Richard the Redeles

Richard the Redeles
(ca. 1400)
   Richard the Redeles (Richard the Unadvised) is a satirical ALLITERATIVE VERSE poem in MIDDLE ENGLISH dealing with the disastrous reign of King RICHARD II and his deposition by Henry IV in 1399. The poem, written in an East Midland dialect, emulates the style and some of the ideas of William LANGLAND’s very popular poem, PIERS PLOWMAN. Indeed, in the single manuscript in which Richard the Redeles survives (Cambridge University Library MS LI iv 14), dating from the second quarter of the 15th century, it follows the B-text of Piers Plowman itself. The premise of the poem is that, first, Richard (at age 11) was too immature to have been thrust into the royal office, and that, second, he failed because of his lack of wise counsel from the poorly prepared upstart favorites with whom he surrounded himself. The poem seems intended as a book of “advice to princes,” using the story of the misrule of Richard II as an exemplum as the poet makes his case for how current and future princes should rule. The poem is divided into four passus, in the manner of Piers, though it is unclear whether the divisions are by the author or the scribe. Passus 1 begins as the Narrator declares his intent to write a treatise for Richard’s benefit.He portrays himself in Christ Church in Bristol, where he claims to overhear people arguing the merits of Richard and of Henry. From this point, it is clear that the Narrator is a persona created by the poet, since the poem’s references to events early in Henry IV’s reign indicate that the poem was written well after Richard’s deposition. The Narrator catalogues the myriad accusations against the king: Richard’s disregard for law, and the fiscal irresponsibility (including waste and extravagance) of his court along with heavy taxation even in peacetime.He goes on to castigate the king specifically for the same abuses of which Parliament had accused him: appointing, and failing to correct or punish, unworthy advisers who failed to consider his people’s welfare. In passus 2, the Narrator specifically condemns the manner in which Richard bestowed his livery of the “white hart” on his favorites. The bestowal of livery was a sign of the king’s acceptance of these retainers into his “maintenance.” Legally, this indicated that the king would support his retainers in all causes, including legal ones. Parliament had actually outlawed this custom in 1390, though the king continued the convention. In practice this led to serious abuses of the legal system by Richard’s retainers. The Narrator speaks of the 1399 return from exile of Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV), and of his welcome by the people as one who would redress these wrongs. The passus ends with the execution of three of Richard’s closest advisers.
   In passus 3, the poem (following no chronological order) deals with Richard’s execution in 1397 of the duke of Gloucester, the earl of Arundel, and the earl ofWarwick, three of the “Lords Appellant”who had been responsible for the acts of the “Merciless Parliament” that had executed Richard’s closest supporters in 1388. Halfway through the passus, the poet turns his focus to Richard’s unwise choices of counselors—young men who cared more for fashionable clothing than serious consideration of political problems. Passus 4 begins to describe a session of Parliament, satirically depicting Richard’s last Parliament of 1398. The Narrator takes the opportunity to lament Richard’s excessive taxation and to portray the incompetence of Parliament itself. After 93 lines, passus 4 breaks off, and the poem is apparently incomplete in the manuscript. One of the strategies of the poem is the allegorical use of animal imagery, often based on the liveries or coats of arms of the major figures. Richard and his retainers are Harts. His uncle and chief of the Lords Appellant, the duke of Gloucester, is represented as the Swan, while Arundel is the Horse and Warwick the Bear. Henry Bolingbroke is variously the Eagle, the Falcon, or the Greyhound. This sort of beast ALLEGORY was not uncommon in such satirical poetry in the Middle Ages, and one of the things it suggested was the discrepancy between the events of human society and the laws of the natural world—that is, attention is drawn to the ways in which Richard has strayed from divinely ordained natural law. The commonwealth will prosper in ordered harmony only if the individuals in the commonwealth, most especially those in positions of power, rule by natural reason, what Langland had called “Kynde Wit” in Piers Plowman. We know nothing of the anonymous author of Richard the Redeles, other than his familiarity with Langland’s poem. His poem has often been linked with another alliterative satire in the tradition of Piers Plowman called MUM AND THE SOTHSEGGER, and at one time it was suggested that the two incomplete texts were in fact part of the same poem. Most scholars do not accept that connection any longer, though it has been recently suggested that the two poems are written by the same author, and that Mum is the later poem, in which the poet expands on the ideas he introduced in Richard (Barr 1993, 15–16). The poet does evince an intimate knowledge of the workings of Parliament and the events of the Shrewsbury Parliament of 1398.He is interested in legal matters and in the king’s financial dealings, and he uses a good deal of legal vocabulary. Some scholars have suggested he may have been a clerk in the 1398 Parliament. It is unlikely that he was university-educated, and he seems not to have been a member of the clergy, for his political advice, though intended for Christian kings, is more practical than theoretically moral: The welfare of the commonwealth depends on mature, considered, wise counsel, and the king must surround himself with dependable, experienced, counselors—and listen to them.
   ■ Barr, Helen, ed. The Piers Plowman Tradition: A Critical Edition of Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, Richard the Redeless,Mum and the Sothsegger, and The Crowned King. London: J.M. Dent, 1993.
   ■ Eberle, Patricia J. “The Politics of Courtly Style at the Court of Richard II,” in The Spirit of the Court, edited by Glyn S. Burgess and Robert A. Taylor. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985, 168–178.
   ■ Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. Edited by James M. Dean. Kalamazoo,Mich.:Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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