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Richard II: The Tragic Life, Love and Death of the King of England

Richard II: The Tragic Life, Love and Death of the King of England

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Taking the throne at the early age of ten, Richard II was a 14 th century King of England, whose life was shaped and manipulated by those surrounding him in their constant quest for power. Even his marriage to Anne of Bohemia was a political one. Although genuinely devoted to each other, the marriage forged a connection between Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. His tragic demise, at the hand of his cousin, inspired the Shakespeare play Richard II and set the stage for the Wars of the Roses.

The 10-Year-Old King Richard II

Richard II was born on the 6 th of January 1367 in Bordeaux, and hence known also as Richard of Bordeaux. He was the second son of Edward, Prince of Wales (known also as the Black Prince), and his wife, Joan of Kent. Richard had an older brother, Edward of Angoulême, who died in 1370. When Edward died in 1376, the nine-year-old Richard succeeded his father as heir apparent to the English throne, and part of the House of Plantagenet which held the throne from 1154 until 1485.

Portrait of Richard II. Source: Public domain

Portrait of Richard II. Source: Public domain

This arrangement for succession was made by the English Parliament, as they were afraid that John of Gaunt, one of Richard’s uncles, would be made heir to the throne, and succeed his father, Edward III. A year after his son’s death, Edward, who had reigned for 50 years, died as well. Thus, the throne of England passed to Richard, who was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on the 16 th of July 1377.

As Richard was still a minor, he was unable to rule on his own, and therefore the government of the kingdom was in the hands of a group of councilors. Richard’s uncles, especially John of Gaunt, were seen as threats to the king, as were therefore excluded from the council. Nevertheless, in reality, they were still able to exert a significant degree of influence in the affairs of state. In the meantime, the councilors themselves were growing increasingly powerful, so much so that the House of Commons began to view them with suspicion. Consequently, in 1380, the council was discontinued.

The rebels of the 1381 Revolt meeting with Richard II. (Public domain)

The rebels of the 1381 Revolt meeting with Richard II. (Public domain)

Richard II and the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt

In the following year, the Peasant’s Revolt broke out. This revolt was partly caused by the introduction of a poll tax, the third in four years. This tax required everyone over the age of 15 to pay a shilling, and was meant to fund England’s ongoing war with France. In addition, the government had also passed a law to limit the wage rise demanded by the peasants. This demand was made following the Black Death, as there were not enough people to work the land. Such a demand, unsurprisingly, was not well-received by those in power.

In retaliation, some peasants refused to pay the poll tax to the government. In May 1381, a tax collector was sent to Fobbing, a village in Essex, to find out why the villagers there did not pay the poll tax. They unceremoniously threw him out. The following month, the king sent his soldiers to re-establish law and order in the village, but they too were thrown out by the villagers. As news of their actions spread, the villagers of Fobbing were joined by peasants from other parts of southeastern England. They decided to march on London, to plead their case before the king. The peasants believed that their problems were not caused by Richard, but rather by his advisers, whom they believed to be corrupt.

In spite of its name, the Peasant’s Revolt involved not only peasants, but also soldiers, tradesmen, and even disillusioned clergymen. It is estimated that over 60,000 people participated in the revolt, and it quickly turned violent. For instance, the peasants from the south of the Thames first attacked Rochester Castle and Canterbury, before heading for Blackheath, on the outskirts of London. Additionally, the peasants destroyed tax records and registers, as well as the buildings that housed governmental records. Any tax official who opposed the peasants was killed. When the peasants arrived in London, they had no trouble entering the city, as some of its inhabitants had left the gates opened to them. Some of the peasants, however, repaid the Londoners with looting and murder.

The king, who was only 14 years old at the time and hiding out in the Tower of London, met twice with the leader of the peasants, Wat Tyler, for negotiations. During the second meeting, which took place outside at Smithfield, just outside the city walls, Tyler was mortally wounded by the Mayor of London, William Walworth. Surrounded by angry peasants, this could have been the end for Richard. The king, however, managed to convince them to disperse. It is unclear as to what Richard actually said, but one account claims that he said “I am your king, I will be your leader. Follow me into the fields”. Most of the peasants left peacefully, and the revolt was over. Nevertheless, there were sporadic outbreaks of rebellions across England, which were quelled by force.

The coronation of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. (Public domain)

The coronation of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. (Public domain)

Getting Down to the Task of Marriage

The next “task” of national importance that Richard had to do was to get married and, or course, to produce an heir. Thus, on the 20 th of January 1382, Richard and Anne of Bohemia were married. Anne was born on the 11 th of May 1366, and was the daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Elizabeth of Pomerania, his fourth wife. Not much is known about Anne’s life prior to her marriage to Richard. In any case, Anne was crowned two days after her marriage. Incidentally, one of the royal crowns used for her coronation had to be recovered from pawn in London.

The marriage between Richard and Anne was strongly motivated by political considerations. At that time, England and France were at war, and thus the Holy Roman Empire was perceived by the former as potentially a useful ally. In addition, at that time, the Catholic Church was split by the Western Schism, which saw two competing lines of claimants to the Papal throne. As England and the Holy Roman Empire supported Pope Urban VI, the Roman claimant, Richard and Anne’s marriage received his approval. Urban saw this union as a means to strengthen his own position against his rival, Clement VII, who reigned in Avignon, and was supported by the French.

The marriage of Richard and Anne was negotiated by Michael de la Pole, a close friend and favorite of the king. De la Pole, however, was not particularly well-liked by the established English aristocracy, partly because he used his favor with the king to antagonize them. Nor was his choice of Anne of Bohemia as Richard’s queen well-received. Firstly, Anne did not bring a dowry with her.

Instead, Richard had to give Anne’s half-brother, Wenceslas IV, the King of Bohemia, 20,000 florins for her hand in marriage. By contrast, if Richard had chosen to marry Caterina Visconti, whose hand had been offered to him, he would have received a huge dowry. As the Viscontis were only the rulers of Milan, however, the marriage would probably be seen as unequal. Secondly, Anne brought a large entourage from Bohemia with her, some of whom were granted annuities by Richard.

The death of Anne of Bohemia, known as Good Queen Anne. (Public domain)

The death of Anne of Bohemia, known as Good Queen Anne. (Public domain)

Anne of Bohemia and Her Arrival in England

According to the English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, Anne’s arrival in England was accompanied by an ominous sign. As soon as she disembarked, her ship was smashed to pieces. In spite of all this, the marriage went ahead, and the king is said to have been extremely fond of his wife. Unlike Richard, his subjects were not too pleased with their new queen.

As the years went by, however, they too grew fond of Anne. While litte is known about Anne’s character as a queen, she has been described as being an intelligent and inquisitive young girl. She was also devout, loved reading, and was able to read the Scriptures in three languages. Moreover, she was kind and generous, especially towards the poor. Consequently, her English subjects referred to her fondly as “Good Queen Anne.”

As queen, Anne almost always accompanied Richard on his travels around England. She is said to have exerted a good influence on her husband, and would intercede on behalf of hose who had incurred the king’s wrath. In short, Anne performed the traditional role of a queen. Yet, as a queen, Anne did not produce an heir. The marriage between Richard and Anne was childless, though this did not seem to have been too big an issue at the time. In 1394, twelve years after her marriage to Richard, Anne died, apparently from the plague. Richard is reported to have been so greatly affected by Anne’s death that he ordered the manor where she died to be torn down. In 1395, Richard commissioned a double royal tomb for himself and Anne, the first of its kind in England.

Only two years after Anne’s death, Richard married Isabella of Valois, who was only six years old at the time. This was meant to secure peace with France. The king was willing to wait for his new wife to reach adulthood before he consummated the marriage, though this was not meant to be, as the king would in dead in four years.

The capture of King Richard II. (Public domain)

The capture of King Richard II. (Public domain)

The Final Years of Tyrannical Rule: Richard II and the Lords Appellant

In the final years of his reign, Richard ruled as a tyrant. It should be mentioned, however, that the strong will of the king was already evident, even during the 1380s. This put him at odds with the English Parliament. For instance, in 1386, Parliament sought the removal of de la Pole, who had been made Chancellor three years earlier. This was caused by de la Pole’s demand for a huge grant of taxation from Parliament, in order to organize coastal defenses against a planned French invasion.

When Parliament resisted this demand, and urged the king to remove the Chancellor, Richard refused to submit and said that he would not remove even a scullion from his kitchen at Parliament’s request. Ultimately, however, Richard had to let de la Pole go, as he was threatened with deposition. The former Chancellor was then impeached for embezzlement and negligence, and the group of nobles who launched the impeachment was known as the Lords Appellant.

Subsequently, Richard tried using military force against the Lords Appellant, but was humiliatingly defeated in 1387. Richard formally resumed responsibility for government in 1389, and the king ruled in moderation for the next few years. In 1397, Richard was finally able to exact his revenge on the Lords Appellant. Three of them, the Duke of Gloucester, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick were arrested by the king. The first two were subsequently imprisoned and executed, whilst the third exiled to the Isle of Man.

In the following year, a quarrel broke out between Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, and Thomas Mowbray, one of the king’s former allies. Although he initially ordered the matter to be settled by a trial of combat, Richard was worried that Bolingbroke might win, and at the last moment, passed judgment himself. As a result, Bolingbroke was sentenced to exile for 10 years, and Mowbray for life. Bolingbroke was in fact Richard’s first cousin, and the complex relationship between the two is depicted by William Shakespeare. 

Richard II in Prison. (J. Coghlan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Richard II in Prison. (J. Coghlan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In June 1399, Richard was on a campaign in Ireland, and Bolingbroke seized the opportunity to return from exile, quickly rallying the English to his cause, and in August, Richard had no choice but to surrender. At the end of September, Richard, who was held in the Tower of London, abdicated, and Bolingbroke became the new King of England as Henry IV, setting the stage for the future Wars of the Roses. Richard was then moved from London to Leeds, and thence to Pontefract.

In January the following year, a group of Richard’s supporters plotted to have him restored, but this did not succeed. Although Henry was content to let Richard live after his abdication, the plot made him aware that it was too dangerous to keep him alive. Therefore, Richard was put to death. It is widely believed that Richard died of starvation on the 14 th of February 1400. Richard’s body was taken to London, and after the requiem mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, was buried at King’s Langley Priory. In 1413, Henry V, decided to give Richard an honorable burial. Therefore, the king’s remains were exhumed and brought to Westminster Abbey, where Richard was finally laid to rest beside his beloved wife, Anne, in the double royal tomb he had commissioned for the both of them in 1395.

Top image: Richard II, the tragic king. Source: Jakub Krechowicz / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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T1bbst3r's picture

It's only a tragic life, love and death if you personally identify with him I think;
As a hater of all plantaganets and their quarrelsome and warlike french lords, I am reminded that at least the royalty killed eachother off and that society evolved past being regionally ruled by a bunch of megalomaniac land holders who sometimes fell out with or exploited weaknesses in the king, and who regularly supported wars in France.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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