By turns tragic, misunderstood, power-hungry, and traumatized, King Richard II was one of the most notorious monarchs to sit on the English throne. Shakespeare may have immortalized Richard's villainous reign, but his true story is both darker and much more complicated than all that. Dust off that hollow crown and read these facts about Richard II.
Richard was a faker from the start. Born in 1367 to Edward, the Black Prince and Joan, Countess of Kent, Richard wasn't even born in England, the country he was soon to rule. The future king was actually born in southwestern France, in the port city of Bordeaux, officially making him Richard of Bordeaux. And from the moment he came into the world, he started a whirlwind.
For all that he had massive mental deficiencies, Richard's was physically blessed. He was six-foot tall and had mega-watt good looks, according to contemporary sources. And although he lost his grip on reality at the end, he was an intelligent, well-read man. He did, however, have one "flaw": When he was upset, he would stammer.
Richard II's birth and inheritance were unusual in more ways than one. First of all, the future king wasn't even the son of a king. Sure, his father Edward was Prince of Wales and next in line for the throne, but Richard was also his youngest son. The fact he ever made it to the throne was a miracle—and it only came through great tragedy.
Richard experienced devastating hardship very early on. When he was just a boy of four, his older brother Edward caught the bubonic plague and perished from one of the Medieval age's most gruesome ends. Even worse, Edward was only six years old at the time. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time the devastating illness altered Richard's life.
The passing of Richard's brother took a severe toll on his father. Papa dearest had contracted dysentery and was struggling with the sickness. And then it got so much worse. Grief turned his illness fatal, and Richard's father passed before ever reaching the throne, leaving his bereft son with big shoes to fill. Is it any wonder Richard messed it up so badly?
Richard was only 10 years old when he became King of England. His coronation ceremony was a two-day affair with massive pageantry, but the pre-teen somehow found a way to get bored by it all. Reportedly, halfway through the festivities, Richard just started tuning everything out. Yeah, this is a king I have faith in.
Richard II's coronation got very "adult" very fast. London hosted the event, and the city let the wine run. No, literally. Wine replaced water, and there was wine running throughout the city to celebrate the 10-year-old Richard II's glorious rule. That's one way to make the population forget that their king was an actual child.
The final glory on Richard's special day was a mechanical statue of an angel that handed Richard his crown. This was no mere spectacle, either. At that time, people believed God himself had granted the king power. In other words, this clever bit of robotics was actually a pointed way of saying, "That's right, I'm God's gift to England." Too bad it all unraveled almost immediately...
Towards the end of Richard II's coronation, his advisors found out some chilling news. After the French learned that a mere boy was King of England, they wasted no time invading the country's shores. At the moment of the crowning, they were in the midst of setting fire to the coast. Was this a bad omen for the rest of Richard's reign? Heck yeah it was.
Richard was a growing king, which meant he needed a queen. His eye fell on Anne of Bohemia, whose pedigree was as good or even better than his own. Her father was Charles IV, AKA the Holy Roman Emperor, so no big deal. Their union might have looked like a political match from the outside, but the truth was much different.
There's no two ways about it: Everyone hated the idea of Richard and Anne becoming a couple...except Richard and Anne. Anne brought no dowry to England, but the king only wanted her anyway. In fact, he had to pay her family for the privilege of marrying her. Now that's love. Sadly, they were doomed to a heartbreaking end.
Richard and Anne were "two wispy teenagers" in love—they were both a bare 15 years old—and they defiantly married at Westminster Abbey on January 20, 1382. Anne wasn't just unpopular with Richard's advisors; the people of London also didn't take to her, and they often jeered at her when she appeared in front of them. But more sadness was in store.
Although they never had any children, Richard and Anne shared a blissful 12 years together, and many historians believe she was as good for his reign as she was for his heart. She made him more compassionate and moderated his violent tendencies in matters of state, and he repaid her with almost complete devotion...until the day it all came crashing down.
In 1394, an old enemy of Richard II's came knocking. That year, his beloved wife Anne fell ill with the bubonic plague—the same disease that had felled Richard's brother and weakened his father. Soon after contracting the brutal plague, Anne died at her home in Sheen Manor. Richard's response was utterly tragic.
After Anne's tormented passing, Richard came absolutely unglued. He was so devastated and grief-stricken that he even had Sheen Manor demolished so that he'd never have to look at it again. Even worse, he may never have recovered. For the rest of his reign, he was irrational and increasingly cruel. And his love life? Ugh, we'll see about that...
When Richard was just 14 years old, he faced his first real test as king...and failed miserably. In 1381, the infamous Peasant's Revolt erupted after the king raised the country's taxes. Groups of men blocked, mobbed, and burned down key places all over the capital. It was absolute pandemonium—except not for Richard. He just hid out in the Tower of London.
Eventually, Richard II likely realized that if he wanted to hold onto his golden crown, he had to steel himself. On June 13, 1381 he set out on the River Thames to meet the rebels and negotiate. It backfired horribly. There were so many people mobbing the shores that he couldn't land, and he had to turn back. But round two proved even more disastrous.
On June 14, the Peasant's Revolt reached a breaking point when Richard II had his final meeting with the rebels. Things were so bad by then that no less than the Mayor of London pulled a rebel leader off his horse and killed him. Richard could have just stood there gawping as he'd done before...but instead, he finally acted like the king he was.
Richard was infamous and unpopular for playing favourites in his royal court, but one of his relationships may have been far more scandalous than the others. Some claimed his particular favorite, the handsome Robert de Vere, was also his illicit lover. For what it's worth, Richard eventually named de Vere the first and last Duke of Ireland.
When the rebels realized what had happened, Richard knew he had to act fast. Without batting an eyelash, he called out to them, "I am your captain, follow me!" and ushered the throng away from the bloody scene, defusing the situation but also taking undeniable control for maybe the first time ever. Sadly, he soon committed the ultimate betrayal.
Richard helped disband the Peasant's Revolt by granting clemency to the rebels...only to quickly revoke the order. Then he did one better and went out on the battlefield himself to personally squash any of the stragglers. Being, you know, a king with vast resources, he was terrifyingly successful—and it had devastating consequences for the rest of his reign.
The Peasant's Revolt baptized Richard II in blood, and he never forgot the dark lessons he learned over those few formative days. As he aged, he started to guard his crown ever more jealously, eventually becoming a staunch defender of his absolute power. Oh, and then there was the betrayal part. This was the moment Richard mastered lying, and he never looked back...
At the height of his reign, Richard corrupted himself to cartoon villain proportions. Convinced that he was God's Chosen One, the king became notorious for just how bad he was at interacting with commoners. At festivals, he would apparently sit on his throne for hours without uttering a word, and anyone who met his eyes had to fall on their knees and bow. Not relatable.
Richard was incredibly susceptible to flattery, and spent most of his reign insulating himself in his court with his various favorites. He was so cliquey, parliament even once ordered the king to dismiss the coterie. He staunchly refused, famously replying that he wouldn't remove a single scullery maid from his kitchen, thankyouverymuch. See that name on the door, guys? It says "King of England."
For all the battles he fought, Richard II wouldn't go down in history as a great tactician. When debate arose about how to handle an ongoing conflict in France, Richard disagreed with parliament (you don't say?) and decided to send a crusade into the country against their advice. This crusade failed spectacularly, and his reputation continued to sour.
In 1385, a lasting scandal hit Richard. That year, his half brother John Holland killed one of Richard's closest friends, Ralph Stafford, in cold blood. Richard's response was, uh, very "Richard." First, he swore he would avenge his friend and force his half-brother to give up his land...but then he quickly relented, and John got off scot-free.
Although Richard II was ruinously vain, some historians believe there were even darker forces at play during his ill-fated reign. According to many experts, Richard was likely mentally unbalanced. Some historians have gone so far as to claim that he had schizophrenia, while the most recent work on Richard suggests he suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder.
In 1387, Richard II's reign really started to fall apart at the seams when a faction of parliament called the "Lords Appellant" finally managed to oust all his favorite courtiers from power. But this was a man who had been playing the game of thrones since he was 10. Richard eventually regained control—and dealt them a brutal revenge.
After re-securing his power, Richard tracked down almost every last one of his enemies and executed them. But he wasn't finished yet. In an ultimate bad guy move, Richard then went out into the countryside and executed any of the common people who had supported the Lords. Thus began a new age: "Richard's tyranny." It was even worse than it sounds.
When his dear wife Anne passed in 1394, Richard rebounded hard, fast—and disgustingly. Through with the ravages of love, he decided to orchestrate a strictly political marriage with the French Princess Isabella of Valois instead. Sounds fine so far...until you learn that Isabella was SIX YEARS OLD at the time of their engagement. Richard was 29. Uh, really?
If you thought Richard couldn't get grosser when it came to his child bride, buckle up. See, marrying a virtual toddler was frowned upon even in Medieval England, but when his advisors brought up that little issue, Richard didn't seem to care. He flippantly responded that each day would make the problem go away. Well then.
Richard made a fatal error when he took vengeance on the Lords Appellant. He let a precious handful of members live—including his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. If that name sounds familiar, that's probably because he's the man who would soon violently overthrow Richard and become King Henry IV. But it's how Henry did it that's gone down in absolute infamy.
Richard II had been the big man on campus for decades, but even he recognized that Henry Bolingbroke was an alpha male. Henry's royal blood saved him from execution in the purge, but Richard went even further than that. He downright buttered the confident Henry up, turning him into a Duke to placate him. Spoiler: This didn't work.
Richard made another catastrophic miscalculation around this time. Sure, he said he didn't care that his wife Isabella was a literal child, but he should have. Remember, Richard was still childless at the time of his second wedding, and Isabella wasn't about to be of child-bearing age any time soon. This lack of an heir made him even more vulnerable to the coup on the horizon.
Richard II was a trendsetter for all the wrong reasons. Before his megalomaniacal reign, people addressed the king with a simple and to-the-point "highness." During his rule, Richard forced his underlings to call him the more extravagant and snooty "royal majesty" or "high majesty." Yeah, that sure sounds like Richard to me.
In the end, Richard might have escaped with his crown and his life if it weren't for his panicked decisions. Henry Bolingbroke wasn't willing to make any moves on the throne...until Richard dealt him a one-two blow. First, he had Henry exiled. Then when Henry came into a plush inheritance, Richard seized all his properties and extended his exile in a bid for control. Bad move.
Richard believed in the power of images, and spent an incredible amount of money on both commissioning and collecting work. Never one to let art get in the way of his vanity, Richard also sought to elevate his royal status through paintings. He was the first King of England to commission panel portraits of himself, one of which still stands in Westminster Abbey.
Whereas Richard II's ancestors were mighty warrior kings, he took a much different approach. Instead of spending most of his time fighting with his men, Richard built up his own private army to do his bidding without needing to lift a finger himself. This helped shape him into our modern image of a distant king sat in the center of a lavish court...but it also led to his downfall.
Eventually, Henry Bolingbroke said "screw exile" and forced his way back into England to claim his inheritance. He couldn't have chosen a more perfect time to do it: Richard was away in Ireland, along with most of the nobles loyal to him. As a result, Hal pretty much just sailed on through, gathering supporters as he went. By this time Richard was morbidly unpopular, and a day of reckoning was coming.
Although people kept telling him he should stage a coup, Henry at first swore up and down that he only wanted his money, not the crown. It was Richard who changed everything. With his distaste for battle, Richard surrendered to his cousin almost immediately after his return and desperately offered Henry the crown in exchange for his life. It could have been that simple...but that's not how it ended up.
Following this transferral of power, Henry—now fully committed to this "your majesty" thing—imprisoned Richard in the Tower of London. This is where things got sour. According to some reports, Richard suffered huge buyer's remorse almost immediately, launching into a tantrum and demanding his crown. Instead, he got the gallows.
If you thought you knew Richard II of England, I've more shocking news for you. His native language was French, not English. In fact, after William the Conqueror's legendary invasion in 1066, all the "English" kings were French. But there's a twist: With his violent and tragic downfall, Richard became the last of his kind.
While the wine was flowing and the parades were marching during Richard's coronation, people were also given their very own castle. The massive, temporary structure stood in the center of London, and four maidens stood in its four towers, showering the young Richard with gold as he marched by for the ceremony.
By the time Richard came to the throne, Westminster Hall wasn't in the best condition. Years before, the royal court abandoned the original project to rebuild the palace, and it sat in neglect for decades. So, Richard took it upon himself to rebuild Westminster Hall and make the impressive wooden construction we know today.
Richard II's focus on arts and culture did have some upshots. English was developing as a literary language during this time, and Richard's refined court did a lot to help it along. In fact, the father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, worked in the king's court early in his career, and his writing paved the way for other titans like William Shakespeare.
Richard didn't just enjoy paintings of himself, he was also a fan of gaudy jewelry and textiles, and spent massive amounts of money on baubles to adorn both himself and his loved ones. Though history has consumed many of these items, one of the most breathtaking achievements of Gothic jewelry, Queen Anne's crown, is still around today.
On October 13, 1399, Henry officially snatched the hollow crown from Richard II, becoming King Henry IV. And then he dealt the ending blow. Although Henry had originally promised to spare Richard's life, he quickly realized it was too dangerous to have a former king hanging around. He knew he had to off Richard...but the way he did it was beyond cruel.
Instead of your regular beheading or even a common hanging, Henry gave Richard a much more gruesome end. Little by little, day by day, he starved Richard to death from his cell until the former king succumbed. Then on February 17, Henry showed off the fruits of his dark labors, displaying Richard's cold, emaciated corpse in St. Paul's Cathedral for all to see.
Whether out of guilt or expediency, Henry buried Richard hastily and without fanfare in King's Langley Priory. Eventually, though, Richard got something of a happy ending. More than a decade later, Henry's successor said "sorry"and entombed Richard at Westminster Abbey alongside his beloved Queen Anne of Bohemia.
Richard II wasn't above taking out his personal frustrations on his political life. While traveling to Scotland on a campaign, he got the heartbreaking news that his mother had passed. Richard's reaction redefined "unhinged." Perhaps venting his feelings, he let his men loose on Edinburgh, and together they nearly destroyed the city. Somebody needs a time-out corner.
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