Richard II


Richard II
(1367–1400)
   Richard II was born to Edward, the Black Prince, and Joan, the “Fair Maid of Kent,” on Epiphany in 1367. Ten years later, in 1377, Richard succeeded his grandfather, King EDWARD III, to the throne. Until Richard turned 22 years old, his uncle, JOHN OF GAUNT, duke of Lancaster, along with a council of magnates, exercised power for Richard. The young king was pale and blond with delicate features, and he appeared weak to many—it was not until the PEASANTS’ REVOLT in 1381 (the peasants’ outcry against poll taxes, low wages, and feudal laws), when Richard was age 14, that the young king showed extraordinary bravery and courage when he met the rebelling peasants, addressed them in a friendly manner, said that he was their lord and king and wished to know what they wanted, and, finally, agreed to their demands. Although Richard’s promise was never met and the leaders of the rebellion were ultimately executed, the uprising asserted the peasants’ power and endeared the young king to them.
   Richard married ANNE OF BOHEMIA in 1382, and the couple’s relationship was one of mutual love and admiration. Her sudden death in 1394, childless at the age of 27, prompted Richard to demolish the palace where she died; some believe he never fully recovered from the anguish brought on by her death.
   King Richard prized peace, and perhaps peace with France (although short-lived) was Richard’s greatest contribution to England.He allied the two countries by marrying the seven-year-old daughter of the king of France, Isabelle Valois, in 1396. In 1394 and again in 1399, Richard led armies to subjugate Ireland, but the task saw very little success. Beginning in 1386, during a period when Gaunt was out of the country, Richard’s power was curtailed by powerful elements within the nobility, led by his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester.Angered by Richard’s promotion of unprepared cousellors from the lower ranks of the nobility to positions of great influence—most particularly the despised Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford— the nobles focused on eliminating the king’s bad advisers. In 1388, Parliament placed many of Richard’s dearest friends and supporters on trial under the accusation of treason. Richard had the distress of presiding over what became known as the “Merciless Parliament” while his friends were tried, and of knowing there was nothing he could do to prevent their fates—some were ruthlessly hanged, drawn, and quartered. The Lords Appellant who brought the charges forth were led by Gloucester, and included his cousin,Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt; they went on to rule the country until Richard II regained control the following year. Eventually, in retaliation, Richard had three of the five Lords Appellant arrested and executed and the remaining two, including Bolingbroke, exiled. When John of Gaunt died in 1399, Bolingbroke became duke of Lancaster. But before Henry could return from exile, Richard seized his possessions thus, when Henry returned, he had the support of the nobility, who saw Richard as overstepping his bounds by seizing nobles ancestral lands. He also was supported by the common folk, who objected to what they saw as the waste and extravagance of Richard’s court; the heavy taxes he imposed even during peacetime; and his arrogant advisers, whom they saw as perverting the legal system. Henry angrily usurped the throne. Richard surrendered to the future King Henry IV in August of 1399, and abdicated from the throne in September.
   Richard died in January of 1400, at the age of 33, while in prison at Pontrefact Castle. His death was unquestionably a slow, miserable one; while in prison he was denied basic necessities and suffered from neglect, probably finally dying of starvation. He was buried at the favorite residence of Edward II, the (equally incompetent) king he had sought to have canonized. Richard was the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, and his overthrow marks the split of the family into two lines, the Houses of Lancaster and York, and anticipates the War of the Roses, which broke out in the 1450s— some go so far as to say that his death was the first casualty of the 85-year-long English civil war. Richard valued art and culture, and he was a lavish spender.His interests had much to do with stimulating an English cultural renaissance. He was a patron of the arts, and, specifically, the patron of CHAUCER, his clerk of the works. Richard possessed a library of French and English illuminated manuscripts. His list of accomplishments also includes the invention of the handkerchief and the restoration of Westminster Hall. English literature flourished during Richard’s reign, when writers including GOWER, LANGLAND, and the PEARL poet were producing their finest works. Later, during the Elizabethan era, his own life made great material for Shakespeare, whose Richard II is relatively accurate in its depiction of Richard as regal in appearance and manner yet, ultimately, an inadequate ruler.
   Bibliography
   ■ Gillespie, James L., ed. The Age of Richard II. New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1997.
   ■ Richard II: The Art of Kingship. Edited by Anthony Goodman and James Gillespie. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
   ■ Saul, Nigel. Richard II. Yale English Monarchs Series. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
   ■ Senior, Michael. The Life and Times of Richard II. With an introduction by Antonia Fraser. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.
   Leslie Johnston

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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