By Danièle Cybulskie
I recently had the pleasure of watching the first of The Hollow Crown films: Shakespeare’s Richard II, with the title role played by the talented Ben Whishaw. Ever since reading Richard II many years ago, I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Richard, tumultuous though his reign was, so I thought I’d take five minutes today to talk a little bit about one of England’s forgotten kings.
Richard II may easily be thought of as “that other Richard”: not the Lionheart (Richard I), and not the “evil” Richard III of the War of the Roses. He was the son of the famous Black Prince, and grandson of Edward III. When his father and grandfather died within year of each other, the Richard II ascended the throne at just ten years old, ruling under the guidance of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Suddenly, Richard was the king, told he was appointed by divine right to rule, and he believed fervently in this right, for better and for worse.
When Richard was only fourteen, the common people of the kingdom rose up against the nobility in what became known as The Peasants’ Revolt (1380), driven by a deep feeling of unjustness in the feudal system. In the course of this rebellion, angry peasants entered London, burned one of John of Gaunt’s houses (the Savoy), and beheaded the archbishop of Canterbury, among many other acts. Still, Richard rode out to meet the peasants, himself, as they asked him to, so that they could make their complaint to him personally. While this might have been desperation, or arrogance born out of his belief in his semi-divinity, it took courage for the boy king to face a mob of people who had made it plain that they were volatile.
In the end, Richard’s presence kept the mob steady, creating an opportunity for his supporters to take back control of the situation. Although he didn’t keep his promises granting the people more freedom, he did allow the vast majority of them to return home unpunished. I imagine many of the rebels would have been grateful for that, at least, given the alternative staring down at them from London Bridge.
Although he remained obnoxiously confident in his absolute power (leading to several clashes with the nobility), Richard was a great patron of the arts, supporting the creation of poetry and stories in English, not just in French or Latin. One of the poets who we remember, in part thanks to Richard, is Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wasn’t a noble, but was a friend to the court, receiving gifts and appointments from Edward III, and then Richard, who appointed him clerk of the king’s works in 1389, and deputy forester in 1391. Richard also made sure to renew Chaucer’s grant of a yearly tun of wine in 1398 (this, and more, on Richard and Chaucer can be found in The Riverside Chaucer, pp.xxiv-xxv). There is a famous picture of Chaucer from a manuscript of “Troilus and Criseyde” (MS 61 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) in which he is reading to Richard II and his court – although Richard’s face has been erased, likely by supporters of Henry IV – so it seems evident that Richard valued Chaucer for his creative writing along with his clerical skills.
Unfortunately for him, Richard’s overconfidence in his absolute right to rule, and his unpopular decisions, ultimately led to his overthrow. Following the death of John of Gaunt, Richard seized his assets and property, disinheriting his banished cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. While Richard sailed to Ireland, Henry returned from France, stirring up the England into what would end up being an outright rebellion. Upon his own return to England, Richard was captured and forced to abdicate. Although this was said at the time to be voluntary, it was almost certainly done under duress. His cousin was crowned Henry IV in 1399, while Richard was sent to imprisonment in Pontefract Castle. He died in early 1400, still in captivity, likely of starvation.
If you haven’t seen or read Shakespeare’s Richard II, I’d recommend it. While I can’t promise as much action as you’ll find in Macbeth, Shakespeare beautifully captures the spoiled young man in 1399, unsure of who he is without his crown, in shock as what he believed with all his being to be his destiny turns to ashes. It’s an interesting look at someone who was told and told again he was above reproach, touched by the divine, only to find that devastatingly untrue. Have a look at Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance and see if, like me, you end up with a bit of a soft spot for Richard, too.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist