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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

The Reign of Richard II

The Peasant's Revolt was only the most dramatic indication of the discontents of late 14th century English society. The glory days of King Edward III, the profits and the confidence derived from a victorious war, all were gone, but unhappily, not forgotten. Though the profits had been dispersed, the mundane problems of life remained.

  • Military defeat followed upon military victory. In the 1370s and 80s, England was threatened with casual sea raiding and at one point with a serious French invasion.
  • Necessary economic readjustments had to be faced up to, but the war debt and the need for further spending made that difficult.
  • Worst of all, the leadership of the kingdom remained divided.
After 1371, when the Black Prince's illness had forced him to retire, no royal figure was able to inspire and lead the ruling class. The emergence of Richard II as an important figure in his own government (in 1381 at age 14) did not solve the question of leadership.

The main reason was the continuing influence of his uncles, who were the sons of Edward III and the brothers of the king's father, Edward the Black Prince. Chief among them, of course, was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, a man with vast estates and semi-regal powers in various parts of England. There were two others as well: Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

None of them helped Richard to become an effective king. Nor were they capable of devising a successful foreign policy of their own.  A number of ineffective campaigns against France, the count of Flanders, and the Scots just increased the governmental debt.

In the mid-1380s Richard himself was being blamed.

Richard had responded to his uncles' neglect by assembling a court party around himself. These men were later reviled by their opponents as upstarts, but they were scarcely obscure men. The real issues were not obscurity of birth, but greed and military failure. It was said that the war was going badly because the king, who was not particularly warlike himself, had surrounded himself by "knights of Venus instead of Bellona (the war goddess)," and that rich gifts to these idle men was impoverishing the crown and necessitating high taxation.

It is hard to say if Richard was really extravagant, but what is true is that Richard made little effort to gain wide support in the aristocracy. Because he had felt shut out by his elders, he in turn shut them out of his confidence.

When John of Gaunt left to pursue a claim to the kingdom of Castile in 1386, the court party seems to have seen this as their opportunity to really take control. But hardly had Gaunt left than the courtiers came under attack.

In a parliament in October of 1386 to discuss measures for defense, the commons refused to vote any money unless the Earl of Suffolk (Michael de la Pole) and the treasurer were removed. Richard, who had withdrawn to one of his estates after the opening speeches, refused to consider it. But the lords and commons both remained adamant. They were especially aggravated by the recent elevation of Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), one of the least popular courtiers, to the rank of Duke of Ireland. The king finally agreed to received a small delegation from parliament.

When it came it was made up of Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and Thomas Arundel, bishop of Ely, two of his harshest critics. With a third, Richard, Earl of Arundel, brother of the bishop, they were soon to become the king's most determined enemies. Gloucester was the youngest of the king's uncles. He was only in his thirties, not a lot older than his nephew. He thus combined the impatience of youth with a sense of generational superiority.  He seems to have been the spokesman.

The king said that the parliament's complaints against his friends were treasonous, and he threatened to call in his cousin the king of France to help him against them. Gloucester said the king's counselors were ruining the realm; if he did not replace them, there would be trouble. This was a reference to the fate of Edward II, who had relied too much on unsuitable men.

Richard backed down. He returned to parliament, dismissed Suffolk, and submitted to a year's supervision by a commission of lords, bishops and knights, who would have a mandate to clean up the royal household and oversee the war effort. Bishop Arundel became chancellor, while his brother the Earl of Arundel and of course the Duke of Gloucester were members of the commission.

Richard refused to cooperate with those he saw as his enemies. For most of the year of 1387, he avoided London, where the commission was transacting business, and toured the country with his court. Nor was he merely sulking.

In Cheshire, which was a special domain of the crown, and in the borders of Wales, he began hiring armed retainers, whom he gave a special royal badge.

He sent messages to various sheriffs in other parts of the country, asking them if they could raise troops and influence parliamentary elections. Many of them responded that they were helpless to do either, because the commons -- meaning the influential non-nobles, the knights, squires and important burgesses -- all favored the lords of the council.

Richard also consulted with a number of influential royal judges, who were asked to give opinions about the extent of the royal prerogative. The judges said that the impeachment of the king's servants was illegal and that the commission erected by parliament was a derogation of royal power. Indeed, the judges favored a very wide interpretation of the king's prerogative: anyone who tried to restrict it, through parliament or any other means should, in their opinion, be punished as a traitor.

In November of 1387, Richard returned to London and tried to force a showdown. Gloucester and the two Arundels assembled their troops rather than meet privately with the king. They also found enough public support to make Richard back down once again.

Gloucester, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick formally appealed -- that is, accused -- five of the king's favorites (including de Vere and Nicholas Brembre and the archbishop of York) of wrongdoing. Richard accepted the Lords Appelant's demand that the favorites should be arrested pending a trial in parliament.

Richard's compromise was merely a ploy. He hoped that he could gather a force to beat the Lords Appellant before parliament could meet. De Vere indeed tried this, but failed. He was outmaneuvered by Gloucester and the Earl of Derby (the eldest son of John of Gaunt) and had to flee the country.

In February of 1388, the promised parliament met to judge the king and his favorites. This parliament became known as the Merciless Parliament, and well deserves its name. The five men accused by the Appellants were convicted of treason, and several of Richard's friends were executed.  The judges who had given Richard II legal opinions were exiled.

Notably, the lords in parliament were unwilling to execute the "traitors" but the Appellants had enough support in the commons to overbear this opposition.

Queen Anne went down on her knees to Gloucester to beg for the life of Simon Burley (a respected companion in arms of the Black Prince. But Gloucester was implacable. His hand was strengthened by the obvious public hostility to the king and his court and his distrust of the devious king. So Burley died.

The  Merciless Parliament closed by declaring that its measures could never be repealed by any future parliament. At the same time its own proceedings were never to be used as a precedent -- the Appellants were looking out for their own necks. The parliament also awarded them 20,000 pounds for their great services to the country. Bishop Arundel was promoted to archbishop of Canterbury.

Following the Merciless Parliament, the king worked to build a government by consensus. He and his ministers were careful to consult with the Great Council of peers (in other words, the House of Lords), and with the parliament as a whole. Political peace was immeasurably aided by the return of John of Gaunt, who had not gained Castile, but who had been paid by its king to abandon his claim. Gaunt, formerly unpopular, was hailed as a grand old man simply because he had not been involved in the political turmoil of 1386-88.

Gaunt also promoted a peace policy with France. Things had gone so badly for so long that negotiations seemed worth a try.

For years Richard played it very cool. He slowly regained the trust of many of his lords in a way that infuriated the Earl of Arundel. Arundel was so incautious that he criticized John of Gaunt in parliament for being too cozy with the king. Richard rose to defend his uncle, putting Arundel in a bad position. After he cooled off, he decided it was necessary to buy a royal pardon. Later he made a scene at Queen Anne's funeral, and had to humiliate himself to gain pardon.

Three things strengthened Richard's position.

  • The fact that he was the king, and had to be allowed to act as such.
  • He took a major expedition to Ireland in 1394, where the English position was in a bad way, and scored a propaganda victory when four Irish kings swore fealty and accepted knighthood from him.
  • In 1396, a 28-year truce with France was signed, an agreement secured by Richard's marriage to a young French princess. This was unpopular, but the drain on royal finances that had hedged the king about for years was temporarily ended.
 In the spring parliament of  1397 the commons sponsored a bill complaining about the extravagant spending of the royal household. Richard was strong enough to force the commons to apologize for bringing it in. He also got the lords in parliament to agree that exciting the commons to reform the household was treason, and on this basis, a lobbyist named Thomas Haxey was convicted.

Very soon after that, Richard openly moved against his old enemies. He arrested the three Appellants. Gloucester apparently pled for mercy when he realized what was happening, but the king replied he would have as much mercy as Gloucester had shown Burley when the queen pleaded on her knees. Gloucester was taken off to Calais, the strongest royal fortress outside of England, to forestall any rescue attempts.

Richard then proceeded against the Appellants in much the way they had worked against his friends. Eight lords, all of them important, appealed the Appellants for treason, and they were tried in parliament -- all but Gloucester, who had died in prison.

The business of this parliament, which has no name, but which should be called the Merciless Parliament, Part II: The King Strikes Back, was pretty predictable. The legislation of the Merciless Parliament was annulled, just as the Good Parliament's had been in 1377. The pardons that Richard had been forced to give to the Appellants and the other commissioners were also canceled, but save for the four on trial, they were essentially regranted. Arundel was executed, Gloucester was forfeited posthumously, and the Earl of Warwick was exiled for life to the Isle of Man. Archbishop Arundel, who had found himself on trial without warning at the proceedings themselves, was banished, and Richard later had the Roman pope transfer him to another see held by a supporter of the Avignonese pope.

The parliament of 1397 was a tremendous coup. Richard had gained the compliance of the vast majority of the aristocracy in the condemnation of the Appellants. The commons cooperated, too. Their willingness to turn on the heroes of 1388 has been cited as evidence of tampering with elections and the king's efforts to overawe them. But the House of Commons in the fourteenth century was not a body with independent power. The MPs of the time were comparable to government backbenchers in a majority situation. Unless they were wrought up about a subject, they followed their leaders.

In this case the accused were isolated. John of Gaunt presided over the trial; his brother the Duke of York and his son Henry Earl of Derby also were working with the King. So they went along.

Richard rewarded those people who went along, and even made some new dukes.  But Richard's revenge amounted to government by terrorism. He pursued a host of lesser men who had opposed him in 1388. Anyone who had "ridden in arms and risen forcibly against the king"  was required, by act of parliament, to sue for pardon. The king applied this to no less than seventeen counties. The counties were forced to pay a thousand marks each for pardon, and their representatives made to seal blank charters that the king could fill in at any time to their disadvantage if they got out of line.

One can easily understand that the surviving commissioners of 1387-88 might wonder how much their pardons were worth, and fear the coming of the Merciless Parliament, Part III.

Because the new regime was one of fear, and because the king had no solid party behind him, trouble sprang up almost immediately.

In January of 1398, Henry Bolingbroke (heir of John of Gaunt, formerly Earl of Derby newly made Duke of Hereford) came to parliament and said that Thomas Mowbray, the new Duke of Norfolk, had suggested treason to him. Richard, who was not anxious for a new treason trial, did not quite know what to do. A commission was set to investigate, but they came to no conclusion. Then the king said the two dukes should fight a trial by combat. But on the day itself, he refused to let the duel commence, and banished both men.

Norfolk was banished for life. Bolingbroke was banished for ten years. The latter sentence may have been a concession to John of Gaunt, for Henry was his eldest son and heir.

Richard showed a different face four months later, when John of Gaunt died. Then Richard changed Henry's exile into one for life and confiscated his vast inheritance, the Duchy of Lancaster.

In short order, this move brought about Richard's own downfall. At this point he was childless, and Henry was by one reckoning his closest heir. He had given this dangerous man a cause that few could deny -- he had been cheated of his rightful inheritance. If the king could disinherit so arbitrarily, every man of property was threatened. Once again, a king had frightened the political class, and they took the next opportunity to rise against him.

In 1399, Richard sailed off to Ireland with an army to patch up his previous settlement of that country. While he was gone, Henry Bolingbroke landed in the north, to be met by the one of the strongest military leaders in England, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland.

Percy was one of the wardens of the northern marches, where war had been going on for nearly a century. As such, he had a standing army financed out of royal revenues, but loyal to him. In recent years, he had been irritated by interference from London in an area he considered his own. To this point, however, he had concealed his irritation, and Richard had no inkling that he was unreliable. But Percy had decided that a king he helped create, Henry Bolingbroke, would be more amenable than the imperious Richard.

With this backing, and with the justice of his cause clear to all, Henry Bolingbroke quickly took control of England. Richard was trapped in a Welsh castle, and convinced to surrender himself, with the assurance that his crown was not in jeopardy. The promise was immediately forgotten; in captivity he was pressured into abdicating. Parliament then renounced its fealty to him, and offered the crown to Henry, who accepted to become Henry IV. Richard was killed soon after that.

Richard II's fall is interesting chiefly for what it tells us about the English political system. It shows us that the vast theoretical power of the king had no practical meaning if he did not use it properly.

A king who wooed his subjects, who dealt with his lords with finesse, who upheld traditional standards of order -- in other words, Edward III in his prime - - such a king was loved and obeyed.

Richard had a much different conception of kingship than his grandfather had had. He expected to be obeyed without question, without any need to make concessions or consider the rights and privileges of the other influential sectors of society.  His use of his power had scared and angered almost everyone, which cut him off from the willing support he needed to make his rule a reality.

Furthermore, Richard disappointed a kingdom that was looking for another military hero. Although not completely unmilitary, he was not the chivalric figure that his grandfather had been.  It was known and resented that Richard preferred to ally with his traditional enemy of France against his own subjects, rather than lead them to fight him.

Richard and his people were thus a disastrous mismatch. They wished for a great knight; while he dreamed of being emperor.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.