Richard II and Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was famously supposed to have compared herself to Richard II. We may find that surprising to think of today because she is remembered as Gloriana, a great Queen. However, late in her reign when Richard II was written, this was not that surprising of a comparison. As the Queen aged, eyes started looking toward the future and her favor was waning. Throughout her reign, she was widely criticized for her favorites. Many believed they held too much sway over the Queen, bordering on inappropriate at times. Despite her flirtations with her favorites, Elizabeth never married and so never produced an heir. This made her wary of naming a successor to her throne for fear of a coup. In the end, it was one of her previous favorites, the Earl of Essex, that attempted a sort of coup against the Queen’s advisors. He even paid for Richard II to be staged the night before his rebellion, but still the coup failed. Elizabeth faced a lot of criticism and death threats during her long reign. It was her inner turmoil and fear that lead her to relate strongly to Richard II, the deposed King.

Playing Favorites

Both Elizabeth and Richard faced harsh criticism for surrounding themselves with favorites, who seemed to hold powerful sway over the monarch and therefore the kingdom. Now, they were not the first monarchs to do this, nor would they be the last, but still they received this harsh criticism. There was a strong sense of earning your place on the King or Queen’s council. Typically, it was the highest ranking members of the nobility that were trusted to make decisions for the kingdom, so when people of lower rank were added to this elite group before their time, it often rubbed the powerful nobility the wrong way. It was okay to play favorites, but you had to favor the right people.

Elizabeth’s most famous favorite was the Earl of Leicester. The two had spent time together in the Tower of London and it was widely believed they were in love – or at least friends with benefits. Because of their perceived infatuation, many of the Lords were concerned that she would marry Leicester, meaning his power would greatly exceed his rank. Noble Lords should not have to bow to an Earl who was made King. To avoid this pitfall, Richard gave frivolous titles to his favorites, which, unsurprisingly, lead to some resentment amongst the other Lords (his family). This resentment, of course, grew when he started taking money, asking for blank bonds, and stealing Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance. He was taking far too much and giving too much to the wrong people.

Northumberland: The king is not himself, but basely led/ By flatterers ; and what they will inform,/ Merely in hate, ‘gainst any of us all,/ That will the king severely prosecute/ ‘Gainst us, our lives, our children, and our heirs.

{Act II, Scene 1:241-245}

As for Elizabeth and Leicester, concern grew as their private meetings became more frequent and more apparent. Many worried that he held far too much sway over her decisions. Elizabeth typically chose men as her favorites, and often they were the ones that flattered her most (i.e. Sir Walter Raleigh and the young Earl of Essex). These flatterers were not working for the good of the realm, but sought to increase their own power. Again, most people probably were seeking to increase their own power, but they were doing it through the proper channels – namely being descendants of other powerful men. The Duke of York expresses similar concerns about Richard’s flatterers:

York: No; it is stopp’d with other flattering sounds,/ As praises, of whose taste the wise are fond,/ Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound/ The open ear of youth doth always listen. {Act II, Scene 1: 17-20}

In the end, it was Richard’s propensity for favoritism that lead to his downfall. Bolingbroke and the other nobles don’t even demand deposition (at first), they ask that rightful inheritances be restored and a new council be created. There was a brief period earlier in Richard’s reign where his favorites were removed in favor of a noble council, but he turned to new favorites and that lead to his removal. While Elizabeth’s use of favorites was not quite as extreme, she still faced a lot of criticism. Whether these concerns were unfounded or not, the presence of the criticism made Elizabeth very aware of her precarious position as monarch.

The End of a Dynasty

For most monarchs, the goal is to preserve the family dynasty by producing an heir to the throne. Ideally, there would be an heir and a spare. Richard had a young wife and died before they could produce an heir, so his family dynasty ended with him. Elizabeth, however, chose to be the end of her dynasty. She saw her sister, Mary, chose a husband and fail to produce children, and the problems that caused for Mary and for England. Choosing a husband was difficult for Elizabeth because a King technically outranks a Queen, so a foreign prince would come in and control England. But, an English subject could also not be raised to the status of King. Elizabeth’s hands were tied and she decided to dedicate herself fully to England.

This choice, however logical, still put Elizabeth in a potentially dangerous position as a monarch. The heir would come from elsewhere, namely Scotland, so that person could be the focus of rebellion. Mary, Queen of Scots, the assumed heir, was also a Catholic, so that lead to some planned coups. For this reason, Elizabeth was extremely hesitant to officially name an heir. Even during a few close calls with death, Elizabeth would not name an heir. She would not put herself in that vulnerable of a position. When Mary came to Elizabeth to escape Scotland, she did not find a friendly face. Instead she faced beheading. A bold move for Elizabeth at the time.

For most of her reign, Elizabeth was well aware of the fact that power could be taken from her at nearly any time. There were several attempts made on her life and so she was extremely sensitive to the idea of deposing a reigning monarch. It was such a politically charged idea at the time that the deposition scene was completely removed from early performances of Richard II.

King Richard: Therefore no no, I resign to thee./ Now mark me, how I will undo myself;/ I give this heavy weight from off my head/ And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,/ The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;/ With mine own tears I wash away my balm,/ With mine own hands I give away my crown,/ With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,/ With mine own breath release all duty’s rights:/ All pomp and majesty I do forswear; {Act IV, Scene 1:202-211}

The story of Richard II may have felt especially raw to Elizabeth because as soon as he lost the people’s favor, he was deposed for someone the public liked better. This was the exact situation Elizabeth faced toward the end of her reign.

Public Favor

Richard II faced the reality that his people did not like him, but they did like the man that would someday take his throne. Richard lost favor with the public when he started overtaxing them. He didn’t even overtax them for a noble cause like war. He taxed them because he spent far too much money on his extravagant lifestyle. He also seemed to generally consider all of the common people to be lesser than him. Not lesser in rank, lesser as human beings. Richard firmly believed in the divine right of Kings and saw his subjects as far beneath him.

King Richard: Observed his courtship to the common people;/ How he did seem to dive into their hearts/ With humble and familiar courtesy,/ What reverence did he throw away on slaves, {Act I, Scene 4: 24-27}

Bolingbroke, however, spent time with the common people. He won their favor by treating them almost as equals. He spoke with them about their problems and truly listened. He was also the perfect example of the nobles wronged by Richard.

Ross: The commons hath he pill’d with grievous taxes,/ And quite lost their hearts: the nobles hath he fined/ For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.

Willoughby: And daily new exactions are devised,/ As blanks, benevolences, and I wot not what. {ACT II, Scene 1 246-250}

Elizabeth found herself in a similar situation with the Earl of Essex. He was young, charismatic and well-loved by the people. He became an almost legendary figure in the minds of the English public. He represented the future. Elizabeth represented the past. As she got older, she grew more resistant to change. Change that was inevitable as England moved through the Golden Age.

Essex was well-aware of his popularity and let it over-inflate his ego. He pushed the limits of his favorability with Elizabeth, even storming into her room in the middle of the night. Understandably, this irked Elizabeth and she was known to scold him publicly. Because of this, he attempted to start a rebellion to free Elizabeth from what he perceived as evil advisors. The night before he attempted to march on the palace he paid for a staging of Richard II, complete with the deposition scene. Unfortunately for Essex, he greatly overestimated his support and the rebelllion epically failed. He tried to hide out in his house for awhile, but he couldn’t escape a conviction of treason and the associated death sentence.

It is easy to see how Elizabeth saw parallels between herself and Richard. Both took the crown at a young age. Both faced harsh criticism to their perceived favoritism. They both represented the end of dynasty, and they both faced a loss of public favor. However, as history has shown, Elizabeth was not ultimately seen as a Richard. She is hailed as a leader who brought stability and prosperity to England. Whereas Richard spent the whole of the royal coffers, overtaxed his people, and threw the country into what would be decades of war. Elizabeth was by no means a perfect ruler, but she was no Richard. It was her own fears, particularly as she aged, that lead her to this comparison.

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

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: