Before we jump into the play about Richard II, it’s important to understand the basic facts of his reign, as they would have been understood by an Elizabethan audience. Richard’s reign was defined by those who tried to exert power through him. First, by the men put in charge of him as a minor. Then, by those who tried to seek his favor in adulthood. While not a completely inept ruler, Richard’s reign is largely defined by his downfall.
The Young King
Richard inherited the throne at the age of ten, which meant that there was a council designated by parliament to rule on his behalf. This began the power struggle between the King’s family, who felt they deserved to hold some power in the kingdom, and the King’s friends. John of Gaunt, Richard’s eldest uncle, was loyal to the King and seemed skilled at keeping the peace. However, he left for Spain to lay claim to some lands there.
While he was gone, the other noble lords seized the opportunity to admonish Richard for his mismanagement of the government. Richard was prone to giving his friends undeserved titles and being easily swayed by their advice. Because of this, Richard lead an extravagant lifestyle and was completely unstable. The noble lords brought the issue before parliament and they impeached his personal favorite from his title and installed a completely new council.
Richard quickly rode North and attempted to raise an army of royalist followers to defend his rights as King. The noble opposition, the Lords Appellant, quickly defeated the King’s army. They may have briefly deposed him, but were unable to agree on a successor, so Richard remained King. Richard was kept in the background as his favorites faced trial. They were all found guilty and either exiled or executed. After the trial, there were several years of peace.
The King’s Revenge
The old power struggle rose again in Richard’s court, but this time he had a bigger role to play. By 1397, Richard had surrounded himself by favorites again and put the senior Appellants on trial. The reason is unclear, but Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were arrested for treason. They were formally accused before parliament by the King’s favorites. All three men were convicted. Gloucester died – possibly murdered – while under Norfolk’s charge. Warwick confessed and was exiled. Arundel was beheaded.
The fate of the senior Lords Appellant put everyone on edge, particularly the two younger Lord Appellants. Norfolk apparently came to Henry Bolingbroke – one of the younger Appellants and John of Gaunt’s son – and warned him that the King was considering rescinding his earlier pardons. Bolingbroke immediately turned around and accused Norfolk of treason. Parliament set up a council to deal with the trial, but Norfolk demanded trial by combat. Richard let it continue for months, but cancelled the combat at the the last minute. Both were exiled. Norfolk died shortly after. Bolingbroke was exiled for ten years, but it was commuted to six.
With Lords Appellant taken care of, Richard began to overextend his powers as King. First, he exacted a lot of taxes and other means of pulling in money to support his extravagant lifestyle. However, Richard’s greatest mistake would be to seize John of Gaunt’s lands and property after his death, denying Bolingbroke his rightful inheritance. This disenfranchised most of the Lords, who were understandably concerned with their own lands. Once word reached Bolingbroke, he immediately headed back to England.
Richard was needed in Ireland to squash a rebellion there, so after angering most of his nobles, he leaves England. Bolingbroke lands near Yorkshire and starts marching West. Word is sent to Richard, but rough seas delay the message. Richard immediately sends troops North, under the command of Salisbury, to recruit more men. Once he does arrive in Wales, he decides to dismiss his tired troops and wait for Salisbury’s troops to return. Aumerle convinces Richard this is the right plan shortly before he switches sides.
Unfortunately for Richard, there is a rumor that he has been killed, so most of Salisbury’s army abandons the cause. In the end, Richard and Salisbury end up holed up in Conway castle with about a hundred men. Northumberland convinces Richard that if he returns Bolingbroke’s lands and titles, he will be allowed to reign. Richard believes him and is immediately ambushed. Eventually, Bolingbroke takes Richard to the tower.
It takes Bolingbroke two months to come up with an acceptable argument for his right to the throne. Richard is eventually convinced into giving up his crown and Bolingbroke is quickly crowned Henry IV. Two months later, some of the nobles loyal to Richard attempted a rebellion. Henry found out about it in time and was able to stop it. Richard died a month later, possibly murdered.
So there we have it. Richard II’s infamous reign and deposition. Shakespeare’s play takes place from Norfolk and Bolingbroke’s feud to Richard’s death. Time, of course, will be condensed, but the gist remains the same.