This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine
“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed –
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps death his court…”
(Richard II, 3.2.155–162)
…Richard II utters these words while descending into a characteristic funk of self-pity midway through Shakespeare’s play about that sorry king’s deposition and murder. It is a scene based on historical fact, or at least true to an account originally written by the pro-Lancastrian chronicler Adam of Usk, who dined with the real Richard II when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London on 21 September 1399.
Laura Ashe will be speaking about ‘Richard II: The Boy Who Never Grew Up’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here
As the company sat down to dinner, Usk recorded that Richard “began to discourse dolefully”. “My God, this is a strange and fickle land,” said the king, “which has… destroyed and ruined so many kings, so many rulers, so many great men and which never ceases to be riven and worn down by dissensions and strife and internecine hatreds.”
Usk says that Richard went on to recount “the names and histories of those who had suffered such fates, from the time when the realm was first inhabited”.
“Seeing… the troubles of his soul,” wrote Usk, “I departed much moved at heart, reflecting to myself on the glories of his former state and on the fickle fortune of the world.”
Richard II is the first part of what is referred to either elegantly as Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’, or inelegantly as his second tetralogy. Either way, the cycle is completed by Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. Together these four plays explore the costs and consequences of rebellion, and the terrible fears that afflict a man who kills the king. All will be shown in new productions on BBC Two later this year, as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Like all of Shakespeare’s Plantagenet plays, Richard II is an exploration of personal tragedy and political philosophy played out against the backdrop of English royal history. The character of Richard himself is drawn surprisingly accurately. The petulant, whining, aggressive, cowardly, ceremonially pompous and self-dramatising monarch of the page and stage accords rather well with what we know of the real man.
Richard became king at the age of ten in 1377, having grown up at the fag-end of his grandfather Edward III’s once-glorious reign, during which the king was senile and surrounded by a corrupt, decaying court. Richard’s father, the Black Prince, was dying of a disease that was probably dropsy, his body swollen and disfigured. Richard was deprived of a kingly role model, and suffered a very difficult political education during his teenage years.
His reign was immediately beset by problems: financial corruption at court, a dismal series of losses in the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, in which Richard played a central but traumatic role, riding out alone to lead the rebels away from London following the death of their leader Wat Tyler.
As Richard grew up amid difficult circumstances, he became obsessed with glory and outward magnificence – commissioning beautiful artworks like the Wilton Dyptych, celebrating divine kingship – but showed precious little ability in the art of governance. He resented all attempts by magnates and parliaments to coerce him into governing well. He and his favourite, Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland, led a partisan regime that neglected the obligations to provide justice and good lordship which had weighed upon Plantagenet kings since John put his seal to Magna Carta in 1215.
When, at the Merciless Parliament of 1388, a group of lords collectively known as the Appellants succeeded in destroying Richard’s favourites and forced him to govern according to their principles, the king spent nearly a decade covertly recruiting a private army of retainers based around Chester. In 1397 he turned them on the country in a bloody two-year reign of terror. The senior Appellants were killed and many nobles were forced to seal blank charters, submitting themselves entirely to Richard’s will.
Shakespeare’s play focuses tightly on these last two years of Richard’s reign, and uses the relationship between Richard and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) to explore the process of transition of royal power under the extreme conditions of tyranny and deposition.
The play begins with Richard at the height of his power, adjudicating a duel at Coventry between Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, which ends with Richard banishing both men from the realm. During Bolingbroke’s banishment his father, John of Gaunt, dies, and Richard seizes Bolingbroke’s property, saying: “Think what you will, we seize into our hands/His plate, his goods, his money and his lands.” (2.1.209-210).
This really happened, and much as Shakespeare has it in a first half of the play where an imperious Richard disposes of the lives and property of his greatest subjects with callous haughtiness. “We were not born to sue, but to command,” says the king (1.2.196), which neatly encapsulates the attitude of the real man who imported to England the royal form of address of ‘your majesty’ and whom a contemporary chronicler described thus:
“…on solemn occasions when, by custom, he performed kingly rituals, he would order a throne to be prepared for him in his chamber on which he liked 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.”
In Act 2 of Richard II, Bolingbroke returns to claim his inheritance and, as it transpires, the crown itself, and Richard’s authority and self-belief crumbles. He descends, as the real Richard always did in times of crisis, into fear and resentment.
The second half of the play deals with the question of how Richard can possibly be stripped of the kingly power that was divinely invested in him on his accession. It is largely invention, but the central issue for Shakespeare was also a crucial issue in 1399.
As was obvious to the real Bolingbroke, his contemporaries and Richard himself, anointing a king was supposed to be a permanent, sacred, irreversible act. Undoing it was legally possible, but the implications were terrifying.
“I find myself a traitor with the rest,” says Shakespeare’s Richard, consenting to his deposition, “for I have given here my soul’s consent/T’undeck the pompous body of a king/Made glory base and sovereignty a slave/Proud Majesty a subject, state a peasant.” (4.1.248-252)
He is deposed nonetheless, and the dramatic Richard throws himself into the same vacillating state of rage and self-pity that was observed in his historical counterpart. Shakespeare’s king mopes and wails before he is done away with; it all accords rather well with the depiction of the real king in the sympathetic French chronicle known as the Traison et Mort.
During an argument with Bolingbroke in 1399, the Traison et Mort says Richard was “so enraged… that he could scarcely speak, and paced 23 steps down the room without uttering a word; and presently he broke out thus: ‘…you who have acknowledged me your king these 22 years, how dare you use me so cruelly? I say that you behave to me like false men, and like false traitors to their lord; and this I will prove, and fight four of the best of you, and this is my pledge.’ Saying which, the king threw down his bonnet…”
This was the real Richard II: a regal man with the instincts and emotions of a frightened child. Shakespeare had his own reasons for writing about him during the dying days of Tudor England in 1595, but whether by design or accident, his version of the last 14th-century king was surprisingly true to life.
Three qualities Shakespeare gave Richard II
Richard’s act of fatal hubris is to seize Bolingbroke’s inherited lands. The real Richard lost the final faith of his people for just this reason. By taking the Lancaster estates for himself, he overrode the first duty of medieval kingship: to uphold justice and protect his subjects’ property. Shakespeare understood this well.
Richard had a tendency to feel hard-done by, failing to understand at times of constitutional crisis that his subjects were often trying to correct failings with his government, rather than making personal attacks on him. Shakespeare perhaps exaggerates his maudlin nature, but it has some basis in truth.
Richard loved majesty and the idea of being a quasi-divine, all-powerful king. Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of him in this mode at the start of the play, but it was a far more pronounced part of his reign during the 1390s in particular. Shakespeare concentrates more on Richard’s undoing than the decade that preceded it, when he was building up the mystique, might and military power of kingship.
Dan Jones is the author of The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, published by HarperPress.
Books: Richard II by Nigel Saul (Yale, 1999); Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 by Michael Bennett (Sutton Publishing, 2006); Shaping the Nation by Gerald Harriss (Oxford, 2006)
TV: New productions of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V will air on BBC Two later this year