On this day in 1399

Portrait Richard II of England

Portrait Richard II of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Richard II of England found his throne usurped by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.  Taken into custody, he died in Pontefract Castle the following February in circumstances that police today would describe as ‘suspicious’.

Richard was certainly no paragon of virtue (few if any medieval kings were), but the circumstances of his deposition do raise some important conceptual points if you’re interested in this period of history.  ideas such as authority (who has it, why and to what extent does it bring responsibility), kingship (from whom does a king derive his authority), and despotism (even for kings there is a line they cross at their peril).

Richard was only 10 years old at his coronation in 1377 – however he pretty soon grew up and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 gave the 14 year old king his first serious crisis.  The savage reprisals exacted by the authorities took no account of the fundamental societal changes in the country as a result of the Black Death 0f 1348-9.  Richard’s attitude as king pretty much reflected this.  That said, reassertion of hierarchy was nothing new in late fourteenth century Europe, so exactly where did Richard fall down?

Put simply, from 1395 until his overthrow, his policies towards anyone who disagreed with him became increasingly repressive and cruel.  Rank gave one no protection from royal disfavour either.  John of Gaunt‘s son Henry Bolingbroke was one of the most powerful and popular members of the nobility.  The full story is of course more complex but put simply, Richard grew increasingly jealous of Bolingbroke’s influence at Court and had him banished.  The death of John of Gaunt in early 1399 gave Richard the pretext to banish Bolingbroke for life and seize his titles and estates.

For the English nobility this was simply unacceptable – if it could happen to Bolingbroke it could happen to any of them, at any time.  Who would the king take it out on next time he decided he was having a bad week?  Richard’s expedition to Ireland in June 1399 allowed Bolingbroke to return and claim his inheritance.  Seeing support for Richard dwindling by the week he probably decided he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb and made a bid for the crown.

Richard’s mistake?  Seeing himself as the source of the law that governed the land.  One of the chief principles of Magna Carta in 1215 had been that even kings had to hold power under the law and were as subject to it as any of their people.


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