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Stubbs, Shakespeare, and Recent Historians of Richard II

  • John M. Theilmann


Richard II, one of the most puzzling kings of late medieval England, has been the subject of controversy ever since his forced abdication in 1399. He often has been portrayed as a tyrant or, at times, as a madman by historians. Recently the trend is toward a reassessment of Richard's reign free from the biased Whig interpretation of the past. R. H. Jones took a first step in that direction in 1968 with the publication of The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Middle Ages. Jones viewed Richard as a king inclined toward absolutism but lacking the taint of rancorousness or despotism ascribed to him by historians since Stubbs. Subsequently two books, a Festschrift, and several articles have appeared, delineating more aspects of the reign. Since May McKisack's volume in the Oxford History of England series appeared in 1959, the number of works concerning the reign has been steadily growing. The recent publication of Anthony Tuck's Richard II and the English Nobility offers an opportunity to reexamine the place of Richard II in history. The divergence of scholarship since 1959 from the traditional interpretations will be seen as the major constitutional problems of the reign are scrutinized. After first examining the influence of William Shakespeare and William Stubbs in shaping the historiography of the reign a chronological discussion of the period from 1377 to 1399 will follow.



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1 I would like to thank Professor James W. Alexander for discussing certain points raised in this article with me.

2 Works on the reign since McKisack, May, The Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1959), include: Hutchison, Harold F., The Hollow Crown (New York, 1969), Jones, R. H, The Royal Policy of Richard II: Absolutism in the Late Middle Ages (Oxford, 1968), Mathew, Gervase, The Court of Richard II (London, 1968), Fryde, E. B. and Miller, Edward, eds., Origins to 1399, Historical Studies of the English Parliament, Vol. I (Cambridge, 1970), Goodman, Anthony, The Loyal Conspiracy, the Lords Appellant under Richard II (London, 1971), DuBoulay, F. R. H. and Barron, Caroline M., eds. The Reign of Richard II; Essays in Honour of May McKisack (London, 1971), Palmer, J. J. N., England, France and Christendom, 1377-99 (Chapel Hill, 1972), Tuck, Anthony, Richard II and the English Nobility (London, 1973), Rogers, Alan, “Parliamentary Appeals of Treason in the Reign of Richard II,” American Journal of Legal History, VIII (1964): 95124, Barron, Caroline M., “The Tyranny of Richard II,” Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, XLI (1968): 118, Palmer, J. J. N., “The Impeachment of Michael de la Pole in 1386,” Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, XLII (1969): 96101, Tuck, J. A., “The Cambridge Parliament, 1388,” E.H.R., LXXXIV (1969): 225–43, Clementi, D., “Richard II's Ninth Question to the Judges,” E.H. R., LXXXVI (1971): 96113, Palmer, J. J. N., “The Parliament of 1385 and the Constitutional Crisis of 1386,” Speculum, XLV (1971): 477–90, Sayles, G. O., “King Richard II of England: A Fresh Look,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc., CXV (1971): 2831, Searle, Eleanor and Burghart, Robert, “The Defense of England and the Peasants' Revolt,” Viator, III (1972): 365–88, Stow, George B. Jr., “The Vita Ricardi as a Source for the Reign of Richard II,” VALEE of Evesham Historical Society Research Papers, IV (1973): 6375, Gillespie, J. L., “Thomas Mortimer and Thomas Molineux: Radcot Bridge and the Appeal of 1397,” Albion, VII (1975): 161–73. Forthcoming works include: George B. Stow, Jr. ed., Vita Ricardi Secundi, J. L. Gillespie, “Richard II's Cheshire Archers,” Trans. Lancs. and Ches. Hist. Soc. and a study on Richard's return to Wales by J. W. Sherborne in the Welsh Hist. Rev.

3 Wallon, Henri, Richard II (2 vols.; Paris, 1864).

4 Lingard, John, A History of England (Philadelphia, 1827), IV: 207.

5 Herbert Butterfield's definition of Whig history adequately describes Hallam's position. Butterfield asserts that Whig historians examine the past with reference to the present and celebrate the present constitution's triumph over the tyrants of the past without considering the favorable impact any constitutional conflict may have had on its development. The Whig Interpretation of History (New York, 1951), pp. 11, 41.

6 Hallam, Henry, View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages (single vol. ed., New York, 1847), p. 391. Hallam characterized Richard thus: “Extreme pride and violence, with an inordinate partiality for the most worthless favorites, were his predominant characteristics.” (p. 384).

7 Stubbs, William, The Constitutional History of England (4th ed.; New York, 1967), II: 486, 487, 500, 525, 524, 510–11, 536.

8 Green, J. R., A Short History of the English People, eds., Green, A. S. and Norgate, Kate (London, 1892), II: 506.

9 Tout, T. F., Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England (Manchester, 1928, 1967), IV: 52.

10 Wilkinson, Bertie, The Constitutional History of Medieval England (London, 1952), II: 293.

11 A discussion of sixteenth century opinions of Richard may be found in Aston, Margaret, “Richard II and the Wars of the Roses,” in DuBoulay, and Barron, , eds., Reign of Richard II, pp. 280317.

12 Richard II is not the only medieval English king whose sanity has been unjustly questioned; Sayles, G. O. (The Medieval Foundations of England [Philadelphia, 1950], p. 390) and Petit-Dutaillis, Charles (The Feudal Monarchy in France and England [London, 1936], pp. 215, 216) described King John as insane. C. Warren Hollister pointed out the questionable aspects of such theories in King John and the Historians,” Journal of British Studies, I (1961): 119.

13 Although an explicit relationship is difficult to trace, it seems that both Steel and McKisack were influenced by Maude Clarke to some degree. Steel acknowledged his admiration in the preface to Richard II (Cambridge, 1941) and McKisack was Clarke's pupil.

14 McFarlane, K. B., The Nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford, 1973), pp. 2, 3.

15 Tout, , Chapters, III;401.

16 Jones, , Royal Policy, pp. 132, 144.

17 Tout, , Chapters, III:418. McKisack, , Fourteenth Century, pp. 426, 436.

18 Tuck, , English Nobility, pp. 60, 61, 62.

19 Hutchison, , Hollow Crown, p. 101.

20 Tuck, (English Nobility, pp. 5886) maintains that Richard was shaping policy already during this period but his conclusions lack conviction.

21 For examples of the King's largesse for Burley see: KKnighton, Henry, Chronicon Henrici Kniton, ed., Lumby, J. R. (Rolls Series, 92, 1895), II: 205, Cal. Patent Rolls, 1377-81, pp. 223, 257, 262; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1381-85, pp. 107, 305, 343, 447; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1385-89, pp. 37,45; for Beauchamp: Cal. Fine Rolls, 1383-91, p. 41; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1381-85, pp. 156, 318, 493; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1385-89, pp. 153, 292, 348; for de la Pole: Cal. Patent Rolls, 1381-85, pp. 156, 317; Cal. Patent Rolls, 1385-89, pp. 18, 24; Rotuli Parliamentorum (London, 1783), III: 216-17;; Holmes, G. A., The Estates of the Higher Nobility in Fourteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1957), p. 42.

22 Monk of Westminister, in Polychronicon Ranulphi Hidgen, ed., Lumby, J. R. (Rolls Series, 41, 1886), IX:3334. Hector, L. C. (“An Alleged Hysterical Outburst of Richard II,” E.H.R., LXVIII [1953]:6365) has demonstrated that the explosiveness of Richard's reaction was an editing mistake of Lumby's.

23 Monk of Westminister, 58. Walsingham, Thomas, Thomas Walsingham Historia Anglicana, ed., Riley, H. T. (Rolls Series, 28, 1864), II:126.

24 In an interview with Richard at Eltham in October 1386 the duke of Gloucester and Bishop Arundel asserted that the kingdom had the right to depose the king in certain cases, an unmistakeable reference to the fate of Edward II. Knighton, , Chronicon, II:216–20, Steel, Anthony, Richard II, p. 122, Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 30, Goodman, , Loyal Conspiracy, p. 13, Tuck, , English Nobility, p. 103.

25 Walsingham, , Historia, II:152.

26 Steel, , Richard II, p. 124.

27 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 37.

28 Stubbs, , Constitutional History, II:501. Tout, T. F. (Chapters, III: 422–23) and Goodman, Anthony (Loyal Conspiracy, p. 20) are the exceptions to this trend.

29 Chrimes, S.B., “Richard II's Questions to the Judges, 1387,” Law Quarterly Review, LXXII (1956):385.

30 Plucknett, T. F. T., “State Trials under Richard II,” Trans. Roy. Hist. Soc., Ser. 5, II (1952): 167.

31 Steel, , Richard II, p. 132. Bellamy, J. G., The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 111–12.

32 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 97.

33 Wilkinson, , Constitutional History, II, 238.

34 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 65. Tuck, J. A. (“Cambridge Parliament,” p. 243) demonstrates the weakness of Appellant control in connection with the Cambridge Parliament of 1388.

35 Tout, , Chapters, III:432.

36 Steel, , Richard II, p. 137.

37 Walsingham, , Historia, II:156. See Rot. Parl., III:230–36 for the charges.

38 Bellamy, , Law of Treason, pp. 95–96, 112–13. The possibility exists that the Appellants were repaying Richard in his own coin by stretching the definition of treason as the judges had done in 1387, and it can be argued that de Vere did accroach the royal power by the method of his appointment as justice of Chester. Rot. Parl., III:232.

39 Monk of Westminister, 168. Although the trial was conducted in parliament, it was conducted according to both common law and civil law procedures in a fashion so as to harm Brembre. Ibid., 148-49, and Rot. Parl, III:238. Tuck, Both (English Nobility, p. 124) and Steel, (Richard II, pp. 154–56) point out that the Appellants were determined to secure the conviction of Brembre and used whatever legal remedies they could find to do so.

40 Monk of Westminister, 176. Walsingham, , Historia, II:174.

41 Steel, , Richard II, p. 175.

42 Ibid., p. 204.

43 Ibid.

44 McKisack, , Fourteenth Century, p. 498.

45 Shakespeare, WilliamKing Richard the Second II. i. 120–23.

46 Richard's attempted destruction of the palace of Sheen after the death of Queen Anne seems to lend some credence to claims of his insanity. The blow which he delivered to the Earl of Arundel in Westminister Abbey at the Queen's funeral was delivered under the stress of Anne's death and Arundel's unseemly provocation and cannot be taken as a sign of insanity. George B. Stow, Jr. was critical of attempts to psychoanalyze Richard II in a paper entitled “Richard II and Psychohistory: Clio Misguided,” delivered at the Tenth Conference on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.

47 Tout, , Chapters, III: 495.

48 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 182. Tuck agrees that by 1397 Richard was bent on absolutism, but contends that his program in the early 1390s was to give England good government (English Nobility, pp. 105, 156).

49 Barron, , “Tyranny of Richard II,” p. 17.

50 Armitage-Smith, S., John of Gaunt (London, 1904), pp. 353–55.

51 Rot. Parl., III: 285, 301. Richard also made several requests to London to lend him money but was turned down each time. Walsingham, , Historia, II: 207–08; Monk of Westminister, 270. Caroline M. Barron discusses the ensuing quarrel between Richard and the city in 1392 in The Quarrel of Richard II with London 1392-7,” in DuBoulay, and Barron, , eds., Reign of Richard II, pp. 173201.

52 Tuck, , English Nobility, pp. 148–50.

53 McKisack, , Fourteenth Century, p. 477.

54 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 73.

55 Tuck, , English Nobility, pp. 182–83.

56 McKisack, , Fourteenth Century, p. 483. Goodman, , Loyal Conspiracy, pp. 6667.

57 Rot. Parl., III:417–22.

58 Rogers, , “Parliamentary Appeals of Treason,” p. 118.

59 Plucknett, , “State Trials,” p. 154. Plucknett may be correct by a strictly legal interpretation, but impeachment might have been attempted.

60 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 97.

61 Rot. Parl., III: 347.

62 Ibid., pp. 350, 351, 418. Walsingham, (Historia, II:224) describes the actions of Richard's three minions, Sir John Bushy, Sir William Bagot, and Sir Henry Green, in obtaining the revocation of the pardons.

63 Stubbs, , Constitutional History, II:520–21.

64 Steel, , Richard II, p. 241. Stubbs, (Constitutional History, II:520, n. 2) is unsure that Richard had Gloucester murdered. For references to the debate concerning Gloucester's murder see Tuck, , English Nobility, p. 186.

65 Ross, C. D., “Forfeiture for Treason in the Reign of Richard II,” E.H.R., LXX (1956): 575. Clarke, M. V. also stated this opinion in Fourteenth Century Studies, eds., Sutherland, L. S. and McKisack, May (Oxford, 1937; Freeport, N. Y., 1967), pp. 103, 111. An example of the severity of the sentences is that estates in fee tail and use were forfeited in addition to those in fee simple.

66 Barron, , “Tyranny of Richard II,” pp. 1012.

67 Stubbs, , Constitutional History, II:525. See Rot. Parl., III:357, 358, 360, 368, for details of this parliament.

68 Wilkinson, Bertie, The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216-1485 (New York, 1969), p. 178.

69 Walsingham, , Historia, II:226.

70 Edwards, J. G., “The Parliamentary Committee of 1398,” E.H.R., XL (1930):327–28.

71 At the fourth meeting the committee condemned Sir Robert Plesyngton, who had acted with Gloucester in 1386, as a traitor despite Plesyngton's death in 1393. Henry Bowet, who had helped Hereford draw up a petition requesting any inheritance should be handled by his attorney upon his banishment, was also condemned as a traitor, ibid., p. 328.

72 Tout, , Chapters, IV:38, 40. Tuck, (English Nobility, p. 198) is more accurate in locating the center of government in the council whose power the King had been building since the early 1390s.

73 Richard had given Henry leave to take up his father's property should Gaunt die while Henry was still in exile. Cal. Patent Rolls, 1396-99, p. 417. But in 1399 the letters patent were revoked and the term of the Duke of Hereford's banishment was made life. Rot. Parl., III:372.

74 Tuck, (English Nobility, p. 209) discusses Richard's dilemma and concludes that “Gaunt's death placed Richard in an impossible position.”

75 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 182.

76 Ibid., pp. 1, 4, 6, 176, 179.

77 Tuck, , English Nobility, p. 225.

78 See, for example, Walsingham, , Historia, II: 229, or the anonymous song On King Richard's Ministers,” in Wright, Thomas, ed., Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History (Rolls Series, 14, 1859), 1:363–66. V. J. Scattergood makes this same point in his analysis of the contemporary poem Mum and the Sothsegger” in Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1971), p. 108.

79 H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles pointed out, perhaps unfairly at times, what they considered as the unfortunate influence of Stubbs on the historiography of medieval England. The Governance of Medieval England from the Conquest to Magna Carta (Edinburgh, 1963), pp. 121, and passim.

80 Other exceptions are some of the essays in DuBoulay and Barron, eds., Reign of Richard II. See Palmer, J. J. N., “English Foreign Policy 1388-99,” pp. 75107, or Harvey, Barbara F., “The Monks of Westminister and the University of Oxford,” pp. 108–30. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 still attracts interest, the latest work is Hilton, R. H., Bond Men Made Free (New York, 1973). Hilton's book is a treatment of the revolt as an example of peasant revolts, hence Richard's role receives scant treatment. Church history of the reign has been examined by Aston, Margaret in Thomas Arundel (Oxford, 1967); her interpretation of political events is in the accepted tradition.

81 Sayles, , “King Richard II, p. 30. In a paper entitled “Richard II's Irish Problems,” delivered at the Tenth Conference on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Dennis W. Cashman concluded that Richard proved to be a good diplomat and soldier in achieveing somewhat of a settlement in Ireland in 1394.

82 Unlike the foreign policy of Henry VI: see Ferguson, John, English Diplomacy 1422-1461 (Oxford, 1972). Palmer is beginning to fill this void with the essay cited in note 79 and the discussion of Anglo-French and Anglo-Italian foreign policy during the reign in England, France and Christendom, 1377-99.

83 Jones, , Royal Policy, p. 124. When it is completed, J. W. Sherborne's biography should fill this lacuna.

Stubbs, Shakespeare, and Recent Historians of Richard II

  • John M. Theilmann


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