Ancestry and Early Life
The future King Richard II was born at Bordeaux, Aquitaine, at epiphany, on 6th January, 1367. The product of a first cousin marriage, he was the son of Edward III's eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince and his wife, Joan, Countess of Kent. Joan, known as the 'Fair Maid of Kent', was the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, the youngest of Edward I's sons by his second wife, Margaret of France. This gave Richard a double descent from Edward I, due to previous cousin marriages in his family, his grandparents had also been first cousins, Richard was therefore a highly inbred individual.
His mother, Joan of Kent, has been described as one of the most beautiful and scandalous women of her age. Unusual for the day, Richard's parent's marriage was a genuine love match and not a political alliance. Joan of Kent had previously been married to Thomas Holland and through this former marriage, Richard had half siblings.
Joan caused quite a scandal by entering into a clandestine marriage with Holland at the age of twelve. The following winter, while her husband was serving abroad, Joan married again to William Montacute, the Earl of Salisbury's heir. When Holland returned to England a few years later, he revealed his secret marriage to Joan and appealed to Pope Clement VI for his wife's return, Joan supported his appeal. Salisbury resorted to keeping her a prisoner in his home. The Pope annulled Joan's marriage to Montacute and ordered to return to Thomas Holland, with whom she lived for the next eleven years. The marriage produced four children.
Richard had an elder brother, Edward of Angouleme, who was suspected of being mentally retarded, perhaps due to inbreeding in the Plantagenet family. Edward had died in infancy, leaving Richard his father's sole heir.
The Black Prince predeceased Edward III, dying of a mysterious illness in June, 1376. He had obtained a promise from his father that Richard should succeed him. After his grandfather's death, the ten year old Richard was duly crowned at Westminster Abbey on 16 July, 1377.
His charismatic grandfather and martial father were a hard act to follow. Artistic and sensitive, Richard was a pacifist, not an attitude to endear him to those of his barons who looked back to an heroic past.
Richard is the first English monarch for whom a contemporary painting survives. He was built in the typical Plantagenet mould, around six feet tall, fair haired and good-looking, with finely chiseled features and beautiful, long, tapering hands. The chronicler Adam of Usk described him as being ' as beautiful as Absalom.' Richard was also volatile and unstable, brooding and vengeful, and in him the famed Plantagenet temper boiled into a frenzy.
A description by a Monk of Elvetham relates King Richard was of the common stature, his hair yellowish, his face fair and rosy, rather round than long, and sometimes flushed; abrupt and somewhat stammering in his speech, capricious in his manners, and too apt to prefer the recommendations of the young, to the advice of the elder, nobles. He was prodigal in his gifts, extravagantly splendid in his entertainment and dress, timid as to war, very passionate toward his domestics, haughty and too much devoted to voluptuousness. So fond of late hours, that he would sometimes sit up all night drinking."
The Peasant's Revolt
The country was governed by Richard's uncle John of Gaunt and a council during his minority. In 1381, when Richard was fourteen, the Peasants Revolt, probably the first socialist movement in English history, broke out in Kent in reaction to a highly unpopular poll tax. The rebels marched up to London, their leaders, Watt Tyler, Jack Straw and a priest, John Ball, demanded the abolition of serfdom and a pardon for all participants in the uprising. Discontented recruits to the cause were many and their army swelled to what is estimated at around ten thousand.
All those connected with the hated poll tax were summarily executed on the peasants progress to London. John Ball chose as his text :- "When Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The rebels were welcomed by the majority of Londoners and the army camped at Blackheath on 14th June, threatening London.
Watt Tyler met Richard and his terrified retinue at Mile End. The young King's position was precarious and having little choice, he ordered charters drawn up granting all of Tyler's requests. A further meeting was arranged at Smithfield. Tyler attended alone and repeated further demands. Richard wearily conceded to grant them all. Washing out his mouth with water, Tyler proceeded to spit it out in the king's presence, at which Walworth, the Mayor of London, incensed at what he saw as impertinence, stabbed Tyler to death. The rebel army were unclear at what was happening in the distance, seizing the initiative, Richard advanced alone, calling out loudly "I am your King follow me." and led the rebel army away. The revolt was put down with severity, the young king, in a characteristic outburst of venom, wreaked a terrible vengeance and the heads of it's leaders were displayed on pikes at London Bridge.
At fifteen, Richard married Anne of Bohemia in St. Stephen's Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Anne was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, and the sister of King Wenceslas of Bohemia. The couple were to become devoted to each other and the queen exercised a moderating influence on her husband but their union produced no issue.
The Lords Appellant
King Richard II, like Edward II before him, was unfortunately reckless in his generosity to favorites, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford was raised to a Duke. Anger smouldered and came to a head in 1387 when Richard failed to bring certain of his favourites to trial, he was subjected to force. He was defeated by a rebel army led by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, Gloucester had been joined by John of Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke. At the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388, the Lords Appellant demanded radical changes in the royal household, the execution of the king's principal supporters and de Vere's estates confiscated. The House of Commons feared the King's attempts to undermine the authority of parliament and he was placed under the control of a council. Their intransigence fueled a smouldering desire for revenge in the unstable Richard.
Richard delighted in lavish dress and extravagant jewels. He is popularly credited with introducing the use of the pocket handkerchief. In common with his ancestor Henry III, he venerated the memory of the Saxon King, Edward the Confessor and adopted his coat of arms, which were quartered with his own.
The Death of Queen Anne
Tragically, his beloved Queen, Anne, died of the plague in 1394, aged but twenty-eight. Richard's grief was terrible, distraught and emotionally unstabilized, he had Sheen Palace, where Anne had died, razed to the ground. The Queen was buried at Westminster near to St. Edward's shrine. An embarrassing incident marred the funeral service, Richard was angered by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, who had the audacity to arrive late. When he tactlessly asked the King to excuse his attendance, Richard completely lost control. In his passionate grief and fury he seized a wand from one of the vergers and struck Arundel so violently about the head with it that he fell to the ground dazed.
Two years later Richard married again, taking Isabella of Valois, the six year old daughter of Charles VI of France, as his second wife. Richard treated her with great kindness and they were to become extremely fond of each other.
Henry of Bolingbroke
Richard's brooding on past slights culminated with his taking action with ruthless suddeness in 1397. His old opponents were placed under arrest and his uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, was murdered. He exiled his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who was one of the five Lords Appellant, in 1399. On John of Gaunt's death, the following year, Richard disinherited Henry and confiscated the vast Lancastrian estates.
Henry reacted by invading England, landing at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, on the pretext of recovering his estates, but in reality he intended to seize his cousin's throne. Richard, in Ireland at the time, sailed to Wales. The King met Henry's representatives at Conway Castle and was informed that if he restored Henry's estates and surrendered certain councillors for trial, he could remain in power. He agreed but was betrayed and instead of being returned to power found himself the inhabitant of a dungeon in the Tower.
The Death of Richard II
A Parliament was called at the end of September, at which Henry claimed the throne. Richard was declared a tyrant and deposed. He was taken up to Pontefract Castle, in Yorkshire and there it is certain, he met his end around the second week in February, 1400. His skeleton was examined in 1871 by Dean Stanley of Westminster but showed no marks of violence. Starvation was the most likely cause, although this has never been proven.
After being displayed at St. Paul's, Richard's body was buried in King's Langley Church, Hertfordshire. His child queen, Isabelle of France, mourned him deeply and sincerely. Henry IV wished to make an alliance between herself and his eldest son, Henry, now Prince of Wales, but loyal to the memory of her husband, she was inflexible in refusing to even contemplate it. Isabelle was eventually returned to her father in France. She was married to Charles of Angouleme and tragically died in childbirth.
Richard II's body was later moved to Westminster Abbey by Bolingbroke's successor, Henry V, who had been close to him in his boyhood, there it was reburied beside his beloved first wife, Anne of Bohemia.