Richard II and the nature of kingship (i)

Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III are studies in what it is be king. They do not provide a picture of what a king should be but rather of what kings, both good and bad, are like.

The plays, termed The Hollow Crown in the superb BBC productions, examine the events in the period before and including the Wars of the Roses.

The first play in the series is Richard II where the actions of the main character set in motion the events  of the next seven plays.

The play opens with Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, both accusing each other of high treason. Bolingbroke is more specific, accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money meant to pay his soldiers and of involvement in the murder of Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester.

The opening scene is important in establishing the relationship between Richard and his nobles.  If one thing becomes clear from the history plays it is that for the king to maintain his grip on power, he must have the loyalty of the nobility and that of his blood relations, the most powerful dukes.

The staging of the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the play.  It is important to give the impression that this is a dispute beyond Richard’s ability to resolve or control.

On one hand, we have Richard, effeminate and gorgeously dressed.


Ben Whishaw as Richard in The Hollow Crown

 On the other, we have Bolingbrook and Mowbray. The contrast could not be sharper.


 Bolingbrook (Rory Kinnear) and Mowbray (James Purefoy).

In a world where the king needed to rule with the support of his nobles, these two would  be part of Richard’s loyal supporters. They are two the most powerful men in the nation and Bolingbrook is Richard’s nephew.  Their loyalty to him is seen in their acquiescence to his judgement in Act 1, Sc 3.

After the two state their cases against each other, Richard says

Richard: Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision;
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed;
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.
Good uncle, let this end where it begun;
We’ll calm the Duke of Norfolk, you your son.

It’s a glib statement made worse by the flippancy of Our doctors say this is no month to bleed. Richard simply doesn’t understand the gravity of this situation.

The two men defy Richard and his attempts to broker a peace and remain obdurate in their hatred of each other. Unable to resolve the dispute, Richard ends the meeting in the only way open to him.

Richard: We were not born to sue, but to command;
Which since we cannot do to make you friends,
Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,
At Coventry, upon Saint Lambert’s day:
There shall your swords and lances arbitrate
The swelling difference of your settled hate:
Since we can not atone you, we shall see
Justice design the victor’s chivalry.
Lord marshal, command our officers at arms
Be ready to direct these home alarms.

But there are tensions underlying Act 1 Sc i that become clearer in the next scene between Duchess of Gloucester, the widow of the murdered Thomas of Woodstock, and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Bolingbroke’s father.


Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

Both know that Richard has been complicit in the murder of which Mowbray is accused.

Gaunt refuses to take action against the king  and in doing so outlines the Divine Right of Kings: Richard is God’s deputy and God, not men, will judge him.

Gaunt: Put we our quarrel to the will of heaven;
Who, when they see the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads.

Duchess: Finds brotherhood in thee no sharper spur?
Hath love in thy old blood no living fire?……… to safeguard thine own life,
The best way is to venge my Gloucester’s death.

Gaunt: God’s is the quarrel; for God’s substitute,
His deputy anointed in His sight,
Hath caused his death: the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.

When matters come to a head in Coventry, the contrast between the feuding nobles and Richard is again emphasised.

B and M.jpeg

Richard’s insignificance and impotence in the face of the antagonism between his two  powerful subjects is clear. It is in this scene that the seeds of Richard’s downfall are sown.

Richard allows the ceremonies and formalities of the challenge and the combat to proceed and then he drops a bombshell.

Richard: Draw near,
And list what with our council we have done.
For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soil’d
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;

Therefore, we banish you our territories:
You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,
Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields
Shall not regreet our fair dominions,
But tread the stranger paths of banishment.

Norfolk, for thee remains a heavier doom…..
The hopeless word of ‘never to return’
Breathe I against thee, upon pain of life.

After Mowbray leaves, there is another change of heart from Richard.

To Gaunt Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes
I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect
Hath from the number of his banish’d years
Pluck’d four away.

To  Bolingbroke Six frozen winter spent,
Return with welcome home from banishment.

Gaunt thanks the King but he knows that he will not live to see his son return.

Gaunt: My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light
Shall be extinct with age and endless night;
My inch of taper will be burnt and done,
And blindfold death not let me see my son.

Richard: Why uncle, thou hast many years to live.

Gaunt: But not a minute, king, that thou canst give:
Shorten my days thou canst with sullen sorrow,
And pluck nights from me, but not lend a morrow;

It’s an ironic warning from Gaunt. There are limits even to a king’s power and Richard is about to make a catastrophic misjudgment that will make those limits even clearer.

As he plans to suppress the rebellion in Ireland, Richard receives news that John of Gaunt is dying. Gaunt’s death will present Richard with an excellent opportunity to finance the expedition to Ireland.

Richard: Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind
To help him to his grave immediately!
The lining of his coffers shall make coats
To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.
Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him:
Pray God we may make haste, and come too late!

In Act II Sc i, Richard visits the dying Gaunt who upbraids the young king for his profligacy concluding:

Gaunt: Landlord of England art thou now, not king:
Thy state of law is bondslave to the law; And thou–

Richard is not impressed

Richard: A lunatic lean-witted fool…..
Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.

When Gaunt dies, Richard makes the final mistake that will ultimately loose him the Crown.

Richard: Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.

The Duke of York is outraged. Gaunt’s land and titles should rightly go to  his son, the banished Bolingbroke.


David Suchet as The Duke of York

York: If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights….
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

Richard is unmoved and unrepentant,

Richard: Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money and his lands.

York’s argument is that by the law of primogeniture Bolingbroke is Gaunt’s legal heir. The thoughts which honour and allegiance cannot think are that Richard himself is king because his father was king before him. It’s a social contract that York, Gaunt, Bolingbroke and Mowbray have entered into. If Richard breaks this contract by seizing Gaunt’s lands, then his claims to the throne are similarly open to challenge.

The plotting begins immediately.


David Morissey as Northumberland

 Northumberland: Well, lords, the Duke of Lancaster is dead.

And living too; for now his son is duke.

Willoughby: Barely in title, not in revenue.

Northumberland: Richly in both, if justice had her right.

Now, afore God, ’tis shame such wrongs are borne
In him, a royal prince, and many moe
Of noble blood in this declining land.
The king is not himself, but basely led
By flatterers; …
‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

Then thus: I have received intelligence
That Harry Duke of Hereford….
With eight tall ships, three thousand men of war,
Are making hither with all due expedience
And shortly mean to touch our northern shore:

With the imminent return of Bolingbroke, the first half of the argument about the nature of kingship has been established.

The King rules through right of inheritance, the crown passes from father to son.This is true throughout the kingdom most acutely through inheritance of the great estates, the Dukedoms. It is this set of allegiances and contracts that established political rule and stability in mediaeval England. Once one person’s right to their inheritance is abrogated, no one, not even the King, is safe.

When Richard seized John Gaunt’s lands, he put in jeopardy the fundamental bond between King and subject: Loyalty is given where protection of right is guaranteed.  By this line of argument, Richard’s actions justify Bolingbroke’s rebellion.

Initially, Bolingbroke will protest that he only returns to reclaim what is rightfully his, the Dukedom of Lancaster.

The remainder of the play examines how Bolingbroke’s original intentions broadened to include seizing the Crown and the counterargument, put by Richard, that nothing justifies rebellion against God’s lawfully appointed king.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.