Gateway to the Classics: Richard II by Jacob Abbott
Richard II by  Jacob Abbott

Accession to the Throne

Young Richard lived in comparative retirement with his mother for about six years after his return to England. His father's sickness continued. Indeed, the prince was so feeble in body, and so dejected and desponding in mind, that he was well-nigh incapable of taking any part in public affairs. His brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, remained for some time in Aquitaine, and was engaged in continual wars with France, but at length he too returned to England. He was a man of great energy of character and of great ambition, and he began to revolve the question in his mind whether, in case his brother, the Prince of Wales, should die, the inheritance of the kingdom of England should fall to him, or to Richard, the son of his brother.

"My brother Edward is older than I," he said to himself, "and if he should live till after our father the king dies, then I grant that he should succeed to the throne. But if he dies before the king, then it is better that I should succeed to the throne, for his son Richard is but a child, and is wholly unfit to reign. Besides, if the oldest son of a king is dead, it is more reasonable that the next oldest should succeed him, rather than that the crown should go down to the children of the one who has died."

The laws of succession were not absolutely settled in those days, so that, in doubtful cases, it was not uncommon for the king himself, or the Parliament, or the king and Parliament together, to select from among different claimants, during the life-time of the king, the one whom they wished to succeed to the crown.

All were agreed, however, in this case—the king, the Parliament, and the people of the country—that if Edward should survive his father, he was the rightful heir. He was a universal favorite, and people had been long anticipating a period of great prosperity and glory for the kingdom of England when he should be king.

In the mean time, however, his health grew worse and worse, and at length, in 1376, he died. His death produced a great sensation. Provision was made for a very magnificent funeral. The prince died at Westminster, which was then a mile or two west from London, though now London has become so extended that Westminster forms the west end of the town. It was determined to bury the prince in the Cathedral at Canterbury. Canterbury is in the southeastern part of England, and was then, as now, the residence of the archbishop, and the religious metropolis, so to speak, of the kingdom. When the day of the funeral arrived, an immense cavalcade and procession was formed at Westminster. All the nobles of the court and the members of Parliament joined in the train as mourners, and followed the body through the city. The body was placed on a magnificent hearse, which was drawn by twelve horses. Immense throngs of people crowded the streets and the windows to see the procession go by. After passing through the city, the hearse, attended by the proper escort, took the road to Canterbury, and there the body of the prince was interred. A monument was erected over the tomb, upon which was placed an effigy of the prince, dressed in the armor in which the illustrious wearer had gained so many victories and acquired such lasting renown.


Edward, The Black Prince. This engraving represents the effigy of the Black Prince, as now seen upon his monument on the north side of the Cathedral at Canterbury.

The King of France, although the prince had been one of his most implacable enemies all his life, and had been engaged in incessant wars against him, caused funeral solemnities to be celebrated in Paris on the occasion of his death. The ceremonies were performed with great magnificence in the chapel of the royal palace, and all the barons, knights, and nobles of the court attended in grand costume, and joined in rendering honor to the memory of their departed foe.

It was about midsummer when Richard's father died. Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was in London, and he had a large party in his favor, though generally he was very unpopular in England. He had not yet openly claimed the right to inherit the crown, nor did any one know positively that he intended to do so. In order to prevent, if possible, any dispute on this question, and to anticipate any movements which John might otherwise make to secure the crown to himself, the Parliament petitioned the king to bring the young Prince Richard before them, that they might publicly receive him, and recognize him formally as heir to the crown. This the king did. Richard was dressed in royal robes, and conveyed in great state to the hall where Parliament was convened. Of course, the spectacle of a boy of ten years old brought in this manner before so august an assembly excited universal attention. The young prince was received with great honor. A solemn oath of allegiance was taken by all present, including the members of the Parliament, the great officers of state, and a number of nobles of high rank, including the Duke of Lancaster himself. In this oath, the claims of Richard to succeed his grandfather as King of England were recognized, and those taking the oath bound themselves forever to maintain his rights against all who should ever call them in question.

At Christmas of that year the king gave a great entertainment to all the lords and nobles of his court. At this entertainment he gave Prince Richard the highest place, next to himself, putting his uncle John, and all his other uncles, below him. This was to signify that he was now the second person in the kingdom, and that his uncles must always henceforth yield precedence to him.

The king was now sixty-five years of age. His health was very infirm. It was made so, in great measure, by his mode of life, which was scandalous. He associated with corrupt men and women, who led him into great excesses. As the spring of the year came on he grew worse, but he would not abandon his evil habits. He lived at one of his palaces on the Thames, a short distance above London, near Richmond. His government fell into great disorder, but he did nothing to restrain or correct the evils that occurred. In a word, he was fast relapsing into utter imbecility.

There was a young woman, named Alice Perrers, who had for some time been the favorite of the king, and had openly lived with him, greatly to the displeasure of many of his people. She was now with him at his palace. The nobles and courtiers who had been in attendance upon the king, seeing that he was soon to die, began to withdraw from him, and leave him to his fate. They saw that there was nothing more to be obtained from him, and that, for their future prospects, they must depend on the favor of Prince Richard or of his uncle John. It is true that Richard's right to the succession had been acknowledged, but then he was yet a child, and it was supposed that his uncle John, being the net oldest son of the king, would probably be appointed regent until he should come of age. So the courtiers left the dying monarch to his fate, and went to court the favor of those who were soon to succeed to his power. Some went to the palace of the Duke of Lancaster; others proceeded to Kennington, where the prince and his mother were residing. The poor king found himself forsaken of all the world, and left to die neglected and alone. It is said that Alice Perrers was the last to leave him, and that she only remained after the rest for the sake of a valuable ring which he wore upon his finger, and which she wished to get away from him as soon as the dying monarch was too far gone to be conscious of the robbery.

The counselors and nobles, though they thus forsook the king, were not wholly unmindful of the interests of the kingdom. They assembled immediately after his death, and determined that during Richard's minority the government should be administered by a council, and they selected for this council twelve men from among the highest nobles of the land. They determined upon this plan rather than upon a regency because they knew that if a regent were appointed it would be necessary that the Duke of Lancaster should be the man, and they were unwilling to put the power into his hands, for fear that he would not surrender it when Richard should come of age.

Besides, it would be in his power, in case he had been appointed regent, to have caused Richard to be put to death in some secret way, if he chose to do so, and then, of course, the crown would, without dispute, pass next to him. It was not wholly unreasonable to fear this, for such crimes had often been committed by rival against rival in the English royal line. A man might be in those days a very brave and gallant knight, a model in the eyes of all for the unsullied purity of his chivalric honor, and yet be ready to poison or starve an uncle, or a brother, or a nephew, without compunction or remorse, if their rights or interests conflicted with his own. The honor of chivalry was not moral principle or love of justice and right; it was mere punctiliousness in respect to certain conventional forms.

Immediately on the death of the king, orders were sent to all the ports in the southern part of England forbidding any ship or boat of any kind from going to sea. The object of this was to keep the death of the king a secret from the King of France, for fear that he might seize the opportunity for an invasion of England. Indeed, it was known that he was preparing an expedition for this purpose before the king died, and it was considered very important that he should not hear of the event until the government should be settled, lest he should take advantage of it to hasten his invasion.

The making of these arrangements, and the funeral ceremonies connected with the interment of the king, occupied some days. There was also a difficulty between the Duke of Lancaster and the citizens of London to be settled, which for a time threatened to be quite embarrassing. The case was this.

In all accounts of the Reformation in England, among the earliest of those who first called in question the supremacy of the Pope, the name of Wickliffe is always mentioned. Indeed, he has been called the morning star of the English Reformation, as he appeared before it, and, by the light which beamed from his writings and his deeds, announced and ushered its approach. He was a collegian of the great University of Oxford, a very learned man, and a great student of ecclesiastical and civil law. During the reign of Edward, Richard's grandfather, who had now just died, there had been some disputes between him and the Pope in relation to their respective rights and powers within the realm of England. This is not the place to explain the particulars of the dispute. It is enough here to say that there were two parties formed in England, some taking sides with the Church, and others with the king. The bishops and clergy, of course, belonged to the former class, and many of the high nobility to the latter. At length, after various angry discussions, the Pope issued a bull, addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury and to the Bishop of London, two of the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries of the realm, commanding them to cause Wickliffe to be apprehended and brought before them for trial on the charge of heresy.

The decrees of popes were in those days, as now, generally called bulls. The reason why they were called by this name was on account of their being authenticated by the Pope's seal, which was impressed upon a sort of button or boss of metal attached to the parchment by a cord or ribbon. The Latin name for this boss was bulla. Such bosses were sometimes made of lead, so as to be easily stamped by the seal. Sometimes they were made of other metals. There was one famous decree of the Pope in which the boss was of gold. This was called the golden bull.


The Bull

On the adjoining page we have an engraving, copied from a very ancient book, representing an archbishop reading a bull to the people in a church. You can see the boss of metal, with the seal stamped upon it, hanging down from the parchment.

As soon as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London received the bull commanding them to bring Wickliffe to trial, they caused him to be seized and brought to London. On hearing of his arrest, a number of his friends among the nobles came at once to London too, in order that they might support him by their countenance and encouragement, and restrain the prelates from carrying their hostility against him too far. Among these were the Duke of Lancaster and a certain Lord Percy, a nobleman of very high rank and station. The trial took place in the Church of St. Paul's. Wickliffe was called upon to answer to the charges made against him before a very imposing court of ecclesiastics, all dressed magnificently in their sacerdotal robes. The knights and barons who took Wickliffe's side were present too in their military costume, and a great assembly besides, consisting chiefly of the citizens of London.

The common people of London, being greatly under the influence of the priests, were, of course, against Wickliffe, and they looked with evil eyes upon the Duke of Lancaster and the other nobles who had come there to befriend him. In the course of the trial, which it seems was not conducted in a very regular manner, the prelates and the nobles got into a dispute. The dispute at last became so violent that the Duke of Lancaster had the rudeness to threaten the Bishop of London that if he did not behave better he would drag him out of the church by the hair of his head. This was certainly very rough language to address to a bishop, especially at a time when he was sitting, under authority from the Pope, as a judge in a high spiritual court, and clothed in all the paraphernalia of his sacred office. The Londoners were excessively angry. They went out and called their fellow-citizens to arms. The excitement spread and increased during the night, and the next morning a mob collected in the streets, threatening vengeance against the duke and Lord Percy, and declaring that they would kill them. The duke's arms, which were displayed in a public place in the city, they reversed, as was customary in the case of traitors, and then growing more and more excited as they went on, they directed their steps toward the palace of the Savoy, where they expected to find the duke himself. The duke was not there, but the men would have set fire to the palace had it not been for the interposition of the Bishop of London. He, hearing what was going on, repaired to the spot, and with great difficulty succeeded in restraining the mob and saving the palace. They, however, proceeded forthwith to the house of Lord Percy, where they burst through the doors, and, ransacking all the rooms, tore and broke every thing to pieces, and threw the fragments out at the windows. They found a man dressed as a priest, whom they took to be Lord Percy in disguise, and they killed him on the spot.

The murdered man was not Lord Percy, how ever, but a priest in his own proper dress. Lord Percy and the duke were just preparing to sit down to dinner quietly together in another place, when a messenger came breathless and informed them what was going on. They immediately fled. They ran to the water-side, got into a boat, and rowed themselves over to Kennington, a place on the southern side of the river, nearly opposite to Westminster, where the young Prince Richard and his mother were then residing; for all this took place just before King Richard's grandfather died.

The lord-mayor and aldermen of London were greatly alarmed when they heard of this riot, and of the excesses which the citizens of London had committed. They were afraid that the Duke of Lancaster, whose influence and power they knew was already very great, and which would probably become vastly greater on the death of the king, would hold them responsible for it. So they went in a body to Richmond, where the king was lying sick, and made very humble apologies for the indignities which had been offered to the duke, and they promised to do all in their power to punish the transgressors. The king was, however, too far gone to pay much attention to this embassy. The mayor and aldermen then sent a deputation to Prince Richard at Kennington, to declare their good-will to him, and their readiness to accept him as their sovereign upon the death of his father, and to promise faithful allegiance to him on their own part individually, and on the part of the city of London. They hoped by this means to conciliate the good opinion of Richard and of his mother, as well as of the other friends around him, and prepare them to judge leniently of their case when it should come before them.

All this, as has already been remarked, took place just before King Edward's death. Immediately after his death Richard and his mother went to Richmond, and took up their residence in the palace where Edward died. On the next day a deputation was sent to the mayor and aldermen of London in Richard's name, calling upon them to appear at Richmond before the king, together with the Duke of Lancaster and his friends, in order that both sides might be heard in respect to the subject-matter of the dispute, and that the question might be properly decided. The Duke of Lancaster, they were informed, had agreed to this course, and was ready to appear. They were accordingly summoned to appear also.

The Londoners were at first rather afraid to obey this injunction. They did not think that a boy of eleven years of age was really competent to hear and decide such a case. Then they were afraid, too, that the Duke of Lancaster, being his uncle, would have such an influence over him as to lead him to decide just as he, the duke, should desire, and that thus, if they submitted to such a hearing of the case, they would place themselves wholly in the duke's power. After some hesitation, however, they finally concluded to go, stipulating only that, whatever disposal might be made of the case, there should, in no event, any personal harm befall the mayor or the aldermen.

This condition was agreed to, and the parties appeared on the appointed day before the little king to have the case tried. Richard was, of course, surrounded by his officers and counselors, and the business was really transacted by them, though it was done in the young king's name. There was no difficulty in settling the dispute amicably, for all parties were disposed to have it settled, and in such cases it is always easy to find a way. In this instance, the advisers of Richard managed so well that the duke and his friends were quite reconciled to the Londoners, and they all went out from the presence of the king at last, when the case was concluded, as good friends apparently as they had ever been.

The settling of this dispute was the first act of King Richard's reign. Considering how violent the dispute had been, and how powerful the parties to it were, and also considering that Richard was yet nothing but a small though very pretty boy, we must admit that it was a very good beginning.

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