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. Gloucester, attempting to build his own base of power, incited Parliament, which had convened on October 1, 1386, in order to raise money for an anticipated French invasion, to attack the wasteful manner in which Richard and his supporters spent parliamentary revenues. Gloucester went so far as to request that Parliament be given the records of the deposition of King Edward II from 1327, so that the members could learn how to rid themselves of a “bad” king who ruled with corrupt advisers. Richard viewed Gloucester’s maneuvers as treasonous but did not dare to arrest him. Instead, Richard began to gather an army that would give him the power to silence Gloucester and his rapidly growing party of critics. Throughout 1387, however, Gloucester’s own military support outnumbered and outmaneuvered Richard’s. Capitulating to Gloucester and the other four “lords appellant” (among whom numbered Henry IV), Richard returned to London, called a meeting of Parliament for February, 1388, and surrendered to his uncle Gloucester’s domination. With this “Merciless Parliament,” Gloucester directed impeachment proceedings against many of the king’s supporters and advisers, some of whom were executed, banished, or imprisoned by order of the Parliament.
Shattered and weak, Richard accepted the domination of his uncles despite his declaration in May, 1389, that he could rule the kingdom on his own. In August, 1389, Richard requested that John of Gaunt return from his unsuccessful campaign against Castile and negotiated truces with all of England’s foreign enemies. Accepting the outcome of the 1388 purge for the moment, Richard led England into a short-lived era of peace. From 1388 to 1397, the kingdom was prosperous, Parliament was pleased with the low level of taxation, and Richard became accustomed to self-rule, even under his uncles’ shadows. This period was marred only by Queen Anne’s death on June 7, 1394. As Anne and Richard had produced no heirs, Richard needed to marry again. In July, 1395, King Charles VI of France, wishing to negotiate a permanent peace treaty, offered his eldest daughter, the seven-year-old Isabella, to Richard as a symbol of their friendship. Isabella and Richard were married on November 4, 1395, at Calais.
Although cowed by the events of 1387 and 1388, Richard ultimately obtained his revenge: On July 8, 1397, the king ordered the arrests of Gloucester; Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury; and Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, all of whom had participated in the impeachment of Richard’s supporters during the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Richard charged them all with treason and in September, 1397, Parliament found them guilty. Warwick was sentenced to exile on the Isle of Man, while Arundel was banished from the kingdom. Gloucester, who was found guilty posthumously, had been smothered by his captors early in September, upon orders of the king.
From September, 1397, until September, 1399, Richard ruled with a striking determination. He was ruthless and developed policies that were at once incoherent and absolute. For example, he announced his intention to punish several counties that had not supported him from 1387 to 1388 by exacting a heavy fine, yet he did not state when he would collect the fine, creating great financial uncertainty and emphasizing his absolute royal arbitrariness. Perhaps his riskiest act was the banishment of both his supporter Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Nottingham, and Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Earl of Derby, as a settlement of a quarrel between the two regarding an alleged conspiracy against the king. When John of Gaunt died on February 3, 1399, Richard greedily seized his property and prevented Bolingbroke from receiving his inheritance. This royal seizure of land created much dissatisfaction among the nobility who thought that the king had overstepped his authority.
While Richard was on a military campaign in Ireland during the summer of 1399, Bolingbroke seized the opportunity to return from his banishment and demand his inheritance. Although he landed in England with fewer than one hundred soldiers, he quickly won the support of Parliament and nearly every nobleman in the kingdom. Politically and militarily more powerful than the king, Bolingbroke demanded that Richard abdicate his throne. On September 29, 1399, Richard agreed to resign his crown. The following day, Parliament assembled and deprived Richard of his crown because of his “crimes and cruelties.” With the throne vacant, Parliament crowned Bolingbroke Henry IV, King of England and Wales. Richard, now Henry’s prisoner, was taken first to the Tower of London and then to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, where he was allegedly murdered in February, 1400.
Although Richard II’s reign was brief and riddled with political machinations and murders, it provides vivid illustrations of the problems confronting a late medieval monarch and of the constitutional development of England. Richard’s struggle with his domineering uncles—powerful noblemen in their own right—and the Parliament, which they manipulated, reveals that the title “king” was not always enough to ensure a monarch’s ability to rule according to his desires. By the end of the Middle Ages, Parliament and the nobility challenged and limited the monarch’s ability to rule. It was this tug-of-war between his own desires and the various demands of his subjects that made Richard’s task of ruling England so difficult.
For Richard, the consequences of this power struggle were fatal, regardless of whether it was a result of a flaw in his character, as William Shakespeare portrays it, or a result of a desire to exercise royal authority against traitors, as Richard himself saw it. For England, however, Richard’s reign witnessed the firm establishment of the constitutional concept that subjects can, in many ways, respond to an abusive king. During the later Middle Ages, subjects more frequently made public complaints about the state of the kingdom and English parliaments had begun to restrain the king by refusing to provide him with funds to pursue his policies. With the deposition of Richard II, noblemen and Parliament demonstrated their ability and willingness to use more dramatic means to resist royal encroachments on the legal and property rights of Englishmen. Over the next three centuries, the struggle for the control of England by subjects and Parliament, on one hand, and the monarch seeking to utilize a “divinely inspired” power, on the other, resulted in the permanent constitutional limitation of royal power.
Costain, Thomas B. The Last Plantagenets. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1962. A popular and anecdotal account of the reigns of English kings from Richard II through Richard III (1377-1485). Costain places much emphasis on the character and personality of the rulers.
Fowler, Kenneth. The Age of Plantagenet and Valois. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1967. A handsomely illustrated and informative book about England and France during the Hundred Years’ War. The book surveys the causes and the course of the conflict, as well as providing descriptions of the social context and the nature of the war itself.
Hilton, Rodney. Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381. New York: Methuen and Co., 1977. The standard modern account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, set in the context of the late fourteenth century and the economic crisis caused by the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. The book also surveys the general history of peasant revolts in the Middle Ages.
Holmes, George. The Later Middle Ages, 1272-1485. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1962. A survey of the High Middle Ages in England, Holmes’s work provides a balanced overview of social, ecclesiastical, and political history, in addition to a brief history of the Wars of the Roses.
McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959. A standard and authoritative book about England during the fourteenth century. While somewhat dated, this thorough survey provides the reader with an abundance of detail and an extensive bibliography.