, art, literature and peace. Some of these impossible aspirations rubbed off on society around him. Geoffrey Chaucer was writing his poetry, the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales travelling happily through areas of religion and independent thought which would soon be closed off. William Langland was doing the same thing in Piers Ploughman. William Wykeham caught the spirit of the time in his founding of New College, Oxford and Winchester College. I see the physical expression of Richard's dream in places such as Leeds Castle or Bodiam Castle. He presented Leeds Castle as a gift to Anne, and they spent happy times there, escaping from the cares of rule into its dreamy beauty. Bodiam Castle, built in 1386 for Richard's supporter Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, was closely associated with the royal court. Once again this was a castle not so much built for fighting as for beautiful effect. Richard's taste can also be seen at Westminster Hall where he ordered the building of a lovely hammer beam roof. The king was often condemned for wasting money on luxury. In response you could say it was better to spend money on beautiful buildings, literature, art and music, than on bankrupting the country in wars.




Bodiam Castle

Sadly the dream could not last. In 1394 Anne died, aged twenty eight at Sheene Palace, probably of plague. Richard was so devastated that he had Sheen Palace destroyed. He made another political marriage soon after, to Isabelle, daughter of the French king Charles VI. Although Richard treated Isabelle with his usual kindness, she was a girl of eight, and could not replace his impressive and loving Anne. Some historians think that Richard began to retreat from reality following Anne's death, and considering the world Richard lived in, it is hard to blame him. Others dismiss the notion of Richard's apparent tendency to madness in the late 1390s as just another story cooked up by Henry Bolingbroke. Whatever the truth, the dream of Richard's reign was soon to end. Although Richard's fortunes continued to rise until 1397, it was just before Christmas that year when a sequence of events began which would culminate in his downfall. This is where Shakespeare's play starts, with the meeting of two young noblemen, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Norfolk, on horseback between Brentford and London. Both of these men had supported the baron's rebellion against Richard in the mid 1380s but had escaped punishment. Now there was some kind of altercation between them, which resulted in each man accusing the other of treachery. Richard initially tried to cool the hot heads down: "Forgive, forget; conclude and be agreed" as Shakespeare's Richard puts it. But the accusations continued, so that eventually it seemed the only way the issue could be decided was by joust. This dramatic event was to take place just outside Coventry in September 1397. But as the combatants prepared to fight Richard was mulling over possible consequences. He did not want Bolingbroke victorious, gaining dangerous popularity and acclaim. On the other hand if Bolingbroke was killed this would upset his father John of Gaunt, an important supporter. In a moment of great drama memorably portrayed by Shakespeare, Richard threw down his staff stopping the joust just as Bolingbroke and Mowbray were about to charge. After two hours of discussion it was decided to exile both men, Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for ten years, although Bolingbroke's sentence was reduced to six years after an appeal by John of Gaunt.



Guildhall, London, where the Lord Mayor of London has been elected since 1215.

By now Richard's lack of interest in military matters was beginning to tell against him. He had also made an unpopular decision to intervene in the election of the Mayor of London, appointing his own man Richard Whittington. Many felt their ancient rights were being ignored. Then, inspite of Richard's desire for peace, trouble in Ireland demanded the raising of an army, and consequent taxation. As always taxation was resented. Much was made of the idea of Richard being an autocrat after his downfall. But if people thought Richard autocratic, little did they know what they were letting themselves in for when Henry Bolingbroke took the throne.

Henry was sitting in exile, living quite comfortably on a large allowance Richard had provided for him. In February 1399 John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, died, and then Richard had to work out what to do with Gaunt's inheritance, which should have gone to Henry Bolingbroke. The king's decision has usually been portrayed as an attempt to grab Lancastrian lands for himself. Once again this could simply be the slant on events that Henry wanted portrayed. Another version could read very differently. After pondering for six weeks on what to do, Richard decided to keep Henry in exile for the time being. He may well have been concerned about Henry's loyalty, and saw the inheritance as an insurance policy. In a stipulation that still exists in the Calendar of Fine Rolls it is stated that the forfeited lands could only be held by the Crown "until Henry of Lancaster Duke of Hereford, or his heir, shall have sued the same out of the king's hands according to the law of the land." (Quoted by Terry Jones in Who Murdered Chaucer P119.) As long as Henry proved himself loyal he could have his inheritance. This seems reasonable in an age where disloyalty to the king was the ultimate crime.

Henry might well have calmed down, been quietly invited back, and enjoyed his lands into a contented old age. Unfortunately in early 1399 the impressionable young man met with Thomas Arundel in Paris. Arundel was a former archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, exiled as a traitor for his part in the revolt by the nobility in 1386 - 1388. Arundel was frankly a scary man, intelligent, ravenous for power, with a strong desire to burn people who did not hold the same religious views as himself. Not that his religious convictions were particularly strong. He simply liked the life of luxury which a Church career gave him, and was infuriated by agitators for reform who objected to church wealth, and the way in which money was made. Wanting a way back to England, Arundel saw an opportunity in Henry's apparent grievances. He knew that the nobility would be very touchy about what could be presented as a royal theft of lands. He knew that many of the nobility did not like Richard II's inclinations to peace, art, music, literature, and nice clothes. Arundel, it seems, poured poison in Henry's ear, turning a fairly innocuous young man into a tool in his scheme. Henry headed for England in July 1399 knowing that to return without royal approval was treachery. The supposed aim was only to recover his lands, but even if he succeeded in that, there would be no protection from the consequences of treason. The only way he could return to England and hope to survive was to take the throne when he got there. So Henry arrived in England, and apparently found people flocking around him in welcome. But this story has to take into account Henry's skills as "a born propagandist, cunning and absolutely unscrupulous" (Richard II by Bryan Bevan P146). Fanciful descriptions of apparent welcome coincide with records of a scorched earth policy in Cheshire, a part of the country particularly loyal to Richard.


Conwy Castle

While Henry was on his supposed summer tour of 1399, waving to grateful people at the roadside, Richard was in Ireland. The Duke of York left in charge acted purposefully at first, sending Sir William Bagot to Ireland to warn Richard of Henry's landing. But after that the uninspiring York found himself unable to rouse any enthusiasm in his troops. Henry's propaganda had persuaded many of them that Henry was simply coming back to England to claim what was rightfully his. Things rapidly got out of hand, and York soon found himself having to give himself up to Henry. Richard's supporters, Lords Scrope, Bushy and Green fled to Bristol Castle, but were handed over by the castle governor, and immediately executed without trial. Meanwhile in Ireland it is believed that the Duke of Albermarle intentionally advised a delay in returning to north Wales to give Henry time to consolidate his gains. By the time Richard finally returned from Ireland the situation was lost. Compared to the relatively peaceful and forgiving monarch Richard had generally been, Henry and Arundel, with their ruthlessness and news manipulation, must have been a shock. Some took up Henry's cause of their own volition. Others no doubt did so out of fear. Richard reached Conwy Castle in north Wales, but his army there had already dispersed. Richard was tricked into leaving Conwy by a treacherous Duke of Northumberland who led the king into captivity at Flint Castle. Efforts made to rescue him failed. Chaucer is thought to have taken sanctuary at Westminster, but then disappeared. Richard was sent to the Tower, then to Leeds Castle in Kent, where he had once enjoyed happier days with Anne. Then there was another move to Pontefract Castle. By 30th of September 1399 a meeting of nobles confirmed Richard's abdication. Apparently he had agreed to it, but was not allowed to appear to say so. The rightful heir, Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, was passed over, the throne being given to Henry by the gathered lords in Parliament. Henry IV's coronation took place on 30th October at Westminster Abbey.

Richard was now at Pontefract, pacing about in Shakespeare's imagination, wondering who he was. Shakespeare presents a version of who he was, while reminding us that we are all watching a play. Quite where reality begins and illusion ends in this play is not clear. In the midst of confusion though, truth has a habit of being inescapable. John of Gaunt advises his son to make his life better in banishment by imagining it as better. Bolingbroke counters that imagination cannot overcome some truths:




Path at Blackheath



O who can hold a fire in his hand

By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?

Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite

By bare imagination of a feast? (1.1. 294 - 297)


Henry IV tried to rewrite history, but the hunger of his appetite for power still shows through the story he tried to write. Richard dreamt of a better world, and to some extent for the short period of his reign, his dream became reality.




















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