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POD Cast: 15 August, 1399

By Tim Venning.

Richard II and Isabel of France, 1396.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

15 August 1399: OTL, Richard II was deposed, captured, and overthrown by Henry IV, and then mysteriously died.


But what if Richard was able to escape abroad and return to try and win his throne back? This first article in this series looks at what might happen if Richard II escapes, and returns to challenge Henry IV in 1403.


The overthrow of 32-year-old “tyrant” King Richard II by his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and the rightful but deprived Duke of Lancaster, was the first successful challenge for the English throne since 1066.


The autocratic and mercurial Richard, who had succeeded his grandfather Edward III as a boy in 1377, had thoroughly alienated his elites by the time Henry returned from exile in France to challenge his rule and depose him.


Initially, Richard relied on a small coterie of his close friends, which led to a coup by a group of his leading nobles and relatives (including Henry) in the ‘Lords Appellants’ revolt of 1387. After the success of the coup, with his army defeated and his aides exiled or killed, Richard had to accept their forceful ‘advice’ for years.


Richard had already shown poor judgement and extreme insecurity by this point; having relied on a small group of personal friends for advice and showered them with lands and offices. The wider aristocratic elite, on whom his more congenial and shrewder grandfather Edward III had relied, had been marginalised.

Edward III, shrewder and more congenial than Richard II, avoided rebellion from the aristocratic elite.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Richard had not had a normal childhood. He had grown up first as the isolated, only son of Edward’s ailing heir (the ‘Black Prince’, who died in 1376), and then as the centre of ceremonial as King. As a boy, he had ignored and mistrusted his uncle and the effective regent John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Richard had unreasonably suspected John of planning to overthrow and possibly kill him. In 1385, Richard gave his backing to some friends who planned to murder John. John found out and marched on Richard’s residence with armed retainers to demand an explanation, and Richard denied it all. In 1387, other alarmed elite figures revolted successfully and exiled or killed the King’s favourites. Similar misjudgements had led to Richard’s ancestor Edward II being deposed and presumably murdered in 1326-27. Richard was to have a similar fate.

Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Edward upset the aristocracy by his preferential treatment of his favourites, and they didn't rally to his cause when rebellion came. He was captured and killed, reputedly by use of a red hot poker in a manner that brings tears to one's eyes.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1397-98, Richard staged a dramatic comeback, purged the 1387 coup-makers’ leadership, sacked the men they had imposed on him as ministers, and he proceeded to declare their constraint of him illegal. He maintained that this was in the interests of the general public and that he had freed the country from the partisan rule of a greedy clique, but his riding roughshod over the law, his constraint of Parliament by stationing troops outside Westminster Hall as it debated, and his open or secret killings of the ‘Appellant’ leaders all caused widespread alarm among the upper classes.


His cousin Henry, son of John of Gaunt (heir to the childless King if the throne passed by male descent, and a popular young noble with a reputation as a jouster) was at first pardoned. However, he was later banished suddenly, and when his father John of Gaunt died, Richard banned Henry from inheriting the dukedom and its resources.


In retaliation, as soon as Richard left the country on an expedition to Ireland in Summer 1399, Henry invaded with a small army of exiles and volunteers. He had the backing of the sacked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel (whose brother, the Earl of Arundel, had been killed by Richard).


Richard had signed a controversial treaty with King Charles VI of France in 1396 to halt the Hundred Years’ War – one reason for the anger of militant and loot-hungry nobles who had made fortunes out of it – and he married Isabella, the six-year-old daughter of King Charles, so there would be a long wait for children. It was not even clear who Richard’s heir was if Henry was ignored; if the English crown descended via female as well as male heirs, then Duke Lionel of Clarence (Edward III’s second son) had left a grandson – Edmund Mortimer – via his daughter. However, Edmund was only seven. Richard had once backed the Mortimers, but had been compelled to favour his youngest surviving uncle, Duke Edmund of York.


When Henry landed in the mouth of the River Humber from France, he was in a very weak military position. He only had a few hundred men, though he gained support as he marched south from Yorkshire. Richard had taken a large army to Ireland, led by his own trusted bodyguard of Cheshire archers, but there were many magnates available who could rally to his cause.


Only they didn’t.


Why Richard’s position was so weak is a crucial issue. The Royalist ministers failed to react, passively awaiting Henry’s arrival, retreating west to the Bristol area as Henry marched south. Few people rallied to Richard’s regent, his uncle Edmund, Duke of York. Nor did many rally to Richard himself when he belatedly returned from Ireland. The striking lack of resistance to Henry cannot be written off as simply fear.


The next heir to Richard if Henry was excluded and the young Edmund Mortimer’s claim disavowed was Richard’s uncle and regent in England, Duke Edmund of York. Despite this, Edmund made no significant attempt to stop Henry’s advance. He had every reason to oppose the invasion; if Henry was debarred from the throne, then Edmund might very well be successor to Richard. Edmund apparently knew that Henry was at sea with hostile intent, though not where he was heading as he had expected an invasion of the South or South-West. Despite that, Edmund remained supine at Bristol until Henry arrived, then came to terms with him.


Edmund was in his late 50s, and he was a timid character with little military experience. However, he did have other nobles he could rely on. That said, Richard had murdered Edmund’s younger brother Duke Thomas of Gloucester, dishonoured his brother John of Gaunt by invalidating his will, and was relying on men who were accused of being ‘low-born’ adventurers not of the high nobility. Did these factors encourage Edmund to stand aside? Perhaps Edmund was aware Richard would have no support against Henry, or he believed Henry had justice on his side.


Henry may genuinely have had enthusiasts flocking to his cause. The size of his army by the time he reached Bristol was much greater than it had been when he landed in Yorkshire. Great store was set by legality in senior political and Church circles in 14th Century courts. Richard defied the legal norms by refusing to pass on the massive Lancaster inheritance from John of Gaunt to Henry in February 1399, despite his promises to John.


Richard delayed sailing home from Ireland for a crucial two weeks or so, while his position in England collapsed as the unhindered Henry crossed the Midlands. The Duke of York, unable to raise an army around Bristol, gave up and came to terms with Henry at Berkeley Castle on 27 July. The leading Ricardian ministers were seized and executed. Bristol, the main port in the West of England and key to the South-West, and tenants in the West Marches failed to muster for the King.


By the time Richard returned directly to Pembrokeshire in July, landing in an isolated part of Wales and far from the centres of power in England, Henry had already gained control of most of England. The King advanced east to reach Carmarthen on 31st July.


Lack of support meant he had to abandon a direct march against Henry’s positions around Bristol. Instead, he made a slow advance north through difficult country along the Welsh coast in an attempt to link up up remaining loyalists in the north of Wales, under the third Earl of Salisbury.


According to a chronicler, he abandoned his army to travel with only fifteen companions, possibly for speed, possibly because he feared the army would mutiny and betray him. Richard was out of touch with his continually deteriorating position within England, and ended up trapped with Salisbury at Conway Castle on the North Wales coast as the superior Percy army blocked his route and Henry arrived from Bristol to join them at Chester.


Richard was trapped – and he did not have enough men to fight. What he did next would have repercussions for English history for decades, and indirectly would also affect France.


What if he had recognised his peril and the threat posed by the coldly practical Henry, a man who had no reason to trust him as Richard had already broken his word on a pardon once? Might Henry not merely take over conduct of the government (as in 1387), but also depose him? Richard seems to have been over-confident, believing that his ‘divine backing’ as a crowned and anointed king would protect him. He had for years set great store by his ‘holy’ status and the ‘sin’ of rebellion. Did he mistake the image of power, as shown off at his impressive and magnificent court, for its reality? Was this over-confidence? He was the one-time boy-king who had bravely ridden out to overawe an angry army of rebellious peasants outside London just after his aide had publicly knifed their leader Wat Tyler in 1381. He had averted a massacre of his entourage by announcing that he would be their new leader and deliver on promises to end serfdom and other misrule, and had led them away to camp, buying time for his officers to collect troops and regroup for later repression.


He may well have thought himself untouchable and expected a repeat of 1387, where he was reduced to being a puppet-king. He was said to have later boasted that he would not be bound long-term by any promises which he made, as in 1381 and 1387. If so, he paid with his throne and eventually his life.


He arrived at Conway on or just before 11 August, and agreed to open negotiations even though his first envoys had been arrested by Henry when they arrived at Chester. At this point, Richard had an inferior army to Henry’s, so fighting was not an option. But he still had the opportunity to flee before or after Northumberland and ex-Archbishop Arundel arrived with Henry’s terms, probably on 12 August.


Richard may well have been tricked into surrendering with a false promise that he would preserve his throne. The Percies may or may not have been honest in assuring Richard that Henry had told them that he would not be deposed and that they had negotiated in good faith with Richard.


Whether Henry was being honest in his oath at the time is impossible to know. Richard was deposed after the captive King made threats to have his revenge later. However, Henry already knew from experience that Richard was untrustworthy, and he was able to dodge accusations when he later claimed that he had not had Richard killed.


Northumberland and Arundel apparently swore to Richard that he would retain his dignities, and the claim by pro-Henrician sources that the King offered to abdicate at this point has been ‘rubbished’ by modern analysts. More neutral sources claim that Northumberland merely required Richard to accept a Parliament presided over by Henry, and five of Richard’s leading supporters being put on trial.


Of course, Parliament – nudged by Henry and his allies – could invalidate any agreement reached with Richard and depose him or require him to abdicate, but Richard was apparently ‘taken in’. On about 15 August, Richard duly emerged from Conway Castle to accompany Northumberland to a meeting over dinner at Rhuddlan, east of the river. Only when Richard was away from the walls did an armed Percy contingent emerge from a nearby valley and take him captive, bringing him to Rhuddlan as a prisoner. He was confined nearby at Flint Castle, and was said to have realised that he was doomed when he saw Henry’s army approaching the walls.


Once Richard had found his route to England blocked, he would have been wiser to flee with what few retainers he had left – on a ship if he could find one in Conwy or Caernarfon, either back to Ireland or to France. His remaining captains in Ireland would have had no confidence in Richard as an experienced general who could defeat Henry, and they would probably have started to desert as soon as Henry’s representatives landed in the country. The less well-armed Irish tribal chiefs would probably have been more loyal but less militarily useful.


Richard would have had to retreat to France and seek aid from his father-in-law Charles VI, or possibly go to Scotland, to preserve himself from capture. At best, winter storms preventing a Lancastrian fleet from sailing to Ireland and a strong showing by pro-Ricardian Irish magnates in Dublin could have kept Richard in control of Ireland until a French force arrived in Spring 1400 and the threat of a French attack on Kent kept Henry IV in London. The French were still allied to John of Gaunt’s former enemies, the Trastamara dynasty of Castille, which had a large fleet active in the Channel; this could be deployed to protect Richard in Dublin from a Lancastrian attack.


If Richard had been alive and in exile when the Welsh revolt by his former supporter Owain Glyn Dwr broke out in late Summer 1400; or if Edmund Mortimer (born 1391), his cousin and presumed heir, had not been under Henry’s control and was available, then Richard might have been a possible ally for Owain, possibly under French auspices.


As it turned out, Owain had to make do with Edmund’s uncle Sir Edmund Mortimer, a Henrician captain who he captured and who went over to his side. Sir Edmund married Owain’s daughter, and acted as the ‘agent’ of the claim of his nephew to England when allying with Owain, who in return was recognised as Prince of Wales. The eventual Mortimer-Owain-Percy ‘Tripartite Indenture’ of 1405 divided Henry’s domains among them, with Owain ruling as far east as the Severn and the Trent. Owain’s aim was clearly an enlarged Wales with full sovereignty. Owain would not have negotiated an alliance with a surviving, exiled Richard without comparable terms being part of the agreement.


The question then is: What if Owain Glyn Dwr had become an ally of the exiled, French-sponsored Richard? There is no indication of any strong support for Richard from Wales, unlike neighbouring Cheshire. Owain’s former service at Richard’s court might imply a personal link and willingness to fight for him, but this would have been less important to his Welsh followers than their demands for legal independence.

Owen Glyn Dwr's coat of arms. Not present at Shrewsbury.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth would have been an opportunity for the local lords to demand permanent and irreversible legal recognition of their national rights, preventing a restored Richard from going back on any promises. Richard would have found it difficult to agree to that, although he had abandoned his claims on France in the interests of peace in 1396, so he could be capable of flexibility when it came to ending family claims. Those would be the terms for any alliance he might accept. The French, as they did in 1405 in OTL, would then supply Glyn Dwr with troops.


As far as France is concerned, there was a clear policy line from their use of the refugee heir to Llywelyn ‘the Last’ of Gwynedd, Owain ‘Lawgoch’, against Edward III in the 1370s to their use of Glyn Dwr in the 1400s and to their use of Henry Tudor, to whom they gave French troops when he invaded England in 1485. They sent a small army to Pembrokeshire in 1405-06 to aid Glyn Dwr and his Ricardian allies the Mortimers against Henry. This is probably the sort of action France would have taken had Richard been available. The only problem would have been the unstable political situation in Paris.


Charles VI was psychologically unstable and sporadically mentally ill, at times thinking he was made of glass and having outbreaks of frenzied violence. When he was incapable of governing, his younger brother Duke Louis of Orleans and his uncles and cousins, led by Duke Philip of Burgundy, struggled over power. This could delay any aid to a refugee Richard or even end with Henry’s local allies winning out.


The triple alliance between Percies, Welsh, and Mortimer partisans of March 1405 looked forward to a division of England between the three allies – with young Edmund Mortimer as their candidate to be King of England. Its potential was somewhat spoilt by Mortimer being safely in Henry IV’s hands at Windsor Castle – though he had temporarily escaped a few weeks earlier. Given the need to muster a viable military challenge to the English royal army, the addition of French troops was vital and about 10,000 seem to have landed in Pembrokeshire that summer. Having taken the town of Haverfordwest, they marched as far as Herefordshore – the first French incursion into England since 1216. But this attack would have had far greater impact in 1403 before that year’s defeat by Henry of a major Percy rebellion. It only actually occurred in 1405, once the Percy’s Northern ‘power-base’ had already been wrested from them as a result of their defeat at Shrewsbury by the King in July 1403. The invasion thus had limited impact; the head of the Percies, the Earl of Northumberland, had been stripped of all his offices and much of his lands in northern England and his son ‘Harry (‘Hotspur’) has been killed by Henry IV in 1403.

Hotspur Percy, killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Which leads to the question: What if the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Glyn Dwr, Mortimer, and Percy had been arranged earlier, when the Percies still held their lands? With the ‘legitimate’ and adult king Richard as its beneficiary? And if the French had sent troops to support it? Would Richard’s presence abroad have stimulated his father-in-law Charles VI (or the mentally unstable Charles’ powerful uncle Philip of Burgundy or brother Louis of Orleans) to act quicker? It is possible that the loss of his throne might have stimulated Richard into showing some of the bravery he had displayed as a 14-year-old in 1381.


Richard’s past conduct as King would have made him a more controversial figure for the Percies to back in 1403 rather than young Mortimer. As they did in OTL, they could claim to regret aiding in his deposition, saying that it was a trick by Henry, without having to face the possibility that a vengeful Richard would later break his promise of a pardon and murder them.


A triumphant conquest of North Wales by Glyn Dwr as Henry’s weather-battered army retreated in 1401 would have opened the way for Ricardian loyalists in Cheshire to rise in his support in 1402 or 1403, even if fewer English nobles joined that revolt. An army of Cheshire rebels and Glyn Dwr’s Welshmen would have been a strong challenge to the King at his eldest son Prince Henry (later King Henry V) at the battle of Shrewsbury in July 1403.


The absence of Richard or a plausible pretender from the Welsh or Percy armies was less of a factor in their defeat than their failure to unite or to secure Shrewsbury before King Henry arrived to reinforce his son, who had been waiting for his arrival there.


The original intention of the advancing ‘Hotspur’ Percy had been to seize Shrewsbury and take Prince Henry hostage, with or without dispersing his (smaller) army. As it was, the King heard rumours of Hotspur’s treacherous intentions in time and his advance guard arrived at Shrewsbury before the Percy troops did. Hotspur arrived to find the gates shut and the King’s men in the town with the Prince. He retreated, and Henry himself probably arrived a little later. The King had intelligence of the planned rebel attack in time to counter it; what if he had been taken by surprise and the Percies had taken the Prince prisoner and broken up his army, as Edward IV was to face in similar circumstances in the 1470 rebellion?


The absence of Glyn Dwr from the rebel army was important, regardless of whether it was due to bad liasison with Hotspur or a deliberate decision to avoid the battle. Without him, the two Percies (Hotspur and his uncle the Early of Worcester) seem – by the credible account of John Capgrave – to have had around 14,000 men. This matches the 14,000 the monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham said the King had. The battle on 21 July seems to have been fairly close-fought. Even so, the combination of rebel archers and Hotspur’s employment of his Scottish captive from 1402, the military veteran Early of Douglas, led to the initial defeat of Henry’s vanguard which had to charge up an incline into a hail of arrows and could not use cavalry because of the enemy’s position in a beanfield full of tangled plants. De Wauvrin and Walsingham agree that the royalists suffered heavy casualties, and the vanguard’s commander (the Earl of Stafford) was killed. The rest managed the crucial task of holding out until the Cheshire archers had run out of arrows, but then Douglas and the Percy infantry smashed into them and drove them back. This could easily have turned into a rout if panic spread, and it enabled the Cheshire archers to run across the battlefield and collect their spent arrows. The King then led the rest of his men into the battle and ordered Prince Henry to launch a flank attack, leading to a second head-on clash.


Hotspur tried to decide that outcome by a ‘suicide attack’ as his remaining men started to fall back against superior numbers, in the manner of Richard III at Bosworth. He led around thirty knights in an assault on the area around the Royal standard, aiming to kill the King, Henry’s standard bearer was cut down. But Hotspur, like Richard III, failed to catch his target whose bodyguards cut him down instead. The battle was described by De Wauvrin as the bloodiest in England since 1066, and the Royal victory was far from certain. It took hours of hard combat for the Royal army to prevail and the chronicles agree of its ferocity. A larger rebel force could well have succeeded. The impetus of the rebel charge could have driven the King’s men into flight if they had been under a less disciplined and effective commander.


If Hotspur and Glyn Dwr had managed to reach the town before the King did, they could have defeated the outnumbered Prince. But even without the Welsh contingent, the rebels could have defeated their opponents. There is also the possibility that Prince Henry could have been killed in the battle. In real life, he was hit in the face by an arrow. A few inches to one side, and the hit might have been fatal. If that were to happen, the news of his death would have harmed his army’s morale, even if the King had been there to rally them. If Prince Henry had been in sole command, the army would probably have fled if he had been killed. The Percies would have been left in control of the Northern Marches.


Had Richard been alive and in exile, the rebels would have been able to proclaim him as King and either await his arrival or else march on London themselves. Henry IV, if he was defeated but was able to escape, or if he arrived too late to save his son, would have had a disintergrating army and would have been lucky if he had enough time to muster a second one in the South-East before Hotspur and his border veterans arrived in London. Like Edward IV when faced with a hige Neville army closing in on him in the east Midlands in 1470, it would have been prudent for Henry to flee overseas.


Prince Henry, if he was still alive and in possession of an army, would have been most likely to abandon London and retreat to his Welsh border strongholds. Henry IV would have been more likely to flee abroad. The loss of his and Prince Henry’s armies at Shrewsbury would have given the Percies and Glyn Dwr a decisive advantage, and the French could be expected to take advantage of the situation and land troops in Kent to assist them.


To be continued....



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Tim Venning has written a series of books for SLP on Ancient Rome, starting with Caesars of the Bosphorus.




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