Posts Tagged ‘Richard II’

A Promising Young Man

Posted in General, On This Day on September 30th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 30, 1399:  Henry of Bolingbroke Gets a Job

Henry of Bolingbroke (1367-1413) had been frustrated.  First, he had the worst title in the royal family.  The other Plantagenets had more distinguished identifications like Lancaster, York or Cambridge.  Bolingbroke sounded like a skin condition.  Worse, Henry had nothing to occupy him.  Keeping his rich wife in a continual state of pregnancy was at most fifteen minutes’ activity a year.  War was the family business but France and England were at peace.  Apparently the French had won the Fifty-Two Year War, and King Richard II did not want to round it off to the nearest hundred.  Henry was not even free to indulge in vices.  If he had tried womanizing, people would have said that he was competing with his father (John of Gaunt, the Plantagenet stud muffin).  Bolingbroke did not possess the blithering smugness to be an upper class twit; besides, the King was setting was standard for that.

So in 1390 Henry decided to travel.  (His wife Mary stayed home, gestating her fourth duke.)  Bolingbroke might have gone to Italy where the artists were experimenting with a remarkable innovation called perspective.  (Actually the Romans used it but there had a 900-year-long memory lapse.)  But he preferred to go to Lithuania where he joined in the local crusade.  The Lithuanians were the last remaining pagans in Europe, so any pious Catholic was free to slaughter them.  With a Papal blessing, German knights had conquered  and forcibly converted the territories we’d recognize (vaguely) as Estonia and Latvia; but the Lithuanians successfully resisted two centuries of crusades.  Henry’s assistance to the Teutonic Knights did not turn the tide of battle but he survived unscathed, and he probably was relieved that any word in German sounds worse than Bolingbroke.  The following year he returned to England and another impregnation.  One daughter later he was off to Cyprus and Jerusalem, returning in 1493 and the ensuing pregnancy finally killed his poor wife.  The widower felt obliged to stay on the same island as his six children. 

He now took up the family’s other business: politics.  Richard II had proved an appalling king; he had the rare distinction of being both unethical and incompetent.  Anyone could have done a better job and every one of the Plantagenets was trying.  No one was actually planning to overthrow Richard, just relegate him to a powerless figurehead.  The two chief contenders to be the royal ventriloquist were the king’s uncles:  Thomas of Woodstock and John of Gaunt.  However, Richard did not appreciate their concern.  In 1397, he had Uncle Thomas imprisoned, where he promptly died.    Uncle John avoided the king’s tantrums, but cousin Henry was not so adroit.  For  questioning the case of his uncle’s death, Bolingbroke was exiled from England for ten years.         

John of Gaunt died–without help–in February, 1399.  Henry of Bolingbroke should have inherited his father’s titles and estates; the terms of his exile had not barred him from the succession.  However, contrary to the laws and basic decency, Richard confiscated the entire estate.  As King, he might commit a crime; but Richard was not strong enough to get away with it.  He commanded little loyalty.  The progressive nobles despised his blundering misrule. The conservative lords loathed his personal conduct; Richard was a bit too poetic and he practiced hygiene before it was fashionable.  (The next generation of Plantagenets was not springing from his loins.)  So, in July 1399, when Bolingbroke returned to England it was to popular acclaim and armed support.   

Bolingbroke justified his rebellion, claiming that he was only interested in the restoration of his father’s estate.  But he was making promises and alliances that indicated that he expected more than just the Duchy of Lancaster.  Richard buckled and capitulated; whether he made some superb speeches, you only have Shakespeare’s word for it.  Paraded as a prisoner on the way to London, Richard was “persuaded” to abdicate.  As of September 29, 1399: England had no king.  The following day, Parliament offered the Crown to Bolingbroke.  The wily Henry may have even acted surprise.  He now was Henry IV of England and (an unwilling) Wales.

Richard was dead within a year; someone forgot to feed him.  And Henry found that “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  Usurpation can set a tempting precedence.  The Plantagenets were a large and underemployed family.  All of Henry’s cousins tried to wrest the throne for themselves; they did not succeed–at least for another two generations–but the intrigues and struggles would last 85 years and 8 plays.

Incompetent Bureaucrats and Overachieving Fleas

Posted in On This Day on June 12th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

June 14, 1381: The Chancellor of England Overestimates His Popularity

Simon of Sudbury really was an innocuous, well-meaning sort. In our day, he would have found fulfillment as a vice president of human resources. Unfortunately, he did not live in an innocuous, well-meaning time. The 14th century was anything but. However, Simon’s ineffectuality was his charm.

John of Gaunt liked the hapless and affable English cleric. The Duke was a critic of the Church, practically a Proto-Protestant, and it suited his heretical proclivities to have the passive Simon as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Simon also seemed the Duke’s ideal candidate for Chancellor of England. The compliant Simon would do the bidding of his royal patrons, levy another poll tax (the third) on the peasantry and try to reestablish a strict application of serfdom. But the serfs were not as compliant as Simon was.

The Bubonic Plague had turned out to be quite a liberal development. Half of the peasantry had died, and the survivors realized that their luck also extended to supply and demand. The supply of labor was now limited, so it could exact greater demands from the nobility. The peasants might now expect to be treated as well as the livestock. Some even demanded the end of serfdom. Of course, the nobility resisted. It tried to reimpose the legal shackles on the peasantry. The monarchy thought that additional taxes might restrain the peasants’ upward aspirations. Instead, those taxes incited a peasant revolt in 1381.

A peasant horde terrorized the nobility, swept aside the barely organized resistance and marched on London. Ransacking the capital, the peasants destroyed government offices and killed any bureaucrats they captured. Simon of Sudbury was among them. Being an Archbishop, he thought that the mob might show some deference to him. His head was ripped off. (Would I be so cruel as to call that deed a head tax?)  

The mob demanded an audience with the young king, Richard II. In what turned out to be the high point of an otherwise abysmal reign, the royal youth confronted the mob and demonstrated a majesty and courage that impressed his subjects. He addressed the peasants, representing himself as their advocate and leader, and promising to fulfill their demands. Awed and gratified, the mob dispersed and returned to their homes. Richard really had no intention of honoring those promises but he didn’t have the power to reestablish the status quo either. For all practical purposes, serfdom had ended in England.

Plantagenet Birth Control

Posted in General, On This Day on September 30th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

On this day, in 1399, the Duke of Lancaster decided to promote himself King of England (and an unwilling Wales). To become Henry IV, however, he first had to oust his cousin Richard II. But no one except Richard seemed to mind.

Richard II had the rare distinction of being both unethical and incompetent. The progressive nobles despised his blundering misrule. The conservative lords loathed his personal conduct; Richard was a bit too poetic and he practiced hygiene before it was fashionable. Someone was going to murder him, and the reformist cousin Henry struck first.

But then the conservative cousins in the dynasty, pretending to avenge Plantagenet family values, tried to wrest the throne for themselves. This struggle lasted for 85 years and 8 Shakespeare plays.

By 1485, the English throne had become quite democratic. Anyone could seize it. The surviving claimant Henry VII based his right to the throne on being the illegitimate half-second cousin, once removed, of Henry VI. (He was also the illegitimate half-nephew but that family connection was less prestigious.)