Richard of Bordeaux (as he was sometimes known) was born on January 6, 1367. The son of the “Black Prince” and grandson of the great King Edward III, he had an illustrious lineage and impossibly big shoes to fill when the death of his father and older brother left him as heir to the throne at a very young age. History has not been kind to the monarch who, at the age of only 10-years old, came to the throne as King Richard II in 1377. How much of the criticism heaped on him over the centuries is fair and how much was due to circumstances beyond his control? It is certainly unfair to compare him to his predecessor, King Edward III, who was so exceptional; a colossus in English history. Compared to such a figure, King Richard II could never have hoped to measure up, especially given that, as great as Edward III was, he was mythologized to even greater proportions as the greatest English monarch since King Arthur (as some called him) and whose few but naturally present shortcomings tended to be ignored or even pushed forward in time to be attributed to the reign of Richard II. Lest we forget, after the glorious victories of his reign battling the French, toward the end of his life King Edward III, who had never been the best of administrators, had effectively lost control of the government of his realm to his unscrupulous mistress and self-serving advisors.
The boy-king Richard II came to the throne of a country that was already beset by divisions and mistrust. Acting on his behalf was his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, who arranged a magnificent coronation for the boy to emphasize the sacredness of the monarchy and that the Crown was to be revered regardless of whether the one wearing it was a conquering hero like Edward III or the inexperienced youth they saw before them in Richard II. The hope was to inspire unity but it would prove to be a naïve hope and young Richard II was immediately thrust on to a scene of intrigue and danger. In the past, England had avoided feuds between the lords by going to war with France but as the former King grew old, weak and finally died, only to be replaced by a 10-year-old boy, they became a considerable domestic threat with their large private armies while across the channel, the French raided English possessions and a distrust of aristocratic and even royal leadership began to germinate in many quarters. The pomp and ceremony of the coronation was part of the reaction to this; to emphasize the unquestionable primacy of the Crown and this was a campaign that King Richard II, not unnaturally given his surroundings, was to take up with zeal. Never before and probably not until the Stuart reign was there an English monarch more devoted to the idea of the “Divine Right of Kings” that was Richard II.
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.
Wat Tyler presented his king with the demands of the peasants, which were quite radical, the most significant being an amnesty for all the rebels, a fixed rate of low rent for all lands and the total abolition of serfdom in England. With the backing of the regency council that was prepared to agree to anything, Richard II accepted and agreed to all of these demands. This left most of the rebel army all dressed up with no place to go and, as a result, most of them declared “mission accomplished” and went back to their homes. However, as is invariably the case with these types of people, a hard core remained whose natural inclination was to never be satisfied. If the enemy agrees to every one of your demands, you simply present him with a new list of demands. This intransigent, radical element stayed in the field and continued to be a threat as there was still no way to deal with them by force. So, another meeting was arranged. After his previous victory, Wat Tyler was the picture of arrogance and treated the King with the utmost insolence. To his shock, this outrage prompted several of the King’s party to attack and kill him. The rebel mob was about to go on a rampage when King Richard II, in a display of courage he seldom gets credit for, rode right into their midst and led them from the scene.
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.
King Richard II was a very cultured man, a great lover of art, music and also of using these tools to glorify the monarchy. When he spent money on such cultural projects he was accused of being corrupt, of funneling money to his sycophants at court and his aristocratic critics accused him of being at the center of a circle that was lazy and basically not ‘macho men’ who would deal crushing blows to the French and the Scots. Perhaps stung by this criticism, Richard II tried to take charge of a military expedition into Scotland himself but the result was a disaster and proved that, while undeniably a brave man, he was no military leader. His army stumbled around for a few days, never finding any Scots to do battle with, before the King gave up and went home, subject to even more ridicule. He quarreled some with John of Gaunt but it was never as serious as some made it out to be as the powerful uncle remained ever loyal to his nephew and King. As long as he remained, the King’s enemies knew they had little chance of success. However, that situation changed when John of Gaunt left England in 1386 to try to make himself King of Castile in Spain. No sooner had his ship disappeared from the horizon than the Arundel faction demanded that the King dismiss his friend, Sir Michael de la Pole, from his position as chancellor. Richard II reacted first with emotion, saying that he wouldn’t bend to their wishes even if it were the dismissal of a simple cook. However, when Arundel and Thomas of Gloucester began to imply that the King himself might have to go, Richard II gave in and had Pole impeached.
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.
Seething with resentment, Richard II bided his time. First, the following year, he pushed to be allowed to rule as an adult and, at 22, no one could justly stop him. However, he did nothing to rock the boat right away. He paid lip service to the Appellants and went about his duties, reassured, perhaps, by the return of John of Gaunt from Spain. In 1394 he arranged a settlement of the situation in Ireland and in 1396 signed a truce with the French which was very successful. These achievements show that, despite what his detractors say, he was not without ability as a statesman. He also continued to glorify the monarchy with artistic endeavors, ceremony and an elaborate court. In 1382 he married Anne of Bohemia and, after her death, married again to Isabella of France. Also, all throughout this time, he was building up his own strength and quietly assembling a private army, marked by his badge of the white hart, from troops in Ireland, Wales and Cheshire. Finally, in 1397, he suddenly struck and had Arundel, Gloucester and Warwick arrested. Gloucester was killed in Calais but the other ringleaders were put on trial in a way that illustrated how the tables had turned from the time when they had done the same. Arundel was executed and Warwick, after confessing, was exiled to the Isle of Man. Other enemies were exiled and it seemed that King Richard II had triumphed brilliantly.
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.
King Richard II rushed back to England to fight for his kingdom, landing in northern Wales where he had considerable support, but on every side he found former supporters shunning him or outright betraying him. In quick order he was left powerless and was captured and taken to the Tower of London, then Lancastrian Pontefract. Everywhere victorious, Bolingbroke decided to make himself King and thought to replicate the situation at the downfall of Edward II. However, King Richard II was not at all like Edward II and refused to simply abdicate when summoned. Even if he did so, his heir would have been the child Earl of March and not Bolingbroke. Finally, after some supporters of King Richard tried to assassinate Bolingbroke, he decided that the King was too dangerous to live and so he was killed at Pontefract Castle on February 14, 1400 at the age of only 33. He seized power and had himself proclaimed King Henry IV of England, Ireland and France but could never quite shake a sense of guilt for having ordered the regicide of an anointed monarch. It was not until the reign of the great King Henry V that the Lancasters came to terms with this deed when the King had Richard II reburied in his official royal tomb in Westminster Abbey.
It is true that King Richard II acted unwisely on a number of occasions and certainly his period of absolute power was not executed in a way so as to win the hearts and minds of his subjects. However, it is unfair to hold Richard II solely to blame for the many difficulties of his reign and the troubles that were to plague England later. He was never properly prepared for his part in life nor did he have much of an opportunity to mature into his own man. A King in name at 10, a King with power at 22 and a dead King at 33 was a short sprint. Many if not most of his negative qualities were the result of his environment and experiences and there is no doubt that his enemies acted monstrously with only their own narrow interests in mind. His reputation also suffers unfairly from the more successful, and more adult, kings that came before and after him. However, to blame him for the Wars of the Roses is a considerable exaggeration. He was not a great warrior and was all too willing to hold a grudge (though given the action of his enemies, I find it hard to blame him) but he was also very well educated, a great patron of the arts and a firm supporter of religion (acting decisively against the heretical Lollards). He had, certainly, an exalted sense of himself but his sort of absolute monarchy was really not very different from that of the Tudor era which is so often celebrated. King Richard II will probably always remain on the list of “bad” Kings of England but I have always had a bit of a soft spot for him and I think that anyone looking at the facts dispassionately would have to agree that he wasn’t all that bad or at least was not entirely to blame for his worst failings.