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Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England

Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England


Richard II

The future King Richard II was born at the Archbishop's Palace, Bordeaux, Aquitaine, at Epiphany, on 6th January 1367. The product of a first cousin marriage, he was the son of Edward III's eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince and his wife, Joan, Countess of Kent. Joan, known as the 'Fair Maid of Kent', was the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, the youngest of Edward I's sons by his second wife, Margaret of France. This gave Richard a double descent from Edward I, due to previous cousin marriages in his family, his grandparents had also been first cousins, Richard was, therefore, a highly inbred individual.

Richard II from the Wilton Dyptich

His mother, Joan of Kent, has been described as one of the most beautiful and scandalous women of her age. Unusual for the day, Richard's parent's marriage was a genuine love match and not a political alliance. Joan of Kent had previously been married to Thomas Holland and through this former marriage, Richard had half-siblings.

Joan caused quite a scandal by entering into a clandestine marriage with Holland at the age of twelve. The following winter, while her husband was serving abroad, Joan married again to William Montacute, the Earl of Salisbury's heir. When Holland returned to England a few years later, he revealed his secret marriage to Joan and appealed to Pope Clement VI for his wife's return, Joan supported his appeal. Salisbury resorted to keeping her a prisoner in his home. The Pope annulled Joan's marriage to Montacute and ordered to return to Thomas Holland, with whom she lived for the next eleven years. The marriage produced four children.

Richard had an elder brother, Edward of Angouleme, who had died in infancy of bubonic plague, leaving Richard his father's sole heir. Edward, the Black Prince predeceased Edward III, dying of dysentery in June 1376. He had obtained a promise from his father that Richard should succeed him. After his grandfather's death, the ten-year-old Richard was duly crowned at Westminster Abbey on 16 July 1377.

Richard II

His charismatic grandfather and martial father were a hard act to follow. Artistic and sensitive, Richard was a pacifist, not an attitude to endear him to those of his barons who looked back to a heroic past.

Richard is the first English monarch for whom a contemporary painting survives. He was built in the typical Plantagenet mould, around six feet tall, auburn-haired and good-looking, with finely chiselled features and beautiful, long, tapering hands. The chronicler Adam of Usk described him as being ' as beautiful as Absalom.' Richard was also volatile and unstable, brooding and vengeful, and in him, the famed Plantagenet temper boiled into a frenzy.

A description by a Monk of Elvetham relates King Richard was of the common stature, his hair yellowish, his face fair and rosy, rather round than long, and sometimes flushed abrupt and somewhat stammering in his speech, capricious in his manners, and too apt to prefer the recommendations of the young, to the advice of the elder, nobles. He was prodigal in his gifts, extravagantly splendid in his entertainment and dress, timid as to war, very passionate toward his domestics, haughty and too much devoted to voluptuousness. So fond of late hours, that he would sometimes sit up all night drinking."

Richard II during the Peasant's Revolt

The country was governed by Richard's uncle John of Gaunt and a council during his minority. In 1381, when Richard was fourteen, the Peasants Revolt, probably the first socialist movement in English history, broke out in Kent due to simmering resentment of a highly unpopular poll tax. The rebels marched up to London, their leaders, Watt Tyler, Jack Straw and a priest, John Ball, demanded the abolition of serfdom and a pardon for all participants in the uprising. Discontented recruits to the cause were many and their army swelled to what is estimated at around ten thousand.

All those connected with the hated poll tax were summarily executed on the peasants progress to London. John Ball chose as his text :- "When Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The rebels were welcomed by the majority of Londoners and the army camped at Blackheath on 14th June, threatening London.

Watt Tyler met Richard and his terrified retinue at Mile End. The young King's position was precarious and having little choice, he ordered charters drawn up granting all of Tyler's requests. A further meeting was arranged at Smithfield. Tyler attended alone and repeated further demands. Richard wearily conceded to grant them all. Washing out his mouth with water, Tyler proceeded to spit it out in the king's presence, at which Walworth, the Mayor of London, incensed at what he saw as impertinence, stabbed Tyler to death. The rebel army was unclear at what was happening in the distance, seizing the initiative, Richard advanced alone, calling out loudly "I am your King follow me." and led the rebel army away. The revolt was put down with severity, the young king, in a characteristic outburst of venom, wreaked a terrible vengeance and the heads of its leaders were displayed on pikes at London Bridge.

At fifteen, Richard married Anne of Bohemia in St. Stephen's Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Anne was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, and the sister of King Wenceslas of Bohemia. The couple were to become devoted to each other and the queen exercised a moderating influence on her husband but their union produced no issue. King Richard II, like Edward II before him, was unfortunately reckless in his generosity to favourites, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford was raised to a Duke. Anger smouldered and came to a head in 1387 when Richard failed to bring certain of his favourites to trial, he was subjected to force. He was defeated by a rebel army led by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, Gloucester had been joined by John of Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke. At the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388, the Lords Appellant demanded radical changes in the royal household, the execution of the king's principal supporters and de Vere's estates confiscated. The House of Commons feared the King's attempts to undermine the authority of parliament and he was placed under the control of a council. Their intransigence fueled a smouldering desire for revenge in the unstable Richard.

Richard delighted in lavish dress and extravagant jewels. He is popularly credited with introducing the use of the pocket-handkerchief. In common with his ancestor Henry III, he venerated the memory of the Saxon King, Edward the Confessor and adopted his coat of arms, which were quartered with his own.

Tomb of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Westminster Abbey

Tragically, his beloved Queen, Anne, died of the plague in 1394, aged but twenty-eight. Richard's grief was terrible, distraught and emotionally unstabilized, he had Sheen Palace, where Anne had died, razed to the ground. The Queen was buried at Westminster near to St. Edward's shrine. An embarrassing incident marred the funeral service, Richard was angered by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, who had the audacity to arrive late. When he tactlessly asked the King to excuse his attendance, Richard completely lost control. In his passionate grief and fury he seized a wand from one of the vergers and struck Arundel so violently about the head with it that he fell to the ground dazed.

Richard's mental state has long been an issue of historical debate the Victorian historian Bishop Stubbs has stated that towards the end of his reign, Richard's mind "was losing its balance altogether". Historian Anthony Steel, who wrote a full-scale biography of the king in 1941, took a psychiatric approach to the issue, and concluded that the king suffered from schizophrenia. This opinion was challenged by V.H. Galbraith, who argued that there was no historical basis for such a diagnosis, a line that has also been followed by later historians of the period, like Anthony Goodman and Anthony Tuck. Nigel Saul, who wrote the most recent academic biography on Richard II, concedes that - even though there is no basis for assuming the king had a mental illness - he showed clear signs of a narcissistic personality, and towards the end of his reign "Richard's grasp on reality was becoming weaker".

Two years after Anne's death, Richard married again, taking Isabella of Valois, the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI of France, as his second wife. Richard treated her with great kindness and they were to become extremely fond of each other.

Richard II and Isabella of Valois

Richard's brooding on past slights culminated with his taking action with ruthless suddenness in 1397. His old opponents were placed under arrest and his uncle, Thomas Duke of Gloucester, was murdered. He exiled his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who was one of the five Lords Appellant, in 1399. On John of Gaunt's death, the following year, Richard disinherited Henry and confiscated the vast Lancastrian estates.

Henry reacted by invading England, landing at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, on the pretext of recovering his estates, but in reality, he intended to seize his cousin's throne. Richard, in Ireland at the time, sailed to Wales. The King met Henry's representatives at Conway Castle and was informed that if he restored Henry's estates and surrendered certain councillors for trial, he could remain in power. He agreed but was betrayed and instead of being returned to power found himself the inhabitant of a dungeon in the Tower.

A Parliament was called at the end of September, at which Henry claimed the throne. Richard was declared a tyrant and deposed. He was taken up to Pontefract Castle, in Yorkshire and there it is certain, he met his end around the second week in February 1400. Although Henry of Lancaster may have been prepared to let Richard live, the situation changed when it was discovered that the earls of Huntingdon, Kent and Salisbury and Lord Despenser, and possibly also the Earl of Rutland, were planning to murder the new king and restore Richard in the Epiphany Rising. Although averted, the plot highlighted the danger to Henry of allowing Richard to live. His body was taken south from Pontefract and displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral on 17 February before burial in Kings Langley Church on 6 March. His skeleton was examined in 1871 by Dean Stanley of Westminster but showed no marks of violence. Starvation was the most likely cause, although this has never been proven.

After being displayed at St. Paul's, Richard's body was buried in King's Langley Church, Hertfordshire. His child queen, Isabelle of France mourned him deeply and sincerely. Henry IV wished to form an alliance between herself and his eldest son, Henry, now Prince of Wales, but loyal to the memory of her husband, she was inflexible in refusing to even contemplate it. Isabelle was eventually returned to her father in France. She was married to Charles of Angouleme and tragically died in childbirth.

Richard II's body was later moved to Westminster Abbey by Bolingbroke's successor, Henry V, who had been close to him in his boyhood, there it was reburied beside his beloved first wife, Anne of Bohemia. The tomb was opened in 1871 during restoration work to the abbey. There were no marks of violence on Richard's skull and even some of the teeth were preserved. A staff, sceptre, part of the ball, two pairs of royal gloves, and fragments of their peaked shoes remained. Several relics which seem to have taken from the tomb opening in 1871, were recently discovered in a cigarette box in the basement of the National Portrait Gallery. The contents of the box, dated 31 August 1871, included fragments of wood, some fabric, and a piece of leather from one of the gloves.


Portrait of Richard II.

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King Richard II

Sitter associated with 34 portraits
The second son of Edward (the Black Prince) and Joan, Countess of Kent, and grandson of Edward III, Richard succeeded to the throne aged ten, under the regency of his uncle John of Gaunt. Misrule, plague and war with France resulted in the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. After this early crisis, his reign was coloured by bitter fighting with the nobility, culminating in a royal campaign of arrest, execution and property confiscation in 1398. Gaunt's son, the banished noble Henry Bolingbroke, invaded England in 1399 and with popular support forced the king to abdicate, claiming the throne as Henry IV. Richard died in captivity, his reign becoming the subject of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.

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Watch a film clip on the sitter from the BBC Archive in the Media section below

by Elkington & Co, cast by Domenico Brucciani, after Nicholas Broker, and Godfrey Prest
electrotype, 1873, based on a work of circa 1395-1397
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by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 16th century
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by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1597-1618
NPG 4980(8)

by Henry Hering
albumen carte-de-visite photomontage, 1862
NPG Ax131392

probably by William Faithorne
line engraving, probably 17th century
NPG D23718

by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
line engraving, 1618
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by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), after Unknown artist
line engraving, published 1618
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by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)
line engraving, 1638
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by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), after Unknown artist
line engraving, published 1638 (1618)
NPG D9387

by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), after Unknown artist
line engraving, published 1638 (1618)
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by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Unknown artist
etching, 1639
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by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Unknown artist
etching, 1639
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by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Unknown artist
etching, 1639
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probably by William Faithorne
line engraving, circa 1640
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by Richard Gaywood
etching, 1665
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after Unknown artist
line engraving, published 1677
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by Hall
line engraving, probably 18th century
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by George Vertue
etching, circa 1700-1756
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by Peter Vanderbank (Vandrebanc), after Edward Lutterell (Luttrell)
line engraving, 1706
NPG D23719


King Richard II

At only ten years of age, Richard II assumed the crown, becoming King of England in June 1377 until his untimely and catastrophic demise in 1399.

Born in January 1367 in Bordeaux, Richard was the son of Edward, Prince of Wales, more commonly known as the Black Prince. His father’s successful military escapades during the Hundred Years’ War had won him great plaudits, however in 1376 he succumbed to dysentery and left Edward III without his heir.

Meanwhile, the English Parliament were quick to make arrangements, fearing that Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt would ascend the throne in place of the Black Prince. In order to prevent this, Richard was given the princedom of Wales and inherited several of his father’s titles, ensuring that when the time came, Richard would become the next King of England.

When Edward passed away after a lengthy fifty year reign, Richard was crowned king at Westminster Abbey on 16th July 1377.

Scene following the coronation of King Richard II

In order to deal with the continued threat that John of Gaunt posed to the young king, Richard found himself surrounded by “councils”, from which Gaunt found himself excluded. The councillors however included the likes of Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford who would gain considerable control over royal affairs whilst Richard had not come of age. By 1380, the council was viewed with suspicion by the House of Commons and found itself discontinued.

Richard who was still only a teenager found himself in the midst of a volatile political and social situation, one which he had inherited from his grandfather.

The fallout from the Black Death, the continued conflict with France and Scotland, not to mention the increasingly high taxation and the anti-clerical stirrings produced a great surge of grievances which inevitably precipitated social unrest, namely the Peasants’ Revolt.

This was a time when Richard was forced to prove himself, something he did with great ease when he successfully suppressed the Peasants’ Revolt at just fourteen years of age.

In 1381, the combination of social and economic concerns came to a head. The Peasants’ Revolt began in Kent and Essex where a group of peasants, famously led by Wat Tyler, gathered at Blackheath. The army of peasants, almost 10,000 strong had met in London, incensed by the flat rate poll tax. The decaying relationship between peasant and landowner had only been exacerbated by the Black Death and the demographic challenges it had wrought. The poll tax of 1381 was the final straw: anarchy soon ensued.

One of the first targets of this band of peasants was John of Gaunt who had his illustrious palace burnt to the ground. Destruction of property was only the first stage: the peasants went on to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, Simon Sudbury. Moreover, the Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales was also murdered at this time.

Whilst the peasants out in the street demanded the end of serfdom, Richard had taken shelter in the Tower of London surrounded by his councillors. It was soon agreed that negotiation was the only tactic they had to hand and Richard II took the lead.

Richard confronts the rebels

Still only a young boy, Richard twice met with the rebel group, appealing to their calls for change. It was a courageous act for any man, let alone a teenage boy.

Richard’s promises were however doubted by Wat Tyler: this, combined with a restless tension brewing on either side, eventually led to a skirmish. In the chaos and confusion the Mayor of London, William Walworth, pulled Tyler off his horse and killed him.

The rebels were enraged by this act but the king very quickly diffused the situation with the words:
“You shall have no captain but me”.

The rebel group was led away from the scene whilst Walworth gathered his forces. Richard gave the peasant group a chance to return home unharmed, however in the coming days and weeks, with further outbreaks of rebellion popping up across the country, Richard chose to deal with them with far less leniency and clemency.

“For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity”.

The leaders were executed and with the last of the rebels defeated in Billericay, Richard suppressed the revolutionaries with an iron fist. His triumph boosted his own self-belief that he had the divine right to rule as king however Richard’s absolutism ran in direct conflict with those in parliament.

Meeting of Richard with Anne of Bohemia and Charles IV

High on his success with the Peasants’ Revolt, in January 1382 he married Anne of Bohemia, the daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. This marriage had been instigated by Michael de la Pole who held an increasingly significant role in court. The union was a diplomatic one as Bohemia was a useful ally against France in the continuing conflict of the Hundred Yeas War.

Sadly, the marriage did not prove to be a fortunate one. It was not well-received in England and failed to produce an heir. Anne of Bohemia later died from the plague in 1394, an event which greatly affected Richard.

As Richard continued to make his decisions in court, resentment was brewing. Michael de la Pole quickly became one of his favourites, assuming the role of Chancellor in 1383 and taking on the title of Earl of Suffolk. This did not sit well with the established aristocracy who became antagonised by the king’s favourites including another figure, Robert de Vere who was appointed Regent of Ireland in 1385.

Meanwhile, punitive action across the border in Scotland did not bear any fruit and an attack on southern England by France was only narrowly avoided. At this time, Richard’s relationship with his uncle, John of Gaunt ultimately soured and growing dissent would soon find expression.

John of Gaunt

In 1386, the Wonderful Parliament formed with the main aim of securing promises of reform from the king. Richard’s continued favouritism had been increasing his unpopularity, not to mention his demands for more money in order to invade France.

The stage was set: Parliament, both the House of Lords and House of Commons, united against him, targeting Michael de la Pole with impeachment for both embezzlement and negligence.

Those who had launched the impeachment known as the Lords Appellant were a group of five nobles, one of whom was Richard’s uncle, who wanted to curb the increasingly authoritarian powers of both de la Pole and he king.

In response, Richard attempted to dissolve parliament, only to face more grave threats to his own position.

With his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, leading the Lords Appellant, Richard found himself facing the threat of deposition.

Backed into a corner, Richard was forced to withdraw his support for de la Pole and sack him as Chancellor.

He was also faced with more restrictions on his power to appoint any further positions.

Richard was affronted by this attack on his divine right to rule and set about investigating legal challenges to these new restrictions. Inevitably, the battle would become physical.

In 1387, the Lords Appellant successfully defeated Robert de Vere and his forces in a conflict at Radcot Bridge just outside Oxford. This was a blow to Richard who would be maintained more as a figurehead whilst the real distribution of power lay with the parliament.

The following year, the “Merciless Parliament” sentenced the king’s favourites such as de la Pole who was forced to flee abroad.

Such actions incensed Richard whose absolutism was being called into question. In a few years he would bide his time and reassert his position by purging the Lords Appellants.

By 1389, Richard had come of age and blamed past mistakes on his councillors. Moreover, it was at this time that a reconciliation of sorts manifested itself between Richard and John of Gaunt allowing for a peaceful transition to national stability for the next few years.

In this time, Richard dealt with the pressing issue of the lawlessness of Ireland and successfully invaded with more than 8,000 men. He also at this time negotiated a 30 year truce with France which lasted almost twenty years. As part of this agreement, Richard agreed to a marriage with Isabella, Charles VI daughter, when she came of age. An unorthodox betrothal considering she was only six years old at the time and the prospect of an heir was many years away!

Whilst stability had been steadily growing, Richard’s revenge in the latter half of his reign would exemplify his tyrannical image. A purge on the Lords Appellants took place, with the cull even including his own uncle, Thomas of Gloucester who was imprisoned for treason in Calais only to be subsequently murdered. Meanwhile, the Earl of Arundel met a sticky end when he was beheaded for his involvement, whilst the Earls of Warwick and Nottingham were thrust into exile.

More importantly perhaps was the fate of John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke who was sent into exile for ten years. Such a sentence however was quickly extended by Richard when John of Gaunt died in 1399.

By this point, Richard’s despotism permeated all of his decisions and his judgement of Bolingbroke’s fate would prove his final nail in the coffin.

Bolingbroke’s exile was extended and his estates seized, leading to atmosphere of menace and intimidation. The House of Lancaster represented a real threat to his kingship.

In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke seized his opportunity, invading and overthrowing Richard in a matter of months.

King Henry IV

The path for Bolingbroke’s ascension to power was clear and in October 1399, he became King Henry IV of England.

The first task on the agenda: silencing Richard forever. In January 1400, Richard II died in captivity at Pontefract Castle.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.


Richard II relics found in National Portrait Gallery archive

Researchers sifting the contents of long-unopened boxes at the National Portrait Gallery have discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king.

To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement.

"It was very surprising, yes," said Krzysztof Adamiec, the assistant archivist at the London gallery who made the discovery. The relics, he said, at first "just looked like a simple, empty box of cigarettes". He added: "But when I opened it up there were strips of leather and pieces of wood. It was very exciting for me – it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history."

The wood is likely to be from Richard II's coffin, while there is compelling evidence that the leather is from his glove. There are also meticulously detailed sketches of the king's skull and bones, together with measurements which the gallery believes could be used to recreate a true likeness.

Scharf took charge of the gallery shortly after it was founded in 1857. After some detective work Adamiec was able to connect the relics in his archive with the decision in 1871 to open Richard's grave at Westminster Abbey.

The original intention was to clean the tombstones but, being inquisitive Victorians, those responsible decided that the coffin should be opened to try to establish how the king died in 1400 – after he was deposed by Henry IV – and whether it was because of an axe to the head. It wasn't.

Scharf, an enthusiastic witness, decided to pocket some mementoes, something which would be frowned upon now but was a "Victorian gentleman" thing to do. He was clearly a collector. Researchers have also found in the archive a pebble from the grave of Lord Macaulay, a piece of frame from a Raphael painting and the edge of a Van Dyck canvas.

The archive contains a huge amount of material, something like 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which the gallery is about to complete cataloguing. Adamiec said: "He was a very meticulous man he recorded everything. Every day he would make a note of the weather, which direction the wind blew, what he ate, who he met. Sometimes he would draw the table plans of dinners he attended."

Scharf, born in 1820, inherited his love of drawing from his father, who would take him on drawing expeditions, including one in 1834, to the ruins of the Palace of Westminster after the devastating fire, also documented in several paintings by JMW Turner. In 1854, he missed out on becoming director of the National Gallery but three years later was appointed secretary to the new NPG.

He was a prominent member of the Society of Antiquaries and seems to have particularly enjoyed grave openings, among them Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York.

The Scharf archive catalogue is now available online, joining the papers of other gallery directors including Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong.


Geoffrey Chaucer is named chief clerk by Richard II

King Richard II appoints Geoffrey Chaucer to the position of chief clerk of the king’s works in Westminster on July 12, 1389.

Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, served as a page in an aristocratic household during his teens and was associated with the aristocracy for the rest of his life. In 1359, he fought in France with Edward III, and was captured in a siege. Edward III ransomed him, and he later worked for Edward III and John of Gaunt. One of his earliest known works was an elegy for the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, Book of the Duchesse.

In 1372, Chaucer traveled to Italy on diplomatic missions, where he may have been exposed to Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He also visited Flanders and France, and was appointed comptroller of customs. He wrote several poems in the 1380s, including The Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde. In the late 1380s or early 1390s, he began work on the Canterbury Tales, in which a mixed group of nobles, peasants, and clergy make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The work, a compilation of tales told by each character, is remarkable for its presentation of the spectrum of social classes. Although Chaucer intended the book to include 120 stories, he died in 1399, with only 22 tales finished.


The Hollow Crown: Richard II

If it’s possible to say about a work of Shakespeare, Richard II is perhaps the most underrated of the Bard’s plays in the most underrated genre of his work. I used to play the Shakespeare quiz on Sporcle all the time, and I always began by going straight down the histories because they’re so easy to remember in sequence, but not my favorites. The two classical masks of drama depict comedy and tragedy. They don’t leave room for Shakespeare’s history plays: part self-aggrandizing patriotism, part cultural preservation, part examination of male leadership. As directed by Rupert Goold, this first installment of The Hollow Crown isn’t quite on par with something like Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, a singularly triumphant Shakespeare production than transcends the links to the entire cycle. But this is a definitive visual portrait of Richard II, the single best widely available instance of a severely underrated history play with dramatic thematic ramifications for English identity.

Other than BBC’s exhaustive project to produce recorded versions of all 37 plays from 1978-1985—with miniscule budgets on alternately garish and threadbare sets—funded by American backers who wanted basic versions of every play to widen the reach of Shakespeare education, there is no major recorded version of Richard II. It’s not a glamour play like Romeo And Juliet or Hamlet, or even the widely regarded pinnacles of the histories like Richard III or Henry V. So executive producer Sam Mendes envisioned a grand, new version of The Henriad (for the purposes of these reviews I’ll define that as the four plays that make up The Hollow Crown): filmed on expansive beaches, in castle halls, on wide battlefields with armies of extras. The grandest period-accurate staging possible for a Cultural Olympiad linked to the 2012 London Olympic Games. The Hollow Crown is the perfect set of plays to undertake in that scenario: a linked, progressive story centered around mythic figures in the country’s history, instead of the Bard’s masterworks set outside England.

Richard II is a rarely produced history. The two largest North American theater festivals—OSF in Ashland, Oregon and the Stratford Festival in Canada—have averaged around one production every decade, significantly less than Henry V and Richard III, the two most common. It was the first play written in the second cycle. The trilogy that comprises Henry VI made Shakespeare’s name as a playwright early in his career, and Richard III established his first indelible character. But this play is not only a prequel to the first history tetralogy, but also a prologue to the relationship and rule of the Henrys Bolingbroke and Monmouth.

If you’ll allow for a ridiculous analogy, the other prequel that flashed into my mind when watching this production of Richard II was The Phantom Menace. Not because of quality—this is so much better than trade federation squabbling that ruins compelling mythology. But the pressure on Richard II is to set in motion the dominoes that fall across seven subsequent plays. It takes a very particular skill to imbue a living—and fictionally altered—account of historical events. My best friend fell asleep during a production of Henry IV, Part II in Ashland a few years ago, but I was riveted. These plays are the equivalent of an eight-play cycle focusing on the fathers of the American Revolution, something as wide in scope as August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.

The biggest question in staging Richard II deals with the stature of the two male leads. Is this a preamble to the events of Henry V, where the focus should be on a young Bolingbroke, who will last through two more plays in contrast to his son, Prince Hal? Is it the initial act against the divine right of royal blood that superstitiously causes The War Of The Roses that takes place over Shakespeare’s entire history cycle through Richard III? (Let’s set Henry VIII aside as the outlier for now, since it’s the one play outside the paired tetralogies.) Some productions, like the 1974 version with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, featured the two lead actors alternating between Richard and Bolingbroke, presumably to demonstrate acting range but also to suggest that both men could wield petty idiocy and unwanted power. It’s a popular way to stage a play that puts two leads in sympathetic opposition—Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein adaptation featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller trading off roles of the Doctor and the Creature.

Goold’s version opts to frame Richard and Bolingbroke as polar opposites in word and deed. Ben Whishaw—Q in Skyfall and Freddie Lyon from The Hour—plays a nebbish and fey Richard, flitting about and making potentially cataclysmic decisions on a whim, seemingly disinterested in his wife and uncaring toward his most loyal subjects within the nobility. His initial decision—arguably the callous mistake that sets his own downfall in motion—is to halt a duel between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, instead choosing to exile both men for punitive amounts of time, seemingly at random, which is the first action that undercuts Richard’s authority.

In opposition to the monarch is Kinnear—Bill Tanner in the newest Bond films and a Laurence Olivier-winning stage actor—as Henry Bolingbroke, a man whose sense of pride and honor is shaken by the petty actions of the King he dearly loves. Perhaps the man who takes the news worst is John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart, too old to play Shakespeare leads other than Lear, but a dynamite supporting actor), Bolingbroke’s father in declining health. Richard’s second act of malfeasance is mocking Gaunt in his final moments, before instructing his men to ransack the estate, seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance to fund an unnecessary war against Irish rebels that takes Richard out of the country. It’s a gripping scene, as Goold chooses to shoot Gaunt’s monologue around one slow track in on Stewart’s face. Along with Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley, Stewart is the best of the old guard RSC actors who transitioned into film (I would place Derek Jacobi and Simon Russell Beale in a separate category, and we’ll get to the latter next week.) It’s also the moment where the pendulum swings furthest away from Richard, to the side of Bolingbroke, as Northumberland (David Morrissey from The Walking Dead and State Of Play) and other begin to discuss overthrowing the king as usurping the throne.

This is where the play digs into building difficult heroes and defying one-sided mythmaking. Richard II isn’t the triumphant story of a heroic king it’s the beginning of internal conflict for generations within the English royal lineage, starting with usurpation. Richard rules with whatever decisions come into his head because of his belief in divine right. The scene in Act III on the beach in Wales, as Richard begins to realize all that he’s lost in going to Ireland, effectively ceding the crown to Bolingbroke, gives everything about this choice of characterization in a nutshell. Whishaw whines and screams, throwing a tantrum of disbelief that anyone would defy succession. And Goold inserts the capstone image: waves washing away Richard’s name in the sand, simple nature erasing his name from history.

The last half of the play sets Richard and Bolingbroke in direct conflict on stage even though the war doesn’t even take place. Henry wins, but all he wants is his inheritance back. When it becomes clear that his supporters want more, to insert Henry on the throne instead of his cousin, he’s stone-faced and reluctant, but he still goes along and takes power. Richard’s monologue in Westminster is the character’s last-gasp moment, summoned to the room barefoot, renouncing the throne in front of all he whom he wronged—wealthy nobleman who had to pay taxes, so frightful to imagine—and takes the only remaining vengeance he has left. As Richard says on the beach: “within the hollow crown/That rounds the mortal temples of a king/Keeps Death his court,” (III.ii) resigned to his fate after being deposed.

Henry’s guilt over the result of his return to England overshadows the rest of the play. As he will say in a later play, “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown.” Kinnear does an excellent job digging into Bolingbroke’s nerves over the situation, projecting a born leader, who inspires the men around him, but still feels tied to a misdeed, taking something that was not rightfully his. It’s a sentiment that overshadows the rest of his life and influences how he treats his son in subsequent plays, and Goold’s direction (along with Shakespeare’s text) demonstrates that.

And the subtle changes to the end of the play—another of Bolingbroke’s cousins delivering the coffin and taking proud credit for Richard’s murder as reparations for a treasonous plot, for instance—only improves the power of Kinnear’s remorse. Henry’s choice to pardon his younger cousin for conspiring with others—including a Bishop who screams out the blasphemy behind usurping the throne to the assembled nobles in Westminster in another powerful and portentous moment—comes directly from his own guilt over unintentionally seizing the throne. He wants to forgive Aumerle so that there may be a chance for his own forgiveness. But Aumerle, as corrupted by Exton, takes those words in a sinister way, and kills Richard in attempt to stem other treason plots against Henry. Kinnear conveys this betrayal as a terrible omen for his ruling tenure, and his personal sadness that the man he felt so devoted to could be wiped out in an instant. Richard II cuts off just as there is a physical symbol of wrongdoing for Henry, the lifeless corpse of the former king, and Shakespeare suggests that it haunts the man, the king, and the path of England for nearly the next 100 years.

All right, that’s enough praise. This is a fantastic version of a work that rarely gets produced, and as such has the opportunity to define the play to many viewers for years to come. But even as the definitive version of the play on film at the moment, there are some glaring flaws. The martyrdom imagery isn’t just thick. It’s oppressively omnipresent. A few minor suggestions of Richard’s belief in divine right to rule and his willingness to die for that line of thought would have sufficed, but instead the Jesus parallelism hits hard and fast once the usurpation plan has been stated. The callback to the painting Richard admires in the first act during his unfortunate and brutal assassination in prison doesn’t carry the same weight after the audience is numb from biblical imagery.

As per usual with the histories, the limited female characters get short shrift. Clémence Poésy as the Queen—a composite of Richard’s two wives, one of which was a child at the time of his death—has her part significantly reduced in the edited script, which already runs well over two hours. She gets one featured moment, shouting down a gardener (David Bradley, of Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter) for gossiping about news of Richard’s political demise, and that’s about it for female characters in every one of these plays. The other women in the Henriad don’t fare much better, wives of important men, prostitutes, and foreign brides for kings. This is a series obsessed with masculinity and the exchange of power between men, but let’s face it, it’s a medieval setting, so that has to be the case.

The only time where the budget shows any limitation is in depicting Bolingbroke as a rightful King. In the text, Richard speaks in such flowery metaphors, while Bolingbroke speaks plainly as the man of the people, the rightful King to watch over England. Visually, Goold failed to find a way to represent that division, since there are no crowd scenes to speak of, or many wide shots at all except to establish location. This production also skips over the parts of the text that closely examine the nature of Bolingbroke and Mowbrays squabble. It involves the sudden death of another man, and it’s strongly suggested that Bolingbroke was the culprit, which sours his supposedly rightful claim to the throne in order to better serve the people.

But in the face of all this segment of The Hollow Crown accomplishes—worthy opposing performances from Whishaw and Kinnear, another instantly memorable supporting turn from Stewart alongside several others, putting an oft-forgotten prologue to the histories on film in beautiful fashion—I’m willing to overlook the minor drawbacks of cutting down the original script and the overuse of a crucifix. Richard II makes the argument that this play sits right behind Henry V and Richard III as one of the best works Shakespeare wrote in this genre, and that it shouldn’t be lopped off to begin the Henriad with Henry IV, Part I nearly as often as it has been throughout the past century.


Anne Neville: Richard III’s ‘Lost’ Queen and Westminster Abbey

Amidst the chronicle of lost tombs at Westminster Abbey is that of Queen Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III. Queen Anne’s invisibility in these terms underlines the purported neglect on behalf of Richard III this lack of a memorial was rectified however when a bronze plaque was placed to Queen Anne’s memory at Westminster Abbey, in an attempt to redress this act of historical forgetting. The fact though that no memorial existed to Queen Anne Neville up until the 20 th century meant that whatever hope there had been in establishing the exact location of where she was buried, was slim, given the fact that her tomb is generally described as ‘lost’. This also added to the sense of mystery which already surrounded Queen Anne’s death.

Instead of Richard III, it is Henry VII – who won victory over the former at the great Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and is remembered at Westminster Abbey. His legacy to it is most apparent in the magnificent Henry VII Chapel. All of Henry VIII’s (legitimate) children are also buried in the Abbey, thus as branches of the Tudor rose, which the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York helped to create through the union of the two hitherto warring dynasties. Henry VII’s spouse, Queen Elizabeth of York – who Richard III seems to have regarded as a possible wife after Queen Anne’s death, no doubt in an effort to neutralise the threat his niece represented to him as the undoubted Yorkist heir – lies in glory, in the tomb created for her and Henry VII by the great sculptor Pietro Torrigiano. Queen Anne Neville by contrast, lay technically ‘forgotten’ at Westminster Abbey until 1960.

Queen Anne Neville also does not share a tomb with King Richard III, whose skeleton was, of course, discovered under a car park in Leicester, once the site of the Grey Friars church where his body, ‘pierced with numerous and deadly wounds’, was buried after Bosworth and – subsequently reburied at Leicester Cathedral in 2015. This was done, however, due to Leicester’s proximity to Market Bosworth, as opposed to any statement on the royal marriage Richard III was simply buried alone because of the battle. By the time of Bosworth, he had not remarried after the death of Queen Anne. The tomb that was erected for King Richard in the church’s choir was paid for by Henry VII posthumous respect for a King who had fought ‘like a most brave and valiant prince’, as even those who were not sympathetic to Richard acknowledged. The body of Richard III was of huge importance to Henry VII because it underlined his victory at Bosworth, proclaimed his new dynasty and proved that the last Plantagenet King was indeed, dead.

Henry’s own claim to the throne was understandably one about which he was extremely sensitive, as we can see from his attitude towards both the young Earl of Warwick and pretenders such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck he was, however, keen to stress that his own right to the Crown rested on a divine right won at Bosworth, as opposed to simply through the Yorkist heiress, Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth, of course, had a far stronger claim to the English throne than his own, for which reason she had to be rendered submissive to his authority she could have been his greatest threat – instead, she became his wife – but that fact was obviously never forgotten by King Henry.

Some short time before Queen Anne Neville’s death, she and King Richard lost their only son. Indeed, this was a strange turn of events, given the fact that Richard III was widely supposed to have had Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the historical ‘Princes in the Tower’, murdered, and now had lost his own ‘heir male’, for which reason it was easy to understand why a superstitious age might have ascribed this to God’s will, to avenge Queen Elizabeth Woodville, their mother. Queen Anne’s son, Edward of Middleham, died on 9 April 1484 cutting off Richard III’s direct line like this, meant that Elizabeth of York remained the true heiress in many minds, despite Richard’s Act of 1484, the Titulus Regius, which had declared her illegitimate. We may believe though, the descriptions of the Croyland Chronicle when it described Queen Anne and Richard III ‘almost bordering on madness by reason of their sudden grief’ it was alluded to in Richard’s reburial service in 2015. In parallel, we might be reminded of the scene when the news that the two Princes were thought to have been killed by order of the King, was broken to their mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who ‘shriek[ed]… struck her breast, tore and pulled out her hair’. (Quoted in Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 105, 2013). This account has come down to us from Polydore Vergil, although possible Tudor exaggeration must also be taken into consideration here, to allow for further intent to vilify Richard, given the fact that Vergil was writing for Henry VII.

Perhaps it was the death of her son, which weakened Queen Anne Neville we simply do not know. It is possible that grief may have debilitated her nervous system, making her more susceptible to a medieval infection. The grief could have brought a closeness between the King and Queen – instead, we read in the Croyland Chronicle, that the King ‘shunned her bed’ (Ibid, Pg 127). The ‘Chronicler’ further reported that Queen Anne fell ‘extremely sick’ several days after Christmas common opinion had it that the cause was tuberculosis. Croyland emphasises the ‘wound in the Queen’s breast for the loss of her son’ when referring to Christmas, 1484 (Ibid, Pg 121).

We know little about Queen Anne Neville, even her appearance is elusive – but then, Richard III’s reign was of course, short. She features in the famous Rous Roll, illustrated on several occasions. Richard III’s marriage to Anne – the widow of Prince Edward of Lancaster – was likely to have been one borne out of political strategy because of the mighty Warwick lands which she brought with her as a daughter of the great Richard Neville, Warwick the Kingmaker. However, Anne was also Richard’s cousin, so perhaps he chose a girl he knew, as well as understanding what she would bring with her. A papal dispensation had been granted for Anne Neville’s marriage to her Yorkist cousin, Richard. Their wedding took place – fittingly, in the light of Anne’s missing tomb – at Westminster. Anne was crowned with Richard on 6 July 1483 the King and Queen walked on red cloth from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey. Lady Margaret Beaufort – mother of the future Henry VII – carried the Queen’s train (Ibid, Pg 102).

Queen Anne died on 16 March 1485 – five months before the massively decisive Battle of Bosworth she died ‘upon the day of a great eclipse of the sun’ (Ibid, Pg 128). On 22 March, less than ten days later, Richard III had sent an envoy to begin negotiations for a Portuguese marriage this again was not a comment on his own personal feelings for Queen Anne Neville. Richard III would have been desperately aware of the fact that he had to maintain a tight grip on his throne and replace the son that had so recently died because his direct branch of the Plantagenet dynasty could die after him. After the Queen’s death, vicious rumour bussed about that the King had had her poisoned, but historically, there is no evidence for this. More importantly, these rumours show that the King was thought capable of such a thing, as he had been believed to have murdered the two Princes, so the attestation is valuable for how Richard may have been regarded by recent posterity. Although admittedly, this was a posterity in which Tudor propaganda was a powerful tool, as subsequent portraits of Richard which have been later tampered with, have shown. Any physical ‘deformity’ of Richard III would have been viewed significantly in an age when this was thought to be reflective of character Richard III – as his skeleton shows – suffered from scoliosis, but apparently no – Shakespearean – withered arm.

It was indeed a far cry from another Queen Anne by another King Richard Queen Anne of Bohemia was greatly loved by Richard II, who was utterly distraught by her death from plague in 1394. They share a tomb at Westminster Abbey with clasping hands. There is nothing like this for Queen Anne Neville and Richard III.

Queen Anne was believed to have been buried on the south side of the altar, according to the Victorian cataloguer of the Abbey’s monuments, A. P Stanley, Dean of Westminster, in his book Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey. The grave is unmarked, and the plaque instead commemorates the Queen herself. Westminster Abbey states that she was buried in this location, in front of the ‘Sedilia’, or chairs for the priests. It may have been exposed when Sir George Gilbert Scott was making preparations for his new High Altar in the late 19 th century.

A stained glass window exists in Cardiff Castle, depicting Anne Neville next to one of Richard III.

The bronze plaque in the south ambulatory to Queen Anne Neville was erected at the behest of the Richard III Society, bearing a quotation from the Rous Roll (‘full gracious’) and her heraldic shield is topped by a crown. It is the primary memorial that exists to an – almost – forgotten queen.


All Change at the Palace of Westminster

Richard had no direct heir and he was therefore the last of an unbroken line from William the Conqueror. Henry IV was haunted by his role in the deposition and murder of Richard, who was after all an anointed king, and although his son (Henry V) inherited without opposition, the latter’s early death and the assumption of his infant son as Henry VI, reactivated an extended family feud. This eventually led to the Wars of the Roses, during which kings were made and unmade by alternating Yorkist and Lancastrian factions.

'Shakespeare’s Richard II was a deeply flawed but poetic king . '

In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare focused on the cataclysmic effect of this reign on national history - a situation that ended only with the ‘good government’ of Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII. The result of this focus was the play King Richard the Second, the story of a deeply flawed king, containing some of the most patriotic lines in English literature. They come in the speech by John of Gaunt where he extols his native land:

Due to the unheroic nature of its lead character, Shakespeare’s play was rarely performed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, in the early 19th century, the medieval period began to be viewed in a romantic and essentially human way.

'. a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory . '

At the same time, a more vigorous appreciation, documentation and conservation of the nation’s antiquities occurred, and the surviving evidence of Richard’s cultural patronage at Westminster - his exquisite tomb and life-size portrait in Westminster Abbey and Great Hall at the Palace - raised his status as a defining example of medieval magnificence and an embodiment of the Age of Chivalry.

The antiquarian interest in the medieval period and the new sympathy with Richard II combined in the revival of Shakespeare’s play by Charles Kean (1857). Whilst the new Gothic Palace was rising from the ashes of the old - with the venerable hall at its heart - a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory, to packed audiences at the Queen’s Theatre. The production was remembered for years afterwards, as Walter Pater wrote in 1889:


Richard II

Nigel Saul paints a picture of Richard as a highly assertive and determined ruler, one whose key aim was to exalt and dignify the crown. In Richard's view, the crown was threatened by the factiousness of the nobility and the assertiveness of the common people. The king met these challenges by exacting obedience, encouraging lofty new forms of address, and constructing an elaborate system of rule by bonds and oaths. Saul traces the sources of Richard's political ideas and finds that he was influenced by a deeply felt orthodox piety and by the ideas of the civil lawyers. He shows that, although Richard's kingship resembled that of other rulers of the period, unlike theirs, his reign ended in failure because of tactical errors and contradictions in his policies. For all that he promoted the image of a distant, all-powerful monarch, Richard II's rule was in practice characterized by faction and feud. The king was obsessed by the search for personal security: in his subjects, however, he bred only insecurity and fear.

A revealing portrait of a complex and fascinating figure, the book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the politics and culture of the English middle ages.

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LibraryThing Review

This is a very comprehensive and well researched account and surely the definitive survey of the life and reign. But not really for the non-specialist for the most part and I skimmed the last third. I really prefer narrative accounts. Читать весь отзыв


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