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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 3: The First Tyranny of King Richard II


Attempted murder of John of Gaunt

In order to lead into the story of the Wars of the Roses, there must be some understanding of Richard's character, and of the disasters which are primarily to be laid at his door. This is not intended to be an account of Richard's reign; but no account of these Wars can be complete without some account of how he came to be deposed, and how Henry of Bolingbroke came to take his place.

In November 1381, in the immediate wake of the Peasant's Revolt, the first of Richard's many brushes with Parliament took place. Parliament, following a pattern which had by then become familiar, critised the Court for its expense, saying that the Poll Tax which had caused so much upheaval would never have been necessary if the Court was not so extravagent. Richard was deeply affronted by this, and by the appointment of a Commission, headed by John of Gaunt and the two Archbishops to guide him. The Commission appointed two guardians, Richard, Earl of Arundel and Michael de La Pole to live with him and 'counsel and guide'him. Richard, who knew how to bide his time, soon had cause to dismiss the tactless and rude Arundel whilst winning over the more pliable de La Pole who by 1385 had become his Chancellor. By the same date he had managed to surround himself with other young nobles of his own age, such as Robert de Vere, his childhood friend,  and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, and others less young such as Sir Simon Burley, and these were his recognised favourites. The great offices of State lay within his gift, and it is not to be wondered at if they were all held by those who could be relied upon to do his bidding. The Signet Office, a new department, was set up to use the King's Seal, thus allowing the King to by-pass the Officers of State whenever he wished. The scene was set for'the first tyranny of King Richard.' Indeed so strong did Richard feel that when in the 1384 Parliament Arundel dared to critisize the King's extravagence, thus insulting the Lord's annointed, he could be told to go to the Devil. John of Gaunt was helpful in calming things down between the furious King and the truculent Earl, and only succeded in convincing Richard that he too was just such another enemy.

The Court was indeed most extravagent, giving itself over to pleasures of the most expensive kind. It is never difficult to find others who will help to spend money, and Richard gave away Crown lands and income with reckless disregard to the consequences to the Royal Revenues, whose primary purposes were the payment of the expense of running the country. The Parliament of 1385 attempted to set up another Commission to enquire into the Royal Finances; Richard's ministers and favourites had no difficulty in seeing that it never met.

Whether Richard knew or connived in the plot to put John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster to death is not known, but it seems certain that at least some of his more unpleasant youthful companions had a hand in it, and Robert de Vere attracts most suspicion for this sordid episode. At the time of the Salisbury Parliament in April 1384, Richard had gone to de Vere's chamber to hear Mass. The Friar who was to conduct it blurted out that John of Gaunt was plotting to murder the King. The stunned silence that followed this amazing allegation was broken by Richard's uncle, Thomas,  Duke of Gloucester, drawing his sword and challenging anybody to make it good if he could. Pandemonium reigned, and Richard in a towering rage ordered Gaunt's immediate arrest and execution. Other more sober Lords told Richard he could not do this, thus adding to the Royal fury. They did succeed in pacifying him, and persuading him that evidence must first be heard. Naturally there was none, and John Holland, later Duke of Exeter and the King's half brother, took good care to torture the Friar to death to avoid any revelation of de Vere's (or anyone else's) part in the matter. Having failed to learn from this crude and botched attempt, de Vere then plotted to murder John of Gaunt at a tournament. He was of course discovered, and it is more than possible that Richard told him to run for his life; he certainly took no steps to apprehend him. For this he was told in no uncertain terms by William of Courtenay, by now Archbishop of Canterbury, when the Council next met that he had done wrong. Courtenay went so far as to accuse Richard of complicity. There was another terrible rage, and on a subsequent occasion Richard drew his sword on the Archbishop. He was restrained by the Duke of Gloucester, Sir John Devereux and Sir Thomas Trivet. They too were then threatened, and had to flee for their lives.

By now matters had gone too far even by the standards of the time. Richard must learn that he could not order the deaths of great Lords at will or draw swords on Archbishops. In February 1385 John of Gaunt arrived unannounced at the Palace of Sheen. He brought with him a considerable armed escort and ostentaciously posted sentries, making it clear that he could make a quick escape if he had to. All the men wore his badge, and this was a flagrant disregard of the laws against 'livery and maintenance'; people were not supposed to keep private armies. The Duke of Lancaster then strode in the confront Richard wearing full armour, which in itself was a gesture of defiance. John of Gaunt is recorded as upbraiding his nephew thus:-

"It is ignoble for a King to take vengence by private murders, when he himself is above the law and has it in his power to grant life and limb, and even if he chooses to take them away at his pleasure....so excellant a person should have about him good and faithful counsellors".

No doubt there was much more in the same vein, as John of Gaunt was a forthright man. Richard, unable to effect the arrest of his uncle, took refuge in conciliatory words and promises to mend his ways. He did not however forget or forgive what he saw, not as good well-meant advice albeit bluntly given, but a grave affront to his person and dignity. Further trouble soon erupted during an expedition to Scotland in August 1385, when Henry of Bolingbroke accompanied his Father and Richard. Robert De Vere, by now allowed back into Court circles, went too and further poisoned the Royal ear with stories which he judged, no doubt correctly, it wanted to hear against John of Gaunt. The Scots avoided battle, and Richard wanted to retire as supplies were running short. Gaunt counselled they should press on and force the Scots to fight a battle. A job uncompleted only meant that it would have to done again. Richard flew into a towering passion and accused John of Gaunt of treachery. No doubt, he said, the Duke of Lancaster would like to see an English reverse and consequent damage to the prestige of the Crown. John, by now used to his nephew's passions, laughed the whole matter off, but his son Henry of Bolingbroke was deeply affronted.

By 1386, King Richard 11 no doubt felt as frustrated with his three uncles as King Henry 11 had felt with his Archbishop of Canterbury some 200 years before. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, may have taken little interest in politics, but he was still a stickler for doing things the right way, and his way was not always King Richard's way. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was rather subdued in the presence of his eldest brother John of Gaunt, but he was still a force to be reckoned with. He had even drawn his sword in the King's presence in the defence of his elder brother's good name, and such an offence by anyone less elevated would have called for severe punishment. It was John of Gaunt that the King feared most. John had not hesitated to upbraid him, and it was obvious that he had none of the exaggerated respect for the King that Richard felt was his due. Relief for King Richard 11 from the grim presence of his eldest living uncle came in the shape of a Portugese embassy suggesting that John of Gaunt should join their expedition against the Spaniards and thus follow up their recent military successes. Richard was ecstatic with the idea, and John of Gaunt was keen to follow his interests in Castile which came to him through his Duchess. There was everything for the King to play for. If successful, an English Princess, even if she was John of Gaunt's daughter, would sit on the Throne of Castile and much good would flow from that. If it was unsuccessful, it would be John of Gaunt's prestige, not his, which would suffer. Campaigning was dangerous work, and perhaps John of Gaunt would not return. Mourning a deceased uncle would be a small price to pay for being rid of him for good. Turning very affable, he rendered John every assistence in gathering the necessary ships and men, gave him costly presents for use in winning Spaniards to the cause, and lent him a large sum of money. The expedition sailed in July 1386, taking with it all but one of the hateful House of Lancaster; only Henry of Bolingbroke remained behind.

If however Richard thought he was ridding himself of his uncles and their influence, he was vastly mistaken. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, may have been reticent to express himself, but Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was essentially just such another as his elder brother. Whilst John of Gaunt remained in England, Thomas was content to remain in his shadow, but he had already shown that he was fiercely loyal to his brother, and went he sailed away, Thomas felt he should assert himself. His great friend and ally was the gruff, rude and tactless Richard, Earl of Arundel. They were later joined by Thomas, Earl of Warwick, who, if he was less fond of confrontation than were the other two, was equally concerned with what was happening to the government of the country. They were all three typical of the old hereditary nobility, all three had served their country with distinction in various ways, and all were affronted by the promotion of the new parvenues to high government office, where their greed and incompetance was emptying the Treasury and ruining the country. They could do nothing to prevent Michael de La Pole and Robert de Vere becoming Earl of Suffolk and Earl of Oxford respectively in 1385, but their resentment, and indeed that of others, smouldered. Richard did not notice, or did not care.

Threatened French Invasion and The Wonderful Parliament 1386

Their chance came with the threatened French invasion of 1386. With John of Gaunt out of the way, the French saw their chance. Panic reigned on the English side, and troops were hastily mustered. Suffolk and Oxford were put in command, although their military knowledge was of the slightest, and could in no way compare with the vast military experience of Gloucester, Arundel or Warwick. Nothing came of the invasion threat, and unpaid troops roamed the countryside plundering and looting. Richard now proposed an expedition to France in 1387 to punish the French and to warn them to keep their distance. In October 1386, the Wonderful Parliament was summoned to Westminster and was presented with a demand for a vast sum of money.

Parliament refused point blank to provide it, and it cannot have helped that Suffolk himself presented the demand. The members responded with loud complaints about the waste of the Royal Revenues and the appalling state of the Government. They added a demand that Suffolk should be impeached. Richard flew into a fearful rage, and, as ever unaware that anger is a bad councillor, retired to sulk at Eltham Palace. Parliament persued him with demands that, quite apart from the impeachment demand, Suffolk himself should be dismissed as Chancellor and that the Treasurer, John Fordham, Bishop of Durham, be likewise dismissed. Another passion followed, and Richard arbitrally summoned 40 members to meet him at Eltham. In a studied gesture of defiance, he raised Robert de Vere to be Duke of Ireland. De Vere was, at the time, proposing to divorce Gloucester's niece so that he could live with his mistress. Even the mild-mannered Duke of York conceded that this step was a studied insult. In place of the 40 members, there came instead Thomas, Duke of Gloucester himself and Arundel's forceful younger brother, Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely. [The future Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief architect of King Richard 11's abdication] They brought with them a chilling message. Either return to Westminster at once, or be deposed.

Once the predictable rage had subsided, the Duke and the Bishop explained that Parliament had the right to do this, and moreover it meant every word it said. There was already a precedent (presumably that of King Edward 11 in 1327) under the "Statute" which read:-

"If the King .... should alienate himself from his people, and should not be willing to be governed....by the laws...of the realm, and the wholesome advise of the Lords and Peers...but should headily and wontonly by his own counsels work out his own private purposes, it shall then be lawful for them....to depose the King himself from the Royal Throne and elevate in his place some near kinsman of the Royal Line"


Bishop Stubbs presents this text as an existing Statute, but it does appear extremely doubtful that it had this status. If such a Statute existed, then it could easily have been used in 1399 to remove King Richard 11 from the throne without all the trouble to which Henry of Bolingbroke and his supporters had to have resort. [Chapter ] The actual records of Parliament's proceedings show that the mandate given to Gloucester and Arundel was somewhat different. It is worth quoting at some length to show the view Parliament already took of itself and its supremacy, because this is germane to its resolve on 30th September 1399 to remove King Richard 11 from the throne and put another King in his place. Gloucester and Arundel were to begin by humbly saluting the King "and to deliver the sense of both Houses" thus:-

"That they have it settled and confirmed in our ancient constitution, from a laudible and approved Custom, which none can gainsay, that the King ought to assemble the Lords, Nobles and Commons once a year, unto his Parliament, as the Highest Court of the Realm, in which all equity ought to shine clear as the sun; and wherein, as well Poor as Rich, may find never failing shelter for their Refreshment, by restoring Tranquillity and Peace, and removing all kinds of Injuries, etc. This moreover is their Privilege,

"That if the King will wholly estrange himself from his Parliament, for the space of 40 days, not regarding the vexation of his people, nor their grievous expenses etc, it shall be lawful for them to return to their own Countries."

[Parry pages 150-151]

The two texts are not totally incompatible however, if the following suggestion of what actually happened can be accepted.

It was going a bit too far to expect a humble knight of the shire, or an equally humble burgess or citizen, to add his name to the text which was presented to the King. Such a resolution could have been thought to be treason, which, quite apart from its dreadful penalties, was anathema to medieval man. It was not going too far for them to say that, if the King did not attend Parliament within 40 days, then they would disperse to their homes with the result that the King would not get the taxes he needed. They could of course have been summoned again at any time once the King had come to his senses, if necessary by means of fresh elections. Once armed with this mandate Gloucester and Arundel, probably in consultation with the other magnates, who were more used to dabbling in treason than were the members of the Common House, decided to strengthen the terms of Parliaments resolution to give the King a really good fright; hence the emergence of text quoted by Bishop Stubbs. No doubt it was presented, on bended knee, with the intimation that this was a draft of a proposed statute which Parliament was in a mood to pass. Both men, particularly if supported by the other nobles, were of a sufficiently determined character to take such a course.

The effect of this message on one of Richards temprement and views on the sanctity of his rule can be imagined. Richard may have raved and shouted, but the message had the desired effect. He did return to Parliament, which first met on 1st October and dissolved on 20th November 1386, so there cannot have many of the 40 days left when he eventually did so. The Records show that he made "many concessions to his Parliament", including the arrest of Suffolk and the appointment of Thomas Arundel as Chancellor,

and a further one of a Commission to govern under him. In return, the Common House voted some taxes, even if they much less than the King was hoping for. In the event, Suffolk suffered no worse hardship than house-arrest at Windsor Castle, where the King made it clear that he still enjoyed the Royal favour.

Richard, as ever unable to learn from his mistakes or from the hummiliations heaped on his head, or even to appreciate that there was a lesson to be learnt, plotted revenge.Again he bided his time, but presently refrained from planning any of the murder attempts which had caused him so much trouble in the past. That much he had learnt. Gathering his favourites about him at Windsor for Christmas, he set off in February 1387 on a Royal Progress through his Land, intending to appeal to his people for military help, and to that ever present force in England, the Law. He found the people unhelpful, being mostly of the same mind as their representatives in Parliament. Only in Cheshire, a poor part of the country which produced excellant archers, and where there was an old and deep loyalty to the Crown, could he raise men, de Vere giving out, quite untruthfully, that they were wanted for service in Ireland. At Nottingham Richard assembled the judges that he thought were loyal to him and demanded an opinion from them on the legality of the actions of the Wonderful Parliament. He already had a document drawn up declaring that its actions were illegal, and those taking part had commited treason. Headed by the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, infamous for the brutality with which he had dealt with the participants in the Peasants Revolt, they duly put their seals to it. When news leaked out to Gloucester,  Arundel and Warwick, by now known as the Indivisable Trio, they could read in it their own death warrents. They could not worsen their position by further treason. They began to arm.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003