Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Murder Most Royal – Part III

Richard II murdered circa 14th February 1400

Richard was the son of the Black Prince, a warrior of great renown & grandson of Edward III. He succeeded his grandfather at the age of 10 in 1377. A regency of the king’s uncles was avoided. Many of the nobility feared the ambitions of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who had been effectively running the country during the final illnesses of his elder brother & father. Gaunt was still very influential during Richard’s minority.

Heavy poll taxes, the proceeds of which were used to prosecute the war in France, were one of the root causes of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. Following the loss of up to 60% of the population in the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century labourers were in short supply. But the Statute of Labourers of 1351 forbade the movement of peasants & the seeking of better wages. The nobles surrounding the king, particularly his uncle John of Gaunt, were immensely unpopular.

The revolt was triggered by poll tax collectors in Essex and quickly spread throughout the region. With ploughshare & scythe the farm workers & labourers marched on London, where they were eventually met by Richard (by now considered old enough to rule at the age of 14). Richard agreed to parley with their leaders. When the motley crew returned home, rejoicing at their triumphant meeting with the king, the ringleaders were cut down; Richard having reneged on his promises to his people.

Richard’s friend Michael de la Pole was from a merchant family & when Richard made him chancellor & later the Earl of Suffolk. De la Pole was viewed as an upstart by the nobility. Richard’s friend Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was also viewed with hostility, as the de Vere family was not of the top rank. De Vere’s elevation to the newly created Duchy of Ireland merely fanned the flames. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham claimed that relationship de Vere had with the king was of a homosexual nature.

The Duke of Lancaster at a banquet
Richard’s relationship with his uncle of Gaunt was further corroded by their polar attitudes to the ongoing war with France. Richard preferred to negotiate with the French, while the Duke of Lancaster wanted to protect the French lands conquered by his father.  In 1386 Gaunt left England, with an army, to further his pretentions to the throne of Castille. The proposed military actions in France required the Chancellor to increase taxation to pay for the campaigns. Parliament refused to allow the taxation unless de la Pole was removed from the Chancellorship. It wasn’t until he was threatened with deposition that Richard allowed the removal of de la Pole.

The earl of Oxford escapes from Radcot Bridge
Richard built up a power base in Chester. But on his return to London, from a tour of his country to raise support, Richard was met by the Duke of Gloucester, and the earls of Arundel & Warwick. The three wished to raise pleas of treason against Robert de Vere, de la Pole and other supporters of the king. Richard procrastinated, as he was expecting de Vere with military reinforcements from Cheshire. John of Gaunt’s eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, and the earl of Nottingham met with the three lords and jointly intercepted de Vere, routing his forces at Radcot Bridge. The Lords Appellant (as they became known) now forced Richard to comply with their demands. De la Pole & de Vere fled to the continent, but the king’s lesser supporters were executed, including Knight’s of the King’s chamber.

Richard & Isabella on their wedding day
The Lords Appellant were opposed to Richard’s strategy of negotiating with the French and unsuccessfully attempted to set up an anti-French coalition. The return of the Duke of Lancaster, from Castille, had a calming effect on English politics and on 3rd May 1389 Richard took full control of his kingdom. He now began negotiating a permanent peace with France. The price of peace with France was for the King of England to do homage to the King of France for his French possessions in Aquitaine, which was totally unacceptable to the English. Eventually in 1396 a twenty-eight year truce was agreed, as well as the marriage between Richard & the six year old Princess Isabella.

In the autumn of 1394 Richard led an expedition to Ireland, where the English lordships were under threat. Richard’s campaign was successful & he returned to England in May 1395.

In July 1397 Richard had the Lords Appellant arrested. Richard had always been a great believer in the Royal Prerogative and strongly felt that the Lords Appellant had acted against his royal person when forcing the execution of Richard’s supporters. Arundel was tried & executed in September. Then came the news that Gloucester had died in prison. Warwick & Arundel’s brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were exiled. John of Gaunt facilitated Richard’s revenge, but the king was assisted by his half-brother John Holland & his nephew Thomas, now the Dukes of Exeter & Surrey. The king also rewarded a number of his other remaining supporters.

In December 1397 Henry Bolingbroke, now Duke of Hereford, fell out with Thomas de Mowbray, now Duke of Norfolk. Before the matter could be decided by a trial of arms Richard exiled both men, Mowbray for life & Bolingbroke for ten years.

However when John of Gaunt died in February, Richard extended Bolingbroke’s exile to life. Bolingbroke was at the French court, where in June 1399 Louis Duke of Orleans took control of the court of the insane Charles VI of France. Louis was not interested in the peace policy previously followed by both courts & allowed Henry to return to England, where he claimed he was merely attempting to gain his inheritance as Duke of Lancaster.

At the end of June Henry arrived in Yorkshire & soon had men flocking to his banner. Richard meanwhile was with his army in Ireland; from where he returned, landing in Wales, on the 24th July. The Duke of York, as Keeper of the Realm, in Richard’s absence, had already sided with Bolingbroke. By the 19th August Richard had surrendered to Henry at Flint castle, promising to abdicate if his life was spared. Richard was then taken to the Tower of London and on 30th September Parliament accepted his resignation. Henry was crowned the fourth of that name on 13th October 1399.

Shortly before the end of the year, around the time of an uprising planned by Richard’s supporters, Richard was moved to Pontefract Castle. Richard was under the care of Sir Thomas Swynford, the son of the new king’s stepmother. In less than two months Richard was dead.

It is believed that Richard died of starvation; Henry IV and his council claimed that Richard refused food for four days and was thereafter unable to eat & so died. However the minutes for a council meeting on 8th February were doctored after the event. The original document showed that the following payments were authorised from the exchequer:

·         Payment to William Loveney, clerk of the Great Wardrobe, sent to Pontefract castle on secret business by order of the king – paid 66 shillings & 8d – in 2010 worth: £20,200.00 using average earnings

·         Payment to a valet of Sir Thomas Swynford to certify to the council on certain matters, with concern to the king’s advantage -  26 shillings & 8d – in 2010 worth: £8,100.00 using average earnings[i].

These payments would seem excessive for merely observing the king’s death & reporting it to king & council. They would appear to confirm suggestions that Richard was murdered; possibly by the withholding of food as suggested by the chronicler Adam of Usk, who also claims that Sir Thomas Swynford taunted Richard ‘with starving fare’.


Edward III – WM Ormrod, Tempus Publishing 2005

Richard II & the Revolution of 1399 – Michael Bennet, Sutton Publishing 1999

The Usurper King – Marie Louise Bruce, The Rubicon Press 1998

[i] The Usurper King – Marie Louise Bruce, The Rubicon Press 1998
Price information from

1 comment:

  1. A complex time sowing the seeds for the Wars of the Roses. It would be interesting to contemplate what might have happened if Richard had died in infancy and Gaunt had reigned in his stead in an age where strong kings were often preferable to good men.