Thomas of Woodstock and Shakespeare's Twisted History
William Shakespeare wrote ten history plays. Of these, one of the most famous is Richard II . The play Richard II , written around 1595, is based on the rule of King Richard II (reign 1377-1399), but one of the main characters in the play is Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, despite the fact he is dead for its entirety. Woodstock’s murder plays a prominent part in the play, but it has been argued that his murder is not as clear-cut as Shakespeare implies. Who was Thomas of Woodstock, and what really happened to him?
15th century portrait of Thomas of Woodstock ( Public Domain )
Thomas of Woodstock’s Early Life
Thomas of Woodstock, also known as Thomas, the first Duke of Gloucester , was born on January 7th, 1354 or 1355. He was born at Woodstock Manor (hence his name) in Oxfordshire. He was the 7th son of King Edward III and Phillipa Hainault, although he was the 5th oldest surviving son. Despite his royal upbringing, little else is known about the youth of Woodstock. We know that despite being relatively low down in the line of ascension, at the age of six, he was deemed important enough that marshals were appointed to manage his household.
At some point before August 1376, he married Eleanor de Bohun, the daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. Around this time he was given Pleshey Castle in Essex and declared Constable of the Realm, a position previously held by his wife’s family.
Thomas of Woodstock’s Pleshey Castle is one of the best preserved motte and bailey castles in England. Pictured - The motte of Pleshey Castle, seen from the southern bailey (Richard Nevell / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Thomas of Woodstock: An Ambitious Knight
After he was appointed Constable of the Realm in June 1376, Woodstock decided it was time he proved himself deserving of the title. He soon donned his armor and set out looking for some military conquests.
Initially, he proved himself to be a relatively capable military man. In 1378, he captured eight Spanish ships, which was a strong start to his military career. Unfortunately for Woodstock, it was all downhill from there. After proving himself against the Spaniards, Woodstock set his sights on the French.
Not long before, France had finished fighting the War of Breton Succession (1343-1364). This had been a war between Charles of Blois and John IV, Duke of Brittany over who got to control the Duchy of Brittany. John had received the support of England, and his rival the support of the kingdom of France. John had managed to win the war by killing Charles, but the French had paid no heed. They continued to undermine him, and he ended up being exiled back to England anyway.
The Battle of Auray in 1364 was the decisive confrontation that ended the War of Breton Succession. 15th century painting by Loyset Liédet ( Public Domain )
In 1379, John returned to Brittany looking to take back what he had lost. He once again had the support of the English army, this time under the command of Thomas of Woodstock. In 1380, Woodstock moved his force of 5,200 men against France, but the French refused to take the bait; he could not coax them into a fight. At Troyes, Woodstock ran into Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Thomas of Woodstock was eager for a pitched battle, but Philip wasn’t feeling so bold. He refused to fight Woodstock, and the two armies ended up simply marching away from each other.
After his disappointment at Troyes, Thomas of Woodstock attempted a siege against Nantes, a large French city, but the Duke of Brittany refused to offer any assistance. Plans were made to bring in 20,000 reinforcements, but they never appeared and the siege was ultimately unsuccessful. Embarrassed and disgusted, Thomas of Woodstock headed back to England, hoping to prove himself there.
Later that same year, Woodstock headed to Essex, where he easily put down some insurgents during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 . He then led a force of 1,000 lances and 2,000 archers against the always troublesome Scots. Unfortunately for Woodstock, the Scots weren’t up for a fight this time and simply surrendered.
Getting into Trouble: Thomas of Woodstock and The Lords Appellant
By this point, Woodstock had a rather sizable chip on his shoulder. His campaign in France had not gone to plan and he felt members of his family were maneuvering against him. In particular, Woodstock had problems with his brother, John of Gaunt .
The two had never been what you would call close, but upon his return to England, Woodstock discovered that John had married the sister of Woodstock’s wife, Mary de Bohun, to John’s son, Henry. Thomas of Woodstock had hoped to retain possession of the Bohun family estates, but now Mary’s share would go to his brother’s family.
Following Thomas of Woodstock’s good work in helping put down the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the two brothers did reconcile to a degree. In 1385, Woodstock was named Duke of Gloucester as a reward for his hard work. Despite this, it appears Woodstock never truly forgave his brother for his machinations. Woodstock took his ire out on his nephew, Richard II, who became king in 1377.
Thomas of Woodstock was named Duke of Gloucester after his involvement suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 15th century painting by Jean Froissart showing Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. ( Public Domain )
Thomas of Woodstock took it upon himself to become a thorn in the side of Richard and those who supported him. He took particular umbrage with Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk; and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Woodstock placed himself at the head of a party that opposed these royal advisors. They took the name The Lords Appellant and were incredibly successful.
Many people were angry at what they saw as Richard’s extravagance and ineptitude. Woodstock and his allies easily forced the dismissal and impeachment of Suffolk. Not long after his impeachment, Suffolk was murdered. Richard was furious at his friend’s death but was powerless to do anything.
Why? Because Thomas of Woodstock and his Lords Appellant, a group consisting of Woodstock, Richard l Arundel, Thomas Beauchamp, Henry Bolingbroke, and Thomas Mowbray, were coming for him.
A Victorian depiction of the Lords Appellant throwing down their gauntlets to King Richard II. From left to right: Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel; Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester; Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham; Henry, Earl of Derby (later Henry IV); and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick. 1864 illustration by James E. Doyle ( Public Domain )
In 1386, Woodstock was a member of a commission that had been appointed to reform the kingdom and the royal household. When Richard attempted to oppose this commission, fighting broke out. Robert de Vere led the king's forces against those led by Woodstock. Things came to a head at the Battle of Radcot Bridge in December 1387. Thomas of Woodstock was the victor.
Robert de Vere fleeing Radcot Bridge, from the Gruthuse manuscript of Froissart's Chroniques, circa 1475. ( Public Domain )
After the battle, Woodstock and his allies marched into London and found the king to be at their mercy. Woodstock wanted to depose his nephew but was talked down by the other Lords Appellant. In February 1388, Woodstock and his allies led the “Merciless Parliament”. This was Woodstock’s chance to take revenge upon his enemies. As a result of the parliament, many of Richard’s closest allies were charged with treason, and the king himself lost much of his power.
At this point, Woodstock may have thought he had won, but he had underestimated his nephew. Richard would soon regain his power, with deadly consequences for Thomas of Woodstock and his friends.
An Old Enemy Returns
Richard was determined to wrestle back control from his uncle. In 1396, he married the French princess, Isabella, who was only six years old at the time. This marriage allowed him to ally himself closely with the French and build up a continental power base. With French support, Richard soon regained all of his old regal powers.
Richard and Isabella on their wedding day in 1396. She was six – he was twenty-nine. ( Public Domain )
Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with Thomas of Woodstock. He was not only incensed that his hated nephew had regained power, but that he had done so by allying himself with England’s old enemy, France. He complained to a friend that Richard was “too fat in the arse and only interested in eating and drinking” and that Richard had “just allied himself by marriage with his principal enemy”.
Thomas of Woodstock at this point appears to have become too blinded by his hatred to act carefully. Rumors soon began circling that he was planning another revolt. It was believed that Woodstock had contacted his great-nephew, Roger Mortimer , with a plot to place Mortimer on the throne and imprison Richard and his wife. It is unclear if this was the truth or mere rumor.
Richard soon heard the gossip, however. In 1397, he deposed Woodstock’s Lords Appellant. Woodstock’s closest allies, Warwick and Arundel, were arrested and charged with treason. Arundel was executed on Tower Hill the same day, he was arrested while Warwick was exiled to the Isle of Man with his wife. The following year, two more of Woodstock’s allies, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, were exiled.
Richard II bested his uncle Thomas of Woodstock in the end. This painting is the earliest known portrait of an English monarch, circa 1390, and is on display at Westminster Abbey where the king is buried. ( Public Domain )
What Happened to Thomas of Woodstock?
Richard himself arrived unannounced at Woodstock’s home one day in 1397. Woodstock and his family welcomed the king into their home and dined with him. Richard told Woodstock that he was needed at a meeting of the nobles the following day in London and that he could ride there with his king.
Woodstock agreed to ride to London with Richard. As they approached Stratford, Richard suddenly darted ahead. Before Woodstock could realize what was going on, a band of the king’s men appeared and arrested him.
Thomas of Woodstock was imprisoned in Calais to await trial. It was during this time that he was murdered, but the specifics have always been a little murky. News of Woodstock’s death became widely circulated in August of 1397. This is peculiar because records show that he was alive as late as September 8th, two months after his arrest. So what happened?
It seems that perhaps Richard was a little impatient in having his uncle’s death announced. He was trying to reassert his dominance over the country, and announcing his chief detractor’s death would help do that. He probably thought he could keep it a secret that Woodstock was alive and well in Calais.
Richard sent William Rickhill to Calais to interrogate his uncle. Thomas of Woodstock, a headstrong and stubborn man, initially refused to give a confession. However, by early September, he knew he was beaten. On September 8th, in the presence of John Lancaster and John Lovetot he gave his confession. This confession was read in the September parliament and was used by Richard to declare Woodstock a traitor.
In actuality, the version read in parliament had been heavily tampered with. Long after Thomas of Woodstock’s death, the original version was found in Richard’s papers. The original was not a confession at all and had been buried by Richard.
Woodstock was commonly believed to have either died of natural causes or to have been strangled at some point between his arrest and mid-August. In actuality, he most likely died on the night of September 8th after finally giving his ‘confession’.
An inquiry into Thomas of Woodstock's death was held in 1399 by King Henry IV . Sir John Baggot, a prisoner at the time, was brought in front of the inquiry. He testified that Woodstock had been murdered at the king’s behest and mentioned that another man, John Hall, a servant of the Duke of Norfolk, had more information on the murder. Hall was then brought in to testify.
Hall gave a detailed recollection of how Thomas of Woodstock had been murdered. He told how Richard had ordered several assassins, led by the Duke of Norfolk, to kill Woodstock. They had forced him to lay on a bed and then suffocated him not long after taking his confession.
The details of Thomas of Woodstock’s death are unclear, but one version had him strangled ( Public Domain )
In Shakespeare’s Richard II , Mowbray the Duke of Norfolk states, “For Gloucester's death, I slew him not; but to my own disgrace Neglected my sworn duty in that case”. This implies that Mowbray had been ordered by the king to kill Woodstock, his sworn duty, but did not. However, John Hall testified that Mowbray did help kill Woodstock. So who do we believe? Shakespeare’s Mowbray or the real John Hall?
The truth is Shakespeare’s play is just that, a play, not a historical record. Shakespeare’s history plays were inspired by history but included a heavy heaping of fiction. It seems most likely that Mowbray’s declaration in the play is an example of Shakespeare using artistic license to spice things up.
The historical record makes it pretty clear cut that Richard ordered his uncle’s death. He was so eager for Woodstock to die, his death was announced well before his actual death. John Hall was an eyewitness with nothing to lose. It seems more sensible to take his account as fact, which makes it clear Mowbray took part in the murder, rather than Shakespeare’s, who was just trying to tell a story.
Top Image: Interview of Richard II and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. The nephew and uncle were longtime rivals. Source: Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell
Goodman, A. 1971. The Loyal Conspiracy: The Lords Appellant under Richard II . University of Miami Press.
McHardy, A. 2012. The Reign of Richard II: From Minority to Tyranny 1377-97 . Manchester University Press.
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