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

Richard's Predecessors

There have been three monarchs of the name of Richard upon the English throne. Richard I. is known and celebrated in history as Richard the Crusader. He was the sovereign ruler not only of England, but of all the Norman part of France, and from both of his dominions he raised a vast army, and went with it to the Holy Land, where he fought many years against the Saracens with a view of rescuing Jerusalem and the other holy places there from the dominion of unbelievers. He met with a great many remarkable adventures in going to the Holy Land, and with still more remarkable ones on his return home, all of which are fully related in the volume of this series entitled King Richard I.

Richard II. did not succeed Richard I. immediately. Several reigns intervened. The monarch who immediately succeeded Richard I. was John. John was Richard's brother, and had been left in command, in England, as regent, during the king's absence in the Holy Land.

After John came Henry III. and the three Edwards; and when the third Edward died, his son Richard II. was heir to the throne. He was, however, too young at that time to reign, for he was only ten years old.

The kings in these days were wild and turbulent men, always engaged in wars with each other and with their nobles, while all the industrial classes were greatly depressed. The nobles lived in strong castles in various places about the country, and owned, or claimed to own, very large estates, which the laboring men were compelled to cultivate for them. Some of these castles still remain in a habitable state, but most of them are now in ruins—and very curious objects the ruins are to see.


Ruins of an Ancient Castle

The kings held their kingdoms very much as the nobles did their estates—they considered them theirs by right. And the people generally thought so too. The king had a right, as they imagined, to live in luxury and splendor, and to lord it over the country, and compel the mass of the people to pay him nearly all their earnings in rent and taxes, and to raise armies, whenever he commanded them, to go and fight for him in his quarrels with his neighbors, because his father had done these things before him. And what right had his father to do these things? Why, because his  father had done them before him. Very well; but to go back to the beginning. What right had the first man to assume this power, and how did he get possession of it? This was a question that nobody could answer, for nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, who were the original founders of these noble families, or by what means they first came into power. People did not know how to read and write in the days when kings first began to reign, and so no records were made, and no accounts kept of public transactions; and when at length the countries of Europe in the Middle Ages began to emerge somewhat into the light of civilization, these royal and noble families were found every where established. The whole territory of Europe was divided into a great number of kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, and other such sovereignties, over each of which some ancient family was established in supreme and almost despotic power. Nobody knew how they originally came by their power.

The people generally submitted to this power very willingly. In the first place, they had a sort of blind veneration for it on account of its ancient and established character. Then they were always taught from infancy that kings had a right to reign, and nobles a right to their estates, and that to toil all their lives, and allow their kings and nobles to take, in rent and taxes, and in other such ways, every thing that they, the people, earned, except what was barely sufficient for their subsistence, was an obligation which the God of nature had imposed upon them, and that it would be a sin in them not to submit to it; whereas nothing can be more plain than that the God of nature intends the earth  for man, and that consequently society ought to be so organized that in each generation every man can enjoy something at least like his fair share of the products of it, in proportion to the degree of industry or skill which he brings to bear upon the work of developing these products.

There was another consideration which made the common people more inclined to submit to these hereditary kings and nobles than we should have supposed they would have been, and that is, the government which they exercised was really, in many respects, of great benefit to the community. They preserved order as far as they could, and punished crimes. If bands of robbers were formed, the nobles or the king sent out a troop to put them down. If a thief broke into a house and stole what he found there, the government sent officers to pursue and arrest him, and then shut him up in jail. If a murder was committed, they would seize the murderer and hang him. It was their interest to do this, for if they allowed the people to be robbed and plundered, or to live all the time in fear of violence, then it is plain that the cultivation of the earth could not go on, and the rents and the taxes could not be paid. So these governments established courts, and made laws, and appointed officers to execute them, in order to protect the lives and property of their subjects from all common thieves and murderers, and the people were taught to believe that there was no other way by which their protection could be secured except by the power of the kings. We must be contented as we are, they said to themselves, and be willing to go and fight the king's battles, and to pay to him and to the nobles nearly every thing that we can earn, or else society will be thrown into confusion, and the whole land will be full of thieves and murderers.

In the present age of the world, means have been devised by which, in any country sufficiently enlightened for this purpose, the people themselves can organize a government to restrain and punish robbers and murderers, and to make and execute all other necessary laws for the promotion of the general welfare; but in those ancient times this was seldom or never done. The art of government was not then understood. It is very imperfectly understood at the present day, but in those days it was not understood at all; and, accordingly, there was nothing better for the people to do than to submit to, and not only to submit to, but to maintain with all their power the government of these hereditary kings and nobles.

It must not be supposed, however, that the power of these hereditary nobles was absolute. It was very far from being absolute. It was restricted and curtailed by the ancient customs and laws of the realm, which customs and laws the kings and nobles could not transgress without producing insurrections and rebellions. Their own right to the power which they wielded rested solely on ancient customs, and, of course, the restrictions on these rights, which had come down by custom from ancient times, were as valid as the rights themselves.

Notwithstanding this, the kings were continually overstepping the limits of their power, and insurrections and civil wars were all the time breaking out, in consequence of which the realms over which they reigned were kept in a perpetual state of turmoil. These wars arose sometimes from the contests of different claimants to the crown. If a king died, leaving only a son too young to rule, one of his brothers, perhaps—an uncle of the young prince—would attempt to seize the throne, under one pretext or another, and then the nobles and the courtiers would take sides, some in favor of the nephew and some in favor of the uncle, and a long civil war would perhaps ensue. This was the case immediately after the death of Richard I. When he died he designated as his successor a nephew of his, who was at that time only twelve years old. The name of this young prince was Arthur. He was the son of Geoffrey, a brother of Richard's, older than John, and he was accordingly the rightful heir; but John, having been once installed in power by his brother—for his brother had made him regent when he went away on his crusade to the Holy Land—determined that he would seize the crown himself, and exclude his nephew from the succession.

So he caused himself to be proclaimed king. He was in Normandy at the time; but he immediately put himself at the head of an armed force and went to England.

The barons of the kingdom immediately resolved to resist him, and to maintain the cause of the young Arthur. They said that Arthur was the rightful king, and that John was only a usurper; so they withdrew, every man to his castle, and fortified themselves there.

In cases like this, where in any kingdom there were two contested claims for the throne, the kings of the neighboring countries usually came in and took part in the quarrel. They thought that by taking sides with one of the claimants, and aiding him to get possession of the throne, they should gain an influence in the kingdom which they might afterward turn to account for themselves. The King of France at this time was named Philip. He determined to espouse the cause of young Arthur in this quarrel. His motive for doing this was to have a pretext for making war upon John, and, in the war, of conquering some portion of Normandy and annexing it to his own dominions.

So he invited Arthur to come to his court, and when he arrived there he asked him if he would not like to be King of England. Arthur said that he should like to be a king very much indeed. "Well," said Philip, "I will furnish you with an army, and you shall go and make war upon John. I will go too, with another army; then, whatever I shall take away from John in Normandy shall be mine, but all of England shall be yours."

The situation of the country of Normandy, in relation to France and to England, may be seen by the accompanying map.


Situation of Normandy

Philip thought that he could easily seize a large part of Normandy and annex it to his dominions while John was engaged in defending himself against Arthur in England.

Arthur, who was at this time only about fourteen years old, was, of course, too young to exercise any judgment in respect to such questions as these, so he readily agreed to what Philip proposed, and very soon afterward Philip assembled an army, and, placing Arthur nominally at the head of it, he sent him forth into Normandy to commence the war upon John. Of course, Arthur was only nominally at the head of the army. There were old and experienced generals who really had the command, though they did every thing in Arthur's name.

A long war ensued, but in the end Arthur's army was defeated, and Arthur himself was made prisoner. John and his savage soldiery got possession of the town where Arthur was in the night, and they seized the poor boy in his bed. The soldiers took him away with a troop of horse, and shut him up in a dungeon in a famous castle called the castle of Falaise. You will see the position of Falaise on the map.

After a while John determined to visit Arthur in his prison, in order to see if he could not make some terms with him. To accomplish his purpose more effectually, he waited some time, till he thought the poor boy's spirit must be broken down by his confinement and his sufferings. His design was probably to make terms with him by offering him his liberty, and perhaps some rich estate, if he would only give up his claims to the crown and acknowledge John as king; but he found that Arthur, young as he was, and helpless as was his condition in his lonely dungeon, remained in heart entirely unsubdued. All that he would say in answer to John's proposal was, "Give me back my kingdom." At length, John, finding that he could not induce the prince to give up his claims, went away in a rage, and determined to kill him. If Arthur were dead, there would then, he thought, be no farther difficulty, for all acknowledged that after Arthur, he himself was the next heir.

There was another way, too, by which John might become the rightful heir to the crown. It was a prevalent idea in those days that no person who was blind, or deaf, or dumb could inherit a crown. To blind young Arthur, then, would be as effectual a means of extinguishing his claims as to kill him, and John accordingly determined to destroy the young prince's right to the succession by putting out his eyes; so he sent two executioners to perform this cruel deed upon the captive in his dungeon.

The name of the governor of the castle was Hubert. He was a kind and humane man, and he pitied his unhappy prisoner; and so, when the executioners came, and Hubert went to the cell to tell Arthur that they had come, and what they had come for, Arthur fell on his knees before him and began to beg for mercy, crying out, Save me! oh, save me! with such piteous cries that Hubert's heart was moved with compassion, and he concluded that he would put off the execution of the dreadful deed till he could see the king again.

John was very angry when he found that his orders had not been obeyed, and he immediately determined to send Arthur to another prison, which was in the town of Rouen, the keeper of which he knew to be an unscrupulous and merciless man. This was done, and soon afterward it was given out through all the kingdom that Arthur was dead. Every body was convinced that John had caused him to be murdered. There were several different rumors in respect to the way in which the deed was done. One story was that John, being at Rouen, where Arthur was imprisoned, after having become excited with the wine which he had drunk at a carousal, went and killed Arthur himself with his own hand, and that he then ordered his body to be thrown into the Seine, with heavy stones tied to the feet to make it sink. The body, however, afterward, they said, rose to the surface and floated to the shore, where some monks found it, and buried it secretly in their abbey.

Another story was that John pretended to be reconciled to Arthur, and took him out one day to ride with him, with other horsemen. Presently John rode on with Arthur in advance of the party, until late in the evening they came to a solitary place where there was a high cliff overhanging the sea. Here John drew his sword, and, riding up to Arthur, suddenly ran him through the body. Arthur cried aloud, and begged for mercy as he fell from his horse to the ground; but John dragged him to the edge of the precipice, and threw him over into the sea while he was yet alive and breathing.

A third story was that John had determined that Arthur must die, and that he came himself one night to the castle where Arthur was confined in Rouen on the Seine. A man went up to Arthur's room, and, waking him from his sleep, directed him to rise.

"Rise," said he, "and come with me."

Arthur rose, and followed his guard with fear and trembling. They descended the staircase to the foot of the tower, where there was a portal that opened close upon the river. On going out, Arthur found that there was a boat there at the stairs, with his uncle and some other men in it. Arthur at once understood what these things meant, and was greatly terrified. He fell on his knees, and begged his uncle to spare his life; but John gave a sign, and Arthur was stabbed, and then taken out a little way and thrown into the river. Some say that John killed him and threw him into the river with his own hand.

Which of these tales is true, if either of them is so, can now probably never be known. All that is certain is that John in some way or other caused Arthur to be murdered in order to remove him out of the way. He justified his claim to the crown by pretending that King Richard, his brother, on his death-bed, bequeathed the kingdom to him, but this nobody believes.

At any rate, John obtained possession of the crown, and he reigned many years. His reign, however, was a very troubled one. His title, indeed, after Arthur's death, was no longer disputed, but he was greatly abhorred and hated for his cruelties and crimes, and at length nearly all the barons of his realm banded themselves together against him, with the view of reducing his power as king within more reasonable bounds.


King John

The king fought these rebels, as he called them, for some time, but he was continually beaten, and finally compelled to yield to them. They wrote out their demands in a full and formal manner upon parchment, and compelled the king to sign it. This, document was called the Magna Charta , which means the great charter. The signing and delivering this deed is considered one of the most important events in English history. It was the first great covenant that was made between the kings and the people of England, and the stipulations of it have been considered binding to this day, so that it is, in some sense, the original basis and foundation of the civil rights which the British people now enjoy.

The place of assembly where King John came out to sign this covenant was a broad and beautiful meadow on the banks of the Thames, not far from Windsor Castle. The name of the field is Runny Mead. The word mead  is a contraction for meadow.

The act of once signing such a compact as this was, however, not sufficient, it seems, to bind the English kings. There were a great many disputes and contests about it afterward between the kings and the barons, as the kings, one after another, refused to adhere to the agreement made by John in their name, on the ground, perhaps, of the deed not being a voluntary one on his part. He was forced to sign it, they said, because the barons were stronger than he was. Of course, when the kings thought that they, in their turn, were stronger than the barons, they were very apt to violate the agreement. One of the kings on one occasion obtained a dispensation from the Pope, absolving him from all obligation to fulfill this compact.

In consequence of this want of good faith on the part of the kings, there arose continually new quarrels, and sometimes new civil wars, between the kings and the barons. In these contests the barons were usually successful in the end, and then they always insisted on the vanquished monarch's ratifying or signing the Magna Charta anew. It is said that in this way it was confirmed and re-established not less than thirty times  in the course of four or five reigns, and thus it became at last the settled and unquestioned law of the land. The power of the kings of England has been restricted and controlled by its provisions ever since.

All this took place in the reigns preceding the accession of Richard II.

Besides these contests with the barons, the kings of those times were often engaged in contentions with the people; but the people, having no means of combining together or otherwise organizing their resistance, were almost always compelled to submit. They were often oppressed and maltreated in the most cruel manner. The great object of the government seems to have been to extort money from them in every possible way, and to this end taxes and imposts were levied upon them to such an extent as to leave them enough only for bare subsistence. The most cruel means were often resorted to to compel the payment of these taxes. The unhappy Jews were the special subjects of these extortions. The Jews in Europe were at this time generally excluded from almost every kind of business except buying and selling movable property, and lending money; but by these means many of them became very rich, and their property was of such a nature that it could be easily concealed. This led to a great many cases of cruelty in the treatment of them by the government. The government pretended often that they were richer than they really were, while they themselves pretended that they were poorer than they were, and the government resorted to the most lawless and atrocious measures sometimes to compel them to pay. The following extract from one of the historians of the time gives an example of this cruelty, and, at the same time, furnishes the reader with a specimen of the quaint and curious style of composition and orthography in which the chronicles of those days are written.

Furthermore, about the same time, the king taxed the Jewes, and greevouslee tormented and emprisoned them bicause divers of them would not willinglie pay the summes that they were taxed at. Amongst other, there was one of them at Bristow who would not consent to give any fine for his deliverance; Wherefore by the king's commandment he was put into this penance, namely, that evrie daie, till he would agree to give to the king those ten thousand marks that he was siezed at, he would have one of his teeth plucked out of his head. By the space of seven daies together he stood stedfast, losing evrie of those days a tooth. But on the eighth day, when he shuld come to have the eighth tooth, and the last (for he had but eight in all), drawn out, he paid the monie to save that, who with more wisedome and less paine might have done so before, and so have saved his seven teeth which he lost with such torments; for those homelie toothbrauers used no great cunning in plucking them forth, as may be conjectured.

The poor Jews were entirely at the mercy of the king in these cases, for they were so much hated and despised by the Christian people of the land that nobody was disposed to defend them, either by word or deed, whatever injustice or cruelty they might suffer. The most absurd and injurious charges were made against them by common rumor, and were generally believed, for there was nobody to defend them. There was a story, for example, that they were accustomed every year to crucify a Christian child. One year a mother, having missed her child, searched every where for him, and at length found him dead in the bottom of a well. It was recollected that a short time before the child disappeared he had been seen playing with some Jewish children before the door of a house where a certain Jew lived, called John Lexinton. The story was immediately circulated that this child had been taken by the Jews and crucified. It was supposed, of course, that John Lexinton was intimately connected with the crime. He was immediately seized by the officers, and he was so terrified by their threats and denunciations that he promised to confess every thing if they would spare his life. This they engaged to do, and he accordingly made what he called his confession. In consequence of this confession a hundred and two Jews were apprehended, and carried to London and shut up in the Tower.

But, notwithstanding the confession that John Lexinton had made and the promise that was given him, it was determined that he should not be spared, but should die. Upon hearing this he was greatly distressed, and he offered to make more confessions; so he revealed several additional particulars in regard to the crime, and implicated numerous other persons in the commission of it. All was, however, of no avail. He was executed, and eighteen other Jews with him.

Judging from the evidence which we have in this case, it is highly probable that the alleged crime was wholly imaginary. Confessions that are extorted by pain or fear are never to be believed. They may be true, but they are far more likely to be false. It was the custom in ancient times, and it still remains the custom among many ignorant and barbarous nations, to put persons to torture in order to compel them to confess crimes of which they are suspected, or to reveal the names of their accomplices, but nothing can be more cruel or unjust than such a practice as this. Most men, in such cases, are so maddened with their agony and terror that they will say any thing whatever that they think will induce their tormentors to put an end to their sufferings.

The common people could not often resist the acts of oppression which they suffered from their rulers, for they had no power, and they could not combine together extensively enough to create a power, and so they were easily kept in subjection.

The nobles, however, were much less afraid of the monarchs, and often resisted them and bid them defiance. It was the law in those days that all estates to which no other person had a legal claim escheated, as they called it, to the king. Of course, if the king could find an estate in which there was any flaw in the title of the man who held it, he would claim it for his own. At one time a king asked a certain baron to show him the title to his estate. He was intending to examine it, to see if there was any flaw in it. The baron, instead of producing his parchment, drew his sword and held it out before the king.

"This is my title to my estate," said he. "Your majesty will remember that William of Normandy did not conquer this realm for himself alone."

At another time a king wished to send two of his earls out of the country on some military expedition where they did not wish to go. They accordingly declined the undertaking.

"By the Almighty," said the king, "you shall either go or hang."

"By the Almighty," replied one of the earls, "we will neither go nor hang."

The nobles also often formed extensive and powerful combinations among each other against the king, and in such cases they were almost always successful in bringing him to submit to their demands.

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