Did the reign of Richard II witness a significant change in the nature and role of kingship and its relations with the nobility

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The time of Richard II has been aptly described by Nigel Saul as an “unhappy, faction-ridden reign” and this is in marked contrast to the common image of the reign of his grandfather, Edward III. Richard presided over a realm reeling from the social and economic effects of the Black Death and almost a century of continuous warfare, yet there was great hope at the inception of his reign that both the English state and the monarchy would prosper under his leadership.

The fact that the reign ended in tragedy for Richard, resulting in his usurpation by the nobles his predecessor had so painstakingly built a rapport with, has fascinated Shakespeare and gained the interest of many since. Richard had specific views on kingship and the role he should play in English government and society and it is highly likely that his views were wholly unsuitable for the condition of society he found himself in and contributed greatly to his downfall.

His reign has traditionally been perceived as one of conflict with the great magnates of the kingdom and the establishment of almost tyrannical rule and the effects of his actions are suggested to have had a significant and almost irreversible impact on the role of the monarchy. For a considerable time before the reign of Richard II, the relationship between monarch and nobility was crucial to the stability of the state and contributed to allowing the monarch to govern as he pleased.

The control over the state was enforced by several institutions, which appointed officers throughout the land in an attempt to govern the country effectively. These institutions were essentially under the direct influence of the monarchy and a primary function of them was to ensure the continuation of royal power. There was a general consensus among society that the king maintained supreme authority and could rely on the support and loyalty of all those over whom he governed.

This situation was to be preserved to some extent up to the reign of Richard II but there had been a continuing trend of the growing power and influence of the landed classes who would continue to increasingly claim as their rights to have influence on the workings of the state. As they possessed considerable wealth and were an integral part of the English military system, they were a force to be taken seriously, especially if they had a common aim, as classes are liable to develop.

Tuck points out however that the nobility were generally loyal to the monarchy and it was in their interests to co-operate with royal policy. It was only in extreme cases such as those which were evident in the reign of Richard II that the magnates resorted to direct action against the monarch. It is difficult to accurately define the nobility as a class, let alone a political identity, Tuck suggests that it may be extended to the landed classes of knightly rank and above.

These are certainly the individuals who would have had a significant influence on the running of the state in some respect, either through parliament or court, both of which were important influences on the behaviour of the monarch. By the reign of Edward III, parliament had grown in influence and provided more than a symbolic ratification of royal policy, becoming a powerful body that could hold the actions of the king to account and also be able to determine the level of taxation.

It is true that parliament was generally subordinate to royal will but it did provide a growing power base for the nobility and also a forum for those out of royal favour to express their grievances. The structure of government was not codified and the consensus as to what was expected changed over time, resulting in the 14th century position where the nobility were not explicitly interested in being involved in centralised government but did expect their interests to be taken into consideration in policy and that the existing social hierarchy not be altered drastically by royal intervention.

As any group with significant power, the magnates were primarily concerned with retaining that power but were also keen to increase that power, at the expense of the other powerful groups, either themselves, the church or the crown. Essentially the magnates had to be generally kept in a state of satisfaction at the governance of England to maintain a stable political structure, as was seen in the case of the demise of Edward II, the magnates had the power to depose the monarch if they possessed the will.

This mostly relied on two factors, firstly the monarch’s personal ability to interact with the nobility and maintain the hierarchy they expected played an important role. The magnates being incredibly concerned with status were generally displeased if royal patronage conferred status upon an individual who did not deserve it. The nobility consistently maintained that wealth and in particular land was the true representation of status, but some monarchs disagreed, claiming royal prerogative to be a superior source of legitimate status.

This could lead to favourites being created such as Gaveston and the Despensers under Edward II, which contributed considerably to the antagonism that prompted the magnates to act against Edward. This was a key area of conflict between the dominance of royal will and the power of the nobility and was to appear in the reign of Richard II. Ineffective management of the nobility could be countered by the character of the monarch, the policies of Edward I towards the nobility were not entirely popular and caused much discontent but his personal dominance gained him the respect to maintain control.

In essence, the semi-autocratic nature of medieval kingship needed to be maintained and legitimised by a corresponding character of the monarch. The power the king could exert over the magnates also depended on the success of his policies, especially warfare and it was foreign policy in particular that the nobles were concerned with. The negative effects brought about by military defeat or even the lack of significant military gains also had negative effects on the nature of kingship, restricting the limits to which the king could act and forcing him to appease the nobility so as to maintain their support.

The reign of Edward III saw much consensus building with the magnates, the authority of the crown had to be re-established after the disastrous reign of Edward II. This was done by accepting and responding to the interests of the nobles and although this saw a move away from the use of royal will and a dilution of the power of the crown, this adaptation was necessary to preserve the crown at a time of increasing magnate power.

As was seen at the end of Richard’s reign, the magnates did have the power to remove the king if they had a common cause so their opinions had a significant limiting effect on the extent of late medieval kingship. Edward III was aware of this development and had to adjust the limits of his power, and for the majority of his reign he made concessions to the magnates and avoided acting extravagantly.

The fact that the crown lacked a standing military force and depended on the magnates for a contribution of leadership, manpower and financial resources caused the necessary devolution of some power to the nobility. Towards the end of Edwards reign the nobility once again became concerned with the failure of foreign policy but such was the nature of kingship that they preferred to attack the advisors and ministers of government, the Good Parliament concentrating on the detrimental effects of Alice Perrers, Lord Latimer and the influential merchants such as Richard Lyons.

The king was generally immune to the complaints of the nobles and although they could have a drastic effect on the execution of policy through their legislative function, they were unable to considerably change the central essence of kingship, the supreme authority of the monarch. As R. H. Jones has noted, the 14th century saw the growing independence of the state organs, especially parliament, which limited the direct influence of the king.

Despite the deficiencies of the last years of his reign, the concept of kingship remained intact but had taken on a late medieval nature, reducing the extent of kingship and increasing the role of the nobility in the governance of England. This situation prevailed into the minority of Richard II; especially as no Regent was appointed the importance of the nobility in government was enhanced. They made up a significant part of the ruling councils and it is unlikely that they would be prepared to give up this influence to such a great extent as Richard II would have intended later in his reign.

In a way the trend of increasing magnate influence was able to continue in the early years of the reign, parliaments refusing to grant taxes and questioning the extravagance of the Royal household. After the failures of policies such as the expedition to Flanders, noble dissatisfaction was able to increase and contributed to the actions of the 1380s parliaments, which were a concerted effort to remove bad government and increase the power of the nobility to what they perceived as their rightful position to give advice to the king.

The 1386 parliament was able to remove Michael de la Pole and impose a council on the monarchy that essentially monitored its finances and even controlled some aspects of the royal household. Richard had his own ideas about the nature of kingship and they ran contrary to the changes seen during his reign and that of his grandfather. This lead to him redeclaring the bounds of royal prerogative through the judiciary and also in an attempt to increase his power, redefining the bounds of what constituted treason.

The inclusion of the encroachment of royal power as a treasonable offence highlighted the increased autocracy and centralised power Richard wished to possess. His ideas regarding kingship were essentially medieval, they were an absolutist approach, which had considerable historical precedent but unfortunately for Richard they were unsuitable for dealing with the crises he faced and also no longer the most relevant ideas of kingship to society.

He may have been prompted to take this approach by the events of the Peasant’s Revolt, it is likely that the loyalty the peasants showed to him that he had support from the people and their demands asked for the imposition of a royal autocracy. Keen argues that Richard aimed to reinstate the power of the monarchy for the good of the country but his methods left much to be desired. It took time for him to achieve his aims though; by 1388 the power of the nobility was increasing further with the success of the Appellants in purging royal officials.

Such an incursion into royal power was bound to create a reaction from the absolutist Richard, and in 1389 he imposed his authority on the realm. In a way, as Tuck argues, this show of authority did not significantly alter the traditional concept of kingship and he does not consider that in 1389 Richard was attempting to substantially increase his own personal power beyond precedent. After 1389 Richard pursued policies that could be perceived as conciliation, he strengthened his position through the non-appointment of any controversial ministers and he aimed to create stability in foreign policy.

This proved successful as he gained a truce with France and the marriage to Charles VI’s eldest daughter. Unlike Edward III however, he used this consolidation of his position to once again try and impose absolutist authority. After the accusations of Thomas Haxey, Richard again reacted to criticism claiming it was treasonable, in the same year Richard began to take revenge on the Appellants and this has been seen by many, including Walsingham as the beginning of the so called tyranny of Richard II.

Using his royal prerogative Richard was able to reverse the parliamentary decisions that went against him during his reign, in particular the 1386 and 1388 parliaments. Apart from persecuting individuals, Richard also sought revenge on the counties that had offered opposition to him at the height of the Appellant crisis. He was able to extract grace and resources from these communities, he also imposed oaths of loyalty on all members of parliament, these policies indicative of his attempts towards the end of his reign to extend his royal prerogative.

It was Richards’s flagrant disregard for legality that eventually brought his downfall, his efforts to prevent Henry Bolingbroke from inheriting John of Gaunt’s estates contributed to the exiled Henry returning with military force, the unpopularity of Richard’s regime and his lack of judgement in leaving the country ensured the success of Henry. Richard was certainly the monarch to hold greatest importance of the role of kingship; he reinforced it with symbolic ceremony and merciless political intrigue.

His greatest defence of his authority was ideological, based on the concept that absolutist rule was the most beneficial method of government to the country. His failure was brought about by the unsuitability of the late fourteenth century to autocratic rule, as Edward III and Henry IV showed; it required considerable appeasement of the various power bases and a dilution of royal power to maintain stability and control over England. Despite the apparent tyrannical methods of Richard at the end of his regime, the nature of kingship when Henry usurped the throne was considerably weaker than when Richard inherited the crown.

It was over a century before royal power would be restored to its former existence so it can be said that Richard’s reign had a considerably detrimental effect on the extent of royal prerogative. His reign was a considerably different one to that of Edward III, both managed to impose a sufficient level of authority but achieved it by different means, Edward, realising the growing importance of parliament and the landed classes, made concessions to them to gain their loyalty and affections.

Richard however, preferred to enforce his will with fear and coercion as emphasised in his extension of the definition of treason which removed a substantial amount of potential criticism. This did not prevent the hostility to him by the nobility from existing and this eventually intensified until it resulted in his deposition. Richard may have had views on kingship based on historical precedent but they clashed with the political culture of the late 14th century causing intense conflict with the nobility, helping to form them into a more coherent and unified group.

The growing parliamentary sovereignty was generally accepted by society and Richard would need its consent to pursue his version of kingship, he preferred to bring it to submission through traditional autocratic means and while these proved legally acceptable, they created serious discontent. The reign of Richard II did witness an attempt to reverse the trend in the nature of kingship, which was eventually achieved to a great extent by 1397 and although the situation returned to a process of consensus after his reign, Richards’s actions provoked considerable discord and tension among the nobility.

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