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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 2: Boyhood rivalries between Richard of Bordeaux and Henry of Bolingbroke


The Garter Ceremony was as much the dying King Edward III could do, but there were many other factors separating the two boys which he was powerless to control. Richard's mother, Princess Joan, did her best to bring him up correctly, but inevitably his formative years were spent in an atmosphere of approaching death and decay with his adored father a helpless invalid. There were few children of his own age to play with, that essential ingredient of every happy childhood. When he accompanied his parents to Court, the atmosphere was no better there, presided over as it was by an ageing and senile King doing the bidding of his mistress Alice, who did not hesitate to wear the jewels of the dead Queen and to behave as though she had been crowned to take her place. It was inevitable that he should gain a precocious sense of his own importance, with such ceremonies as being appointed Regent of the Realm (under of course the watchful eyes of the Council) where he was inevitably the center of attention in grown-up's doings. This solemn and gorgeous ceremony, which in the customary manner had to be the last duty performed by a departing King, took place on board the "Grace a Dieu" when his Grandfather and ailing Father had embarked in 1371 on an expedition to France. Put on a pedestal by his birth and rank, there was little opportunity, which every small boy must have, to grow up as his own man as one of a number of equals, none being better or worse than his fellows, but all together climbing trees and getting into mischief for its own sake and jointly bearing the subsequent castigation of their outraged elders.

Henry on the other hand grew up in a very different environment. In his Father's household, there was a mass of children of his own age, both legitimate and otherwise, with whom he could share his childish adventures. He worshipped his Father, who was the most important man in the land after the King himself, and always there was hurry and bustle with horses hooves ringing out on the stones of the courtyard as richly dressed and sometimes armoured notables came and went about the business they had with his Father. It was vigourous and exciting to the small boy who watched it all. Sometimes the visitors had time and a word for him in the bluff outgoing military way which is like the manna of heaven to a small boy before they departed to slay the dragons and rescue damsels in distress and do all the brave deeds of which he dreamt and would one day do himself. As one boy grew up in the depressing surroundings of imminent death and decay, so the other was part of a lively and stimulating scene which carried its young beholder along with it upon its own impetus. This was the first point which devided them. There were to be others.

Coronation of King Richard II

The Coronation, an exacting ritual for a fully grown man, was something close to a disaster for the 10 year old boy who had to undergo it, and his tutor, Sir Simon Burley, had to carry in his arms one very tired little boy into the banquet which followed it and set him in his place. The rich food, coming on top of all the excitement, caused him to vomit, and the Earl of March had to support the heavy crown above his head. Inevitably, other things went wrong in ceremonies which were all too much for a child of such tender years, and we would have no difficulty in recognising them and explaining them as such. In later years however,  King Richard II looked back upon the ceremony as being, in one sense, a deeply humiliating experience, and one which would not have happened if he had been of the stronger stamina of his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who had performed his tasks in the same ceremony with distinction. He was to suffer other humiliations at the hand of this same cousin when they did lessons together. Although as well able as his cousin to discharge the challenging intellectual tasks set for them by Burley, Richard always was worsted by his stronger and better instructed cousin in the physical accomplishments expected of a young gentleman of the age, such as wrestling, skill-at-arms with toy swords, and archery with small bows. Richard conceived for Henry one of those deep childish antpathies that are so often carried into adult life, and chose instead for his companion and hero their school-mate, the fourteen year old Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and hereditary Great Chamberlain. Robert was already a smooth young man of affairs who must have appeared a God to a lonely boy four years his junior. Arrogant, reckless and accomplished, and unburdened by scruples of any sort, this glittering but somewhat unattractive young man soon captured his King's youthful heart. Richard worshipped him.

John of Gaunt's arrogance

If the personal chemistry between the cousins was not all that might be desired, other factors intruded, and the most serious of all was the common whisper that Henry's Father John of Gaunt, was disloyal to the Crown. The accusation was of course nonsense, but John of Gaunt did much to bring trouble onto his own head. It was a rough and turbulent age if also a colourful and picturesque one, and it was accepted that the great magnates behaved pretty much as they pleased. Even so, there were limits, and John frequently went beyond them in an arrogant disregard for other people's feelings. In February 1377, whilst still in the lifetime of King Edward III, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, had summoned the Lollard John Wyclif to appear before them to answer a charge of heresay. [John Wyclif was the most articulate member of the Lollard movement, which roundly denounced the many abuses and corruption of the Church] The trial was due to take place in St Paul's Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. A vast throng had gathered to watch the proceedings in which Wyclif would be called upon to explain his outspoken remarks that men did not have to obey the dictates of sinful priests and that the Church was hopelessly corrupt. John of Gaunt had no love for heretics, but Wyclif seems to have been of some political use to him, and he was resolved to protect him from the punishment which would undoubtedly be visited upon him. As the proceedings were about to begin, the two venerable prelates were confronted by the sight of Wyclif appearing for his trial flanked by the great Duke of Lancaster himself and by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Earl Marshal of England. The stamp of horses hooves, and the clatter of arms outside, indicated that they had brought an armed following with them, and there could be no doubt that they were prepared to use force to get their way. John of Gaunt rudely demanded the release of Wyclif, and there was a furious exchange between prelates and magnates during which John of Gaunt threatened to drag the Bishop out of his See by the hair of his head. There was nothing anyone could do, and Wyclif was allowed to depart a free man.

This insult to their Bishop, within the City itself,  was too much for the Londoners to bear on top of all else they had taken from John of Gaunt, and they rioted. The riot took on an ugly character, with the servants of the House of Lancaster being insulted and on ocassions beaten as well. Wherever John of Gaunt's arms could be found, they were reversed upside down as the recognised sign of a traitor. Percy's house was ransacked in a vain attempt to find and lynch him, and when the two noblemen could be traced to the house of a prominent wool-merchant, where they were dining, they had to make a hasty and undignified escape by barge with the infuriated crowd baying at their heels. The Bishop of London himself, aided by placatory messages from Princess Joan and Sir Simon Burley and with the help of several others from the Court, managed to calm things down and persuade the infuriated citizens to return to their everyday occupations.

John of Gaunt,  never one to forget or forgive, and certainly never one to leave well alone,  decided to punish the City. The Mayor and Alderman were summoned into the presense of the dying King Edward III, who was too weak even to speak. They were scolded for the insult by the Chamberlain and advised to seek the Duke of Lancaster's pardon under threat of losing their liberties and priveledges. The City Fathers may have thought that things had gone too far, and that the time for reconciliation had arrived, but this threat, which was usually effective to bring them to heel, did nothing to make the task any more congenial to them. There were kisses all round, and the City authorities undertook to show John of Gaunt's arms in their proper posture surmounting a marble pillar especially built for the purpose. Later, as a further conciliatory gesture, the young King Richard II, as one of his acts and at John of Gaunts prompting, released from the Tower Sir Peter de la Mare, the outspoken Speaker of the House of Commons and the people's hero. When once again a free man, he received a raptuous reception. But not all could be forgotten or forgiven after what had passed. John of Gaunt never forgave the insult of being called a traitor. In return, some of the mud thrown at him stuck to its target, and many other people never forgot it, or allowed John of Gaunt to do so. It remained common talk in the Mansions of the Mighty as it did in the market-places, alehouses and homes of the people that the Duke of Lancaster was secretly plotting to poison King Richard II and put his own son Henry of Bolingbroke on the Throne. This can have played no part in endearing Henry to Richard.

King Richard's adolesence - the Peasant's Revolt

King Richard II grew up to be a fine looking young man. His good looks were not so much of the handsome, dashing type of youth which his subjects expected, highly skilled in hunting, hawking and fowling, the contempory persuits of a gentleman, or with a high degree of skill-at-arms, which a man of rank was assumed to possess. He rarely, if ever, appeared in the tilt-yard, and showed no interest in jousting. This dangerous sport was brought to England with The Conquest by the high spirted Normans who amused themselves, sometimes with blunted lances but more often with sharpened points, in charging each other at full gallop. Although protected by armour which was specially made for the joust and was heavier than that customarily worn in battle, it frequently ended in death or permanent injury to one or more of the participants. Kings were not expected to expose themselves to the risks of death or serious injury in such a lethal sport, [Some nevertheless did. Both Henry V and Henry VIII were among the foremost jousters of their day] but their non-participation was expected to be voluntary abstention and self-denial on their part for this very reason, whereas Richard's refusal to take part was simple disinclination to become involved.

Yet Richard was not a coward. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 was sparked off by the Poll Tax of 1/= a head on the whole population, regardless of the individual's means to pay it. This tax owed its origins to the Parliament which met on 5th November 1380 in Northampton, when the Common House expressed the Commons to be "very poor", and the King's demands to be "outrageous and insupportable." The Common House, with an eye to the wealth of the Church, which (it said) occupied one-third of the Kingdom, proposed #100, 000 should be raised, of which they would pay two-thirds and the clergy one-third. The clergy protested indignantly at this indirect method of taxing the Church through the Common House; the clergy had from time immemorial only paid the taxes voted by the Convocations of the two Sees, and there was no reason to change this. Let the Common House do what it had to do, and Holy Church would, as always, do what it should after consideration by the proper bodies. Faced with this attitude, and the pressing needs of the Crown for money, the Common House then took a most unwise, and barely considered, step; it granted a poll tax on all the Laiety, the "very beggars excepted". The Crown did agree to tax the Cinque Ports and others who did not normally pay taxes as far as their repective Charters allowed.

This tax was hardly an onerous imposition on the well-to-do, but not everybody was in the happy position of being able to pay it without hardship. A large part of society consisted of villeins, men and women tied to the land on which they were born and worked,   whose condition was truly wretched. They were the hewers of wood and drawers of water who had no share in the newly found military prowess of the land nor of the newly established commercial prosperity of some of their more fortunate fellow citizens. They were the ones whose labour underpinned society, and they had no further expectation than this, being little better than serfs. The sum, small enough to the better-off, represented an unacceptable impost upon their slender resources, and when they refused to pay, or were unable to do so, they were persued with the full rigour of the law. They retaliated by murdering the Royal Officials who attempted to collect the tax, and this invited further retribution from the Government. Submissive as they were by nature, they rebelled and the men of Kent and Essex marched upon London with the declared aim of destroying those whom they blamed for the hated tax and their other miseries. Among these they identified Simon Sudbury, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Robert Hales, the Treasurer, and the ever unpopular John of Gaunt. This of course put Henry of Bolingbroke in especial danger. In theory at any rate, there was no danger to the life of the King; he was to head the new Commonwealth they proposed to establish. First invading Canterbury Cathedral during High Mass in search of the Archbishop, and freeing all the prisoners from Rochester Castle, the Men of Kent reached the banks of the Thames opposite the Tower where King Richard II rowed over to meet them. The King wanted to land and to talk to them, but others of his party would not allow him to do this. All that could be gathered was that the list of those Lords to be executed had now swollen to 15, and John of Gaunt's name now headed it. John himself was beyond immediate reach, being on an expedition to Scotland at the time, but so hated was he that the citizens of Cambridge ransacked his house in that city and drank all his wine. Even his Duchess, Constance of Castile and Leon, fleeing for her life to his Castle at Pontefract, found its gates closed in her face so that she had to seek refuge elsewhere. Cheated of their interview with the King, the rebels burst into the City, destroyed John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace, murdered a number of Flemish merchants, and encamped before the Tower. King Richard II attempted to negotiate with them from the battlements, but to no avail.

The Revolt had shaken the Government and the country to its foundations, and by now there could be no misunderstanding the murderous intent of the Rebels and particularly of their leaders, John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Not even the life of the King himself could any longer be regarded as safe in spite of the rebels protestations to the contrary. Yet Richard's coolness never left him. The means of escape from the Tower by boat was readily to hand, but Richard refused to countenance this. Instead he arranged to meet the rebels and hear their grievances at Mile End to which the majority of them withdrew, leaving only a small number in the vicinity of the Tower. As he rode forth a man grasped the bridle of his horse, and angrily shouted rude demands into his face. Richard shook himself free and rode on. The meeting with the rebels was ugly, and Richard's position was made even more precarious by the flight of some of his escort, including his half-brothers the two Hollands. Richard was later accused, with devine disregard to the realities of the situation, of giving in to all the rebels demands, including the execution of some of the members of his Council. The mob still before the Tower broke in, siezed the cowering Lords in the White Chapel and beheaded them, among them Sudbury himself and Sir Robert Hales the Treasurer. Henry of Bolingbroke would have shared their fate if one John Ferrour of Southwark had not intervened and forced his companions back, explaining that a 15-year old boy could not be held responsible for the failings of the Government. Whatever the truth of Richard's concessions to the mob,  Henry always felt that Richard had betrayed him and the other Lords who were put so cruelly to death on that dreadful morning.

Next day, there was a further meeting with the rebels at Smithfield. Wat Tyler, aware that he had overwhelming force at his back which was ripe for any mischief, arrogantly and rudely shouted his demands into the King's face in the manner of the violent and uncouth man that he was. This was too much for the Lord Mayor, Sir William Walworth, who drew his dagger and stabbed him. [The dagger is still to be seen in the Fishmongers Hall] The situation was now critical, with arrows being set to strings and bows being drawn in the crowd, and at any moment the slaughter would start. Without a moments hesitation King Richard II rode into the crowd crying out at the top of his voice"You do not wish to shoot your King do you? I am your King, I am your captain and your leader; follow me into the field and you shall have everything it pleases you to ask".It was an act of superb courage, and for several hours this gorgeously attired youth rode his beautifully caprisoned horse, quite alone and absolutely defenceless, among the most wretched of his subjects, talking to them and reasoning with them. He must have been well aware that one man, and one man only, could have seen in his person the embodiment of all his grievances and have taken swift revenge upon him. Yet Richard never faltered (had he done so, that moment would have been his last), but held the crowd spell-bound by his firm demeanour, his plain speaking, and the aura of his Kingship. It was a lot for a 14-year old boy to accomplish.

King Richard II's character

Even if Richard's courage was undoubted, and after this display there were few who could or would deny it, he was scarcely the embodiment of his subjects expectations of a medieval King. It was a bawdy age, and nobody thought any the worse of a young nobleman sowing his wild oats, who took part in fearsome contests in the tiltyard, a welcome spectacle for the people, who engaged in mammoth drinking sessions of the most disreputable nature, who seduced with gusto ladies of every rank and station, and who made his hasty exit through a window with an enraged husband in hot persuit. This was the manliness that the age expected, and even glorified. Perhaps a King had to be a little more restrained, but mistresses by the score were almost obligatory, and of course success in war was essential. Maybe the Commons complained of the cost in taxes, but what they were looking for and expected were heroes, and when they did not get them they were critical. Shakespeare put the common expectation into the mouth of Ancient Pistol, who, on the night before Agincourt, was unaware that he was adressing King Henry V himself:-

"The King's a bawcock, and a heart of Gold,

A lad of life, an imp of fame;

Of parents good, of fist most valient:

I kiss his dirty shoe, and from the heartstring,

I love the lovely bully."

King Henty V and in a later century King Henry VIII were everything that their subjects thought a King should be. King Richard II was not, and did not try to be. Henry of Bolingbroke however, was much more in the mould of a public hero. His skill and success in jousting were renowned, as were his deeds in the campaign he fought under the banner of the Teutonic Knights in Lithuania where he particularly distinguished himself. He had also made a brilliant marriage to Mary de Bohun, the co-heiress who brought with her the Earldoms of Hereford and Northampton. This marriage had not been without its problems. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who had married Eleanor, the other co-heiress, had tried to persuade Mary to enter a convent so that he could keep the whole inheritance for himself. He was much offended when Mary declined to do so.

King Richard II's outstandingly good looks were of the fragile feminine kind rather than the robust masculine type that were the public perception of a King of his time. To the natural Plantagenet handsomeness he added all the feminine beauty of his beautiful mother, and, when coupled with his reluctance to take part in the 'manly'pastimes of the age, this lead to suspicions of another more sinister kind. Today the cynical will say that homosexuality was only recently sternly forbidden, less recently it has been permitted, and shortly it will become compulsory. The late 14th-century however had no doubts about it; it was abhored as the eighth deadly sin. It was an unnatural vice which put the immortal soul in jeopardy. As a counterweight to his stern uncles, who with the Council ruled the land before he came of age to do so himself, Richard surrounded himself with young nobles of his own age. Suggestions have been made that Richard engaged in homosexual practises with these youths, and a play has been written where this has been asserted as an incontravertible fact. There is however no real evidence that he did so, and when he was deposed in 1399, and men were keen to drag every discreditable fact into the light of day, there was no allegation that he had engaged in homosexuality. At the time however, it must have been apparent that among these idle gilded youths, who had little to do except to amuse themselves, and some of whom were downright vicious, the aura of homosexuality must have hung heavy in the air even if they did not actually engage in its more active persuits.

One thing at any rate the coronation had done for Richard. He was anointed on several parts of his body as the custom then was, and the Crown was solemnly placed on his head. In later life he was to refer to the signs of the Cross which appeared on his head, the palms of his hands, his breast, his arms and between his shoulders. This was of course pure fantasy. Nevertheless, he regarded those signs as akin to the stigmata of Jesus, the holy wounds on the hands and feet and in the side, which at the time were symbolised by the rubies sown into the palms of a Bishop's gloves and onto the insteps of his shoes. His body was thus that of a sacred person, and his rule was sansrosanct which no man might touch or deny. He was answerable to no man born of woman, but to God alone. He was thus absolute and perfect on earth, and as such he alone could rule the Land. Any interference with his rule was to be equated with ungodliness, and was to be severely punished. This deeply held conviction was not to be tempered with experience as time went on, when the twin considerations of the desireable and the possible had to be weighed one against the other, and their lessons learnt for the future. Matters were not helped by a quick and passionate temper, and Richard's frequent rages were terrible to behold even to those who were not their immediate target. It is never possible to be entirely certain whether one aspect of human nature leads onto, causes, or gives rise to another, and the wise historian must be cautious in any such attempt. It is clear however, that Richard was also clever and determined, and not without ability when he wanted to get his way. It is also clear that Richard never forgot or forgave what he considered to be a slight or an injury, and if he appeared to accept a position which was uncongenial to him, he was only biding his time for revenge. We all of us have to deal with difficult and disagreeable people, and sometimes they express themselves in ways that are not to our liking. The wise learn to accept that frequently others are right, however objectionable they may make themselves, and that we are wrong. King Richard II never learnt to do this, and merely marked down those who raised objections to what he had in mind for eventual punishment or destruction.

Before she died in 1385, his Mother, Princess Joan, had some restraining influence upon him particularly where her friend John of Gaunt was concerned. After her death, even this influence was removed. It is difficult to point the finger of scorn at Richard. A medievel King was expected to be an absolute ruler, and the 'buck'stopped with him, but Englishmen have never accepted the kind of rule which came naturally to the subjects of Genghiz Khan or the Tsar of all the Russias. An English King was expected to rule through his Council, the wisest and greatest of the Land, and to listen to their advice. He was also expected to listen to his subjects concerns in Parliament, and to ask them for taxes. These are difficult concepts to match on against another, and whilst it had been done with conspicuous success by his Grand-father, Richard, as is the way with some natures, never learnt to do so. This failure, coupled with these defects in character, cost Richard his Crown and many others their lives and their fortunes. 

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003