July 29, 2008

Richard II and Edward the Confessor

In 1395 Richard II invaded Ireland. As he marched through Ireland, he marched under his own insignia but also under that of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-65). Richard was obsessed by the Confessor- the last Saxon king of England to hold his realm together for a substantial period of time, Edward had acquired the reputation in the Middle Ages of a saintly celibate King. The title of the English kings after him depended upon him: William of Normandy had claimed that Edward's personal nomination had given him the English crown and Norman chroniclers from William of Jumierges onwards substantiated that claim in their histories. Edward thus was not merely seen as the last Saxon King, but more appropriately as the father of the Norman and hence Plantagenet Line which culminated with Richard himself. Edward's reputation in the Middle Ages though was not merely as the great saintly King, father of the nation, but also of the father of the nation's laws. As early as the reign of Henry I, the barons of England petitioned that the laws of King Edward be enforced- such intentions lay behind much of the agitation surrounding Magna Carta and as Corrine Westbrook and John Pocock have shown endured into the seventeenth century. The barons at Runnymede, the Diggers in Surrey made the same claim- that if only England could recall its original legal status under the Saxon monarch, all would be well. Of course neither of them knew the truth- for a start the whole idea of a national law depended on the legal reforms envisaged by William I at the oath of Salisbury and enacted by Henry II- neither did they agree- the baronial constitution and the Digger's millenary vision are about as far from each other as one could get: William Walwyn called Magna Carta a 'mess of potage', the average aristocrat of Walwyn's day thought the Leveller was a traitor, an anarchist and a heretic.

The image of Edward's laws was incredibly powerful- and is something that I want to return to in more detail at a later date. But the image of Edward and the model of Kingship that he provided was equally powerful and is perhaps less appreciated. Lets return to Richard II. Why did he raise that banner at that moment? Richard did not particularly care for law- he had an uneasy relationship with his Parliaments and disdained the advice of his magnates- many of whom, the appellant lords, Arundel, Warwick and Gloucester, became heroes of those that would restrict the rights of the crown. Rather Richard saw himself as the successor to Edward in his saintliness. For Richard- the two Edwards- the Confessor and the Martyr (an English king Edward had been assacinated in the 8th century by the Vikings and was canonized shortly afterwards) represented a vision of Kingship very much in accordance with his own. Richard saw himself as various documents attest as a direct representative of God on earth. The end of the 14th Century saw an upswing in millenarian agitation- there were rumours of an Anglo-French alliance to reunify the battered Christian body (split at this point between two Popes one in Avignon and one in Rome) and turn it against the Turks who were rampaging through Southern Europe. Major members of Richard's court believed in this: John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, toyed throughout his life with going on a crusade- one of his sons, Sir John Beaufort actually did and was defeated in 1395 at the battle of Nicopolis, another Henry IV (king after Richard) dreamt as much as Richard of taking on the Turk and reclaiming Jerusalem. Famously Henry was told that he would die in Jerusalem- but fell into eternal night in the chamber of the House of Commons and not in that of the holy sepulchre. Richard shared that sense of the religious nature of kingship. Look at the engravings and art made about him in his reign, if you look for instance at the Wilton Diptych- a piece of art that has bemused and confused historians for generations (and I cannot clarify that confusion at all)- but the clear emphasis is on catholicism and its relationship to the young king. Pamphleteers and chroniclers from Froissart in France to the most jaundyced of his opponents also bear testament to the King's determination to make himself into a saintly ruler. The image of King Edward returned. Richard wanted also to canonize others of his ancestors- he pressed the Pope that his great grandfather Edward II should be canonized and he paid attention to prophesies which told him for instance that an English king would conquer Ireland and then retake the Holy Land.

Richard's elevation of the Confessor into a saint- and a saint who would support his particular model of sacral Kingship should be seen in the context of the instability of the English crown. Of Richard's predecessors, only Richard I (r. 1189-99), Henry III (r. 1216-72) and Edward II (r. 1307-27) succeeded to the crown without having to battle or dispose of other claimants. Richard would remember that the reigns of Henry II, John, Henry III and Edward II had all seen civil war take place in England. For Frenchmen living at the time England was a nation of traitors- a nation where monarchy was unsuccessful. Furthermore Richard had to face his powerful uncles- Lancaster, Gloucester, York- who dominated the politics of his reign and many of whom had greater credentials for the role than Richard himself. Turning his eyes back to English history, meant recreating a monarchy for him that made sense- as a connection between God and the people, between the sacred and the secular. For Richard then it was natural to turn to the saint King Edward- who had afteral combined both devotion and rule in the same person. Furthermore Edward ressembled Richard in other ways- in his childlessness for example. By 1395, the widowed Richard had decided to marry a five year old Princess of France- children were not on the agenda!

It is pretty easy to see why Richard looked to Edward but it also reminds us of the way that 1066 was and was not a division within English history. The crown owed much of its powers to the way that William of Normandy, William I, had interpreted the act of conquest- he had essentially by the Oath of Salisbury bound all tenants in England to owe fealty to the crown and not their tenant in chief (as Dr. Garnett's research makes clear). But he had done something else- he had based his title on the nomination of his predecessor as king of England, Edward the Confessor. Doomsday Book contained two dates- the date on which King Edward was alive and dead and the date of the survey- and that fixed the Norman claim to be that England had passed, by nomination from the Confessor to the Conqueror. That point meant that the Normans were bound to Anglo Saxon England- and that as the royal title depended upon the events of 1066 so did arguments in favour and against the crown. In the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke argued that there had been no conquest, as did Sir Matthew Hale- Gerald Winstanley effectively suggested that William was not the heir of Edward. In the reign of Richard II, we see Richard go back to the beggining of his dynasty and fix his eye upon the sainted King and suggest that he was attempting to recreate that era. Norman fixation with Edward as the legitimator of their dynasty had turned into a Plantagenet quest for models of royalty to fortify the crown in an age of uncertainty.

The reasons that Richard looked back to Edward arise out of the pattern of English history- and the crucial place of 1066 within that history- and out of the particular circumstances of his time. By going back to Edward he sought to create a model of sacred Kingship that he hoped could strengthen the crown and provide the springboard to English armies doing God's work in the Holy Land.


The Organic Viking said...

Interesting stuff. I know pathetically little about meideval politics for a medieval historian. It's important to note though that Edward had been considered a Saint and a model of saintly kingship long before Richard II - the Vita Edwardi Regis was commissioned by his widow and is clearly an attempt to promote his cult very soon after his death - the actual process of canonisation tended to operate more on consensus than any formal process at that stage.

Also, the vikings didn't assassinate Edward of East Anglia - they killed him in open battle. The assassination story is the product of the myth that grew up around him and is another instance (much as with Edward) of an attempt to present an image of a saintly king marked by his passivity and trust in God in the face of adversity. The actual death scene is lifted straight from various Lives of St Sebastian.

OK, I'll stop being such a medieval pedant/defender of the vikings.

Gracchi said...

Oh no continue being a pedant! I didn't know that about Edward of East Anglia- the myth though is really important in considering the place of Christian kingship in England and you are right it ties straight into the confessor myth which I think is key- I don't think the fact that three medieval kings were named Edward is a coincedence!

The Confessor you are entirely right about- the legend of him being a saint starts with the VER and goes on afterwrads. Its potency as a myth for the opposition to kings is well known- but Henry III, Richard and others used it as a model of sacral kingship which I think is important- I do think its Ullman's idea of a descending theory of govenrment from God to the King to the people and Edward's personality buttresses that- as does the fact that it legitimates his grant of the Kingdom to William who is the first Norman king and the ancestor of all the other kings of England.