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Chapter Four of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


4. Richard II

Richard, second son of Edward the Black Prince who died in 1376, grandson of Edward III who died in 1377, came to the throne a mere child of eleven. His coronation ceremony was such an arduous affair that the exhausted child had to be carried on the shoulders of his tutor to the palace for a nap before the coronation banquet. That banquet was to end the day of prayer, sermon, mass, anointing, oath-taking, confession, absolution, blessing, robing, arming, enthronement, coronation, presentation to the people, acceptance of vassals, and assorted other activities which marked a medieval coronation day. It was a long day for one so young, and the boy's exhaustion is understandable. The boy-king did grow stronger, but he has never held a prominent place in the history of England's royalty. His deposition after 22 years of rule and the succession to the throne of his cousin Henry have left Richard in the unenviable historical position of being known as a weak transitional king between stronger and more fortunate leaders. Even his name is overshadowed by that of his more famous progenitor, Richard I, the Lion-Hearted (1157-99).

The history of the luckless Richard II is for the most part a history of domestic politics in which Richard was more often than not a secondary figure. History seemed to happen as much around him as because of him. Historians find him reacting to small matters rather than taking charge of large ones. There were exceptions, of course. Richard's heroic handling of the English Rising of 1381, when he was a lad of 14, gave him both a contemporary and a long-term fame for decisiveness and personal bravery. Much of the rest of his short and uninspiring kingship, however, was marked by the maneuverings of others--particularly his own relatives.

Three of these relatives--two uncles and a cousin--deserve special mention. John of Gaunt, younger brother of the Black Prince, was Richard's uncle and clearly the most powerful and influential English statesman of the last quarter of the fourteenth century. As Duke of Lancaster, he controlled vast lands and many vassals. His strength lay partly in his political muscle but also in his wisdom and experience at a time when his young nephew was neither wise nor experienced. So great was his influence that Richard and his closest advisers were continually worried that he might usurp the throne. Perhaps Gaunt could have done so, had he wished to, for he had at his command greater armies than Richard himself could muster. He seems not, however, to have seriously considered a take-over of the throne. Although his words and actions were almost always in clear support of Richard and of Richard's hereditary right to wear the crown, Gaunt was nevertheless a threat to insecure men who distrusted his power. Richard found himself ruling always with a cautious eye out to his uncle's doings.

Gaunt was never a king himself, though his descendants were to be kings of Spain, Portugal, and England. By his first wife Blanche he fathered a daughter Phillipa, who married the king of Portugal and who gave birth to the next king of Portugal, and to a son Henry, who became England's king at the deposition of Richard in 1399. By his second wife Costanza he fathered a daughter whose son became king of Castile. By his third wife Catherine--who began life with him as his mistress and whom he married after the death of Costanza--he fathered John, whose descendant became England's Henry VII, and Joan, whose descendants became known as the English royal House of York.

If in many ways the term of Richard's reign seems more fully represented by the doings of John of Gaunt than by those of the king himself, we can only reflect that Gaunt was a more dominant figure. Certainly contemporary and later chroniclers, historians, and dramatists, eager to give an account that reflected well on the benevolent and "time-honored" patriarch of the House of Lancaster, found that it took little adjustment of the facts to cast the quick-tempered and often vengeful Richard into Gaunt's shadow.

Richard had another uncle known as Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Youngest son of Edward III and undistinguished brother to the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, this man of small means and large self-interest led a rebellion against Richard and his policies in 1387. Taking advantage of a possible invasion from France and of Gaunt's extended departure from England, Gloucester and other barons posed as defenders of the realm in a time when the king, still in his teens, had virtually no armies of his own to command. Although the French threat never materialized, Gloucester had accumulated enough sway that he could successfully influence Parliament to force the dismissal of several of Richard's key advisers--including his chancellor--and to insist on the appointment of others from Gloucester's own camp. So effective was the purge, and so incapable was the young Richard of stopping it, that even Geoffrey Chaucer, minor royal friend and holder of an insignificant office, found himself dismissed. Richard made some tentative and careful political forays to regain his rightful power, but Gloucester heard of them in time to gather his armies and march on London. Before long Richard found himself virtually imprisoned in the Tower of London, at the mercy of his hated uncle and separated from almost everyone who had shown him loyalty.

Richard ultimately re-established, if only tentatively, his royal prerogative. He could do so primarily because he had come of age and was, after all, King of England. After he had passed his 21st birthday, fully aware of the failures of the Gloucester faction to run the country any better than his own advisers had, he decided to claim the right to govern England himself. In 1389 he went to the council chamber at Westminster and demanded that he be put back in charge of his household and his realm, that he be permitted to appoint his own advisers, and that the chancellor surrender to him the royal seal. It must have astonished even Richard that the council agreed to his demands. But it did agree, and Richard found himself, for the first time, the true monarch of England. John of Gaunt, who had spent the whole period of Gloucester's ascendancy laboring on political and military affairs in Spain, returned shortly after Richard's brave declaration of independence to offer the king his wise--and now much welcome--advice and support. With that advice and support Richard began the slow process of building a government in which he could rule effectively.

As for Gloucester and the other principle barons in the rebellion, they had no choice but to return to their own estates, wondering whether Richard could gain the power to take revenge against them and whether, if he could, he would take that revenge. They were all, in one way or another, to learn that he not only could build the power, but also that he had the desire to take his revenge. Richard--before he was deposed a decade later--was to see them all either killed or exiled from his kingdom.

We must consider one other principal in Gloucester's rebellion: Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, Duke of Hereford, and eldest son of John of Gaunt. For reasons too complicated to consider here, Henry was at first cautious about joining forces with Gloucester. When it became clear, however, that Gloucester's efforts were to meet with considerable success, Henry quit his loyalty to the king and sided with the rebellious barons. Henry must have had mixed feelings, for his father Gaunt, who was in Spain, had a better right to challenge the king than his uncle Gloucester had. His father notably had not done so. Still, Henry did join Gloucester, and was soon named head of the army which opposed the king.

When Richard had his opportunity to take revenge against his former enemies, he dealt lightly with his cousin Henry. Henry was, after all, Gaunt's son and heir, and Richard's own position was not strong enough that he could afford to deal harshly with the son of the powerful and supportive Gaunt. In the end, a comfortable and temporary sojourn in France was arranged for Henry, a friendly exile calculated to save face for all concerned. Events were soon to show that Richard's generosity to Henry was fatal to himself and to the distinguished line of Plantagenet kings.

In 1399 Richard sailed with his army to Ireland to consolidate his power there. Shortly before the king left, John of Gaunt had died in the full honor of his years. Richard exercised the royal prerogative and claimed for the crown his uncle's estates, effectively denying to Gaunt's son Henry, then still in exile, ownership of them. When Henry learned that he was to lose his inheritance, and that Richard was abroad on other business, he set sail for home. Henry found in England a populace weary of Richard's taxes and a baronage distressed by Richard's propensity for ignoring what they considered to be their sovereign rights to their own estates. After all, if Richard had seized Henry's inheritance, might he not seize theirs also? Both the people and the barons were only too ready to throw their support behind a new figure, and Henry was astute enough to encourage them in their hopes that he would be an improvement over Richard. One after another the barons and the people gave him their support, and by the time Richard learned in Ireland what was going on at home, most of his own supporters had either been killed or had gone over to Henry. By the time he got home England was no longer his and he found that he could not count even on his own army. Henry had merely to face the thorny questions of how to get Richard to abdicate and how to claim legal right to the throne for himself.

Richard had no choice but to abdicate. Finding himself prisoner in the Tower of London once again, he gave up his crown. Henry, proclaiming the crown by hereditary descent and by right of conquest, was crowned King Henry IV. Richard was quietly removed from one castle prison to another, and in February, 1400, he died. It may be that he had starved himself to death; it may be that he died of disease or exposure in a drafty dungeon; it may be that Henry had him murdered. But dead he was, in the same year that saw the death of Geoffrey Chaucer. An era was over.

But what an era it was! It produced a number of magnificent literary works by distinguished poets: Chaucer, Langland, the Gawain-poet, and Gower, to name only the most prominent of them. So fine was the poetic heritage of the last quarter of the fourteenth century that scholars have come to call the work of such writers "Ricardian poetry."

There is one small postscript to the story of Richard. Years later, as Henry neared death himself, he became convinced that he would be punished in the next life for his illegal and immoral action in deposing Richard. He had planned to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins, but died before he could get there. He asked, instead, that his body be buried in Canterbury Cathedral. He hoped that if his bones were buried near those of St. Thomas, the saint might help ease the burden of his guilt. Henry IV is the only king buried in the cathedral at Canterbury.

  • Primary source: Harold F. Hutchinson, The Hollow Crown: A Life of Richard II (London: Methuen, 1961).

Chapter Four of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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