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England's boy kings: Richard II

Richard II of England ascended to the throne at the age of ten. He was never expected to be a king; his father, Edward, Prince of Wales, known more commonly as the Black Prince for the black armor he wore in battle, died in 1376. Richard's older brother, also named Edward, had predeceased their father when Richard was four. When Edward III died in 1377, Richard was proclaimed king.

Richard on the throne, crowned, with orb and scepter.
Westminster Palace

Richard's minority had few issues. The Peasant's Revolt in 1381, when Richard was fourteen, showcased the young king's leadership. Richard rode with his entourage to meet with the peasants, effectively ending the revolt. Like his boy-king predecessor Henry III, Richard relied on a small group of courtiers who wielded enormous influence on the young king: Sir Simon Burley, the king's former tutor; Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford; and Sir Michael de la Pole, who became chancellor in 1383. This close group influenced the king against his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was enormously wealthy, with vast amounts of land and money through his inheritance as a king's son as well as his advantageous marriage to Blanche of Lancaster. The conflict came to a head in 1386, when de la Pole requested large amounts of tax money to defend England from a French invasion. Parliament refused to grant any funds. Richard was furious, and began rallying support. The royal courts reaffirmed Richard's rights as king, but several of the king's critics allied against him. This included the king's uncle Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, and the earls of Warwick, Arundel, Nottingham, and Derby, each a powerful force in their own right. They would be known as the Lords Appellant. After defeating de Vere in 1387, they and the Merciless Parliament purged the court, executing two of Richard's allies and dismissing the rest. By 1389, Richard resumed responsibility as king, installing new officers of his own choosing. The king promised to govern fairly and reduce the burden of taxation.

Richard's reign after 1390 was mostly peaceful. He endeavored to end the Hundred Years' War, though he did not relinquish Calais or the title "King of France". After the death of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, in 1394, Richard married the seven-year-old Isabella of Valois in an attempt to strengthen his French claim. Richard also attempted to add to the prestige and power of the monarchy though outwardly flaunting his crown and having his supporters wear an emblem of a white hart. The ceremony and protocol of the court was greatly elevated from the days of Edward III and earlier kings, with Richard replacing "my lord" with "your highness" or "your majesty". His vision of the monarchy became apparent in 1395, when he demanded that all Irish obey him, and communicated to the Irish that rebellion and disobedience would be met with appropriate consequences.

Richard himself was a cultured man. One of his great undertakings was to refurbish Westminster Hall, which had not been updated since the reign of Henry III, reconstructing parts that had fallen into disrepair, and also adding paintings and statues commemorating England's monarchy. Geoffrey Chaucer was employed by Richard as a diplomat among other things, and wrote his best work during Richard's reign.

Richard's reign began to unravel in 1397. He suddenly ordered the arrests of the former Lords Appellant: his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester; and the earls of Arundel and Warwick. Gloucester was killed before his trial, as Richard did not want the execution of a royal family member on his hands. Arundel was condemned and executed, and Warwick was exiled for life. Arundel's brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was also exiled for life. Richard seized their lands and handed them out to his own supporters.

Richard's main problem was one that had been with him for his whole reign: the power of the house of Lancaster. Richard was childless, and his child bride was not providing him with any heirs in the near future. Thanks to Edward III's many children, there were now more than half a dozen possible heirs for the childless king, most noteworthy being Henry of Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt. After Bolingbroke got into quarrel with Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, Richard decreed that the two duel to the death. At the last minute, however, Richard called the duel off and exiled both men; Mowbray for life, and Bolingbroke for ten years. Bolingbroke left for France, and Richard was seemingly secure. But in 1399, John of Gaunt died, leaving his vast estate to his exiled son. Richard would not allow Bolingbroke to inherit his rightful estate, instead disinheriting him and extending his exile to life. With his newfound riches, Richard left England to campaign in Ireland.

Bolingbroke was not content to sit in exile while his father’s land and wealth were used by the king, and he landed in Yorkshire with a small force and the exiled Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, in June of 1399, meeting little resistance as he moved his way south. He garnered the loyalty of nobles who were dissatisfied with Richard's increasingly erratic decisions. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, had been appointed protector of the realm in the king's absence, but he had little choice but to side with Bolingbroke's growing support. Richard returned from Ireland in July, and surrendered to Bolingbroke in August at Flint castle on the condition that his life be spared. The king and Bolingbroke then rode to London, where Richard was promptly placed into the Tower of London. Richard's abdication was accepted by Parliament on September 30, 1399, and Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV on October 13.

Henry was not the true heir to the throne. That claim belonged to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, great-grandson of Edward III's second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. However, Henry justified his claim by emphasizing that he was a direct male descendant of Edward III, whereas young Edmund's claim was through his grandmother Philippa. This would haunt the royal family many years later.

Richard III, now known as Richard Plantagenet, was moved from the Tower to Pontefract castle before the end of 1399. Henry reneged on his promise to keep Richard alive, and had the former king murdered sometime after his arrival at Pontefract. Henry was fearful of nobles still loyal to Richard rising up in revolt, and keeping an anointed and crowned king alive was a dangerous threat to Henry's own kingship. Richard was buried unceremoniously at King's Langley before being interred in the tomb he had made for himself by the son of the man that deposed him, Henry V.

Richard II’s reign had great promise in the beginning. The time of peace between 1390 and 1397 strengthened England. Historians speculate on what drove Richard from reigning peacefully to his sudden change to tyranny. Some speculate he had a personality disorder, or maybe his own insecurity as a childless monarch in a court full of heirs drove him to executions and exiles in the last two years of his reign. Some think Richard was biding his time for revenge against those that had killed his courtiers. The monarchy was forever changed by his deposition and murder: it showed England that all that was needed to claim the throne was a blood claim and brute force. This foreshadowed England's future in the years to come in the bloody Wars of the Roses - the war between the houses of Lancaster and York.

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