Richard II (1367-1400), King of England (1377-1399), was ten years old when he succeeded his grandfather, Edward III. His father, Edward the Black Prince had died the year before of an illness contracted whilst campaigning in France, and for the first five to seven years of his reign he ruled with a regency council guided by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, his uncle.
He inherited a country fraying under the financial stress of the war with France and the resultant high taxes; a social order struggling with the changes wrought by the Black Death of 1348/9 (and its return during 1368); and political tensions as Parliament, and the “old guard” controlled by Lancaster, jockeyed for power.
The first test of Richard’s character occurred in 1381. He was only 14 when he showed extreme courage and quick thinking in calming the very dangerous situation of the Peasants' Revolt, led by rebel leader Wat Tyler. His later general pardon of the rebel rank and file showed political maturity.
It was not to last. From about 1382 he began to insist on governing in his own name, and chose his own advisers and confidants – variously detested by his subjects and bringing the inevitable backlash from members of the baronage. By 1387 the situation in France and Richard’s arrogance had brought together a group of barons (known as the Lords Appellant) who defeated Richard’s forces in battle and, at the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388, had his advisors exiled or executed.
In 1389, John of Gaunt returned from France. His power and political acumen, and his moderating influence on the king helped Richard regain authority. By 1393, though there were rumblings of discontent at Richard’s policies in Ireland, and his move towards negotiating a peace with France.
In 1382, Richard had married Anne of Bohemia. From a rocky start Anne won the hearts of both her husband and the English populace. She died of the plague in 1394 whilst Richard was attempting to re-establish English control in Ireland. Richard was grief-stricken. His decisions became more arbitrary, and discontent amongst the barons grew. In 1397 he called a Parliament where, backed by his personal guard of Cheshire archers, he wreaked revenge on the Lords Appellant and others, who were banished, executed or, in one case, (Earl of Gloucester) exiled and murdered. He began withdrawing charters and creating five new dukedoms for supporters. Lands and holdings of his enemies were confiscated. In 1398 a dispute and intended duel between Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (Gaunt’s son) and the Duke of Norfolk, brought about the exile of both men and the confiscation of Henry’s Lancastrian inheritance.
In June 1399, Richard made the mistake of returning to Ireland. Bolingbroke – now Duke of Lancaster after the death of John of Gaunt - took the opportunity to invade England. Such was the unpopularity of the king that there was little resistance. Richard returned from Ireland to be taken on landing in Wales. He agreed to abdicate and Parliament met to formally depose him. He was incarcerated in the Lancaster stronghold of Pontefract Castle, where he died, possibly of starvation, in early 1400. He left no heirs. He was succeeded by his cousin Bolingbroke as Henry IV.
Richard’s reign is notable for the use of Parliament as a political means to an end. That Parliament was used as the instrument in the deposition of Richard, is an indication of its growing importance in the minds of the political class. There were other indications that the Middle Ages was moving towards something else. There were new fashions, new movements in art and literature, the move from the plain castle to the crenelated palace, the first stirrings of a protestant movement within the Church. It was the age of Wyclif’s Bible, and The Canterbury Tales.
Richard's political ineptitude, his lifelong reaction to his being bullied during his early reign, and his childlessness, set the scene for what became a precedent for future periods of dynastic disruption that were to explode into the Wars of the Roses fifty-odd years later.
References: • Oxford Companion to British History. • Thomas B. Costaine: “The Last Plantagenets”.