Revolt, Reconciliation and Ruin: Part One

Defeating a revolt only to incite one of his own, what some call the tyrannical reign of Richard II sees a child grow to be a man with an unsettled mind. Read below for part one of the troubled and troubling reign of Richard II which saw another Plantagenet king deposed!

Coronation of Richard II. Taken from the British Library MS Royl 14 E IV

Richard II was crowned king as a child aged 10. Obviously a ten-year-old can’t really run a kingdom, so his power was controlled by a selection of powerful lords. However, with one exception; his very powerful uncle John of Gaunt was excluded. The initial years of Richard’s reign weren’t exactly smooth. Discontent between the king’s counsellors and parliament was rife as they disagreed constantly over how the country should be run. The discontent was heightened further by hefty taxes. By the 1381, the resentment between the upper and lower classes of English society had taken a dark turn. With the economic strain of war and discontent between landowners and peasants and the numerous outbreaks of the plague; a rebellion began.

The rebellion began in late May in Essex and quickly gathered momentum. Soon, villages in Kent and Canterbury joined forces with the rebels where they marched on and seized Canterbury Castle. By June thousands of peasants had gathered near London. Sheltering in the Tower of London, Richard and his advisors knew that they didn’t have the numbers to defeat the rebels now gathered outside who were clamouring for war. As the rebels poured into London, they burned down the Savoy Palace (where the Savoy Hotel in London stands today!) and killed the Lord High Treasurer. The rebels wanted Richard to come out and negotiate their terms, demanding that he hand over to them key members of parliament and the court to execute but Richard refused. He did however march to Mile End to meet the rebels with his bodyguard where he declared that he was abolishing serfdom. As he did this, rebels entered and seized the Tower of London where they found the Archbishop of Canterbury, the physician of John of Gaunt, William Appleton and royal Sergeant John Legge and had them beheaded, their heads paraded round the city streets. They nearly executed John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, however he was spared. (Remember Henry Bolingbroke as he comes into this story soon enough!)

Richard Watching the death of Wat Tyler.
By Unknown author – Gruuthuse manuscript; Froissart’s Chronicles (Bib. Nat. Fr. 2644, fol. 159v) Image taken from Wikipedia

Following the turmoil in London, Richard agreed to once more meet with the rebels. Richard aged 14, bravely marched with 200 men to the east of Smithfield where they encountered rebels in their thousands. Richard met with the leader Wat Tyler and conversed with him, calling him brother, promising friendship and agreement to his terms. However, just as things were looking up, a fight broke out and Tyler was pulled from his horse and killed. Now what happens next is exceptional. Richard II rode alone towards the thousands of rebels and demanded that they lower their weapons crying “I am your captain, follow me!”

Richard addressing the rebels (right) and the death of Wat Tyler (left). Image taken from Wikipedia. Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f.

Miraculously the rebels lowered their weapons and bowed to the young king; Richard had won their affection. An act worthy of his famous forebearers, Richard showed bravery and his promise as king. Richard dutifully agreed to all the terms put forward by the peasants. However mere days later, he changed his mind and marched on the rebels in Essex putting their revolt down in a series of bloody battles which belied his earlier sentiments.

The revolt was over, but this disobedience was to sow paranoia in the mind of the king, which would later prove to be disastrous.

To be continued…


Castor, Helen (2000). The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: Public Authority and Private Power, 1399–1461. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 8–21.

Dodd, Gwilym, ed. (2000). The Reign of Richard II. Stroud

Dunn, Alastair (2002). The Great Rising of 1381: the Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, UK: Tempus.

Gillespie, James; Goodman, Anthony, eds. (1997). The Age of Richard II. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

Tuck, Anthony (2004). “Richard II (1367–1400)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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