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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.