Friday, 1 January 2016

The death of King Richard II, 1400

14th February 1400 was probably the day on which King Richard II of England died in Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire. However, there are several uncertainties about this event, the date being one of them.

Richard succeeded his grandfather King Edward III in 1377 when he was only ten years old. During his minority he was guided by his uncle, John of Gaunt, who was an able administrator who kept the ship of state afloat. Richard did, however, distinguish himself when aged 14 by personally facing down the rioters of the Peasants’ Revolt, although he did this by making alarmingly wild promises that he had no intention of keeping.

Richard started to rule in his own right at the age of 21, but the guiding hand of John of Gaunt was always present. However, Richard was far from popular with the nobility and he also had major disagreements with his uncle.

Things really started to unravel for Richard when John of Gaunt died in February 1399. Richard had already exiled John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, and now he confiscated Henry’s inheritance from his father. Richard had therefore created a very powerful enemy for himself.

Richard’s next mistake was to go off campaigning in Ireland, which gave Henry a chance to sneak back into England and raise support from other nobles whom Richard had alienated. On his return Richard found that he had no choice other than to resign his throne which was then claimed by Henry Bolingbroke who ruled as King Henry IV.

Richard was at first imprisoned in the Tower of London, but Henry was fully aware that his throne was insecure as long as there was the possibility of a counter-revolt to restore Richard. The former king was therefore smuggled out of the Tower and held in a number of prisons, each location being kept secret to avoid any risk of a rescue being attempted.

However, when a revolt did take place, mounted by the Earl of Salisbury in January 1400, Henry knew that he had no choice but to engineer Richard’s death.

In his play “King Richard II” William Shakespeare imagined a scene in which Richard fought bravely against sword-wielding attackers but was felled by an axe blow from behind by the jailer of Pontefract Castle. The evidence suggests something less violent because Richard’s body, when exhumed in the 17th century, showed no sign of such an injury.

Other sources state that Richard starved to death, either as a deliberate act by a man who had given up all hope or, more likely, on the orders of Henry IV who would not have forgotten the deprivation that he had suffered at Richard’s hands.

Richard’s body was taken to London to prove the fact of his death and then quietly buried “out of town” so as not to accord undue honour to Henry’s hated predecessor. However, Henry’s son, King Henry V, did not share the vindictiveness of his father and allowed Richard’s final burial place to be in Westminster Abbey.

© John Welford

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