Richard II (Shakespeare's play)

Richard II

Richard II, 1367–1400, king of England (1377–99), son of Edward the Black Prince.

Early Life

After his father's death (1376) he was created prince of Wales and succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, to the throne. During his minority, his uncle John of Gaunt was the most influential single noble, but the struggle for power among several rival lords perpetuated the faction-ridden government inherited by Richard from his predecessor. In 1381, when Richard was 14, there occurred the uprising known as the Peasants' Revolt, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball. The young king acted with great courage in meeting with the insurgents, but the concessions that he made were immediately revoked, and the rebels were ruthlessly persecuted.

Conflicts with the Barons

In 1382, Richard married Anne of Bohemia, to whom he became very much devoted. In the following years the king began to assert his independence from the barons who had dominated the government, gathering about him a new court party, led by Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk (see Pole, family). He had a bitter quarrel with John of Gaunt, his uncle, while on an expedition to Scotland in 1385. The following year, however, when Gaunt went to Spain, Richard found himself at the mercy of a resentful baronial party led by another of his uncles, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester. In the so-called Wonderful Parliament (1386) that group forced the king to dismiss Pole from the chancellorship and imposed on him a baronial council.

Richard did not submit for long. He obtained (1387) a statement from the royal judges declaring the proceedings of the Parliament to have infringed his prerogative and raised an army in N England. However, his supporters were defeated in battle at Radcot Bridge (1387), and the king, threatened with deposition, had to submit to the proceedings of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. His friends, Pole, de Vere, and others, were "appealed" (i.e., accused) of treason by five lords appellant—Gloucester; the earl of Arundel; Thomas de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick; Thomas Mowbray, later 1st duke of Norfolk; and the duke of Hereford (later Henry IV)—and those that did not escape the country were executed.

Revenge and Downfall

The lords appellant ruled the country until 1389, when Richard quietly reasserted his authority. Aided by Gaunt, who returned from Spain later in 1389, Richard ruled in comparative peace for the next seven years. After Anne's death, he went (1394) to Ireland to settle troubles there and in 1396 married an eight-year-old French princess, Isabella, to obtain a truce in the war with France.

In 1397–98, Richard suddenly took his revenge on the lords appellant: Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were themselves "appealed" of treason and respectively murdered, executed, and banished; Norfolk and Hereford too were banished after a mysterious quarrel between them. The king became increasingly despotic in his methods of government, strengthening his personal army, imposing heavy taxes and fines, and possibly even planning to supersede Parliament.

On the death (1399) of John of Gaunt, he confiscated the Lancastrian estates, to which the exiled duke of Hereford was heir. While Richard was on another expedition in Ireland, Hereford landed in England and rapidly gathered support. Richard hurriedly returned from Ireland, but his cause was lost. He was forced to abdicate, and Hereford was crowned king as Henry IV in Sept., 1399. Richard was imprisoned in Pontefract Castle and there died, very possibly murdered, in 1400.

Character and Legacy

Richard is possibly the most enigmatic of the English kings. Some historians have attributed his behavior in the last years of his reign to madness. He appears to have been a sensitive and intelligent king. Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland, and John Wyclif made his reign outstanding in the literary and ecclesiastical history of England.


See biography by M. Senior (1981); A. Tuck, Richard II and the English Nobility (1974). Shakespeare's Richard II is a dramatic account of the king's fall from power.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2017, The Columbia University Press.

Richard II (Shakespeare's play): Selected full-text books and articles

King Richard II By William Shakespeare; Peter Ure Methuen, 1961
Librarian's tip: The play
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
CliffsNotes on Shakespeare's Richard II By Denis M. Calandra Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999
William Shakespeare's Richard II By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1988
Librarian's tip: This is a book of literary criticism
The Stylistic Self in Richard II By Lamb, Jonathan P Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Vol. 28, Annual 2015
Eating Richard II By Lopez, Jeremy Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 36, Annual 2008
Unstable Identity in Shakespeare's Richard II By Forker, Charles R Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall 2001
The Language of Treason in Richard II By Cavanagh, Dermot Shakespeare Studies, Annual 1999
Magic Mirrors in Richard II By Schuler, Robert M Comparative Drama, Vol. 38, No. 2-3, Summer-Fall 2004
On a Bank of Rue; or Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II By Laroche, Rebecca; Munroe, Jennifer Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 42, Annual 2014
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