Friday, December 16, 2011

Richard II and His Double

By Brian Wainwright

The 'official' version of Richard II's death is straightforward. After his deposition in the autumn of 1399 in favour of his cousin Bolingbroke (Henry IV) he was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. Following a rebellion of his supporters against his successor in early January 1400, he was starved to death. The date of death is usually given as 14th February 1400. His body was subsequently taken by stages to London, being publicly exhibited (as was the tradition for deposed, dead kings in England) culminating in a final display in St Paul's Cathedral prior to a relatively obscure burial at King's Langley, Hertfordshire. However rumours persisted that he was still alive, and the promise of his return was often, if not invariably, attached to the various conspiracies of Henry IV's reign.

Although Richard's body was put on display, only part of his face was actually visible and he was presented on a high catafalque. This may have led to some suspicion that his corpse had been substituted as it would have been impossible for anyone to study the King's features with any degree of thoroughness.

Richard II had a known 'double' his clerk, Richard Maudelyn, supposedly the son of no less a person than Hawise Maudelyn, sometime waiting woman to Katherine Roet-Swynford, mistress and later third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the eldest of Richard's surviving uncles and father of Henry Bolingbroke. The family resemblance suggests that Maudelyn's father may well have been John of Gaunt or one of the other royal uncles, and it is reasonable to assume that Maudelyn was at least a cousin to Richard II and maybe rather closer in blood to Henry IV.

Maudelyn was used by the January 1400 conspirators to impersonate Richard II in the hope of drawing out support. This suggests the resemblance was at least strong enough to deceive country gentlemen and the like, if not people who knew Richard really well. Maudelyn was captured and executed by the usual means of hanging, drawing and quartering. It seems unlikely his body could have been used as a substitute for Richard's unless this was decided upon immediately and his remains embalmed. One might expect to bones of Maudelyn to be severely damaged by his violent execution, but when Richard II's (presumed) remains were examined in the 19th Century no such evidence was found. It seems certain that whoever was buried in the official tomb, it could not have been Maudelyn.

The 'Scottish Richard II' was found wandering about on the island of Islay, of all places. He was 'recognised' by a woman who claimed she had seen the King while visiting Ireland the previous year, and following this incident was conveyed to the Scottish Court, where he was treated as an honoured guest for the rest of his life.

Islay is a small and relatively remote island off the west coast of Scotland, nowadays best known for the production of the incomparable Laphroaig whisky. Assuming Richard escaped from Pontefract, is it likely that he would make his way to such an obscure place? Surprisingly, the answer is - yes, he might.

Richard saw himself primarily as emperor of the British Isles, and his complex diplomacy in the 1390s had as one of its principal objectives the detachment of Scotland from the Franco-Scottish alliance and its subordination to England. This proved impossible because of the attitude of the French, and the Scots were included in the 28-year truce concluded in the autumn of 1396. However, as part of his diplomacy Richard had secured an alliance with the semi-independent Lord of the Isles, valuable in strategic terms for both his Scottish and Irish pretensions. (Since the Lord of the Isles came close to breaking the Scottish Crown's forces at Harlaw, 1411, it seems likely that the combination of his forces with those of England would have been formidable in this context.)

Therefore Richard had some reason to expect help in the Western Isles. That the supposed imposter should turn up on Islay may well be significant.

The Grey Friars in England were persistent in spreading the rumour that Richard II was alive, and several were executed for their trouble. Several nobles received letters from 'Richard II' bearing one of his authentic seals, which had somehow found its way to Scotland. In 1403 the Percys - in effective alliance with the Scots - rose in rebellion against King Henry and promised the men of Cheshire that Richard would appear at their rendezvous at Sandiway, Cheshire. Needless to say, he did not, and the Percys were defeated, but the rumours of his survival went on.

Bolingbroke claimed that the 'Scottish Richard II' was one Thomas Warde of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, and continued to execute those foolish enough to spread the word that Richard was alive. (It is not explained how Thomas Warde came to be on Islay.) As late as 1415 the Southampton Conspirators were still talking of bringing back 'Richard II' from Scotland while in December 1417 Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, refused to recognise the authority of his judges 'so long as his liege lord King Richard was alive in Scotland.' It may be that one of the motives for Henry V's reburial of the official corpse of Richard II at Westminster was a desire to squash the belief that his father's predecessor on the throne was still living.

Thomas Warde was a real person. His few acres of land in Trumpington were forfeited in 1408. However, the evidence to prove he was the same individual as the 'Scottish Richard II' no longer exists, supposing that it ever did.

It appears the man responsible for many, if not all, of the rumours of Richard II's survival was William Serle who had been a minor member of Richard's household. When captured he admitted he had stolen Richard's seal at Flint (where the King had fallen into Bolingbroke's hands) and forged a number of letters. Of course it should be borne in mind this admission may well have been extracted by torture and is not necessarily reliable. Bolingbroke was sometimes generous to high-born traitors, but for those of lower birth he had no mercy at all. Serle was half-hanged in a number of towns before his ultimate execution.

When the 'Scottish Richard II' died at Stirling in 1419 he was buried with full honours close to the High Altar of the Blackfriars. Whether he was the 'real Richard' we shall probably never know, but it remains a fascinating possibility.

Image - Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey. Public Domain.


  1. My gracious! When a crown and a country are involved all sorts of rumors and theories abound. Thank you for the the careful tendering of this topic. I can see where the evidence is thin on the ground and what evidence there is might have had a spin put upon it long ago.

    Fascinating post, thanks!

  2. Great post! The 'false Richard' makes an appearance in Nigel Tranter's 'Stewart Trilogy', which despite its multiple inaccuracies and clunky dialogue is still a rattling good read.

  3. Thank you for the well executed and informative post.

  4. I didn't know any of this - thanks Brian!

  5. Such an interesting article indeed!! It is amazing how much of history I am learning through this blog. I love it!!


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