At the beginning of 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, son of John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster and formerly one of the Lords Appellant was living abroad in exile. Henry had been sentenced on the 16th September 1388 by king Richard II to a period of six years in exile as a result of a dispute that had arisen with Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham (another former Lord Appellant who had similarly been driven to a life in sunnier climes.
On the 3rd February 1399 Henry's father, John of Gaunt died. Richard, after pondering the matter for six weeks, decided on two things; firstly he declared that the estates of the former Duke of Lancaster were now forfeit to the crown and secondly he increased the term of Henry's exile from six years to life.
The Return of Henry Bolingbroke
Naturally the prospect of being denied his rightful inheritance to the wealth and power of the estates of Lancaster was not to Henry's liking and he resolved to take action to ensure the reversal of the crown's seizure.
Henry had been sent into exile in France, where Richard was hoping that the French king, with whom he had established reasonably friendly relations since the truce of 1396, would keep an eye on this potential troublemaker. Unfortunately for Richard, the Duke of Orleans had ambitions for his own kingdom in Italy; he did a deal with Henry and persuaded the French king to turn a blind eye to Henry's escape.
Thus set free, Henry accepted some French money, and set sail for England. On the 30th June 1399 he landed at Ravenspur on the Humber estuary with a force of sixty followers. Word soon spread of his arrival and on the 16th July he was met at Doncaster by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland; the north had risen for Henry.
At the time Richard was in Ireland and had appointed his uncle the Duke of York, Edmund of Langley as Keeper of the Realm to take charge of the kingdom in his absence. Edmund however proved inadequate to the task; unable to maintain discipline within his assembled forces who were deserting in droves, he meekly made his peace with Henry on the 27th July 1399 at Berkeley in Gloucestershire.
Despite these early successes, it was obvious that Richard would soon return from Ireland to defend his crown and therefore Henry moved his forces towards Wales to counter this threat. He took the time to pause at Bristol where he took hold of three of Richard's supporters; William le Scrope, Earl of Wiltshire, John Bussy and Henry Green. These three he executed, no doubt to serve as a message to all those who might remain loyal to the king.
Richard had indeed crossed from Ireland and was at Whitland Abbey in Carmarthen with John Holland Duke of Exeter and Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey. From there Richard slipped off to Conway Castle to meet up with another of his favourites John Montague, the Earl of Salisbury to organise the raising of further troops. Unfortunately for Richard it became clear that the unpopularity of his rule, in particular his 'tyranny' of the years 1397 to 1399, made the raising of any kind military levies harder than it should have been.
On the 12th August Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland sent a message to Richard offering safe passage and an opportunity to parley with Henry at Rhuddlan. Richard reluctantly accepted the offer, despite privately resolving to have Percy's head removed for his impertinence at a later date.
Therefore on the 15th August Richard left Conway for Rhuddlan, only to discover that he had tricked by Percy as he was ambushed enroute and escorted under armed guard to Flint Castle. There he was met by Henry who according to one source met the king with the words "It is said that you have governed your people too harshly and that they are discontented. If it is pleasing to the Lord, I shall help you govern them better".
From Flint Richard was taken to Chester where he was locked away in the castle tower to await his fate.
The Deposition of Richard II
It is not entirely clear whether Henry Bolingbroke landed in England with the specific goal of taking the throne or whether this was simply an idea that later occured to him, given the speed with which Richard's regime fell apart. Indeed the Earl of Northumberland was later to claim that Henry had sworn on the sacraments that it was only his intention to recover his Lancastrian inheritance and that Richard would be permitted to retain his royal power and perogatives.
Whatever the truth of that particular allegation, in the August of 1399 the king was clearly now in his power and some decision had to be made regarding the future of the government of the realm. Possibly Henry's previous experiences with Richard had convinced him that he would never be safe so long as the king held power, and that it would be wise to act sooner rather than later, given that in time Richard and his second wife Isabella of Valois might produce a son and heir that would complicate matters immeasurably.
Henry therefore came to the conclusion that it was neccessary to depose the king, and the only question that remained was how to accomplish such a thing. Using as a precedent the fact that Pope Innocent IV had deposed the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick IV for various crimes such as tyranny and perjury, Henry prepared a detailed charge sheet of thirty-three crimes committed by the king, which could be used to justify such an action.
This was all very well, but clearly it would be preferable if Richard simply agreed to abdicate and Henry Percy was given the job of ensuring this most desirable of outcomes. Richard, by now moved to London was subjected to a concerted campaign of persuasion by the Earl of Northumberland. Eventually the soon to be former king succumbed to the pressure, and according to the chronicler John Hardyng, "under duress of prison in the Tower of London in fear of his life" on the 29th September 1399 Richard finally agreed to relinquish his throne.
On the very next day, the 30th September Henry was acclaimed king by Parliament and subsequently crowned king Henry IV on the 13th October, the first ruler of the House of Lancaster.
The fate of the old regime
Now that he was king Henry invited his fellow former Lords Appellant to return to England. Unfortunately Thomas Mowbray had already died in Nice in September on his way back from the Holy Land, but Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick was grateful to leave the delights of the Isle of Man behind and return home.
Many of the key supporters of the former regime now found themselves out of favour. Richard's two Holland relations were demoted; John Holland lost the title of Duke of Exeter, and Thomas Holland that of Duke of Surrey, both were reduced to their former titles of Earl of Huntingdon and Earl of Kent respectively. Similarly Edward of Norwich lost the title of Duke of Albemarle and Thomas Despenser was stripped of his dignity of Earl of Gloucester and had to make do with being plain old Baron Despenser.
As to the former king himself; despite it seems, having being promised that he would be released and permitted the enjoyment of his inherited lands in return for laying down his crown, Richard was kept in captivity in a variety of secure but comfortable locations. But after the failed Epiphany Rising of January 1400 it became clear that his very existence was a continuing threat to the new regime. Richard was therefore taken to Pontefract Castle, and chained to a wall. There, sometime in February 1400 he died, presumably of starvation, most certainly on the orders of his successor Henry.
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)