Richard II

Richard II (1367-1400) was king of England from 1377 to 1399. His reign, which ended in his abdication, saw the rise of strong baronial forces aiming to control the monarchy.

Richard II, known as Richard of Bordeaux from his birthplace, was born on Jan. 6, 1367, the younger son of Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), and Joan, daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent. After his father's death, Richard became the heir apparent, was created Prince of Wales in the later part of 1376, and on June 22, 1377, succeeded Edward III, his grandfather, as king of England. While he was underage, the control of the government had been left to a regency that came increasingly under the influence of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), one of his uncles. In 1381, during the revolt led by Wat Tyler, Richard showed his leadership potential by going out to meet the rebels and pacifying them after Tyler was killed.

After his marriage on Jan. 20, 1382, to Anne, the sister of King Wenceslaus and daughter of the emperor Charles IV, Richard attempted to end the regency's control of his minority and to take the leadership in national affairs, but Parliament was not eager to give up its powers. The following year, without consulting Parliament, Richard appointed Michael de la Pole as chancellor; and in 1384, hoping to check the opposition of his uncle Lancaster, he made his other uncles dukes of York and Gloucester.

As the barons under Gloucester's leadership hoped to rule Richard, he started to create a "new" nobility, raising Pole to Earl of Suffolk and Robert de Vare to Duke of Ireland, which resulted in Gloucester's forcing the King to accept a commission of 11 nobles with powers for reform in 1386. Using the law courts, Richard was able to have the commission declared unlawful in August 1387, but the barons were determined to retain the upper hand, and in the "Merciless" Parliament, which met that winter, those who supported the King were attacked, and some were executed.

Although he was able to regain ministers of his own choosing in the spring of 1389, Richard hoped to win over the barons by a policy of conciliation, but this failed partly because of his own weakness and partly because of the death of his first wife in June 1394 and his second marriage to Isabella, daughter of Charles VI of France, in November 1396. This marriage to the traditional enemy caused a loss of popular goodwill, and Gloucester called for the resumption of the French war. Fearing that a second attempt might be made by the barons to limit his royal powers, Richard was able to get the leaders of the opposition, Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick, in his power by July 1397, and in the Parliament that met in the autumn of the following year these men were condemned to death. This Parliament, after moving from Westminster to Shrewsbury in 1398, undid the acts of the Merciless Parliament. Now Richard was in full control and started to act in an arbitrary manner, alienating both barons and lesser subjects.

In February 1399, on the death of the Duke of Lancaster, Richard refused the inheritance to Lancaster's son, the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke; 2 months later Richard went to Ireland to avenge the death of the Earl of March, who had been killed on royal service. As soon as Henry of Bolingbroke heard of the King's absence, he landed in Yorkshire and raised a force to try to replace the King. Richard returned but, failing in an effort to raise an army, went into hiding in the north and after several months surrendered to Henry on Aug. 19, 1399, in North Wales. Henry, already acting as Henry IV, forced Richard's abdication on September 29 and imprisoned him. Richard died on Feb. 14, 1400, while at Pontefract.

Further Reading on Richard II

Of the many biographical studies of Richard II, the most important is Anthony Steel, Richard II (1941). See also Harold F. Hutchison, The Hollow Crown: A Life of Richard II (1961). Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II (1969), is a scholarly and interesting study of the court life, the social milieu, and the arts of the time; and Richard H. Jones, The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Later Middle Ages (1968), plays down Richard's personality and emphasizes the political imperatives of the time. For general historical background see Sir James H. Ramsay, Genesis of Lancaster, 1307-1399 (2 vols., 1913); May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (1959); and the excellent work of Arthur Bryant, The Atlantic Saga, vol. 2: The Age of Chivalry (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Bevan, Bryan, King Richard II, London: Rubicon Press, 1990.

Matthews, John, Warriors of Christendom: Charlemagne, El Cid, Barbarossa, Richard Lionheart, Poole, Dorset: Firebird Books; New York, NY: Distributed in the U.S. by Sterling Pub. Co., 1988.

Senior, Michael, The life and times of Richard II, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

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