The Black Prince had been made Prince of Aquitaine (the dower lands of Eleanor of Aquitaine when she wed King Henry II) by his proud father, King Edward III, in 1362. The heroic Prince Edward and his new wife Joan moved there to principle city of Bordeaux, where they produced two fine sons. Their eldest, Edward of Angoulême, died tragically when he was just shy of his sixth birthday, leaving his baby brother, Richard of Bordeaux, as the heir.
Since Richard was born on the Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, which celebrates the Magi visiting the infant Jesus, there soon arose a (probably mythical) tale that three kings — “the King of Castille, the King of Navarre and the King of Portugal“—attended his birth. A modern person can be amazed at the hubris of royal families (comparing one’s baby to Jesus seems a bit over the top), but finding similarities to Christ were more about piety than puffery.
Richard’s father, the adored warrior and symbol of English might, died on 8 June 1376, leaving his nine year old son next in line to the throne. A little over a year later King Edward III died, and the 10 year old Richard became the new monarch of the Anglo-Norman realm.
The small sovereign was crowned on 16 July 1377, but there was a great deal of worry about his powerful uncles, particularly John of Gaunt, would take the throne from the little king. As a result, John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, were kept from holding formal power in the new government. This was unnecessary, since both Gaunt and Buckingham were too honorable to steal their nephew’s birthright. It was also misguided, since the king’s councilors made an utter hash of ruling for him, provoking the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Although only 14 years old, the king was instrumental in putting down the revolt, but the fear and danger of an uprising left the boy with “the absolutist attitudes to kingship that would later prove fatal to his reign.”
In an effort to solidify his line and his rule, Richard married Anne of Bohemia on 20 January 1382. She had no dowry but her familial connections, and the childless marriage was initially unpopular in England, but Anne herself eventually gained supporters and allies throughout the country due to her pleasing personality and ability to soften her husband’s stern dictums.
Richard’s marriage was happy, but that was all that was going well for the young king. His military endeavors both on the continent and in Scotland failed, and there was a serious threat of a French invasion. Richard needed to raise funds to defend the kingdom, but the Wonderful Parliament, under the control of the enemies of the king’s chancellor, Michael de la Pole, refused to raise taxes unless Richard dismissed de la Pole. Enraged by their presumption, the king told them to suck eggs and die mad about it.
The king was therefore livid when parliament impeached de la Pole on charges of embezzlement and negligence. Spearheaded by the Lords Appellant – three nobles, including his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, as well as Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel and of Surrey, and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick – the nobility moreover forced Richard to accept “a Commission to govern England for one year from 19 November 1386.”
King Richard fought back, but his favorites at court had risen too high and become too hated among the established nobility; insurrection was afoot. The Lords Appellant, now joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (the eldest son of John of Gaunt) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, took up arms against the king and defeated the royalist forces under Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, at Radcot Bridge on 20 December 1387.
The defeated king was now sovereign in style more than substance. While two of his favorites, de Vere and de la Pole, were able to escape the country, the rebel lords convened the Merciless Parliament in February of 1388 and signed death warrants for most of Richard’s inner circle. Among the slain were Robert Tresilian, Simon de Burley, and Nicholas Brembre, as well as the king’s chamber knights Sir John Beauchamp of Holt, Sir James Berners, and Sir John Salisbury. Richard was powerless to save his friends and would never forgive the lords that had orchestrated the murders.
The king’s salvation came in the form of his uncle John of Gaunt, who returned to England from Castile in 1389 and threw all his weight behind restoring Richard’s powers. With Gaunt’s help, the 21 year old king reclaimed “full control of the government on 3 May 1389, claiming that the difficulties of the past years had been due solely to bad councillors.” All was flowers and hearts in the king’s court again, and “Richard ruled peacefully for the next eight years, having reconciled with his former adversaries.”
Or so it seemed.
In reality, the king was burning with a cold anger, and revenge was a dish best served cold.
For several years Anne of Bohemia was able to keep Richard from seeking revenge. She worked tirelessly to promote peace between her husband and his foes, and in 1392 she famously begged for mercy on behalf of the citizens of London during the “ceremonial reconciliation” between the king and the capital. Alas, Anne died of the plague in 1394, leaving the devastated king without her moderating influence.
The loss of his wife was conjoined with one of the only truly successful military efforts of his reign: “In the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland, where he remained until May 1395. His army of more than 8,000 men was the largest force brought to the island during the late Middle Ages. The invasion was a success, and a number of Irish chieftains submitted to English overlordship.” With the English lordships in Ireland secured, and a peace treaty with the French thanks to his marriage to Princess Isabella of Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI of France, Richard felt his position as king was now strong enough to move against the former Lords Appellant whom he held most guilty for his humiliation.
The king had Thomas of Woodstock, Arundel and Warwick arrested for treason in July 1397, and to make sure John of Gaunt stayed on his side, Richard had former appellants Bolingbroke and de Mowbray elevated to Duke of Hereford and Duke of Norfolk, respectively. Addtionally, Gaunt’s younger son, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, was created Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset. Several other courtiers were given higher titles (they were mocked as the king’s “duketti”) in exchange for backing Richard’s revenge.
The newly made Duke of Norfolk obligingly hacked Thomas of Woodstock to death (presumably on Richard’s orders) while the king’s uncle awaited trial in Calais. Arundel was beheaded more officially, after a trial at Parliament in September 1397, and the earl’s brother, Thomas Arundel, was exiled for life in spite of being the Archbishop of Canterbury. Warwick was spared his life, but he was stripped of his lands and titles and was imprisoned like a commoner on the Isle of Man. With the big fish fried, the king then went after lesser peers who had supported the rebels.
Bolingbroke and de Mowbray were nervous. The king was strong, and getting stronger; would they be next? Unsurprisingly, the two turned on one another. In December 1397, Bolingbroke alleged that “Mowbray had claimed that the two, as former Lords Appellant, were next in line for royal retribution. Mowbray vehemently denied these charges, as such a claim would have amounted to treason. A parliamentary committee decided that the two should settle the matter by battle, but at the last moment Richard exiled the two dukes instead: Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for ten years.” The king sent the more dangerous of the two, Bolingbroke, to Paris, where he’d get no help from Richard’s father-in-law.
The final check on Richard’s revenge ended with the death of John of Gaunt on 3 February 1399. Now the king could seek vengeance on the last two standing Lords Appellant. King Richard declared Bolingbroke a traitor, exiled him for life, forbid him to become the next Duke of Lancaster, and confiscated all his holdings. With Bolingbroke under the thumb of the French king in Paris, Richard even felt confident enough of his cousin’s impotence to leave for another invasion of Ireland.
King Richard would have gone in history as a badass who vanquished his local foes if it hadn’t been for the insanity of King Charles VI of France. Richard’s father-in-law had a prolonged period of mental illness and his rule was usurped by Louis, Duke of Orléans, who let Bolingbroke leave Paris. Bolingbroke headed for England, now intent on stealing his cousin’s throne but keeping that little fact to himself until he could gain permission to land his troops in York. Bolingbroke assured Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, that he was only there to demand the restoration of the Lancaster properties, and Percy believed him. Once away from Percy’s army, Bolingbroke made it clear that the throne was his ultimate goal.
It was a bit of a hard sell to get other nobles to accept Bolingbroke as an alternative monarch. The king’s heir was Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, the descendant of King Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, and was technically next in line for the crown. However, Mortimer’s bloodline came from Lionel of Antwerp’s only daughter, and thus didn’t count as much the male Bolingbroke heritage … according to Bolingbroke. Therefore, if Richard was deposed, Henry of Bolingbroke ‘naturally’ got to be king. With some promises and glad-handing to major peers, Bolingbroke accumulated enough forces to demand the king’s abdication and surrender at Flint Castle on 19 August 1399.
King Richard was taken captive and imprisoned in the Tower of London on the first of September. The king was formally deposed a month later, and on 13 October 1399, Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV of England.
Richard was removed to Pontefract Castle around Christmas, where his allies immediately began plotting to free him. Afraid of Richard’s return to power, the new King Henry IV probably had his cousin quietly murdered, although the official story was that Richard starved himself to death while in a fit of melancholy. The king that had come into the world in glory was buried surreptitiously at the local Dominican friary in Stirling in late February or early March of 1400.
King Henry’s throne was never fully secure, and the stink of regicide clung to his robes for the rest of his life. In 1413 his son, the popular and beloved King Henry V, tried to wash the family’s past by moving King Richard’s body to place of honor in an elaborate tomb in Westminster Abbey next to Anne of Bohemia. There, the Lancaster’s hoped the Plantagenet king would rest in peace.
But the Wars of the Roses were coming … and there was a pale horse waiting for the grandson of the man who killed his lawful sovereign. Bolingbroke had shown the world that to kill a king was to gain a crown, and the descendants of Lionel of Antwerp had taken note.