August 03, 2008

What happened in 1399?

In 1399 Henry Boilingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, landed in England to reclaim his lands, confiscated by the crown on the death of his father John of Gaunt, the previous Duke, and to re-establish the rights of the peerage against the crown. Henry landed with very few followers- but amongst them was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arundel the former Chancellor of England- and he had notable supporters in the nobility of the north of England. Both the Neville Earl of Westmorland and the Percies rallied to his standard. The regent of England, the King's uncle Edmund Langley Duke of York surrendered, the King himself, Richard II was in Ireland and brought his army back to Wales. Attempting to march them north to his own palitinate of Cheshire, Richard lost most of his forces to desertion and in the end was easily captured. Henry was crowned King of England- and Richard was sent to Pontefract Castle, the bloody retirement home of English royalty, where his grandfather Edward II had been murdered and Richard too died a year later in mysterious circumstances. Henry IV was King of England and the Lancastrian dynasty had begun. The story seems simple enough- and yet it reflects wider historical realities both within its own time and about the English crown's position in English history.

Why did Richard II fall? English history is punctuated by the fall of Kings- 1215, 1258, 1327, 1399, 1461, 1485, 1649, 1688 and 1776 are dates that punctuate English history (and yes in 1776 the American revolution was a phenomenon created within the English crown). We will pass on to why the English crown was so unstable. But the reasons for 1399 lie in the situation of the 14th Century: just because a crown has historically been unstable or a regime has does not explain why it is now unstable. Indeed England proves this: after 1688 with the exceptions of the Jacobite rebellion and hte American civil war, the English state has been remarkably stable. To the extent that patriotic English men have boasted of its stability- something that seems in the early modern and medieval era quite laughable. 1399 arose therefore out of the peculiar circumstances of Richard II's reign. I have outlined below Richard's view of the English monarchy- it is worth turning for a moment to the view of those that opposed Richard, to Henry of Lancaster, the Percies and Nevilles.

Henry knew when he came to England in 1399 about two characters- both called Thomas. One was his predecessor as Duke of Lancaster- the other was his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Henry's aim when he returned to England was to restore the nobility to its rights. Lancaster and Gloucester too had aimed for this purpose. The rights of the English nobility were the rights to counsel Kings, the rights to participate in law making, the rights to their land before the law and the right to non-arbitrary government. The content of that prescription was vague- but the idea of it existed and was important. Henry's rebellion fits into a pattern of medieval rebellion that spread through continental Europe and the British Isles- rebellion became a way of protecting local jurisdiction and protesting. This ran from what E.P. Thompson called the moral economy- ie riots say to reduce the price of bread in Preston in 1791 all the way to the Pilgrimage of Grace to protest against the Change of religion in the 1530s. Richard had faced down two such protests before- the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the baronial revolt of 1386-7.

If we are to understand why Lancaster was forced to depose Richard, we need to understand what happened to that second revolt. In the late 1380s, Richard was criticised for promoting favourites, governing poorly, neglecting the nobility and neglecting legal rights. He was forced to execute his leading advisors, appoint nobles to his council and bring in policies they agreed to. One of the leaders in this movement was the King's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. And the King's uncles, Gloucester, John of Gaunt and York became the governing council assisted by Arundel. By the late 1390s, the King decided to take revenge, despite giving at the time commitments that he never would, upon Gloucester and those that had followed him. Gloucester was murdered in private in Calais, as were his associates where they resided. Richard asserted his own power and destroyed that of those who resisted- part of that was his decision to exile Boilingbroke in 1398 and deprive him of his inheritance when Gaunt died in 1399. The point was that Richard had made it impossible for anyone to trust his word, and that he governed arbitrarily thus making rebellion neccessary. As soon as rebellion became neccessary, Richard needed curbing because the participants would otherwise suffer. In 1399 the lord who rebelled came swiftly to the conclusion that the only curb that could promise security was abdication and hence Richard fell and Henry took the crown. The Lancastrian constitutional revolution boiled down to the notion that the King had left the Kingdom and thus that Parliament awarded that crown and kingdom to the next in line- in a sense it was a similar situation to that which arose in 1688.

But that still throws up the question, why did this happen and keep happening? Richard's untrustworthiness arose out of his personality- like Charles I, Richard beleived that an oath that restricted his monarchical power was not an oath that could bind him. But why ultimately did that matter so much? The reason it mattered was that the English crown held vast powers. Richard was one of the wealthiest Kings ever to rule- in absolute terms adjusted for inflation, the wealthiest monarch in England by a long way. Furthermore he had control over an incredibly extensive and powerful machinery of law and justice- he could use that machinery to create real problems for those that he disliked. With Parliament at his back, the King had an emmense ability to control and adjudicate over the realm. Parliament was used by the Lords- the merciless Parliament condemned many of Richard's favourites to death in the late 80s- but it could also be used by Richard as a court to back his royal authority. Gloucester and the rest were attainted by Parliament under its speaker Sir John Bushy, the King in Parliament as John Selden later said was incredibly powerful and could authorise anything.

Richard's power meant that no lord could survive his anger for long. Henry knew that. He knew that his uncle had been destroyed by Richard's anger, slowly simmering over the years. The lesson was not lost on later rebellious commanders either- Oliver Cromwell knew it and very like Boilingbroke came to the conclusion that the King must die in order that he could survive his own revolution. In 1688 the appeal to William was born out of fear of James- to put chains around a king and stop him doing what he wished was impossible. Hence there could be no division between person and policy- though Sir Thomas More intended in 1526 to create one through the immunity for those debating in Parliament- a queen like Elizabeth and master tactician (the reason why Elizabeth survived was that she knew how and when to give in) used her power to constrain MPs who spoke against her. Kings of England survived when they turned this massive state outwards- like Henry V in France- an example that Henry VIII was keen to emulate. The central fact about the English crown was that its power made its bearer a vulnerable agent- restricting supremacy was not easy- and so the way to rebellion led straight to regicide.

Richard's doom was his inability to roll as Elizabeth did with the punches administered by the gentry and nobility. Ultimately the fact that he used his power to destroy those who had opposed him, nursed his grudges and seemed untrustworthy meant that opposition was not a realistic option. As soon as you doubted, you were in danger, if you went as far as to rebel, your head was forfeit- even if you won, should the crown recover, you would die. And so you have the situation where there is no answer save to seize the crown for yourself. This is one reason that England has had few local rebellions- as Patrick Wormald commented the last rebellion to seek to split England was in 1065 by Earl Tostig of Northumbria- the point is that the power of the English crown and the universal application of law, mean that there were no local privileges or powerbases to hide behind. Continental observors marvelled at the rebelliousness of the English, Richard II knew it well too- but the real lesson of 1399 was that that rebelliousness was a consequence of the power of the crown. Opposition was so dangerous that the only way to save one's head could be to commit regicide.

When Henry of Lancaster landed in 1399, we have no knowledge of whether he immediatly desired the crown, but it must have become evident quite quickly that in order to survive he had to get it.


Anonymous said...

"English history is punctuated by the fall of Kings- 1215, 1258, 1327, 1399, 1461, 1485, 1649, 1688 and 1776 are dates that punctuate English history"

You should probably add 1469, 1470, 1471 and 1483 to your list.

Gracchi said...