by Anna Belfrage
It reads like an improbable adventure. The red-headed Henry, son of John of Gaunt, speedily took control over most of England, further helped along by the fact that Richard II was in Ireland, having taken his loyal lords with him.
By the time Richard made it back in late July, it was too late. Inexplicably, Richard left his main host in Pembrokeshire and disguised as a friar rode north, there to meet with the Earl of Salisbury, who had been charged with raising a royal army. No such army materialised. At Conwy Castle, Richard was forced to receive Henry’s messengers. On August 19, Richard II surrendered to his cousin at Flint Castle and rode in his retinue all the way back to London, no doubt most indignant at having to ride behind Henry rather than in front of him.
|Henry (in black hat) claims the throne|
Three Plantagenet kings have been named Richard. Apart from their name, they also have in common the fact that none of them had a son to which to bequeath their throne. The first died – rather ingloriously for this embodiment of chivalric virtues – from a crossbow quarrel in his armpit. The other two share the distinction of being ousted from their thrones by a man called Henry. While Richard III’s death at Bosworth and the subsequent enthronement of Henry Tudor still inspires a lot of controversy and opinionated discussions, in general Henry IV’s usurpation back in 1399 is met with little more than a shrug. Why is that? Well, I believe it is due to Henry Bolingbroke, a man far less controversial to his future subjects than Henry Tudor.
Henry Bolingbroke was a respected man – admired for his prowess at tournaments, loved because of his largesse. A renowned warrior and leader of men, a crusader, the father of a bevy of sons where Richard II had none, Henry epitomised the male ideals of the time. Add to this a thorough education, an excellent role model in his father, and a reputation for fairness, and it is easy to understand why so many considered Henry a far more palatable choice for king than Richard II.
Besides, Henry Bolingbroke could claim he had been most unfairly treated by his royal cousin. Despite loyal and steadfast service to the crown, Richard had rewarded him by forcing him into exile, and even worse, when John of Gaunt died, Richard had refused to honour the laws of inheritance, effectively disinheriting Henry. Not a popular thing to do, not in a country where more and more of his people were beginning to consider the king petty and unreliable, prone to consider himself well above the laws and customs of the realm. Richard’s barons were even more worried; if the king chose to act so unjustly towards his first cousin, what was to stop him from acting in a similar way towards other rich and powerful noblemen?
|John of Gaunt|
This presented something of a conundrum to Henry. Having once before experienced just how capable Richard was of holding a grudge (it took him more than a decade to plan his cunning revenge on the Lords Appellant, a group of men, including Henry, who had protested against the mismanagement of the government. Rumours had it he had even ordered the murder of one of the Lords Appellant, his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock), Henry was disinclined to allow Richard to remain on the throne. Somehow, the king had to be convinced to abdicate in favour of Henry, preferably in such a way as to allow Henry to emerge untarnished from this whole sordid matter.
|Richard is taken into custody|
Henry went out of his way to be as courteous as possible towards his unhappy cousin. A steel hand in a velvet glove, one could say, as there was no doubt in either man’s mind as to who was presently in charge, but all the same, Henry attempted to make things as comfortable as possible for Richard, treating him always with respect. I suspect Henry was uncomfortably aware of just how displeased his father, John of Gaunt, would have been with this whole mess. John would never have countenanced deposing the Lord’s anointed – but then John had died (obviously) before Richard committed the unforgiveable act of denying Henry his inheritance.
What forces were brought to bear on Richard for him to sign his abdication remain unclear. Undoubtedly, threats to his life would have been made – never by Henry personally, of course. And maybe Richard believed that signing the abdication was the only thing he could do at present, hoping no doubt to turn the tables on his cousin at a future date.
All that changed when several of Richard’s former favourites became involved in a plot against the new king, with the intention of murdering not only Henry but also his four sons, all of them children. The Epiphany Rising in 1400 might not have implicated Richard per se, but it underlined the risk of keeping the former king alive, a potential rallying point to all future discontent.
Conveniently, sometime in February 1400, Richard II died. It was said he starved to death – whether voluntarily or not is still up for debate. Personally, I believe he was murdered. To have kept him alive would have been too much of a risk.
But the false promises made to Richard back in August of 1399, promises that Richard would remain king, no matter that Henry would rule, gnawed at Henry for the rest of his life. Then there’s the matter of Richard’s death, a millstone of guilt for a man as upright as Henry to carry. It broke him, and over the coming years of his life, the once so powerful, so vibrant Henry Bolingbroke would transform into a sick and melancholy man. Upon his death he left no instructions as to how he was to be buried, and his will breathes of humility and guilt, in glaring contrast to most other wills of the period.
I guess the lesson is easy; never do anything that makes it difficult to meet your eyes in the mirror. Fate, however, now and then obliges us to act against our conscience. Henry Bolingbroke felt he had no choice – he had to safeguard his inheritance, for himself and for his sons. I dare say he never forgave himself; I dare say he found the price too steep.
Anna Belfrage is the author of three published books, A Rip in the Veil , Like Chaff in the Wind and The Prodigal Son. The fourth book in The Graham Saga, A Newfound Land, will be published in the autumn of 2013. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and America, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.