Richard II., The Last Plantagenet King
When Edward III. died, in 1377, he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II. He was the son of the Black Prince, and was only ten years old when he became King. His reign of twenty-two years was filled with many troubles. These were due to the quarrels of parties while he was under age; to the religious and social changes of the time; and to a combination of weakness and violence in his own character.
A religious movement, started by John Wyclif, a great preacher and university professor at Oxford, was responsible for part of the troubles of his reign. Wyclif complained bitterly of many evils in the Church, and said that they were due to the fact that the Pope, bishops, and abbots were no longer poor men like Christ and the Apostles, but lived in luxury, and were rulers of great estates. He gathered together a body of "poor priests," whom he sent forth to live among the people and preach his doctrines. And to aid their work, he translated the Bible, for the first time, from the Latin, which was then used in the churches, into the English tongue spoken by the common people.
If Wyclif had stopped here, all might have been well; but he went further, and attacked the teaching of the church concerning the Lord's Supper. This was too much for many who had supported him, and he began to lose followers. A rebellion, which broke out among the peasants, was also charged to his teachings. His opinions were therefore condemned, and he was obliged to stop teaching at Oxford. But, as yet, there was no law in England, as there was on the Continent, for burning "heretics," or teachers of wrong religion; so Wyclif was allowed to retire into the country, where he died a few years afterward. Later a new law was passed "for the burning of heretics," and then all the "Lollards" (as those were called who held Wyclif's opinions), were obliged either to give up their opinions, or to suffer death at the steak. More than a century later, when Luther, in Germany, had begun the Reformation of the Church, and England had broken away from obedience to the Pope, the reformers looked back to Wyclif, and called him "the Morning Star of the Reformation."
The rebellion of the peasants, for which Wyclif was held partly responsible, came in the year 1381. Several things beside his teachings helped to produce it. Since the time of the Black Death, the landlords had tried to keep fast hold on the villains (or "serfs") who were left to them, and would no longer permit them to escape the burdensome duties which they owed by paying small sums of money. The free peasants also complained bitterly of the laws which Parliament passed to keep down wages, and to prevent their going where they pleased. And the discontent was brought to a head by a law imposing a new sort of tax—a "poll tax," or head tax—upon all the people above fourteen years of age, at a uniform rate of both rich and poor.
The troubles which followed occurred, more or less, all over England. But it was chiefly in the southeastern parts—in the counties of Kent and Essex—that the movement was dangerous.
There a priest named John Ball had, for some time, been preaching against the oppression of the poor by the rich.
"Ah, ye good people," he would say, "matters will not go well in England until everything is owned in common, and there are no longer villains nor gentlemen, but all are united together. Now, the lords are clothed in velvets and furs, while we are clothed with poor cloth. They have wines, spices, and good bread, while we live upon chaff and drink water. They dwell in fine houses, while we have pain and labor, wind and rain, in the fields. And when the produce is raised by our labors, they take it, and consume it; and we are called their bondmen, and, unless we serve them readily, we are beaten."
He summed up his teachings in this verse, which was everywhere repeated:
But John Ball was not the chief leader of the movement when the peasants actually broke out into revolt. That position was held by a peasant named Wat (or Walter) Tyler, who had great courage, was a good speaker, and knew how to get and to keep the support of his followers.
First, the peasants attacked their own landlords, and burned the records which showed the services they owed, destroyed the deer-parks, and emptied the fish ponds. Lawyers were put to death wherever met with, for it was by their aid that the peasants were oppressed. Then the peasants made their way to London—perhaps 100,000 of them—and were secretly aided and encouraged by the apprentices and poor citizens of the capital. London bridge fell into their hands, and they entered the city, burning the houses of those great lords whom they held responsible for misgovernment, freeing prisoners, and rioting and plundering everywhere. It was no wonder that the chief officers of the government, in their refuge in the Tower, with their fifteen year old King, trembled for their lives.
The next day, Richard II. met the rebels in a large open place called Mile End. He heard their grievances, and granted them a charter by which they were no longer to be serfs, and were to have their lands at a low rent. Many of the rebels then returned home. The day after this, Richard met those who remained, under Wat Tyler, at a place called Smithfield, where they demanded further reforms—free hunting and fishing, and the right to take fuel and timber for building from the woods, and the division of the church property. The King pretended to accept these demands, also.
This meeting took place at some little distance from the peasant forces, and the peasants could not see what was going on between their leader and the King. One of the courtiers took this opportunity to pick a quarrel with Tyler, and slew him. His followers were told that their leader would meet them elsewhere. When they discovered how they had been tricked, they were panic-stricken, and soon scattered to their homes.
According to one account, young Richard showed great courage when the peasants discovered how they had been deprived of their leader. As the story goes, they began to place arrows on their bow-strings to avenge his death; but Richard rode boldly forward, and said:
"What need you, my masters? Would you shoot your King? I will be your captain."
When the revolt was over, the government declared that the promises which had been made to the peasants were not binding, and that everything should be as it had been before. The leaders of the rebellion, including John Ball, were brought to trial and put to death.
In spite of the withdrawal of the promises made to the peasants, villainage gradually came to an end. Landlords found that unwilling service was unprofitable, and within a hundred years after the great Peasants' Revolt, villains had practically ceased to exist in England.
Besides the religious troubles connected with Wyclif's teachings, and the social troubles connected with the Peasant Revolt, the reign of Richard II. was filled with political troubles, which ended in his being deposed and another King chosen in his place.
It would take too long to tell the story of all these troubles—how Parliament appointed a commission to guide the King's rule; how the King's judges declared that the leaders of Parliament had committed treason; how those leaders collected an army and defeated the King's forces; how the King's friends were hanged or exiled by order of "the Merciless Parliament"; how the King declared himself of age, and ruled wisely for eight years; how he suddenly changed, and put to death or banished his worst enemies; how he surrounded Parliament with his archers, and compelled it to give him a tax for life, and to grant him greater powers than any other English King had ever had. His triumph helped him little, for he did not know ho to use power when once it was in his hands.
One of the most powerful men of the kingdom was Henry of Bolingbroke, son of the Duke Lancaster. His father, who was called John of Gaunt, was the third son of Edward III., and Henry himself was Duke of Hereford. He had shown himself a good knight, by fighting for a time in eastern Germany against the heathen Slavs, and by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He first sided against Richard II., and then for him; but Richard took the opportunity, offered by Henry's quarrel with another nobleman, to banish both from the kingdom. Then, while Henry of Bolingbroke was absent, his father died (in 1399), and Richard seized the lands of the Duke of Lancaster for himself.
To recover this inheritance, Henry of Bolingbroke landed in England with sixty followers. The sixty soon became sixty thousand, for all classes of people were offended by Richard's rule. At this time, Richard was in Ireland, carrying on war; so his enemies were free to gather their forces. When Richard hastily returned, he found himself deserted by everyone, and soon fell into Henry's hands.
"Your people, my lord," said Henry, "complain that for twenty years you have ruled them harshly. However, if it pleases God, I will help you to rule them better."
Soon this pretense was thrown off, and Richard was given to understand that he must resign his crown; and to this he weakly consented. The poet, Shakespeare, makes Richard speak these words:
A Parliament was called, and the King's abdication was read to it. Then Henry of Bolingbroke stepped forward, by the vacant throne, and said:
"I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm and the crown, since I am descended by right line of blood from the good King Henry III., and since God had sent me with help of my kin and my friends to receive it, when the realm was on a point of being undone by lack of government and the undoing of good laws."
The whole Parliament accepted this claim, and he was seated upon the throne, as Henry IV.—the first of the Lancastrian Kings. By right of descent, he was not the nearest heir to the throne after Richard II., for he was descended from the third son of Edward III., and a descendant from the second son existed in the person of the young Earl of March. But the Earl of March was only six years old, and Parliament passed over his claims in favor of those of the house of Lancaster.
Later, as we shall see, the claim through the Earl of March
became one factor in the great Wars of the Roses, which in
turn brought the rule of the Lancastrians to an end, just as
the revolution of 1399 brought to an end the rule of the
direct line of the Plantagenet Kings.