Home Forums Articles Patterns Graphics Extras

decorative bar

All That: Richard II

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
decorative bar

Richard IIThat "the King's Word is Law" has long been the tradition in the Kingdom of the West. In the First Middle Ages, Richard II of England "expressly said...that his laws were in his own mouth or, occasionally, in his own breast" - that is, not just that the King's word was the law, but sometimes his unspoken thought. Let's find out a little more about the troubled reign of this king that Kurt Andersen called "the real thing" among English monarchs.

Richard was crowned king at the age of 10 on the death of his grandfather, Edward III (1377), and a council of regents was appointed to rule until he came of age. At only 14, when the Peasants' Revolt threatened London, Richard rode out to meet the leaders of the revolt personally and succeeded in relieving tensions and calming the revolt. Richard grew up spoiled - not a surprising effect of growing up king - and believed everything he was told about his bravery and wisdom in dealing with the peasant army. He also fell under the influence of some unsavory characters, most notably (and most unsavory) Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and he swallowed their flattery whole. Their offenses grew so flagrant that a cadre of nobles called the Lords Appellant had de Vere banished and other favorites executed in 1388; Richard took this meekly enough at the time, but he never forgave or forgot. The next year, at 22, he declared himself of age, dismissed the council of regents, and began to rule in his own right.

Richard spent nine years nursing his grudge, accumulating a new coterie of favorites, and packing Parliament with his supporters; he also invented the handkerchief ("little pieces [of cloth] for the lord King to wipe and clean his nose," according to the Household Rolls). In 1397, when he felt sufficiently in control, he struck: he had the Lords Appellant variously executed (Arundel), murdered (Gloucester), and exiled (Warwick, then Norfolk and Bolingbroke a year later). He had his hand-picked Parliament vote him all the tax powers he wanted, and then dissolved it. The worst effects of his spoiled upbringing began to come out - Alison Weir describes him in this period using terms like "pronounced megalomanic, even psychopathic tendencies" and "growing paranoia and detachment from reality."

In 1399, John of Gaunt - Duke of Lancaster, Richard's uncle, the most powerful magnate in England, and sole source of political stability in the government - died; Gaunt's son and heir (and Richard's cousin), Henry Bolingbroke, was living abroad as one of the banished Lords Appellant. When he went into exile Richard had guaranteed that despite his banishment he would inherit everything on his father's death, but now Richard seized the inheritance. Bolingbroke returned to England to claim his patrimony while Richard was in Ireland; anti-Richard sentiment crystallized around him, and by the time Richard returned there was an organized movement to depose him.

Abdication of Richard IIRichard was forced to abdicate in September, 1399. Along with packing Parliament, violation of due process, and perjury, Richard's view that "his laws were in his own mouth" was explicitly listed among the grounds for deposing him. (Remember that quote at the top of the essay? It's taken straight from the act of deposition.) The rightful heir to the throne and Richard's designated successor was Edmund Mortimer, a child of 8. Perhaps because the English were leery of another child king after experiencing Richard, Edmund was passed over and Henry Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV. Richard died a few months later in prison, probably of starvation.

In the Current Middle Ages
There are two suggested theories for the origin of that paradoxical old chestnut, "the exception that proves the rule." One, the Linguistic theory, holds that the phrase hinges on the word "prove" in the old sense of "test": an exception tests the rule, to see how strong it is. The other, the Legal theory, holds that it is shorthand for a legal principle, that making an explicit exception (for example, "No parking during snow emergency") logically and legally proves the existence of a tacit general rule (parking is allowed the rest of the time).

I myself favor the Legal origin, and certainly that is the sense behind this essay. If Richard's view that "the king's word is law" was explicitly grounds for deposing him, that proves that the king's word generally wasn't, at least not in 14th-century England. If we're attempting to recreate Medieval and Renaissance culture in general, that doesn't mean everything that happened before 1600 is equally appropriate. If something can be documented in period, but was explicitly recognized as exceptional (or weird, or "Not Done") at the time, that means it was not part of the general culture and therefore should not be part of our recreation. I grant, of course, that "Pre-1600 Western Europe" covers a lot of ground, and that attitudes or practices that were exceptional at one place or time might have been the norm at another. But let's briefly consider some other specific cases:

Kingdom of JerusalemThe arms of the kings of Jerusalem were argent, a cross potent between four crosslets or. (In fact they changed slightly over time, but were always or and argent.) This violates the heraldic prohibition against putting metal on metal, and was recognized repeatedly in period, as early as 1300, as doing so. As far as I know, the College of Arms of the SCA still disallows metal on metal, and does not let this one well-documented exception open the gates.

Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire kept a harem, complete with eunuch guards, but this was scandalous and shocking to his contemporaries. Would anyone argue that harems were a regular part of European courts in the High Middle Ages? (Regular readers of this column will remember that Frederick II was equally exceptional in his crusading style: he got Jerusalem by negotiation. And that only scratches the surface of this truly exceptional individual.)

Britomart and AmoretSo what about another controversial exception in our re-creational activities, women fighting? On the one hand, the documentary evidence for it is scant; on the other hand, when it does come up it doesn't seem unheard-of, it isn't scandalous. Joan of Arc was condemned for wearing men's clothes, not for participating in battle - and even then, she was a commander, she herself didn't actually hack and slash. (For that matter, her real crime was in winning.) Bradamante in Orlando Furioso and Britomart in Spenser's Faerie Queene were fictional lady knights, and they were portrayed as noble and chivalrous; Brunhilde in the Niebelungenlied was fictional and even fantastical, but was still seen as a fitting queen for the realistic, courtly Gunther. So although women fighting may have been exceptional in fact, it wasn't seen as an exception that broke the social rules. I don't think it violates a recreation of Medieval society as much as a royal harem would, or metal-on-metal heraldry, or maybe even "the King's Word is Law."

Further Reading
The deposition of Richard and succession of Henry (bypassing Edmund Mortimer) set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, and so the story can be found in any history of that conflict. One such is Thomas Costain's The Last Plantagenets (1962): almost half the book is the story of Richard's reign. The book is written as history, but with more emphasis on story and character and less on dates and sources, it reads almost like a novel.

A mirror-image twin of Costain's book is My Lord John by Georgette Heyer (1975): written as a novel, but positively stiff with facts and details. It covers the end of Richard's reign from the point of view of Bolingbroke's family. Warning: it's written very forsoothly, of the "'Gainsay me no vainglory,' vouchsafed the scapegrace" school.

Charles T. Wood's Joan of Arc and Richard III: sex, saints, and government in the Middle Ages (1988) has a chapter on the political problems of a child king coming of age, covering many other English and French cases as well as Richard II. (And if the title alone doesn't get you interested, nothing I can say will.) And a good and very recent biography of Richard is Richard II, by Nigel Saul (1997).

Because I mentioned him at the beginning, let me cite Kurt Andersen's book, The Real Thing: a guide to separating the genuine from the ersatz, the men from the boys, and the wheat from the chaff (1980). Some entries have aged poorly and are grossly outdated: Gurus (Guru Maharaj Ji), "Tonight Show" Guest Hosts (John Davidson), and Telephone Companies (the telephone company); but many are eternally true and still Real: Colas (Coke), Fabians (the popular '50s singing sensation), and Similes ("Like a woman"). It's a fun read: check it out.

decorative bar
text copyright 1999 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
Richard II portrait from Westminster Abbey, c. 1390's.
The 'Abdication of Richard II of England' from Jean Froissart's Chronicles, Bruges, 15th c.
'Britomart and Amoret' by Mary Raphael, 1898.
Links to Books
book cover Costain, Thomas B.
The Last Plantagenets
($32.16 at Amazon.com)
book cover Heyer, Georgette
My Lord John
(out of print; from $5.00 used at Amazon.com)
book cover Wood, Charles T.
Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages
($24.95 at Amazon.com)
book cover Saul, Nigel
Richard II (English Monarch Series)
($19.00 at Amazon.com)
book cover Andersen, Kurt
The Real Thing
(out-of-print, from $4.75 used at Amazon.com)

Home | Usage | Forums | Articles | Patterns | Graphics | Extras | Contact Us

created and maintained by C. Hanson
last modified on Nov. 24, 2004

page counter

Amazon.com Amazon.com Associates