Occasions for Worship

Simon Walker

  • Richard II by Nigel Saul
    Yale, 528 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 300 07003 9

Each generation fashions its own image of Richard II. To his contemporaries, Richard’s fate was an admonitory instance of changing fortune: the King fell in the midst of his glory and was delivered into the hands of his enemies. To historians of the Tudor age, Richard’s deposition by one of his subjects was a terrible warning of the dangers of rebellion, bequeathing to succeeding generations a legacy of bloodshed and civil strife. Others read in the King’s fate a more personal message. ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that?’ the ageing Queen Elizabeth demanded, mindful of her fallen favourite, the Earl of Essex, and his forlorn attempt to rally support for his claim to the throne by staging the tragedy of Richard’s fall ‘forty times in open streets and houses’. The play Essex performed was, in all probability, Shakespeare’s version of Richard’s final years, an account which turned the chronicle narratives of revenge and betrayal into a true tragedy by showing the King encompassed by the defects of his own character.

Shakespeare’s reading of Richard’s reign was so powerful that, in its essentials, it held the floor until the late 19th century. Writing in 1873, J.R. Green was doing little more than epitomise it when he ascribed to Richard ‘fitful inconstancy, an insane pride, and a craving for absolute power’. The first wave of professional academic historians, notably William Stubbs and his pupil T.F. Tout, did much to illuminate the mechanisms of Richard’s rule but they found the conundrum of his personality hard to solve. Stubbs felt that Richard’s sudden imposition of autocracy in the summer of 1397, after nearly a decade of constitutional propriety, was the work of a mind driven wild by too much contact with foreigners. The suggestion of mental instability he introduced was taken up with gusto by the last full-scale academic biography of the King to be attempted, Anthony Steel’s Richard II, published in 1941. Writing under the influence of a vulgarised Freudianism, Steel depicted Richard as the schizophrenic offspring of a heroic, distant father and a sexually wayward mother, an aesthete determined to prove his questionable virility, who turned himself into a ‘mumbling neurotic sinking rapidly into a state of acute melancholia’ in the attempt.

Nigel Saul’s new study would have been welcome simply for the opportunity it offers to reconsider Richard’s actions and personality in the light of more recent scholarship, though his balanced and perceptive account of the reign supplies much more. It follows the familiar format of the English Monarchs series, formerly published by Methuen and now relaunched by Yale, in offering a traditional life and times treatment, which allows Saul sufficient space to develop in some detail the political and strategic backdrop against which the drama of Richard’s reign was played out. Saul handles this part of his task very well: careful in exposition and elaborately courteous in disagreement, he proves a reliable guide to the various cruces of Ricardian scholarship – the future status of the Duchy of Aquitaine envisaged in peace negotiations with the French; the King’s plans for the lordship of Ireland; the nature and functions of his court. His conclusions are grounded in a thorough knowledge of the primary sources. The Richard that emerges – restless, assertive and inventive in his approach to ‘the burden of the government of the English’ – differs markedly from the neurotic nobody sketched by Steel.

In Saul’s view, the most striking feature of Richard’s rule was its self-conscious quality. Other kings had sought to portray their powers and authority in impressive terms but Richard created for himself a new image of kingship, distanced from the criticism of his subjects by an aura of liturgical solemnity. Portraits displayed the King in iconic, Christ-like isolation; Richard encouraged a new vocabulary of address, rich in the epithets of ‘majesty’ and ‘highness’, and did his best to turn Westminster Abbey into a shrine to royalty, an English Sainte Chapelle. Every opportunity was taken to emphasise the King’s special, quasi-sacral, status as the Lord’s anointed. Royal alms-giving was transformed from a daily occurrence into a spectacular and occasional ceremony, witnessed by a cast of thousands, while the routines of court-keeping and crown-wearing were recast as occasions for worship: as the King sat silent and motionless above them, his courtiers dropped to their knees whenever the royal glance rested for a moment on them.

Though this transformation in the presentation of royal authority owed something to Richard’s innate love of display, there lay behind it a serious purpose: an attempt to rewrite the Constitution of later medieval England by forming a new, and more overtly royalist, political consensus. In order to do this, Richard needed to attain two closely linked objectives. For the previous century, England had been a society organised for war, a joint-stock enterprise for the conquest and despoliation of other lands. Warfare was the Plantagenet family business, at which Richard’s father and grandfather had both excelled. By the 1380s, however, the terms of trade had turned decisively against the English and the heavy cost of unsuccessful campaigns was provoking criticism of the King’s government from the Commons. Suiting in 1383, Richard sought a permanent end to hostilities, doggedly pursuing his vision of a united Christendom through a series of false starts and diplomatic setbacks until 1396, when his marriage to Isabella of Valois, the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI, King of France, seemed set to inaugurate the promised era of peace. His enthusiasm for this initiative sprang, in part, from an apparently genuine abhorrence of bloodshed between Christians, though this sensitivity was not extended to the Scots and Irish, rebels against his sovereign authority, against whom Richard was quite happy to go on campaigning. But behind it there lay also the King’s pragmatic desire to free himself from both the fiscal dependence on grants of extraordinary taxation that overseas warfare inevitably implied and the necessary pliancy towards the complaints and demands of his subjects required to obtain such grants.

In conjunction with his determination to reverse the traditional direction of English foreign policy, away from Continental engagements and towards the consolidation of royal control throughout the British Isles, Richard sought also to set his domestic authority on firmer foundations. ‘Obedience’ and ‘unity’ were the watchwords of this campaign, their implications spelled out in a series of Parliamentary harangues: Richard was the father of his people and his subjects must obey him as sons obey their father, readily submitting themselves to the chastisement ordained by his laws. A thoroughgoing reform of royal government gave new substance to these aspirations. During the 1390s, a tight-knit group of quasi-professional administrators turned the King’s Council into a dependable instrument of royal authority; the argument that direct taxation should be available to the King in peace as well as war was aired and, at least temporarily, acknowledged; recalcitrant individuals and communities were brought to heel by heavy fines. Beyond the confines of his court and household, Richard devoted some care to building up a substantial body of support in the localities, taking many of the most influential county gentry into his service, while in his own principality of Chester he recruited a royal bodyguard that looked, to his resentful subjects, like an embryonic standing army.

These were inventive and ultimately fruitful innovations in the practice of royal government that anticipated some of the most distinctive policies of the early Tudors; like Richard, Henry VII proved ‘much set to have many persons in his danger at his pleasure’. Yet for all its ingenuity, Richard’s quest for a new consensus proved fatal to himself and, for nearly a century, to the policies with which he had been associated. The King’s attempts to raise an army against his critics in 1387 met with little response outside Cheshire, while in 1399 only a handful of diehard loyalists were ready to stand by their oaths of allegiance to him. Why was this? Saul suggests two closely connected reasons: that Richard’s actions and predilections challenged the vested interests of the higher nobility too openly; and that his manipulative policies created dissension rather than unity in local society, polarising the governing groups into factions whose conflicts subsequently played a part in rallying support to Henry of Lancaster’s cause. Both points are valid but neither seems quite sufficient to explain the scale of the disaffection that surrounded Richard’s downfall.

Noble authority in the localities was, to a considerable extent, delegated royal authority and the overriding interest of the higher nobility lay in the maintenance of a stable and effective monarchy. As a consequence, later medieval kings retained considerable latitude in their dealings with the aristocracy. The effective exclusion of the Earl of Arundel from the King’s counsels during the 1390s and the ruinous adjudication passed against the Earl of Warwick in 1397 indicated that even the most powerful magnates could, individually, do little to stand against Richard. Alliances of private interests proved fragile and difficult to maintain: in 1387 Richard’s victorious opponents began to quarrel among themselves at the very moment of their triumph, while the hand-picked courtier nobility created by the King in the following decade – the ‘little dukes’ – was itself riven with factional jealousies. A concerted opposition to the King’s actions could, almost by definition, arise only over an issue of broad public policy. Ominously, the new direction of Richard’s rule raised, in an acute form, the broadest of all issues in later medieval government: the problem of counsel and the nature of kingship itself.

Throughout Richard’s reign, the question of whom the King should consult concerning the business of the realm, and the weight he should give to the advice he received, remained controversial. Fortified by the support of a few trusted intimates, Richard soon began to set his own agenda. As early as November 1382, the Commons requested that the King surround himself with ‘discreet and honest councillors’ – a convenient term of art, abandoned the following year when the Lords complained that he paid too little attention to the advice of the nobility. Repeated failures on Richard’s part to heed this warning meant that an institutional remedy was sought in October 1386, when an alliance of Lords and Commons imposed on him a ‘continual council’, armed with full powers to undertake a reform of the royal household; Richard undiplomatically replied that he would not dismiss a scullion from his kitchens at the councillors’ request.

Such exchanges touched on the central ambiguity of English royal authority. All were agreed that kings were appointed by God and charged with a duty to advance and protect the common interests of the realm. A contemporary expectation had grown up that, in doing so, kings would also make themselves available to their subjects and listen to their requests and advice. There was no theoretical obligation on them to do so, however. The judicial opinion that Richard obtained in 1387, confirming that the King alone set the agenda for Parliamentary debate and retained the power to dissolve the assembly at will, did no more than confirm existing assumptions. It was on this principle of ‘royal liberty’, the freedom of action that the King enjoyed as the sole legally constituted source of authority in society, that Richard sought to base his rule, resisting all attempts to constrain his choice of councillor or policy. Though he learned discretion over time, exchanging the tantrums of his teenage years, such as the occasion on which he had attempted to stab the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a willingness to make concessions, these were merely tactical retreats: to the end of his life, Richard held unflinchingly to the belief that ‘the laws were in his mouth ... or in his breast’

Such clarity of vision demanded an equally articulate set of counter-propositions, emphasising the practical constraints that law and custom placed on the exercise of royal authority. In 1386 Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, reminded the King of the fate of his great-grandfather, Edward II, and told Richard that he, too, could be deposed if he ruled ‘without the common consent of the people’; in 1388 the King’s opponents championed ‘the law and course of Parliament’ above all other laws, and lawmakers, within the kingdom. An adult sovereign could not be compelled to observe these constraints, however, except by force of arms. One of the distinctive features of Richard’s reign is the unusual readiness of the King’s opponents to use this ultimate deterrent: first in December 1387, when a small group of powerful nobles, known as the Appellants, defeated Richard’s forces in battle and, for a few tense days, contemplated his deposition; and again in 1399, when Henry of Lancaster justified his usurpation on account of Richard’s ‘undoing of the good laws’. Both sides could claim the benefit of precedent and prescription for their actions: the views they expressed were less two different conceptions of kingship than two complementary strands within a single body of thinking on the subject. Much of the political turbulence of Rihcard’s reign sprang from the unresolved tensions between them.

While Saul frequently acknowledges the importance of such issues, a more systematic discussion of the conceptual framework within which his main protagonists acted might have helped to clarify some otherwise puzzling features of the politics of Richard’s reign. The brutality the Appellants displayed in the show trials of the ‘Merciless’ Parliament becomes easier to understand once the underlying weakness of their political position, and the necessarily temporary nature of their ascendancy, is appreciated. On the whole, however, Saul prefers the personal to the theoretical as a mode of explanation. After all, Richard’s deposition did not mean that the conception of the English monarchy he championed – a sovereign royal realm acknowledging no earthly superior – was decisively rejected, for his successor proved as anxious to ‘stand as freely in his prerogative’ and to tolerate ‘no manner of novelty’ from the Commons as the man he had supplanted. The difference between them was as much one of style as of substance: Richard’s fastidious cultivation of distance between himself and his subjects proved less effective in maintaining their allegiance than Henry IV’s natural clubbability. Saul’s repeated engagement with the riddle of Richard’ character is one of the strongest features of this book, which gathers weight and cogency once Richard’s emergence as an adult king in 1389 allows a more consistent identification of his own contributions and initiatives in the business of government.

In his conclusion, Saul floats the notion that certain distinctive features of Richard’s character, especially his theatricality, his solipsism and his sudden bursts of destructive aggression, suggest a narcissistic personality who gradually lost touch with the external world. His diagnosis may not be clinically watertight but it does point up the sense in which Richard’s reign saw a triumph of the will over frequently unpromising material circumstances. Richard created for himself an iconic status which belied his unimpressive personal appearance, flushed in the face and hesitant in speech, while he temporarily succeeded in imposing on the English aristocracy his own view of nobility as a mark of royal favour, dependent only on an individual’s standing with his sovereign. His inability to maintain the momentum of his success owed something to his bleakly Hobbesian view of the political process, but it was far from an inevitable failure. For all its ceremonial originality, Richard’s rule worked within traditional assumptions about the nature and powers of kingship; overt domestic criticism of his regime was understandably sparse; a lengthy truce with France rendered the threat of intervention from abroad, such as had ended the rule of Edward II, very slight. In the early summer of 1399 all seemed set fair. Only the opportunism and innae military talent of Henry of Lancaster proved it otherwise. ‘Perfection of a kind was that he sought’ but, unlike Auden’s tyrant, Richard never was sufficiently interested in the movement of armies and fleets.