Richard II (of England)

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© Bob Denton 2014

By 1376 both King Edward III and the Black Prince were unwell and John of Gaunt was virtually ruling in their stead. He and they came under severe criticism by the ‘Good’ Parliament that year, called to raise taxation they used the opportunity to air their concerns and force a number of reforms.

In the midst of this parliament in June 1376, Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, died from a long-term illness at just 46 years old, the first Prince of Wales that did not succeed to the throne.

Edward III’s condition worsened and he was treated for a large abscess, he died in 1377 of a stroke, just a year after his son, he was sixty-four.

The Black Prince’s younger son succeeded Edward as Richard II, he was ten years old. His first son had died at four years old. John of Gaunt wanted to act as Regent, but instead the Parliament established a series of councils to rule the realm; John of Gaunt was still very influential

Peasants’ Revolt – in 1381 the young king’s first challenge was the Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Peasants’ Revolt. The populace was still recovering from the Black Death, they were being taxed heavily to support the Hundred Years’ War and there was little in the way of direction coming from London and the government.

The spark was a tax collector’s vigour in trying to collect unpaid poll taxes in Brentwood. Locals rebelled and burned court records and threw open all the prisons. They called for the end of serfdom and lower taxation. It spread around the country and although its popular name is the Peasants’ Revolt it involved people from all strata of society.

Inspired by this was, Wat Tyler, his first name formally being Walter, his surname implying he was a roof tiler by trade. He led a group of Kentish men on a march to London, to speak to the King.

Representatives of the King met the marchers at Blackheath, while the King took refuge in the Tower of London, he was just 14 and most of the army was in France. The rebels entered London and went on the rampage attacking the Temple Inns of Court and burning law books, opening prisons…

The King met the rebels at Mile End and agreed to most of their demands, Meanwhile other rebels had entered the Tower and killed the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer there.

The next day the King met with Tyler at Smithfield. By many accounts Tyler was rude to the king’s party and when he was insulted drew a dagger. The Mayor of London slashed at him with his word and another court official stabbed Tyler.

Tyler rode a short distance on his horse but proved too weak to continue, he was dragged from his horse and decapitated. His head was put on a pole and paraded around London, finally being spiked on London Bridge.

The revolt had spread right across the country, but a rebel defeat at the Battle of North Walsham was the first step in a general round up of the rebels. Some 1,500 were executed to restore order. The impact however was that future parliaments were loath to raise taxes for the War.

If the Peasants’ were revolting, so too were the nobles. In 1386 a group of favourites of the King were accused to be out of control, becoming dictatorial. Initially a group of three nobles, later five of them, became known as the Lords Appellant, when they issued a document termed an ‘appeal’ of treason against the king’s favourites.

In 1387 they successfully defeated a royal army close to Oxford and set up a Commission to rule England, Richard was adopted as its figurehead but he had no power. The next year their ‘Merciless Parliament’ arranged the execution of the favourites they held for exercising undue control of the King; they also condemned to death those that had escaped them.

Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389 and together they rebuilt the King’s power over the next eight years, in 1390 Richard appointed John of Gaunt as Duke of Aquitaine in recognition of his support. By 1397 Richard was strong enough to act against the three leading Lords Appellant.

John of Gaunt’s eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke the Duke of Hereford, had been involved in the Lords Appellant. But spent much of the early 1390s accompanied the Teutonic Knights in an attempt to seize the Duchy of Vilnius, unsuccessfully. Disappointed he took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and declared that he would return one day to free it from Muslim control; he failed to follow this up.

However in 1398 Henry Bolingbroke made an injudicious remark about the king which was reported and deemed as treason. He was exiled by Richard for ten years. He moved in to the French court. When his father, John of Gaunt, died the following year, Richard declared his lands forfeit to the crown.

In 1399 Henry returned to England to reclaim his father’s lands with the support of Louis the Duke of Orléans who by then controlled the French court, King Charles VI of France being insane. He landed in Yorkshire and gathered support from around the country. He insisted that he was there merely to reclaim his inheritance so this led several royal supporters not to interfere.

When Henry arrived the King and many of his supporters had travelled across to Ireland and their return was delayed. When he did return Henry had established himself and forced the king to surrender to him. He later had the king agree to abdicate and Richard was imprisoned. Henry became King Henry IV in late 1399.

The deposed king still had support particularly from those who were being demoted by Henry and this led to an attempted assassination of Henry. They planned to arrest him while participating in a tournament at Windsor celebrating Epiphany, but one of their number betrayed them. They failed to get any support to their cause and were soon rounded up and imprisoned.

Perhaps it was the fear of his inspiring further revolts, but Richard died in imprisonment in the following year, 1400. He was aged just thirty-three, the established wisdom splits between his being murdered or his being left to starve to death.

Battle of Nicopolis 1396 – the Ottoman Turks had pushed the Byzantine Empire back until it controlled only an area around Constantinople and regularly laid siege of the city (they would not succeed to take it until 1453).

Now they were becoming more involved in Europe. By 1389 they controlled most of the Balkans bringing them under Islamic rule. They had taken Nicopolis, the Bulgarian capital, but the Bulgars still held Vidin. Now the Ottomans were viewing the adjoining kingdom of Hungary and threatening the republic of Venice across the Adriatic.

The papacy was split between Avignon and Rome but Pope Boniface IX (at Avignon) called for a crusade. The Hundred Years’ War was relatively quiet at this point. Sigismund, then the King of Hungary, was advised by the Burgundians that a request to the king of France to assist would be greeted positively.

The French sent a force of 10,000 men, they were joined by the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, Venice provided naval support. The Hungarians, a number of German principalities, several Spanish regions and perhaps a thousand English men joined the crusade. Numbers reported are quite fluid the crusade being somewhere between 7,500 and 130,000 men. Ottoman numbers have been reported as between 9,000 and 190,000!

The crusaders laid siege on Nicopolis without any siege engines. It had a strong natural defence and the walls were strong. They sought to use ladders and to place explosives in diggings they excavated beneath the walls – aka undermining. These efforts failed to make any impression so they had to resort to trying to starve the inhabitants out with their army around the walls and the navy blockading the river.

The crusaders were led by Jean de Valois a young and inexperienced knight, but he was the senior noble. He did not post scouts to look fora n Ottoman relief column, it was foragers that note their advance, but too late to stop their being encircled, caught between the walls and the relief force.

Enguerrand VII de Coucy, an Anglo-French nobleman did lead a force south that drew an Ottoman force in to a prepared ambush and killed as many as they could.

When the Turkish relief force started to advance, the French leader had yet to learn that a heavy cavalry charge was not invincible. They did succeed initially against the Ottoman conscripts in the vanguard, but then came in range of the Turkish archers and were devastated, foiled from reaching the archers by sharpened stakes stuck in the ground as a defence (something the English would later emulate).

The rest of the French advance, on foot in heavy armour, were met by an experienced Turkish force and slaughtered. The Turks marched forward to encounter the rest of the crusader force and were joined by those from inside the city. Sigismund escaped by a fisherman’s boat to reach the Venetian navy. Many trying to swim out to their boats drowned in their mail and armour, the boats became overloaded and some of those successful in reaching them were fended away for fears of becoming overloaded.

Among the crusaders that were taken prisoner, the leading nobles were held for ransom, those under twenty years old were spared and put in to servitude to the Ottomans, the rest were executed before the Sultan. Again accounts vary broadly from 300 to 3,000 being executed that day.

The outcome halted the taste for European coalitions and for crusades – for approaching half a century.  Crusades lost the lustre of a chivalrous adventure. The French and English renewed their efforts instead in pursuit of the Hundred Years’ War.

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© Bob Denton 2014