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


Besides his uncle John, Duke of Lancaster, Richard had two other uncles, who each acted an important part in public affairs at the commencement of his reign. They were,

1. His uncle Edmund, who was the Earl of Cambridge, and afterward Duke of York. Of course he is sometimes called, in the histories of those times, by one of these names, and sometimes by the other.

2. His uncle Thomas. Thomas was born in the palace of Woodstock, and so was often called Thomas of Woodstock. He was the Earl of Buckingham, and afterward the Duke of Gloucester.

Besides these uncles, Richard had a cousin just about his own age, who afterward, as we shall see, played a very important part indeed in Richard's history. This cousin was named Henry Bolingbroke. He was the son of Richard's uncle John, the Duke of Lancaster. He and Richard were now both about eleven years of age; or rather, Richard was eleven, and his cousin Henry was about ten.

Of course, Richard was altogether too young to exercise any real control in respect to the government of the country. Every thing was, consequently, left to the Parliament and the nobles. His uncles endeavored to assume the general direction of affairs, but there was nevertheless a strong party against them. There were no means of deciding these disputes except by the votes in Parliament, and these votes went one way and the other, as one party or the other, for the time being, gained the ascendency. Every one watched very closely the conduct of Richard's uncle John. He was the next oldest son of Edward the Third, after Edward, the Prince of Wales, Richard's father. Of course, if Richard were to die, he would become king; and if he himself were to die before Richard did, and then Richard were to die before he grew up and had children of his own, then his son, Richard's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, would be entitled to claim the kingdom. Thus, while Richard remained unmarried and without heirs, this Henry Bolingbroke was in the direct line of succession, and, of course, next to Richard himself, he was, perhaps, the most important personage in the kingdom. There was, it is true, another child, the grandchild of an older uncle of Richard's, named Lionel; but he was very young at this time, and he died not long afterward, leaving Henry Bolingbroke the only heir.

It is curious enough that, a year or two after this, the French king died, and was succeeded by his son, a boy of about twelve years of age. This boy was Charles the Sixth. He was crowned in France with ceremonies still more splendid and imposing in some respects than those which had been observed in London on the occasion of Richard's coronation. Thus the hopes and fears of all the millions of people inhabiting France and England respectively, in regard to the succession of the crown and the government of the country, were concentrated in three boys not yet in their teens.

Of course, Richard and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke were rivals from the beginning. Richard and his friends were jealous and suspicious of Henry and of his father, and were always imagining that they were wishing that Richard might die, in order that they might come into his place. Thus there was no cordial friendship in the family, nor could there be any. Of the other nobles and barons, some took sides in one way and some in the other. The boys themselves, both Richard and Henry, were too young to know much about these things; but the leading barons and courtiers formed themselves into parties, ranging themselves some on one side and some on the other, so as to keep up a continual feeling of jealousy and ill-will.

In the mean time, the French began to retaliate for the invasions of their country which the English had made, by planning invasions of England in return. One expedition landed on the Isle of Wight, and after burning and destroying the villages and small towns, they laid some of the large towns under a heavy contribution; that is, they made them pay a large sum of money under a threat that, if the money was not paid, they would burn down their town too. So the citizens collected the money and paid it, and the French expedition set sail and went away before the government had time to send troops from London to intercept them.

The French, too, besides invading England themselves on the south, incited the Scotch to make incursions into the northern provinces, for Scotland was then entirely independent of England. A curious story is related illustrating the religious ignorance which prevailed among the common people of Scotland in those days. It seems that some remarkable epidemic prevailed in 1379 in the northern part of England, which was extremely fatal. Great numbers of people died. The Scotch sent messengers across the border to ascertain what the cause of the sickness was. The English people told them that they did not know what the cause was. It was a judgment from God, the nature and operation of which was hidden from them. They added, however, this pious sentiment, that they submitted themselves patiently to the dispensation, for they knew "that every calamity that could befall men in this world came from the grace of God, to the end that, being punished for their sins, they might be led to repent and reform their wicked lives."

The messengers went home, and reported to the Scottish borderers that the English people said that the plague came from the grace of God, not being able, it would seem, to remember the rest of the message. So the priests arranged a form of prayer, addressed to certain saints, which was to be said by the people every morning. This prayer implored the saints to deliver the people from the grace of God, and the dreadful plagues which were sent by it upon men. The form was this:

The head of the family would first say, "Blessed be," and the others would respond, "The Lord."

Then the head of the family would say,

"God and Saint Mango,

"Saint Romane and Saint Andro,

"Shield us this day from God's grace, and the foul death that Englishmen die of."

And all the others would say "Amen."

Thus they considered the grace of God as an evil which they were to pray to be delivered from.

Indeed, the common people at this time, not only in Scotland, but throughout England, were in a state of great ignorance and degradation. The barons, and knights, and soldiers generally looked down with great contempt upon all who were engaged in any industrial pursuits. In the country, the great mass of those who were employed in tilling the ground were serfs or slaves, bought and sold with the land, and at the disposal, in almost all respects, of their haughty masters. The inhabitants of the towns, who lived by the manufacturing arts or by commerce, were more independent, but the nobles, and knights, and all who considered themselves gentlemen looked down with something like contempt upon these too, as, in fact, their successors, the present aristocracy of England, do at the present day, regarding them as persons in a very mean condition, and engaged in low and ignoble pursuits. Still, the industrial classes had increased greatly in wealth and numbers, and they began to have and to express some opinion in respect to public affairs. They had considerable influence in the House of Commons; and the government was, in a great measure, dependent upon the House of Commons, and was becoming more and more so every year. It is true, the king, or rather the great lords who managed the government in his name, could make war where they pleased, and appoint whom they pleased to carry it on. Still, they could not assess any tax except by the consent of the Commons, and thus, in carrying on any great operations, they were becoming every year more and more dependent on the public sentiment of the country.

The country began to be very much dissatisfied with the management of public affairs within two or three years after the commencement of Richard's reign. Large sums of money were raised, and put into the hands of Richard's uncles, who spent it in organizing great expeditions by land and sea to fight the French; but almost all of these expeditions were unsuccessful. The people thought that they were mismanaged, and that the money was squandered. Some of the nobles expended immense sums upon themselves. In the case of one expedition that put to sea from the southern coast of England, the nobleman who commanded it had twenty-five vessels loaded with his own personal property and baggage, and that of his servants and attendants. This man had fifty-two new suits of apparel, made of cloth of gold, immensely expensive. The fleet was wrecked, and all this property was lost in the sea.

A great many of the expeditions that were fitted out in England were for the purpose of carrying on wars in Brittany and Aquitaine, in France, for the benefit exclusively of the nobles and knights who claimed possessions in those countries; the mass of the people of England, at whose expense the operations were carried on, having no interest whatever in the result. The worst of it was, that in these wars no real progress was made. Towns were taken and castles were stormed, first by one party and then by the other. The engraving represents the storming of one of these towns, and, being copied from an ancient picture, it shows truthfully the kind of armor and the mode of fighting employed in those days.


Storming of a Town

Almost the only way of forcing a passage into a castle or fortified town was by climbing over the walls by means of ladders, and overpowering the garrison upon the top of them by main force, as represented in the engraving. Sometimes, it is true, the besiegers of a castle undermined the walls, so as to make them fall in and thus open a breach. At the present day, mines dug in this way are blown up by gunpowder. But people were little acquainted with the use of gunpowder then, and so they were obliged to shore up the walls while they were digging them by means of posts and beams, and these, after the miners had withdrawn, were pulled out by ropes, and thus the walls were made to fall down.

Great engines were sometimes used, too, to batter down the walls of castles and towns. There was one kind of engine, used by the Duke of Lancaster in one of his campaigns in France in the early part of Richard's reign, which was called a sow. The sow was made in many parts, at a distance from the place besieged, wherever a suitable supply of beams and timber could be obtained, and then was brought on carts to the spot. When it was framed together and put in operation, it would hurl immense stones, which, striking the walls, made breaches in them, or, going over them, came down into the interior of the place, crushing through the roofs of the houses, and killing sometimes multitudes of men. The sow was made, too, so as to afford shelter and protection to a great number of persons, who could ride upon it while it was drawn or pushed up near the walls, and thus reach a point where they could begin to undermine the walls, or plant their ladders for scaling them. The Duke of Lancaster caused one sow to be made which would carry, in this way, one hundred men.

Gunpowder, however, began to be used about this time, though in a very imperfect and inefficient manner. At one siege, namely, that of St. Malo, a town on the northwestern coast of France, it is said that the Duke of Lancaster had four hundred cannon. They were all, however, of very little avail in taking the town.

The wars waged between the English and the French in these chivalrous times were much more personal in their character than wars are at the present day. In that period of the world, every great duke, or baron, or knight was in some sense an independent personage, having his own separate interests to look out for, and his own individual rights and honor to maintain, to a degree far greater than now. The consequence of this was, that the narratives of wars of those times contain accounts of a great many personal incidents and adventures which make the history of them much more entertaining than the histories of modern campaigns. I will give one or two examples of these personal incidents.

At one time, while the Duke of Lancaster was besieging St. Malo with his four hundred cannon, there was a famous Welsh knight, named Evan, known in history as Evan of Wales, who was besieging a castle belonging to the English. The name of the castle was Mortain. It was on the River Garonne, in the country of Aquitaine. The castle was so strong that Evan had no hope of taking it by force, and so he invested it closely on all sides, and sat down quietly waiting for the garrison to be starved into a surrender.

The castle was near the river. Evan built three block-houses on the three sides of it. One of these block-houses was on the edge of a rock before the castle, on the river side. The second was opposite a postern gate, and was intended particularly to watch the gate, in order to prevent any one from coming out or going in. The third block-house was below the castle, between the lower part of it and the water. To guard the fourth side of the castle, Evan had taken possession of a church which stood at some little distance from it, and had converted the church into a fort. Thus the castle was completely invested, being watched and guarded on every side. The garrison, however, would not surrender, hoping that they might receive succor before their provisions were entirely exhausted. They remained in this condition for a year and a half, and were at length reduced to great distress and suffering. Still, the governor of the castle would not surrender.

It may seem strange that Evan, a knight from Wales, should be fighting against the English, since Wales had some years before been annexed to the realm of England. The reason was, that Evan's family had been driven out of Wales by the cruelties and oppressions of the English. His father, who had formerly been Prince of Wales, had been beheaded, and Evan, in his infancy, had been saved by his attendants, who fled with him to France. There he had been received into the family of the French king, John, and, after he had grown up, he had fought under John many years. The older he grew, the more his heart was filled with resentment against the English, and now he was engaged, heart and hand, in the attempt to drive them out of France. Of course, the English considered him a traitor, and they hated him much more than they did any of the French commanders, of whom nothing else was to be expected than that they should be enemies to the English, and fight them always and every where. Evan they considered as in some sense one of their own countrymen who had turned against them.

There was another circumstance which increased the hatred of the English against Evan, and that was, that he had taken one of their knights prisoner, and then refused to ransom him on any terms. The English offered any sum of money that Evan would demand, or they offered to exchange for him a French knight of the same rank; but Evan was inexorable. He would not give up his prisoner on any terms, but sent him to Paris, and shut him up in a dungeon, where he pined away, and at length died of misery and despair.

In consequence of these things, a plot was formed in England for assassinating Evan. A Welshman, by the name of John Lamb, was appointed to execute it.

John Lamb set out from England, and crossed the Channel to France. He was a well-educated man, speaking French fluently, and he was well received every where by the French, for he told them that he was a countryman of Evan's, and that he was going to Mortain to join him. The French, accordingly, treated him well, and helped him forward on his journey.

When he reached Mortain, he came into the presence of Evan, and, falling on his knees before him, he said that he was his countryman, and that he had come all the way from Wales to enter into his service. Evan did not suspect any treachery. He received the man kindly, and made many inquiries of him in respect to the news which he brought from Wales.

John gave him very favorable accounts of the country, and spoke particularly of the interest and affection which was every where felt for him.

"The whole country," said he, "are thinking and talking continually about you, and are anxiously desiring your return. They wish to have you for their lord."

These and other flatteries quite won the heart of Evan, and he took Lamb into his service, and appointed him to a confidential post about his person.

For a time after this there were occasional skirmishes between the garrison of Mortain and the besiegers, but, as the strength of the garrison gradually failed, these contests became less and less frequent, until at last they ceased entirely. The soldiers of Evan then had nothing to do but to watch and wait until the progress of starvation and misery should compel the garrison to surrender. There was no longer any danger of sorties from the walls, and the besiegers ceased to be at all on their guard, but went and came at their ease about the castle, just as if there were no enemy near.

Evan himself used to go out in the morning, when the weather was fine, into the fields in front of the castle before he was dressed, and there have his hair combed and plaited a long time; for, like most of the knights and gentlemen soldiers of those days, he was very particular about his dress and his personal appearance. On these occasions he often had nobody to attend him but John Lamb. There was a place where there was a fallen tree, which formed a good seat, at a spot which afforded a commanding view of the castle and of the surrounding country. He used often to go and sit upon this tree while his hair was combed, amusing himself the while in watching to see what was going on in the castle, and to observe if there were any signs that the garrison were going to surrender.

One morning, after a very warm night, during which Evan had not been able to sleep, he went out to this place very early. He was not dressed, but wore only a jacket and shirt, with a cloak thrown over his shoulders. The soldiers generally were asleep, and there was nobody with Evan but John Lamb. Evan sat down upon the log, and presently sent John Lamb to the block-house for his comb.

"Go and get my comb," said he, "and comb my hair. That will refresh me a little."

So John went for the comb. As he went, however, it seemed to him that the time for the execution of his plan had come. So he brought with him from the block-house a Spanish dagger, which he found there in Evan's apartment. As soon as he reached Evan, who had thrown off his cloak, and was thus almost naked and entirely off his guard, he plunged the dagger into him up to the hilt at a single blow. Evan sank down upon the ground a lifeless corpse. Lamb left the dagger in the wound, and walked directly to the gate of the castle.

The guards at the gate hailed him and demanded what he wanted. He said he wished to see the governor of the castle. So the guards took him in, and conducted him into the presence of the governor.

"My lord," said Lamb, "I have delivered you from one of the greatest enemies you ever had."

"From whom?" asked the governor.

"From Evan of Wales," said Lamb.

The governor was very much astonished at hearing this, and demanded of Lamb by what means he had delivered them from Evan. Lamb then related to the governor what he had done.

The first impression produced upon the governor's mind by the statement which Lamb made was a feeling of displeasure. He looked at the assassin with a scowl of anger upon his face, and said sternly,

"Wretch! you have murdered your master. You deserve to have your head cut off for such a deed; and, were it not that we are in such great straits, and that we gain such very great advantage by his death, I would have your head cut off on the spot. However, what is done can not be undone. Let it pass."

The garrison did not derive any immediate advantage, after all, from the death of Evan, for the French were so incensed by the deed which John Lamb had perpetrated that they sent more troops to the spot, and pressed the siege more closely than ever. The garrison was, however, not long afterward relieved by an English fleet, which came up the river and drove the French away.

The knights and barons of those days were not accustomed to consider it any hardship to go to war against each other, but rather a pleasure. They enjoyed fighting each other just as men at the present day enjoy hunting wild beasts in the forest; and that chieftain was regarded as the greatest and most glorious who could procure for his retainers the greatest amount of this sort of pleasure, provided always that his abilities as a leader were such that they could have their full share of victory in the contests that ensued. It was only the quiet and industrial population at home, the merchants of London, the manufacturers of the country towns, and the tillers of the land, who were impoverished and oppressed by the taxes necessary for raising the money which was required, that were disposed to complain. The knights and soldiers who went forth on these campaigns liked to go. They not only liked the excitements and the freedom of the wild life they led in camp, and of the marches which they made across the country, but they liked the fighting itself. Their hearts were filled with animosity and hatred against their foes, and they were at any time perfectly willing to risk their lives for the opportunity of gratifying these passions. They were also greatly influenced by a love for the praise and glory which they acquired by the performance of any great or brilliant feat of arms.

This led them often to engage in single personal combats, such, for example, as this. There was a certain French knight, named De Langurant: he was making an incursion into the English territories in the neighborhood of Bordeaux. One day he was scouring the country at the head of about forty troopers, armed with lances. At the head of this troop he came into the neighborhood of a village which was in the hands of the English, and was defended by an English garrison. When he approached the village he halted his men, and posted them in ambush in a wood.

"You are to remain here a while," said he. "I am going on alone before the town, to see if I can not find some body to come out to fight me in single combat."

The object of De Langurant in this plan was to show his daring, and to perform a brave exploit which he might have to boast of, and glory over afterward among his brother soldiers.

The men did as he had commanded them, and concealed themselves in the wood. De Langurant then rode on alone, his lance fixed in its rest, and his helmet glittering in the sun, until he reached the gate of the town. Then he halted and challenged the sentinel.

The sentinel demanded what he wanted.

"Where is the captain of this garrison?" said the trooper. "I wish you to go and find him, and tell him that Lord De Langurant is at the gates of the town, and wishes to have a tilt with him. I dare him to come and fight with me, since he pretends that he is such a valiant man. Tell him that if he does not come, I will proclaim him every where as a coward that did not dare to come out and meet me."

The name of the captain whom De Langurant thus challenged was Bernard Courant. It happened that one of Bernard's servants was upon the gate, near the sentinel, at the time this challenge was given. He immediately called out to De Langurant, saying,

"I have heard what you have said, Sir Knight, and I will go immediately and inform my master. You may rely upon seeing him in a few minutes, if you will wait, for he is no coward."

Bernard was greatly incensed when he heard the impertinent and boasting message which De Langurant had sent him. He started up immediately and called for his arms, commanding, at the same time, that his horse should be saddled. He was very soon equipped and ready. The gate was opened, the drawbridge let down, and he sallied forth. De Langurant was waiting for him on the plain.

The knights were both mounted on furious chargers; and, after a moment's pause, during which they eyed each other with looks of fierce defiance, they put spurs to their horses, and the horses began to gallop toward each other at the top of their speed. Each of the knights, as he advanced, had one end of his lance supported in its rest, while he pointed the other directly toward his antagonist, with a view of striking him with it as he rode by, watching, at the same time, the terrible point which was coming toward him, in hopes to avoid it if possible, and, if not, to bear up against the blow so firmly as not to be unhorsed. The lances were very long, and were made of very solid wood, but the chief momentum of the blow which they were intended to give came from the end of them being supported in a rest, which was connected with the saddle in such a manner that the whole impetus of the horse, as it were, was communicated to the lance, and this impetus was so great, that if a lance struck in such a manner that it could not glance off, and did not overthrow the man, but met with a solid resistance, it was often shivered to atoms by the shock. This happened in the present case. The lances of both combatants were shivered at the first encounter. The riders were, however, uninjured. The horses wheeled, made a short circuit, and rushed toward each other again. At the second encounter, Bernard brought down so heavy a blow with a battle-axe upon the iron armor that covered De Langurant's shoulder, that the unfortunate trooper was hurled out of his saddle and thrown to the ground.

As soon as Bernard could rein in his horse again and bring him round, he galloped up to the spot where De Langurant had fallen, and found him attempting to raise himself up from the ground. At the same time, the horsemen whom De Langurant had left in the wood, and who had been watching the combat from their place of ambush, seeing their master unhorsed, began to put themselves in motion to come to his rescue. Bernard, who was a man of prodigious strength, reached down from his horse as he rode over his fallen enemy, and seized hold of his helmet. His horse, in the mean time, going on, and Bernard holding to the helmet with all his force, it was torn off from its fastenings, and De Langurant's head was left unprotected and bare.

Bernard threw the helmet down upon the ground under his horse's feet. Then drawing his dagger, he raised it over De Langurant's head, and called upon him to surrender.

"Surrender!" said he. "Surrender this instant, or you are a dead man."

The men in ambush were coming on, and De Langurant hoped they would be able to rescue him, so he did not reply. Bernard, knowing that he had not a moment to spare, drove the dagger into De Langurant's head, and then galloped away back through the gates into the town, just in time to avoid the troop of horsemen from the ambush, who were bearing down at full speed toward the spot, and were now just at hand.

The gates of the town were closed, and the drawbridge was taken up the moment that Bernard had entered, so that he could not be pursued. The horsemen, therefore, had nothing to do but to bear away their wounded commander to the nearest castle which was in their possession. The next day he died.


Knights Charging Upon Each Other

This engraving represents the manner in which knights rode to the encounter of each other in single combat. They are each well protected with a helmet, a shield or buckler, and other armor of iron, and are provided with lances and other weapons. These lances were very long, and were made of the toughest wood that could be obtained. The object of each combatant in such an encounter is to strike his antagonist with the point of his weapon so as either to pierce his armor and kill him, or else to throw him off his horse by the shock and force of the blow. If a knight were unhorsed, he lay generally helpless on the ground, being unable to rise on account of the weight of his armor. Of course, in this situation he was easily vanquished by his adversary.

While the barons and knights were thus amusing themselves at the beginning of Richard's reign with fighting for castles and provinces, either for the pleasure of fighting, or for the sake of the renown or the plunder which they acquired when they were fortunate enough to gain the victory, the great mass of the people of England were taxed and oppressed by their haughty masters to an extent almost incredible. The higher nobles were absolutely above all law. One of them, who was going to set off on a naval expedition into France, seized, in the English sea-port which he was leaving, a number of women, the wives and daughters of the citizens, and took them on board his ship, to be at the disposal there of himself and his fellow grandees. For this intolerable injury the husbands and fathers had absolutely no remedy. To crown the wickedness of this deed, when, soon after the fleet had left the port, a storm arose, and the women were terrified at the danger they were in, and their fright, added to the distress they felt at being thus torn away from their families and homes, made them completely and uncontrollably wretched, the merciless nobles threw them overboard to stop their cries.

Taxes were assessed, too, at this time, upon all the people of the kingdom, that were of an extremely onerous character. These taxes were farmed, as the phrase is; that is, the right to collect them was sold to contractors, called farmers of the revenue, who paid a certain sum out- right to the government, and then were entitled to all that they could collect of the tax. Thus there was no supervision over them in their exactions, for the government, being already paid, cared for nothing more. The consequence was, that the tax-gatherers, who were employed by the contractors, treated the people in the most oppressive and extortionate manner. If the people made complaints, the government would not listen to them, for fear that if they interfered with the tax-gatherers in collecting the taxes, the farmers would not pay so much the next time.

Richard himself, of course, knew nothing about all these things, or, if he did know of them, he was wholly unable to do any thing to prevent them. He was completely in the power of his uncles, and of the other great nobles of the time. The public discontent, however, grew at last so great that there was nothing wanted but a spark to cause it to break out into a flame. There was such a spark furnished at length by an atrocious insult and injury offered to a young girl, the daughter of a tiler, by one of the tax-gatherers. This led to a formidable insurrection, known in history as Wat Tyler's insurrection. I shall relate the story of this insurrection in the next chapter.

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