Narrative and political strategies at the deposition of Richard II

Narrative and political strategies at the deposition of Richard II

By C.D. Fletcher

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 30 (2004)

Abstract: This article deals with the use of a language of disinheritance in the coup d’e´tat by which Henry Bolingbroke overthrew Richard II in 1399. This rhetoric is placed in the context of its importance in informal political ideas. It is argued that disinheritance allowed Henry to be in the right when acting in a way which was technically treasonous. His use of this language was made powerful not only by its material significance for the landed classes, but also its deeper moral resonance, which spread beyond these classes to a wider public. This is explored through the importance of disinheritance in popular romance works. These works have to date been neglected in terms of their possible relationship to late medieval politics, despite their potential as sources. The article goes on to investigate how Henry expanded his claims from disinheritance to seize the entire kingdom of England, even though, in the letter of the law, he had not even been disinherited from his father’s lands. Richard II’s attention to legal forms was, however, not enough to protect him from Henry’s use of the powerful and emotive theme of disinheritance, though even Henry himself later abandoned it.

Introduction: This paper is an attempt to examine the role of what might loosely be termed formal and informal political ideas in the coup d’e´tat which brought Henry IV to power in 1399. Formal structures of ideas, above all law as interpreted by lawyers, can provide a way of explaining events which is consistent both with themselves and with the particular facts of the case. Prior to the political act itself, however, and in the course of its realisation, ideas can be brought into play which are less formal, less internally consistent and less logical. These provide less accurate models of a given legal or political state of affairs, but can be more powerful and emotive than more formal explanations. The law (or at least, the consistent application of law) only comes in afterwards, and then finds itself playing a poor second to vaguer, but more persuasive, methods of legitimising an action.

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