The Duke of Norfolk, sprightfully and bold,
Stays but the summons of the Appellant’s trumpet.
Richard II, Act 1, Scene 3
Enmity is a difficult subject for historians. Friendship is much easier. If a king gave a large gift to one of his companions, and showered honours on him, and entertained him regularly, then we may confidently build a picture of the positive rapport between the two men. Not so with enmity. An opponent might still show his face at court, he might continue to receive occasional grants (in order to satisfy the king’s debts to him), and he might even receive marks of respect according to his status while all the time plotting against the monarch, or while the monarch was plotting against him. Richard was so mercurial that one reads of him dining or drinking wine with his enemies just after forcing them into open revolt.1 Thus, historically, relations between lords normally appear as shades of friendship. Enmity is just the darkest, most obscure shade.
Henry was already set on the path which was to lead to enmity between him and the king. Although the crisis had not yet arrived, the parliament of 1385 had shown the level of outrage which Richard could cause through his arrogance and favouritism. Even before that parliament Henry had every reason to be deeply concerned. On top of their childhood rivalry, Richard had attempted to parcel out the inheritance of the Mortimers (Henry’s second cousins) and take back the benefactions given under the terms of the will of Edward III (Henry’s grandfather). He had sacked the chancellor, raised unworthy men to earldoms, and raised the unworthy de Vere to a higher title than Henry. He had viciously slandered the earl of Arundel (another of Henry’s cousins), attempted to kill the archbishop of Canterbury and despite his earlier promises permitted his half-brother John Holland, to go unpunished after murdering the earl of Stafford’s son and heir. Worst of all, he had ordered Henry’s father to be summarily executed in 1384, plotted to have him murdered in February 1385, and accused him of treason for nothing more than wanting to press ahead with the Scottish campaign. On top of all this the king was ignoring the commission set up by the 1385 parliament to reform the royal household. Richard had frittered away more than a hundred thousand pounds of taxation, having given much of it to his friends. English military obligations overseas were being disregarded, the defence of the realm forgotten. For anyone of the Lancastrian affinity, Richard was both a vicious man and an incompetent ruler.
Henry wisely avoided the court after seeing his father off. Instead he went to Monmouth, a Lancastrian town, where his sixteen-year-old wife, Mary, was preparing to give birth to their first child.2 Henry would have been able to enjoy the Forest of Dean – a fine hunting ground – while he waited for the child to arrive. Thomas Swynford was with him, as were Hugh Herle (his chaplain), Hugh Waterton (his chamberlain), Simon Bache (his treasurer) and William Loveney (his clerk).3 Thus he spent the late summer of 1386 with these close companions, hunting, playing dice, feasting, reading, playing music, dictating letters and waiting until 16 September, when Mary gave birth to a boy, the future King Henry V, in the gatehouse chamber of Monmouth Castle.4
In normal times, Henry would have attended his wife’s churching about a month after the birth, and there would have been celebratory feasting and jousting for three days. But these were not normal times. More than a month earlier, writs had gone out to the lords and commons to attend parliament on 1 October. The forthcoming assembly would be the opposition lords’ first opportunity to challenge Richard since the ultimatum of the 1385 parliament. To add to the pressure, intelligence reported that a French army and fleet was gathering at Sluys, ready to invade England. The time for direct action had come.
The early stages of Richard’s reign had seen no effective opposition, mainly due to the lack of effective leadership. Now a sort of hereditary responsibility came into play. The last time a wilful and irresponsible king had proved a threat to the kingdom, Edward II in 1312, the earls of Lancaster, Hereford and Warwick had taken action against him. In 1386 the heirs of these three earls were gathering again for the same reason. Henry was one of the key figures, although he was yet to declare his hand. Not only was he the heir of Lancaster, he also represented half of the earldom of Hereford, in right of his wife. The rest of that earldom was represented by his thirty-three-year-old uncle Thomas, duke of Gloucester, the leader of the opposition. The earl of Warwick was with them. Also coming from the same Lancastrian tradition of opposition were Henry’s cousins, the Arundels: Richard, earl of Arundel, and his brother, Thomas, bishop of Ely. Their sister Joan was the dowager countess of Hereford, mother of the wives of Henry and Thomas. It was a close-knit, resolute and proud family which was preparing to challenge the king. Henry could not attend his son’s baptism and Mary’s churching for the simple reason that his presence was required at Westminster. He waited at Monmouth as long as he could, until 24 September.5 Then he began the 130-mile ride to Westminster.
On 1 October the chancellor opened parliament with the customary speech. At the great council held in Oxford in August, he declared, the king had decided that he would lead an army into France. According to the chancellor, his principal reason for this was, ‘because it would entail much less injury and expense to the people in many ways if the king were to fight his enemies overseas than if he were to resist them within the kingdom’.6 This was a deliberate repetition of Edward III’s foreign policy. Indeed, it was practically a quotation from Edward III’s letter to the pope of 1339 in which he had explained why he had invaded France.7 The chancellor added that the king had three other reasons for fighting: to disprove the rumours that he refused to fight in person, to pursue his right to the French throne and to prevail in battle and conquer ‘humanely’. The sum of money the king needed was £155,000. Four years’ wartime taxation, to be paid in one instalment.
No one in that parliament had any doubt what Richard was trying to do. Quoting Edward III’s key policy, and offering to go to France at the head of an army … He was offering to sell them – for four ‘tenths and fifteenths’ of their income (depending on whether they lived in a town or the country) – the sort of kingship they expected of him. But no one believed he had it to sell. Victory in France was well beyond his reach, and thus his bargaining position was ridiculous, insulting even. The newly created earls and dukes and the marquis of Dublin could not defend him. Indeed, Thomas, duke of Gloucester, now stepped forward as leader of the opposition lords. They would not grant this taxation. The king had been poorly advised, badly led, and had failed to fulfil his promises at the last parliament. Had he observed the commission of 1385? No. Why was he in need of so much money now? Because he had failed to accept advice in sorting out the royal finances. And what was this about a ‘humane’ invasion of France? Edward III had not been humane. He had savaged the country, massacring and burning. That was the nature of war. Richard understood nothing about war.8
Richard, enthroned, took the rebuke badly. He demanded total obedience from his subjects, and expected no one to reprove him. But the lords responded with a single voice, calling for the chancellor and treasurer to be sacked. Parliament was determined to take action against Michael de la Pole, and it could not do so while he was still in office.
Richard was furious. ‘This is none of your business,’ he retorted. ‘We will not sack even the humblest of our kitchen staff at your behest’. Having rebuked the lords, he spoke with his friends, including the chancellor, and then announced that he would leave Westminster, thereby dissolving the parliament. He would listen to no petitions. He stormed out of the chamber, followed by Robert de Vere, Michael de la Pole, Simon Burley, John Beauchamp, John Salisbury and a few other friends. They went to the river and took the royal barge to Eltham Palace.
The king clearly expected that the parliament would apologise and ask him to return; either that or disperse. After all, he or his official representative needed to be present for the parliament to be in session. But the lords and commons were seething with fury. They had seen the chancellor step up to the throne and inform the king that he could dissolve the parliament simply by walking out.9 They had seen John Beauchamp do likewise. And they were not prepared to let the matter drop. They remained in the chamber.
The duke of Gloucester took the lead in organising parliament’s response.10 With strong support from the other opposition earls, and with Henry present, he was able to instil confidence in the assembly, so that the vast majority remained in their seats. They consulted chronicles and statutes, and argued about whether or not the king should be deposed. On 13 October they heard that Richard had created Robert de Vere duke of Ireland, despite all their arguments about creations being in parliament, and despite their protests at the ducal title in the previous session. That infuriated them even more. A few days later, they decided they would send a deputation to the king, demanding his return. Forty knights were selected, and the king was told to expect them. But a short while later a messenger came from the mayor of London, Nicholas Exton, to say that the king was preparing a force of men to ambush the forty knights on their way to Eltham. Given Richard’s attempts to murder the duke of Lancaster and the archbishop of Canterbury, parliament judged the risk too great. Instead, the duke of Gloucester and Thomas Arundel, bishop of Ely, were deputed to speak to the king.
Gloucester and Arundel saw Richard at Eltham on or about 21 October.11 Their opening message was simple. If you stay away from parliament, the commons will refuse to sanction taxation, and depart. Richard was, of course, prepared for such an attack. ‘We have long been aware that our people and commons intend to resist and to rise against us,’ he replied, ‘and in face of that threat it seems to us best to turn to our cousin of France, and seek his support and aid against our enemies, and better to submit ourselves to him than to our own subjects’.12
This was nothing but antagonism to Gloucester. Arundel was hardly any less outraged. ‘The king of France is your chief enemy and your kingdom’s greatest foe, and if he once set foot in your land he would rather work to undo you, and usurp your kingdom, and expel you from your royal throne, than extend his hand to help you,’ declared the bishop. The two men went on to remind Richard of how his father and grandfather had fought against the French, and how his people had given their lives, and ‘poured out ungrudgingly their goods and possessions to sustain the war’. They were not playing upon Richard’s sympathy. Both envoys were far harder men than that. They were preparing the way for the powerful ultimatum which had already been agreed. Parliament had consulted the means by which Edward II had been deposed, and was prepared to follow the same process to get rid of Richard, if necessary. As Arundel put it:
We have an ancient law, which not long since, lamentably had to be invoked, which provides that if the king, upon some evil counsel, or from wilfulness or from contempt, or moved by his violent will, or in any other improper way, estrange himself from his people, and will not be governed and guided by the laws of the land, and its enactments and laudable ordinances … but wrong-headedly, upon his own conclusions, follows the promptings of his untempered will, then it would be lawful, with the common assent and agreement of the people of the realm to put down the king from his royal seat, and raise another of the royal lineage in his place.13
Richard was fully aware of the deposition of his great-grandfather, a man he regarded as a saint. But it was a matter to which he had already given some thought. If they did depose him, who would replace him? His official heir, John of Gaunt, was out of the country. Henry could hardly inherit during his father’s lifetime. So what then? Gradually Richard perceived a weakness in their plan. He himself had never recognised an heir. Not many people – probably only a handful – knew of Edward III’s settlement of the crown on John and then Henry, and that was not a document which Richard was likely to circulate. He could divide and rule. Yes, he agreed to come to parliament within three days. Yes, he would dismiss his officers. But he would have the final word.
It would appear that Richard re-entered the chamber to confront parliament on 24 October. He sacked the chancellor and treasurer, and appointed Thomas Arundel and John Gilbert, bishop of Hereford, in their respective places. It was probably also on this day that he uttered a declaration which would prove the biggest bone of contention for the next one hundred years. If he had been forced to resign, he declared, the new king would not have been John of Gaunt. Nor would it have been his uncle, Edmund of Langley, nor his other uncle, the duke of Gloucester. The new king would have been the twelve-year-old earl of March, Roger Mortimer. The boy was powerless, unable to lead an army. He was incapable of delivering the sort of government parliament wanted, through no fault of his own. What did the representatives think they would achieve by putting him on the throne?
This declaration has been hitherto overlooked for a number of reasons. It only appears explicitly in one chronicle, and there it follows immediately after a section of text dealing with the parliament of 1385. Historians have noticed that it could not purposefully have been made in that parliament as it implies the demotion of John of Gaunt in the line of succession, and there are a number of signs of reconciliation between John and Richard in and after that parliament. But a recent re-examination of the text shows that the section relating to the 1385 parliament is an interpolation, inserted by a later writer. When the original text is restored, the declaration clearly relates to this parliament of 1386.14
Most people at the 1386 parliament would not have been very surprised to hear Richard’s declaration. Edward III’s entail was a secret document, never publicly declared or shown. The populace already assumed that the Mortimers were Richard’s heirs, and so there was nothing newsworthy in the king’s statement. Besides, they were more interested in bringing Michael de la Pole to justice. The rest of the parliament was spent impeaching him: a momentous event in its own right, especially as it ended with him being found guilty and imprisoned. Thus the chroniclers concentrated on this trial and the ordinances imposed upon the king on 19 November, which put the king back under the guidance of fourteen lords. Richard’s statement about the inheritance was taken up by only one other chronicler, a monk of Westminster Abbey. The fact that it barely scratched the surface of writers’ consciousness, however, should not delude us into thinking that it was of little or no importance. The effect on Henry was nothing short of life changing. Richard’s declaration that Roger Mortimer was his heir, and after him his brother Edmund Mortimer, effectively ruled Henry and his father out of the succession. It was a profound and real threat to his entire dynasty, including his father. What would John say on his return when he learned that Henry had allowed this to happen? But how could Henry dispute Richard’s declaration? If the king declared Mortimer was his heir, how on earth could Henry reassert the Lancastrian claim to the throne?15
Henry left Westminster after the end of the parliament, on 28 November 1386. He was not one of the fourteen lords who remained to oversee the government. Still not yet twenty, the reason was undoubtedly his youth. Instead, he returned to Mary and his young son. Within a few weeks, another baby was on the way.16 The family passed the summer together at the great Lancastrian fortress-palace of Kenilworth.17 Apart from his customary attendance at the Garter feast on St George’s Day at Windsor (23 April), there is no evidence of Henry coming face to face with the king until the end of 1387.18 It is possible that they met at the installation of Richard Scrope as bishop of Lichfield on 29 June, as Lichfield is only a day’s ride away from Kenilworth.19 But if they did meet then, Henry kept his anger private.
The commission of fourteen appointed to oversee the king was based at Westminster, so Richard did his best to disempower them by continuously travelling. This did not ease the tension. At Westminster the lords realised that they were being purposefully prevented from carrying out their duties. Their period of office was only one year, and in November 1387 it would come to an end. Similarly Richard – still only nineteen – realised that he could not traipse around his kingdom forever. He started to lay plans so that, in November, he would not have to continue this game, but would repudiate the authority of the council.
In August Richard summoned the judges of the realm to him at Shrewsbury, and put to them a series of questions. Was the new ordinance governing the king lawful, and did it contravene royal authority? What should be done with those who forced this measure upon him? Did parliament have the right to impeach office holders? Could the king dissolve parliament? What should be done with those who had threatened the king with deposition? Was the judgement against Michael de la Pole legal? At Nottingham Castle, on 25 August, the judges were asked to deliver their answers, or rather to ratify the answers which Richard had determined they should deliver. Robert Tresilian, Robert Bealknap and four other justices, plus two lesser legal men, agreed that the ordinance, being against the king’s will, was damaging to his kingship, and those who had forced this on him deserved capital punishment. Likewise they declared that parliament had no right to impeach office holders, that the king could dissolve parliament whenever he wanted, and that the king was correct to raise questions about the proceedings of the 1386 parliament. Not all the judges were willing. Robert Bealknap bravely refused several times to fix his seal to the declaration, but the duke of Ireland and Michael de la Pole told him they would kill him if he did not. Poor Bealknap knew exactly what the implications were. Having done what was required of him, he declared, ‘Alas, now I need only a hurdle, a horse, and a rope to bear me to the death that I deserve, and yet if I had not done that, I should have met death at your hands.’20
With this document, Richard set himself firmly against parliament. He was claiming that the officers of the realm were answerable to him, not parliament. Parliament had no right to act or even assemble without his permission. Anyone trying to diminish the king’s authority in any way was guilty of treason. This was patently wrong: Edward III had laid down the law determining what was and what was not treason in the Statute of Treasons in 1352. But even laying this aside, it was an extraordinary attempt to return parliament to its subsidiary role as a purely tax-granting and advisory body, which it had been a hundred years earlier. In Edward III’s reign, the members of the commons had come to regard themselves as representatives of the people. No one who knew of Richard’s questions can have had any doubt that when parliament next assembled, certain lords would be summarily judged and executed. Parliament was not likely to acquiesce to such an imposition of tyranny, and there would be a bloody revolution. Pre-emptive action was necessary.
Richard was not unaware of the dangers. He took steps to make sure that the questions to the judges remained secret. Even without this information, the duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick had reason to be fearful of his approach. At the Garter feast in April, Richard had been stirred up against Gloucester, who only escaped with his life by marching out of the hall unexpectedly halfway through a feast.21 The approaching end of the commissioners’ period of authority also created a feeling of unease. For those who knew about the questions to the judges, the tension must have been terrible. Someone’s nerve was bound to break.
That someone seems to have been the archbishop of Dublin.22 He met Gloucester and began by asking to be pardoned for his actions against him. He then revealed the questions to the judges, and the responses given at Nottingham. Gloucester informed his fellow lords. Bishop Arundel went to see the king at Woodstock in mid-October, probably to test the truth of the matter. Richard moved to Windsor, and from there sent a messenger to the mayor of London to find out how strong royalist support was in the capital. Reassured, at the start of November, he began to move towards Westminster. He arrived there on the 10th, and waited for the authority of the fourteen commissioners to run out.23
The next day Richard ordered Gloucester and the earl of Arundel to come to him. They refused on the basis that ‘their arch-enemies were at the king’s elbow’.24 They were prepared for war, encamped with armed retinues. So too was the earl of Warwick, stationed at Harringay Park (now Hornsey, in north London). Richard instructed the earl of Northumberland to arrest Arundel, and to kill him if he could, but when Northumberland found that his quarry was armed to the teeth, at Reigate Castle, he wavered.25 In that moment of indecision, Arundel seized the initiative and marched to join with the other lords at Harringay Park. Many lesser lords and knights joined them. So did many commoners, including disgruntled peasants who now realised that the loyalty of the 1381 rebels had been misplaced. Even those lords who did not take up arms against Richard refused to defend him. By 13 November the forces ranged against Richard also included an armed retinue from the Mortimer estates, headed by Sir Thomas Mortimer, guardian of the earl of March whom Richard had declared heir to the throne.
Richard was shocked by the support the lords received. He realised that he had miscalculated. On 14 November he despatched an embassy to the lords, now at Waltham Cross. They stood firm: ‘they clearly foresaw the speedy overthrow of the kingdom of England by the traitors who haunted the kings presence’, namely Alexander Neville (the archbishop of York), Robert de Vere, Michael de la Pole, Justice Robert Tresilian and Sir Nicholas Brembre of London.26 The following day they put their complaint in writing. They accused these five men of being enemies of the realm and traitors. On 17 November they rode to Westminster to meet the king. They travelled in full armour, accompanied by three hundred men-at-arms. Richard received them in Westminster Hall, seated on his raised throne, and listened as Richard Scrope – whom Richard had sacked as his chancellor in 1382 – read out the lords’ challenge to the five men to trial by combat. Unsurprisingly, such a challenge was ignored. But the king was forced to agree that the charge of treason would be heard in parliament. The date was set for 3 February 1388.
Where was Henry in all this? Given his family ties to all of the leading opposition lords, one might have expected to find him encamped in Harringay Park. However, it seems he was at Westminster when the lords rode there in arms.27 This begs the question, why did he not join with Gloucester and his fellow opposition lords? Indeed, given that we know Henry joined them shortly afterwards, what was he doing?
It is unlikely that his hesitation had anything to do with the recent birth of his second son, Thomas, or the evacuation on 25 November of Mary and the children from London.28 We might speculate that he was waiting to see whether Richard would compromise, or would publicly reverse his declaration in the previous parliament that the Mortimers were the heirs to the throne. Alternatively, it is possible that a severe illness is the answer, for his accounts show that he was suffering from a skin disease (‘the pox’) at about this time.29 However, the most likely explanation is that he was waiting for authority from John of Gaunt, in Castile, for it is difficult to believe that the dutiful Henry would lead the Lancastrians into a rebellion without consulting his father.
Faced with the prospect of trial in parliament, the king’s favourites mostly ran away. De la Pole, Tresilian and Archbishop Neville went into hiding. Brembre stayed with the king. De Vere went to Cheshire. There, assisted by Sir Thomas Molyneux, constable of Chester Castle, he raised an army of between four and five thousand men. Now Henry joined the opposition lords, and so did his second cousin and close friend, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham. Although the payments noted in his account book are mostly undated, from the relative positions of certain entries, combined with locations known from other sources, we can reconstruct his route.30 At the end of November or the beginning of December he rode north through Hertford, and attended a war council with the other lords at Huntingdon on 12 December. Sir Thomas Mortimer and Thomas Mowbray were also there. Together they resolved to attack de Vere in the field, if he rode against them. At the same time they discussed whether they should depose Richard. They decided not to, following Warwick’s advice that such a move would bring shame on their families.31 Besides, as Henry knew, if Richard was deposed it would only raise the question as to who would be his successor. With his father out of the country, the duke of Gloucester would probably be seen as the strongest contender. And the duke had a son and heir. If Richard was deposed, the Lancastrians might lose their position in the succession forever.
Henry and the other lords moved to intercept de Vere. They knew he was marching down the main road to London – Watling Street – so they moved westwards to stop him. They were probably at Northampton on 15 December, and at Henry’s own manor of Daventry on the 16th. De Vere learned that they blocked his path to London. They in turn learned of his movements from Mary, Henry’s wife, who sent several messages to her husband from Kenilworth.32 De Vere had the choice of turning east or heading directly south. He chose the latter, marching down the Fosse Way to Moreton-in-Marsh. Gloucester and the earls took a parallel southwest path, to Banbury. There Henry split off from the main army. If de Vere was heading south, he would eventually come to the Thames, where he would either have to turn and face the lords with his back to the river or cross a bridge. It was Henry’s task to cut him off, and hold the bridges across the Thames.33
The exact course Henry pursued is not clear. It is possible that he went south, around the east side of Oxford, and approached the bridges across the Thames from Berkshire. However, this would have taken a considerable amount of time in December, when the daylight hours are few and the roads muddy. Given that he paid for a horse to be returned to him from Banbury, and that his wife sent a letter to him in Oxfordshire at this time, it would appear that he simply rode on ahead of the other lords, to the west of Oxford.34Either way, it was an excellent strategy. The main army was forcing de Vere to move southwards while Henry and his men were securing the strategically important bridges, Newbridge and Radcot Bridge, which lay ahead.
On 19 December de Vere was at a manor of the abbot of Evesham near Stow-on-the-Wold, probably Broadwell. The lords had occupied all the places around: Banbury, Brailes, Chipping Norton, Chipping Camden, Blockley and Bourton-on-the-Hill. Now they drove him further south, trusting that Henry would do his duty. The weather was dark and foggy. On went de Vere, not suspecting that Radcot Bridge was held against him. Henry had his force out in the open, between him and the bridge. As for the bridge itself, it was ‘broken in three places’ so that only a single horseman could cross, and blocked by three barricades. Henry had also posted archers there.35 The trap into which the lords had led de Vere was about to snap shut.
The most reliable account of the encounter which took place the next day comes from the pen of Henry Knighton, who seems to have heard an eyewitness account, albeit a sketchy one.36 De Vere marched his men hard towards Radcot Bridge, probably believing he could get there in advance of his pursuers. When he saw the banners of Henry of Lancaster arrayed before him, he realised he had been outmanoeuvred. He decided to fight, and ordered his men to stand their ground. He unfurled the royal banner, a sign of war. He ordered his trumpets, pipes and drums to start playing and ‘with a cheerful voice exhorted his men to prepare for instant battle’. But few of the Cheshire men wanted to fight. They had not believed until this moment that it would actually be necessary. Faced with the banners of Henry of Lancaster, which incorporated the royal arms, their courage evaporated.
The first of the lords to join Henry on the scene was Sir Thomas Mortimer, leading the vanguard of the earl of Arundel’s army.37 In response to shouts and threats, de Vere’s men raised their hands and let go of their bows. Seeing that all was lost, de Vere dismounted from his war horse, grabbed the reins of his swiftest steed, mounted, and galloped off along the river bank. Sir Thomas Molyneux, constable of Chester Castle, tried to follow him, but Thomas Mortimer was watching and pursued him. After some fighting Molyneux was forced down the bank into the shallows. Mortimer shouted at him to get out of the water, or be pierced with arrows where he lay. ‘If I climb out,’ responded Molyneux, ‘do you promise to spare my life?’ ‘No, I do not,’ replied Mortimer coldly, ‘but unless you climb out, you will die straightaway.’ Molyneux, seeing he had little choice, announced he would join Mortimer on the bank, and fight like a man, one to one. But Mortimer grabbed his helmet as he climbed out, ripped it off and jabbed a dagger into the side of his skull, killing him instantly.38 After that, no one else put up any resistance.
Molyneux was almost the only fatality at the battle of Radcot Bridge.39 De Vere stripped off his armour and swam his horse across the River Thames, near Bablock Hythe, and escaped to his castle of Queenborough in Kent, from which he fled abroad.40 His armour was later recovered, as were his horse, treasure and other possessions. The Cheshire men in his army were forced to give up everything they possessed – arms, bows, arrows, gold, silver, swords, horses, armour and clothes – and in this state were dismissed and told to walk back to their own lands, naked. The victorious five lords travelled together to Oxford, and from there went to Notley Abbey. Passing his manor of Henton, Henry took all the animals he could find for the army’s Christmas feast. According to his accounts, three hundred and twelve sheep, eighty pigs, eighteen oxen and two cows later had to be replaced.41 The feast was eaten at St Albans. On Christmas Day itself, Henry provided twelve masks in the form of knights’ visors for ‘disguising games’ at the feast.42 The next day they marched on London, arrayed for war.
Henry, Gloucester and the earls of Arundel, Warwick and Nottingham all met Richard in the Tower on 27 December 1387. What followed was a protracted private discussion. The king agreed to allow the arrest and trial of his favourites. Henry took Richard up on to the walls of the castle at some point and showed him the mass of armed men they had with them, and Gloucester added that these amounted to less than a tenth of those who were willing to take arms against the traitorous favourites.43 They talked about the future of the monarchy. It appears that at least two of the lords – Gloucester and Arundel – withdrew their homage for the duration of their stay in the Tower. In other words, they deposed Richard and discussed the alternatives.44
This was the real showdown. Radcot Bridge had been merely the precursor. The core of the problem was not a favourite’s abuse of his position, or even the king’s personal government. The fundamental issue was that the king was weak, and, without a clear heir, there were three if not four potential alternatives, two of whom were definitely stronger characters. Weakest of all (on account of his age) was Roger Mortimer, just turned thirteen, whom Richard had named as his heir the previous year. There was the unpopular John of Gaunt. He undoubtedly had the best legal case (considering Edward III’s settlement of the throne) but he was absent, in Castile. So Edward III’s next eldest son, Edmund, duke of York, had to be considered. He had taken no part against the favourites, was not a strong character, had very little ambition, and he too was unpopular. That left Gloucester, who clearly fancied his chances. In such circumstances, and with Richard’s reign hanging in the balance, it is not surprising that the lords publicly insisted that the heir to the throne – whoever he was – was of full age.45 It was either John of Gaunt (by right of inheritance) or Gloucester (by right of conquest).
If Henry had not joined with his uncle in opposing de Vere things would have been very different. If Gloucester had been alone with Richard, he would have shown scant respect for Edward III’s settlement, and even less for the young Mortimer. But Henry would not let his father’s interest – and thus his own – be overlooked. It is easy to imagine his line of argument. Why could his father not be recalled from Castile to be crowned? The Lancastrians had, after all, done their part to correct Richard’s poor government. Besides, if Gloucester were to take the throne, in defiance of Edward III’s settlement, he would have to face the opposition of the Lancastrians, and that would mean a civil war. As the hours passed, Henry managed to persuade his uncle of the necessity of recognising the Lancastrian claim. Eventually the five lords decided that the best course of action for them all was to retain the status quo. Richard would be restored to his throne, but constrained in his kingship. Edward III’s settlement would be honoured.
When Gloucester departed, Richard asked Henry to remain with him at the Tower.46 In all probability it was because Henry had prevented Gloucester and Arundel from deposing him. Richard realised that Henry might be his rival and enemy, but in John of Gaunt’s absence he could also be manipulated to become his protector.
The relationship between Henry and Richard had been irreparably damaged over the previous two months. They both had every reason to hate one another, and Richard’s dislike of Henry was probably only exceeded by that he felt for Gloucester and the earl of Arundel. Yet ironically Henry and Richard needed each other more than ever before. Without Henry, Richard would have lost his crown. Without Richard, Henry and his father might yet lose their position in the succession. Hence it is not surprising to read that Henry and Richard exchanged traditional New Year presents on 1 January 1388. Even though they would never forgive each other for the events of 1386–8, the niceties of diplomatic friendship had to be observed.47
Much the same can be said of Henry’s relationship with his uncle, Gloucester. In 1377, Henry had been made a Knight of the Garter and Gloucester had not. Subsequently the two men had been rivals for the estates of Mary Bohun. Now they were rivals in the matter of the succession. But despite these problems, Henry and Gloucester also exchanged New Year gifts on 1 January 1388. Of course, we might say, the duke was one of Henry’s most prestigious relations. But what then about his other uncle, the duke of York? Henry never exchanged presents with him. Similarly one finds the name of William Bagot regularly in Henry’s accounts; one day he would be part of a plot to murder Henry’s father.48 The words with which this chapter began – about enmity being the darkest, most obscure form of friendship – seem particularly relevant with regard to the early months of 1388.
Henry had every reason to be fearful of those around him, not just the king. This was the most damaging aspect of Richard’s rule. With a mercurial, unstable and sometimes vicious king, the entire top rank of society was made to feel insecure. It was difficult to know whom to trust. Henry had few close male kin to support him, and he could not even wholly depend on those. His sister Elizabeth had fallen in love with John Holland, Richard’s half-brother – the man who had murdered the earl of Stafford’s son and heir – and would have eloped with him had not Henry’s father allowed them to marry and taken them both to Spain. As for his other sister, Philippa, she was now married to King João I of Portugal. His eldest half-brother, John Beaufort, was similarly of dubious loyalty, being made a knight of the king’s chamber by Richard, and later raised to high rank. Apart from the handful of steadfast Lancastrian knights, such as Thomas Erpingham, Robert Waterton and Thomas Swynford, there were few men whom he could wholly trust.
It is in this atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that we should visualise Henry and the other four leading opposition lords entering parliament on 3 February 1388. They entered the White Chamber in a line, all wearing a livery of cloth of gold, with their arms linked.49 When Thomas Arundel, the chancellor, had made his opening address, and had called for an end to the disputes which had beset the kingdom, Henry and his four colleagues made their declarations of loyalty to the throne. Everyone else watched in silence and nervous anticipation. The five of them then ‘appealed’ the five favourites of treason. From this they acquired the title by which they are usually known, the ‘Lords Appellant’, although an alternative name was ‘Lords of the Field’.50 The method of prosecution by appeal was highly unusual.51 Certainly their accusations had historical references, for as the clerk of parliament read out the appeal he repeatedly accused de Vere and de la Pole of ‘accroaching’ royal power, a phrase which had been rarely used since the trial of the first earl of March in 1330, and was employed specifically to portray de Vere and his associates as enemies of the Crown.52 The accused were all summoned to plead. Three times over the next three days they were summoned, but only Brembre turned up. Subsequently, the absent four were given a week-long trial. All were found guilty. De Vere, de la Pole and Tresilian were sentenced to death. Neville as a clergyman was spared death but forced to surrender his temporal estates.
According to the parliament roll, Brembre was denied legal counsel and was only allowed to say ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ when the charges were read out. He offered to defend himself in battle, and the king spoke up on his behalf, but a wave of outraged voices silenced him. Twelve lords were eventually deputed to try Brembre. They decided that his crimes were insufficient to merit the death penalty. The Appellants were not satisfied, and apparently used other methods of prosecution, all of which failed. Finally, they hit on the idea of charging him with concealment of the others’ treasons, of which they found him guilty. He was drawn to the gallows as a traitor, and hanged, despite the shouts, tears and pleas of the onlookers.
Nervous anticipation had given way to uninhibited anger. Now that mood in turn gave way to vindictiveness. In the course of Brembre’s trial, Justice Tresilian was found hiding in Westminster Abbey. He was dragged out by the duke of Gloucester and immediately hanged as a traitor. More trials followed: those of men who had aided and abetted the protagonists, or simply been considered bad advisers for the king. These men were not appealed of treason but impeached. First there were the other justices who had set their seals to Richard’s questions of the previous August. They were found guilty, as Bealknap had predicted. The parliament was turning into a judicial mass lynching, a bloodbath. Some of the Appellants themselves were among those who pleaded for the lives of the judges, recognising that they were the unwilling accomplices of Richard’s tyranny. They had some success. Their two helpers – those who had actually drafted the questions – were convicted and executed, but Bealknap and his colleagues were spared the rope.
The leading Appellants were not finished yet, however. As the weeks went by, more trials took place. After breaking for Easter, parliament went into a second session, and listened to the cases of four knights: Sir Simon Burley, Sir John Beauchamp of Holt (recently created Baron Beauchamp of Kidderminster by Richard), Sir James Berners and Sir John Salisbury. These men too were accused of ‘accroaching’ royal power, of misdirecting the king in his youth, of abetting the principal favourites in their plots and attempted murders during the previous parliament, of advising the king to leave that parliament, and – in the case of Sir John Salisbury – of plotting with the French. Eventually all were condemned to death as traitors. Berners, Burley and Beauchamp were beheaded, and Salisbury hanged.53
If the Lords Appellant are viewed as a group, there is little doubt that they used tyrannical methods to bring an end to Richard’s tyranny. Their definition of treason, like Richard’s own, bore no resemblance to the articles of the Statute of Treason drawn up by Edward III. Their processes were based largely on military strength, not the law. Their judgement was in places arbitrary and often prejudiced. Clearly Brembre’s crimes did not merit the death penalty. It is not surprising that the parliament came to be known as the Merciless Parliament: it deserved the title. In all, eight of the king’s friends were executed. Two others (de Vere and de la Pole) were sentenced to death in their absence. Seven more lost all their goods and were exiled. Nor was the term ‘merciless’ applied by a Ricardian sympathiser: it comes in fact from the pen of Henry Knighton, whose abbey was patronised by the Lancastrians.
But the Lords Appellant showed signs of breaking up even in their moment of triumph. As noted above, one or more of them called for the judges’ death sentences to be commuted, which they were. Although they had entered parliament with a show of unity, they were divided as soon as the first five traitors had been dealt with. Such divisions became even more apparent after Easter, when the case of Simon Burley was heard. Burley was fifty-two, relatively old for the time. He had been in the retinue of the Black Prince, for whom Henry had a high regard. He was also a very well-educated man, and had read treatises of the kind that would have appealed to Henry’s logical mind. He was a thinker, and Henry had appreciated his thinking at first hand at the age of ten, when he had been in Richard’s household under Burley’s tutelage. When the matter of his sentence was raised, on 27 April, the duke of York rose from his seat and declared that Burley had always been loyal to the king and the realm, and he challenged anyone who disagreed to fight him in single combat. Gloucester was outraged at his brother’s intervention, and shouted back that Burley was false to his allegiance, and he would prove it with the point of his sword. ‘At this,’ wrote the Westminster chronicler, ‘the duke of York turned white with anger and told his brother to his face that he was a liar’. Gloucester was not the sort of duke who accepted being publicly branded a liar, and was uncontrollably furious. In the chronicler’s words, the two dukes ‘would have hurled themselves on each other’ if the king had not ordered them to stop arguing.54
The particularly interesting thing about this event is not just the dissent itself but Henry’s reaction. He sided with the duke of York – a man for whom he had no great affection and to whom he never gave presents – and supported the case for Burley to be spared. He did this against the consensus of his fellow Appellants. On this basis, Henry would appear not to have been the author of the list of those to be accused. It follows that he was probably one of the unnamed Appellants who called for mercy to be shown to the justices. As Capgrave later wrote of him, he loved to debate moral issues. He believed passionately in the difference between right and wrong, and was not prepared to succumb to another man’s prejudices, even those of his uncle and comrades-in-arms.
When this most shocking and dramatic of parliaments drew to a close, Richard invited all the lords to dine with him at Kennington on the last day of May. It was no more than an act of formal politeness. Richard’s half-brother, John Holland, at this point returned from serving with John of Gaunt in Castile and was created earl of Huntingdon. What Henry thought of this rehabilitation of his sister’s seducer and Ralph Stafford’s murderer is not clear, but it is noticeable that there are no gifts to Holland in his account book. On 2 June the Lords Appellant were granted £20,000 towards their expenses in raising armies to bring the traitors to justice, and soon afterwards all the participants in the parliament departed. Henry’s bargemen – equipped in his red and white livery – rowed him back up the Thames to his house in London.55 He was still there on 15 June but left shortly afterwards.56 He had won the war, as it were. Yet Richard was still on the throne, and his fellow Appellants had proved themselves as vindictive as the king. They also now knew Henry would not always agree with them, nor follow their guidance. He would follow his own mind. When the time came for Richard to seek revenge, would they all defend one other?
Henry left London in June 1388 with plans to fight the Scots.57 For some, this will summon up a picture of him fighting at the battle of Otterburn – ‘the battle won by a dead man’ – but in fact Henry was not there. Instead the name we associate with that battle is that of his cousin, Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the heir of the earl of Northumberland. Hotspur had acquired his nickname on account of his fast and daring escapades against the Scots. He was the Warden of the East March, and thus he was in command when the Scots invaded Northumberland in late July or early August. At Otterburn the Scottish commander, the earl of Douglas, was mortally injured; but before he died he ordered his body to be concealed beneath a bush and his banner to be borne into the thick of the fighting. As the battle continued into the evening and after dusk, and even by moonlight, so his men took heart and pushed the English back. Hotspur’s brother, Ralph Percy, was badly wounded and Hotspur himself was captured after a protracted encounter with Sir John Montgomery.
Given the involvement of two of his Percy cousins in the battle, and considering that the third Percy brother, Thomas, was acting as an intermediary between John of Gaunt and Henry at that time, it would not have been surprising if Henry had intended to be at Otterburn.58 After all, he was young, and eager for action. However, Jean Froissart, who supplies most of the information we have for the campaign, does not mention Henry at Newcastle before the battle, although he names a number of leaders on both sides. Nor does he mention him at Otterburn itself.59 At the very least, one would have expected the chronicler Henry Knighton to mention Henry in his account of the battle, if he had been present. He does not. It seems therefore that he was not there, nor in any way connected with Hotspur’s campaign.
At the same time as the earl of Douglas invaded Northumberland, a second Scottish force under the earl of Fife invaded Westmorland and Cumberland, and wrought terrible destruction on the town of Appleby and many of the villages in the vicinity. This alternative field of hostilities may have been Henry’s destination. The man in command of the West March was Lord Beaumont, an eminent tournament fighter and Henry’s second cousin twice over. However, close examination of the evidence shows that Henry was not there either. In all probability, he did not get further than Nottingham.60 His reason for failing to reach his destination may have been his wife’s illness, for about this time the physician Geoffrey Melton was summoned from Oxford to attend her at Kenilworth, to which place Henry now returned.61
When parliament assembled at Cambridge in September 1388, the members had every reason to be disappointed in the Appellants. The last time they had met they had seen Henry and the four other lords enter in their cloth of gold suits, arm in arm. They had seen them put themselves forward as the agents of good government. Now, seven months later, England had suffered serious attacks in Scotland, and had squandered the taxation for the war. Hotspur was a prisoner, Beaumont a disappointment. The earl of Arundel had been exposed as a profiteer, having taken expenses for four months at sea when he had only served for three.62 Men wearing the livery collars and insignia of these lords were committing crimes in various places around the country, and the common people felt powerless to resist them. The practice of lords protecting their supporters in this way – usually referred to as ‘maintenance’ – had supposedly been stamped out fifty years earlier. Now it had come back, and the Appellants were as guilty as the king. To add to the difficulties, employment was in crisis, with beggars tramping from parish to parish, looking for work and resorting to crime if they failed to find it. Far from governing well, the Appellants had apparently resigned their responsibilities and were acting in their own self-interests.
From 9 September to 17 October, the commons led discussion on these issues. No one should be permitted to issue livery badges and collars, they claimed. Henry’s was one of the most noticeable livery insignia. The famous Lancastrian livery collar of interlaced esses was in use by this time; the previous year he had distributed collars with ‘swages’ (circular metal designs) to his supporters, William Bagot, John Stanley and Lord Darcy.63 His goldsmith’s account for 1387–8 is positively dripping with references to lordly collars and badges, including a mulberry design (Mowbray’s livery badge). The king offered to stop his retainers using livery badges if it would encourage others to do likewise; but the lords objected. The commons’ petition was carried over to the following parliament, pending an investigation.
This piece of lordly obstructionism was almost the full extent of the lords’ achievement in this parliament. There was one other: it appears that it was the lords who introduced the first public health statute. ‘So much dung, filth, and entrails of dead beasts and other corruptions is cast into ditches, rivers and other waterways, and many other places, within about and near to the cities, boroughs and towns of the realm … that the air is greatly corrupted and infected and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen …’64 They ordered fines of £20 to be levied on all those who had not remedied the situation within a year, and passed the responsibility for keeping the streets clean to local officers. Apart from this, there was no significant agenda for reform. The Appellants as a group seem to have opted to sink back into the mass, as if the rebellion had never happened. They had been a single-cause party, and after the removal of Richard’s friends (and the reason for their opposition) they had little in common. An interesting footnote to this lack of lordly engagement is that, in the absence of a lordly legislative programme, the commons put forward an exceedingly detailed and comprehensive petition regarding the labour system. It resulted in the statute which made communities responsible for providing for poor people and itinerant labour-seekers, and so established the precedent which remained the basis for the poor law until the nineteenth century.
Henry probably left the Cambridge parliament early, judging from the fact that his third son must have been conceived midway through the parliament.65 He returned to Kenilworth to his wife and children and remained with them intermittently into the New Year.66He and the other Appellants were no doubt hoping that a quieter, less contentious stance would allow a new normality to develop. But in the fourteenth century, when opposition lords lessened their pressure on the king, they became vulnerable. At Christmas, when most of Richard’s opponents returned to their own castles, the king told some of his friends who had escaped the carnage of the Merciless Parliament that now things were safe enough for them to return to court. Sir John Golafre – whose possessions had been distributed to Henry and others – returned openly. So did Sir John Lovell and Sir Thomas Blount, both of whom had fled from the Appellants. A banished clerk, Richard Medford, now resumed his post as Richard’s secretary.67
In February 1389, the three senior Appellants – the duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick – gathered again in London. There is no indication that Henry was with them. But then, on 13 February, the king wrote to Henry Reede, armourer of London, ordering him to deliver a breastplate to Henry as a gift from the king.68 Was this a sign of reconciliation? Or was it something else, a warning perhaps?
Given that Richard invited Henry on to his council shortly afterwards, this gift has come to be seen as a sign of peace. One leading historian of the period has taken it as an indication that Richard was ‘cultivating’ Henry.69 Another has gone further and stated that it ‘marked the growth of a warmer and more intimate relationship between them’.70 But there may have been more to this gift than meets the eye. For a start, there is nothing to suggest that this breastplate was an unusually expensive item; the breastplate which Henry bought in 1388 cost him £1 6s 8d, and it would have taken a far more substantial present than this to make Henry believe that Richard genuinely valued him. And there are good reasons to suspect that this ‘gift’ was not really a gift at all. The day it was given – 13 February – was the anniversary of the judgement on de Vere, de la Pole, Tresilian and Archbishop Neville. The person who had originally owned it, Sir John Beauchamp of Holt, was a man whom Richard had admired so much that he raised him to the rank of baron in a letter patent (the first time this had ever been done) and stood as godfather to his son. Beauchamp had never taken his seat in parliament because he had been executed by Henry and the other Appellants as a traitor. So for Richard to give Henry this particular breastplate on this particular day was an exceptionally loaded present. It reminds us of John of Gaunt going to see Richard in 1385, wearing a breastplate under his gown. Richard may well have been telling Henry that, whatever had been agreed in the Tower in December 1387, he would not forgive him for the proceedings of the subsequent parliament.
Henry attended the council meeting in the Palace of Westminster on 3 May 1389.71 He was the only one of the Lords Appellant present. Thus he was the only Appellant sympathiser there to see the pro-Appellant chancellor and treasurer sacked, the justices replaced, and the duke of Gloucester and the earl of Arundel removed from the royal council. Henry was appointed to the council in their place, possibly in recognition of the fact that his superior royal status had been the key factor in preventing Gloucester from seizing the throne. Henry can have taken little pleasure in his new position, however, for Richard publicly announced that he would now take responsibility for government on himself once again. He would end the war with France quickly and peacefully. He would justify this to the people through reduced taxation: half the grant for the war was to be returned. In furtherance of this, he immediately despatched a peace delegation; a truce was agreed within six weeks. To Henry it looked very much as though he would never emulate his grandfather, never lead an army in France, never be more than a jousting puppet at the court of King Richard.
As he rode back to Kenilworth a few days later (where his wife was about to give birth to their third son), he must have been torn.72 On the one hand, Richard had successfully dislodged him from his kinsmen and fellow Appellants. He had also removed Henry’s chances of winning glory in the war. On the other, Henry had apparently managed the transition from Appellant to the royal council. He had prevented Gloucester from seizing the throne, and had prevented Richard carrying out his threat to make Roger Mortimer his official heir. He had survived these problems amazingly well, considering he was still only twenty-two. The problem was that his success was so fragile. As it happened, Richard would never forgive him for riding against de Vere, nor for sanctioning the deaths of so many of his friends.73 His political survival was a delicate balancing act, not a solid achievement. Perhaps he would have need of that breastplate sooner rather than later.