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Richard II & the Peasants' Revolt

Richard II & the Peasants' Revolt


Richard II and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Richard II, King of England from 1377 - 1399, is certainly one of the most interesting characters in English history. Described by some as beautiful, intelligent, well read and rather feminine, yet to Shakespeare, he is cruel, vindictive and irresponsible. Bishop Stubbs in The Constitutional History of England argued that towards the end of his reign, Richard's mind "was losing its balance altogether". On the other hand, such diagnosis was dismissed by later historians, who claimed that his change in personality is purely a result of his narcissistic indulgence. In this regard, he is not dissimilar to his arrogant, greedy, fiery and bad-tempered Plantagenet forebears. Whether the shift in his personality can be attributed to his mental state caused by external factors such as the death of his first Queen, Anne of Bohemia, in 1394, or to his innate psychological issues and intrinsic violent tendency shared by almost all other Plantagenets is unknown. Nevertheless, one thing we know for certain is that it is this shift in personality that gradually served to make him fall out of favour with the people, and that ultimately brought about his downfall. On the day of Richard's coronation, a minority council was formed to help rule on Richard's behalf on account of his young age. It was thought at the time that John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster who is Edward III's third surviving son and the young King's eldest surviving uncle, would have been preferred. On the contrary, John of Gaunt merely ensured some of his supporters were part of the council and thereafter withdrew to Kenilworth Castle.

Richard II inherited an uneasy crown, together with all the dissatisfaction that is the hallmark of his period. the Shortage of labour, pestilence, cruel and uncompromising landlords, onerous taxation exacted to fund the ongoing campaigns in France (the Hundred Years' War lasted up till the reign of Henry VI!) provide a perfect hotbed for civil unrest. Richard's first test came four years after his coronation at the end of 1380, that would later culminate in the greatest rebellion in English history. The unrest began in York, when a rumour started to spread that a group of armed rebels broke into the city guildhall and drove out the mayor. Exasperated by the onerous tax burden imposed by the Court, they were demanding justice.

Something needs to be mentioned about the nature of taxation at the time to give a better context of the 1381 rebellion. In response to the uprising in York, the Northampton parliament nonetheless decreed a poll tax which was three times more onerous than the last. This poll tax means a tax on every 'poll or head' imposed equally on the rich and poor. Its perversity is further enhanced by the proviso that rich people could use to avoid the tax burden, and as a result the poor suddenly shouldered the greater burden. The unrest quickly spread, first in Kent, where the rioters occupied Canterbury and freed all the prisoners held in the Archbishop's prison, among them a certain radical cleric known as John Ball, who inspired the rebels with his sermons.

Things seemed to get out of control for the young King when, on 11 June 1381, the rebels decided to march upon London to vent out their grievances. Uprisings were now sparked all over England with riots erupting in Norwich, St Albans, Winchester, York, Scarborough and Ipswich. Approximately 30,000 men were now on the road. Out of all of them, the men of Kent were the most fierce. The Kentish rebels were led by Wat Tyler (or Wat the Tiler - people not infrequently took their last names from their profession). They gathered on Blackheath on 12 June. At that time, Richard, aged 14, had retreated to the Tower of London for safety. His situation was very precarious since almost all the royal forces were either abroad or in northern England. On 13 June, the rebels finally entered London, and attacked the jails, destroyed the Savoy Palace, set fire to the law books and buildings, and slaughtered anyone associated with the royal government. It is noteworthy that the people of London sympathised with the rebel's cause and left the city gate open for their coming. They too were incensed by the harsh taxation and joined the rebels in the pillaging of the city. All this time, Richard was observing the carnage from a window of the Tower.

On 14 June when Richard decided to make his journey to Mile End on his horse to address the rebels in the company of the mayor of London, William Walworth, and some knights. After kneeling to their anointed King, the rebels began to dictate the terms of negotiation. They wanted the 'traitors', officials who unjustly taxed and oppressed them. They wanted to cleanse the government of these mongrels. They wanted all the serfs to be given their freedom, and that land should be rented at fourpence per acre. The King, in his attempt to bring about appeasement, agreed, replying that he would surrender to the rebels any men convicted of treachery according to the law. Meanwhile, in the King's absence, certain rebels had already decided to take the law into their own hands by entering the Tower, dragging out several officials taking refuge there including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and beheading them on the site of public execution. All over England, manors were being pillaged and its inhabitants killed. Law and order came to a halt, and tax records burnt. The rebels despised John of Gaunt, whom they perceived to be the leader of their oppressors.

The most famous episode of the Peasants' Revolt is on 15 June, when Richard came to parley with the rebels at Smithfield. Wat Tyler and approximately 20,000 insurgents were waiting for the King. Upon encounter, Richard and Wat rode up to one another and began their conversation. The content of the conversation was not all that clear but it is certain that Wat appeared to be threatening Richard, playing with his dagger and laying his hand on the bridle of the King's horse. Fearing treason, the mayor of London stabbed a short sword into Wat's throat. Wat was later taken to the hospital of St Bartholomew. At this point, angered and shocked at the event, the rebels drew their bows. The situation would have escalated into a fighting had Richard not galloped to the front line of archers, exclaiming:

"What are you doing? Tyler was a traitor. Come with me, and I will be your leader".

He then led the rebels north into Islington, where 1,000 armed men had been gathered by the mayor. The rebels was walking to a trap, and upon learning this, fell to their knees and begged for pardon. The King wisely rejected any idea of punishment, and ordered the rebels to return to their homes. Wat Tyler was then taken out of the hospital and beheaded in Smithfield. So thus disastrously ended the first phase of the revolt for the rebels.

One of the first few glimpses into Richard's turbulent character is provided a few days later when he revoked the charter of emancipation he had granted at Mile End, on the ground that it had been extorted by violence. When he reached Essex to examine the revolt's aftermath, a group of villagers asked him to keep his promise. His response was, however, very crude, according to one contemporary chronicler:

"You wretches are detestable both on land and on sea. You seek equality with the lords, but you are unworthy to live. Give this message to your fellows: rustics you are, and rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as we love we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example to posterity."

Punishment was then issued, most harshly to the county of Essex. The leaders of the rebels were beheaded. John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered in St Albans. Both he and Wat Tyler were later remembered as heroes in folk memory.

The revolt was essentially misnamed the Peasants' Revolt since it is generally known that the participants were mostly the leaders of village life, such as bailiffs, constables and jurors. Far from being opportunistic, they had actual grievances and wanted to voice those grievances to the only person who had the power to do something about it. Indeed, there is actual evidence of widespread corruption by local magnates. All the ordinances and statutes concerning labour had changed significantly after the Black Death. The law was no longer an instrument of justice, but instead a vehicle to further the exaction, extortion and oppression of the lower classes. As the people began to realise the futility of the war with France, they were protesting even more against their obligation to fund such futile war. They furthermore despised the greedy landlords and officials who cared only about their pockets and nothing about the miserable lives of the common people.

In the end, what brought about the rebels' demise is their misjudgment of Richard's character. The King, whom they believed to embody the idea of virtue, justice and compromise, actually turned out to be a mere uncompromising and fiery Plantagenet, whose only concerns were self-preservation, self-glorification and self-enrichment. In this way, Richard is no difference to the selfish and greedy officials the people were attempting to denounce and stamp out. Indeed, it is this treacherous personality of Richard, coupled with his uncompromising and turbulent character, that will ultimately bring about his downfall. He was lucky to have survived in 1381, but he won't be lucky forever.

Please stick with us if you want to read more about the story of Richard II and all the struggles he faced throughout his reign.



He ruled over a troubled country. In the east and south of England there was great unrest, incited by the gross injustice, amounting to hypocrisy, of the social system. The French historian Froissart was unsurprised when word reached Paris in May that the men of Essex had risen against the government and a dangerous conflict had begun. The rebellion spread to Kent and soon the whole of the south of England was in turmoil as the rebels converged upon London in a terrifying, threatening force.

Their leader was a man from Maidstone called Wat Tyler, supported by one Jack Straw while a parson, John Bull, who came originally from York, was also involved. Froissart wrote how during one of Ball’s sermons, he incited his followers to rebel against those exploiting them.

‘What have we deserved , or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve whereby can they say or shew that they be greater Lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they depend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth…they dwell in their houses, and we have pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields and by that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates, we be called their bondsmen, and without we do them readily their service, we be beaten and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain…let us go to the King , he is young, and shew him what servage we be in…and when the King seeth us, we shall have some remedy, either by fairness or otherwise.’

Richard had been at Windsor Castle when he heard that the rising had begun. Both he and his mother had then been quickly moved to the Tower of London. From there the king himself rowed down the Thames to confront Wat Tyler, who was demanding to speak to him. Approaching them he and those with him saw the protestors to be hostile, shouting incomprehensible words and putting arrows to their bows. At sight of this, Richard’s companions told the oarsmen to row back to the Tower.

But the Tower of London, most impregnable of all fortresses, was now itself under siege. The Alderman of London, Walter Sybyle, sympathising with the rebels, had raised the drawbridge, allowing the insurgents to swarm into London to burn buildings.

On the morning of 14 June 1381, the young king rode out of the Tower and with only a few men to guard him, went to meet Wat Tyler at the fields of Mile End. As he approached a spokesman came out from amongst the rebels to present him with a written petition asking that villeinage be abolished and that all feudal dues and services should be commuted for a rent of 4d. per acre and that a general pardon and amnesty be declared.

Surprisingly, the king agreed to their demands whereupon, within a short time, no less than 30 clerks were employed to write documents granting pardons and freedom bearing the king’s seal, to every manor and shire. Richard’s banner was then presented to every shire in warranty of his word.

It had seemed that everything was then settled but, on returning to London, Richard heard to his fury that the Tower had been seized. Thankfully his mother, Princess Joan, fainting with terror, had been taken to the royal office at the Wardrobe in Carter Lane. Young Henry Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt, had escaped but the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Chudbury, Chancellor of the Realm, and Sir John Hayes, the Treasurer, had been dragged to immediate execution on Tower Hill.

His mind seething with fury at the gross injustice and cruelty of the rebels, as well as with the insult to himself, King Richard, his mother’s safety secured, rode out of central London by Ludgate and Fleet Street, fury forcing the spurs as he goaded the flanks of his horse.

Knowing the danger that awaited them, both he and his escort of knights now all wore corselets of steel. A meeting was arranged with Wat Tyler to take place at Smithfield, a market just beyond the New Gate of the city. Tyler very cockily rode over on a pony to where the King sat, straight backed, on his great war horse.

‘Brother’ began Tyler, his familiarity towards his sovereign shocking to those within hearing, ‘be of good cheer, for you now have 40,000 men at your back, and we shall all be good friends.’

Richard regarded him coldly before demanding to know why his followers refused to disperse. Tyler then became truculent, retorting that they would only do so when all their demands had been met.

‘What demands?’ Richard asked, whereupon Tyler, rudely rinsing his mouth out in front of the King, while saying he was quenching a great thirst, announced that he knew no law but the law of Winchester, no lordship but the king’s disestablishment of the Church, the recognition of only one bishop, no serfage, no villeinage, and freedom and equality for all.

One of Richard’s escort, infuriated by Tyler’s rudeness to the king, shouted over the heads around him that Tyler was the greatest thief in Kent. Tyler, mad with rage, then ordered his men to kill the man who had insulted him whereupon the king told a Major Walworth to arrest Tyler for contempt. Tyler lunged at Walworth with his dagger but the point of it merely rang against the steel of his breastplate as, in the same moment, Walworth struck Tyler a mighty blow with his sword. Tyler hauled at his pony’s reins to turn it but in doing so lost his balance and fell, his foot catching in the stirrup. Terrified, the pony dragged him across the marketplace leaving a trail of blood, while his men stood silent, watching in horror as their leader vanished in a scrimmage of men blocking him from their view.

It was then that Richard rode forward alone, even as Tyler’s men put arrows to their bows.

‘Let me be your leader’, he yelled.

Mortally wounded by Walworth and royal squire, Ralph Standish, Tyler was beheaded and his head placed on a pole. The dumbfounded and confused crowd followed Richard to the meadow known as Clerkenwell Fields, from where they disbanded, muttering to themselves in amazement at the courage of the boy whose outstanding bravery had shown himself so fit to be their king.


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.


Storming the Tower

On 13 June, the young king met the rebels’ leaders at Blackheath but was soon forced to retreat, and tried again at Mile End the following day, where they presented their demands to him.

In Richard II’s absence, a mob broke into the Tower of London, where the widely loathed Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, and John of Gaunt’s fourteen-year-old son and heir Henry of Lancaster (the future King Henry IV), had sought refuge.

Sudbury and Hales were dragged outside and summarily beheaded Henry of Lancaster was saved by a man named John Ferrour. Outside the Tower, at least 150 foreigners working in London, predominantly Flemish weavers, were also killed and their goods stolen. Unable to lay their hands on the detested John of Gaunt in person, the rebels invaded and destroyed his sumptuous palace of the Savoy next to the Thames, supposedly leaving barely one stone on top of another.

Even in the north of England, meanwhile, Gaunt’s second, Spanish wife Constanza of Castile was in danger, and had to seek refuge at Gaunt’s Yorkshire castle of Knaresborough.


Peasants Revolt

There were very few revolts in Medieval England and the Peasants’ Revolt in June 1381 is considered by historians to be the worst case on record.

During the Medieval period, criminals faced such harsh punishments that a warning was often enough to prevent such revolts from occurring. Many notable locations in England also had castles filled with soldiers, making it unlikely peasants would consider rebelling.

However, in 1381 a peasant army from Kent and Essex successfully made its way into London and took the Tower of London captive. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer were both killed, and a 14-year-old King Richard II went to meet with peasants at Mile End to discuss their concerns.

Medieval painting of the peasants revolt

There were a number of reasons why the peasants had decided to ride into London:

  1. Firstly, as a result of the Black Death there were far few workers in the manors. In order to encourage their workers, many lords decided to let them go free and provide them with payment for their work in exchange for continuing loyalty. However, almost 35 years later, many peasants were beginning to worry that their lords would withdraw the privileges they had become used to, and were set to fight for their new rights.
  2. Many peasants were expected to work for free on church land for up to two days each week, leaving them unable to focus on the land that would provide their families with food. The peasants wanted to be free from this agreement and were given support by a Kent-based priest called John Ball.
  3. Richard II introduced a new tax known as the Poll Tax in 1380, which required every person on the tax register to pay 5p. The king asked for this tax to be paid three times in four years, and by 1381 the peasants were beginning to resent paying such a large sum to their king. Some were even forced to give away their seeds or tools if they couldn’t pull together the 5p, which resulted in serious problems later in the year.

In May 1381, a tax collector arrived in the village of Fobbing in Essex to discover why many peasants had neglected to pay their taxes, but villagers threw him (and the soldiers who arrived a month later) out. This marked the start of a turning point for the peasants, with surrounding villages beginning to follow suit.

It wasn’t long before a large group of peasants from across the region came together to oppose the king, led by Wat Tyler from Kent. A march towards London began, with peasants taking the opportunity to destroy tax records and government buildings as they went.

By mid-June, the peasants had begun to forget their original intentions and many spent their time getting drink and looting. Some were even known to murder any foreigners they came across in the city.

On 14 June, the young king made the decision to meet with the peasants at Mile End to discuss providing them with their demands in exchange for their departure. While this appealed to some, many decided to return to London and murder the Archbishop and Treasurer, cutting off their heads on Tower Hill as the king hid.

Still desperate to reach an agreement, Richard met with the peasants once more on 15 June at Smithfield. This is believed to have been the idea of Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor, who wanted to remove the peasants without force to avoid fire in the wood-based city.

During the meeting with the Lord Mayor, Wat Tyler was killed. Although the events of the meeting are unclear, Tyler’s demise and the repeated promises of King Richard II encouraged the peasants to return to their homes.

The revolt finally ended in the summer of 1381, marked by hanging of John Ball and a declaration from the king that his promises were made under threat and so were not lawfully valid. Although the poll tax was withdrawn, the peasants were still forced to return to their lives under the control of the lord of their manor.

However, the Black Death had still left a mark on the labour force. Over the coming century, many peasants found they were able to demand more from their lords as a result of the small supply for workers.


Just history.

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The Black Death had swept through England taking out great swaths of the population with terrifying efficiency. The only silver lining to be found in this great expanse of death is that it left the survivors in the possession of more wealth and power than their forebearers. Men who had been scratching a living, suddenly became village elites with a bit of money and property as all the other heirs were carried off with plague. Labor for the harvests was scarce and food was scarcer, so those willing to toil were able to charge a wage and not be tied to land as defined by feudal law. However, the lords were not on board with that as you can imagine, dear reader. The Statute of Labor was passed in 1351, which attempted to put wages back to 1346 levels and keep the peasants on their land where they belonged. The landlords then took the opportunity to start raising the rents on the lands the peasants were once again tied to. To make matters worse, many peasants were required to work for free on church land, sometimes up to two days a week. There was a rumbling of discontent.

In the years following the Black Death, both King Edward III and his heir, the Black Prince, died leaving Edward’s grandson, Richard to take the throne. He was only ten years old when he was crowned. Because of his young age, most decisions were made by the barons, in particular Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. (For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/john-of-gaunt/ ). More taxes were raised ostensibly for the Hundred Years War in France. However, those in the villages of England feared the third Poll Tax passed in 1380 was really to line the pockets of John of Gaunt and the ruling party in Westminster. The grumbling grew louder until it boiled over into rebellion.

In the village of Fobbing in Essex, a tax collector arrived to see why no one had paid their poll tax. He was thrown out on his ear. The next month, soldiers appeared to enforce law and order and they were thrown out. The villagers of Fobbing were joined by those in neighboring villages and they began to form a movement. At Maidstone, they freed a radical priest there named John Ball, who had been imprisoned in Maidstone Castle by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ball preached the radical sermon which carried the catchphrase of the revolution: “While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” They marched on Canterbury, and after relieving the rich pilgrims of their wealth elected a new Archbishop, a humble monk. At this point a new name comes to the fore- Wat Tyler. We don’t know much about him, except that he was able to give the rebels new purpose and hold their cause together. He and Ball suggested they take their case to the king and bypass the thieving nobles. And if the king did not listen…well, they would have to do what they must. With that, the peasant army turned and marched on London leaving a path of burning tax records, labor duties and manor houses in their wake.

An army of between 5,000 and 10,000 peasants camped on the hills of Blackheath within sight of the spires of London on June 12, 1381. They were convinced they had justice on their side and the king would see reason once he was free of his evil counselors. Unfortunately, they lost the moralistic high ground when they marched into London the next day. They invaded Southwark and freed the prisoners at Marshalsea prison. From there they crossed London Bridge and torched John of Gaunt’s London home, Savoy Palace. Everything of value was destroyed or looted. The king and his counselors retreated to the Tower, the strongest fortress in London, and watched the destruction. Soon the Tower was under siege from the Peasant Army. Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor was not so lucky. He was seized and executed. One historian describes the scene:

“In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Gaunt’s physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax. They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city.”

Fleet prison was opened and the prisoners there were freed as well. Foreigners were murdered with thirty-five Flemish merchants were beheaded one after another on the same block. It was bedlam.

15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels Wat Tyler is shown in red, front left

Although Richard was only 14, he was unafraid to deal with the rebels. He agreed to meet with the leaders at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls. The meeting was extraordinary. Tyler rode over to the king with in the royal party and bowed after getting off his horse. Then shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”. The king asked him why they did not go home, and Tyler gave a loud curse and began listing off demands. The demands were nothing short of revolutionary. The abolishment of serfdom, liquidation of the lands of the Church and all men equal except under the king and a general pardon for all the peasants. Surprisingly, Richard agreed and Tyler was taken aback. Maybe Richard was bluffing, maybe Tyler didn’t think it would be that easy, but it was certainly unexpected. Tyler called for ale, quaffed it then got back on his horse. A young squire shouted at Tyler he was a thief, and that was the cue for everything to break down. The mayor of London attempted to arrest Tyler and they came to blows, and Tyler went down. He was killed by the king’s men out of view of the rebels. Now what?

Richard took control and saved a terrible situation. He rode straight at the rebels, declaring, “You shall have no captain but me.” This played on the rebels loyalty to the crown and saved their skins after the killing of Tyler. However, the words were deliberately ambiguous. The rebels took it as Richard taking their side, but what it ended up being was the beginning of the reassertion of royal authority. They all followed Richard into London thinking they would get their pardons, while Mayor Woolworth high tailed it back to London and raised troops to quash the rebellion. A week later when Richard met with another group of rebels in Essex and his tone was decidedly different. He berated them for their pretension to be equal with lords and told them “you will not remain in bondage as you were before, but incomparably harsher.”

Soon anyone in possession of such a pardon was marked for death as a traitor. In Kent, 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows and in Hertfordshire and Essex 500 were killed. However, despite the nominal victory of the land owners, the lords were running scared. The attempts to move the wage levels backward and raise poll taxes ended. Serfdom died out, and the Peasant’s Revolt marks the breakdown of the feudal system.


Contents

Richard of Bordeaux was the younger son of Edward, Prince of Wales, and Joan, Countess of Kent. Edward, eldest son of Edward III and heir apparent to the throne of England, had distinguished himself as a military commander in the early phases of the Hundred Years' War, particularly in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. After further military adventures, however, he contracted dysentery in Spain in 1370. He never fully recovered and had to return to England the next year. [1]

Richard was born at the Archbishop's Palace of Bordeaux, in the English principality of Aquitaine, on 6 January 1367. According to contemporary sources, three kings, "the King of Castile, the King of Navarre and the King of Portugal", were present at his birth. [2] This anecdote, and the fact that his birth fell on the feast of Epiphany, was later used in the religious imagery of the Wilton Diptych, where Richard is one of three kings paying homage to the Virgin and Child. [3] His elder brother, Edward of Angoulême, died near his sixth birthday in 1371. [4] The Prince of Wales finally succumbed to his long illness in June 1376. The Commons in the English Parliament genuinely feared that Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, would usurp the throne. [a] For this reason, Richard was quickly invested with the princedom of Wales and his father's other titles. [5]

On 21 June the next year, Richard's grandfather King Edward III, who was for some years frail and decrepit, died after a 50-year reign. This resulted in the 10-year-old Richard succeeding to the throne. He was crowned on 16 July 1377 at Westminster Abbey. [6] Again, fears of John of Gaunt's ambitions influenced political decisions, and a regency led by the king's uncles was avoided. [7] Instead, the king was nominally to exercise kingship with the help of a series of "continual councils", from which Gaunt was excluded. [2] Gaunt, together with his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, still held great informal influence over the business of government, but the king's councillors and friends, particularly Sir Simon de Burley and Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, increasingly gained control of royal affairs. In a matter of three years, these councillors earned the mistrust of the Commons to the point that the councils were discontinued in 1380. [2] Contributing to discontent was an increasingly heavy burden of taxation levied through three poll taxes between 1377 and 1381 that were spent on unsuccessful military expeditions on the continent. [8] By 1381, there was a deep-felt resentment against the governing classes in the lower levels of English society. [9]

Whereas the poll tax of 1381 was the spark of the Peasants' Revolt, the root of the conflict lay in tensions between peasants and landowners precipitated by the economic and demographic consequences of the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of the plague. [2] The rebellion started in Kent and Essex in late May, and on 12 June, bands of peasants gathered at Blackheath near London under the leaders Wat Tyler, John Ball, and Jack Straw. John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace was burnt down. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, and Lord High Treasurer Robert Hales were both killed by the rebels, [10] who were demanding the complete abolition of serfdom. [11] The king, sheltered within the Tower of London with his councillors, agreed that the Crown did not have the forces to disperse the rebels and that the only feasible option was to negotiate. [12]

It is unclear how much Richard, who was still only fourteen years old, was involved in these deliberations, although historians have suggested that he was among the proponents of negotiations. [2] The king set out by the River Thames on 13 June, but the large number of people thronging the banks at Greenwich made it impossible for him to land, forcing him to return to the Tower. [13] The next day, Friday, 14 June, he set out by horse and met the rebels at Mile End. [14] He agreed to the rebels' demands, but this move only emboldened them they continued their looting and killings. [15] Richard met Wat Tyler again the next day at Smithfield and reiterated that the demands would be met, but the rebel leader was not convinced of the king's sincerity. The king's men grew restive, an altercation broke out, and William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, pulled Tyler down from his horse and killed him. [16] The situation became tense once the rebels realised what had happened, but the king acted with calm resolve and, saying "I am your captain, follow me!", he led the mob away from the scene. [b] Walworth meanwhile gathered a force to surround the peasant army, but the king granted clemency and allowed the rebels to disperse and return to their homes. [17]

The king soon revoked the charters of freedom and pardon that he had granted, and as disturbances continued in other parts of the country, he personally went into Essex to suppress the rebellion. On 28 June at Billericay, he defeated the last rebels in a small skirmish and effectively ended the Peasants' Revolt. [11] Despite his young age, Richard had shown great courage and determination in his handling of the rebellion. It is likely, though, that the events impressed upon him the dangers of disobedience and threats to royal authority, and helped shape the absolutist attitudes to kingship that would later prove fatal to his reign. [2]

It is only with the Peasants' Revolt that Richard starts to emerge clearly in the annals. [18] One of his first significant acts after the rebellion was to marry Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, on 20 January 1382. [19] It had diplomatic significance in the division of Europe caused by the Western Schism, Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire were seen as potential allies against France in the ongoing Hundred Years' War. [c] Nonetheless, the marriage was not popular in England. Despite great sums of money awarded to the Empire, the political alliance never resulted in any military victories. [20] Furthermore, the marriage was childless. Anne died from plague in 1394, greatly mourned by her husband. [21]

Michael de la Pole had been instrumental in the marriage negotiations [2] he had the king's confidence and gradually became more involved at court and in government as Richard came of age. [22] De la Pole came from an upstart merchant family. [23] When Richard made him chancellor in 1383, and created him Earl of Suffolk two years later, this antagonised the more established nobility. [24] Another member of the close circle around the king was Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who in this period emerged as the king's favourite. [25] Richard's close friendship to de Vere was also disagreeable to the political establishment. This displeasure was exacerbated by the earl's elevation to the new title of Duke of Ireland in 1386. [26] The chronicler Thomas Walsingham suggested the relationship between the king and de Vere was of a homosexual nature, due to a resentment Walsingham had toward the king. [27]

Tensions came to a head over the approach to the war in France. While the court party preferred negotiations, Gaunt and Buckingham urged a large-scale campaign to protect English possessions. [2] Instead, a so-called crusade led by Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, was dispatched, which failed miserably. [2] Faced with this setback on the continent, Richard turned his attention instead towards France's ally, the Kingdom of Scotland. In 1385, the king himself led a punitive expedition to the north, [28] but the effort came to nothing, and the army had to return without ever engaging the Scots in battle. [29] Meanwhile, only an uprising in Ghent prevented a French invasion of southern England. [30] The relationship between Richard and his uncle John of Gaunt deteriorated further with military failure, and Gaunt left England to pursue his claim to the throne of Castile in 1386 amid rumours of a plot against his person. [2] With Gaunt gone, the unofficial leadership of the growing dissent against the king and his courtiers passed to Buckingham – who had by now been created Duke of Gloucester – and Richard Fitzalan, 4th Earl of Arundel. [2]

The threat of a French invasion did not subside, but instead grew stronger into 1386. [2] At the parliament of October that year, Michael de la Pole – in his capacity of chancellor – requested taxation of an unprecedented level for the defence of the realm. [31] Rather than consenting, the parliament responded by refusing to consider any request until the chancellor was removed. [32] The parliament (later known as the Wonderful Parliament) was presumably working with the support of Gloucester and Arundel. [2] [33] The king famously responded that he would not dismiss as much as a scullion from his kitchen at parliament's request. [34] Only when threatened with deposition was Richard forced to give in and let de la Pole go. [35] A commission was set up to review and control royal finances for a year. [36]

Richard was deeply perturbed by this affront to his royal prerogative, and from February to November 1387 went on a "gyration" (tour) of the country to muster support for his cause. [37] By installing de Vere as Justice of Chester, he began the work of creating a loyal military power base in Cheshire. [38] He also secured a legal ruling from Chief Justice Robert Tresilian that parliament's conduct had been unlawful and treasonable. [39]

On his return to London, the king was confronted by Gloucester, Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, who brought an appeal [d] of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Tresilian, and two other loyalists: the mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre, and Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York. [40] Richard stalled the negotiations to gain time, as he was expecting de Vere to arrive from Cheshire with military reinforcements. [41] The three peers then joined forces with Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham – the group known to history as the Lords Appellant. On 20 December 1387 they intercepted de Vere at Radcot Bridge, where he and his forces were routed and he was obliged to flee the country. [42]

Richard now had no choice but to comply with the appellants' demands Brembre and Tresilian were condemned and executed, while de Vere and de la Pole – who had by now also left the country [41] – were sentenced to death in absentia at the Merciless Parliament in February 1388. [43] The proceedings went further, and a number of Richard's chamber knights were also executed, among these Burley. [44] The appellants had now succeeded completely in breaking up the circle of favourites around the king. [2]

Richard gradually re-established royal authority in the months after the deliberations of the Merciless Parliament. The aggressive foreign policy of the Lords Appellant failed when their efforts to build a wide, anti-French coalition came to nothing, and the north of England fell victim to a Scottish incursion. [45] Richard was now over twenty-one years old and could with confidence claim the right to govern in his own name. [46] Furthermore, John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389 and settled his differences with the king, after which the old statesman acted as a moderating influence on English politics. [47] Richard assumed full control of the government on 3 May 1389, claiming that the difficulties of the past years had been due solely to bad councillors. He outlined a foreign policy that reversed the actions of the appellants by seeking peace and reconciliation with France, and promised to lessen the burden of taxation on the people significantly. [46] Richard ruled peacefully for the next eight years, having reconciled with his former adversaries. [2] Still, later events would show that he had not forgotten the indignities he perceived. [48] In particular, the execution of his former teacher Sir Simon de Burley was an insult not easily forgotten. [49]

With national stability secured, Richard began negotiating a permanent peace with France. A proposal put forward in 1393 would have greatly expanded the territory of Aquitaine possessed by the English Crown. However, the plan failed because it included a requirement that the English king pay homage to the King of France – a condition that proved unacceptable to the English public. [50] Instead, in 1396, a truce was agreed to, which was to last 28 years. [51] As part of the truce, Richard agreed to marry Isabella, daughter of Charles VI of France, when she came of age. There were some misgivings about the betrothal, in particular because the princess was then only six years old, and thus would not be able to produce an heir to the throne of England for many years. [52]

Although Richard sought peace with France, he took a different approach to the situation in Ireland. The English lordships in Ireland were in danger of being overrun by the Gaelic Irish kingdoms, and the Anglo-Irish lords were pleading for the king to intervene. [53] 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. [54] The invasion was a success, and a number of Irish chieftains submitted to English overlordship. [55] It was one of the most successful achievements of Richard's reign, and strengthened his support at home, although the consolidation of the English position in Ireland proved to be short-lived. [2]

The period that historians refer to as the "tyranny" of Richard II began towards the end of the 1390s. [56] The king had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested in July 1397. The timing of these arrests and Richard's motivation are not entirely clear. Although one chronicle suggested that a plot was being planned against the king, there is no evidence that this was the case. [57] It is more likely that Richard had simply come to feel strong enough to safely retaliate against these three men for their role in events of 1386–88 and eliminate them as threats to his power. [58] Arundel was the first of the three to be brought to trial, at the parliament of September 1397. After a heated quarrel with the king, he was condemned and executed. [59] Gloucester was being held prisoner by the Earl of Nottingham at Calais while awaiting his trial. As the time for the trial drew near, Nottingham brought news that Gloucester was dead. It is thought likely that the king had ordered him to be killed to avoid the disgrace of executing a prince of the blood. [60] Warwick was also condemned to death, but his life was spared and his sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Arundel's brother Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was exiled for life. [61] Richard then took his persecution of adversaries to the localities. While recruiting retainers for himself in various counties, he prosecuted local men who had been loyal to the appellants. The fines levied on these men brought great revenues to the crown, although contemporary chroniclers raised questions about the legality of the proceedings. [2]

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". [62] 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 king's cousin Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland, who received Gloucester's French title of Duke of Aumale Gaunt's son John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, who was made Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset John Montacute, 3rd Earl of Salisbury and Lord Thomas le Despenser, who became Earl of Gloucester. [e] With the forfeited lands of the convicted appellants, the king could reward these men with lands suited to their new ranks. [63]

A threat to Richard's authority still existed, however, in the form of the House of Lancaster, represented by John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. The House of Lancaster not only possessed greater wealth than any other family in England, they were of royal descent and, as such, likely candidates to succeed the childless Richard. [64] Discord broke out in the inner circles of court in December 1397, when Bolingbroke [63] and Mowbray became embroiled in a quarrel. According to Bolingbroke, 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. [62] 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. [65] On 3 February 1399, John of Gaunt died. Rather than allowing Bolingbroke to succeed, Richard extended the term of his exile to life and expropriated his properties. [66] The king felt safe from Bolingbroke, who was residing in Paris, since the French had little interest in any challenge to Richard and his peace policy. [67] Richard left the country in May for another expedition in Ireland. [68]

In 1398 Richard summoned the Parliament of Shrewsbury, which declared all the acts of the Merciless Parliament to be null and void, and announced that no restraint could legally be put on the king. It delegated all parliamentary power to a committee of twelve lords and six commoners chosen from the king's friends, making Richard an absolute ruler unbound by the necessity of gathering a Parliament again. [69]

In the last years of Richard's reign, and particularly in the months after the suppression of the appellants in 1397, the king enjoyed a virtual monopoly on power in the country, a relatively uncommon situation in medieval England. [70] In this period a particular court culture was allowed to emerge, one that differed sharply from that of earlier times. A new form of address developed where the king previously had been addressed simply as "highness", now "royal majesty", or "high majesty" were often used. It was said that on solemn festivals Richard would sit on his throne in the royal hall for hours without speaking, and anyone on whom his eyes fell had to bow his knees to the king. [71] The inspiration for this new sumptuousness and emphasis on dignity came from the courts on the continent, not only the French and Bohemian courts that had been the homes of Richard's two wives, but also the court that his father had maintained while residing in Aquitaine. [72]

Richard's approach to kingship was rooted in his strong belief in the royal prerogative, the inspiration of which can be found in his early youth, when his authority was challenged first by the Peasants' Revolts and then by the Lords Appellant. [73] Richard rejected the approach his grandfather Edward III had taken to the nobility. Edward's court had been a martial one, based on the interdependence between the king and his most trusted noblemen as military captains. [74] In Richard's view, this put a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the baronage. To avoid dependence on the nobility for military recruitment, he pursued a policy of peace towards France. [75] At the same time, he developed his own private military retinue, larger than that of any English king before him, and gave them livery badges with his White Hart. [76] He was then free to develop a courtly atmosphere in which the king was a distant, venerated figure, and art and culture, rather than warfare, were at the centre. [77]

As part of Richard's programme of asserting his authority, he also tried to cultivate the royal image. Unlike any other English king before him, he had himself portrayed in panel paintings of elevated majesty, [78] of which two survive: an over life-size Westminster Abbey portrait (c. 1390), and the Wilton Diptych (1394–99), a portable work probably intended to accompany Richard on his Irish campaign. [79] It is one of the few surviving English examples of the courtly International Gothic style of painting that was developed in the courts of the Continent, especially Prague and Paris. [80] Richard's expenditure on jewellery, rich textiles and metalwork was far higher than on paintings, but as with his illuminated manuscripts, there are hardly any surviving works that can be connected with him, except for a crown, "one of the finest achievements of the Gothic goldsmith", that probably belonged to his wife Anne. [81]

Among Richard's grandest projects in the field of architecture was Westminster Hall, which was extensively rebuilt during his reign, [82] perhaps spurred on by the completion in 1391 of John of Gaunt's magnificent hall at Kenilworth Castle. Fifteen life-size statues of kings were placed in niches on the walls, and the hammer-beam roof by the royal carpenter Hugh Herland, "the greatest creation of medieval timber architecture", allowed the original three Romanesque aisles to be replaced with a single huge open space, with a dais at the end for Richard to sit in solitary state. [83] The rebuilding had been begun by Henry III in 1245, but had by Richard's time been dormant for over a century. [84]

The court's patronage of literature is especially important, because this was the period in which the English language took shape as a literary language. [2] There is little evidence to tie Richard directly to patronage of poetry, but it was nevertheless within his court that this culture was allowed to thrive. [85] The greatest poet of the age, Geoffrey Chaucer, served the king as a diplomat, a customs official and a clerk of The King's Works while producing some of his best-known work. [86] [87] Chaucer was also in the service of John of Gaunt, and wrote The Book of the Duchess as a eulogy to Gaunt's wife Blanche. [88] Chaucer's colleague and friend John Gower wrote his Confessio Amantis on a direct commission from Richard, although he later grew disenchanted with the king. [89]

In June 1399, Louis I, Duke of Orléans, gained control of the court of the insane Charles VI of France. The policy of rapprochement with the English crown did not suit Louis's political ambitions, and for this reason he found it opportune to allow Henry Bolingbroke to leave for England. [90] With a small group of followers, Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire towards the end of June 1399. [91] Men from all over the country soon rallied around him. Meeting with Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, who had his own misgivings about the king, Bolingbroke insisted that his only object was to regain his own patrimony. Percy took him at his word and declined to interfere. [92] The king had taken most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility with him to Ireland, so Bolingbroke experienced little resistance as he moved south. Keeper of the Realm Edmund, Duke of York, had little choice but to side with Bolingbroke. [93] Meanwhile, Richard was delayed in his return from Ireland and did not land in Wales until 24 July. [94] He made his way to Conwy, where on 12 August he met with the Earl of Northumberland for negotiations. [95] On 19 August, Richard surrendered to Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. [96] Both men then returned to London, the indignant king riding all the way behind Henry. On arrival, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 1 September. [97]

Henry was by now fully determined to take the throne, but presenting a rationale for this action proved a dilemma. [2] It was argued that Richard, through his tyranny and misgovernment, had rendered himself unworthy of being king. [98] However, Henry was not next in line to the throne the heir presumptive was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, great-grandson of Edward III's second surviving son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, was Edward's third son to survive to adulthood. [99] The problem was solved by emphasising Henry's descent in a direct male line, whereas March's descent was through his grandmother, Philippa of Clarence. [f]

According to the official record, read by the Archbishop of Canterbury during an assembly of lords and commons at Westminster Hall on Tuesday 30 September, Richard gave up his crown willingly and ratified his deposition citing as a reason his own unworthiness as a monarch. On the other hand, the Traison et Mort Chronicle suggests otherwise. It describes a meeting between Richard and Henry that took place one day before the parliament's session. The king succumbed to blind rage, ordered his release from the Tower, called his cousin a traitor, demanded to see his wife and swore revenge throwing down his bonnet, while Henry refused to do anything without parliamentary approval. [100] When parliament met to discuss Richard's fate, John Trevor, Bishop of St Asaph, read thirty-three articles of deposition that were unanimously accepted by lords and commons. On 1 October 1399, Richard II was formally deposed. On 13 October, the feast day of Edward the Confessor, Henry Bolingbroke was crowned king. [100]

Henry had agreed to let Richard live after his abdication. This all changed when it was revealed that the earls of Huntingdon, Kent, and Salisbury and Lord Despenser, and possibly also the Earl of Rutland – all now demoted from the ranks they had been given by Richard – were planning to murder the new king and restore Richard in the Epiphany Rising. [101] Although averted, the plot highlighted the danger of allowing Richard to live. He is thought to have been starved to death in captivity in Pontefract Castle on or around 14 February 1400, although there is some question over the date and manner of his death. [2] His body was taken south from Pontefract and displayed in St Paul's Cathedral on 17 February before burial in King's Langley Priory on 6 March.

Rumours that Richard was still alive persisted, but never gained much credence in England [102] in Scotland, however, a man identified as Richard came into the hands of Regent Albany, lodged in Stirling Castle, and serving as the notional – and perhaps reluctant – figurehead of various anti-Lancastrian and Lollard intrigues in England. Henry IV's government dismissed him as an impostor, and several sources from both sides of the Border suggest the man had a mental illness, one also describing him as a "beggar" by the time of his death in 1419, but he was buried as a king in the local Dominican friary in Stirling. Meanwhile, in 1413, Henry V – in an effort both to atone for his father's act of murder and to silence the rumours of Richard's survival – had decided to have the body at King's Langley moved to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Here Richard himself had prepared an elaborate tomb, where the remains of his wife Anne were already entombed. [103]

Contemporary writers, even those less sympathetic to the king, agreed that Richard was a "most beautiful king", though with a "face which was white, rounded and feminine", implying he lacked manliness. [104] He was athletic and tall when his tomb was opened in 1871 he was found to be six feet (1.82 m) tall. [105] He was also intelligent and well read, and when agitated he had a tendency to stammer. [106] While the Westminster Abbey portrait probably shows a good similarity of the king, the Wilton Diptych portrays him as significantly younger than he was at the time it must be assumed that he had a beard by this point. [107] Religiously, he was orthodox, and particularly towards the end of his reign he became a strong opponent of the Lollard heresy. [108] He was particularly devoted to the cult of Edward the Confessor, and around 1395 he had his own coat of arms impaled with the mythical arms of the Confessor. [2] Though not a warrior king like his grandfather, Richard nevertheless enjoyed tournaments, as well as hunting. [109]

The popular view of Richard has more than anything been influenced by Shakespeare's play about the king, Richard II. Shakespeare's Richard was a cruel, vindictive and irresponsible king, who attained a semblance of greatness only after his fall from power. [110] Writing a work of fiction, however, Shakespeare took many liberties and made great omissions, basing his play on works by writers such as Edward Hall and Samuel Daniel, who in turn based their writings on contemporary chroniclers such as Thomas Walsingham. [111] Hall and Daniel were part of Tudor historiography, which was highly unsympathetic to Richard. [112] The Tudor orthodoxy, reinforced by Shakespeare, saw a continuity in civil discord starting with Richard's misrule that did not end until Henry VII's accession in 1485. [113] The idea that Richard was to blame for the later-15th century Wars of the Roses was prevalent as late as the 19th century, but came to be challenged in the 20th. [114] Some recent historians prefer to look at the Wars of the Roses in isolation from the reign of Richard II. [115]

Richard's mental state has been a major issue of historical debate since the first academic historians started treating the subject in the 19th century. One of the first modern historians to deal with Richard II as a king and as a person was Bishop Stubbs. Stubbs argued that towards the end of his reign, Richard's mind "was losing its balance altogether". [116] Historian Anthony Steel, who wrote a full-scale biography of the king in 1941, took a psychiatric approach to the issue, and concluded that Richard had schizophrenia. [117] This was challenged by V. H. Galbraith, who argued that there was no historical basis for such a diagnosis, [118] a line that has also been followed by later historians of the period, such as Anthony Goodman and Anthony Tuck. [2] Nigel Saul, who wrote the most recent academic biography on Richard II, concedes that – even though there is no basis for assuming the king had a mental illness – he showed clear signs of a narcissistic personality, and towards the end of his reign "Richard's grasp on reality was becoming weaker". [119]

One of the primary historiographical questions surrounding Richard concerns his political agenda and the reasons for its failure. His kingship was thought to contain elements of the early modern absolute monarchy as exemplified by the Tudor dynasty. [120] More recently, Richard's concept of kingship has been seen by some as not so different from that of his antecedents, and that it was exactly by staying within the framework of traditional monarchy that he was able to achieve as much as he did. [2] [121] Yet his actions were too extreme, and too abrupt. For one, the absence of war was meant to reduce the burden of taxation, and so help Richard's popularity with the Commons in parliament. However, this promise was never fulfilled, as the cost of the royal retinue, the opulence of court and Richard's lavish patronage of his favourites proved as expensive as war had been, without offering commensurate benefits. [75] As for his policy of military retaining, this was later emulated by Edward IV and Henry VII, but Richard II's exclusive reliance on the county of Cheshire hurt his support from the rest of the country. [122] As Simon Walker concludes: "What he sought was, in contemporary terms, neither unjustified nor unattainable it was the manner of his seeking that betrayed him." [121]

a. ^ John of Gaunt's brother Edmund of Langley was only one year younger, but it has been suggested that this prince was of "limited ability", and he took less part in government than Gaunt did. [123]
b. ^ It has been speculated that the whole incident surrounding the killing of Wat Tyler was in fact planned in advance by the council, in order to end the rebellion. [2] [124]
c. ^ While both England and the Empire supported Pope Urban VI in Rome, the French sided with the Avignon Papacy of Clement VII. [2]
d. ^ This "appeal" – which would give its name to the Lords Appellant – was not an appeal in the modern sense of an application to a higher authority. In medieval common law the appeal was criminal charge, often one of treason. [2] [125]
e. ^ Beaufort was the oldest of John of Gaunt's children with Katherine Swynford illegitimate children whom Richard had given legitimate status in 1390. He was made Marquess of Dorset marquess being a relatively new title in England up until this point. Rutland, heir to the Duke of York, was created Duke of Aumale. Montacute had succeeded his uncle as Earl of Salisbury earlier the same year. Despenser, the great-grandson of Hugh Despenser the Younger, Edward II's favourite who was executed for treason in 1326, was given the forfeited earldom of Gloucester. [126]
f. ^ Though it had become established tradition for earldoms to descend in the male line, there was no such tradition for royal succession in England. The precedence could indeed be seen to invalidate the English claim to the French throne, based on succession through the female line, over which the Hundred Years' War was being fought. [127]


Contents

Jean Froissart came from Valenciennes in the County of Hainaut, situated in the western tip of the Holy Roman Empire, bordering France (it has been part of France since 1678). He seems to have come from what we would today call a middle-class background, but spent much of his adult life in courts, and took on the world-view of the late medieval feudal aristocracy, who initially represented his readership. He appears to have gained his living as a writer, and was a notable French poet in his day. At least by the end of his life he had taken holy orders, and received a profitable benefice.

He first wrote a rhyming chronicle for the English queen Philippa of Hainault, which he offered to her in 1361 or 1362. [6] The text of this earliest historical work, which Froissart himself mentioned in the prologue of his Chronicles, is usually considered to have been completely lost, but some scholars have argued that a 14th-century manuscript containing a rhyming chronicle, of which fragments are now kept in libraries in Paris and Berlin, may be identified as this so-called 'lost chronicle'. [7]

Some of the important events recorded in Froissart's Chronicles:

    deposed and accession of Edward III (1327)
  • Execution of Hugh the younger Despenser (1326) 's campaign in Scotland (1327) 's marriage to Philippa of Hainault (1328) 's feudal homage to Philip VI of Valois (1331) 's search for allies in the Low Countries against Philip VI of Valois
  • The Thiérache campaign (1339) (1340)
  • The Siege of Tournai (1340)
  • The Breton war of succession (1340-1364)
  • The Earl of Derby's campaign in Gascony (1344-1345) (1346)
  • The Siege of Calais (1346-1347) (1346) (1350) leads a merchant revolt in Paris (1358)
  • The Jacquerie (1358)
  • The Free Companies
  • The Black Prince's campaigns in the south of France
  • Edward III's Rheims campaign (1359-1360)
  • The Peace of Brétigny (1360)
  • The Battle of Brignais (1362)
  • The death of King John II of France (1364)
  • The battle of Cocherel (1364)
  • The battle of Auray (1364) the end of the Breton succession war
  • The Castilian Civil War (1366-1369): the Black Prince's campaigns on the Iberian Peninsula the battle of Nájera (1367) the battle of Montiel (1369)
  • The sack of Limoges (1370)
  • The battle of Chizé (1373)
  • The deaths of the Black Prince and Edward III (1377) accession of Richard II
  • The start of the Great Schism (1378)
  • The Ghent Revolt (1379-1385)
  • The Peasants' Revolt in England (1381)
  • The Battle of Roosebeke (1382)
  • The marriage of Charles VI to Isabella of Bavaria
  • The French preparations for an aborted invasion of England
  • The final trial by combat ordered by French courts between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris in conflict with his uncles
  • The Battle of Otterburn
  • The Bal des Ardents at a festival in honor of Isabeau of Bavaria
  • A tournament in Smithfield held by Richard II
  • The death of Gaston III "Fébus" of Foix-Béarn
  • The madness of Charles VI
  • Richard II deposed and accession of Henry IV and massacre of the prisoners

Froissart began writing Book I possibly at the request of Robert de Namur, to whom the earliest version was dedicated. [8] In the prologue of this version of the prose text, Froissart justified his new enterprise by his desire to improve on his first attempts to write a historical account of the early years of the Hundred Years' War. In particular he denounced his earlier rhyming chronicle, whose accuracy, he admitted, had not always been as good as such important matters as war and knightly prowess require. In order to improve the quality and historical accuracy of his work, Froissart declared his intention to follow now as his main source the Vrayes Chroniques of Jean Le Bel, who had expressed fierce criticism on verse as a suitable vehicle for serious history writing. Froissart also used other texts, such as the Life of the Black Prince by Chandos Herald, in particular for the Black Prince's campaign in Spain in 1366–1367. [9] He furthermore inserted some official documents into his text, including the act of hommage by King Edward III to the French King Philip VI (1331) and the English version of the Peace Treaty of Calais (1360).

Le Bel had written his chronicle for Jean, lord of Beaumont, uncle of Philippa of Hainault, who had been a supporter of Queen Isabella and the rebellion which led to the deposition of Edward II in 1326. Jean of Hainault had also taken part in several of the early battles of the Hundred Years' War, first on the English side, then on the French. His grandson, Guy II, Count of Blois later became the main patron of Froissart's Chronicles. Jean Le Bel himself, throughout his work expressed great admiration for Edward III, in whose 1327 Weardale campaign against the Scots he had fought. For all these reasons Froissart must have highly valued Le Bel's chronicle as a source for reliable information about the events which led to the outbreak of the war between France and England and about the early phases of the Hundred Years' War. Comparison of Froissart's Book I with Le Bel's work shows that for the early parts of the Chronicles (up to c.1360) Froissart often directly copied and developed very large parts of Le Bel's text.

Froissart seems to have written new drafts of Book I, which covers the period up to 1378/1379, at different points in time. Several of these variant versions are now known to scholars by the unique manuscripts which have transmitted their texts, such as the 'Amiens' (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 486), 'Valenciennes' (Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 638), and 'Rome' versions of Book I, so named after manuscripts kept in the municipal libraries of Amiens and Valenciennes and in the Vatican Library. The so-called 'Rome' version of Book I (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. Lat. 869) has only partly survived and now only covers the period up to c.1350.

The order of the authorial versions of Book I has been discussed extensively by scholars in the last century and a half and there have been many fundamental disagreements. [10] French scholars have often followed Siméon Luce, the French 19th-century editor of the Chronicles, who thought that the 'Amiens' version was a more recent version that must have followed the 'A' and 'B' versions in the chronology. But research by Godfried Croenen has now firmly established that these earlier views are no longer tenable. [11] Croenen has demonstrated that the so-called 'A' version that Luce had identified, is in fact a hybrid version composed by medieval scribes who put together the very beginning and end of the authorial 'A' version, combining it with a much larger part of the so-called 'B' version, and a fragment of the Grandes Chroniques de France covering the years 1350–1356. The authorial 'A' version, which is now largely lost except for the fragments from the beginning and end, is the first version of Book I written by Froissart and was probably composed by him between June and December 1381. [12]

The 'Amiens' and 'Valenciennes' versions are both earlier than the so-called 'B' redaction. [13] The 'Amiens' version and the abridgement of Book I (Paris, BnF, fr. 10144) were probably both written in the period 1384–1391, but the 'Amiens' version seems the earlier of the two. [14] The 'B' redaction is the version of Book I that was edited by S. Luce for the Société d'Histoire de France and that represents what is often seen as the 'standard' version of Book I. [15] Luce himself was convinced that the 'B' version represented the earliest completed state of Book I and that it was therefore earlier than the 'Amiens' text. The evidence from the text, however, argues strongly for a date of composition in or shortly after 1391, so certainly later than the 'Amiens' version, and before 1399. [16]

The 'B' version was followed by the 'C' version of Book I, written sometime between 1395 and 1399, which was long considered lost the 'C' version actually survives in a single manuscript now in the Newberry Library in Chicago. [17] The 'Rome' version was written towards the end of Froissart's life, at the earliest in late 1404 and probably sometime before 1415. [18]

A first version of the second book of Froissart's Chronicles, which in the author's mind never seems to have been a separate book but rather a continuation covering the period 1378–1385, was probably completed in the late 1380s. [19] It does not seem to have been based on other pre-existing chronicles and is therefore entirely Froissart's own work. Book II, however, includes an extended account of the Flemish revolt against the count in the years 1379–1385, which Froissart had earlier composed as a separate text and which is known as his Chronicle of Flanders. Froissart inserted several official documents into his Chronicle of Flanders, which were also kept in Book II of the Chronicles, including the text of Treaty of Tournai (1385) that re-established peace between the Flemish cities and their count.

As with Book I, Froissart also seems to have rewritten the later books of his Chronicles. Apart from the Chronicle of Flanders, at least three authorial versions of Book II survive. Most manuscripts of Book II contain one of the two earlier versions, which have an almost identical text, except for a small number of chapters in which there are substantial differences. The manuscripts of these two earlier versions have provided the basis for all the modern editions.

There is also a later version of Book II, which dates from after 1395 and survives only in the Newberry manuscript that also contains the 'C' version of Book I. [20] The Newberry version of Book II is substantially different from the other known versions and is undoubtedly the result of an extensive authorial reworking of the text, which included the addition of important material that does not appear in the other versions. The Newberry text has not yet been fully edited but it has been partly transcribed for the Online Froissart.

A first version of Book III, which covers the years 1385 to 1390, but which also includes extensive flashback to the earlier periods, was possibly completed in 1390 or 1391 and is the one found in nearly all the surviving manuscripts. A second version exists in a single manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 2650). [21] This second version is probably a later reworking by Froissart himself: it follows the pattern that can be seen in the different authorial versions of Book II, with many chapters remaining the same and some chapters having been extensively rewritten. [22]

Book IV, whose text goes up to the year 1400, remains incomplete and was probably, like the 'Rome' version of Book I, written after 1404. It is likely that the abrupt ending of Book IV is to be explained by Froissart's death, which may have occurred while he was writing this part of the Chronicles.

Book IV has been transmitted in 21 manuscripts, all representing a single authorial version. [23] The text shows traces of having been worked over by a 'copy editor', who was not the author but someone who seems to have prepared a text, possibly autograph, for reproduction. Unlike the other three books of the Chronicles, Book IV seems to have remained unknown for a long time, until it was discovered in the second half of the 15th century, when the first manuscript copies of the text were made and the text started to circulate in the court circles of the Dukes of Burgundy. [24]

The Chronicles were almost immediately popular among the nobility, and many manuscripts were expensively illuminated. In the first quarter of the 15th century many illustrated copies of Book I, as well as some copies of Books II and III, were produced by the Parisian booktrade. Nearly half of these surviving copies can be linked to a particular libraire, called Pierre de Liffol. [25] Several artistic hands can be detected in these copies, but two anonymous miniature painters seem to stand out as regular collaborators in Liffol's production: the Boethius Master and the Giac Master.

There was something of a revival in interest from about 1470 in the Burgundian Low Countries, and some of the most extensive cycles of Flemish illumination were produced to illustrate Froissart's Chronicles. Several complete copies of the four books, as well as all the illustrated manuscripts of Book IV, date from this period. [26] Whereas older illustrations are mostly rather simple and formulaic, with decorated backgrounds, the larger images of this later period are often full of detail, and have extensive views of landscape, interiors or cities in their backgrounds. Most of the images here come from this period. One of the most lavishly illuminated copies was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuse, a Flemish nobleman, in the 1470s. The four volumes of this copy (BnF, Fr 2643-6) contain 110 miniatures painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day. Among them is Loiset Lyédet, who has been identified as the painter who executed the miniatures in the first two volumes. Those in the third and fourth volume have been attributed to a collaboration between the Master of Anthony of Burgundy, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book and the Master of Margaret of York. [27] Many of the illustrations to this entry come from this copy.


Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt

In 1381, some 35 years after the Black Death had swept through Europe decimating over one third of the population, there was a shortage of people left to work the land. Recognising the power of ‘supply and demand’, the remaining peasants began to re-evaluate their worth and subsequently demanded higher wages and better working conditions.

Not surprisingly the government of the day, comprising mainly of the land-owning Bishops and Lords, passed a law to limit any such wage rise. In addition to this, extra revenue was required to support a long and drawn out war with the French, and so a poll tax was introduced.

It was the third time in four years that such a tax had been applied. This crippling tax meant that everyone over the age of 15 had to pay one shilling. Perhaps not a great deal of money to a Lord or a Bishop, but a significant amount to the average farm labourer! And if they could not pay in cash, they could pay in kind, such as seeds, tools etc. All of which could be vital to the survival of a farmer and his family for the coming year.

Things appear to have come to a head when in May 1381 a tax collector arrived in the Essex village of Fobbing to find out why the people there had not paid their poll tax. The villagers appear to have taken exception to his enquiries and promptly threw him out.

The following month, the 15-year-old King Richard II sent in his soldiers to re-establish law and order. But the villagers of Fobbing meted out the same unceremonious treatment to them.

Joined by other villagers from all corners of the southeast of England, the peasants decided to march on London in order to plead their case for a better deal before their young king. Not that the peasants blamed Richard for their problems, their anger was aimed instead at his advisors – Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, whom they believed to be corrupt.

In what appears to have been a well organized and coordinated popular uprising, the peasants set off for London on the 2nd June in a sort of pincer movement. The villagers from the north of the Thames, primarily from Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, converged on London via Chelmsford. Those from the south of the Thames, comprising mainly of Kentish folk, first attacked Rochester Castle and then Sudbury’s Canterbury, before setting off for Blackheath on the outskirts of London.

More than 60,000 people are reported to have been involved in the revolt, and not all of them were peasants: soldiers and tradesmen as well as some disillusioned churchmen, including one Peasant leader known as ‘the mad priest of Kent’, John Ball.

As the peasants moved on to London, they destroyed tax records and registers, and removed the heads from several tax officials who objected to them doing so. Buildings which housed government records were burned down. It was during the march one man emerged as their natural leader – Wat Tyler (Walter the Tyler) from Kent.

The rebels entered London (as some of the locals had kindly left the city gates open to them!) and somehow the Savoy Palace of the unpopular John of Gaunt got a little scorched in the process, with much of the palace’s contents being deposited in the nearby Thames.

With all of the temptations of the ‘big city’ on offer however, Wat Tyler seems to have lost control of some of his ‘pleasure seeking’ peasants. With some falling foul to the power of the demon drink, looting and murder are reported to have taken place. In particular however, the peasants targeted their hatred at the lawyers and priests of the city.

In an attempt to prevent further trouble, the king agreed to meet the Wat Tyler at Mile End on 14th June. At this meeting, Richard II gave into all of the peasants demands and asked that they go home in peace. Satisfied with the outcome – a promised end to serfdom and feudalism – many did start the journey home.

Whilst this meeting was taking place however, some of the rebels marched on the Tower of London and murdered Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Hales, the Treasurer – their heads were cut off on Tower Hill. With his armies spread throughout France, Scotland and Wales, King Richard II spent the night in hiding, fearing for his life.

The next day Richard met Wat Tyler and his hardcore of Kentish rebels again, this time at Smithfield, just outside of the city’s walls. It is thought that this was the idea of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, who wanted the rebels out of his city, perhaps fearing the damage that they could cause within its cramped medieval streets lined with tinder dry wooden houses.

At this tense and highly charged meeting the Lord Mayor, apparently angered by Wat Tyler’s arrogant attitude to the king and his even more radical demands, drew his dagger and slashed at Tyler. Badly injured with a knife wound in his neck, Tyler was taken to nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

It is not exactly clear how the king talked his way out this little predicament with the massed crowd of rebels surrounding him, but it must have been good. One account records that the king addressed them with the cry, ‘I am your king, I will be your leader. Follow me into the fields’.

Whatever the king said or promised, it must have been sounded very convincing, as it resulted in the revolting peasants dispersing and returning home! But what of the fate of Wat Tyler? Well, he certainly didn’t receive the five-star treatment that he could expect today from St Bart’s! Thanks to Walworth’s orders, the knife wound in Tyler’s neck was extended, which had the effect of removing his head just a few inches above the shoulders!

By end of the summer of 1381, just a few weeks after it had started, the peasants’ revolt was over. Richard did not, or could not due to his limited power in Parliament, keep any of his promises. He also claimed that as these promises were made under threat, they were therefore not valid in law. The remaining rebels were dealt with by force.

The poll tax was withdrawn and the peasants were forced back into their old way of life – under the control of the lord of the manor, bishop or archbishop.

The ruling classes however did not have it all their own way. The Black Death had caused such a shortage of labour that over the next 100 years many peasants’ found that when they asked for more money the lords had to give in. Forced eventually to perhaps recognise the peasants’ power of ‘supply and demand’!


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