From the ten-year-old boy king who lost his shoe as he was carried in exhaustion from his coronation ceremonies to the thirty-three year old deposed monarch who died under mysterious circumstances at Pontefract, the action (other than the begatting) in the lengthy drama of the Wars of the Roses really begins in the reign of Richard II. This brave young king who faced down an angry mob at Smithfield in the course of the Peasants' Revolt (AKA Wat Tyler's Rebellion) chafed under the restrictions of his prolonged regency period. A coterie of barons dominated the government and were loath to relinquish an iota of their power even as the king grew and matured.
Richard, the second and only surviving child of the marriage of Edward IIIs eldest son, also Edward (AKA the Black Prince) and Joan of Kent was born on January 6, 1367, in sunny Bordeaux in the south of what's now France. Six-year-old Edward of Angouleme, Richard's older sibling, died in 1371. After the Black Prince's death, Richard was invested as Prince of Wales on November 10, 1376 and succeeded his grandfather as king on June 21, 1377.
It was feared that Richard's elder surviving uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had an eye to the throne of England. A regency led by him was not what the majority of the barons wanted, so during the period of Richard's minority he was to fully exercise the rights of kingship as if he were an adult, guided by his councilors. Gaunt was misjudged in his ambitions and would in fact do all he could to informally advise and assist his brother's son throughout Richard's reign.
The influential men of Richard's council included Simon of Sudbury, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury; Sir Robert Hales, Lord Treasurer; Aubrey de Vere, Lord Chamberlain; and Sir Simon Burley, the king's tutor. As all king's councilors who attempted to squeeze money out of the populace (to continue the Hundred Years' War, initiated by Edward III, which was not going well for the English), they became increasingly unpopular. A third tax to support French military expeditions in four years led to the Peasants' Revolt in June of 1381.
The England Richard inherited was different from that of his grandfather's day. There was a schism in the papacy, with dueling popes in Rome and Avignon. Climate changes now termed a "mini Ice Age" produced poor harvests and the spread of the plague (AKA Black Death) decimated the population not just of England, but of all of Europe. Without actually passing laws abolishing it, the reduced labor force at hand spelled the end of serfdom; it was a laborer's market and people moved freely about to where work was available, commanding higher wages. Even with a smaller population, the bad harvests caused the price of food to rise right along with those wages, and the common people felt they were literally being taxed to death.
The march on London saw the successful storming of the Tower of London, where Sudbury and Hales were executed by the mob, their heads carried about on pikes. Rioters looted throughout the city, destroying John of Gaunt's sumptuous palace of the Savoy and burning it to the ground (unfortunately for historians, as priceless primary documents were lost). The king, who was just fourteen, went out to the rebel encampment at Smithfield to negotiate. The Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, supposedly lost his temper with the belligerent behavior of Wat Tyler and ran him through with a sword. Richard diffused the tense situation, rallying the rebels to him by crying out that he would be their captain and promising all their demands would be met.
Of course he lied; he was lucky to get out of there alive! The rebels were hunted down and killed and all promises revoked. The king's courage in such a dangerous situation was impressive and raised hope that he would grow into a mighty warrior like his father and grandfather before him. In retrospect, even at such a young age, it was shown that it was not wise for anyone to challenge the king's authority.
When Richard married Anne of Bohemia at Westminster Abbey in 1382, a political match made to gain an ally in the French wars that was said to have become a love match, he began to slowly assert his independence from his councilors. He gathered about himself a king's party, headed by Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. De la Pole was appointed to the vacant position of Lord Chancellor by the king. He came of merchant stock, not of the nobility, and so was regarded as an upstart.
The barons were unhappy at the favoritism shown to young de Vere, who though not royal was created Duke of Ireland by the king, and began to wonder, especially as the queen had yet to produce an heir, if Richard's relationship with him went beyond mere friendship. De Vere and Richard's cousin Philippa de Coucy, Princess Isabella's daughter, had been betrothed as small children and were married at the ages of fourteen and nine in 1376. They had no children and Robert was granted a papal annulment in 1387, immediately marrying Agnes Launcecrona, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting with whom he had been carrying on an affair for years. This caused a huge scandal, outraging the royal family, and even his mother supported his ex-wife, taking Philippa to live in her household.
Richard had a bitter quarrel with John of Gaunt over how to conduct the ongoing French wars while on a rather useless expedition to Scotland in 1385. The threat of French invasion was a constant reality. When Gaunt went to Spain to wed Constance of Castile in 1386, Richard found himself at the mercy of a baronial party led by another of his uncles, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. He was only a dozen years the king's senior, being the youngest of Edward and Philippa's large brood, and had not done well in continuing the Plantagenet martial tradition in France. His opposition party was called the Lords Appellant.
In the so-called "Wonderful Parliament" that group of lords forced the king to dismiss de la Pole from the chancellorship for the sin of asking for new taxes to feed the military machine, and imposed on Richard a new council. Richard did not submit for long. He obtained a statement from the royal judges declaring the proceedings of the Parliament to have infringed upon his kingly prerogative and raised an army in northern England. However, his supporters, led by de Vere, were defeated in battle at Radcot Bridge (1387), and the king, threatened with deposition, had to submit to the proceedings of the "Merciless Parliament" of 1388.
His friends, de la Pole, de Vere, and others, were accused of treason by the five Lords Appellant—Gloucester; Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel; Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham and later 1st Duke of Norfolk; and Gaunt's son Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. Lands and titles of the king's party were ruthlessly confiscated. Those that did not flee the country were executed. It's said Queen Anne went down on her knees in front of the Lords Appellant to plead for the life of Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s tutor, and was denied; Richard supposedly never forgave them for his wife's humiliation.
The Lords Appellant ruled until 1389, when Richard reasserted his authority based upon his age, which was now twenty-two. Aided by Gaunt, who had returned from Spain, Richard ruled in comparative peace for the next seven years.
"Good Queen Anne", as she was called by the people despite failing in her heir duties, died in another epidemic of the plague in 1394 at the royal palace of Sheen. Richard was said to be devastated at her death and had the palace razed to its foundations.
He was urged to remarry immediately to get heirs. His designated heir presumptive at the time was twenty-year-old Roger Mortimer, the son of Lionel of Antwerp's daughter Philippa. This choice was disliked by some as it was settling the succession through a female line of descent, even though Lionel had been Edward and Philippa's second son; it was thought it should go through the male line and that John of Gaunt and his son Henry should have been designated.
Roger died in Ireland at age twenty-four and his three-year-old son Edmund was then designated as Richard's heir presumptive. By then the king had remarried, to a seven-year-old French princess, Isabella, in order to obtain a twenty-eight year truce in the war with France. This was an unpopular choice of bride for two reasons. One was obviously her age, as it would be many years before an heir could be anticipated. The other was an unwillingness, despite the lack of success, to give up the French conquest. Richard had not lived up to his potential and was not the mighty warrior king expected from the loins of the Black Prince.
In 1397, Richard suddenly took his revenge on the Lords Appellant. Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were themselves accused of treason and respectively murdered while in royal imprisonment at Calais, executed, and banished. John of Gaunt was said to have quietly colluded in this.
A new king's party, disaparagingly termed Richard's "duketti", sprang up. It consisted of his older half-brother John Holland (son of Joan of Kent by a previous marriage), who was promoted from Earl of Huntingdon to Duke of Exeter; John's son Thomas Holland, who went from Earl of Kent to Duke of Surrey; John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset (Gaunt's eldest bastard); John de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury; Thomas le Despenser, husband of Constance of York, who received the conveniently vacant Duke of Gloucester title; and Edward, Earl of Rutland, Constance's brother and son of Richard's uncle, Edmund, Duke of York.
The following year, Norfolk and Bolingbroke, now Duke of Hereford, too were banished after a quarrel between them. It was decreed the quarrel should be decided by trial by combat. Just as it was about to begin, Richard arose in the viewing stands and stopped it, much to everyone's surprise. He then banished Norfolk for life and Bolingbroke for a period of ten years.
The king became increasingly despotic in his methods of government, strengthening his personal army, imposing heavy taxes and fines, and possibly even planning to supersede Parliament. John of Gaunt, now nearly sixty, was ailing, and Richard refused his only legitimate son's request to attend his father's deathbed and funeral, though rumor has it Bolingbroke did sneak in anyway. On the death of Gaunt in February 1399, Richard confiscated the rich Lancastrian ducal estates, to which the exiled Duke of Hereford was heir, practically daring retribution.
While Richard was on an expedition in Ireland in June 1399, Henry landed in Yorkshire, stating he had only come to reclaim his patrimony, and rapidly gathered support from such august personages as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Edmund, Duke of York, who was acting as Keeper of the Realm in the king's absence. Richard, apprised of the developing situation, landed in Wales near the end of July and was met at Conwy Castle by Northumberland, who urged the king to negotiate with his cousin and restore the Lancastrian estates and honors. Henry's forces were not far behind; only a week later Richard was forced to surrender to him at Flint Castle and was promptly taken to London to be imprisoned in the Tower.
The throne was within Henry's grasp and all he had to do was find a good enough reason to shove eight-year-old Edmund Mortimer out of the way and take it. He argued that Richard was a tyrant incapable of governing and that Lionel's line should be skipped over entirely because it was not direct male descent.
Richard was forced to abdicate on September 29, 1399. Parliament accepted this the following day and approved Henry's succession. He was crowned quickly, on October 13, as Henry IV.
Richard was taken to Pontefract Castle, one of Gaunt's favorite residences, in the wilds of Yorkshire far away from London. His duketti...now all demoted by the new king...then signed his death warrant with the Epiphany Rising, which was to take place on Richard's thirty-third birthday. The plan was to seize Henry at a tournament scheduled for Windsor, kill him, and restore Richard to the throne. Rutland got cold feet and betrayed the conspirators to Henry. They were swiftly rounded up and executed.
This plot brought home to Henry very forcibily the problem of having a pair of living kings. As long as Richard lived, he would be a focus for rebellion. And so at Pontefract Richard died, very possibly murdered, on February 14, 1400. It's said he may have been starved to death. His body was publicly exhibited at Old St Paul's Cathedral in London to quash any pretension of pretenders...not that it did much good, as Henry IVs reign was plagued by rumors Richard still lived and had escaped to Scotland...before being buried at King's Langley, the Yorkist seat. Henry V would later have the deposed king re-interred beside his beloved wife Anne in their tomb at Westminster Abbey.
And thus concludes the Lancastrians' opening sally of the Wars of the Roses.