Monday, October 27, 2014
Monarch Profile: King Richard II of England
The King had been raised in the care of his mother, Joan of Kent, but the greatest influence on him was the Earl of Oxford, his hereditary chamberlain. When he came to the throne a council of regency was established which was formed with great care so that no one could dominate it. Yet, the result was that, so much care was taken in that regard, that it was effectively useless and John of Gaunt continued to dominate the political scene. With war still waging on the peripheries of England, there was reason for alarm when the Peasants Revolt broke out in 1381. John of Gaunt was away in Scotland trying to arrange a peace and the army was scattered far away in France, Wales and Scotland so that the two peasant armies, one from Kent and one from Essex, had an open road to London. The regency council tried to simply stay out of their way and divert their anger away from themselves and the King who was barricaded inside the Tower of London while the peasants burned the city and took vengeance on those they blamed for their every misfortune. Finally, he could stand it no more and the 14-year old King Richard II gathered some of his supportive nobles together and rode out to Mile End to meet the leader or at least spokesman of the peasant rebels, Wat Tyler. This was to be the setting of what would probably be the most dramatic confrontation of the reign of Richard II.
The ringleaders were later arrested and the rest sent home. The rebellion was over, the crisis had subsided and, of course, almost none of the demands the King had agreed to were ever fulfilled. As far as the council was concerned, it had all been an effort to buy time from the beginning. The King, still a youth and impressionable, undoubtedly took from this that deception was an essential tool of politics and that the people were all loyal deep down and would follow their king no matter what the circumstances. In regards to both, these lessons would not serve him well. It also further cemented in his mind the idea that he was protected and directed by God and in the following years grew increasingly impatient to begin ruling in his own right. As he began to push more and more against those trying to restrict him, two factions emerged that represented the King and his inner court, which wanted something closer to autocracy, and the powerful nobles who wanted the aristocracy to dominate with a mostly ceremonial monarch above them. Sir Michael de la Pole was representative of the friends of the King while the Earl of Arundel was a leading example of those who opposed him.
Naturally, he had no intention of letting that be the end of it and tried to gather his own force of loyalists while contesting the legality of the impeachment. His enemies, knowing their chances were never better, prepared for war and in 1387 Arundel, Gloucester and the Earl of Warwick gathered their forces north of London. With no sufficient force of his own, the King had no choice but to resort to appeasement, agreeing to the demand to have five of his closest friends arrested and put on trial. He agreed to the demand but did not go out of his way to actually carry them out. One, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, escaped to the north and managed to gather an army loyal to the King but his force was defeated at Radcot Bridge in December. All of the friends and supporters of the King were then subject to retaliation from the rebel party who called themselves the Lords Appellant. They waged a vicious campaign against the members of the King’s household, making a farce of the law and essentially murdering anyone who had been friendly with or supportive of the King. It is no wonder they came to be known as “The Merciless Parliament” of 1388.
It was then that he began his absolute rule of England and it is from this period that probably most of the criticism of him arises. His private army kept a firm grip on the country and his own relatives oversaw affairs, paid with the large estates confiscated from his enemies. He spent lavishly, demanded the utmost submission and forced those who displeased him to pay high prices for pardons. Critics accused him and his forces, such as the Cheshire archers, of oppression and of doing away with the law in favor of royal absolutism. Things came to a head with the death of John of Gaunt in early 1399. King Richard II, rather than showing clemency, had the son of John of Gaunt, Henry of Bolingbroke (future King Henry IV), who had earlier opposed him, exiled for life and seized his property. This earned him the lasting enmity of the House of Lancaster and made all the other elites of the country nervous about their own property and standing. When Richard II left to deal with another outbreak of rebellion in Ireland, Bolingbroke returned to England to claim his inheritance. Powerful nobles rushed to support him and while the King and his supporters were in Ireland, all that remained to defend England was his hapless uncle Edmund of York. He proved a weak obstacle and Richard’s supporters melted away, his Cheshire archers tearing off their white hart badges and going home.