Landholding, Leasing, and Inheritance in Richard II
Scott, William O., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
A recent description of the rules of succession to the throne in modern Britain states that "under the common law, the Crown descends on the same basis as the inheritance of land." (1) It is evident that Richard II takes for granted an analogy between succession to the kingship and succession to at least the lands and titles of nobility. As Shakespeare presents the situation, the duke of York warns Richard that if he seizes John of Gaunt's lands and title, he will "take from Time / His charters and his customary rights" (2) and will "Be not thyself; for how art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession?" (II.i. 198-9); and likewise Bolingbroke argues, returning to claim that inheritance, "If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster" (II.iii. 123-4). The point now is to strengthen the material content of the play's discourse about property and kingship by paying attention to the practices of humbler land transactions as well. The noblemen's critique of Richard 's conduct is expressed not only through this argument about succession or inheritance but also through an analogy with forms of property ownership and use that applied among commoners. Some of these had great urgency, for landowners and tenants both, in the economy of Shakespeare's own time.
Principles of landholding shape the language of the arguments over the fiscal prerogatives of kingship, and therefore over the king's power and status; and in turn Richard's behavior is measured against these. Gaunt complains that England "Is now leased out... Like to a tenement or pelting farm" (II.i.59-60) and admonishes Richard:
wert thou regent of the world, It were a shame to let this land by lease; But, for thy world enjoying but this land, Is it not more than shame to shame it so? Landlord of England art thou now, not king. Thy state of law is bondslave to the law. (II.i. 109-14)
One question here is just what Gaunt is comparing to the leasing of land. Though Shakespeare does not specify the object of comparison, for Gaunt the leasing of property seems to resemble Richard's means of raising cash by farming out the privilege of tax collection to his supporters. Details of such a transaction are given in the anonymous play Woodstock, in which Richard signs a document of tax farming that provides that "These gentlemen here ... all jointly here stand bound to pay your majesty, or your deputy, wherever you remain, seven thousand pounds a month for this your kingdom; for which your grace, by these writings, surrenders to their hands: all your crown lands, lordships: manors, rents: taxes, subsidies ... and all other duties that do, shall, or may appertain to the king or crown's revenues." (3) Although Richard is still nominal owner of the realm, he has leased out the use of it to the tax farmers, who function as tenants (perhaps with the people as subtenants). Commenting similarly on Shakesp eare's lines, Andrew Gurr says, "A 'tenement' was a tenancy, a property used but not owned ... Gaunt is fusing the concept of tax farming with debasement of landownership." (4) Yes, and just what sort of debasement this would be is a matter for further question.
In any case, for Gaunt this misuse of the national property compromises Richard's tenure as hereditary monarch; just before this, he declares:
O, had thy grandsire with a prophet's eye Seen how his son's son should destroy his sons, From forth thy reach he would have laid thy shame, Deposing thee before thou wert possessed, Which art possessed now to depose thyself. (II.i. 104-8)
Abuses of what the king possesses--both property and kingship--threaten the status of kingship itself. The latter is true in two senses: although the second quoted line could apply to Richard's murder of Woodstock (in which case both uses of "his" would refer to the grandsire Edward III), another accepted meaning (taking the second "his" to refer to Richard) is that Richard is depriving his posterity of their patrimony by abusing the realm. …