Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Dead King Watch: Richard II

Richard II died in Pontyfract on February 14 1400, which makes this the 606th anniversary of his death. He was born in 1367, and when only ten, in 1377, his grandfather Edward III died leaving him as King of England (his father had died the year before).

As is usual with monarchs that come to power when only kids, real power tends to lie elsewhere - in Richard II's case with his uncle John of Gaunt, who was a typical representative of what AL Morton called 'a greedy and corrupt nobility'. England at this time had been involved in a long and disasterous war (hmm, sounds familiar) and to avoid bankrupcy was forced to tax the peasants and poor harsher than ever before. In 1380, a poll tax was imposed to screw even more money out of those least able to afford it - thus precipitating the English Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Interesting, one of the leaders of this revolt was someone called Jack Straw.

I have written before on this blog about how King Richard - aged only 14 at the time - managed to fool the leaders of this revolt through devious cunning - promising the peasants what they wanted and then not delivering on it. Mind you, it is a bit unfair to blame him for the bloody state repression which followed - the nobility were still the driving force behind the throne.

The next year, in 1382, Richard bought himself a wife - Anne of Bohemia - through paying a substantial amount of money to her father, Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Richard was very devoted to Anne and according to Brewer, 'displayed a violent grief at her early death in 1394, very characteristic of the excessive emotional reactions of the Platagenet dynasty'. I thought I would include this, it being Valentine's day and all.

In 1389, Richard executed a military coup against the hated nobility to try and establish a dictatorship on the French model and he seems to have picked up support from sections of the City of London for this. Wikipedia notes that 'Richard seems to have developed a passionate devotion to the old ideal of the Divine Right of Kings, feeling that he should be unquestioned and unfettered in the way he ran the kingdom. He became a stickler for tradition, insisting on being addressed as ‘majesty’ and ‘highness’ and sitting alone for hours wearing his crown; those addressing him were required to direct their eyes downwards in deference.' He had genteel interests like fine food, insisting spoons be used at his court. He wore a lot of jewellery and fine clothes and Brewer notes Richard 'was responsible for the extravagant fashion in footwear with a very elongated toepiece and he also used what was known as a 'kerchief' - thus inventing the handkerchief. What a remarkable guy - inventing another use for a bit of square cloth! Yet in some ways he was quite enlightened as a despot. 'He was a keen and cultured patron of the arts, architecture and literature - sponsoring Geoffrey Chaucer. In this sense, he can be seen as an early example of what was later held up as a model Renaissance prince.' Richard saw that ceaseless war against France benefitted some rich bastards like John of Gaunt but few others - and in 1396 he signed a 28-year truce with France.

He now tried to make a bid for total power. In 1397 Richard decided to rid himself of the Lords Appellant who were the last people confining his power, on the pretext of an aristocratic plot. 'Richard had the Earl of Arundel executed and Warwick exiled, while Gloucester died in captivity. Finally able to exert his autocratic authority over the kingdom, he purged all those he saw as not totally committed to him, fulfilling his own idea of becoming God’s chosen prince.' Yet Richard had a problem - no heir. Fearing John of Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke, Richard had him banished for ten years on a spurious pretext in 1399. After Gaunt himself died that year, Richard also confiscated Bolingbroke's lands on the basis of his open disloyalty, distributing them among his own followers.

However, at this moment of theoretical total power, Richard made a fatal blunder - invading Ireland. Bolingbroke returned, landing in Yorkshire with an army provided by the King of France to reclaim his father's lands. Richard's autocratic ways had already worried many nobles and were deeply unpopular, facilitating Bolingbroke soon gaining control of most of southern and eastern England. Bolingbroke had originally just wanted his inheritance and a reimposition of the power of the Lords Appellant, accepting Richard's right to be king and March's right to succeed him. But by the time Richard finally arrived back on the mainland in Wales, a tide of discontent had swept England. In the King's absence, Bolingbroke, who was generally well-liked, was being urged to take the crown himself. Richard was captured at Conway Castle in Wales and taken to London, where crowds pelted him with rubbish. He was held in the Tower of London and eventually forced to abdicate. He was brought, on his request, before parliament, where he officially renounced his crown and thirty-three official charges (including ‘vengeful sentences given against lords’) were made against him. He was not permitted to answer the charges. Parliament then accepted Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) as the new king.

The next year, 1400, the imprisoned former King seems to have been poisoned. Richard's body was displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral for all to see that he was really dead, and he was then buried in Kings Langley Church. His coffin was badly designed, however, and it proved easy for disrespectful visitors to place their hands through several openings in the coffin and interfere with what was inside. It is said that a schoolboy walked off with Richard's jawbone. Rumours that Richard was still alive persisted well into the reign of Henry V, who decided to have his body moved to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey with much ceremony in 1413.



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