Description

Published date: 3 July 2008

Terry Jones, ‘Python’, historian, broadcaster, actor, director and comedian, has called King Richard II a ‘victim of spin’. Here he sets out to rescue his reputation and lift the lid on the turbulent world of 14th century politics.

Terry Jones gave this talk at the Bishopsgate Institute in June 2008.

Transcription

Ah, Richard II, yes. Actually this talk is really sort of based on this…it’s come out of this article that I wrote for Nigel Saul in that 14th century England thing and it’s also come out of the Who Murdered Chaucer thing because I just, I hate injustices and I really feel [that] Richard II had an injustice done to him over the last 600 years.

When I started doing this talk, the first thing I realised, of course, was that most people I was talking to wouldn’t have a clue who Richard II was! Not this evening of course, we all know. But I thought I ought to explain to them that I’m not talking about Richard I. The Lionheart hated England, despised England, I don’t think he lived here more than about six months. He wanted to sell London to the highest bidder if he could and he spent most of his life trying to kill Muslims. So of course he gets a statue outside the Houses of Parliament [laughter].

Nor am I talking about Richard III, although I did Google Richard II and it said ‘are you sure you don’t mean Richard III?’ No, I’m talking about Richard II. Richard II, he was the son of the Black Prince, he was . . .ruled from 1377 to 1399, he was ten years old when he came to the throne and he was usurped and murdered by his cousin Henry IV.

Now, generally, the historical record, or the historians have generally in the past recorded Richard as being insecure, hysterical, vengeful, megalomaniacal and in the 20th century they certainly called him mad. I suppose a lot of people get their idea about Richard from Shakespeare who paints him more like sort of a weak effete, an unmanly sort of character. And I’d like to sort of suggest that even Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard II bares as little resemblance to Richard as [shows image] this bust of Shakespeare, this Lego bust of Shakespeare does to Shakespeare, it’s a rather wonderful thing really.

Everybody has agreed that he is…Richard II was a tyrant, and he became a tyrant in 1397 when…and he was a tyrant who was hated by his people. He became a tyrant in 1397 when he executed the Earl of Arundel, he invited the Earl of Warwick to a banquet and then had him arrested and imprisoned for life and he went and arrested himself, he arrested his uncle the Duke of Gloucester and sent him off to Calais where he died, oh what a surprise.

And then, he started…he gave honours to all his followers, to a lot of his followers, well all his followers. And Nigel Saul has said that never before had so many honours been dispensed at one time and that Walsingham, the great chronicler, refers. . . very disparagingly to them as the ‘duketti’. So, they were really scorned, apparently, according to Walsingham.

He also abolished legislation designed to restrain his household expenditure. We know it must have been pretty big because recently, just in the last five years, they’ve discovered this list of Richards’s treasures and it’s a vast list – Jenny Stratford here putting it out.

He also demanded people sue for pardons and pay for them, of course. He also got areas to appoint deputies who then had to sign blank charters, actually they weren’t really blank charters, they were just charters allowing the King to do whatever he liked. And he censored foreign correspondence, I just have this picture [shows image], because I rather like this guy about to stab his eye out with a pen [laughter]. Something about censorship there.

According to Walsingham, ‘no one dared stand up for the truth on account of the Kings tyranny and malice’. Now this wound have come as a bit of a surprise to Richard himself because Richard actually saw himself as a great defender of the world against tyranny. And we know this because in the first parliament of Richard’s reign when he…in ’97, 1397 when he actually…was first time he was ruling in his own right and with his own power, he had full power, he says, in the parliament, he says that the king of France and the king of England, [were] the great champions of Christianity and if they happened to know of any king or prince who by tyranny would conquer and destroy the Christian people, they are bound by right to destroy such a tyrant and destroy and restore and recover those oppressed and deprived of their estates.

So Richard himself saw himself as a defender of people against tyranny. So, maybe we need to find out what people in the middle ages, in the medieval world, how they saw a tyrant. What in their eyes made a tyrant?, what was the difference between a tyrant like Nero and a legitimate ruler?, apart of course from the silly hats [laughter] .

Well actually, fortunately, we know quite a lot about what people in the 14th…in the middle ages thought about this distinction between kings and tyrants and we know it because a lot of people wrote books of rules for princes and very political tracts about what the nature of kingship was.

And all of these tracts in the middle ages, most of them are based on Aristotle’s distinction between a tyrant and a king. And Aristotle said that a tyrant is somebody who rules in his own interests and a king is somebody who rules in the interest of his people. I think actually it’s a rather good distinction. I think we should make it nowadays you know, I think it would be quite interesting to see who turns out to be tyrants and who turns out to be legitimate rulers.

But Aristotle said a government that looks to the common interest is called kingship, tyranny is government by a single person directed to the interest of that person, so that’s the definition of tyranny.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I’ve got this picture of a naked lady riding a naked old man [shows image], that’s because the old man is Aristotle, because this is based on an epochal story going around in the middle ages that Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. And he kept on telling Alexander that he shouldn’t be going to bed with his wife quite so much and when his wife, when Alexander’s wife got hear of this, she was a bit pissed off really you know, so she set about seducing Aristotle to show he was human, really, I suppose, and eventually she had him crying to go to bed with her and eventually she said alright, you can come to bed with me, you can make love to me, if you come naked and let me ride you and then she sort of set it up so Aristotle…so that Alexander could see, so he’s looking out of a window, out of the turret up there [referring to picture] and of course Aristotle just was proved to be human so he left off lecturing Alexander after that, and that’s the story.

The way Aristotle’s definition of tyrants and kings gets transmitted into the middle ages is mainly through Thomas Aquinas, he’s the first person to do it. Aquinas follows Aristotle’s distinction again, he says:
‘if a ruler governs in such a way as to secure the common good, such rule will be right and just, if however the government is directed towards the private good of the ruler, such a ruler is called a tyrant’

It’s Aristotle’s distinction again and this goes all the way through, Giles of Rome, perhaps the most…in the 14th century perhaps the most influential of all the writers of rules for princes, the most read certainly, we know that Edward III had a copy of his book…as did Simon de Burley, Richard’s tutor. So. . . Hockley mentions that Henry the Prince of Wales had got one, this is Henry IV’s son. So it was a very influential book and it’s impossible that Richard wouldn’t have known Giles of Rome.

And the same distinction of a tyrant acting in his own interests and a rightful ruler acting in the interest of the people goes all the way through everybody who wrote about the nature of monarchy and tyranny in the Middle Ages, except for one. And Machiavelli of course was [quoting from the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian] a very naughty boy, because he wrote a book of rules for princes that was just about how to rule in your own interests. It’s actually a book of rules for tyrants actually.

However, Aquinas did make one slight fudge on Aristotle’s thing, he said that, he claimed that Aristotle said that kingship was by far the best form of government. He was always a bit…Aristotle is wonderful but he’s always a bit difficult to pin down what he actually says because he rehearses so many different arguments, but as far as I can see, he does say that kingship can theoretically be a better form of government but he says at…one point…another point, the judgement of a single man is bound to be corrupted when he’s overpowered by anger or by any other similar emotion. But it’s no easy task to make everyone get angry and go wrong simultaneously. So is not the balance clearly in favour of the greater number? And it seems to me that Aristotle really comes down in favour of power being invested in the middle classes.

Now of course this wasn’t the kind of thing that the writers of books for princes in the middle ages, because they were writing books that were being, you know like Aquinas was writing for Hugh III of Cyprus, so they were being patronised by these kings so it wouldn’t be very good for them to sort of write ‘well actually I think that the best form is government by the middle class, not by kingship’.

And all the books of rules of princes…for princes they emphasise how important it is for the king to have power. John of Salisbury says the princes will has the force of judgement, and that which pleases him has the force of law. Giles of Rome emphasised all honour and privilege in society must stem from the king, it’s very important for the king to…have this power. And that’s…we know Simon de Burley had a copy of Giles of Rome, Michael de la Pole, one of Richard’s early advisors, Simon was his tutor of course, and Nigel Saul tells us that, under the Black Prince, both these men had witnessed lordship at its most vigorous and assertive. So Richard would have been brought up with the idea of strong leadership, strong kingship, as long as it’s in the interest of the people and not in your own interests.

This actually…[this] whole theory can actually come up with surprising ideas of government. Philippe de Mézières who was chancellor of Cyprus at one time and a great protagonist for reviving the Crusades presented a book called A Letter to King Richard II. And in it he describes his vision of the perfect society and he describes it as an orchard, the delectable orchard, and he…when he describes and when he describes this perfect society it sounds very socialist, although it’s governed by a king. He says

‘All fruits were held in common by the inhabitants, to each according to his need, words my own were never heard, all tyranny and harsh rule was banished from the garden, though there was a king who stood for authority and the common good and he was so loved and looked up to that he might have been the father of each and all. And no wonder, for he had such concern and welfare for his subjects that neither he, nor his children, owned anything in person’.

So that’s the kind…actually it might be quite interesting to find out about ownership, whether Richard himself actually thought he owned anything.

So I think this is what Richard was trying to…this was certainly the way Richard would have been taught and brought up, to believe in this strong leadership in the interests of the people and being the good father. And this of course, being a father in the Middle Ages meant you need obedience and you need submission. And that’s exactly what, when Richard takes over power in 1397 in his coup, his chancellor says in the first parliament, that there are three things good government needs and the first is that the king shall have power to govern, second that the laws should be kept, and third that the subjects should be duly obedient to the king.

And I think this is what those blank charters were about. It’s the…what Richard is saying, you’ve got to trust me, you’ve got to give…put everything in my hands and then I’ll be merciful and I’ll do…I’ll see to justice and I am ruling in your interests and I think that’s what these blank charters were probably about.

It’s also not very far away from what the peasants…it’s not just the aristocracy who wanted this kind of rule, it’s actually the peasantry. That’s what they demanded in 1381 when they revolted. The Annoni…Anomi…I can never say it, the Anonimalle Chronicle, the Anonimalle Chronicle (I can never say it) says…tells us the peasants demanded that ‘no lord should have lordship in future but it should be divided among all men except for the kings own lordship’. In other words, the peasants were saying do away with the barons and just be ruled by the king and we’ll live under the king and let him dispense justice.

Giles of Rome also said that a king needs to be both held in dread and loved. I’ve got a feeling that this is one of the things that Richard went about, set about doing, is actually sort of making people afraid of him, it was…you had to put on a stern face. We can see in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, he describes how he meets the God of Love and the God of Love is very clearly associated with Richard, so everybody, when Chaucer was reading this out, would know that the God of Love is Richard and one of the things that he says is that the God of Love, rather oddly for the god of love:

For sternly on me he gan biholde,
So that his loking doth myn herte colde

I bet you there was a bit of a laugh when that was done, if he was doing it in front of Richard himself, I bet everybody sort of [impersonates a crowd whispering].

We’ve also got pictures of Richard frowning, this is one from the Book of Benefactors from St. Albans Abbey [shows image] and there’s another one where…this is his Queen, Anne, kneeling behind and Richard’s shown a very handsome man actually with these frowning brows.

And even in this, [shows image] this is from the Troilus and Criseyde, this is the frontispiece to the earliest manuscript to the Troilus and Criseyde and you can see again, Richard a very handsome man but with these kind of stern look of him, but he’s doffing their caps and bowing to him.

So he’s…it was, I suspect, a form what you did, you looked very stern as you went around. But the thing was, the way they defined tyranny was not how much power was concentrated in one person, it was what you did with that power, that you did it for the benefit of the people. And you can’t equate the kings of the…powerful rulers of the Middle Ages with the 20th century dictators.

So, you’ve got a king, a powerful ruler, and of course, you’ve got this man with all the power, so what is the aim of good government? Well, the books are very clear on this. Giles of Rome says the peace and security to all the realm is the most important thing and this is repeated by Bartolus de Saxoferrato. And certainly you can see this is what Richard himself actually puts into practice, he tries to get peace, he aims for peace with Fr[ance].

After the peasants revolt which was…a lot of it came about because the taxes were to raise money for continuing the war with France and the core party were determined to go for a peace with France from that moment on. I mean, between 1377 and 1381. . . an amazing, a quarter of a million pounds had. . . gone into military coffers, I mean it’s just a huge amount of money for that date.

But Richard was up against the hawks, and you know, history just repeats itself all the time I suppose in many ways, in particular the Duke of Gloucester, the Earl of Warwick and Arundel. Now they were making money out of the war and enlarging their entourage. Gloucester was a bit pissed off because here he was. . . he should have been one of the most powerful men in the land but he felt he’d been passed over. When Richard came onto the throne he only got a thousand pound a year which…and he had to get that from foreign priories so…and they were hard up, so he was really on his uppers, he really needed to get money out of the war.

Warwick was in a similar sort of situation, Arundel on the other hand was an extremely wealthy man but he just liked fighting, I think was just a bit of a mean bugger personally. And Philippe de Mézières describes the war party, the hawks, Richards’s council, he calls them ‘great boars, black and bristling sons of that mighty black boar who so many times had destroyed the vineyards of France’. And [he] even fingers Arundel as being the leader of the hawks. It was true that there were some among the knights who no longer favoured the war but through fear of the black boars, and in particular a certain Count of Arundel, they did not dare say a word nor support their king.

So, the hawks were working against Richard’s peace policy right from the start. And of course there were, actually Jean le Bel tells us:

‘The war loving nobles had long conspired against Richard on several occasions while he was seeking peace with France because they had found war a source of considerable profit’.

And indeed, there is one example when Gloucester is actually being a traitor on the peace embassy in 1383 when he’s mean to be negotiating a peace with France and he’s actually secretly working against it. And Froissart tells us Gloucester had secretly told his friends he would never agree to any peace with France, any negotiations may be taken in hand on the subject if it were not an honourable one. And of course by that he means they give us everything and we keep everything and we don’t let any of them do anything. And in this, he was joined by the barons…many of the barons of England, particularly the Earl of Arundel. They’d assembled then…Froissart then says they’d assembled their opinions in public, seeing how much the King of England was bent on peace.

So Richard was having an uphill struggle to achieve peace with France, against the hawks. [Shows image] This picture is a picture of, I think it’s Peter the Hermit, presenting the letter to Richard…Philippe de Mezieres letter to Richard II. And here’s Richard looking sort of…sat there looking very…gazing into the middle distance, ‘yes, you give me this’. But what’s interesting is the little group behind these and I think we can identify these people as Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel.

And the reason I think that is because you can see this guy here [referring to picture], what’s happened there is they’re the hawks, this book, Philippe de Mezieres is pushing peace with France and that’s what the whole book is about and you can see this guy here [in picture], he’s going ‘Oh my god, what is it, what’s going on?’ you know, and they’re all going ‘Oh god, what’s happening?’, you know and you can see this guy here behind them, this strange figure behind the throne, he’s got his arm around this character. Now, of course, this is Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury. . . or he’s the chancellor, when’s this, the 1390s, he’s actually the chancellor at this point, he’s archbishop of York. But he’s the power behind the throne and he’s, of course, the brother of the Earl of Arundel. . . and having his arm around him shows that they’re brothers and so this must mean that these are Warwick and Gloucester on that side.

And, of course, the other people who were very keen on war was the poor soldiers because as Froissart says ‘the poor knights and archers were of course for war as their sole livelihood depended on it’. So, when Richard finally gets this truce with France which is going to be for 20 years, in 1396, it’s a real…it’s a huge achievement, I mean it was a great thing to actually, to have done and I don’t think he’s ever been given credit for it. It’s also…he’s so keen on keeping the peace with France that when. . . Anne of Bohemia dies, he actually marries the seven year old Isabella who is the daughter of the King of France and he does this just to cement the…to make sure there can’t be any more conflicts between the two sides and of course I think it’s a very brave thing to do because of course there were people at the time who went ‘phoar, seven year old, what’s he after?’, you know and he was . . .prepared to take that sort of rubbish in order to cement the peace with France.

Now, the other kind of peace that all the books of rules for princes say that we need is a peace at home. But of course again, it’s what Dante says in his book on monarchy, but again he’s up against the warring nobles, the barons, his barons were an unruly lot and right from the very beginning of his reign they’re working against him.

In 1384, the Earl of Arundel stands up in parliament in Shrewsbury and actually tears the king off a strip and the king’s only what, 15 at this time, or something like that and Arundel stands up and says:

‘Any king in which prudent government is lacking, stands in peril of destruction, and the fact must now be illustrated before your very eyes since this country is at present almost in a state of decay’

I mean this is insulting stuff to stand up and say in front of the king and no wonder Richard went pale with anger and tried to get at Arundel. And Arundel was constantly goading Richard and he was like 20 years older than Richard, but he’s constantly pushing him and putting him down.

And even. . . at Anne’s funeral, Arundel arrived late, he was the first of everybody to ask permission to withdraw and said I’ve got some pressing business. You know, I mean I think that it’s insulting to Richard and to Anne to say I’ve got more important things to do than to come to this funeral and Richard was so livid he actually flew at Arundel and they started…and banged his head on the floor and there was blood on the floor of the abbey so they had to stop all the celebration and all the funeral things and services and re-consecrate the abbey.

Gloucester was also, he was like 15 years older than Richard, he was also always putting Richard down and also sort of always goading Richard. Philippe de Mézières says he’s conceived a great hatred for his nephew and could no way speak well of him. Gloucester was, oh, 27 and Richard was 15 at this point:

‘When the king sent for him, if it was for his pleasure he would come but more frequently he stayed at home and from his rough manner he was more dreaded by the king than any of his uncles for in his speech he never spared him’

So Richard’s uncles were constantly putting him down, being horrible to him. Then, in fact, they actually took arms up against him in 1386. In 1386 they sort of took over the government and sort of put spies into his household to see how much he was spending and in 1387 they actually took arms against the royal army. In 1388, they took over power totally and they destroyed Richard’s affinity, Richard’s following. They killed a lot of…something like, killed and exiled something like 18 of Richard’s closest friends and associates.

And these are they three guys who Richard, in so called tyranny, when Richard takes over in 1397, it’s these three guys that he gets rid of. He executes Arundel because he was the most dangerous of the bunch, Warwick isn’t so much a problem so he puts him in jail on the Isle of Man or somewhere and again I think he shows great bravery when he actually personally goes to arrest Gloucester and this is Gloucester here [shows image] and Richard actually goes to arrest his uncle himself which he doesn’t need to do but I guess he feels he had to do that.

Again, these pictures, they always have something a little bit more to show in them the more you look at them. In this one, here’s Richard arresting Gloucester and here you can see this guy going ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?’ and little Gloucester wife going ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear’, and then you see this guy on the right behind Richard saying ‘Yes, get in there, arrest him’.

So, in 1397 when Richard finally is ruling in his own right and actually has power and he writes to the Duke of Bavaria and says ‘several noblemen have, since we were of tender years, treacherously conspired to disinherit our crown and usurp our royal power’. And he writes to the Byzantine Emperor ‘we have restored peace to our subjects which, by God’s blessing, shall last forever’.

So it shows you that Richard was actually thinking in terms of the books of rules for princes, he was thinking that peace is our objective, peace at home and peace abroad and getting rid of these two…these three really treacherous, disgraceful troublemakers was, I think, absolutely the right thing to do. But, of course, God’s blessing didn’t last very long.

Another thing that people say about Richard, of course, is that he was a megalomaniac. This is where we’re getting into the propaganda, the black propaganda that was being churned out by his usurper. They also said that he was vain and this all comes from the art…well the articles of deposition. They accuse him of spending vast sums of money which he dissipated for the ‘ostentation and pomp and vain glory of his name’. Now, well you know, maybe Richard was vainglorious, I don’t know, maybe a spoilt brat but we can’t confuse what was a policy…a matter of policy with his own predilections. And the thing is, to actually put on a great display of show and vanity, if you like, or ostentation was absolutely de rigueur, you had to do it, you couldn’t be…join the family of nations…in Europe in the 14th century without putting on a big display. Nobody would take you seriously if you didn’t, it was absolutely important to do that.

Charles…Richard’s father-in-law Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, he’s got a really big crown there, you see [referring to picture]. And [for] Richard, being portrayed like that is portraying the office. And to actually says it’s because he likes dressing up is I think missing the point. His other father-in-law, his second father-in-law…the French court was incredibly rich and luxurious and you had to put on a big show in order…to hold your head up and move in these circles.

And in fact also, some of the books of princes, some of them actually say this is important too, that ‘kings should be rich in men and goods otherwise they can’t maintain the state that God has given them’. And this is important – that God has given them this state because John of Salisbury says ‘the prince is a kind of likeness on earth of the divine majesty’. And there was always this analogy going back to the king representing God on the Earth. It goes back to Thomas Aquinas who says, in his book on kingship, he says ‘the king is in the kingdom what the soul is in the body and what God is in the world’. So this…and also in the Secretum Secretorum as a king is likened to God.

And this is what, when people say oh here’s Richard looking like Christ in this golden frame well he’s actually just doing what the books for princes…rules for princes say a rightful ruler should do, he’s actually representing God. And I think to call it narcissism as Nigel Saul does in his wonderful biography of Richard, I think is again missing the point.

And actually, what I think it is doing is repeating the black propaganda that was put out by Henry IV and his followers. Walsingham, Thomas Walsingham the chronicler say about the parliament of 1397, when Sir John Bushey was the chancellor, he said ‘he imputed to the young king divine honours, finding strange and flattering words hardly suitable for mere mortals’.

Now Walsingham is being…he’s calling the king young, the king young in 1397? He’s 30 for god’s sake, why is he saying young? What he’s doing is he’s parroting…Thomas Arundel, Archbishop…who is now Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel’s address to parliament at the beginning of Henry IV’s reign in which Arundel stands up and he says in place of a ‘boy’, Richard was a boy, we…a man will now rule over the people.

Arundel of course we think has actually been very instrumental in. . . getting Henry onto the throne. He’s been exiled as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and he had…he was on his uppers, had got nothing to look forward to and he’s been the most powerful man in England for like ten years and he was desperate to get back and Henry was his only opportunity to get back and I’m pretty sure that it was Arundel who pushed Henry to go for the throne of England.

Arundel went on in the same address to parliament in 1399, he says ‘a boy loves vanity in the same way a man understands truth and wisdom’ and this angle was picked up, it was spin, spin picked up by all the chroniclers and parroted.

In the Continuatio Eulogii there is a story going that. . . Richard would order a throne to be prepared for him in his chamber on which he like to sit ostentatiously from after dinner until vespers, talking to no one but watching everyone. And when his eye fell on anyone, regardless of rank, that person had to bend his knee towards the king. Sounds like a pretty boring way of spending the evening if you ask me [laughter]…and of course it’s all nonsense.

It’s George Snow, I thought it was about time we had a picture of a historian so here’s a historian [referring to picture], George Snow has recently proved, I think pretty conclusively, that that passage in that Chronicle is actually a later textual interpretation and it’s been written by somebody with a personal and determined dislike for Richard II. And I think he’s absolutely right about that. Besides, just look at the tombs [refers to picture]…you know Richard’s lying here in plain robes in Westminster Abbey and compare that with Henry IV with his crown and full regalia. Who’s the one who wanted to be remembered for his ostentatious display?

Richard’s also accused of extravagance, of spending far too much in his household. Although Chris Given-Wilson has said…had recorded the levels of spending and said they were pretty admirably low level he calls them, 1377-1385 £13,500, 1386-1389 is the cheapest three-year period for the wardrobe throughout the years 1360-1413 so this whole thing about Richard being extravagant and spending too much is all just the usual hype that…people who…come out [with].

Now it’s true that he did levy unprecedented taxes in 1398, that he gets the wool subsidy for life, but these were all linked to pardons for past rebellions so we don’t know whether he would have kept them on, we just don’t know because he gets usurped the next year. So maybe he would…there’s this thing of acting sternly first and then being merciful and maybe that’s what he was doing. We don’t know if it was the thin edge of the wedge, we just don’t know.

Another thing that he’s attacked for in the chronicles is taking poor council. John Gower says ‘he took the base immature council of fools to himself and caused the principles of older men to be rejected’. Now, this is a downright lie and Gower ought to be ashamed of himself for writing it.

Richard had experienced older men, he relied on the opinions of older men, people from his father’s court like Sir Richard Stury, Edward Dalyngrigge and Clifford [Sir Lewis]. These were very experienced courtiers and diplomats. And in fact after 1397, Baldwin in the King’s council in England says the council had never before been so clearly outlined as the staff of expert men. Richard chose people for their expertise and for their ability. And this was thing, they were not great noblemen and that’s what got up the noses of a lot of the chroniclers, people like Simon Burley who came from obscure origins, Bagot [Sir William] who was a knight of low birth, Michael de la Pole was son of a Hull wool merchant, Beecham was, well he was called Jankins, that doesn’t really prove what his birth was. Nicholas Brembre was a merchant and well, Roger Walden who became Archbishop of Canterbury was the son of a butcher.

So Richard went out of his way to choose people for their ability, not for…not because of their birth. And this is what got up the chroni…the noses of chroniclers like Adam of Usk who says:

‘It was in this King Richard’s nature to debase the noble and to exhort the ignoble as he did with his Sir William Bagot for instance and with other such ‘noble’ men who he elevated to great positions’

But Richard actually, in doing this he’s actually again going by the books of rules for princes, actually judging people on their abilities, not on their birth. And Secretum Secretorum again: ‘do not despise low status in men, though you see to be abound in the ways of wisdom and good morals, love such men and keep them about you’. And of course it’s a theme that goes all the way through Chaucer’s writing. In the Tale of Melibee, he says one shouldn’t be ashamed to learn from lesser folk than oneself. And in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, this whole thing about who is a gentleman, you are a gentleman according to. . . how you act and behave, not according to your birth. And this is the old hag who lectures the knight. . . on their wedding night. He says ‘you speak about nobility as if it’s inherited like old money, as if you could inherit being a gentleman, such arrogance isn’t worth a hen. Always look at he who is the most virtuous in private and public, who tries to do the noblest deeds he can, take him for the g
reatest gentleman’.

This theme about ability and who you are and your values and yourself is much more important than. . . who you were born. It’s a theme running all the way through Chaucer and it even runs through the Peasants Revolt of course with ‘Adam delved and Eve span, who is then the gentleman?’ said John Ball.

In fact, the Tale of Melibee could almost be a blueprint I think for a lot of Richards’s rule where so many elements like the ambition for peace, that’s a very strong point in the Melibee. Of course, the Melibee, in case people don’t know, is the tale that Chaucer himself tells in The Canterbury Tales. It’s actually the translation of a. . . originally Latin book and it’s a very interesting work, it’s not exactly a book of rules for princes but what it is,. . . it’s an example of how to take council and it’s a really important…it takes you through, in a very modern way it shows you somebody having to take council. And then goes through all then things and what did you do wrong, anyway, I can’t go on about that. And it also goes on about the Queen as intercessory in The Melibee, as the…Prudence who is Melibeus’ wife, councils Melibeus all the way through and the Queen as intercessor is a very important theme in this period.

And we see it being acted out with Anne of Bohemia even before she became queen. Richard was intending to pardon the rebels of 1381 and it says in the Parliament Roll, it says ‘out of reverence for God and his sweet mother Saint Mary and at the special request of the noble lady, the Lady Anne soon, if it please God, to be Queen of England’ that he pardons them.

And this whole thing about. . . the idea …I think the theory was that the king was God and he had to rule, he couldn’t show favour to anybody so he had to be really stern and implacable in his justice but the queen could beg for mercy. And that’s what Anne is doing on very many occasions on some very high profile cases like John of Northampton. And also on some very un-noble cases, and there’s one case in the Patent Rolls of Juliana of Hamelden, condemned when pregnant, for having with other thieves unknown, gone into the house of Percival le Walsh at Hoo and there stolen his goods. And on the same day at Hoo, beaten Agnes, wife of the said Percival, gouged out her eyes and cut out her tongue. And Anne pleads for mercy for this woman because she is pregnant.

Now, was Richard really unpopular? What’s the other thing that people assume, that he was unpopular. I think Nigel Saul, in his biography says that well Richard was…we know Richard was unpopular but it’s very difficult to find any evidence for that and it is true, there’s hardly any evidence that Richard was. . . unpopular.

Adam of Usk writes ‘So Richard, farewell, at the height of your glory cast down by the wheel of fortune to fall miserably into the hands of Duke Henry amidst the silent curses of your people’. But, of course, look when it was written, it was written in 1401 after Henry has seized power so you don’t have to be a detective to know why Usk would be writing such things as that. It’s Henry IV leaning on his chroniclers and being able to put out this disinformation about what happened.

Now, of course, Henry was in exile in 1398 and his father John of Gaunt dies in 1399. And that’s when it all happens. What happens is that parliament…Henry’s terms of exile is that he’s got £2,000 a year. And Froissart says well, he’ll have a very nice time, he’s got lots of friends abroad, he can go on crusades, he’ll have a lovely time, there’s no problem for him and. . .I suspect Henry was very much like George Bush you know, he comes from a very powerful son of a very powerful man, he’s very laid back, has a nice time but he has powerful friends pushing him.

One of the terms of. . .Henry’s exile was that on no account was he to meet up with that ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel is the one that Richard’s afraid of, he’s the schemer with the head on his shoulders and he doesn’t want them getting together and I’m sure [that] Arundel pushes Henry into going for the throne and then once they’re there, he starts the propaganda campaign against Richard calling him young, calling him a boy, calling him vainglorious and all this kind of stuff.

And we certainly know that there was a propaganda exercise went out because one of the chronicles tells us how Henry calls in the chronicles, ostensibly because he wants to check on his claim to the throne, but of course everybody really knew why it was, he didn’t want anything nice said about Richard or anything nasty said about him.

We can see in two of the chronicles, in the Dieulacres Chronicle which has been pro-Richard up until this time, a new scribe suddenly takes over when Henry comes into power and tut-tuts and says oh there’s a lot of stuff here that shouldn’t have been written and in the Kirkstall Chronicle it’s the same scribe carries on but it just totally changes sides and just having been very nice about Richard, he suddenly becomes very awful.

In Walsingham’s Chronicle, one of Walsingham’s many chronicles, there’s a little rubric in the side saying beware of whatever is going to offend people. And that’s because there were some things about John of Gaunt in there. . . so we know this was written once Henry had come into power.

Letter Book H of the City of London has got pages missing from that period. . . from when Henry seizes power, we don’t know what they said but obviously they’ve been taken out, they’re one of the few pages been taken out because they must have said something offensive to Henry.

We also think that Henry must have been leaning on poets, trying to get writers into his court who would actually keep going with this propaganda thing. And he tries to get this delightful lady here [referring to picture], Christine de Pisan, he tries to get her. . to come to his court and become a court writer. And in fact what he’s got, he’s got her son who is with the Earl of Salisbury and is being educated by the Earl of Salisbury and he’s captured her son and so he says you better come and collect him then, you know and actually Christine de Pisan says ‘I was not in the least tempted to do this considering the way things were’. And in fact it had a happy ending because she managed to get her son back without actually going to the court and she actually fooled Henry.

We also can see that he must have been leaning on John Gower because Gower not only writes, pens the Tripartite Chronicle which is a politically correct version of the last ten years of history, and it’s really one of the most disgraceful pieces of brown-nosing in the history of literature, I think. Just to give you a taste of it, he writes about Richard. He calls Richard: ‘Richard is wicked, greedy, poisonous, infatuated, false, cunning, two-faced, juvenile, violent, evil, oh and offensive to one and all’. And then there’s a little bit, just one passage from Henry ‘then the noble Henry, a friend to all honour came into full bloom and was mightier than all, just as the rose is a crown of flowers, he was the best of good men, the protector of the English, the model of virtues, the most excellent of the excellent . . .’[groans]

You know, it goes on like that for thousands of lines. And…the other thing that Gower does is that he goes back and starts revising stuff that he’s already written. The Vox Clamantis, for example, which we think perhaps was written in 1386, just at the time when the barons were taking over, he blames Richard’s councillors. He says ‘the boy’, that’s Richard because he is quite young at that point, ‘the boy is free from blame, but those who have instrumented this boy’s reign shall not endure without a fall, so not the king but his council is the cause of our sorrows’.

But then he rewrites that. . . sometime later and people have always taken this as being an example of how we can see Richard is getting unpopular because they think he rewrote it in 1391 ‘the King, an undisciplined boy, neglects the moral behaviour by which a man might grow up from a boy, vainglory makes these youthful comrades vain, sin springs up on every side of the boy’ (I hope you’re enjoying this my lord) ‘and he who is quite easily led takes to every evil’.

Now, this has been sort of taken as evidence Richard was getting unpopular but a few lines later on he…Gower gives the game away. He writes ‘his destiny does arise out of his wrong doing’. How does he know what…it’s absolutely clear that he didn’t write this in 1391, he wrote it after Richard’s death, or at least after the usurpation.

And again, look at what he says, the undisciplined boy, the man, the boy, vainglory, youthful boy, he’s parroting Arundel’s speech to parliament in 1399. And…even more fun is the Confessio Amantis which he again revises. He does three takes on the Confessio Mantis, this is his poem, a big long poem in English. The first version. . . he describes how he meets up with Richard. . . he’s rowing on the Thames and he bumps into Richard and Richard. . . invites him into his boat and commissions him to write something in English.

Now, in the first version, he greets Chaucer…he says Venus says greet Chaucer when you meet as my disciple and my poet and there’s a panegyric to it to Richard II. In the second version he omits the mention of Chaucer and he omits the panegyric. Then in the third version he cancels all references to Chaucer and all references to Richard II and instead he dedicates it to Henry of Lancaster.

Now, Gower, when he says that ‘for that few men endite in our English, I think make a book for King Richard’s sake’. Now in this version, this later version, this becomes ‘a book for England’s sake’. And then a little bit later on he write ‘this book, upon amendment to stand at his commandment, with whom myn heart is of accord, I send unto myn own Lord, which of Lancaster is Henry named’. And he also writes this in the rubric here…he says that he’d written this in 1383. Gower says this in the rubric here he’s written it in the year 16th of King Richard and that’s what he claims he’s done.

The only snag with this is, in 1392, Henry was not Henry of Lancaster, he wouldn’t be Henry of Lancaster until John of Gaunt died. And John of Gaunt doesn’t die until 1399 and Gower obviously suddenly realises he’s made a mistake in the text but he can’t change it so he suddenly adds here ‘so Gower composed and finally completed this present book which he most promptly dedicated with special respect to his lord Henry of Lancaster’ who, of course, at the time of was Count of Derby. So it’s a real sort of ‘Oh dear’, you know ‘what a give-away’. So he clearly. . . he must have been under pressure from Henry to rewrite things and backdate them to make it look like he was writing them during Richard’s reign.

It’s also said that Richard’s vindictive. Well, you know, I don’t see this at all. In 1388, Nigel Saul says that the barons…the uncles, when they took over the rule of the kingdom, they destroyed the court’s inner circle which was destroyed. . . Anne of Bohemia went down on her knees to beg Gloucester to forgive…to let Simon Burley the tutor off because he’s an old man but they won’t, they have him executed. They execute something like ten of Richard’s closest advisors and followers and another seven are exiled. Now, in 1397, the only…there’s only two people who get killed, that’s Arundel, he’s executed but he’s a real troublemaker and Gloucester who dies in Calais now, and he may have been murdered. I’m not defending this but he was ill when he was arrested and it is quite possible that he did die of natural causes.

So. . . anyway it’s only two people, I don’t think that…how is that vindictive? What are people on about? It’s just because the chronicles say he’s vindictive and that Henry’s merciful but yeah, I think Henry’s mercy is a real fiction again and it’s all part of his propaganda and I think he was appearing to be merciful as a matter of policy.

There’s a letter from Coluccio Salutati, who was the chancellor in Florence in the 1400s. He writes to Archbishop Arundel saying ‘one thing which I cannot keep to myself is that it is most noble of the victor to avoid further bloodshed and the execution of suspected traitors, for in so doing you create more danger for yourself rather than less’. So Salutati was expressing an opinion to Arundel saying good idea not to appear to be actually sort of taking revenge.

So, what happens in 1400 is a plot, apparently a plot to kill Henry because even though Richard’s in prison and Henry is in power, there’s still a strong feeling that Richard’s the rightful king and Henry is the usurper. And there’s a plot against Henry and what happens is that the ringleaders are beheaded by the mobs. Now, when we look at this, seeing that all these acts were perpetrated solely by the violence of the common people, again it’s as if Henry has got them to do it so he can say I didn’t kill them it’s the mob that killed them. He says ‘I would fear that the possession of the sword which is allowed to them in such circumstances’, now that’s another thing ‘which was allowed to them in such…’. So they were given swords and said get on with it, you know, so it seems like it was…it may have been policy to…offload the guilt of killing people.

But even so, he still…Henry still kills a lot of people. ’30 of the lesser rebels were marched with hands tied behind them from Cirencester to Oxford’, I mean can you imagine that? Walking that far with your hands tied and then they were summary executions in Oxford with all the trimmings, there was lots of gouging out and horrible tortures. Thomas Blount for example, there’s an account of how Thomas Blount has his stomach ripped open and his bowels taken out, he’s sat on a chair in front of a fire and then the executioner, ‘while Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him’ because they’d thrown his bowels on the [fire]…what the executioner did was a neat trick, he took his bowels out, tied them off with a bit of cord, the open bit, so he could still speak and had a bit of air left and ‘the executioner asked him if he’d drink, “No” replied Sir Thomas Blount, you’ve taken away wherein to put it, thank god, and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors’.

So, a lot of torture and death comes back in. Adam of Usk again recounts how he sees the earls of Kent and Salisbury:

‘I saw their bodies chopped up like carcasses of beasts killed in the chase, being carried to London, partly in sacks and partly on poles slung across men’s shoulders, where they were later salted to preserve them’.

Well, you know, what does Richard do? He fines those who’ve rebelled in 1387 £13 6s 8d to £100, I mean I think that’s a bargain, you know, [laughter] compared with Henry IV’s revenge.

There’s also a possibility that Richard was actually a popular king. He was certainly popular by. . . the Peasants Revolt in 1381. They said the king is with us, we’re in favour of the king. And he keeps doing popular things as well like, for example, in 1385 when he’s only quite young, he’s with John of Gaunt on an expedition to Scotland and John of Gaunt wants to…they capture Edinburgh and they…John of Gaunt wants to cross the Firth of Forth and carry on beating up the Scots. And Richard says no, we’re not going to do it because we haven’t got provisions for that, now I know men will dies if we carry on, we’ve got to go back and so he turns back.

His Cheshire bodyguards certainly seemed to be very fond of him. They called him Dicken, they called him, ‘Dicken sleep surely while we keep watch’. And Jean Creton says that there was something like 40,000 Welshmen came to support him when they heard of Henry’s arrival. It may have been an exaggeration and in any case what happened. . . Richard didn’t show up himself so they disbanded and they got cold feet. Also Caroline Barron has pointed out that it took Londoners six weeks…they didn’t just immediately welcome Henry, it took them six weeks to agree to support Henry. And then it was only once Richard had been actually caught. And there’s the tale of Janico, the Gascon squire, who refuses to take off Richard’s badges and stuff.

There’s also Henry IV’s own son, who of course becomes Henry V, the Prince of Wales. [Shows image] This is a picture of Richard knighting him in Ireland and. . . and he [they] seemed to have been very fond of each other. Henry’s son hated Henry himself and there’s a story of Creton saying that Henry wouldn’t go to his father until Richard told him he had to go to his father when Henry came to arrest Richard.

So all these little stories sort of indicate that he might have been a popular man and certainly, the abbots and the barons who gathered on Westminster in December 1399 to plot this assassination of Henry, they hadn’t got anything…Richard was in jail by this time so they hadn’t got anything to gain by doing this but they just felt so strongly that they ought to and maybe Christine de Pisan when she calls Richard a ‘chevalier wearing a crown in a place near the sea, willingly he was praised for being valiant, a true Lancelot’, maybe she’s not too far from the mark.

Very quickly now about censorship. We also know there must have been a very repressive. . . regime came in because we…there’s clearly a lot of censorship went on. Of course one of the things that comes in is the Act of De Heretico Comburendo, of the Burning of Heretics which Arundel has been trying to get going but couldn’t persuade Richard to do when he was Archbishop of Canterbury when Richard was in power. But he, of course he persuades Henry to do it, I’m sure it was part of the deal, they get to start burning heretics.

But it wasn’t just about burning heretics, it was also about a suppression of books and the suppression of anything critical to the church especially if it was written in English:

‘No one to preach, hold, teach, instruct, make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith and that all having such books shall deliver such books up within 40 days of this proclamation’

And of course that would be a book burning then. So it’s suppression of books there and in 1409, Arundel brings in his constitutions which go even further, they actually bring in ‘Orwellian thought police’ where if you’re in university every month you have to report to your superiors and say what you’re thinking and what you believe and you have to quizzed on your beliefs. And we actually know that some books were being censored.

This is the Ellesmere Manuscript and a few years ago I was allowed to put it under the microscope in Huntington Library and we had a look at these images, this is of the monk [referring to image]. It’s always been a bit of a puzzling image because the monk is meant to be this larger than life character. You’ve got a bald head that shines in the sun, he’s very bon viveur-ish and he’s got [a] big gold brooch under his chin and yet this painting…and he loves hunting and this. . . picture of him in the Ellesmere shows the hunting horses and the jingling Canterbury bells which are all part of the thing but then he’s covered in black and he’s got a black hat on. And I was sure that it’s been painted over for some reason and when we put the…when we put the microscope on the bit under the chin, sure enough we saw gold and. . . so clearly it’s been painted over with black pigment to disguise this.

We don’t know why but it’s…it makes perfect sense that it would be when Arundel’s in power, nobody knows what Arundel’s going to come down on, what he’s going to disapprove of and to have a worldly prelate in a picture would have been maybe a bit near the bone.

So, Henry is regarded as a military champion, a thoughtful nobleman with experience and wisdom. And its funny, there’s no evidence of that at all. There’s a wonderful book, a new book by Douglas Biggs called Three Armies in Britain. And Douglas says Henry actually avoided politics throughout his early adulthood, he’d got no military experience really and he was a totally extravagant prince because he spent £4,000 on his first Prussian crusade and he couldn’t keep discipline. This idea of him being a great military man is all eyewash and Biggs describes him as a playboy. And I think that’s exactly what Henry was and he was just putty in the hands of Thomas Arundel and under Henry you’ve got censorship, intimidation, everybody didn’t know where they were, he was an illegal usurper. And I think he’s the tyrant and not Richard who was acting in the interest of his people.

So, that’s really the argument and thank you very much and I think it was a brave experiment in monarchical rule, thanks a lot.

Transcribed by Natalie Bell as part of a volunteer project, March 2015

  1. 25 July 2012
    8:35 pm

    Jonathan

    Thank you for that – I had long suspected that Richard II had been falsely accused. He had the future Henry V in his custody when Bolingbroke invaded. The fact that Richard did not use him as a hostage is BIG brownie points in his credit.
    I’ve noticed that a lot of history’s ‘bad’ kings – like Richard – had their reigns spoiled by traitors – who were big, hard military men – the medieval ideal. If Richard had faults as a king, it is probably his lenience with eminent men who disobeyed him that undid him.

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