Lancastrian Spin

Simon Walker

  • England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422 by Paul Strohm
    Yale, 274 pp, £25.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 300 07544 8

Six hundred years ago this summer, Richard II lost his throne. Preoccupied by the attempt to shore up his failing Irish peace settlement, Richard unwisely delayed his return to the mainland in order to confront a rumoured uprising, and landed to find his kingdom already slipping from his grasp. In the hectic skirmishes that followed, the inventor of the pocket handkerchief predictably proved no match for his battle-hardened cousin, Henry of Lancaster. Tricked into surrender at Conway Castle, Richard was brought south under heavy guard. Although he was still accorded all the honour due his kingly status, his subjects could not fail to observe that, throughout the ceremonies of royalty, the Duke of Lancaster stood one pace behind him, an ominous presence in full armour. Once in London, Richard was paraded through the streets before a derisive crowd, browbeaten into agreeing to abdicate, and declared, for good measure, to be neither worthy nor capable of royal government. It only remained for Henry to advance towards the empty throne in Westminster Hall and claim it as his own.

Richard’s empty throne stands at the heart of Paul Strohm’s fine study of the textual consequences of the Lancastrian usurpation. It is both a material presence, a space to be occupied and defended by the victorious Henry, and a permanent void, a metonym for the legitimacy that the early Lancastrian kings constantly craved but could never fully attain. It represented the empty sacral centre of their rule, the constant absence that evoked from the new dynasty and its publicists the ingenious range of legitimising strategies and ceremonies that form the subject of Strohm’s acute and frequently entertaining analysis.

From the outset of his reign, Henry IV entertained few illusions about the strength of his mandate to rule, even asking the lords who acclaimed him king whether they did so truly, from their hearts, or only from their mouths. An unstable mixture of plots, rumours and prophecies soon proved his fears to be justified. Rebels disguised as New Year revellers attempted to surprise him with his family in January 1400; the following Christmas, unknown hands tried to poison his food. There were plans to smear the King’s saddle with a poisonous ointment, so that he would swell up and die, and there was consternation when an ingenious iron man-trap was discovered in the royal bed. Such domestic betrayals were only the most pernicious demonstrations of the widespread disaffection that afflicted the early Lancastrian regime. The ‘Epiphany rising’ by a group of unreconciled Ricardian courtiers was followed in 1403 by the Earl of Northumberland’s attempt to stage his own usurpation, while a series of reformist insurrections broke out in the North two years later, led by the Archbishop of York.

Although each of these rebellions was efficiently snuffed out, the conviction that animated them all, that King Henry was not entitled to the throne he occupied, continued to be widely held. In Oxford, certain clerks were reported to have wished him a short life and a bad end, because he ruled unjustly. In the Abbot of Bury St Edmund’s jail, one prisoner confided to another that the King only ruled by the advice of a devil and that his reign would bring destruction to every man’s door. More alarming still, because it was so generally believed, was the rumour that the deposed Richard had escaped from his captivity and was still alive, waiting off the coast of Scotland, ‘in an island called Albion’, until the day appointed for his return in glory.

Not the least of Henry IV’s achievements was to survive these risings and alarms, despite the serious illness that debilitated his last years, and to die safe in his bed and secure on his throne. Yet challenges to the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty continued to disturb his son’s reign. Henry V had to face a rising of religious dissidents in 1414 and was confronted, as he made the final preparations for his first campaign in France, with startling evidence of the persistence of treason among his closest companions, some of whom were proposing to advance the dynastic claims of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, against ‘Harry of Lancaster, usurper of England’. Nor had the ghost of Richard II finally been laid to rest. As late as 1419 the King was ordering precautions against ‘that fool in Scotland’, who, the Lancastrians claimed, was still implausibly impersonating the former king.

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