Richard II – the play and the history

Richard II is one of English monarchs, mostly known as the young king, who dealt with the Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, in 1381. He was born in Bordeaux in 1367 and inherited ‘the throne from his grandfather in 1377, at the age of 10’ (Bremner, 2011). He is also known as ‘the first king that we know for sure what he looked like, in part because of his own conscious attempts to raise the personal place of the monarch, through the active use of imagery and artistic representation’ (ibid). Meanwhile, he was also one of the English monarchs, who inspired William Shakespeare to write a history play based on his own deeds, called The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. However, Shakespeare’s play doesn’t mention neither the Peasants’ Revolt nor any other important elements relating to his reign i. e., the impact of the Black Death prior to his reign nor the Lollard Movement led by John Wyclif. Instead, the play only focuses on the final years of his rule, effectively, from January 1398 to February 1400. This blog entry, first of all, would like to examine the opening scene of the play that provides the dispute between two powerful lords; Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, with making comparisons with real history.  This will automatically lead it to examining of Duke of Gloucester’s death and his relationship with, not only the lords mentioned above, but with the king himself as well.  Subsequently, it will also have a look at the story line that follows the opening scene, again comparing with historical facts. Finally, it will focus on a couple of incidents that took place after Richard’s reign; a failed plot against the new king Henry IV in January 1400, from which Shakespeare created a family comedy in Act 5 and the death of Richard in the following month.

Shakespeare begins his play with describing a bitter quarrel between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray that takes place in front of King Richard II (Act 1:1). In which, Henry accuses Mowbray of following three accounts; (1) he ‘hath receiv’d eight thousand nobles / In name of lendings for your highness’ soldiers, / The which he hath detain’d for lewd employ-ments’ (Craig, 2005), (2) an allegation that ‘all the treasons for these eighteen years / Complotted and contrived in this land, / Fetch from false Mowbray’(ibid) and (3) he ‘did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death… And consequently, like a traitor coward, / Sluic’d out his innocent soul through streams of blood’ (ibid). Against these accusations, Mowbray disputes with providing his side of defences; as for (1), he says, ‘Three parts of that receipt I had for Calais / Disburs’d I duly to his highness’ soldiers; / The other part reserv’d I by consent, / For that my sovereign liege was in my debt / Upon remainder of a dear account, / Since last I went to France to fetch his queen’ (ibid), as for (2), he at least admits that he did ‘lay an ambush’ (ibid) against Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, who is also present in the scene, however, he explains, ‘But ere I last receiv’d the sacrament / I did confess it, and exactly begg’d / Your Grace’s pardon, and I hope I had it’ (ibid), and as for (3), he simply denies his involvement by saying, ‘I slew him not; but to mine own disgrace / Neglected my sworn duty in that case’ (ibid). Now, it would be worthwhile to examine what actually happened in real history and what sort of background was behind the dispute between these nobles, who belonged to the same generation; Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt – born on 3rd of April 1367, Thomas Mowbray, son of John de Mowbray – born in c. 1366, and Richard II, as already mentioned earlier, who was born in 1367.

In real history, things known about the quarrel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray are relatively limited and could be summarised in the following way: ‘during the second session of the parliament of September 1397, held in January 1398, Henry Bolingbroke raised with Richard the accusation that Mowbray had stated privately to him that Richard would seek vengeance on both of them in the way that he had taken vengeance on Arundel, Gloucester, and Warwick. The matter was made a formal charge of treason against Mowbray in a parliamentary committee that met after the end of the session (31 January 1398). The matter could not be resolved through evidence which meant that Bolingbroke and Mowbray would settle the matter by means of a duel on 16 September 1398′ (Marx, 2003). As Shakespeare depicted in Act 1 scene 3, on that day, ‘Richard intervened to stop the duel and exiled both parties’ (ibid). As quoted above, it seems that the nature of actual quarrel had been more complicated and more serious than what was later staged in the Elizabethan theatre. Along with Gloucester, whose name was also mentioned in Act 1 scene 1, the allegation includes names of other lords as well; namely Arundel and Warwick, to whom, it is regarded that King Richard had taken vengeance. Now, it would be worthwhile to examine what had happened before things got to this stage, especially concerning the death of Gloucester.

Duke of Gloucester was born Thomas of Woodstock on 7 January, 1355. He was the ‘seventh and youngest son of the English king Edward III’ ( Despite he was ‘made Earl of Buckingham by his nephew, Richard II, at the coronation in July 1377’ (ibid) and was created Duke of Gloucester, as ‘a mark of favour’ (ibid) from the king in 1385, to cut the long story short, by 1397 Gloucester was at odds with his nephew, Richard II, to the extent where, ‘it has been asserted that the duke was plotting to seize the king. At all events, Richard decided to arrest him’ (ibid). On 11 July 1397, Gloucester ‘was arrested by the king himself at his residence, Pleshey castle in Essex’ (ibid) and ‘was taken at once to Calais’ (ibid), where he died on 9 September, 1397, at the age of 42. Now, unlike Shakespeare’s historical play, it became clear that in real history, Richard had more role to play regarding the arrest and the death of Gloucester. Before delving into more details, it would make sense to examine what about the other key figures’ involvements.

Despite Henry Hereford once ‘supported his uncle Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, in his armed opposition to Richard II and his favourites’ ( in 1387, he later changed his sides ‘probably through his father’s influence’ (ibid) and the situation in ten years later was that Henry, along with his father, John of Gaunt, was still on the side with ‘the king against Gloucester, and in 1397 was made Duke of Hereford’ (ibid). In the meantime, Thomas Mowbray’s involvement was allegedly more directly. He had been appointed to captain of Calais by Richard II, a few years before 1397 and not only ‘He was present when Gloucester was arrested at Pleshey’ (, Gloucester ‘was entrusted to his keeping at Calais, and in September 1397 he reported that his prisoner was dead’ (ibid). As long as Gloucester didn’t die from natural causes, it would be plausible to speculate that Mowbray ‘was probably responsible, although the evidence against him is not conclusive’ (ibid). Nevertheless, others argue that ‘it is probable that he was murdered by order of the king on the 9th of September’ (, with more details to follow:

‘At the beginning of September it was reported that he was dead. The rumour, probably a deliberate one, was false, and about the same time a justice, Sir William Rickhill (d. 1407), was sent to Calais with instructions dated the 17th of August to obtain a confession from Gloucester. On the 8th of September the duke confessed that he had been guilty of treason, and his death immediately followed this avowal. Unwilling to meet his parliament so soon after his uncle’s death, Richard’s purpose was doubtless to antedate this occurrence, and to foster the impression that the duke had died from natural causes in August. When parliament met in September he was declared guilty of treason and his estates forfeited’ (ibid).

To assess the situation and background of Gloucester’s death, it is quite important to trace back some related historical events for about a decade, especially focusing on the relationship between the king and the parliament.

In 1384, facing to critical conflicts against France and Scotland, Richard summoned feudal levy ‘for the last time in the Middle Ages’ (Bremner, 2011). This, and the result of the battle against Scotland, caused Richard to face with a parliamentary backlash, in which, the Parliament ‘won the sacking of Chancellor de la Pole’ (ibid) and his impeachment. In the following years, in 1386-7, the Parliament ‘ended up examining royal finances and putting the Duke of Gloucester in charge. Expenditure was cut and grants to favourites reduced. The king’s authority had been fatally undermined as the narrow power base of his administration had nothing to fall back on’ (ibid). Nonetheless, Richard ‘sought advice from leading judges’ (ibid), who gave judgements favourable for the royal prerogative, saying ‘no minister could be impeached without the crown’s agreement and that it was treasonous to limit the royal power’ (ibid). This encouraged Richard, who now ‘charged his opponents with treason’ (ibid). The king’s opponents are known as the Appellant Lords, who ‘represented the traditional noble houses that Richard had always scorned’ (ibid), and Duke of Gloucester was one of the most prominent figures among them. The situation changed dramatically when Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford ‘raised the men of Cheshire in defence of the king’ (ibid) in later 1387. The Appellant Lords defeated de Vere in the battle and ‘then marched on London, met the king in the Tower, possibly removed him from the throne for a few days and then tried his leading councillors. The ultimate humiliation came with the execution of four of Richard’s favourite knights’ (ibid). However, the Appellants failed to rule sufficiently and as a result, ‘the Commons became disillusioned and the king’s popularity increased’ (ibid). When a couple of Appellants Lords defected to the king, it meant that ‘in 1389 the king, now aged 22, could declare his own majority and will to rule of his own. The remaining appellants were removed from office as Gaunt returned to bolster the crown’ (ibid). Nevertheless, Richard’s various reforms ‘failed to address all the financial problems and the king still spent more than he earnt, due largely to his extravagant personal expenditure. In 1397 he gained a taxation grant without there being the requirements for war, for the first time; a dangerous precedent for the king to rely upon’ (ibid). Meanwhile, Richard’s wife Anne of Bohemia, with whom, he had ‘actually fell in love’ (ibid) and married in 1382, died in 1394. On one hand, her death contributed Richard to go for another foreign involvement in Ireland, on the other hand, it also helped Richard to secure ‘A 28 year truce with France in 1396, sealed with Richard’s betrothal to a French princess’ (ibid) Isabella, daughter of King Charles VI. Unlike Shakespeare’s adult character, when the marriage took place in 1396, Princess Isabella was ‘not quite seven years old’ (University of London, 2007). Regarding this marriage, it would be worth to mention that Duke of Gloucester rather ‘disliked the peace with France and Richard’s second marriage with Isabella’ (

Furthermore, it is argued that the loss of his beloved queen, who ‘may have provided a restraining influence’ (Bremner, 2011) could explain Richard’s reign in the following years, which ‘are traditionally described as a period of tyranny with the government levying forced loans, carrying out arbitrary arrests and murdering the king’s rivals’ (ibid). As for the latter, the king always had ‘resentment against the Appellants’ (ibid) and when he arrested three senior Appellants, in 1397, Gloucester was one of them along with Earl of Arundel and Earl of Warwick. Despite evidence of a plot against the king was ‘unclear’ (ibid), Warwick ‘was sent to prison’ (ibid) while ‘Arundel was executed’ (ibid). As for Gloucester, as already argued above, it is said that he ‘was probably murdered by Nottingham’s men in Calais’ (ibid). As a result of these brutal revenges, Richard ‘now handed out a slew of titles and land making, amongst others, Nottingham [Mowbray] the Duke of Norfolk and Derby [Bolingbroke] the Duke of Hereford’ (ibid). In addition, the former also ‘received most of Arundel’s lands in Surrey and Sussex’ (

As it has been mentioned earlier, Shakespeare set the opening scene of his Richard II at this historical point, with depicting the three main characters, regarding the death of Gloucester, in the following way: Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of plotting his death; Mowbray denies his involvement but acknowledges his neglect; whilst there is no implication of possible involvement of the king himself. In addition, accusation on Mowbray is further emphasised in the very next scene, where the widowed Duchess of Gloucester blames her husband’s death as ‘Mowbray’s sin’ (Craig, 2005). Nonetheless, the plot of the play after the opening scene is basically in tune with what actually happened in the final few years of the fourteenth century;

(1) dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray was decided to be settled by a single combat, which was to be held in Coventry, however, ‘when on the 10th of September 1398 everything was ready for the fight Richard interposed and ordered both combatants into banishment’ ( Then, ‘within fifteen days Henry, Duke of Hereford, was ordered to leave the realm, not to return for ten years, unless ordered by the King, on pain of death. He was, however, given a yearly income of £2,000. This was small comfort, for the secretary had one more announcement for him: his estates were to be confiscated. As for Mowbray… he was to leave the realm and never return, upon pain of death. He was given a yearly income of £1,000, and his property was confiscated. Both were then summoned to stand before the King and swear an oath that they would not continue the argument. This they did’ (McGrory, 2013). In addition, whilst Henry’s exile was ‘reduced by his father’s pleading by four years’ (ibid) before his departure, Mowbray ‘is said to have died of melancholy in Venice – though some sources say it was of “pestilence”, or plague’ (ibid) in September, 1399;

(2) John of Gaunt died in February 1399. Before his death and his son’s exile, it is argued that ‘fearing for their position, Gaunt and his son made the king promise to uphold their inheritance if either died’ (Bremner, 2011). Nevertheless, Richard ‘confiscated his vast estate, Henry’s birthright, and announced his exile was for life’ (McGrory, 2013);

(3) ‘Early in July, whilst Richard was absent in Ireland, he (Bolingbroke) landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire… and Richard, abandoned by his friends, surrendered at Flint on the 19th of August’ ( As for Henry’s intention when he launched the invasion, whilst Shakespeare emphasises on his noble cause – to bring back his duly inheritance – through his character’s words in Act 2:3, saying ‘It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster… personally I lay my claim / To my inheritance of free descent’ (Craig, 2005) and even though it is argued  that ‘It is true that Henry gave out that he was only returning to recover his own confiscated property’ (Miller, 2003), in reality, it would be more plausible to presume that ‘Henry must have learnt from previous experience that such a rebellion could never be undertaken for limited purposes only’ (ibid), and probably with the the king’s unpopularity in his consideration, Henry actually ‘did nothing to quench the ardour of his followers for the removal of a hated government, and allowed himself to be carried along on the popular tide which required the removal of King Richard II’ (ibid).

(4) ‘In the parliament, which assembled on the 30th of September, Richard was forced to abdicate. Henry then made his claim as coming by right line of blood from King Henry III… Parliament formally accepted him, and thus Henry became king’ ( This was followed by (5) a failed plot against the new king Henry IV in January 1400, which ‘reminded Henry of Lancaster how great a liability the live Richard II would be’ (Bremner, 2011) and, consequently;

(6) the death of abdicated Richard in the following month.

As for the failed plot took place in January 1400, Shakespeare mentions this incident through a family comedy in Act 5, which is attributed to Duke of York, his wife and their son Edward, who is described, in Scene 2, as Duke of ‘Aumerle that was; / But that is lost… And, madam, you must call him Rutland now’ (Craig, 2005). This reflects the historical facts that Edward ‘was created Earl of Rutland’ ( in 1390 and was ‘created Duke of Aumerle in 1397’ (ibid) by Richard II’s favour. However, ‘He was stripped of his title of Duke of Aumerle and several other offices’ (ibid) by the new king Henry IV and ‘was not punished for his possible involvement in Gloucester’s death’ (ibid). Interestingly, in relation to Shakespeare’s dramatisation, some argue that ‘When a group of lords planned to murder King Henry in early 1400 it is said that it was Edward who warned the king of the conspiracy (although some chroniclers claim he was involved to an extent)’ (ibid). Despite it is unclear whether he was involved in the plot and to what extent, after this incident, history tells us that ‘Edward continued to be a faithful servant to the crown during the reign of Henry IV and… he succeeded to the title of Duke of York upon the death of his father in 1402’ (ibid).

Finally, as for the death of abdicated king Richard, whilst Shakespeare made up a character called Exton to be accused of murdering the once anointed monarch by his successor, Henry IV, in real history it is said that ‘By the end of February 1400, Richard of Bordeaux had starved to death…  Initially buried in Kings Langley, Henry V later placed Richard’s body in the tomb that he had designed for himself in the Confessor’s chapel of Westminster Abbey’ (Bremner, 2011).

Thus, this blog entry mainly focused on examining the background history of the opening scene of Richard II, the play by Shakespeare, which presents a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. In doing so, it examined the real dispute took place between the lords in question and found the source event in a parliamentary committee met on 31 January. 1398, which dealt with a formal charge of treason against Thomas Mowbray. This automatically led it to examine the death of Duke of Gloucester and it found out that while Shakespeare’s play tends to depict the murder as solely ‘Mowbray’s sin’, in history it was Richard II himself, who arrested Gloucester and ordered him to be sent to Calais, where he died on 9 September, 1397. It also argued that the arrest and death of Gloucester took place as a part of Richard’s personal revenge against the so-called Appellant Lords, which also brought downfalls of Earl of Arundel and Earl of Warwick and, on the contrary, those who gained from these series of events were Bolingbroke and Mowbray. Subsequently, it shifted its focus to the storyline that follows the opening scene and confirmed that the entire flow of the play basically agrees with actual historical events. Finally, it looked at a couple of incidents that took place after the abdication of Richard. As for the failed plot against Henry IV in January 1400, it looked at the role of Rutland in the real history and concluded that it is unclear whether or not he was involved and to what extent. As for the death of Richard, it pointed out that he was not murdered by a fictional character called Exton, who appears in the final scene of the play, but was most likely starved to death in February 1400.


Bremner, Ian (2011), The Reign of Richard II, 1377 to 1399, BBC – History – British History (electronically accessed 26/01/2015)

Craig, W. J. (ed) (2005) The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, (electronically accessed 11/02/2015) (2005), Anne of Bohemia (11 May 1366 – 7 June 1394), English Monarchs – Plantagenet (electronically accessed 12/03/2015)

Friedman, Ofir (2015), Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, (last updated 30/01/2015, electronically accessed 16/02/2015)

Jokinen, Anniina (ed.) (2013), Thomas Mowbray, Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project – The Hundred Years War, excerpted from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed, Vol. XXXIII, Cambridge University Press (1910), last updated 01/08/2013, electronically accessed 04/02/2015

Jokinen, Anniina (ed.) (2013), Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (1355 – 1397), Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project – The Hundred Years War, excerpted from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed, Vol. XII, Cambridge University Press (1910), last updated 30/07/2013, electronically accessed 06/02/2015

Kingsford, Charles L. (2013), Henry IV (1367 – 1413), Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project (electronically accessed 02/2/2015, last updated 30/07/2013)

Marx, William (2003), An English Chronicle 1377 1461, A New Edition, Aberystwyth National Library of Wales MS 21608, and Oxford, Bodleian Library MSs Lyell 34, Medieval Chronicles, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Google Books (electronically accessed 18/02/2015)

McGrory, David (2013), Bloody British History: Coventry, Google Books (electronically accessed 27/03/2015)

Miller, Michael D. (2003), Wars of the Roses, An Analysis of the causes of the wars and the course which they took – Chapter 7: Henry of Bolingbroke rebels (electronically accessed 18/05/2015) (2009), Duke of Aumerle Aumerle in History (electronically accessed 09/02/2015)

University of London (2007), Isabelle of France, Richard II’s Treasure – Treasure – Sources (electronically accessed 12/03/2015)

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