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Archive for the tag “Richard II”

Treason on Twelfth Night

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Henry claiming the throne

On October 13, 1399, Henry of Lancaster was crowned king of England. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: the king he succeeded wasn’t dead. Instead, Richard II had been forced to abdicate.

Henry and Richard were cousins, their common grandfather being Edward III. Richard became king as a child and grew up to be a firm believer in royal prerogative. He surrounded himself with favourites whom he showered with offices and wealth and this led to a conflict with a group of his barons, the so called Lords Appellant which included dear cousin Henry and Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester. The Lords Appellants did away with Richard’s favourites and curtailed his power significantly. Richard nursed a grudge against these lords for over a decade after which he struck back, ordering the murder of his uncle and exiling Henry as well as denying his cousin his huge inheritance. Did not go down well with Henry—or with Richard’s other barons who realised that if he could cheat his cousin of his lands, then he could cheat them as well. So when Henry returned to England in the summer of 1399, stating that he only came to claim what was rightfully his, he met little opposition. Rather the reverse, people being rather sick of Richard and his high-handed personal rule. A few weeks after landing at Ravenspurn, Henry had effectively taken control of England – and of Richard, who was now his prisoner.

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Henry IV presenting the captive Richard (in red) to the Londoners (Jean Creton)

There was little love lost between Henry and Richard, but Henry went out of his way to treat his dethroned cousin with courtesy and does not seem to have known just what to do with him. Killing an anointed king was out of the question—Henry is one of those rather likeable medieval grandees who seems to have had a well-developed conscience, plus he was genuinely devout. While Henry felt obliged (and to some extent entitled) to usurp Richard’s crown to safeguard his own life and that of his sons, that was as far as it went. At first.

The problem with deposed kings is that they’re not exactly grateful for having been allowed to keep their head. They also remain a focal point for those determined to oppose the new king—not necessarily because they loved the previous king, but because causing unrest can be quite lucrative.

The first few months as king were happy months for Henry IV. He brimmed with self-confidence as he went about the business of securing his realm. He established good relationships with Parliament, retained most of Richard’s administrators and in general went out of his way to assure people he intended to be a good king, a king who took counsel and listened to Parliament.

It was therefore in a good mood that Henry IV retired to Windsor Castle with his sons to celebrate Christmas – his first Christmas ever as king. At the time, the unhappy Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, albeit in some comfort. Henry must have felt he had everything under control – the realm, his people and the former king.

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John Holland and John Montacute (BL, MS Harley)

Ha! Henry was in for a surprise. Already in mid-December, a group of conspirators met. They included John Holland, half-brother to Richard II and Earl of Huntingdon , John’s son Thomas, Earl of Kent, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,  Thomas le Despenser, Baron Despencer, and Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland. These men had benefited from Richard’s largesse and considered Henry a usurper (which he was). There were other men present, such as Thomas Blount and Ralph Lumley and a certain Richard Maudeleyn who in looks was an eerie double of Richard II. The meeting was held at Westminster abbey, whose abbot was in on the conspiracy as was the ousted Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Carlisle.

henry tournamentThese men were determined to rid the world of Henry IV, and indirectly the new king had handed them a golden opportunity in that he was holding a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. A perfect way of gaining access to the king with arms, and the plan was relatively simple: the various earls were to call on their retainers and pull together a sizeable force of armed men. This rebel army was to muster as discreetly as possible at Kingston while the conspiring lords, together with a smaller force, were to ride for Windsor on January 4th, gain access to the unsuspecting king, murder him, his sons and the new Archbishop of Canterbury (I’m guessing this was a condition imposed by the ousted Archbishop, who very much wanted to regain his see, no matter how bloodily). Once all these foul deeds were done, they’d order their army to ride forth to seize a number of important towns. As King Richard was nowhere close, it fell to Maudeleyn to dress as the king and stir the English people to rise on behalf of their former king.

Successful conspiracies depend on two things: not including too many people and that the involved peeps don’t spill the beans. In the case of this particular conspiracy, there were quite a few magnates involved. One of them, Edward of Norwich, was Henry IVs cousin and as the plans were set in motion it appears he got cold feet. While dining with his father, the Duke of York, Edward supposedly told him about the plot. His father was horrified and convinced Edward to tell Henry.

There is another version of how Henry found out, involving a tender-hearted prostitute who’d spent one night with a man loyal to one of the rebel lords. A talkative fellow, this man told her all about the plot and the next night, when she shared her bed with a man loyal to Henry, she was so affected by the thought that maybe her most recent bedfellow would die during the upcoming rebellion that she told him everything she knew. Hmm.

Edward was never punished for participating in the conspiracy—in itself an indication that he was the one who blew the whistle on the others.

Whatever the case, the moment Henry found out, he acted with impressive speed. In a matter of hours he’d swept up his sons and was riding madly for London, making a wide detour so as not to run into the conspirators and their armed retinues who at that same moment were riding to Windsor to set their plan in action. At some distance from the city, Henry met the mayor of London who was on his way to warn him that something was afoot—why else had 6 000 armed men assembled at Kingston?

Once his sons were safe in the Tower, Henry decided it was time to deal with the rebels. He closed all ports, issued writs ordering the arrest of the rebel lords and called up the Londoners to ride with him, offering good silver to all those that would ride with him. Come morning, Henry was ready to act.

First, he sent Edward to inform the rebels that the king was riding towards them with a huge army. (Yet another indication that Edward must have had one foot in each camp, the king using his hapless cousin as some sort of spy) As a consequence of this information, the various rebel lords rode hell for leather for their own lands, hoping to inspire their people to join in the rebellion.

Thing is, Richard wasn’t a popular king. He’d overtaxed his people, was considered rather shifty and with little genuine interest in his subjects. Henry, on the other hand, was popular. Here was a man who gladly spoke English, who wanted to rule with Parliament, who hoped to bring back the halcyon days of good king Edward III. (Not that those days were all that halcyon, at least not for the common man and woman, but nostalgia is not exactly a modern invention). To the shock of the rebels, the people rose against them.

Richard Maudeleyn was captured in London—and hanged. John Holland tried to flee the country in a small boat, was blown back to the English coast and ended up in the custody of Henry’s mother-in-law. This impressive lady had no qualms about transporting John to Pleshey Castle and handing him over to a mob which promptly beheaded him. Thomas Holland and John Montacute were captured in Cirencester. They too were beheaded. Thomas le Despenser tried to flee the country by boarding a ship in Cardiff but the crew refused to help a rebel and transported him to Bristol where he was summarily executed. Other leading rebels were rounded up and brought before Henry at Oxford Castle.

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gruesome death – such as Thomas Blount’s

The king chose to personally act the judge and most of the frightened and desperate men brought before him were pardoned, very much in line with Henry’s magnanimous character. Twenty odd were beheaded and half a dozen were condemned to die the full traitor’s death, one of these being that Thomas Blount who’d been present at the first meeting in December. And whatever one may think about this gent, he had his fair share of courage. As he was watching his entrails being burned before him, he was asked by one of his guards if he needed a drink. Thomas Blount politely declined the offer, saying that he did not know where to put it…

Henry IV The National Archives Illumination_of_Henry_IV_(cropped)The Epiphany Rising was a major failure, but it was to have dark consequences. Henry had been brutally reminded of just how insecure his hold on the crown was and felt compelled to act to safeguard himself and, more importantly, his sons. There are indications that already on January 6th he sent a trusted retainer north to Pontefract with the order to kill Richard should the rising garner support. As we’ve seen, there was no support, but killing Richard was no longer quite as anathema to Henry as it had been some months ago. In fact, he’d probably come to the conclusion that Richard’s death was a prerequisite for political stability.

On February 14, 1400, Richard died (at least officially) The standard story is that he starved to death, some saying it was self-starvation (because the rising failed and he despaired of ever seeing the world outside again) some saying he was denied food so as to ensure he died without any marks on his body. Sadly (as I like Henry IV much, much more than Richard), IMO things point to the latter. The Epiphany Rising made Henry a murderer and the burden of guilt was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Uneasy indeed, did his crowned head lie…

Heavy weighs the usurped crown

On July 4, 1399, a man landed at Ravenspurn, Yorkshire, returning from his exile in France. With him came a handful of companions, and I suppose the man must have been nervous, no matter how determined. He was, after all, risking his life and his future. Henry Bolingbroke had come to claim the English crown.

It reads like an improbable adventure. The red-headed Henry, son of John of Gaunt, speedily took control over most of England, further helped along by the fact that Richard II was in Ireland, having taken his loyal lords with him.

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Richard surrendering to Henry

By the time Richard made it back in late July, it was too late. Inexplicably, Richard left his main host in Pembrokeshire and disguised as a friar rode north, there to meet with the Earl of Salisbury, who had been charged with raising a royal army. No such army materialised. At Conwy Castle, Richard was forced to receive Henry’s messengers. On August 19, Richard II surrendered to his cousin at Flint Castle and rode in his retinue all the way back to London, no doubt most indignant at having to ride behind Henry rather than in front of him.

Richard presented his abdication to parliament on September 29, and on October 13 Henry Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian kings. A quick and neat usurpation, taking no more than twelve weeks.

Three Plantagenet kings have been named Richard. The first died – rather ingloriously for this embodiment of chivalric virtues – from a crossbow quarrel in his armpit. The other two share the distinction of being ousted from their thrones by a man called Henry. While Richard III’s death at Bosworth and the subsequent enthronement of Henry Tudor still inspires a lot of controversy and opinionated discussions, in general Henry IV’s usurpation back in 1399 is met with little more than a shrug. Why is that? Well, I believe it is due to Henry Bolingbroke, a man far less controversial to his future subjects than Henry Tudor.

Henry Bolingbroke was a respected man – admired for his prowess at tournaments, loved because of his largesse. A renowned warrior and leader of men, a crusader, the father of a bevy of sons where Richard II had none, Henry epitomised the male ideals of the time. Add to this a thorough education, an excellent role model in his father, and a reputation for fairness, and it is easy to understand why so many considered Henry a far more palatable choice for king than Richard II.

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Richard II

Richard never succeeded in living up to his subjects’ expectations of becoming like his father, the Black Prince. Besides, Richard had a tendency to expend huge amounts of money on his court, himself and his beloved arts. Just like his great-grandfather, Edward II, Richard II also liked handing out gifts and lands to his favourites – often at the expense of the public purse.

To salve his conscience, Henry Bolingbroke could claim he had been most unfairly treated by his royal cousin. Despite loyal and steadfast service to the crown, Richard had rewarded him by forcing him into exile, and even worse, when John of Gaunt died, Richard had refused to honour the laws of inheritance, effectively disinheriting Henry. Not a popular thing to do, not in a country where more and more of his people were beginning to consider the king petty and unreliable, prone to considering himself well above the laws and customs of the realm. Richard’s nobles were even more worried; if the king chose to act so unjustly towards his first cousin, what was to stop him from acting in a similar way towards other rich and powerful noblemen?



When Henry Bolingbroke initiated his armed rebellion, he officially stated that he was in England only to claim his paternal inheritance, wrongfully denied him by the king. Smart move, as everyone could sympathise with that. He made a big show of proclaiming his desire to help reform government in England, to bring order and stability, reinstate the rule of law rather than that of royal prerogative. Not once did he say “I want the crown”, as had he voiced his intent to claim the throne, he might have had a problem rallying support. Richard’s subjects were sick of their king’s high-handed rule, but to depose a king was a major undertaking, and few had the stomach for it.

This presented something of a conundrum to Henry. Having once before experienced just how capable Richard was of holding a grudge (it took him more than a decade to plan his cunning revenge on the Lords Appellant, a group of men, including Henry, who had protested against the mismanagement of the government. Rumours had it he had even ordered the murder of one of the Lords Appellant, his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock), Henry was disinclined to allow Richard to remain on the throne. Somehow, the king had to be convinced to abdicate in favour of Henry, preferably in such a way as to allow Henry to emerge untarnished from this whole sordid matter.

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Northumberland taking custody of  Richard

That didn’t work. To ensure Richard’s cooperation, Henry’s supporters lied to him. At Conwy Castle, the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Westmoreland perjured themselves by swearing on holy relics that the intention was not to relieve Richard of his crown, rather to “help” him govern. Richard was an intelligent man and wasn’t convinced, but he played for time, hoping that by pretending to accept these lies, he’d get the opportunity to flee and gather support. Not to be, as next morning Richard was forcibly taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland and transported to Flint Castle, there to wait for Henry.

Henry went out of his way to be as courteous as

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John, a displeased Papa?

possible towards his unhappy cousin. A steel hand in a velvet glove, one could say, as there was no doubt in either man’s mind as to who was presently in charge, but all the same Henry attempted to make things as comfortable as possible for Richard, treating him always with respect. I suspect Henry was uncomfortably aware of just how displeased his father, John of Gaunt, would have been with this whole mess. John would never have countenanced deposing the Lord’s anointed – but then John had died (obviously) before Richard committed the unforgiveable act of denying Henry his inheritance.

What forces were brought to bear on Richard for him to sign his abdication remain unclear. Undoubtedly, threats to his life would have been made – never by Henry personally, of course. And maybe Richard believed that signing the abdication was the only thing he could do at present, hoping no doubt to turn the tables on his cousin at a future date.


Henry claiming the crown

Once on his throne, it seems Henry IV was quite willing to let Richard live. This was his first cousin, and while they were too different to have much of a natural liking for each other, they were both aware of their blood-ties. Maybe Henry’s intention was to keep Richard in comfortable captivity – although choosing Pontrefact as the future home of the retired king indicates Henry didn’t want him too comfortable (or too close to London).

All that changed when several of Richard’s former favourites became involved in a plot against the new king, with the intention of murdering not only Henry but also his four sons, all of them children. The Epiphany Rising in 1400 might not have implicated Richard per se, but it underlined the risk of keeping the former king alive, a potential rallying point to all future discontent.

Conveniently, sometime in February 1400, Richard II died. It was said he starved to death – whether voluntarily or not is still up for debate. Personally, I believe he was murdered.

To take a crown comes at a price. Henry was never entirely comfortable on his throne, and to make matters worse his relationship with his eldest son was permanently damaged by his usurpation. Young Henry was very fond of Richard, and never forgave his father for having deposed him.

Besides, there was the matter of guilt. By all accounts, Henry Bolingbroke was a man of tender conscience, a devout man who worked hard at being good and just. Mostly he succeeded. But the false promises made to Richard back in August of 1399, promises that Richard would remain king, no matter that Henry would rule, gnawed at Henry for the rest of his life. Then there’s the matter of Richard’s death, a millstone of guilt for a man as upright as Henry to carry. It broke him, and over the coming years of his life, the once so powerful, so vibrant Henry Bolingbroke would transform into a sick and melancholy man. Upon his death he left no instructions as to how he was to be buried, and his will breathes of humility and guilt, in glaring contrast to most other wills of the period.

I guess the lesson is easy; never do anything that makes it difficult to meet your eyes in the mirror. Fate, however, now and then obliges us to act against our conscience. Henry Bolingbroke felt had no choice – he had to safeguard his inheritance, for himself and for his sons. I dare say he never forgave himself. I dare say he found the price too steep.

John Ball – a man of rhyme and plenty of reason

We all have our particular favourites among historical people. Quite often, the people we idolise will be vilified by others – history, just like pretty much everything in life, is a matter of perception and opinion. After all, none of us knew the people who took central stage during the preceding centuries. (Well; I would assume not. Maybe there are some reincarnated souls out there who have been on chit-chatting terms with Julius Caesar or Hannibal, who’ve shared a bath with Fredrik Barbarossa or got drunk with Henry II. Lucky them…)
Still; there are favourites and non-favourites. My top-of-the pops list when it comes to historical people is headed by Saladin, Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and Henry II of England. On my shit list, Stalin and Hitler come right at the top, followed by an assortment of dictators, fanatics and plain dislikeable people, plus a number of incompetents.

Richard_II_King_of_EnglandOne historical person I have very lukewarm feelings about is Richard II of England. Okay, so he didn’t have an easy act to follow, what with Edward III in his prime being quite the impressive dude, and besides, Richard had a cousin – soon to be the usurper Henry IV– who was a far better leader of men than he was. Sandwiched in between these two, Richard II comes across as something of a megalomaniac, a man convinced since childhood that he was set apart from other men, a rule unto himself. Richard’s misfortune was to believe in absolute monarchy before it became popular, so to say. That, and a propensity to prefer sycophants to honest advisors, to distribute lands and riches to his favourites – well, it’s left him with a less than glorious reputation. Somehow being remembered as the king that introduced the handkerchief in England, is an indication of how little a mark Richard II actually left behind.

Richard II was by all accounts tall, handsome and very intelligent. That he didn’t lack for personal courage was demonstrated in his finest hour, when as a boy not yet fifteen he managed to pacify the angry peasantry that had taken up arms against their betters in the so called Peasant’s Revolt. And this brings me to one of the more likeable people in history, although it must be said that we know very little about this character, except that he had a gift of the tongue and liked rhyming verse. I am referring to John Ball, the preacher credited with being the main motivational speaker at the Peasant’s Revolt.

John Ball was a priest. He was also accused of being a Lollard, a man who followed John Wycliffe’s teachings, according to which the Catholic Church had lost contact with the true message in the Bible. Lollards advocated the translation of the Bible into English, they preached social equality and were distrustful of the trappings of power with which the Church’s prelates tended to surround themselves. In many ways, the Lollards were precursors to the Reformation, and initially they were tolerated, Wycliffe himself being protected by the powerful John of Gaunt.

John Ball was too unimportant to ever hobnob with dukes such as John of Gaunt. He was a hedge priest, a man who travelled about the countryside and preached, and his sermons tended to be invigorating little rants in which he attacked the social injustices of the times. The powers that were disliked John Ball. They thought him a bloody nuisance, and so he was imprisoned, he was punished, he was even excommunicated, but the man must have led a charmed life, always popping up like the proverbial bad penny to continue harassing the Church and the rich.

300px-Reeve_and_SerfsSocial discontent was rife in England in the latter half of the 14th century. Years of war with the French, in combination with the Black Death, had decimated the population, and while this should have increased the bargaining power of the working class, the ruling classes responded by implementing laws that made it unlawful for the workers to demand wages that were higher than before, or to leave their hometowns in search of better conditions elsewhere. A fixed wage when the costs of life increased tenfold, led to even more discontent, more social unrest. Angry peasants had had enough, and the flames of discontent were further fanned by preachers such as John Ball – which was probably why our Mr Ball spent a lot of time locked up, his nimble tongue having aggravated yet another local lord or bishop.

In 1381, all this discontent erupted into The Peasants’ Revolt. The final straw that broke this particular camel’s back was the increased poll tax (it was tripled – talk about tax hike). People refused to pay, and when the tax collectors insisted, things turned nasty. All over southern England, peasants and labourers rose in rebellion, demanding a reduction in the tax rate, the abolition of serfdom, and the removal of certain people from among the king’s counsellors.

The government was taken by surprise – putting it mildly. Until now, the villeins had known their place – right at the bottom of the dung-heap – and to have these lowborn men threaten the hands that fed them, well, it was totally inconceivable,wasn’t it? (Apparently not. But there’s a first for everything.) To make matters worse, most of the armed forces were up in the north, and the rebels therefore met little or no opposition as they made their way through Kent – in the process freeing John Ball who was yet again kicking his heels in prison – and set out for London, led by the charismatic Wat Tyler. In the capital, panic reigned. The young king was moved to the Tower for safety. The London citizens viewed the approaching rabble with fear, but there was also quite some support for the cause among the labourers and artisans within the city walls.


At Blackheath, John Ball preached to the assembled rebels – a rather beautiful and visionary sermon along the lines of all men being equal, an early precursor, if you will, to that immortal speech Martin Luther King was to make almost six centuries later. John painted a picture of a fairer society, a place where a just King would rule over an empowered people. The assembled rebels roared their approval, and I guess Wat Tyler cheered and clapped John on the back, thanking him for his morale boosting efforts.

On June 13, the rebels rode into London. Aided and abetted by disgruntled apprentices, artisans and labourers, the rebels went wild and crazy. The homes of the rich were sacked – John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace was more or less destroyed – prisoners were released from gaol, anyone associated with royal government was summarily killed. In the Tower, the king and his retinue must have been quaking in their boots.

300px-Richard_II_meets_rebelsThis is when Richard II rose to the occasion. With only a minimum of companions, he rode out and treated with the rebels on June 14. The rebels loved their king, blaming his advisors for everything that was wrong with the country. At the time, this was probably a fair supposition; a boy of fourteen did not have much say in government, no matter how much of a king he was. In his later life, Richard was to show a marked disregard for the suffering of the common people, far more interested in wringing yet another penny out of them than in bettering their situation.

It must have taken quite some courage for the young king to parley with the rebels. That they intimidated him is made obvious by the fact that he acceded to all their demands – including the abolition of serfdom. He firmly refused to turn over his officials into the rebels’ hands, saying he himself would dispense whatever justice was necessary, but he seems to have allowed the rebels access to the Tower, there to seek out the enemies of the state – as per their definition. Whooping with glee, the rebels went on a rampage, killed the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer and came close to killing John of Gaunt’s fifteen-year-old son, the future Henry IV. But they didn’t touch the king, treating their young prince with reverence.

DeathWatTylerFullNext day, Richard and a substantial following rode out for yet another parley. In the initial discussions, tempers ran wild and one of Richard’s men, the Mayor of London, killed Wat Tyler. There was a howl of rage from the rebels. For an instant, everything hung in the balance, which is when Richard II rose in his stirrups and demanded that the rebels follow him, was he not their king and leader, were they not the true commons of England and therefore sworn to obey him, their king? Besides, had he not acquiesced to their demands already yesterday?

The rebels shuffled where they stood, no doubt entranced by this handsome young man, their king. After some muttering they fell in step behind him, and a triumphant Richard led them away from Smithfield and the city. In essence, the revolt was already over. Wat Tyler’s head was placed on a spike, and without its principal leader, the rebellion guttered and died, no matter vociferous people such as John Ball.

Did the king honour the promises he’d made on June 14? Of course not. Two weeks later, Richard II commanded all serfs to return to their masters. The rebels were hunted like animals through the countryside, and more prominent members of the revolt, such as John Ball, had the doubtful honour of being tried for treason before being hanged, drawn and quartered. A terrible death, more or less impossible to meet with courage and dignity. Somewhere late in November, Richard II ordered that the killings cease. By then, close to 1 500 rebels had died, in one way or the other. The Peasants’ Revolt had been squashed underfoot.

468px-William.Morris.John.BallAnd yet… something was begun by John Ball and Wat Tyler. It takes a lot of guts – but also quite some thinking out of the box – to challenge the established orders of things. Change begins with one person questioning how things are done and why. John Ball was one such person and what was an utopian view of the world back then – seriously, a villain to be considered equal to a lord? – is now the fundament of all democratic societies.

John Ball lost his life in the aftermath of the revolt. But his cause didn’t die with him, and while the king he confronted left little more than a fluttering handkerchief behind, John Ball left us two catchy lines of rhyme and a vision of a better world. Not bad for an impoverished priest, huh?
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” Good question, John Ball, a very good question – one we should now and then ponder even today!

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