Go to the Devil

David Carpenter

  • Richard II: Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-99 by Christopher Fletcher
    Oxford, 336 pp, £24.95, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 959571 6

By far the most striking image of Richard II is the one found in the great portrait of him, crowned and enthroned, which still survives in Westminster Abbey. Painted in the 1390s, when the king was in his twenties, it gives him a slightly boyish, even feminine appearance, with red cheeks, full lips and a small goatee beard. Much of this, however, is the work of 19th-century restorers: when the portrait is viewed under infrared reflectography, the lips are less full, the beard covers part of the cheeks as well as the chin, and the line of the jaw is firmer and more defined. The king seems altogether more masculine. The touching up of the painting was probably influenced by a view of Richard that had been circulating at least since the time of his deposition in 1399, but is it right? In his new study of Richard’s reign, Christopher Fletcher argues that, far from exhibiting boyish or feminine characteristics, as his enemies alleged, Richard strove to live up to contemporary ideas about how a man should behave. In many ways he was a conventionally ‘manly’ king.

The charge that Richard was immature was made explicitly by Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, in the sermon he preached on Richard’s deposition in 1399. There he contrasted the ‘boy’, Richard, with his supplanter, the ‘man’, Henry IV. He also elaborated on the childlike characteristics that rendered Richard unfit to be king: he was untruthful, wilful and understood only his own pleasure. Arundel was not suggesting that Richard was still a child in terms of mental capacity. Rather, he was branding him with the instability, irresponsibility and lack of wisdom that were supposedly among the features of childhood. In this Arundel has been followed by most later historians, who have added a lack of martial spirit to the bill. For V.H. Galbraith, Richard was a ‘misfit in his own class’ with ‘nice personal habits’, a ‘non-co-operator, who hates rugger and cricket and refuses to shout on the touchline’. (Galbraith revealed something of his own background here: a public school boy, he had shown ‘impetuous courage’ in the First World War, winning a croix de guerre avec palme, and, it’s said, forcing men over the top at the point of his officer’s revolver.) Few now would describe Richard in quite these terms, but still, as Fletcher very fairly observes, ‘over the years, Richard II’s unmanly character has provided the cement with which historians have filled the gaps in their interpretations of his reign.’

Fletcher devotes three chapters at the beginning of his book to exploring contemporary ideas about boyhood and manhood. What emerges, he argues, is that Richard’s critics were relying on a very partial and distorted account of what manhood was thought to be. Archbishop Arundel and the rest accused Richard of being inconstant, wilful and unreasonable, largely ignoring the central quality of manhood: the ability to act with strength, bravery and, if necessary, with violence. They also failed to acknowledge that what they saw as wilful extravagance and unjustifiable punishments might be the expenditure required of a man’s estate and the revenge required by a man’s honour.

In the second and longer part of the book (some eight chapters), Fletcher presents an entirely new chronological account of the politics of the reign. The central contention is that ideas of manhood were not simply the rhetorical flourishes of Richard’s opponents. Rather, Richard’s key actions and policies throughout his reign were essentially attempts to assert his manhood. Part of the background here is that Richard was only ten when he came to the throne in 1377, after the death of his grandfather Edward III, the hero of the first phase of the Hundred Years War (Richard’s father, the Black Prince, had predeceased him). For Richard to prove that he could act in a manly fashion was also to prove that he could wield political authority, choosing his counsellors and spending money as he wished, free from parliamentary oversight. There was more, however, to Richard’s espousal of manhood than a desire to escape restriction. It was also the key to successful rule. As Fletcher puts it, ‘to turn around the fortunes of the kingdom … he would have to become the apogee of the “man” of contemporary language and theory, combining military and moral strength and so bringing victory in war and peace at home.’

It is, in other words, a central feature of Fletcher’s argument that Richard was the reverse of the unmilitary monarch of popular legend, who was keen to promote peace with France. Instead, between 1382 and 1386, he pursued with ‘uncompromising vigour’ plans for expeditions to the Continent during which he might win his manhood. In 1385, thwarted by poverty and circumstance, he instead led an army to Scotland, ‘an important moment’ in his ‘campaign to promote his full authority as a man’. Now, aged 18, he might ‘have thought that his manhood was secure’, but he was hit by waves of criticism which led to restrictions, justified by reference to his youth, being imposed on his rule. He therefore had to start all over again. In May 1389, aged 22, he declared that he was an adult and intended to rule as one. In practice, Fletcher argues, what emerged in the next few years was a consensual regime that accepted and performed ‘Richard’s manhood through the household hospitality and ceremonial activity which were the mark of an established man of noble estate’, and in that sense there was nothing novel or exceptional about the culture of his court, as some historians have imagined. Richard, however, was not content with this settlement. Between 1390 and 1397 he was building up his retinue (the subject, incidentally, of Alan Bennett’s sadly abandoned doctoral thesis) and intervening in local quarrels so as to support friends and punish enemies. His second marriage and an expedition to Ireland both helped affirm his manly status. ‘Now, more than ever,’ Fletcher tells us, ‘he took on the role of the man as suggested by the language of manhood, defending his honour against the kingdom’s enemies, giving out manly largesse as befitted his estate, and receiving his subjects and foreign dignitaries with the ceremonial recognition of status which emperors or kings dispensed “manly” to the heroes of romance.’

By January 1397, Fletcher suggests, Richard ‘might have felt that he had achieved the acknowledgment of his authority as a man that he had been seeking since his teens’. Yet it was now that the ideas of manhood which hitherto had served him well played him false. In an extraordinary purge in the summer of 1397, Richard destroyed those who had brought him low between 1386 and 1388: Arundel, brother of the archbishop, was executed on Tower Hill, Woodstock smothered to death in Calais and Warwick exiled to the Isle of Man. Later his other two major opponents of 1388, Mowbray and Bolingbroke (the latter the future Henry IV), were also sent into exile. It was these measures, and the ruthlessness associated with them, which brought Richard’s regime crashing to the ground. Historians have often puzzled over this eruption of royal violence. Had Richard heard of plots against him? Had he simply gone mad? Fletcher’s explanation affirms and completes the hypothesis of his book: Richard ‘remained attached to the primary logic of manhood which taught that, once slighted, that slight must be avenged, if one is to be held to be a man’.

Fletcher’s Richard II is, therefore, very different from the Richard II of previous historians. In place of an individual set apart from his nobles by both antipathy to war and absolutist notions of royal authority, notions proclaimed in elaborate rituals at court and an elevated ‘vocabulary’ of kingship, we have a king who was simply ‘an unimaginative if vehement adept of certain conventional qualities associated with being a “man”’. Fletcher advances his ideas with great confidence, taking issue freely and frequently with most of the other experts in the field, living and dead. He is well qualified to do so because the book is based on diverse and deep research, Fletcher being the master of both the medical and didactic works which deal with the ‘ages of man’, and the great range of government records which unfold the political history of the period. His analysis of the unprinted household accounts to show that there was nothing exceptional about the costs of the Richardian court’s daily food and drink is especially striking.

This, then, is a pioneering, provocative and compelling book. The first part, in which Fletcher explores contemporary notions of manhood is interesting and valuable whether or not they apply, in the way Fletcher believes they do, to Richard’s reign. It would seem that in terms of manhood’s association with strength and violence, little has changed, as indeed little has changed in the classlessness of such concepts. The medieval idea that it was better ‘to die manly than flee in shame’ is echoed in Ronnie Kray’s injunction to ‘Jack the Hat’ McVitie, after McVitie had sought to escape death by flinging himself through a window: ‘Be a man, Jack.’ In McVitie’s reply, ‘I’ll live like a man but I fucking well won’t die like one,’ living ‘like a man’ doubtless had much in common with the behaviour stigmatised in one 15th-century homily: ‘He that is … a great bragger, a great swearer or a great fighter, such men are called “manly men” … He that is a … great haunter of taverns or of ale houses, and a great waster of his goods, then is he called a “good fellow”.’

It is tempting to ask how far Richard’s reign, as seen by Fletcher, can serve as a paradigm for the reigns of other kings, most notably that of Henry III. Henry was only nine when he came to the throne in 1216, after the death of his father, King John. The last restrictions on his authority were lifted in 1227, but as late as 1232, when he was 25, he was described by the Margam annalist as a ‘rex puer’, king boy. Henry complained that he was still being treated as a boy in wardship by the counsellors established by the revolution of 1258: ‘When the king agreed to accept their counsel he did not make himself their ward, nor did he agree that they should give orders.’ Can Henry’s desire to make war on France in the late 1220s be interpreted, like Richard’s in the 1380s, as a desire to assert his manhood? And once Henry, unlike Fletcher’s Richard, realised that he had little aptitude for war, was his intense religiosity and devotion to Edward the Confessor an attempt to exploit an alternative code of manly conduct? In his life of Edward the Confessor (which Henry III probably commissioned), Matthew Paris distinguished between kings who had been ‘strong and bold’ and those, like the Confessor, who had been ‘good and saintly’. Indeed, in describing the latter, Paris appropriated the ‘manly’ language of the former: ‘bold and enterprising is the man who vanquishes the flesh, the devil and the world.’ Perhaps Henry’s reign should be seen as a struggle between two different conceptions of masculinity, and thus set apart from Richard’s, since Richard, if Fletcher is right, subscribed all too fully to the most conventional standards of manliness.

How well in fact does Fletcher’s model work for other reigns, and how well, or at least how fully, does it work for Richard’s? A central problem here is that in order to sustain his hypothesis, Fletcher sweeps up under the heading of manhood a series of concepts, some of which could either stand on their own or be put under other headings. For example, much of what Fletcher sees as required of Richard as a man might equally, and perhaps better, be seen as required of him as a king. Take largesse. Again and again the largesse Fletcher ascribes to Richard in the early 1390s seems unrelated to his kingship: Richard’s bestowal of gifts and hospitality, and the control over the royal household which went with it, are merely ‘essential for establishing his status as a man of his class’ or as ‘an established man of noble estate’. Fletcher’s discussion of the dangers of restricting the king’s largesse is set out in the same terms. ‘If the motive force behind “manly” gift-giving, “manly” hospitality and even “manly” decorum was the need to behave in accordance with one’s own status … what place could there be for “measure” in all this? … Would it not impugn [the king’s] honour, his “manhood”?’ Yet the quotation from the primary source on which this discussion is based, Adam of Usk’s account of a speech by the bishop of St Asaph, speaks only of the danger to the king’s regality, not his manhood. Any restriction on the king is to be deplored ‘because it encourages the king to be niggardly, which is contrary to all regality, which is better served by a generous degree of largesse’.

Fletcher is aware that ideas of manhood and kingship might overlap. The 1385 expedition to Scotland ‘was not just what a king should do, but also what a man should do’. He also sees the growing acceptance of Richard’s manly authority in the 1380s and 1390s as aiding his ‘ability to assume his full authority and his tangible powers as a king’. But the book has no set-piece discussion of the relationship between concepts of manhood and concepts of kingship, crucial though that might seem to be. Indeed, there is no extended discussion of kingship at all, and one begins to wonder why Richard needed to be a king, or at least needed any special qualities derived from kingship, if he could assert himself properly as a man.

Fletcher’s ideas seem to work best in the 1380s, when the physical and mental capacities of the king were crucial to his gradual assumption of power. Yet after 1382 there seems to have been no opposition to that assumption and, as Fletcher says, until 1386, the issue of the king’s youth disappeared from the agenda. One might, therefore, turn Fletcher’s observation around and say that Richard’s campaign in Scotland, was not ‘just’ what a man should do but, much more important, what a king should do. As for the final phase of the reign, letters, proclamations, petitions and speeches refer not to Richard’s ‘manhood’ and his ‘manly revenge’ but to his ‘regality’, ‘royal majesty’, ‘royal power’ and ‘royal estate’, and the need to punish offences committed against them. This hardly seems surprising. As Shakespeare’s Richard II put it, ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm from an anointed king.’ Richard’s regality, his anointing at his coronation and his consequent rule by the grace of God, set him apart from and above all men.

Fletcher’s case that Richard was a traditional militaristic king is not itself dependent on the arguments about manhood, but how convincing is it? Both the Evesham and Eulogium chronicles accused him of a lack of martial spirit, while Froissart contrasted Woodstock’s warlike ambitions with Richard’s desire for peace. It is perfectly true, as Fletcher points out, that Richard’s military failure was only a side issue in the propaganda of 1399 and was not the reason he was compared to a boy. But this was because his peace with France had nothing to do with his downfall, and indeed had much to commend it. Richard led three military campaigns, one to Scotland and two to Ireland. None saw more than skirmishes, and no chronicler suggests that Richard distinguished himself by his military drive, tactical acumen or deeds of derring-do. In the 1380s there were official announcements that the king intended to campaign in France, but again no chronicler suggests that Richard was angry and frustrated when these plans came to nothing. There is a striking contrast here with Henry III, who drew his sword in fury on his justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, when forced, in 1229, to call off his expedition to Brittany. The nearest equivalent to this scene came during the April parliament of 1384. After being harangued by the Earl of Arundel about the lack of good government and the dangers threatening the kingdom, Richard lost his temper: ‘If you lay it on me, and it is supposed to be my fault that there is bad rule in the kingdom, you lie in your teeth. Go to the devil.’

What seems significant here is precisely what Richard did not say: he made no complaint about the way his schemes to save the kingdom by campaigning in France had been frustrated. Two years later, in the October parliament of 1386, Richard’s chancellor had to rebut the slander that the king did not want to campaign in person, while Woodstock, and Thomas Arundel, bishop of Ely (the future archbishop), tried to shame him by mentioning his father’s and grandfather’s deeds in France. In the great crisis that followed it was Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland, who took up arms on Richard’s behalf, confronting the appellants, in December 1387, at Radcot Bridge. Richard resorted not to war but to writing: Fletcher tells us that ‘letters were found in Robert de Vere’s baggage which made it clear that the king thoroughly approved of his friend’s activities.’ That tells us all we need to know about Richard’s military energy and courage.

There is also much still to be said for the traditional view that Richard positively wished for peace with France and was prepared to make concessions to obtain it. At a Great Council held in Stamford in May 1392, the Duke of Guelders urged Richard to reject negotiations and join him in making war. He was followed by John of Gaunt, who laid out proposals for a peace, proposals which the Commons found completely unacceptable, threatening as they did the loss of ‘extensive and fair domains’ in France. ‘It is clear,’ Fletcher observes, ‘that Richard II’s attitude was more favourable to the warlike sentiments expressed by the Duke of Guelders than to the murky compromises emerging from John of Gaunt’s negotiations with the French … In the Monk of Westminster’s account, Richard used his influence not to recommend concessions to the French, but to moderate them. The chronicler asserts that the king would have liked to make some of these concessions and to refuse others.’ It is difficult to see how this statement, in itself contradictory (how can Richard not recommend concessions and then want to make them?), squares with what the Monk of Westminster actually says, which is:

In the clash of opinions over this, the king, advised by the Duke of Lancaster [John of Gaunt] and in spite of the Commons, would have liked, for the good of peace [propter bonum pacis] to make some concessions to the demands of the French and to refuse others, since he wanted to secure such modifications in the terms as would appease all members of both parties.

Clearly then, Richard and Gaunt stood together. They wanted peace and were prepared to make some concessions to secure it, but hoped, in the interests of harmony, to avoid others. The Westminster chronicler gives no indication that Richard sympathised with the warlike sentiments of the Duke of Guelders. Indeed, if anything the implication is that he was among ‘the indolent and chicken-hearted’ who disparaged them rather than ‘the men of mettle and courage’ who praised and approved.

In all of this one final point should be considered – namely, Richard’s growing devotion to Edward the Confessor. Fletcher hardly mentions this and it would be interesting to know how it fits into his account. Certainly, the choice of the Confessor, celibate and peaceable, seems an odd one for Richard if he was concerned to assert his manhood in traditional ways. If anything, it suggests that he was indeed espousing alternative models of manhood – or kingship – in the same way as Henry III. Fletcher has mounted a clever and courageous assault on the conventional picture of Richard’s reign. Yet in the end that picture remains obstinately in place. Indeed, in so far as Richard was brought down by foolish miscalculations, then, in terms of the contemporary attitudes Fletcher elucidates, the charge that he acted with the wilfulness of a child seems well justified.