Richard II (6 January 1367 – ca. 14 February 1400) was King of England from 1377 until he was deposed in 1399. Richard, a son of Edward, the Black Prince, was born during the reign of his grandfather, Edward III. At the age of four, Richard became second in line to the throne when his older brother Edward of Angoulême died, and heir apparent when his father died in 1376. With Edward III's death the following year, Richard succeeded to the throne at the age of ten.
During Richard's first years as king, government was in the hands of a series of councils. The political community preferred this to a regency led by the king's uncle, John of Gaunt, yet Gaunt remained highly influential. The first major challenge of the reign was the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, during which the young king comported himself well, and played a major part in suppressing the rebellion. In the following years, however, the king's dependence on a small number of courtiers caused discontent in the political community, and in 1387 control of government was taken over by a group of noblemen known as the Lords Appellant. By 1389 Richard had regained control, and for the next eight years governed in relative harmony. Then, in 1397, he took his revenge on the appellants, many of whom were executed or exiled. For the next two years Richard's rule was seen by many as tyrannous. In 1399, after John of Gaunt died, the king disinherited Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke, who had previously been exiled. Henry invaded England in June 1399 with a small force that quickly grew in numbers. Meeting little resistance, he deposed Richard and had himself crowned as King Henry IV. Richard died in captivity early the next year; he was probably murdered.
As an individual, Richard was tall, good-looking and intelligent. Though probably not insane, as earlier historians used to believe, he seems to have suffered from certain personality disorders, especially towards the end of his reign. Less of a warrior than either his father or grandfather, he sought to bring an end to the Hundred Years' War that Edward III had started. He was a firm believer in the royal prerogative, something which led him to restrain the power of his nobility, and rely on a private retinue for military protection instead. Richard's posthumous reputation has to a large extent been shaped by Shakespeare, whose play Richard II portrayed Richard's misrule and Bolingbroke's deposition as responsible for the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. This is an interpretation no longer accepted today, though this does not exonerate Richard from responsibility for his own destiny. Historians agree that, even though his policies were not unprecedented or entirely unrealistic, the way in which he carried them out was too extreme, and this led to his downfall.
Richard's father was Edward, the Black Prince, and his mother was Joan "The Fair Maid of Kent". Edward, who was Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, had distinguished himself as a military commander in the early phases of the Hundred Years' War, particularly in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. After further military adventures, however, he contracted dysentery in Spain in 1370. Never fully recovering, he had to return to England the next year. Joan of Kent had been the subject of a marriage dispute between Thomas Holland and William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, from which Holland emerged victorious. Shortly after Holland's death in 1360, Joan married Prince Edward. The marriage required papal approval, as Joan and Edward were cousins, both grandchildren of Edward I.
Richard was born at the Abbey of St. Andrew in Bordeaux, in the English principality of Aquitaine, on 6 January 1367. According to contemporary sources, three kings "the King of Spain, the King of Navarre and the King of Portugal" were present at his birth. This anecdote, and the fact that his birth fell on the feast of Epiphany, was later used in religious imagery, as can be seen in the Wilton Diptych. His elder brother Edward of Angoulême died in 1371, and Richard became his father's heir. The Black Prince finally succumbed to his long illness in 1376. The commons in parliament genuinely feared that Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, would usurp the throne. For this reason, the prince was quickly invested with the princedom of Wales and his father's other titles. On 22 June the next year Richard's grandfather, Edward III, also died, and at the age of ten Richard was crowned king on 16 July 1377. Again, fears of John of Gaunt's ambitions influenced political decisions, and a regency led by the King's uncles was avoided. Instead the king was nominally to exercise kingship, with the help of a series of "continual councils", from which John of Gaunt was excluded. Together with his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, Gaunt still held great informal influence over the business of government. However, the king's councillors and friends, particularly Simon de Burley and Aubrey de Vere, increasingly gained control of royal affairs, and earned the mistrust of the Commons to the point where the councils were discontinued in 1380. An increasingly heavy and more wide-ranging burden of taxation, through three poll taxes levied between 1377 and 1381 that were spent on unsuccessful military expeditions on the continent, contributed to discontent, and by 1381, there was a deep-felt resentment against the governing classes in the lower levels of English society.
Although that year's poll tax was the immediate cause of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the root of the conflict lay in deeper tensions between peasants and landowners, which were in turn caused by the demographic consequences of the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of the plague. The rebellion started in Kent and Essex in late May, and on 12 June bands of peasants gathered at Blackheath near London under the leaders Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw. John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace was burnt down, and both the Lord Chancellor, Archbishop Simon Sudbury, and the Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales, were killed. The rebels demanded the complete abolition of serfdom. The king was ensconced in the Tower of London with his councillors. They agreed that the government did not have the forces to disperse the rebels, and that the only feasible option was to negotiate.
It is unclear how much Richard, still only fourteen years old, was involved in these deliberations, although historians have suggested that he was among the proponents of negotiations. The king set out from the Tower by river on 13 June, but the throng of people at Greenwich made it impossible for him to land there, and he was forced to return. The next day, Friday, 14 June, he set out by horse and met the rebels at Mile End. The king agreed to the rebels' demands, but this move only emboldened the rebels, who continued their looting and killings. Richard met Wat Tyler again the next day at Smithfield, and reiterated that the demands should be met, but the rebel leader was not convinced of the king's sincerity. The king's men grew restive, an altercation broke out and William Walworth, the mayor of London, pulled Tyler down from his horse and killed him. The situation became tense once the rebels realised what had happened, but the king acted with calm resolve, and saying "I am your captain, follow me!" he led the mob away from the scene. Walworth meanwhile gathered a force to surround the peasant army, but the king granted clemency and allowed the rebels to disperse and return to their homes.
The king soon revoked the charters of freedom and pardon that he had granted, and as disturbances continued in other parts of the country, he personally went into Essex to suppress the rebellion. On 28 June at Billericay he effectively ended the Peasants' Revolt. Despite his young age, Richard had shown great personal qualities in his handling of the rebellion. It is likely, though, that the events impressed upon him the dangers of disobedience and threats to royal authority, and helped shape the absolutist attitudes to kingship that would later prove fatal to his reign.
Michael de la Pole had been instrumental in the marriage negotiations; he had the king's confidence, and gradually became more involved at court and in government as Richard came of age. De la Pole came from an upstart merchant family, and when Richard made him chancellor in 1383, and created him Earl of Suffolk two years later, this antagonised the more established nobility. Another member of the close circle around the king was Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Aubrey de Vere's nephew), who in this period emerged as the king's favourite. De Vere's lineage, while an ancient one, was relatively modest in the peerage of England. Richard's close friendship to de Vere also caused displeasure, exacerbated by the earl's elevation to new title of Duke of Ireland in 1386. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham suggested the relationship between the king and de Vere was of a homosexual nature.
Tensions came to a head over the approach to the war in France. While the court party preferred negotiations, Gaunt and Buckingham urged a large-scale campaign to protect English possessions. Instead, a so-called crusade led by Henry le Despencer, bishop of Norwich was dispatched, which failed miserably. Faced with failure on the continent, Richard instead turned his attention towards France's ally Scotland. In 1385, the king himself led a punitive expedition to the north, but the effort came to nothing, and the army had to return without ever engaging the Scots in battle. Meanwhile, only an uprising in Ghent prevented a French invasion of southern England. The relationship between Richard and his uncle deteriorated further with military failure, and among rumours of a plot against his person, John of Gaunt left England to pursue his claim to the throne of Castille in 1386. With Gaunt gone, the unofficial leadership of the growing dissent against the king and his courtiers passed to Buckingham who had by now been created duke of Gloucester and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel.
The threat of a French invasion did not subside, but instead grew stronger into 1386. At the parliament of October that year, Michael de la Pole in his capacity of chancellor requested taxation of an unprecedented level for the defence of the realm. Rather than consenting, parliament responded by refusing to treat any request until the chancellor was removed. It is assumed that this congregation, which has later become known as the Wonderful Parliament, was working with the support of Gloucester and Arundel. The king famously responded that he would not dismiss as much as a scullion from his kitchen at parliament's request. Only when threatened with deposition was Richard forced to give in, and let de la Pole go. A commission was set up to review and control royal finances for a year.
Richard was deeply perturbed by this affront to his royal prerogative, and from February to November 1387 set about on a "gyration" (circuit) of the country to muster support for his cause. By installing de Vere as justice of Chester, he began the work of creating a loyal military power base in Cheshire. Furthermore, he assured legal backing from Chief Justice Robert Tresilian that parliament's conduct had been both unlawful and treasonable.
On his return to London, the king was confronted by Gloucester, Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who brought an appeal of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Tresilian, and two other loyalists: the mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre, and Alexander Neville, the archbishop of York. Richard stalled the negotiations to gain time, as he was expecting de Vere from Cheshire with military reinforcements. The three earls then joined forces with Henry, Earl of Derby (Gaunt's son, and the later King Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham the group known to history as the Lords Appellant. On 20 December 1387, they intercepted de Vere at Radcot Bridge, where he was routed and forced to flee the country.
Richard now had no choice but to comply with the appellants' demands; Brembre and Tresilian were condemned and executed, while de Vere and de la Pole who had by now also left the country were sentenced to death in absentia at the Merciless Parliament in February 1388. The proceedings went further, and a number of Richard's chamber knights were also executed, among these Burley. The appellants had now succeeded completely in breaking up the circle of favourites around the king.
With national stability secured, Richard began negotiating a permanent peace with France. A proposal put forward in 1393 would greatly expand the territory of Aquitaine possessed by the English crown. However, the plan failed on the condition that the English king had to perform homage to the King of Francean unacceptable condition to the English public. Instead, a twenty-eight year truce was agreed upon in 1396. As part of the truce, Richard would marry Isabella, daughter of Charles VI of France. There were some misgivings about the marriage, however; since the princess was only seven years old she was unlikely to produce an heir for many years.
While seeking peace with France, Richard took a different approach to the situation in Ireland. The English lordships in Ireland were in danger of being overrun, and the Anglo-Irish lords pleaded for the king to intervene. In the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland, where he remained until May 1395. His army, consisting of over 8,000 men, was the largest force brought to the island in the later Middle Ages. The expedition was a success, resulting in the submission of a number of Irish chieftains to English overlordship. The venture was one of the greater achievements of Richard's reign, and strengthened the king's support at home, but the consolidation of the English position in Ireland nevertheless proved short-lived.
These actions were made possible primarily through the collusion of John of Gaunt, but also with the support of a number of men lifted to prominence by the king, and disparagingly referred to as Richard's "duketti". John and Thomas Holland, the king's half-brother and nephew, were promoted from earls of Huntingdon and Kent to dukes of Exeter and Surrey respectively. Among the other loyalists were John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, Edward, Earl of Rutland, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury and Thomas Despenser. With the forfeited land of the convicted appellants, the king could now reward these men with lands and incomes suited to their new ranks.
A threat to Richard's authority still existed though, in the form of the Lancaster dynasty represented by John of Gaunt and his son Henry, Earl of Derby (also called Henry of Bolingbroke). The house of Lancaster not only possessed greater wealth than any other family in England; they were also of royal descent, and as such likely candidates to succeed the childless Richard. Discord broke out in the inner circles of court in December 1397, when Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray who had now been made Duke of Hereford and Duke of Norfolk respectively became engaged in a quarrel. According to Hereford, Norfolk had claimed that the two, as former Lords Appellant, were next in line for royal retribution. Norfolk vehemently denied these charges, as such a claim would have amounted to treason. A parliamentary committee decided that the two should settle the matter by battle, but at the last moment Richard exiled the two dukes instead; Norfolk for life, Bolingbroke for ten years. On 3 February 1399, John of Gaunt died. Rather than allowing Bolingbroke to succeed, Richard extended his exile to life, and had him disinherited. The king felt safe from Henry, who was residing in Paris, since the French had little interest in any challenge to Richard and his peace policy. Richard left the country in May for another expedition in Ireland.
In June 1399, Louis, Duke of Orléans gained control of the court of the insane Charles VI of France. The policy of rapprochement with the English crown did not suit Louis's political ambitions, and for this reason he found it opportune to allow Henry to leave for England. With a small group of followers, Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire towards the end of June 1399. Men from all over the country soon rallied around the duke. Meeting with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who had his own misgivings about the king, Bolingbroke insisted that his only object was to regain his own patrimony. Percy took him at his word and declined to interfere. The king had brought most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility with him to Ireland, so Henry experienced little resistance as he moved south. The Duke of York, who was acting as keeper of the realm, had little choice but to side with Bolingbroke. Meanwhile, Richard was delayed in his return from Ireland, and did not land in Wales until 24 July. He made his way to Conwy, where on 12 August he met with the Earl of Northumberland for negotiations. After surrendering, he was brought to London, and on 1 September he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Henry was by now fully determined to take the throne, but presenting a rationale for this action proved a dilemma. It was argued that Richard, through his tyranny and misgovernment, had rendered himself unworthy of being king. However, Henry was not next in the line to the throne; the heir presumptive was Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, who descended from Edward III's second son, Lionel of Antwerp. Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, was Edward's third son. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry's descent in a direct male line, whereas March's descent was through his grandmother. The official account of events claims that Richard voluntarily agreed to resign his crown to Henry on 29 September. Although this was most likely not the case, the parliament that met on 30 September accepted Richard's resignation. Henry was crowned as King Henry IV on 13 October.
The exact course of Richard's life after the deposition is unclear; he remained in the Tower until he was taken to Pontefract Castle shortly before the end of the year. Although King Henry might have been amenable to let him live, this all changed when it was revealed that the earls of Huntingdon, Kent, Somerset and Rutland, and Thomas Despenser all now demoted from the ranks they had been given by Richard were planning to murder the new king, and restore Richard. Although averted, the plot highlighted the danger of allowing Richard to live. He is thought to have starved to death in captivity on or around 14 February 1400, although there is some question over the date and manner of his death. His body was displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral on 17 February, and he was buried in Kings Langley Church on 6 March. Rumours that Richard was still alive persisted, but never gained much credence. Henry V in an effort both to atone for his father's act and to silence the rumours of Richard's survival in 1413 decided to have the body moved to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Here Richard himself had prepared an elaborate tomb, where the remains of his wife Anne were already entombed.
Richard's approach to kingship was rooted in his strong belief in the royal prerogative, the inspiration of which can be found in his early youth, when his authority was challenged first by the Peasants' Revolts and then by the Lords Appellant. Richard rejected the approach his grandfather, Edward III had taken to the nobility. Edward's court had been a martial one, based on the interdependence between the king and his most trusted noblemen as military captains. In Richard's view, this put a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the baronage. To avoid dependence on the nobility for military recruitment, he pursued a policy of peace towards France. At the same time he developed his own private military retinue, larger than that of any English king before him, and gave them livery badges with his White Hart, which are also worn by the angels in the Wilton Diptych (right). He was then free to develop a courtly atmosphere in which the king was a distant, venerated figure, and art and culture, rather than warfare, were at the centre.
As part of Richard's programme of asserting his authority, he also tried to cultivate the royal image. Unlike any other English king before him, he had himself portrayed in panel paintings of elevated majesty, of which two survive: the over life-size Westminster Abbey portrait of the king (c. 1390, see top of page), and the Wilton Diptych (1394-99), a portable work probably intended to accompany Richard on his Irish campaign. It is one of the few surviving English examples of the courtly International Gothic style of painting that was developed in the courts of the Continent, especially Prague and Paris. Richard's expenditure on jewellery, rich textiles and metalwork was far higher than on paintings, but as with his illuminated manuscripts there are hardly any surviving works that can be connected with him, except for a crown, "one of the finest achievements of the Gothic goldsmith", that probably belonged to Anne.
Among Richard's grandest projects in the field of architecture was Westminster Hall, which was extensively rebuilt during his reign, perhaps spurred on by the completion in 1391 of John of Gaunts magnificent hall at Kenilworth Castle. Fifteen life-size statues of kings were placed in niches on the walls, and the hammer-beam roof by the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, "the greatest creation of medieval timber architecture", allowed the original three Romanesque aisles to be replaced with a single huge open space, with a dias at the end for Richard to sit in soliary state. The rebuilding had been begun by Henry III in 1245, but had by Richard's time been dormant for over a century.
The court's patronage of literature is especially important, because this was the period in which the English language took shape as a literary language. There is little evidence to tie Richard directly to patronage of poetry, but it was nevertheless within his court that this culture was allowed to thrive. The greatest poet of the age, Geoffrey Chaucer, served the king as a diplomat, a customs official and a clerk of The King's Works while producing some of his best-known work. He was also in the service of John of Gaunt, and wrote The Book of the Duchess as a eulogy to Gaunt's wife Blanche. Chaucer's colleague and friend John Gower wrote his Confessio Amantis on a direct commission from Richard, although he later grew disenchanted with the king.
The popular view of Richard has more than anything been influenced by Shakespeare's play about the king, Richard II. Shakespeare's Richard was a cruel, vindictive and irresponsible king, who only attained a semblance of greatness after his fall from power. Writing a work of fiction, however, Shakespeare took many liberties and made great omissions. Shakespeare based his play on works by writers like Edward Hall and Samuel Daniel, who in turn based their writings on contemporary chroniclers like Thomas Walsingham. Authors like Hall and Daniel were part of Tudor historiography, which was highly unsympathetic to Richard. Since the nineteenth century, Richard II has been the subject of study by academic historians, and among the main issues of historical debate has been Richard's mental state. One of the first modern historians to deal with Richard II, as a king and as a person, was Bishop Stubbs. Stubbs argued that towards the end of his reign, Richard's mind "was losing its balance altogether". Historian Anthony Steel, who wrote a full-scale biography of the king in 1941, took a psychoanalytic approach to the issue, and concluded that the king suffered from schizophrenia. This was challenged by V.H. Galbraith, who argued that there was no historical basis for such a diagnosis, a line that has also been followed by later historians of the period, like Anthony Goodman and Anthony Tuck. Nigel Saul, who wrote the most recent academic biographical book on Richard II, concedes that even though there is no basis for assuming the king suffered from mental illness he showed clear signs of a narcissistic personality, and towards the end of his reign "Richard's grasp on reality was becoming weaker".
Another major historiographical question concerns Richard's political agenda and reasons for its failure. His kingship was thought to contain elements of the early modern absolute monarchy, exemplified by the Tudor dynasty. More recently, Richard's concept of kingship has been seen by some as not so different from that of his antecedents, and that it was exactly by staying within the framework of traditional monarchy that he was able to achieve as much as he did. Yet his actions were too extreme, and too abrupt. For one, the absence of war was meant to reduce the burden of taxation, something that would help Richard's popularity with the Commons in parliament. However, this promise was never fulfilled, as the cost of the royal retinue, the opulence of court and Richard's lavish patronage of his favourites proved as expensive as war had been, without offering the same benefits. As for his policy of military retaining, this was later emulated by Edward IV and Henry VII, but Richard's exclusive reliance on the county of Cheshire hurt his support from the rest of the country. As Simon Walker concludes: "What he sought was, in contemporary terms, neither unjustified nor unattainable; it was the manner of his seeking that betrayed him."