The Usurpation of Henry IV: His Quest for Legitimacy on the English Throne

The Usurpation of Henry IV: His Quest for Legitimacy on the English Throne

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By Eva Kratochvil

The deposition of the English King Richard II in 1399 has for centuries been a contentious issue in the study of high politics and kingship in medieval England because it was a clear upset in the social fabric and called into question the ideas of legitimacy and divinity. On 30 September 1399, Richard II’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, would usurp the throne, taking the name Henry IV, and months after the coronation, Richard would die a prisoner in Pontefract Castle amidst speculation that he was murdered.[1] Due to the sacred nature of kingship at this time, Henry needed to use any and all means available to him to justify and legitimize his ascension, so that he appeared to be not a usurper, but a legitimate heir to now a vacant throne.

Our narrative begins when Richard and Henry’s grandfather ascended the throne as Edward III in 1327. Although his rule was characterized by constant warfare as England was plunged into on and off hostilities with France during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), Edward was also known to have sired many legitimate offspring (five sons)[2] with his wife Queen Philippa, to whom he was rumoured to be unusually devoted. Edward’s eldest son and heir, Edward ‘the Black Prince’, died just one year before him in 1376, survived by his widow and their nine year old son Richard. The title of Edward III’s rightful heir subsequently fell to young Richard who ascended the throne in 1377, one year later. The young king took on the name Richard II at his coronation and John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, the eldest of Richard’s three surviving uncles and father to Henry Bolingbroke, became regent for the boy king until he was deemed mature enough to rule on his own.

Ascension to the throne unfortunately meant that Richard inherited a “defeated” and “deeply divided realm” which was laden with social and religious tensions throughout the 1380s and 1390s. These tensions came to a head with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and, finally, the emergence of Lollard heresy a few years later, which fostered anti-church sentiments among members of the populace. There was also great discontent with Richard’s rule as he grew old enough to take control over the affairs of the realm with less and less intervention from Gaunt. The king was “willful, hot-tempered, imbued with a whimsically lofty notion of kingly office,” and he had a habit of only promoting those magnates that he favoured to the council chamber and seeking their advice.[3]

As a result, the magnates who were less favoured were left feeling disgruntled as they believed they were more deserving of these honours than the men Richard chose to promote at court. A brief civil war broke out in 1387 at Radcot Bridge which pitted the royalist faction against the disaffected magnates (including Henry Bolingbroke), and many of the king’s favourites were either executed for treason or exiled from the realm in 1388. The battle also resulted in most of Richard’s powers being revoked and the kingdom being placed under the regency of the Lords Appellant, the very magnates who’d risen up against the royalists at Radcot Bridge.[4] Richard eventually resumed power within a year and at first he proceeded cautiously, but over the years he would systematically begin to exact revenge over those who had humiliated him.

Aside from the problems that plagued the realm and the various points of discontent over the course of his rule, there was much anxiety surrounding the question of whom would succeed Richard. According to the entail of Edward III the succession was to be settled upon the king’s closest male relatives and this meant that John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke would be second and third in line for the crown, respectively, should Richard fail to produce an heir.[5] By the mid 1390s, the situation became more dire in the eyes of Richard because he still had no son to succeed him and the thought of Henry, for whom he bred deep-seeded hatred even though he had pardoned him for his involvement at Radcot Bridge, as his rightful heir was unsettling.[6]

The king subsequently did all he could to marginalize his cousin by passing him off for important positions that were traditionally reserved for his relatives and friends. According to Ian Mortimer’s research on the life of Henry Bolingbroke, he was “denied any of the usual marks of royal dignity”; one example being when Richard purposely did not choose Henry as one of the ambassadors that he sent to deal with Scotland in 1394.[7] Four years later, in 1398, the king would strike the first of his final blows against Bolingbroke when he declared that his cousin was to be exiled along with Thomas Mowbray, the duke of Norfolk for their parts at Radcot Bridge. On 16 September 1398 it was declared that the punishment for Henry was exile “for the term of ten years, and, if he return to the country before the ten years are passed, he shall be hung and beheaded.”[8] A few months after Henry sought refuge at the French king’s court in Paris, he received devastating news that his father was dead after falling ill. On 18 March 1399, just three days after the funeral, Richard declared that Henry’s pardons for Radcot Bridge were to be revoked and he was to be disinherited of the Lancastrian lands and assets, branded a traitor and banished for life, never allowed to set foot on English soil again.[9] The disinheritance, permanent exile and the charge of treason placed on him by Richard was the catalyst for which Henry invaded England in mid-August of 1399, while Richard was away in Ireland quelling rebellion.

When Richard landed back on English soil at Conway in mid-August, he was surprised to find the pro-Lancastrian earl of Northumberland and the archbishop of Canterbury waiting for him. The king was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London and then formally deposed by Parliament for various crimes against the realm. The English throne was now vacant and Henry seized it, claiming right by descent of his ancestor Henry III.[10] Whether he was justified in his actions against Richard or not, the deposition of an anointed king who exercised God’s will on earth was not to be taken lightly and from that moment onward, Henry and his advocates worked assiduously to legitimize his claim to the English throne. They wanted to paint Henry not as a usurper, but as a man who rose up to lead a kingless realm and right the wrongs of the previous monarch. The word “vacant” in relation to the throne of England appears often in the official Lancastrian account of the deposition, which were cleverly crafted to make it appear as though Henry Bolingbroke rose up to claim a throne left vacant after the king was formally deposed for his crimes against the realm. This version of the narrative – the Lancastrian version – would officially absolve Henry of any wrong-doing towards Richard and cast aside questions of usurpation. After all, one cannot usurp an empty throne. Through the Record and Process of the Renunciation and Deposition of Richard II, the formal Lancastrian account of Richard’s deposition, as well as the rolls of Parliament and the chronicles of contemporary historians, this paper will examine how Henry IV and his supporters constructed the narrative of the empty English throne and made use of prophecies, rumours and gossip to legitimize his rule.

Before delving into an analysis of the primary sources used in this paper it is necessary to outline their nature will as well as their respective authors and the limitations presented to historians when making use of these sources as they are either pro-Lancastrian or pro-Ricardian in nature and not without their biases. Both the Record and Process of the Renunciation and Deposition of Richard II as well as the rolls of parliament detailing Henry IV’s first parliamentary session as king are contemporary sources from 1399 and represent official Lancastrian accounts of the deposition of Richard II and Henry’s ascent to the throne. David R. Carlson whose book features a close examination of the Record and Process reveals that although the title suggests that the Record and Process is a narrative or a chronicle, the document itself should be counted as a record of “parliamentary process-enactment”.[11]The bulk of the document was recorded in latin and french, and so for the purposes of this paper, Emilie Amt’s English translation was used.

The Record and Process was created as a piece of pro-Lancastrian propaganda and as such is biased in favour of Henry and unsympathetic towards Richard. Henry called his first Parliament on 6October 1399, after Richard II was deposed on 30 September, which outlined the events at Conway all the way to Richard’s deposition and included a copy of the official transcript of the Record and Process.[12] Seeing as the rolls of Henry’s first Parliament were originally recorded in French, an English translation of the document was used. It is necessary to note that because these two accounts were pro-Lancastrian, the narratives put forth by these documents should not necessarily be taken at face value as they would contain obvious biases. This paper will, however, make use of the biases contained in the documents to argue that the narrative of the empty throne was crafted by Henry and his supporters and put forth as the official account of what happened in 1399.

An English translation from the original Latin of the Chronicon Adᴂ de Usk, by E.M. Thompson will be used as additional support in the argument that Henry needed to use any and all means available to him in trying to construct a perception of legitimacy. Adam of Usk was a medieval canonist, clergyman and historian of Welsh origin. While he begins with a rather neutral depiction of Richard II in his early years as king, Usk’s ties with archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, a supporter of Henry Bolingbroke, and his participation as a member of a committee charged by Henry with the task of investigating claims of Richard’s tyranny would reshape his views of the king.[13] These ties and experiences would account for a new hostility towards Richard at the end of his reign. During Henry’s reign, Usk was also the recipient of many benefices and was regularly employed as a counsellor to the king.[14] Usk’s chronicle is yet another piece of pro-Lancastrian propaganda and while its intent was to narrate the reign of Richard II and subsequently Henry IV, it also contains obvious biases against Richard. In accordance with the story of the empty throne, Usk sought to promote Henry as a legitimate ruler and use the elements of prophecy and rumour to further that legitimation.

Frenchman Jean Froissart’s Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre presents a contemporary pro-Ricardian narrative of the events of 1399 and Henry IV’s rule. A translation of the original French text into English by Benjamin Williams was used for the purposes of this paper. While he presents vivid descriptions of the events that occurred during Richard’s imprisonment in the Tower of London, Froissart was known for his realistic-sounding prose as well as sacrificing accuracy in order to turn a good phrase,[15] therefore his writings and interpretation of the events surrounding Richard’s deposition must also be taken with a grain of salt.

The final contemporary account that will be used in this paper, though to a lesser degree than the others, is Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, translated into English by David Preest. Walsingham was a monk of St. Albans, a school renown at the time for its contributions to the writing of history. In his chronicle, Walsingham initially begins with unfavourable sentiments towards John of Gaunt but by the 1380s, his opinion of Gaunt and the Lancastrians begins to change and subsequently he becomes ever more disillusioned by Richard’s incapacity to rule the realm. Although not without its biases, Walsingham’s work presents a valuable record of state affairs and events in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.[16]

On September 29, 1399, the duke of Lancaster and some of his supporters visited Richard in the Tower of London.[17] According to the Record and Process, after the King had spoken in private with Henry and the archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Arundel), he declared “with a cheerful countenance” that he would willingly renounce the crown according to the promise he made at Conway castle[18]. According to the deposition, Richard is said to have told the earl of Northumberland and the archbishop of Canterbury[19] that because of his “inability and insufficiency” he was willing to cede the crown of England and France.[20] Holding true to this promise, Richard is said to have read out his own deposition and “absolved his lieges and made renunciation and cession, and swore this…and he signed it with his own hand.”, he is also reported to have, quite conveniently for the Lancastrian party, named Henry as his preferred successor.[21] The same language was employed in the rolls of Parliament to describe how Richard first agreed to cede the crown “when he was at liberty at [Conway] in North Wales”[22] and when he was prisoner in the tower, proceeded to absolve his subjects from their fealty and loyalty to him and then admitted to his inadequacies as king of the realm. This emphasis in the rolls of Parliaent on the idea that Richard first agreed to an abdication when he was not imprisoned was certainly meant to stress the volitional nature of his sudden relinquishing of the crown. Interestingly and in stark contrast to this, Froissart’s account of what transpired at Conway and en-route to London shows the king to be adamant and rather convinced that he had “never transgressed in anything against the kingdom of England” and lamented that he had been “falsely betrayed”.[23]

Despite this, it was in the best interests of the Lancastrian party to tweak the narrative in their favour and emphasize that Richard II had renounced the crown of his own free-will. They did so quite effectively through both the Record and Processand the rolls of Parliament, which were to be taken as the official word on the matter. However, the nature of kingship in fourteenth and fifteenth century England as sacred and ordained by God himself meant that Richard most probably never ceased to believe that he was the true king and would have fought for his title, shattering the Lancastrian illusion of a voluntary abdication.

To truly understand the difficult task set before Henry in having Richard deposed and then subsequently legitimating his claims to the throne, it is necessary to understand the concept of sacral kingship in the middle ages and the idea that a king was chosen and supported by God. At the time of Richard II, kings stood next to God and exercised his power on earth. As such, the powers of the king could not be surrendered. Henry would have to tear apart the social fabric and upset the rudimentary ideas of “loyalty, service and divine right” in removing Richard as king.[24] H.G Wright’s discussion in The Protestation of Richard II details how the medieval conception of kingship was closely related to the Old Testament in that it made prominent use of the anointing ceremony. During such a ceremony, the successor to the throne was smeared with holy oils and consecrated as king, becoming a combination of both the temporal and spiritual as well as having “spiritual command at his disposal”.[25] The idea was that a king received his crown because he was chosen by God and anointed with holy oils. The ceremony and the coronation were simply awe-inspiring events for the confirmation of kingship rather than the bestowing of kingship.[26] Wright cites the example of the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170 to demonstrate the importance of the anointment ceremony much before Richard’s time. As he was struck down, the swords of his murderers desecrated the archbishop’s crown, which had once been anointed with holy oils, and this was seen as truly egregious. These were the same oils that had bestowed the title of king upon Richard II, a title that was sacred and “indissoluble”.[27] This is why it is far more likely that, in contrast to what was put forth by the official Lancastrian accounts of Richard’s deposition, the king would have attempted to thwart Henry’s plans of extracting a resignation and fought for his crown which he acquired by divine right.

According to G.O. Sayles’ The Deposition of Richard II: Thee Lancastrian Narratives, in the last two days before his deposition, Richard was said to have been defiant, adding that he would not resign and “he would like it explained to him how it was that he could resign the crown, and to whom.”[28]By this statement he was most likely referring to the idea that the kingship and its power, as we have seen, could not simply be surrendered. Richard then asked to speak directly with Henry who visited “the same day, after dinner”.[29] Nigel Saul stated that when Henry asked Richard if he was ready to resign, the king replied that he would but only on certain conditions – he might have wished to negotiate a settlement akin to that of 1388 after Radcot Bridge (in which his powers were revoked and the kingdom placed under a regency), because even though this meant Henry would exercise the power, Richard would still have his crown. Henry would not accept these terms and stressed that his cousin must resign “simply and without conditions”.[30] Wright believes that Henry did use coercion on Richard during his imprisonment in the tower and before the resignation, the king protested that “the sacred marks of kingship would not be surrendered, a clear challenge to the validity of the ceremony of ‘resignation’ then about to take place.”[31]

Froissart’s Traïson et Mort features an equally defiant Richard in his account of the events that unfolded in the Tower on 29 September 1399. According to Froissart, Henry went to the Tower with his uncle, the Duke of York, and the earl of Rutland to visit the king. He asked the earl of Arundel to summon Richard to them, but the king was reportedly resentful of this and made it quite clear to Arundel that if Henry wished to speak with him, he must come to see him. Once again playing the part of messenger, Arundel delivered Richard’s response to Henry and his advocates, who did as the king bade. Once he had them in his presence, Richard allegedly refused to speak to anyone but his cousin and uttered maliciously to his uncle: “Thou villain! what wouldst thou say to me? And thou traitor of Rutland! Thou art neither worthy or good enough to speak to me…by thee the kingdom of England will be destroyed, I am convinced!” Following this, the earl of Rutland threw his bonnet on the ground and Richard kicked it away exclaiming “Traitor! I am King and thy lord, and will still continue King; and will be a greater lord than I ever was, in spite of all my enemies ; and you are not fit to speak to me!”

Richard continued to accuse them all of treachery and to insist upon his rights as king, but Henry always replied that nothing could be done until the meeting of Parliament the next day and left Richard in the Tower with the promise that “nothing unreasonable” would be done to him.[32] As a sympathizer of Richard, Froissart’s account would not be without its biases, and though we can never be truly certain of what transpired between Henry and Richard in the Tower, the king eventually agreed to resign, most probably in order to placate his supplanter. The problem was that a resignation would not have settled the issue of the transfer of power because such a declaration could still be retracted.[33] And if Richard had put up a fight in the Tower as Froissart suggests, Henry had reason to fear his cousin’s denial of a promise to renounce his title as king of England and France. Henry’s peace of mind may have been why, as Richard read his resignation out loud, he was made to swear on holy gospels. According to the Rolls of Parliament, Richard II was said to have taken and signed this oath not to recant or to challenge the cession of his throne in any way for the rest of his life:

I confess, recognise, consider, and truly and of certain knowledge judge

that I was and am utterly inadequate and unequal to the rule and government

of the said realms and dominions, with all their appurtenances, and, on

account of my notorious faults, I deserve to be deposed from them. And I

swear on these holy gospels, touched physically by me, that I shall never

contravene the aforesaid renunciation, resignation, demission and cession,

nor challenge them in any way, by word or by deed, on my own behalf or

through another, or others, nor shall I permit them to be contravened or

challenged, insofar as it is in my power, publicly or secretly, but I shall

consider the same renunciation, resignation, demission and cession as

perpetually ratified and accepted, and I shall firmly keep and observe them,

in whole and in their every part; as God and these, God’s holy gospels, may

help me. I the aforesaid King Richard subscribe to this with my own hand.[34]

Even after the oath was sworn and signed, it was not enough for Henry and his supporters to have Richard agree to renounce the crown; they needed reasons to formally depose him due to the possibility that Richard could recant. Henry and his supporters knew that they would need more than Richard’s cession to cast him aside and they appointed a committee to study a list of grievances against the king and debate over grounds on which Richard could be deposed. This was not something to be taken lightly as no crowned and anointed king had been deposed in seventy years, and when they were, it was always in favour of the son and heir, not a usurper.[35]

As previously discussed, throughout Richard’s rule there was much discontent amongst some of the important magnates of the realm as he promoted and sought advice from his favourites. Richard was also known for trying to bully his parliaments and stack them full of his advocates so that he could more easily garner support for his policies, which did not sit well with the other lords of the realm.[36] It was Richard’s shortcomings as king and his reportedly tyrannical rule that would provide Henry and parliament with a wealth of reasons for which to depose him. Among the doctors, bishops and others chosen to be a part of the committee in charge of reviewing the case against Richard was chronicler Adam of Usk, the only member known to us by name. According to Usk, it was determined that, regardless of Richard’s resignation, “for better security…he should be deposed by the authority of the clergy and people; for which purpose they were summoned.” Usk wrote in his chronicle that Richard was found guilty of “perjuries, sacrileges, unnatural crimes, exactions from his subjects, reduction of his people to slavery, cowardice and weakness of rule.”[37] After “careful deliberation”, the committee declared that in light of his “evil rule”, Richard II was “useless, incapable, utterly incompetent and unworthy, for the rule and government of the said realms and dominion” and as such he was “deservedly to be deposed from every royal dignity and honour, if any of this dignity and honour should remain in him.”[38] Not only did Henry and his supporters have a renunciation from Richard in his own words, they also now had formal justification to depose the king, thus leaving the English throne empty.

Even though the throne was technically empty after the deposition of the king, Henry and those who supported him still had to prove that he was legitimate in his claims before he rose up to take the crown. In trying to ensure that Henry would not succeed him, it is believed that Richard made amendments to his grandfather’s entail, a document outlining the rules of succession, so that he could settle the line of succession to favour the heir general.[39] Edward’s entail settled the order of succession in favour of his nearest male heirs, not the heir general, thereby barring the earls of March (The descendents of Philippa, Edward III’s granddaughter from his second son Lionel, duke of Clarence, who was deceased by this point) from any claims to the throne.[40] Those who served as witnesses to Edward’s entail were aware that after the boy-king Richard, John of Gaunt was the second heir apparent and after him, his son Henry Bolingbroke. Thomas Walsingham, who followed the succession debate very closely was quite certain in the 1390s that the earl of March, Roger Mortimer, was to be named next in line for the throne[41], a claim that appears to be backed by the Eulogium Historiarum.[42]

When Mortimer died in 1398, the title of Richard’s nearest male heir fell to the earl’s son Edmund. The research of Paul Strohm reveals that John of Gaunt was disappointed when Richard designated the earl of March as the next heir should he have no sons. As a result he came up with a plan involving his ancestor Edward Crouchback, the younger brother of Edward I and a son of Henry III.[43] According to fifteenth century chronicler John Hardyng, Gaunt was so put out by the idea of his son not being the next heir that he fabricated a story in which Edmund Crouchback was actually the eldest brother and that due to his deformity, his birth right was set aside in favour of his younger brother Edward.[44]Henry Bolingbroke appeared to have revived this story before his meeting with Parliament on 30 September to see if he might use it to claim his legitimacy to the throne over that of Edmund, earl of March, who was Richard’s nearest heir as the descendent of Lionel, duke of Clarence. Adam of Usk wrote that “one day, in a council held by the said doctors, the point was raised by some, that by the right of descent from the person of Edmund [Crouchback], earl of Lancaster…Richard’s succession in the direct line was barred.”[45] However, there seemed to be no concrete evidence for the existence of the legend of Edmund Crouchback after the consultation of various chronicles.[46] It is also worth noting that had Henry decided to use the Crouchback legend he might have shot himself in the foot. To promote Crouchback as the one who should have been king over his brother, Edward I, in an effort to delegitimize Richard, would have also had the effect of delegitimizing every single one of Edward I’s descendents from 1272 onward, including Henry himself. Instead of relying on the legend, Henry decided that the best course of action was to claim the throne through his descent from Henry III, which made him the nearest heir through the male line.[47] In contrast, the eight year old earl of March, could only claim succession as the nearest heir general through the female line, via his grandmother Philippa. Nigel Saul argues that because it was common in the fourteenth century for the private estates of the nobility to be passed on through the male line, rather than the heir general, Henry might have been implying that the same rules should apply to the crown.[48]

At the convening of Richard II’s last Parliament on 30 September 1399 at Westminster abbey (from which he was noticeably absent), the Record and Process describes how the “spiritual and temporal lords” took their usual seats and the royal throne “solemnly prepared with cloth of gold” was “vacant, without any president”[49] Froissart notes that shortly after he arrived at Westminster for the proceedings, Henry sat himself down on the throne while he was not yet king[50]. After Richard’s formal deposition, Henry “seeing the throne to be vacant,” wrote pro-Lancastrian chronicler Adam of Usk, “did take upon himself the crown as by his right,” through the descent of Henry III.[51] What is interesting is that Henry of Lancaster stood up to address the men of Parliament and explicitly claimed that he did not take the crown from Richard II:

Sires, I thank God and you lords spiritual and temporal and all estates of the land; and let you know that it is not my will that any man should think that by way of conquest I would disinherit any man of his heritage, franchise, or other rights that he ought to have, nor put him out of what he has and has had by the good laws and customs of the realm; except those persons who have been against the good purpose and the common profit of the realm…[52]

With such a statement, Henry was attempting to reassure those present that day in Parliament that he was not a usurper, and that he did have legitimate claims to the throne via his ancestor Henry III.[53] This was the safest way for Henry to proceed as the Crouchback legend turned out to be a dead end, however once he was crowned, he and his supporters would make use of other, more credible prophecies and legends in an attempt to solidify these claims of legitimacy. In the words of Paul Strohm, “the vindicatory or triumphalist use of prophecy […] is naturally favored by those interests already in possession of power and seeking its consolidation and extension”[54] and this appears to be exactly what the Lancastrian party (especially Adam of Usk) attempted to achieve following Henry’s coronation. In short, the objective was to make these prophecies fit the Lancastrian Narrative. The prophecy of Merlin, recounted by Froissart in his Traïson et Mort, is one of the prophecies re-appropriated by the Lancastrians to give Henry’s rule a sense of inevitability. The prophecy stated that in the year 1399, at a “triangular castle, a king was to be betrayed after twenty-two years of rule[55] Among contemporaries, the “triangular castle” was interpreted as a reference to Conway,[56] where Richard was intercepted on his way back to England by the earl of Northumberland and his men. The prophecy’s reference to the betrayed king would also have been understood as a reference to Richard because when he was deposed, he was in the twenty second year of his reign.

Henry’s association with this prophecy would have created a notion that the deposition of Richard and his ascension to the throne was an inescapable fate of the realm, so it is not surprising that Adam of Usk made use of Merlin’s prophecy in his chronicle as well. Usk flirted with the idea that Henry is the “eaglet” in a prophecy which often accompanied that of Merlin’s. After a dissection of the Bridlington prophecy in which a duke (interpreted as Henry) would “come again” with approximately three-hundred men, Usk changed his mind and ultimately interpreted Henry as being the dog: “The duke, Henry [Bolingbroke], according to the prophecy of Merlin, was the eaglet, as being the son of John [of Gaunt]. But following Bridlington (prophecy), he was rightfully the dog, by reason of his badge of a collar of linked greyhounds, and because he came in the dog-days; and because he utterly drove out from the kingdom the faithless harts, that is, the livery of king Richard which was the hart.”[57] Thus, according to Usk’s interpretation of the prophecy, Henry was always meant to come back from his exile and drive out the tyranny of Richard and as such he was not guilty of usurping the throne. The added dimension of inevitability to Henry’s reign via these prophecies, told long before Richard and Henry were born, would have given his claims to legitimacy more solid legs to stand on after he spearheaded the deposition of an anointed king and conveniently by-passed the earl of March, Richard’s heir general. The use of the concept of destiny and the re-appropriation of these prophecies from their original contexts to the events of 1399 by Lancastrian sympathizers was, in supplement to the narrative of the empty throne, another attempt to consolidate Henry’s powers as the rightful king. The next step would be for the king’s supporters to harness the power of gossip and speculation to their advantage.

The efficacy of speculation and gossip is closely tied to that of prophecies in that, at this time, something as mundane as a dropped coin had the power to foretell, or in retrospect, confirm that certain events were going to happen or that they did happen because they were meant to.[58] Adam of Usk, ever ready to come to the rescue of Lancastrian legitimacy, employed this trick at several points in his chronicle. As a result, the effort to legitimize Henry’s rule shifted from trying to emphasize the righteousness of his claims to the discreet foreshadowing of Richard’s inevitable demise through the recounting of little incidents that would have normally gone unnoticed. The first incident recounted by Adam of Usk took place just after Henry’s coronation and involved Richard’s greyhound. This greyhound, according to Usk, belonged previously to the deceased earl of Kent, and was completely smitten with Richard when he first saw the king, having “found its way by its own instinct.”[59] After Richard’s rule became plagued with misfortune, the dog deserted him and again “led by instinct”, found its way to Henry at the monastery of Shrewsbury and crouched before him. Henry was reportedly so delighted with the creature that he let it sleep on his bed. Usk then reported that after Richard’s deposition, the greyhound was brought to the former king but it “cared not to regard him at all other than as a private man whom it knew not.”[60] The chronicler did not explicitly state that this was a sign of Richard’s demise, but it was most certainly implied. In this anecdote, the dog is portrayed as the wise creature who realized that the tide was going to turn against Richard and rather than stay aboard a sinking ship, he gave his loyalty to Henry instead.

Another anecdote used by Usk reports that “at the coronation of this lord [Richard] three ensigns of royalty foreshadowed for him three misfortunes.” The first of these signs was when Richard lost one of the coronation shoes in the procession and, according to Usk, this was a prediction of the populace rising up against him and hating him “ever after all his life long”. The second sign was that one of the golden spurs fell off so this was meant to foretell rebellion against Richard. Finally, the third sign of Richard’s demise, as reported by Usk, was that at the banquet hall a “sudden gust of wind carried away the crown from his head” and this was foreshadowing of his eventual deposition in 1399 and Henry’s ascension to the throne.[61] Paul Strohm writes that the events of Richard’s coronation are recorded in very small detail in several texts, but in none of them is this story of the three ensigns present. He also notes that in Adam of Usk’s original account of ceremony, the chronicler never mentioned them either.[62] So this anecdote appears to be a product of Usk’s imagination, written to give a sense of inevitability to Richard’s downfall. By this logic, Usk’s retelling of the story of Richard’s greyhound and the incidents at his coronation were a sign that the happenings of the present were a direct consequence “of an inevitable and unalterable pattern.”[63] As such, Richard was always meant to be deposed for his crimes against the realm and Henry was always meant to be king after him. An interesting addition to this point is that in his chronicle, Usk mentioned a rumour that Richard’s mother was “given to slippery ways of life”, insinuating that Richard, “concerning whose birth much evil report was noised abroad”, may have been born a bastard.[64] If he had been born a bastard, then Richard was never Edward III’s rightful heir and he should never have been king in the first place. If this were true, it would have implied that Henry was not a usurper because Richard was not a legitimate king to begin with.

The usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399 was both a fascinating and controversial episode in the history of medieval English kingship. As he vied for the crown, Henry Bolingbroke knew that he could not simply sweep the throne out from under Richard and sought to justify and legitimize his actions by any means available to him and his supporters. The Lancastrian party’s construction of the narrative of the empty throne through official accounts made it appear as though, feeling guilty for his mismanagement of the realm, Richard willingly abdicated in favour of Henry and was subsequently deposed by Parliament for said crimes. Casting Richard aside would prove to be only the first step in Henry’s quest for legitimation as he then had to prove his claims to the throne. The narrative of the empty throne was supplemented through the use of prophecy, speculation and gossip promulgated by Henry’s supporters and expertly shaped to conform to the Lancastrian narrative. Some ghosts are ever restless and Henry would find himself haunted by the ghost of Richard throughout his reign, as he worked tirelessly to prove that he belonged on the throne of England.

Eva Kratochvil is a first year Masters student at Concordia University in Montreal. She is writing her thesis on the perceptions of Henry VII, the first Tudor King, during the reign of his son Henry VIII.


Primary Sources:

“The Deposition of Richard II.” In Medieval England: 1000 – 1500. Edited by Emilie Amt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000: 374-379.

Froissart, Jean. Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre. Edited and Translated by Benjamin Williams, F.S.A. London: aux dépens de la Société, 1846.

‘Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1.’ Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http:// www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116506 , accessed 1 November 2013]

‘Richard II: October 1385’, Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116488 accessed: 04 December 2013]

Usk, Adam of. Chronicon Adae de Usk. Edited and Translated by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K.C.B. London: Henry Frowde, 1904.

Walsingham, Thomas. The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376-1422. Translated by David Preest. New York: Boydell Press, 2005.

Secondary Sources:

Carlson, David R. ‘The Record and Process of the Renunciation and Deposition of Richard II’ (1399) and Related Writings. Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007.

Given-Wilson, C. ‘Usk, Adam (c.1350–1430)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/98, accessed 3 Dec 2013]

Hicks, Michael. English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jones, Michael. ‘Froissart, Jean (1337- c.1404)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/50195, accessed 3 Dec 2013]

Kirby, J.L. Henry IV of England. London: Constable & Co., 1970

Mortimer, Ian. The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self Made King. London: Vintage, 2007.

Mortimer, Ian. Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.

Saul, Nigel. The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Saul, Nigel. Richard II.New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Wright, H.G. “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399.” Bulletin of John Rylands Library 23, no.1 (1933): 151-165.

Strohm, Paul. England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation 1399-1422. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Taylor, John. ‘Walsingham, Thomas (c.1340–c.1422)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/28627, accessed 3 Dec 2013]


[1] Nigel Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 123-124

[2] See appendix at the end of this paper for genealogy

[3] Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, p. 121-122

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ian Mortimer, Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), p. 259-260

[6] Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self Made King (London: Vintage, 2007), p. 124

[7] Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV, p. 124

[8] Jean Froissart, Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre, ed. and trans. Benjamin Williams, F.S.A. (London: aux dépens de la Société, 1846), p. 156-158

[9] J.L. Kirby, Henry IV of England, (London: Constable & Co., 1970), p. 51

[10] ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ In Medieval England: 1000-1500, edited by Emilie Amt, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

[11] David R. Carlson,‘The Record and Process of the Renunciation and Deposition of Richard II’ (1399) and Related Writings, (Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007), p. 6

[12] ‘Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1,’ Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http:// www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116506 accessed 1 November 2013]

[13] C. Given-Wilson, Usk, Adam (c.1350–1430)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/98, accessed 3 Dec 2013]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Michael Jones, ‘Froissart, Jean (1337?–c.1404)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/50195, accessed 3 Dec 2013]

[16] John Taylor, ‘Walsingham, Thomas (c.1340–c.1422)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.mercury.concordia.ca/view/article/28627, accessed 3 Dec 2013]

[17] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 374

[18] Ibid.

[19] Nigel Saul believes it is highly unlikely that the archbishop of Canterbury was present at Conway when the Earl of Northumberland met with Richard. Although the archbishop is counted among those who were present in the official Lancastrian account of the deposition as well as the Rolls of Parliament, Saul believes that eye-witness Jean Creton, who wrote his own account of the events in Metrical History, would have mentioned the archbishop if he had been present. It is not certain why the official narrative would choose to place the archbishop at Conway if he was not there at all.

Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 413.

[20] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 374

[21] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 374-375.

[22] ‘Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1,’ Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http:// www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116506 accessed 1 November 2013.]

[23] Froissart, Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre, p. 203

[24] Mortimer,The Fears of Henry IV, p. 167

[25] H.G. Wright, “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399,”Bulletin of John Rylands Library 23, no.1 (1933), p. 159

[26] Michael Hicks, English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century, (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 28

[27] Wright, “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399,”p. 159

[28] G.O. Sayles, “The Deposition of Richard II: Three Lancastrian Narratives,”Historical Research 54, no. 130 quoted from Saul, Richard II, p. 421

[29] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 374

[30] Saul, Richard II, p. 420-421

[31] Wright, “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399,”p.157

[32] Froissart,Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre, p. 202-204, 216-217

[33] Saul, Richard II, p. 418

[34] ‘Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1,’ Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http:// www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116506 accessed 1 November 2013.]

[35] Kirby, Henry IV of England, p. 63

[36] Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, p. 123

[37] Adam of Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, ed. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K.C.B (London: Henry Frowde, 1904), p. 181-182

[38] ‘Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1,’ Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [http:// www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116506 accessed 1 November 2013.]

[39] Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, p. 124

[40] Mortimer,Medieval Intrigue, p. 260

[41] Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376-1422, trans. David Preest, (New York: Boydell Press, 2005), p. 38-40.

[42] ‘Richard II: October 1385’, Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116488 accessed: 04 December 2013]

[43] Paul Strohm, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation 1399-1422 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) p. 3

[44] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 3

[45] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p.182-183

[46] Saul, Richard II, p. 419

[47] Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, p. 292.

[48] Saul, Richard II, p. 420

[49] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 375

[50] Froissart,Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre, p. 220

[51] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p. 186

[52] Amt, ‘The Deposition of Richard II,’ p. 379

[53] Kirby, Henry IV of England, p. 70

[54] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 14

[55] Froissart,Chronique de la Traïson et Mort de Richart Deux d’engleterre, p. 213

[56] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 6

[57] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p.172-173

[58] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 22

[59] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p.196

[60] Ibid.

[61] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p. 200

[62] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 20-21

[63] Strohm, England’s Empty Throne, p. 22

[64] Usk, Chronicon Adae de Usk, p. 180-181

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