The Middle Ages was a difficult time for the English people, especially when it came to the monarchy. Edward III was considered a great king and he had many children, with potential heirs to spare should something happen to one. The problem is that this large family tree led to the start of the War of the Roses. Before it officially started in the 1450s, there were fights for the throne from as early as 1399, when Henry IV deposed Richard II.
On September 30, 1399, Henry Bolingbroke made himself King of England. He deposed the reigning and rightful monarch, Richard II. Henry’s belief? He was the son of the most powerful nobleman in 15th century England, John of Gaunt.
Edward III and His Children
There are three main lines to be concerned with right now. Without going into too much detail, they stem from Edward III’s eldest three boys: Edward, the Black Prince, Lionel of Antwerp and John of Gaunt.
Edward, the Black Prince, had one son, Richard II. By the rules of succession, Richard became the second in line to the throne, before Edward III’s other children as he was a descendant of the eldest son. It is the way it has always been—and still is now, since Prince William is second in line, despite Prince Charles having brothers and Prince George is third in line, despite Prince Harry being William’s brother.
Edward died before the king, which meant that Richard was first in line to the throne. Upon Edward III’s death in 1377, Richard became Richard II of England. Lionel of Antwerp had already died in 1368 so Richard’s heir presumptive for now was Lionel’s grandson, Edmund Mortimer—not any of John of Gaunt’s children. Henry Bolingbroke didn’t like this idea. John of Gaunt was wealthy and popular, Henry, as the eldest of John’s legitimate children with Blanche of Lancaster, thought that he should be King of England.
William Shakespeare's Richard II
Richard II: the Unfavourable Monarch
Unfortunately for Richard II, he was unfavourable with many barons in England. It wasn’t all Richard’s fault though. He was just 10-years-old when he became king in 1377, so others would have helped him make decisions. There were questionable policies, including the Poll Tax that led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.
He was also fearful of the prominence and influence that his Lancaster family had. There was no reason to fear about this has the family had never done anything to make him question their loyalties. However, when John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard tried to strip the family of the influence, by exiling him for life.
It is important to note that Henry had already been exiled two years before this. He had been in an argument with another duke in court over the succession. Richard saw exiling them both as the best option. Henry wasn’t happy and while in exile gained support to over throw Richard II and make himself King of England.
Richard believed his throne was safe. This was during a time of peace during the Hundred Years’ War and the French weren’t interested in starting it back up again. At least that was what Richard believed. He was wrong. In June 1399, Louis Duke of Orleans gained control of Charles VI of France’s court and didn’t like the treaty with England. He supported Henry leaving the country to fight his battle for the crown.
Richard II and Henry IV: Childhood Friends and Playmates
When Richard and Henry were children, they were playmates and friends. It would seem strange to think that they could have been on such friendly terms, knowing the outcome. The turning point was arguably the Lord Appellant’s rebellion in 1387 when Henry favoured the side against Richard. However, Henry wasn’t initially punished. Richard chose to offer his cousin power and the title of Duke of Hereford. He was already the Earl of Derby.
It does seem like the events of 1397-1398 were the real turning point of the relationship. The death of John of Gaunt was the icing on the cake. Henry realised that he had one option.
William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV Deposes Richard II
Henry chose the perfect time to go back to England. During June 1399, Richard II went to Ireland with the majority of his army and nobles. The south of England was pretty much deserted and Henry Bolingbroke was able to move through very easily. It didn’t help that the keeper of the realm at the time, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, sided with Henry—he had little choice in the matter. Other men, including Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, joined with Henry Bolingbroke.
Richard II returned from Ireland but had been delayed. It was August 12 that he finally met with Percy for negotiations. They ended with Richard fearing for his life and promised to abdicate as long as he would remain alive. Richard was seen to be unworthy as king but it didn’t mean Henry would become Henry IV.
There was one problem in the way: Edmund Mortimer, the rightful heir. Henry found a way around this problem fairly easily. Edmund was the son of Lionel’s daughter, Philippa of Clarence. Henry was a descendent through a direct male line. The male line was seen as stronger and more worthy of the throne, so Henry was able to become Henry IV of England.
What Do You Think?
Did Henry IV Murder Richard II?
Richard was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sometime during 1400, he died and there were rumours that Henry IV murdered him. However, there is no evidence to support this and many historians believe that Richard starved to death. Whether he starved on purpose or due to lack of food being sent to him is unknown.
It definitely would have been in Richard’s character to choose to starve himself. However, Henry did have a problem with the “rightful” monarch being locked in the Tower. There could be uprisings to place him back on the throne; something that was later seen during the War of the Roses when Henry IV was temporarily placed back on the throne. Henry put his cousin’s body on display to prove that he was dead.
All that is known is that there was no evidence of violence. He skeleton shows no sign of this. This was to prevent Richard’s supporters rebelling against the new king. However, Henry IV spent the majority of his reign fighting off rebellions, including one from Henry Percy.
Lynn Weisen from South Amboy on June 01, 2015:
Cicely, Richard III's mother, tried to get her good name back after her son, RIII, sullied her reputation by publicly calling her an adultress knowing that his father had claimed all of his children. Edward IV looks a lot like Anne Mortimer, and Lionel of Antwerp was over 7' tall, so Edward IV's height would seem to prove his descent in the Line of Succession, not disprove it. I can not respect any man who throws his own mother under a bus to lift himself up, or a man who accuses women of being witches... and wh****.
Alexandria Ingham (author) from Canada on June 01, 2015:
Alancaster149, there were a couple of errors in there based on various sources saying different things. The Edward II note was a mistype from me--well spotted! It should be Edward III. Very easy to miss a I and then not see it missing while proofreading.
As for the illegitimacy of Edward IV, that's debated a lot. I've read a few sources that say different things. Some say there is proof that Richard of York could have fathered Edward, while others say that there is no proof at all. Considering the time, enough people would have speculated and dragged Edward's name down if he really didn't have a right to the throne. Interestingly enough, I read something recently that said the illegitimacy of heirs dates back to Edward I!
Lynn Weisen, I believe the comment about the English archer wasn't about Edward IV's father, but about an affair that Cecily Neville had while stationed in France. As I just mentioned above, there are different sources that state different things. It has been long believed that Edward IV was illegitimate and therefore couldn't be king.
Lynn Weisen from South Amboy on May 28, 2015:
The Church accepted the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward of York; the Church never declared the marriage illegitimate, or declared the children as illegitimate. Since marriage was a Sacrament, secular authorities could not determine the validity of a marriage. Only the Church could do that, but they did not.
What source stated that Edward IV's father was an English archer?
Glen Rix from UK on May 28, 2015:
Shakespeare used the history of Richard II as a basis for his politically inflammatory play but in the interests of self-preservation was ambigious about whether Richard resigned voluntarily or was usurped by Bolingbroke.
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on May 27, 2015:
Alexandria, for the effort you've put into this you deserve a 'thumbs-up'. The facts are a bit awry, however. Richard II was starved to death in Pontefract Castle in the West Riding of Yorkshire, not the Tower.
Under the image of John of Gaunt you have him as the son of Edward II. Bit of a mix-up there methinks, but not too hard to rectify.
Bolingbroke was a sad case, and suffered nightmares for his treatment of Richard - if Shakespeare is to be believed - and was extremely upset when he saw his own son Henry 'trying out the throne' shortly before his death.
The Plantagenets were not blessed with peaceful reigns or with their offspring. The christening of Edward of York (future Edward IV) was hushed up because he was the son of an English archer and the Duchess of York; by contrast the christening of Richard, Duke of Gloucester was a great festive occasion.
Nevertheless Richard accepted Edward as an elder brother, loyal to Edward's death. In taking the throne from Edward's older son Edward, he also had him declared illegitimate on the grounds that Edward the father had broken the agreement to wed a French princess brokered by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. From the point of view of the Church Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegal on those grounds.
Not the best way to end a dynasty.
Despite the name, I'm a Yorkist at heart. After all, they were the rightful heirs before Bolingbroke broke the chain.