Richard II (Dictionary of World Biography: Middle Ages)
Article abstract: Seeking to overcome his powerful uncles who dominated English government before he reached majority, Richard II harshly asserted his royal powers and became the second English monarch to be deposed by his subjects.
Richard of Bordeaux was born on January 6, 1367, in the abbey of St. André in Bordeaux, France, the second son of Joan, “the Fair Maid,” Countess of Kent, and the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King Edward III. Richard remained in Bordeaux until January, 1371, when he traveled to England with his ailing father. Little is known about Richard’s early years or his education as a crown prince of England. During his youth, it is likely that he became familiar with the workings of a princely court, acquired a basic education from his tutors, and enjoyed the companionship of his older brother, Edward, and his two half brothers, Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, and John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, born of his mother’s previous marriage.
A series of deaths, which ultimately brought the crown to this younger son of the Black Prince in 1377, punctuated Richard’s childhood. In 1371, his older brother, Prince Edward, died at the age of seven. Five years later, Richard’s father died, predeceasing his own father by a year. In 1377, the great Plantagenet warrior and patriarch King Edward III died after many years of illness, during which his son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had controlled the government. This death left the ten-year-old Richard heir to the throne as the oldest surviving male heir of Edward III’s oldest son.
As the new king of England, crowned on July 16, 1377, Richard did not actually exercise autonomous authority. He ruled with the guidance of several noblemen and the help of his mother, until her death in 1385. The regency, which lasted until Richard declared himself of age and capable of rule in 1389, established both the character and the problems of the young king’s reign. Joan and the noblemen formed a council which represented a variety of political viewpoints and set itself the task of leading the country in Richard’s name. The twelve-person council was dominated by two of Richard’s paternal uncles, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. As a result of the leadership vacuum created by the last years of the dying Edward III and the government of the regency council manipulated by the uncles of the boy king, England lacked a single, strong leader. Learning from the early years of his reign, the tall, slender, graceful, boyish-looking, and often moody Richard II attempted to become the strong and absolute monarch that he thought England needed and wanted.
When Richard ascended the throne in 1377, England was at war with France. The regency council summoned Parliament in 1377, 1378, and 1380 in order to raise tax revenues for the war effort. Ever since 1349, when the plague decimated the English population and upset the economic functioning of the country, the fiscal systems of the Crown had been unbalanced. Attempting to fight a war for the French throne with irregular or uncertain human and financial resources forced the Crown to request that the Parliament assess new and greater taxes on a kingdom which had difficulty paying them. In the fourth parliament of Richard’s reign, the new poll tax was adopted. It was a fixed assessment on individuals, rather than a proportional tax on incomes.
The poll tax of 1380, which many landlords paid by demanding new exactions from their peasants, resulted in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The rioting peasant mob objected to the heavy financial burden of the taxes. Led by John Ball and Wat Tyler, the angry crowd marched to London, destroying estates of royal councillors along the way. The rioters demanded to meet with the king, a request which was finally granted. While only fourteen years old, the king received the loud complaints of the peasants about taxes, the maladministration of justice, and the unfairness of landlords and indicated his willingness to implement reforms. At one of these meetings, Tyler was killed by some of the king’s guards and the rebellion suddenly ended. While Richard did not play a major role in quashing the uprising, it became clear to him during the revolt that his people truly held him in high esteem. He was perceived as an individual who could not only lead the country but also solve its problems.
With his maturation and his marriage to Anne of Bohemia on January 14, 1382, Richard gradually became a more confident ruler. He increasingly made his ideas and opinions known to the regency council. Richard’s outspokenness contributed to a dangerous division of the council into a faction of his supporters and an opposing one which leaned toward Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt (father of Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV). In July, 1386, John sailed off to Portugal in an attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Castile for England and himself. His departure initially relieved the factional tensions on the regency council, but the manipulative Gloucester soon began to dominate it....
(The entire section is 2129 words.)
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