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Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101, brought to you by Audible.com. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider in spoken-word entertainment, and you can get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up at audiblepodcast.com/british101. Check out Audible NOW and browse their extensive library when you logon at audiblepodcast.com/british101.
On 16 July 1377, a new king was crowned in Westminster Abbey. His father had been Edward, the Black Prince (of Wales), and his grandfather was King Edward III. The young man, born on 6 January 1367 in France, had been in line for the throne since his elder brother died in infancy; however, the time he would have to wait before becoming king was drastically reduced when his father died from a long, debilitating illness in 1376 (there is speculation that Edward had cancer). The boy was thus directly next in line for the crown upon the death of his grandfather, which came the following year on 21 June. The new king, Richard II, was but 10 years old. Legend has it that the exhausted little boy fell asleep during his own coronation and had to be carried from the Abbey. On the way out, one of his slippers fell off; history’s treatment of Richard has shown this to be an ill omen for the king’s future.
The stage was set for trouble from the get-go. Richard’s mother, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, loved her son but was unable to resist the power plays that accompanied a regency kingship. She was well-connected with the country’s elite, and being friends with the mother of a boy king presents a tempting chance to get what one wants. As Richard was 10 upon his accession, the country was ruled at first by Parliament and then by Richard’s uncles, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.. As long as Lancaster was around, everything was fine – he was a staunch supporter of the young king and apparently had no plans of usurpation or extensive control over the boy. However, as we will later see, when Lancaster left the country, things got rather more interesting.
Richard’s reign was one of great religious importance for the nation. John Wyclif and his apparently heretical teaching was gaining momentum in 1380, enough so to worry Church authorities and force the bishops to silence him. Although Wyclif was officially condemned, his teachings were taken out of England and spread to the Continent, where they would reach the likes of John Huss of Bohemia. It was John Wyclif who played a great role in sowing the seeds of the Protestant Reformation; unfortunately for his legacy, however, the events beginning with Martin Luther have come to eclipse Wyclif in many modern histories.
Richard received his first real test of kingly power when he was but 14 years old. In June 1381, English subjects were faced with taxes imposed on them to finance wars against the French and the Scottish; although they were unpopular, the taxes were tolerated. However, a tax collector was killed in Kent – supposedly – in retribution for attacking a girl whose father was a man named Wat Tyler. I have a great suspicion, however, that the hated tax man was probably killed out of anger over the tax itself, with the attack on Tyler’s daughter being a later-added justification. Either way, this sparked a conflagration led by a “Great Society” rumoured to have been plotting for months to do something about the taxes; this conflagration would later come to be known as the Peasants’ Revolt. An armed band of now-rebels marched off from Kent, stopping in Rochester and Maidstone to destroy government records. This is a telling set of events: these men knew precisely what they were doing, as destroying records made it impossible to accurately collect any sort of taxes or even know who to look for in a given town. Although many of them were illiterate, the rebels knew what importance the rolls they destroyed had. In Maidstone, the band took Wat Tyler, the man whose daughter had apparently been attacked by the tax collecter, as their leader. Off they were for London.
Unfortunately for those on rebels’ list of enemies, several high officials of London let them in or simply did nothing to stop them – another clue from which we should learn, as this exposes the popularity of the sentiment borne to extremes by the peasants. Upon entering the city, chaos was released. Two members of the Royal Council, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor Simon Sudbury and Treasurer Sir Robert Hales were dragged to the Tower and beheaded. The Savoy palace of John of Gaunt was ransacked; although the man ruling in Richard’s stead was apparently hated, it is interesting to note that the rebels felt themselves to still be totally loyal to the king himself. Never was Richard a target of their malice. The king invited them to a parley at Smithfield, just outside the city proper; here, the rebels made several demands: 1) the repeal of oppressive taxes 2) the abolition of villeinage 3) the division of Church property. During the discussion between King Richard and the rebel leader Wat Tyler in the middle of the field, a scuffle broke out, although today there are few who claim to know exactly why. In any case, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, thought Wat Tyler had made a threat against the king; at this, Walworth rode out and struck Tyler down. Several other of the King’s men followed suit, and soon Tyler was dead where he lay. The band of peasants prepared to fight, but young Richard, again we recall he was only 14 years old, rode out to meet them where he famously declared “I shall be your captain. You shall have from me all you seek. Only follow me to the fields outside.” The peasants believed him. For the moment, the tide had turned, and the rebels began to make their way home – and were harassed and attacked the entire way by royal soldiers.
Although Richard had calmed the peasants at Smithfield after they had seen their leader slain, the Revolt still carried on violently throughout the country. Riots sprung up all over the country, but government resistance was more prepared this time round – no more unexpected burning of local records by fed-up peasants. Orders were sent from London commanding local authorities to maintain order and mete out justice to insurgents. All in all, about 150 rebels were actually executed; a general amnesty was extended in 1382. Much to Richard’s advantage, nothing really changed. In fact, he annulled the promise he had given to those gathered at Smithfield, taking back his guarantee and giving another memorable quote: “Villiens ye be, and villiens ye shall remain.” Concluding our discussion of the Peasants’ Revolt, it is interesting (and a bit ironic) that very few of the men who marched on London were actually peasants – most were wealthy “middle class” (although what we know today as the middle class didn’t really exist yet) landowners upset by the heavy taxes being imposed on them and resentful of the government’s intrustion on their own fortunes.
1382 saw the young king marry Anne of Bohemia, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV at Westminster Abbey. The marriage was destined to produce no children, but Richard was rather taken with Anne and loved her dearly. We shall see in a few minutes just how much Richard loved his wife and why she played an interesting role in the relationship between Richard and the country’s elite.
One of the defining characteristics of Richard’s reign was the division that split his court into two. The king gathered about himself a circle of supporters who remained faithful to him; likewise, another group sprung up in direct opposition to the king’s initiatives. The main players behind the king were his eventual chancellor Michael de la Pole, Chief Justice Tresilian, Archbishop of York Alexander Neville, and the young king’s tutor Simon Burley. Leading this pro-crown faction was the king’s chamberlain, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and such were the people Richard found himself surrounded by at the age of twenty when he decided he would be take a more direct role in the Royal Council – his uncle Lancaster, and anyone else with official power, would have to consult Richard more closely than in previous years. On the other side of the coin, the so-called Lords Appellant made it clear that they were the king’s men in name only – they would offer Richard none of the loyality born him by his supporters. This group was made up of Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas Arundel, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, and Henry Bolingbroke, who was John of Gaunt’s own son and thus Richard’s cousin. The Lords Appellant were headed up by Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel.
The Lords Appellant were infuriated when in 1386 Richard made Robert de Vere the duke of Ireland. This appointment was such a contentious event because Ireland was out of Parliament’s control – Richard now had his great ally in charge of the Emerald Isle, and there was little legal recourse that the Lords Appellant could pursue. Ireland was an enormous token of power for Richard, and this wasn’t the last time it would play a substantial role in the reign of the Black Prince’s son.
The Lords Appellant found their opportunity for revenge when John of Gaunt left the country to pursue a claim he had laid upon the throne of Castile. With Richard’s guardian out of the country, the Lords pressured the king to get rid of his trusted advisors. Richard withdrew to consult his allies, and with the king out of the country the Lords Appellant were able to exert even more power over Parliament and effectively ruled the country. When Richard made his bid to return to London and reassert his royal authority, the attempt did not go over as well as he would have liked: Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole were able to escape the wrath of the Lords Appellant, but Simon Burley and Chief Justice Tresilian did not fair as well and were executed. All in all, though, things could have been worse for the still-young king: the older Lords Appellant wanted to execute him as well, but their younger colleagues restrained him. Even if they had no qualms murdering the man, they knew the time was not right to rid the country of the king, and they lacked the support that would have been necessary to survive after such an act. They were probably pushing their luck with what they had already done, anyway. For the time being, the Lords Appellant had gotten what they wanted and held a firm hand on England’s government.
We’ve got some excited history coming up, but before we do let’s take a small break for tea. While you’re making your favorite cuppa, I’d like to thank Audible.com for sponsoring today’s show. Audible.com is the leading provider in spoken word entertainment and has over 35,000 titles to choose from to be downloaded and played back anywhere — just like British History 101! Logon to Audiblepodcast.com/british101 to get a FREE Audiobook download of your choice when you sign up. I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes how I worked in a factory one summer doing a rather monotonous task over and over for eight hours a day. Audiobooks were a wonderful way to pass the time, and Audible made it incredibly easy to find the ones I wanted and download them. Again go to audiblepodast.com/britishhistory101 for your free audiobook – they’re adding more all the time and I know you’ll find something you like there.
Now then. Back to the history. During a session with his Council in 1389, Richard rather drily asked to be told how old he was. Upon a councillor’s answer that the king was 23, Richard announced that he had officially come of age. He was taking control of the country out of the hands of the Council and firmly placing it in his own. Finally, the man who had become ruler of England at the age of ten was truly the King. He had decided that he would wear the crown with much more than symbolic meaning. England was now Richard’s in name and in reality. This went over well with the English people, who were proud of their young, vigorous, and strong leader. Richard must have enjoyed the good PR.
What’s surprising about this assumption of power is the relative lack of action taken against the Lords Appelant. Richard appeared to have simply let things go in favor of a relative calm. John of Gaunt returned to England in October 1389 and his son, one of the Lords Appellant, was reconciled with the king. Things appeared to be going well; however, Churchill’s history of Richard suggests that perhaps he was taking his time to slowly plot his own revenge. Let’s see what happened for the next few years.
Richard apparently tolerated the men who had formerly plotted against him: as we just said, his uncle had reconciled him to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, and Arundel and Gloucester were something of a necessary evil – Richard definitely didn’t like them, but put up with them anyway. The king did get to enjoy a few occasions of anger with the men, though: when his beloved wife Anne died in 1394, Arundel was late to her funeral. Richard was reportedly so infuriated that he struck Arundel across the face with a rod – it must have felt good to beat the man who had once wanted the king dead. However, one must take into account the sadness Richard felt at the time. Was his outburst due to hatred of Arundel or anger that someone was late to his wife’s funeral, period? After all, this was the king who burned down his queen’s palace at Sheen so as to never be reminded of the joy he felt while she was alive.
The Lords Appellant should have felt a bit of anxiety when Richard left for Ireland in 1394. We said a few minutes ago that Richard’s control of Ireland was a scary thing for Parliament to deal with – Ireland was a huge resource to the king, and his 1394 expedition was made with the intent of raising an army for himself. The King was successful, and so another piece fell into the plan that Churchill thought Richard was setting up for his eventual glorious comeback. The evidence is clear that Richard wanted this army for personal objectives rather than those of the country at large. Wars waged in the name of the country were (as they are now) expensive affairs, and all that money had to come from somewhere. A king would have to approach Parliament to get the necessary money for a war, and Richard did not want to be under Parliament’s thumb, so to speak, with this burden. This attitude was part of why Richard made peace with France in 1396, a deal in which Richard also got another wife. He married 7 year old Isabella, the daughter of Charles VI of France. This marriage would produce no heir, either, a problem that would drastically change the line of English kings in just a few years. In addition, a secret clause was part of the Peace of France – should the English lords rebel again, Charles would come to the aid of Richard. The king was building up more and more insurance for his own power.
At this point, in the mid-1390s, powerful King Richard was still enjoying wide popularity – the country was doing well, and there was no war with France. The people felt that their king was taking care of them, and this was entirely justified. Richard used this time to continue building a strong foundation on which to stand, continuing to build up a circle of supporters around him at court and, in all likeliehood, making sure that members of Parliament would support him, as well. By now, Richard was more powerful than even William the Conqueror had been in the 11th century. He was on top of the world.
It was from this high post that Richard came swooping down upon his old enemies. In 1397 Richard summoned the Esates of the Realm, calling the nobility to Westminster. Here, the Lords Appellant found a nasty surprise waiting for them. Thomas Arundel was declared a traitor to the crown and his shoulders were summarily relieved of his head. Warwick was exiled to the Isle of Man, and the Duke of Gloucester was exiled to Calais. He was murdered there, anyway – probably on the orders of the king. Parliament, by now packed with the King’s men, made sure all of this was legal. Finally, Richard had gotten the revenge he had waited so long for. The King reigned supreme, but his first taste of blood had left him thirsty for more. His wrath was unsatisfied.
September 1398 was a momentous year in English history. Two of the former Lords Appellant, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, were discussing the recent near-tyrannical attitude of the king: it seems that a year after his revenge, Richard was looking for anyone to challenge him so he could show off just how powerful he was. Mowbray made the comment that he and Bolingbroke would probably be next, seeing as how they had formerly set themselves against the king. Henry, who fancied himself Richard’s savior after having restrained the older Lords Appellant, accused Mowbray of treason – how dare he speak so about the king! The two argued for a bit, but coming to no conclusion they decided that a duel would settle the matter. They would fight it out between themselves.
The arranged duel was an exciting event for the English people – think of it as a high-profile boxing match or football tournament today, with lots of important people and even the king himself in attendance. One can only guess at their disappointment when, just before the duel was to begin, Richard stood and demanded silence. He proclaimed that the duel was not to take place – he would be the arbiter of this disagreement, and his sentence was harsh. Thomas Mowbray was exiled for the rest of his life. Henry Bolingbroke got off comparatively easier, and had only to leave the realm for ten years.
This was the height of King Richard II’s power. He began to flaunt his power more and more, and it became clear that he was an unopposed despot as he tramped (expensively) about the country, enjoying his wealth and making sure everyone knew that it was he who was in charge in England. The king once adored for his strong leadership was now feared as an abusive tyrant. He showed his face at its cruelest in February 1399 when John of Gaunt died and all of the former guardian of Richard’s lands passed to his son, Henry Bolingbroke. Richard didn’t much fancy this and simply seized the property – in effect, he disinherited Henry of the land that was rightfully his. Aside from being a bold and pompous move, this had deeply resonating ramifications for Englishmen as a whole and English landowners in particular – if the king could take such a highly placed noble’s property, what stopped him from taking that belonging to men lower down the totem pole? Not much, apparently, since the law didn’t stop him from taking Henry’s rightful property. Richard’s Plantagenet arrogance was now on display for all to see. To put a bit of icing on the cake, Richard wanted to make sure Henry would never be able to do anything about his newfound plight – Bolingbroke’s ten year exile was lengthened to life.
May 1399 saw Richard off to Ireland to raise another army: he had effectively unlimited power and could probably just take some money from someone should he run out, so why not go and recruit a physical force of men to enforce his will? Unfortunately for England, Richard left behind a country ripe for trouble – his administration was in tatters due to his iron grasp on the reins of power, the army was in no fighting shape (hence another reason for his Irish jaunt), and his people hated him. The now-exiled-for-life Henry Bolingbroke saw his chance and decided to shorten his Continental vacation. On 4 July, Henry landed at Yorkshire. He was back to take what was rightfully his, and in all likelihood this is all he wanted: his land had been taken from him, and he wanted it back. English landowners, worried that they would suffer the same disinheritance Henry had, rallied to the exiled noble and vowed their support. Henry moved south through the country, gathering more and more supporters as he went. As more and more joined Henry’s caused, fewer and fewer were necessarily left to support the king. Besides, with Richard off in Ireland and Henry marching down the road with a swelling army behind him, who wouldn’t be afraid to stand up for the rightful, though despotic, king?
By the time Richard decided to come back on 27 July, he found virtually no support. He brought few troops with him from Ireland, and nearly everyone he previous could have counted on was now under the banner of Henry Bolingbroke. The king didn’t last long – less than a month, in fact. Henry saw what a powerful position he was in; with the support he had garnered, he knew he didn’t have to stop at asking for his property back. He demanded Richard’s submission to him, which he received the next month. King Richard II submitted to one of his own nobles on 19 August 1399 at Flint Castle. More and more pressure was applied to Richard, and he caved on the 29th of September – King Richard II became simply Richard. The crown would pass to Henry.
The only problem Henry had to solve was the small issue of legitimacy. He had little trouble, however; the direct heir to the throne, Edmund Mortimer, was only 8. Parliament, which by now hated Richard, had little difficulty putting Henry in Edmund’s place and making him the legal heir to the crown. It was thus that the English line of kings continued in King Henry IV, with Richard left to die of starvation at Pontefract Castle on 14 February 1400. He was buried at Kings Langley but was later transferred to Westminster Abbey in 1413 on the orders of Henry V.
Richard II was a capable monarch but was, unfortunately, corrupted by the power he gained. To quote a cliché, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this was exactly what happened to Richard. Setting aside the interest of an abdication, Richard’s reign is fascinating for other reasons, too. This was an age of high culture and literary merit – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were being written here (and perhaps we can discuss old Geoffrey in a later episode). His reign was also one of great pomp and majesty. Richard was, in official circumstances, a lofty ruler and set himself high above those around him. During meals, anyone upon whom Richard’s eyes fell was required to fall to their knee in submission. This was fashionable among European monarchies, and Richard was not one to be left behind. A powerful monarch was a way to control rebellious barons – let us remember that not 200 years had passed since John’s ordeal at Runnymede. Interestingly, though, was Richard’s apparent casualness in his non-official capacity. His closest cohorts were non-nobles (or at most very minor nobility). He enjoyed simply “hanging out,” with his friends, as it were, and delighted at informal readings of books in his relatively common company. From what I gather, Richard was probably a pretty likeably guy until a certain point. Perhaps if the Lords Appellant had never made their grab for power, Richard would have fared more favorably in the annals of history.
That’s all for this episode of British History 101. If you would, please bear with me for a few minutes, as I have a few announcements I’d like to make regarding the show. First off, I am very excited to introduce a new closing piece for British History 101. Simon Mulligan, who you have heard before on the show, has generously recorded a piece of music I have long sought after to be used as the outro to the show. Tonight, I’m going to play it in its entirety at the end for your enjoyment, and from then on it will be used as I close each show. Thank you again, Mr. Mulligan – your contribution is truly appreciated and really helps make British History 101 a fun show. Second, I want to ask everyone to check out the blog at britishhistory101.com – in addition to posting the text of each show there, I want it to become a place where I can interact with listeners and post material on a regular basis between actual episodes of the show. Some of the feedback I have received about the show indicates that I spend a bit too much time discussing non-historical matters, and I’ve taken that into consideration. Therefore, check the blog every few days and stay thoroughly up-to-date with British History 101. I’ll post things relating directly to the show and also to British history or Britain in general. I’m not just an historian – I’m a committed Anglophile, so there’s no telling what you’ll find there! I’ve also added a section called “Support British History 101.” This is for those of you who would like to show your support for the show; as the show is not part of a business and as such does not exist unto itself but merely as an extension of me, I can’t get non-profit or incorporated status and offer the opportunity for tax-deductible donations. What I have put up, however, is a link to the show’s Amazon wishlist. If you are so inclined, there are several things there that I could use to directly help the show and some things that are just of general interest to me. Most are books about British history, but there are also books about my other interests and various other items. I have absolutely no expectations from this list; if I never receive anything, the show will not decrease in quality whatsoever. It is entirely optional and it’s there only for those of you who may want to show your support and contribute to the show. I’m in the midst of setting up a PO box and will let you know when it’s available for mailing. I want to send an enormous thank you out to Teri and dog Buster, who very generously gave me an item from my wish list already, before this episode has even hit the proverbial airwaves! Thanks so very much Teri and Buster! Lastly, I’ve recently become part of the Twitter social network and have started to follow a few people; if there’s anyone out there who also enjoys being a part of Twitter and wants to follow my daily (or so) updates, my Twitter username is maskaggs – m a s k a g g s. I’d love for British History 101 to be a part of that network.
That’s it for my rambling. Stay tuned, both to the podcast and the blog, and we’ll talk again soon. Without further ado, it is my pleasure to present to you “Rule Britannia,” performed exclusively for British History 101 by award-winning Sony recording artist Simon Mulligan.