Thursday, August 8, 2013

Who Was King Richard II?

King Richard II of England is, obviously, the king central to the plot of Shakespeare's King Richard II, much like how King Henry V showed up in King Henry V and there were a couple of characters named Romeo and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Funny how that works out.

But who was King Richard II? Unlike Romeo and Juliet, he was a real guy, and I'm going to tell you about him.

Richard was born in 1367. He was the son of Edward, the Black Prince. Edward was the first Prince of Wales to never become king, as he died only a year before his father.

You may also remember him as this guy,
from A Knight's Tale
So, Richard's grandfather (Edward III) passed the throne directly to Richard, because of the deaths of Edward the Black Prince (Richard's father) and Richard's older brother (Edward of Angouleme, at the age of four). Richard's coronation was July 16, 1377, when he was ten years old.

His first major challenge as king came in 1381, in the form of the Peasants' Revolt (also known as Wat Tyler's Rebellion). It was mainly caused by the many problems that arose from the Black Death in the 1340s, high taxes caused by the Hundred Years' War, and issues with the local leadership in London. Richard successfully met with rebels and defused the tensions, coming out on top. (For fun, go ask the nearest 14-year-old when they last saved a country from a peasant uprising.)

In 1386, the threat of a French invasion grew, and - to be succinct - Parliament dealt with the situation. Richard was upset by their actions, because it stepped on the toes of his royal prerogative (which he put a lot of store in). This is just a humble book review blog, so I won't outline the finer points, but just pretend it was like a bunch of high school girls and their drama over who gets to decide whose house the sleepover will be at... except with more bloodshed and political discourse.

"He's so pathetic. Let me tell you something about King Richard II. We were best friends in middle school. I know, right? It's so embarrassing. I don't even... Whatever. So then in eighth grade, I started letting John of Gaunt rule, who was totally gorgeous but then he moved to Indiana, and Richard was like, weirdly jealous of him. Like, if I would blow him off to hang out with the Lords Appellant, he'd be like, 'Why didn't you call me back?' And I'd be like, 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' So then, for my birthday party, which was an all-Parliament pool party, I was like, 'Richard, I can't invite you, because you're the king.' I mean I couldn't have a king at my party. There were gonna be members of Parliament there. I mean, right? He was a king. So then his mom called my mom and started yelling at her, it was so retarded. And then he dropped out of the throne because no one would talk to him, and he came back a few years later to reclaim the throne, and he was totally weird, and now I guess he's on crack."

The Lords Appellant (great band name?) took over control of the government, but - long story short - Richard took it back by 1389. For eight years, he did a good job, took care of business, and led peacefully. But in 1397, his apparently bottled rage at the Lords Appellant exploded, and he took revenge on them, executing or exiling most of them.

Poet Mezieres offering his book to King Richard II
"Frenemies forever!"
This is where Shakespeare jumps in to tell the story in his play (so, you know... spoiler alerts, to the extent that there can even be spoilers for literature which has been around for centuries and is referenced just... everywhere) which covers the last two years of Richard's reign (1399-1400), which historians refer to as Richard's tyranny.

When John of Gaunt (Richard's highly influential uncle and adviser since before his reign began) died, Richard disinherited the previously exiled Henry of Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's son. Henry invaded England in June 1399 with forces that quickly grew in number, with the intention to claim the throne for himself. Anticlimactically, Henry won and deposed Richard, who died in captivity the next year (murder being the likely cause).

Richard gets a bit of a bad rap, because he had two really bad years where he wanted basically everyone dead, and those are the two years Shakespeare immortalized in literature. But hey, Richard was a big fan of the arts and cultivating the cultural image of royalty, so he probably wouldn't have been too upset, I guess. His reign was, in fact, the period of time where English became a literary language, making Shakespeare's popularity possible in the first place. (Richard's time was the same as Geoffery Chaucer's time, if that's any indication.)

He also appeared in A Knight's Tale.
Someone please just tell me I'm not the only one who LOVES THIS MOVIE.
Anyway, Henry of Bolingbroke became Henry IV, which you may realize is the title of two of Shakespeare's plays (Parts 1 and 2). That's because King Richard II was the first of a tetralogy (like a trilogy... but with four parts), which ends with Henry V, who is - as you may have guessed - Henry IV's successor.

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