Richard II was born on January 6, 1367 in Bordeaux, France. His father, Edward the Black Prince, was the son and heir of King Edward III of England. The younger of Prince Edward’s sons, Richard was initially third in line to the English throne. However, the prince experienced a rapid rise in the succession during the 1370s. Richard’s elder brother, Edward, died in September 1370, while his father died in June 1376 from dysentery. As a result, the 9-year-old prince became his grandfather’s heir.
King of England
On June 21, 1377, King Edward III died from natural causes. Upon the old king’s death, Richard II succeeded to the throne. The young king inherited a conflict with France called the Hundred Years’ War. Originating in 1328, Edward had fought for decades against French kings to claim their throne as his own. Throughout the years, Edward experienced many victories against Philip VI and John II. However, the English had begun to lose ground against Charles V.
By the early 1380s, the war with France stalled. While France had suffered devastation to their kingdom, the prolonged conflict had drained England’s finances. In response, the English government sought to regain its wealth by raising taxes. In 1381, a poll tax was introduced. The tax quickly proved to be unpopular. When government officials attempted to collect from the peasantry, the peasants responded by revolting in May.
The Peasants’ Revolt
Led by Wat Tyler, the peasants’ revolt consisted of working-class peasants. After the Black Death plague had swept through England in the late 1340s, peasants experienced an increased demand for their labor. However, the nobility failed to increase their wages with the demand. Anger at the nobility along with resentment towards government taxation slowly simmered. By the early 1380s, the peasantry’s rage finally boiled over. In response to the revolt, Richard II met with Wat Tyler to negotiate.
As the king talked with Tyler, the mayor of London attacked the rebel leader. After striking down Tyler, it appeared that the peasantry would attack the king. However, Richard courageously rode before them and made a compelling speech. The king promised reforms if the rebels disbanded and returned home. Moved by Richard’s words, the peasants peacefully departed.
During the years after the revolt, Richard II grew into the kingship. The king married Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV‘s daughter Anne in 1381. Richard also began to form his circle of advisors and favorites. Amongst his circle, the king included ambitious young men. These men sought to increase their standings and were envious of more influential nobles. In particular, the men focused on causing the downfall of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster.
John was the uncle of Richard II. Through inheritance and marriage, the duke became the most influential nobleman in England. With his power, John effectively reigned on behalf of his nephew. Due to the duke’s unpopularity, many sought John’s downfall. This included Richard’s favorites. As a result of their jealousy, attempts would be made to discredit John and cause him to lose his prestige.
The Lords Apellant
In July 1386, the duke of Lancaster departed England for Castile. With his uncle gone, Richard began making plans to re-ignite the Hundred Years’ War in France. However, his request for funds would be denied by Parliament. Alarmed at the king’s favorite’s influence, Parliament’s members wanted Richard to dismiss his men. However, the king refused. In response, Parliament impeached Richard’s chancellor.
An enraged Richard II attempted to avenge his humiliation. In turn, alienated nobles formed a group called the Lords Apellant to resist him. Amongst their ranks included John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke. Instead of getting revenge, the king’s men would be charged with treason and executed. Giving into the group’s demands, Richard reluctantly agreed to make peace with France and work with the Lords Appellant. The king would honor his agreement for the next eight years.
From 1388 – 1396, Richard II worked peacefully with the Lords Appellant. Although appearing docile, the king had secretly been planning his revenge for years. In July 1397, Richard made his move. To assert his dominance, the king arrested three members of the Lords Appellant. Two were executed, while the third was banished. Richard followed this by seizing their revenues and subverting Parliament’s power to a committee.
In September 1398, Henry Bolingbroke and fellow Lords Appellant member Thomas Mowbray had a falling out. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of them, Richard II banished both men. An ailing duke of Lancaster could only look on as his son departed England. After John’s death in February 1399, the king felt secure enough to deny Henry his inheritance and seize Lancaster’s powerful dukedom as his own. With his treasury refilled, Richard led an army to invade Ireland.
Upon learning of Richard II’s denial of his rights, an enraged Henry planned an invasion. Raising an army, Henry returned to England from exile. As he traveled, the young noble gained further support from the nobility. Once Richard returned in August, the king quickly realized that his cousin had more support than him. Understanding the situation, Richard peacefully surrendered.
Although Henry had initially invaded England to regain his dukedom, the new duke of Lancaster saw a unique opportunity with his cousin’s capture. Under the pretext of ridding England of a tyrant, Henry decided to claim the throne. The duke argued that his descent from King Henry III allowed him to succeed Richard. At first resistant, Richard ultimately abdicated his throne on September 30, 1399. In turn, his cousin succeeded him as Henry IV. His ascension established the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet royal family as England’s new rulers.
After Henry IV came to the throne, the deposed Richard II would be imprisoned. In October, the former king was sent to Pontefract Castle. For the next four months, Richard remained in captivity. In January 1400, some of the king’s supporters attempted to free him. However, Henry crushed their rebellion. Convinced that his cousin should die, Richard would be executed sometime in February.
Richard II inherited the English throne at a young age. During his reign, the king spent many years under his uncle’s influence. After failing to assert his authority, the Lords Apellant forced Richard to submit to theirs. Upon overcoming the group, the king flaunted his power by seizing member’s wealth and lands. His arrogance in doing so led to his downfall and abdication. Henry IV’s overthrowal of Richard would set in motion the War of the Roses decades later.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor (2010 ed.). London: Arcturus.
Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Crusaders, Persecutors and Religious Reformers. In Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-II-king-of-England.