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

Incidents of the Reign

In giving some general account of the character of Richard's reign, and of the incidents that occurred during the course of it, we now go back a little again, so as to begin at the beginning of it.

When Richard was married, he was, as has already been said, only about fifteen or sixteen years of age. As he grew older, after this time, and began to feel that sense of strength and independence which pertains to manhood, he became more and more jealous of the power and influence of his uncles in the government of the country. His mother, too, who was still living, and who adhered closely to him, was very suspicious of the uncles. She was continually imagining that they were forming plots and conspiracies against her son in favor of themselves or of their own children. She was particularly suspicious of the Duke of Lancaster, and of his son Henry Bolingbroke. It proved in the end that there was some reason for this suspicion, for this Henry Bolingbroke was the means at last of deposing Richard from his throne in order to take possession of it himself, as we shall see in the sequel.

In order to prevent, as far as possible, these uncles from finding opportunity to accomplish any of their supposed designs, Richard and his mother excluded them, as much as they could, from power, and appointed other persons, who had no such claims to the crown, to all the important places about the court. This, of course, made the uncles very angry. They called the men whom Richard thus brought forward his favorites, and they hated them exceedingly. This state of things led to a great many intrigues, and manœuvres, and plots, and counterplots, the favorites against the uncles, and the uncles against the favorites. These difficulties were continued for many years. Parties were formed in Parliament, of which sometimes one was in the ascendency and sometimes the other and all was turmoil and confusion.

When Richard was about twenty years old, one of his uncles—his uncle Thomas, at that time Duke of Gloucester—gained such an influence in Parliament that some of Richard's favorites were deposed from office and imprisoned. The duke was imboldened by this success to take a farther step. He told the Parliament that the government would never be on a good footing until they themselves appointed a council to manage in the king's name.

When Richard heard of this plan, he declared that he would never submit to it.

"I am the King of England," said he, "and I will govern my realm by means of such officers as I choose to appoint myself. I will not have others to appoint them for me."

The ideas which the kings of those days entertained in respect to the province of Parliament was that it was to vote the necessary taxes to supply the king's necessities, and also to mature the details of all laws for the regulation of the ordinary business and the social relations of life, but that the government, strictly so called—that is, all that relates to the appointment and payment of executive officers, the making of peace or war, the building and equipment of fleets, and the command of armies, was exclusively the king's prerogative, and that for the exercise of his prerogative in these particulars the sovereign was responsible, not to his subjects, but to God alone, from whom he claimed to have received his crown.

The people of England, as represented by Parliament, have never consented to this view of the subject. They have always maintained that their kings are, in some sense, responsible to the people of the realm, and they have often deposed kings, and punished them in other ways.

Accordingly, when Richard declared that he would not submit to the appointment of a council by Parliament, the Commons reminded him of the fact that his great-grandfather, Edward the Second, had been deposed in consequence of having unreasonably and obstinately resisted the will of his people, and they hinted to him that it would be well for him to beware lest he should incur the same fate. Some of the lords, too, told him that the excitement was so great in the country on account of the mismanagement of public affairs, and the corruptions and malpractice of the favorites, that if he refused to allow the council to be appointed, there was danger that he would lose his head.

So Richard was obliged to submit, and the council was appointed. Richard was in a great rage, and he secretly determined to lay his plans for recovering the power into his own hands as soon as possible, and punishing the council, and all who were concerned in appointing them, for their audacity in presuming to encroach in such a manner upon his sovereign rights as king.

The council that was appointed consisted of eleven bishops and nobles. Richard's uncle Thomas, the Duke of Gloucester, was at the head of it. This council governed the country for more than a year. Every thing was done in Richard's name, it is true, but the real power was in the hands of the Duke of Gloucester. Richard was very angry and indignant, but he did not see what he could do.

He was, however, all the time forming plans and schemes to recover his power. At last, after about a year had passed away, he called together a number of judges secretly at Nottingham, toward the northern part of the kingdom, and submitted to them the question whether such a council as the Parliament had appointed was legal. It was, of course, understood beforehand how the judges would decide. They decreed that the council was illegal; that for Parliament to give a council such powers was a violation of the king's prerogative, and was consequently treason, and that, of course, all who had been concerned in the transaction had made themselves liable to the penalty of death.

It was Richard's plan, after having obtained this decree, to cause the prominent members of the council to be arrested, and he came to London and began to make his preparations for accomplishing this purpose. But as soon as his uncle Thomas, the Duke of Gloucester, heard of these plans, he, and some great nobles who were ready to join with him against the king, collected all their forces, and began to march to London at the head of forty thousand men. Richard's cousin Henry, the Duke of Lancaster's son, joined them on the way. Richard's friends and favorites, on hearing of this, immediately took arms, and preparations began to be made for civil war. In a word, after having successfully met and quelled the great insurrection of the serfs and laborers under Wat Tyler, Richard was now to encounter a still more formidable resistance of his authority on the part of his uncles and the great barons of the realm. These last, indeed, were far more to be feared than the others, for they had arms and organization, and they enjoyed every possible facility for carrying on a vigorous and determined war. Richard and his party soon found that it was useless to attempt to resist them. Accordingly, after a very brief struggle, the royal party was entirely put down. Richard's favorites were arrested. Some of them were beheaded, others were banished from the realm, and the government of the country fell again into the hands of the uncles.

One of Richard's favorites who was executed on this occasion was a man whose untimely death grieved and afflicted both Richard and the queen very much indeed. His name was Sir Simon Burley. He had been Richard's friend and companion all his life. Richard's father, Edward, the Black Prince, had appointed Sir Simon Richard's tutor while Richard himself was a mere child, and he had been with him ever since that time. Queen Anne was much attached to him, and she was particularly grateful to him on account of his having been the commissioner who negotiated and arranged her marriage with Richard. Richard made every possible exertion to save his tutor's life, but his uncle Gloucester was inexorable. He told Richard that his keeping the crown depended on the immediate execution of the traitor. Queen Anne fell on her knees before him, and begged and entreated that Sir Simon might be spared, but all was of no avail.

So Richard was compelled to submit; but he did not do so without secret muttering, and resolutions of revenge. He allowed the government to remain in his uncle's hands for some time, but at length, about a year afterward, he found himself strong enough to seize it again. The plea which his uncles had hitherto made for managing the government themselves was, that Richard was not yet of age. But now he became of age, and he resolved on what might be called a coup d'etat, to get possession of the government. He planned this measure in concert with a number of his own friends and favorites, who hoped, by this means, that they themselves should rise to power.

He called a grand council of all the nobles and great officers of state. The assembly convened in the great council-chamber, and waited there for the king to come in.

At length the king arrived, and, walking into the chamber, he took his seat upon the throne. A moment afterward he turned to one of the chief officers present and addressed him, saying,

"My lord, what is my age at the present time?"

The nobleman answered that his majesty was now over twenty years of age.

"Then," said the king, speaking in a very firm and determined manner, "I am of years sufficient to govern mine own house and family, and also my kingdom; for it seemeth against reason that the state of the meanest person in my kingdom should be better than mine. Every heir throughout the land that has once come to the age of twenty years is permitted, if his father be not living, to order his business himself. And that which is permitted by law to every other person, of however mean degree, why is it denied to me?"

The king spoke these words with an air of such courage and determination that the barons were astonished. The foremost of them, after a brief pause, seemed ready to accede to his proposals. They said that there should henceforth be no right abridged from him, but that he might take upon himself the government if he chose, as it was now manifestly his duty to do.

"Very well," said the king. "You know that I have been a long time ruled by tutors and governors, so that it has not been lawful for me to do any thing, no matter of how small importance, without their consent. Now, therefore, I desire that henceforth they meddle no more with matters pertaining to my government, for I will attend to them myself, and after the manner of an heir arrived at full age. I will call whom I please to be my counsel, and thus manage my own affairs according to my own will and pleasure."

The barons were extremely surprised to hear these determinations thus resolutely announced by the king, but had nothing to say in reply.

"And in the first place," continued Richard, "I wish the chancellor to give me up the great seal."

The great seal was a very important badge and emblem of the royal prerogative. No decree was of legal authority until an impress from this seal was attached to it. The officer who had charge of it was called the chancellor. A new seal was prepared for each sovereign on his accession to the throne. The devices were much the same in all. They consisted of a representation of the king seated on his throne upon one side of the seal, and on the other mounted on horseback and going into battle, armed from head to foot. The legends or inscriptions around the border were changed, of course, for each reign.

The engraving on the following page represents one side of king Richard's seal. The other side contained an image of the king seated on his throne, and surrounded by various insignia of royalty.


Seal of Richard II.

"I wish the chancellor," said the king, "to deliver me up the great seal."

So the nobleman who had been chancellor up to that time delivered the seal into the hands of the king. The seal was kept in a beautiful box, richly ornamented. It was always brought to the council by the lord chancellor, who had it in charge. The king proceeded immediately afterward to appoint a new chancellor, and to place the box in his hands. In the same summary manner the king displaced almost all the other high officers of state, and appointed new ones of his own instead of them. The former officers were obliged to submit, though sorely against their will. They were powerless, for the king had now attained such an age that there was no longer any excuse for withholding from him the complete possession of his kingdom.

From this time, accordingly, Richard was actually as well as nominally king of England; but still he was often engaged in contentions and quarrels with his uncles, and with the other great nobles who took his uncle's part.

The queen—for good Queen Anne was at this time still living—was so gentle and kind, and she acted her part as peacemaker so well, that she greatly softened and soothed these asperities; but Richard led, nevertheless, a wild and turbulent life, and was continually getting involved in the most serious difficulties. Then there were wars to be carried on, sometimes with France, sometimes with Scotland, and sometimes with Ireland. Richard's uncles, the Dukes of Lancaster and Gloucester, generally went away in command of the armies to carry on these wars. Sometimes Richard himself accompanied the expeditions; but even on these occasions, when he and his knights and nobles were engaged together in a common cause, and apparently at peace with each other, there were so many jealousies and angry heartburnings among them, that deadly quarrels and feuds were continually breaking out.

As an example of these quarrels, I will give an account of one which took place not very long after Richard was married. He was engaged with his uncles in an expedition to Scotland. There was a knight in attendance upon him named Sir Miles. This knight was a friend of the queen. He was a Bohemian, and had come from Bohemia to pay Anne a visit, and to bring the news to her from her native land. The king, out of affection to Anne, paid him great attention. This made the English knights and nobles jealous, and they amused themselves with mimicking and laughing at Sir Miles's foreign peculiarities. The particular friends of the queen, however, took his part, one especially, named the Earl of Stafford, and his son, the young Lord Ralph Stafford. Lord Ralph Stafford was one of the most courteous and popular knights in England.

In the course of the expedition to Scotland the party came to a town called Beverley, which is situated in the northern part of England, near the frontier. One day, two archers belonging to the service of Lord Ralph Stafford, in riding across the fields near Beverley, found two squires engaged in a sort of quarrel with Sir Miles. The cause of the quarrel was something about his lodgings in the town. The squires, it seems, knowing that the knights and nobles generally disliked Sir Miles, were encouraged to be very bold and insolent to him in expressing their ill-will, and when the archers came up they were following him with taunts, and ridicule, and abuse, while Sir Miles was making the best of his way toward the town.

The archers took the Bohemian's part. They remonstrated with the squires for thus abusing and teasing a stranger and a foreigner, a personal friend, too, and guest of the queen.

"What business is it of yours, villainous knave, whether we laugh at him or not?" said the squires. "What right have you to intermeddle? What is it to you?"

"What is it to us?" repeated one of the archers. "It is a great deal to us. This man is the friend of our master, and we will not stand by and see him abused."

Upon hearing this, one of the squires uttered some words of defiance, and advanced as if to strike the archer; but the archer, having his bow and arrow all ready, suddenly let the arrow fly, and the squire was killed on the spot.

Sir Miles had already gone on toward the town. The other squire, seeing his companion dead, immediately made his escape. The two archers, leaving the man whom they had killed on the ground where he had fallen, made the best of their way home, and told their master, Sir Ralph Stafford, what they had done.

Sir Ralph was extremely concerned to hear of the occurrence, and he told the archer who killed the squire that he had done very wrong.

"But, my lord," said the archer, "I could not have done otherwise; for the man was coming up to us with his sword drawn in his hand, and we were obliged either to kill him or to be killed ourselves."

The archers, moreover, told Sir Ralph that the squires were in the service of Sir John Holland. Now Sir John Holland was a half brother of the king, being the child of his mother, the Princess of Wales, by a former husband. When Sir Ralph heard this, he was still more alarmed than before. He told the archers who killed the squire that they must go and hide themselves somewhere until the affair could be arranged.

"I will negotiate with Lord Holland for your pardon," said he, "either through my father or in some other way. But, in the mean time, you must keep yourselves closely concealed."

The Earl of Stafford, Lord Ralph Stafford's father, was a nobleman of the very highest rank, and of great influence.

It is a curious indication of the ideas that prevailed in those days, and of the relations that subsisted between the nobles and their dependents, that the slaughter of a man in an affray of this kind was a matter to be arranged  between the masters respectively of the men engaged in it.

The archers went away to hide themselves until Lord Ralph could arrange the matter.

In the mean time, the squire who had escaped in the fray hurried home and related the matter to Lord Holland. Lord Holland was greatly enraged. He uttered dreadful imprecations against Lord Ralph Stafford and against Sir Miles, whom he seemed to consider responsible for the death of his squire, and declared that he would not sleep until he had had his revenge. So he mounted his horse, and, taking some trusty attendants with him, rode into Beverley, and asked where Sir Miles's lodgings were. While he was going toward the place, breathing fury and death, suddenly, in a narrow lane, he came upon Lord Ralph, who was then going to find him, in order to arrange about the murder. It was now, however, late in the evening, and so dark that the parties did not at first know each other.

"Who comes here?" said Lord Holland, when he saw Sir Ralph approaching.

"I am Stafford," replied Sir Ralph.

"You are the very man I want to see," said Lord Holland. "One of your servants has killed my squire—the one that I loved so much."

As he said this, he brought down so heavy a blow upon Sir Ralph's head as to fell him from his horse to the ground. He then rode on. The attendants hurried to the spot and raised Sir Ralph up. They found him faint and bleeding, and in a few moments he died.

As soon as this fact was ascertained, one of the men rode on after Lord Holland, and, coming up to him, said,

"My lord, you have killed Lord Stafford."

"Very well," said Lord Holland; "I am glad of it. I would rather it would be a man of his rank than any body else, for so I am the more completely revenged for the death of my squire."

As fast as the tidings of these events spread, they produced universal excitement. The Earl of Stafford, the father of Sir Ralph, was plunged into the most inconsolable grief at the death of his son. The earl was one of the most powerful nobles in the army, and, if he had undertaken to avenge himself on Lord Holland, the whole expedition would perhaps have been broken up into confusion. On the king's solemn assurance that Holland would be punished, he was appeased for the time; but then the Princess of Wales, Richard's mother, who was Lord Holland's mother too, was thrown into the greatest state of anxiety and distress. She implored Richard to save his brother's life. All the other nobles and knights took sides too in the quarrel, and for a time it seemed that the dissension would never be healed. Lord Holland, in the mean while, fled to the church at Beverley, and took sanctuary there. By the laws and customs of the time, they could not touch him until he came voluntarily out.

Richard resisted all the entreaties of his mother to spare the murderer's life until he found that her anxiety and distress were preying upon her health so much that he feared that she would die. At last, to save his mother's life, he promised that Holland should be spared. But it was too late. His mother fell into a decline, and at length died, as it was said, of a broken heart. What a dreadful death! that of a mother worn out by the agony of long-continued and apparently fruitless efforts to prevent one of her children from being the executioner of another for the crime of murder.

Besides these fierce, deadly contests among the knights and nobles, the ladies of the court had their feuds and quarrels too. They were often divided into cliques and parties, and were full of envyings, jealousies, and resentments against each other. One of the most serious of these difficulties was occasioned by a marriage of the Duke of Lancaster, which took place toward the close of his life. This was his third marriage, he having been successively married to two ladies of high rank before. The lady whom he now married was of a comparatively humble station in life. She was the daughter of a foreign knight. Her name, originally, was Catharine de Rouet. She had been, in her early life, a maiden in attendance on the Duchess of Lancaster, the duke's second wife. While she was in his family the duke formed a guilty intimacy with her, which was continued for a long time. They had three children. The duke provided well for these children, and gave them a good education. After a time, the duke, becoming tired of her, arranged for her to be married to a certain knight named Swinton, and she lived with this knight for some time, until at length he died, and Catharine became a widow.

The Duchess of Lancaster died also, and then the duke became for the second time a widower, and he now conceived the idea of making Catharine Swinton his wife. His motive for this was not his love for her, for that, it is said, had passed away, but his regard for the children, who, on the marriage of their mother to the father of the children, would be legitimatized, and would thus become entitled to many legal rights and privileges from which they would otherwise be debarred. The other ladies of the court, however, particularly the wives of the other dukes—the Duke of Lancaster's brothers—were greatly incensed when they heard of this proposed marriage, and they did all they possibly could do to prevent it. All was, however, of no avail, for the Duke of Lancaster was not a man to be easily thwarted in any determination that he might take into his head. So he was married, and the poor despised Catharine was made the first duchess in the realm, and became entitled to take precedence of all the other duchesses.

This the other duchesses could not endure. They could not bear it, they said, and they would  not bear it. They declared that they would not go into any place where this woman, as they called her, was to be. As might have been expected, an interminable amount of quarreling and ill-will grew out of this affair.

About the time of this marriage of the duke, the king himself was married a second time, as will be related in the next chapter.

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