On 21 June 1377, Edward III died. In his 50-year reign he had transformed medieval England into one of the most formidable military powers of Europe, with major victories in the early part of the Hundred Years’ War leading to the favourable treaty of Brittany. His reign had also seen the establishment of the House of Commons in the English Parliament.
However, Edward III’s death came after that of his son – Edward the Black Prince – who had died in June 1376. The Black Prince’s eldest son had died at the age of five from the Bubonic Plague, and so his younger son Richard was crowned King of England. Richard II was just 10 years old at the time of his coronation.
Regency and crisis
Richard’s reign was first overseen by his uncle, John of Gaunt – the third son of Edward III. But by the 1380s England was falling into civil strife, reeling from the effects of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War.
The first political crisis came in the form of the Peasants Revolt in 1381, with rebellions from Essex and Kent marching on London. While Richard, who was aged just 14 at the time, did well to suppress the rebellion, it is likely that the challenge to his divine authority as King made him more autocratic later in his reign – something that would lead to his downfall.
Richard also became an ostentatious young king, growing the size of the royal court and focusing on art and culture rather than military matters. He also had a habit of offending many nobles with his choice of close associates, particularly that Robert De Vere, who he made Duke of Ireland in 1486.
Taking matters into their own hands
In 1387, a group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant aimed to purge the King’s Court of his favourites. They defeated de Vere in a battle at Radcot Bridge that December, then occupied London. They then undertook the ‘Merciless Parliament’, in which many of Richard II’s court were convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
By Spring 1389, the Appellant’s power had begun to wane, and Richard formally resumed responsibility for government in May. John of Gaunt also returned from his campaigns in Spain the following November, which brought stability.
Through the 1390s, Richard began to strengthen his hand through a truce with France and a sharp fall in taxation. He also led a substantial force into Ireland in 1394-95, and the Irish Lords submitted to his authority.
But Richard also suffered a major personal setback in 1394 when his beloved wife Anne died of Bubonic Plague, sending him into a period of prolonged mourning. His character also became increasingly erratic, with higher spending on his court and a strange habit of sitting on his throne after dinner, staring at people rather than talking to them.
It appears that Richard II never had closure on the challenge to his royal prerogative set by the Lords Appellant, and in July 1397 he decided to take revenge through execution, exile and harsh imprisonment of the main players.
Richard’s key action in his demise was exiling John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, to France for ten years for his part in the Lords Appellant rebellion. Just six months into this exile, John of Gaunt died.
Richard could have pardoned Bolingbroke and allowed him to attend his father’s funeral. Instead, he cut off Bolingbroke’s inheritance and exiled him for life.
Richard then turned his attention to Ireland, where several Lords were in open rebellion against his crown. Just four weeks after he had set sail across the Irish Sea, Bolingbroke was returning to Britain having brokered an alliance with Louis, Duke of Orleans, who was acting as the Prince Regent of France.
He convened with powerful northern magnates and grew an army that enabled him to not only reclaim his inheritance, but also depose Richard from the throne. Bolingbroke received his coronation as Henry VI on 13 October 1399. Richard, meanwhile, died in jail – possibly of self-inflicted starvation – at the beginning of 1400. He died without an heir.
The effect of Richard’s deposition was to split the Plantagenet line for the throne between the House of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) and the House of York (Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s 2nd son, and Edmund of Langley his 4th).
It had placed a usurper on the throne, and Henry would not himself have an easy ride as King – facing open rebellion and internecine warfare during his reign.