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Richard II - Tyrant? Or Just Another Plantaganet?

This week I'm talking undeserved royal reputations and today I’m going to examine Richard the Second.

Megalomanical. Tyrannical. Vain and an all-round bad King. Well he might have been but I’m not convinced… …and like Richard the Lionheart before him and Richard III after him, this King Richard has more to his story than meets the eye and he’s really quite an interesting monarch.

The first thing to understand about Richard the Second is that he wasn’t supposed to be King. The trouble was his father. Edward the Black Prince was supposed to be King and he was everything that a country currently in the middle of the Hundred Years War needed. But he died in 1376, and his brother Edward of Angouleme, who was supposed to be heir had died in 1370, which left Richard as heir to Edward III’s throne. Because he wasn’t the first-born he was a spare that had become an heir.

To make matters worse Edward III died in 1377 and left Richard in charge of the country at 10 years old, and this was a country in a war that would last another 50 years.

Because 10 year olds just aren’t allowed to run countries he was “supported” by a council of regents. This had effectively replaced one person who wasn’t supposed to be King for a few years, with a group of twelve nobles who were not supposed to be King at all. Throw in one powerful uncle in the form of John of Gaunt and things are not going to go well.

If it’s one thing the Plantagenets cannot make a success of, it’s a powerful uncle.

For my money, I’m not convinced that Richard was as tyrannical as history portrays him. I just don’t think he was that good at the job. He does have his moments, but in the grand game of thrones he plays and he loses and that’s when harsh things happen.

We think of the Tudor court as the ultimate historical viper pit but to be honest the Plantagenet court is equally as brutal. In the Plantagenet court losing Kings get killed whereas in the Tudor Court kills everyone else but the King – the danger is pretty much the same. But I digress.

Getting back to the early reign, government is being done by a series of “continual councils” which feature pretty much all the factional infighting and family enrichment that goes along with this “oh so Norman” style of government. In terms of actually improving England it was going nowhere. The Hundred Years War was not going well at all, and far from the grand sweeping lands of France that both Edward’s father, grandfather and further ancestors could boast, all England had at this time was Calais, and part of the Gascony coastline stretching from Bordeaux to Bayonne, so whatever these twelve nobles are doing so far, it isn’t working.

Richard’s principal tutor was a man named Sir Simon Burley, a close friend of the family, and he encouraged Richard to restore the glory of the English throne through the assertion of his personal authority and we see a great example of this in his approach to the Peasants Revolt.

For a quick guide to the peasants’ revolt. With the Black Death having wiped out 1/3 of medieval Europe, good labourers were in short supply, which meant they could demand higher payments or go looking elsewhere for work. Unfortunately the system of serfdom tied people to the land and prevented them leaving. Although these workers were paid, they were not free. This, combined with an ever increasing burden of taxation culminating in another poll tax in 1381 sparked a riot, closely followed by an armed insurrection.

Richard met these rebels at Smithfield and an altercation broke out, with the Revolt leader Wat Tyler being killed by the Mayor of London, Richard then advanced into the armed crowd and calmed the situation down leading the remaining rebels out of the area.

When Richard faced down these rebels he was aged 14, and it was less of a confrontation than we think. Richard had already agreed to the demands of the rebels. Now we may consider that he was lying, it’s a possibility. But you’d have to have a pretty impressive poker face to pull off that lie in front of an armed and angry crowd that had hacked the Archbishop of Canterbury to death. It is more likely that he agreed with the demands but once the rebellion had petered out that government dragged its heels.

Following this, the pardons he offered were revoked 2 weeks later. It is unclear, however, whether this was the plan from the start. Either way this is not the behaviour of a tyrant.

Tyrants work on the principal that they are right and everyone else can go hang. The Tyrant Richard would likely have kept killing rebels until they surrendered, whether it was a good idea or not, compliance – even faked compliance – is just not the tyrant way.

There are other elements of Richard that are often pointed to when considering him to be a tyrant, and that is his rewarding of his favourites at court, in particular in this case Robert De Vere, the 9th Earl of Oxford, whom Richard had made the Justice of Chester and the Duke of Ireland; and also Michael De La Pole who had been made Earl of Suffolk and Chancellor, and this of course gets right up the nose of other nobles like the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Nottingham and John of Gaunt’s son, the Earl of Derby, Henry Bolingbroke – well call me cynical but this is just what monarchs and politicians do, they promote people they like and keep out people they don’t – even if those people might be really good at the job.

In response, those overlooked nobles banded together to form a faction known as the Lords Appellant. They confronted the King and forced the removal of De La Pole as Chancellor, forced De Vere to flee the country and had others loyal to the King executed.

Now this does seem tyrannical to me, but in fact it’s the Lords Appellant that are the tyrants here. Richard just appears to be rubbish at politics, which is a hallmark of those who come to the throne at an early age without growing up in it.

He would go further in annoying the rest of his nobility by coming to peace terms with the French. This went down very well with the commons and the people, you know – the ones doing the actual fighting and dying – but of course it meant that those fighting nobles like Gaunt and so forth no longer had a darned good war to make themselves even richer and more powerful.

So up to now Richard has agreed to the demands of rebels, excluded people he didn’t like, caved to another group of rebels and made peace to end a long and unnecessary war. I’m not seeing tyranny all over the place here are you?

But if you want to see the closest we can get to tyranny then we’re looking at the last 2 years of Richard’s reign. This is the time most historians refer to as the “Tyranny of Richard”.

Richard has the Duke of Gloucester and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick, the main Lords Appellant arrested. We’re not entirely sure why but given that they’d been part of pretty much every plot and hassle against Richard for the entirety of his reign it’s probably not without cause. But the thing is, if he’s that tyrannical then why wait 10 years to take revenge on them? Again it sounds less despotic when we consider that.

Arundel was executed, Gloucester died before reaching trial, Warwick was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Bolingbroke was exiled to France for life. Finally the problem is solved.

In 1399 when John of Gaunt died, Bolingbroke returned to claim the lands he should inherit, but given these had been seized by the crown, if he wanted them back he’d have to do it by force, and that’s what he did. Bolingbroke invaded. Richard was caught off-guard, ill-prepared and without an army.

Meeting little resistance Bolingbroke accepted the surrender of Richard and agreed to spare his life if he abdicated the throne. Henry was crowned Henry IV on 13th October 1399.

Now deposing a King is a big deal, especially when you’re basically doing it to get your estates back so Henry needed a better reason that his vast tracts of land, and what better reason than doing his sacred duty to the realm by removing a tyrannical despot? In short Henry needed Richard to be the tyrant that history has since painted him – remember, history is written by the winners. Then Shakespeare would go on to make it somewhat worse – possibly as he needed to create a bigger tyrant than Elizabeth I – who knows?

Richard is said to have been starved to death in the oubliette of Pontefract Castle, from the French word oublier, to forget. The metal door you can see here covers the entrance to that dungeon today.

Richard was, in many ways, a bad King. He was probably vain, he was possibly mentally ill, he was almost certainly useless in terms of political aptitude. But was he really a cruel, vindictive and irresponsible tyrant? I’m not convinced.

Compare him to William the Conqueror or Henry VIII, or any one of the Tudor monarchs and he’s a pussycat by comparison. So let’s slate him for the things he actually was, which was possibly the worst Plantagenet, and that in itself is an achievement.

Thanks for reading.

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