Richard II is perhaps best known for two events – his courageous response to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the subsequent loss of his throne to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV.) He undoubtedly led a tragic life, one filled with errors of judgment and needless confusion. But he was a product of his times – and 14th century England was a confused and divided nation.
When Richard was murdered by Henry, it marked the end of the direct line of Plantagenet rule. The throne passed to the house of Lancaster while the house of York (which, in terms of strict primogeniture, had the superior claim) served the throne while secretly longing to seize it. In the end, their rivalry led to the Wars of the Roses.
Richard was the son of a legendary hero and a legendary beauty. His father was Edward, known as ‘the Black Prince’ (he wore black armor), heir to the long-lived Edward III; his mother was Joan, known to history as ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’. She was already widowed when she married the heir to the English throne, and she bore their second child when she was 39 years old. Richard was born on 6 January 1367, on Twelfth Night, at the abbey of St Andre at Bordeaux and hence he was called ‘Richard of Bordeaux’. His only sibling, Edward, was three years older but he died in childhood, and Richard was soon enough the Black Prince’s only heir.
His father was one of the great knights of the century, and famous throughout Europe. But while he was brave and noble, the Black Prince was at times impetuous and foolhardy. He was so committed to the ideals of chivalry that the realities of war – needless deaths and huge debts – were foreign to him. So, directly after Richard’s birth, Edward left to lead a campaign to restore Pedro ‘the Cruel’ to his throne in Castile. Pedro, who well deserved his nickname, had been forced from the throne by his angry countrymen and replaced by an illegitimate brother. Edward was not in the best of health, and his advisers (who viewed the campaign as unnecessary, for they disliked Pedro as well) all urged him to stay in beautiful Bordeaux. It was a beautiful city, and its court was one of the most brilliant in Europe. It was, of course, strongly Francophile, and one can imagine how different England first appeared to little Prince Richard when he left Bordeaux at the age of 10.
His father, however, would not be swayed from helping a fellow ruler; in his own words, written to his councilors, he wrote, ‘I do not think it either decent or proper that a bastard should possess a kingdom as an inheritance, nor drive out of his realm his own brother, heir to the throne…. and no king or king’s son ought ever to suffer it as being of the greatest prejudice to royalty’. In other words, the code of chivalry required that he help Pedro – and so he did (Pedro returned to the throne after the battle of Navarrete.) But the campaign would be the death of him, for when he returned his health was worse and never recovered.
His only surviving heir, however, was thriving. And Richard had found his first true friend at Bordeaux, his father’s loyal knight and friend Sir Simon Burley. Burley was a sailor and soldier, for he had fought at the battle of Sluys during the Hundred Years War, and he accompanied the Black Prince on most of his campaigns. Edward appointed Burley and another friend and soldier, Sir Guichard d’Angle, as his son’s tutors. Burley and Richard became close, though the knight was captured for a year and a half in France. He was released in time to join the Black Prince and his family as they returned to England. Edward’s health had deteriorated badly, and it was sadly apparent that he would not survive his father, Edward III (who had ruled from 1327.) When Burley rejoined his friend, he found that the legendary warrior could no longer ride a horse nor walk without stumbling. Edward left the continent with unease, however, for his offices were given to his brother John, the duke of Lancaster and called John of Gaunt. John was an able soldier, and dedicated enough, but he lacked his brother’s aplomb in military affairs. Edward feared that the French would soon have the upper hand in Bordeaux, but there was little he could do.
In mid-January after a rough voyage, the party landed at Southampton. The Black Prince was carried ashore on a litter, and his Richard was led ashore by his mother and Burley. His arrival was hardly extravagant for England was suffering the full effects of Edward III’s reign. The great king was now an old and broken man; his great victories in France had – years later – left him with only Calais, Brest, and Bordeaux. Worse still, those battles had bankrupted his country. John of Gaunt had dominated Parliament during his father’s dotage, but with the Black Prince’s return and Gaunt’s removal to Bordeaux, this was no longer the case. Edward returned to find his father somewhat senile and his country decimated by the Black Plague and years of financial and political woes. Ill though he was, he immediately began to meet with the great nobles and churchmen of the land. He almost immediately became enemies with Simon of Sudbury, the outspoken and arrogant bishop of London. Sudbury was also disliked by the common Englishman, for he had spent years at the papal court at Avignon and the English always distrusted anyone who spent too much time in France (unless they were fighting the French!) He was also a lawyer, a somewhat disreputable profession even then, and he was quite fond of looking down on others. He once went so far as to mock a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. He was not popular, and when he became archbishop of Canterbury, he became even less so. Though the senile king and pope agreed on his appointment, popular opinion was against it for Canterbury was the highest religious office in the land and especially close to people’s hearts since Thomas Becket had been martyred there.
But Edward was concerned with much more than his dislike for Sudbury. He lived six years after his return to England, and he became increasingly debilitated. (He probably had cancer, called ‘canker’ at the time – hence, he lived for a few years after the symptoms first appeared, but he was in increasing pain.) But he was concerned – above all else – with providing a secure succession for his young son. His last years in England had led him to appreciate the deep factional divides amongst the nobility, and the general instability of the government. So when the end came, he called his father and the leading nobles (including his brother John) to his bedside. There they swore upon a Bible to uphold Richard’s right to the throne. Then various leading noblemen made the same pledge. It was all the Black Prince could do, and – placing his trust in his father and brother – he passed away on 8 June 1376.
Edward III unlike, say, Henry VIII, had no trouble siring sons – in fact, one could argue that he sired too many and England was made a shambles in the process. Edward and his queen, Philippa of Hainault, had four sons who survived to adulthood. They were – in order – Edward, prince of Wales, born 15 June 1330; John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, born in March 1340; Edmund of Langley, duke of York, born 5 June 1341; and Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, born 7 January 1355. This list is worth remembering – with this group of sons, who had their own tangle of multiple sons, began a struggle for the English throne which would eventually destroy the Plantagenet dynasty. The few that survived until the 16th century were quickly enough put to death on spurious charges by Henry VII and his heir, Henry VIII. With their slim grasp on the throne, neither monarch needed a stray Plantagenet to become the source of conspiracies. In fact, any one of those Plantagenet heirs had a better title to the throne than the Tudors!
Please visit the ‘Genealogy’ pages if you become confused by the names and titles, and wonder why one person became a contender for the throne – or believed himself to be – and others did not.
The situation in England, upon the Black Prince‘s death, hardly inspired confidence. While outwardly men had promised to support Richard’s claim (and he was the legal heir), no one in England wanted a minority rule dominated by squabbling uncles and fractitious nobles. Edward III was still alive but he merely rambled about his palaces and was disinterested in political affairs. John of Gaunt, so quick to dominate Parliament before, had made enemies and now found it wise to be more conciliatory. On 25 January, he watched as his 10 year old nephew was led into the House of Commons at Parliament. Plainly attired, the youth petitioned for his father’s titles – Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, and Earl of Chester. They were granted later in the year, on 20 November. In effect, this made his succession a matter of parliamentary record. In documents he was called ‘heir apparent’. But this was not foolproof. Edward III, senile as he had become, and angered by the dismissal of his mistress Alice Perrers by parliament, was in no mood to honor promises made to his dead heir. After all, John of Gaunt had always been his favorite son, and he was an adult – far more capable of ruling England than a mere child. Gaunt ably perceived his father’s feelings, and worked his charm upon the old man – he hoped that his father, before dying, would name him as his heir. After all, Gaunt was the oldest surviving son. (There was a son born after Edward and before John, called Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence – but he died in 1368, and does not factor into this study.)
The character of John of Gaunt is ripe for study. As he has a page of his own at this site, I will not recount his entire biography here. He was an ambitious man, and not without justification – for what intelligent and passionate man would willingly cede the throne to a mere child?
He was also incredibly wealthy; in fact, he was the wealthiest man in England, having married Blanche, the co-heiress to the earl of Lancaster. Gaunt inherited those lands – gathered by the Lancastrians through rich marriages and royal favors – as well as those of the other co-heiress, Maud, when she died childless. Through Maud alone, he inherited the earldoms of Derby, Lincoln, and Leicester. Soon enough, he was made duke of Lancaster by his father and – after Blanche’s death from the plague – he married Pedro the Cruel’s illegitimate daughter, Constance. Besides being the wealthiest man in England, Gaunt was also one of the more cultured. His castles of Kenilworth and Pontefract are justly celebrated for their beauty and architectural innovation. With his wealth and vast holdings, he was also able to summon – as overlord – thousands of men to his standard. Since most of his lands were in the north, he was called the Lord of the North, a brief nickname that gives no hint of the many earldoms and lordships he actually possessed.
In 1376, the fiftieth parliament had been summoned after the Black Prince’s death. Largely because of the courageous efforts of Peter de la Mare to end the illegal activities of many parliamentary members (including stealing from the treasury), it is known to history as the ‘Good Parliament’. But when John of Gaunt finally felt comfortable enough to assert his power again, he dismissed it (with his father’s approval) and immediately declared its decisions illegal. He then called a new parliament (known to history as the ‘Bad Parliament’) with his own hand-picked members.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Richard II" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/richard-ii/, January 12, 2022