Although he was the grandson of a king he had no expectation of inheriting the crown, which would go to the eldest surviving son of the Black Prince. The Black Prince’s second son, who was born only a few months before Henry of Bolingbroke, would become Richard II in the summer of 1377.
The boys were friendly enough at first, especially since John of Gaunt was one of the young king’s strongest supporters, but as Richard aged he alienated several powerful members of the nobility … including his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke. First there was Richard’s unpopular marriage to Anne of Bohemia, and then there was his tendency to take “low born” men and elevate them above the peerage, and finally there was his yen to make a lavish ‘romantic’ court to rival those of the continent. His desire for art and beauty was costly, and his nobles thought the money would be better spent defending English holdings in France. The ungrateful king also became jealous and worried by the power and popularity of his loyal uncle John of Gaunt, who went to France rather than stay in England and be plotted against by the king.
The teenage monarch and his favorites forgot the lesson of history; if pushed too far the English nobility were more than capable of checking their king’s power. Sure enough, Richard and company pushed it too far. In November of 1386, three powerful nobles, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (who was the second surviving son of Edward III and thus the king’s uncle), Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel and of Surrey, and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, formed what became what is known as the Lords Appellant and deposed Richard in all but name. They were not out to harm the king, whom they theoretically maintained allegiance to, but they demanded (and got) the executions of several of Richard’s favorites. Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham also joined the Lords Appellant, but were much less bloodthirsty regarding the king’s close friends and advisors.
John of Gaunt returned from France in 1389 and (letting bygones be bygones) helped his petulant nephew become a true king again. John of Gaunt also negotiated a reconciliation between the king and the Lords Appellant. For the next 8 years, Richard cooperated with his nobles and parliament and all was smooth sailing for the monarchy. However, Richard was merely biding his time and buttering up John of Gaunt’s family in order to retaliate against the Lords Appellant.
In 1397 Richard moved against his uncle Thomas, Arundel, and Warwick. He had Arundel and Warwick executed and his uncle ‘mysteriously’ died before he could be brought to trial.
These actions were made possible primarily through the collusion of John of Gaunt, but with the support of a large group of other magnates, many of whom were rewarded with new titles, who were disparagingly referred to as Richard’s “duketti”. These included the former Appellants Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, who was made Duke of Hereford, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, who was created Duke of Norfolk. Also among them were John and Thomas Holland, the king’s half-brother and nephew, who were promoted from earls of Huntingdon and Kent to dukes of Exeter and Surrey respectively; the Duke of York’s son Edward, Earl of Rutland, who received Gloucester’s French title of Duke of Aumale; Gaunt’s son John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who was made Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset; John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury; and Lord Thomas le Despenser, who became Earl of Gloucester. With the forfeited lands of the convicted appellants, the king could reward these men with lands suited to their new ranks.
Richard was still leery of his cousins through John of Gaunt. In spite of the fact that Gaunt had always been loyal, Richard didn’t like how rich, powerful, and popular his uncle and Henry of Bolingbroke were. When Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray got into a massive spat, Richard took the opportunity to exile them both for several years, although he promised that Henry would be allowed to inherit his father’s lands and return to England when Gaunt died.
When Gaunt died a year later, Richard broke his promise. He claimed Gaunt’s lands for the crown and exiled Henry of Bolingbroke for life. This vexed Henry of Bolingbroke to no end, so he invaded England with the intention of deposing his irksome cousin.
An excellent strategist and military commander, Henry swooped down on Richard and on 19 August 1399 the king surrendered. Richard was forced to abdicate the throne, and on 13 October King Henry IV was crowned.
Richard was either starved to death, or starved himself to death in a hunger strike, by February 1400.
Henry VI had a devil of a time holding onto the throne once he had gotten his tushie planted on it. There were several rebellions by lords who saw a chance to overthrow Henry and get more power for themselves via a return of Richard II or the crowning of an alternative king. First, there was the Epiphany Rising in 1400, in which so demoted lords attempted to restore Richard II as king and got executed for their troubles. There there was the Percy Rebellion, which included no less than three attempts by the Percy family and their allies to overthrow Henry:
- Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). King Henry IV defeated a rebel army led by Henry Hotspur Percy who had allied with the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr. Percy was killed in the battle by an arrow in his face. Thomas Percy, 1st Earl of Worcester, Sir Richard Venables and Sir Richard Vernon were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury on 23 July and their heads publicly displayed. The Earl of Northumberland fled to Scotland.
- Archbishop of York Richard le Scrope led a failed rebellion in northern England (1405). Scrope and other rebel leaders were executed. The Earl of Northumberland again fled to Scotland.
- Battle of Bramham Moor (1408). The Earl of Northumberland invaded Northern England with Scottish and Northumbrian allies but was defeated and killed in battle.
Henry IV died on 20 March 1413, and his crown passed to his eldest son, Henry V. Another upstart cousin, Richard 3rd Duke of York, would later move to usurp the throne from Bolingbroke’s grandson, Henry VI. York’s own grandson’s would be murdered (probably by York’s son, King Richard III) and yet another cousin would take the throne, Henry VII.
It was a big ‘ol mess there for a while, to be honest.