Richard II of England

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Richard II
By the Grace of God, King of England
and France and Lord of Ireland
Richard II of England.jpg
Reign June 22, 1377 - September 29, 1399
Coronation July 16, 1377
Born January 6 1367(1367-01-06)
Died 14 February 1400 (aged 33)
Pontefract Castle
Buried Westminster
Predecessor Edward III
Successor Henry IV
Consort Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394)
Isabella of Valois (1389-1410)
Issue Died without posterity
Royal House Plantagenet
Father Edward, the Black Prince
Mother Joan of Kent (1328-1385)

Richard II (January 6, 1367 – February 14, 1400) was King of England from 1377 until he was deposed in 1399. He is perhaps best remembered for personally negotiating with Wat Tyler during the Peasants' Revolt (1381). As King, Richard inclined towards peace-making rather than war, and had a sympathetic attitude towards his subjects, recognizing an obligation towards their welfare; they were not simply there to be exploited. He was, however, weak in dealing with his senior councilors, who had governed England during his minority. Following his coronation, he replaced those who had governed on his behalf with his own hand-picked council. For a variety of reason, partly due to the jealousy of the men he had dismissed and partly due to the unpopularity of those he chose to replace them, he found himself at loggerheads with Parliament. His peace treaty with France was equally unpopular with the barons, for whom war was financially lucrative because of its spoils, and his interest in art and literature was ridiculed as un-kingly. Insisting on the divine right of kings, he purged the barons who opposed him only to be then held to account for his actions by Parliament, which deposed him and chose his successor. While kings up until Charles I would claim the right to rule without sharing power with others, the reality was that no king could rule without Parliament, or even ascend the throne without Parliament’s approval. Importantly, he was also a patron of Geoffrey Chaucer—who himself served in Parliament as a Commoner, whose literary legacy represents the emergence of some significant aspects of English identity, including a certain ambivalence towards those in authority and recognition that peasants were fully human, not mere property to be disposed of at whim.

Early life

Richard II watches Wat Tyler's death and addresses the peasants in the background

Richard was born in Bordeaux at the feast of Epiphany, with three kings present at his birth. His father was Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales, and his mother was Joan "The Fair Maid of Kent". After Richard's elder brother had died in infancy, he became heir to the throne of England (and was created Prince of Wales) in 1376, when the Black Prince died after a wasting illness. The following year his grandfather King Edward III of England also died, making Richard king at the age of 10.

During his minority, three 'continual councils' lasting from June 1377 to January 1380 were responsible for the general governing of the country. In reality John of Gaunt, his uncle, exerted considerable influence on matters of importance (despite not being a member of any of the three councils) especially with regard to foreign policy. During that time, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 brought Richard to prominence at the age of 14. It fell to him personally to negotiate with Wat Tyler, the other rebel leaders, and their massed armed ranks of several thousand. He promised pardon to the leaders of the rebellion, but the promise was not honored—they were arrested and executed. Richard may not have been in full sympathy with the rebels' demands but it remains doubtful whether he intended the arrests to occur, or if he was forced to go against his word by militant sections of the English nobility. Either way, his tactics dispersed the rebel forces from the streets of London back to their homes in the country, thus ending the disorder. But as the young king matured into adulthood he revealed an inability to make the deals and compromises essential to fourteenth century politics and diplomacy, leading eventually to his deposition in 1399.

At St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster on c. January 22, 1383, he married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Elizabeth of Pomerania; but they had no children, and she died on June 7, 1394. On c. October 31, 1396 at St Nicholas' Church, Calais, he married the seven-year-old Princess Isabella of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France and Isabeau de Bavière; that marriage was also without issue.

First crisis of 1387-88

As Richard began to take over the business of government himself, he sidelined many of the established nobles, such as Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel, and Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester. These individuals, not surprisingly, were among those who plotted his downfall. After having exiled the current council, Richard turned to his inner circle of favourites for his council, men such as Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford and Michael de la Pole, whom he created Earl of Suffolk and made chancellor of England. This alienated Parliament because they were not consulted. Subsequently, debate ensued on whether the King had the right to appoint Ministers without Parliamentary consent. It is possible that Richard had a homosexual relationship with de Vere. The nobles he had snubbed formed the head of a group of the disaffected who called themselves the Lords Appellant. The central tenet of their appeal was continued war with France against Richard's policy of peace, an aim that many of them pursued in the interests of personal gain rather than the interests of the nation.

In 1386, the English Parliament, under pressure from the Lords Appellant, demanded that Richard remove his unpopular councilors. When he refused, he was told that since he was still a minor, a Council of Government would rule in his place. Richard had the Earl of Arundel, leader of the Lords Appellant, arrested; but Richard's small army led by de Vere was overpowered by the forces of the Lords Appellant outside Oxford, and Richard was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Subsequently Richard agreed to hold a parliament in order to resolve the Appellants' grievances; the unpopular councilors were forcibly disposed of (eight being executed for treason and the others exiled) in the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Richard was forced to accept new councilors and was temporarily stripped of almost all his authority.

A fragile peace

In the years which followed, Richard became more cautious in his dealings with the barons. After having recovered power in 1389, and having made his promise to the Marcolf chamber for better improvements and a better government, Richard began to improve his relationships with his subjects. In 1390, a tournament was held to celebrate Richard’s coming of age and the apparent new-found harmony since Richard's uncle John of Gaunt's return from Spain. Richard’s team of knights, The Harts, all wore the identical symbol—a white hart—which Richard had chosen. Richard himself favored genteel interests like fine food, insisting spoons be used at his court and inventing the handkerchief. He beautified Westminster Hall with a new ceiling and was a keen and cultured patron of the arts, architecture and literature. His detractors, however, dismissed him as another Edward II, somehow unworthy of his military Plantagenet heritage, given his delicate 'unkingly' tastes. Yet, he had shown personal courage in confronting the Peasants' Revolt, a role that few kings have played. Richard, though, did lack his grandfather's thirst for battle: his Scottish campaign in 1385 was not decisive, and he signed a 28-year truce with France in 1396 which was hugely unpopular at home at least among the nobility in spite of the dividends that peace brought to the kingdom.

Richard's commitment to peace rather than war can also be seen in his first expedition to Ireland in 1394. He put forward a policy based on the understanding that the Irish rebels were motivated largely by the grievances they had against absentee English landowners and that they were perhaps entitled to some redress in this regard. Those whom he labeled the "wild Irish"—native Irish who had not joined the rebel cause—he treated with kindness and respect.

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. In the early 1390s, he began to put an emphasis on the powers of the prerogative and on the subjects' obligation to obey. Richard would react harshly on those who challenged his authority. For example, in 1392, Richard seized the liberties of the city of London when the Londoners refused to give him a loan. In addition, as king, Richard began to fashion a grander and more exalted style of monarchy. With these changes the royal court became much larger.

Richard promised to lower the burden of taxation on his subjects, which suggests that he may have had some sympathy with the Peasants’ Revolt of which high taxation was a major cause, although this is debated. They had also demanded the abolition of serfdom. His taxation promises were not carried through, however, and Richard's subjects continued to be heavily taxed despite reductions following the peace treaty. Taxes fell between 1389 and 1391 but rose sharply in 1397-1398. Despite his dislike of Parliament, too, it was through Parliament that his taxes were levied. Yet, he may have planned to dispense with Parliament altogether.

Second crisis of 1397–99 and Richard's deposition

In 1397, Richard decided to rid himself of the Lords Appellant who were 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.

Richard was still childless. The heir to the throne was Roger Mortimer the Earl of March, grandson of Lionel of Antwerp, and after his death in 1398, his seven-year-old son Edmund Mortimer. However, Richard was more concerned with Gaunt's son and heir Henry Bolingbroke, whom he banished for ten years on a spurious pretext in 1399. After Gaunt's death, Richard also confiscated Bolingbroke's lands, following the policy of his forebears Henry II and Edward I in seizing the lands of a powerful noble to centralize power in the crown.

Arms of Richard II

At this point Richard left for a campaign in Ireland, allowing Bolingbroke the opportunity to land in Yorkshire with an army provided by the King of France to reclaim his father's lands. Richard's autocratic ways, deeply unpopular with many nobles, facilitated Bolingbroke's gaining control quickly of most of southern and eastern England. Bolingbroke had originally just wanted his inheritance and a re-imposition 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, again provoked by high taxes. In the King's absence, Bolingbroke, who was generally well-liked, was being urged to take the crown himself. It was at this time that he received some Byzantine emissaries who were supposed to be given 3,000 silver marks or £2,000 sterling.

Richard was captured at Flint 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 33 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.

Richard was placed in Pontefract Castle, where he died on February 17, 1400. He is believed to have been killed by starvation, or was otherwise murdered.

Richard's body was displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral, 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.

Richard as a collector

Richard was a keen collector of precious objects. In 1398/1399 they were recorded on a treasure roll, and the treasure roll has survived. It is now held at the British National Archives, Kew, London (reference TNA: PRO, E 101/411/9).

The roll lists 1,026 items of treasure, how much each item weighed, and how much it was worth. We learn, for example, that Richard had 11 gold crowns, 157 gold cups, and 320 precious religious objects including bells, chalices and reliquaries.

Each item also has a brief description. The only object listed on the roll that certainly survives is a crown now held in the Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich. The roll describes the crown as "…set with eleven sapphires, thirty-three balas rubies, a hundred and thirty-two pearls, thirty-three diamonds, eight of them imitation gems."

Association with Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer, often dubbed the father of English literature, benefited from Richard II’s patronage

Geoffrey Chaucer served as a diplomat and Clerk of The King's Works for Richard II. Their relationship encompassed all of Richard's reign, and was apparently fruitful. In the decade before Chaucer's death, Richard granted him several gifts and annuities, including: 20 pounds a year for life in 1394, and 252 gallons of wine per year in 1397. Chaucer died on October 25, 1400.

Richard also promoted the cult of Edward the Confessor, whom he liked because he was an English saint but also because he, too, have wanted peace.


Although it would be several centuries before rule by Parliament evolved, and other kings not least of all Charles I would assert their divine right to rule single-handedly, Richard II’s life demonstrates that already in reality power was shared, and that no king could rule without Parliament. Oddly, Richard was on the one hand sympathetic towards his subjects, who also benefited more from his peace making than did the barons. For the former, war meant higher taxation while for the latter it meant promotion and wealth from the booty and spoils of war. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Richard’s legacy was the encouragement of English culture. The English language itself owes much to Chaucer, whose work also had political undertones. His readership was mainly aristocratic but he dealt with the lives of the poor as well as the rich, depicting both as leading vivid and real lives, contrary to the common view that peasants—roughly nine-tenths of the population—were little more than clever animals who existed solely to serve the rich, and were literally property to be disposed of at will. Women, too, emerge as equal with men in many of Chaucer’s tales.

In literature

Richard is the main character in Richard II, a play written by William Shakespeare around 1595.

King Richard II is also the main antagonist in the anonymous unfinished play, often known as Thomas of Woodstock or Richard II, Part I, whose composition is dated between 1591 and 1595.

King Richard is also a character in the novel The Named.

King Richard is one of the main characters in The Crucible Trilogy by Sara Douglass


Richard II's ancestors in three generations
Richard II of England Father:
Edward, the Black Prince
Paternal Grandfather:
Edward III of England
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Edward II of England
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Isabella of France
Paternal Grandmother:
Philippa of Hainault
Paternal Great-grandfather:
William I, Duke of Bavaria
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Jeanne of Valois
Joan of Kent
Maternal Grandfather:
Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Edward I of England
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Marguerite of France
Maternal Grandmother:
Margaret Wake, 3rd Baroness Wake
Maternal Great-grandfather:
John Wake, 1st Baron Wake of Liddell
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Joan de Fiennes

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Harvey, John Hooper. 1948. The Plantagenets, 1154-1485 (Revised Edition 1959). London: Collins Clear Type Press.
  • Saul, Nigel. 1997. Richard II. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300070039
  • Schama, Simon. A History of Britain 1 3000B.C.E.-AD1603 At the Edge of the World? London: BBC Worldwide Ltd, ISBN 0563487143
  • Weir, Alison. 1995. The Wars of the Roses. New York: Ballentine. ISBN 9780345391179

External links

All links retrieved December 8, 2022.

  • Richard II's Treasure – a site about Richard II's treasure from the Institute of Historical Research and Royal Holloway, University of London. The content was written by academics, and contains a bibliography and an image gallery.


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