Death Keeps His Court: The Downfall of Richard II 


While the 14th of February marks St Valentine’s Day for those more romantically inclined, historically it marks a rather more solemn occasion; the death of King Richard II. The king, having been deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke the previous September, died a prisoner in Pontefract Castle on February 14th 1400, just over a month after his 33rd birthday. 

The events leading up to his death began with the death of another important figure; the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt (Ghent). Gaunt was the second most powerful man in the kingdom, and as such, was as much reviled as he was respected. Amidst unpopularity and early fears that he would take the throne, and though he and the king sometimes disagreed, Gaunt was nevertheless a more loyal supporter than the other nobles. He was notably absent from the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388, during which the Lord’s Appellant, a group of nobles including another of Richard’s uncles,  Thomas of Gloucester, tried the king’s closest associates for treason. However, included in this group was Gaunt’s eldest son and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, then the Earl of Derby. Only months apart in age, the two boys had grown up together. Two very different men, their childhood friendship did not survive into adulthood. The two quarrelled often, and understandably, Richard did not take Henry’s betrayal lightly, though he did not act immediately. 
Fast forward from the Merciless Parliament almost ten years to 1397, and Richard is a changed man. Without his wife at his side to pacify him, Richard’s rule became authoritarian. Anne of Bohemia had died three years earlier in 1394, and this seemingly had a profound effect on Richard. Without his closest confidant, her support, and her unique ability to appease him, the king asserted his royal prerogative with force. After years of biding his time, with the ‘Revenge Parliament’ of 1397, Richard saw the leading accusers of the Lord’s Appellant struck down. Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel was executed, while his brother Thomas, the Archbishop of Canterbury was exiled, along with Thomas de Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick. Richard’s uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, was arrested and imprisoned in Calais, awaiting trial. He would die before this could take place, believed to have been murdered, perhaps on the king’s orders. Two remaining appellants, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, now Duke of Hereford, were pardoned and left unpunished; for the time being. In 1398, a quarrel between the two arose, each accusing the other of involvement in the murder of Gloucester. Richard invited the two to duel, before changing his mind and banishing them both, a scene reproduced with dramatic flair by Shakespeare. Mowbray was banished for life, while Bolingbroke’s sentence was 10 years in exile.

The ‘Lords Appellant’

The following year in 1399, comes the catalyst that sparked Richard’s demise. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster passed away after suddenly falling ill. A decision had to be made about his vast estates. Richard decided to take the lands for the crown, but with one important caveat; they would remain in his possession until Henry ‘sued the same out of the king’s hands according to the law of the land’. In other words, it suggested that one day, Henry’s lands may one day be restored, either to him or perhaps to his son, the future Henry V, of whom Richard was fond. In Germany, Henry teamed up with his fellow exile Thomas FitzAlan and amassed forces, returning to England while Richard was in Ireland. By this point, the court was growing tired of Richard’s extravagant behaviour and exalted demeanour, and Henry, who had been fairly popular before his exile, gained support amongst the barons. Henry was a warrior, and thus a better candidate for the throne in their eyes. He better fit the bill of a typical medieval king than the peace loving, artistic Richard did.

Delayed in his return from Ireland, Richard made his way to Conwy Castle in north Wales, arriving on August 12th,  and met with the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. The ‘official’ version of the negotiations at Conwy maintains that Richard freely gave up his crown to his cousin. The ‘Record and Process’ is the official Lancastrian account of Richard’s deposition. According to this, he informed Northumberland that he would ‘willingly yield up and renounce his crowns of England and France…on account of his own inability and insuffiency, which he admitted.’ The ‘Record and Process’, Nigel Saul states, is ‘purely propagandist’, whose ‘multiple fictions’ have long been held as untrue. Other accounts, some of French origin but the majority of English, tell a different story. Jean Creton’s narrative is that Northumberland, speaking on behalf of Bolingbroke, offered Richard peace on three conditions:

  1. That Bolingbroke’s lands be restored
  2. A parliament would be summoned over which Richard would preside as steward
  3. That five of Richard’s councillors; Dukes Exeter and Surrey, the earl of Salisbury, the bishop of Carlisle and Richard Maudeleyn to be put on trial for treason. 

Richard spent a few days considering, and eventually agreed, on the condition that Northumberland swore that Bolingbroke meant ‘no deceit’. This was sworn, and the agreement made. The Dieulacres chronicle says much the same; that Northumberland and the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘swore on the host that the king would be permitted to retain his royal power and dominion’, and the promise that he could ‘save his dignity’. Henry, at this stage, apparently has no designs on his cousin’s crown. 

Richard, according to Creton, vowed that despite any agreements made, Northumberland would be ‘put to bitter death for what he has done to us’. Richard’s idea of his own importance appears to be still firmly in place. This time, however, no revenge was to be wrought. At some point, when precisely is hard to say, Henry decided that his lands were not enough, and that he would claim the crown as well. Using a similar method to that used against Edward II and Frederick II, Richard was deemed unfit to rule. Richard was asked to formally renounce his crown, and naturally, resisted. Defiant at first, Richard said he would ‘like it explained to him how it was that he should resign the crown, and to whom.’ He would be asked several times, eventually offering conditions and requesting to speak with Henry himself. Henry refused, insisting that Richard resign ‘simply and without conditions’. After 2 months, Richard was finally pressured to give in, assured that his life would be spared. Charged with 33 crimes, Richard’s 22 year reign effectively ended on the 29th of September. The parliament that had been summoned earlier that month in his name was dissolved, and another assembled on the 30th in Henry’s name. Henry was crowned that October, using an imperial crown according to Froissart, possibly in an attempt to emphasize his right to the throne. This move was not a popular one; many of the nobles rejected his claims as the son of Gaunt, and by right of conquest. Richard was deposed, and informed of his ‘unfair sentence’ on October 1st.

The Keep at Pontefract Castle

From Conwy Richard was conveyed to Flint, a short distance away, then to Chester, under the care of Gloucester and Arundel, who ‘hated him more than anyone’ for the deaths of their fathers. He was held in a tiny room, able to see his friend, the duke of Exeter, but unable to speak to him. After a few other movements, Richard was eventually led to the Tower of London by the 1st of September. There he would remain, until the end of October. Therein he was moved to Leeds Castle in Kent, disguised as a forester. From there, around December, he was taken secretly to Henry IV’s stronghold of Pontefract, where he could be quietly forgotten, or so Henry hoped. Richard eventually died on 14th February, 1400. Henry faced several rebellions in Richard’s name, namely the Epiphany Rising, which involved Richard’s half brother John Holland. The plot failed, and those involved were executed. Rumours also spread that the Richard has escaped, and was alive in Stirling in Scotland, disguised as a monk, and later buried at Black Friars. When Richard died, Henry attempted to put those rumours to bed by parading his body from Pontefract to be displayed at St Pauls. On 6th March, a mass was held, afterwards his body was taken to King’s Langley, where he was then buried. His body was wrapped in leaden cloth, with only his face exposed. Henry was of course anxious for everyone to know that his predecessor was dead, but not to expose any compromising evidence that may have shown on the king’s body. 

Richard’s death itself and the manner of it has long been speculated over. The generally accepted theory is that he died of starvation, a method that would leave no mark on his body, likely on Henry’s orders. Some suggest that in despair the former king refused food himself, which is a plausible assumption, given his character and tendency for dramatic mood swings. However, it would also be reasonable to assume that Richard, for some time at least, would have expected God to prevail and provide some resolution to his predicament. 

Scharf’s sketch of the king’s skull

Another theory about his death is that he died during an altercation with Piers Exton, who prevented Richard’s steward from tasting his food. Believing that he was being poisoned, Richard flew into a rage and hit him. Exton returned with 8 armed men, and while defending himself, Richard was struck down with a blow to the head. This theory has remained somewhat popular due to its drama, and of course by Shakespeare’s play, which portrays Richard’s death in a similar manner. However, it can be disproven by detailed sketches of the kings skull, drawn from real life by Sir George Scharf in 1871 when his tomb was opened. The skull shows no such wounds. The location of his imprisonment at Pontefract has also been debated. Most sources suggest that he was held in the keep, in a cramped, dark and damp dungeon. During the Victorian age another idea emerged that he was held within the Gasgogne tower. Later, ‘miracles’ began to take place at his burial site in Kings Langley. Henry V would eventually move his body to his personally commissioned tomb, as an act of repentance for his father’s actions, and as a political move to silence any lingering rumours or unrest. He was given a grand ceremony, as befitted his style in his lifetime, using his will (ominously written before leaving for Ireland) as a rough guide. A hearse was commissioned, decorated with lights. Richard’s body was unwrapped and placed in an elm wood coffin, which was led by a procession of bishops, lords and knights to the abbey. Henry himself attended the service, and arranged for tapers to burn at his tomb, for masses to be sung, and for £20 to be given to the poor at the anniversary of his death. 

Richard’s tomb in Westminster Abbey shows he and his beloved wife Anne, side by side. Their effigies were once holding hands, but have since been damaged. It lies within the shrine of Edward the Confessor, to whom Richard was devoted, and alongside that of his grandfather Edward III.

Tomb of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia

Sources/Further Reading

Nigel Saul, Richard II

Bryan Bevan, Richard II

The Chronicles of Froissart

Ed. Elizabeth Hallam, Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses 

Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397-1400: The Reign of Richard II

National Gallery London

Pontefract Museum Research Resources

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