650 years ago today, on January 6th 1367, the Feast of Epiphany, in Bordeaux, France, King Richard the Second was born. The second son of Edward Plantagenet aka the ‘Black Prince’ and Joan, ‘Fair Maid of Kent’, Prince and Princess of Aquitaine, Richard was of illustrious birth, but wasn’t in direct line to the throne. His elder brother, also named Edward, born 1365 in Angoulême, was second in line, set to succeed his father to the throne. He was the heir, and Richard was the spare. But, not for the first nor last time, the second son would become king, after illness took both his father and brother. Richard was the young heir to his grandfather Edward III aged just 9. Before very long, his grandfather also died, leaving 10 year old Richard King of England. His date of birth would continue to have significance throughout Richard’s reign, right to the last.
Described by the chronicler Froissart as a ‘fine son’, Joan gave birth to the boy on a Wednesday, in the early hours, to the ‘great joy of the prince and the whole household’, just as his father was preparing to leave on campaign to Castile. He was baptised as Richard the following Friday in St Andrews cathedral in Bordeaux. His father left for Dax on the Sunday with a ‘great array’ of troops to meet his brother, John of Gaunt, who would later act as regent to his young son. While in Spain, his warrior father contracted dysentery, which affected his health for the remainder of his life. By the time Richard was approaching his fourth birthday in 1371, his father’s illness and shortage of money took the family back to England, and there they would remain.
Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night or Twelvetide was the date on which the Magi (the Three Kings/Wise Men) visited the infant Christ and presented them with their gifts. Richard of course knew the religious significance of his birth date, and made much of it, using it allegorically to emphasise his ‘divine right’ to rule; a concept that meant the king was divinely ordained by God, and one which Richard fervently believed in. In the middle ages, the baptism of Christ was celebrated on the feast of Epiphany, the day Richard was born. Christ was baptised by St John the Baptist, who Richard adopted as his patron saint. His affinity with the feast is most clearly portrayed in the Wilton Diptych, painted circa 1395-99, when Richard was in his late twenties and early thirties. Painted in retrospect, the left panel shows a youthful Richard, evocative of his coronation, flanked by saints. The composition of the image is reminiscent of contemporary images of the Three Kings visiting Jesus in the manger, which was probably no accident. Kneeling beside the saints, Richard’s hands are open rather than closed in prayer, having given his own gift to Christ and the Virgin opposite; the English standard flag. In doing so, he grants his kingdom to Mary, to be under her protection. The saints depicted were those favoured by Richard, two of whom had been kings of England themselves. From left to right; Edmund the Martyr, Edward the Confessor, and John the Baptist. Notable is the absence of St George, with Richard instead choosing Edmund, another patron saint of England, a Christian martyr rather than the warrior George. It illustrated Richard’s preference for peace over war.
Toward the end of his life, the feast would play a role in a rebellion in the name of the now deposed King Richard against his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, who styled himself as Henry IV. In late December and early January, supporters of Richard plotted to capture the usurper while he was celebrating Epiphany at Windsor. Dubbed the Epiphany Rising, the plot failed when Henry was made aware of it and fled to London, raising an army. Those involved, including Richard’s half brother, John Holland, and his nephew Thomas Holland, were caught, and most of them executed. Richard himself would die in February, 1400, probably of starvation. Whether he would have had knowledge of the plot is unclear, but if he had, I think he would have appreciated his friends’ timing, though it perhaps may have made its failure all the more painful.
‘Richard II’ – Bryan Bevan, (The Rubicon Press, 1990)
‘Richard II‘ – Nigel Saul, (Yale University Press, 1994)
‘The Chronicles of The Age of Chivalry’ – Ed. Elizabeth Hallam