Skip to content

Richard II, Henry IV, and the Yorkist Claim


King Edward III had eight sons, three of whom died as babies. The surviving five were:

  1. Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376), whose son became Richard II.

  2. Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (1338-1368), whose only daughter Philippa (1355-1382) married Edmund Mortimer in 1368 when she was twelve.

  3. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399), whose son became Henry IV and grandfather of King Henry the Sixth.

  4. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York (1341-1402), whose second son Richard Earl of Cambridge was executed for treason in 1415. His grandson Richard Duke of York unleashed the Wars of the Roses, and his great-grandson seized the throne as Edward IV.

  5. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (1355-1397), who was executed/murdered probably on the orders of his nephew, Richard II, supposedly for treason.

The Entail:

Edward Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) died on 8 June 1376, leaving his only son Richard, aged nine, as his heir. Both King Edward and John of Gaunt swore to uphold Richard's right of succession. Edward III died on 21 June 1377, but in 1376 he had entailed the English crown on his heirs male, removing the Mortimer line of Philippa (daughter of Lionel of Clarence) from the succession. Should the young King Richard die without issue, the Lancastrian line of John of Gaunt would succeed to the throne. This royal instrument was not made public, although King Richard and the other heirs of Edward III would certainly have known of its existence, as would the chief officers of state. The entail accorded with the contemporary practice in the inheritance of titles and property and was in the tradition of entails promulgated by previous sovereigns. Whether the entail was sufficient to bind Edward's successor is, of course, doubtful, but it did mean that from the outset of Richard II's reign the Lancastrian line of the unpopular John of Gaunt was regarded as the heir presumptive to the throne should Richard remain childless. (Richard's twelve-year marriage with Anne of Bohemia was indeed to be childless and his second marriage to the six-year old Isabella of Valois in 1396 was a political arrangement in the peace negotiations with France.)

Richard II and the Succession:

Like so many other matters in Richard's reign, the King's attitude to the succession was to shift from one relation to another according to the royal favour or enmity. At first it appears that King Richard accepted his grandfather's entail and regarded the Lancastrians to be, as the heirs male, the proper heirs presumptive to the throne. In the mid-1380s Richard appears to have favoured the Mortimer line as heirs general descended from Lionel of Clarence through his daughter Philippa. There is some belief that Richard proclaimed the eleven-year old Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, to be his heir in the parliament of 1385 or 1386, although this is usually dismissed as a baseless assertion lacking supporting evidence. Richard liked to keep everyone uncertain. His use of young Mortimer was probably as a potential threat to the Lancastrian line. (His uncle John of Gaunt had left for Portugal at the time.) In 1397, when Henry Bolingbroke (Gaunt's son) was created a royal duke as the Duke of Hereford, and Edmund of York's son was given the Norman title of Duke of Aumale (a title of the recently murdered Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester), Roger Mortimer was passed over. Richard II had done nothing to elevate the status of the heirs general, and by 1394 had indeed decided against inheritance through the female line, except in the absence of a male heir. In parliament in 1394 John of Gaunt allegedly requested the King to recognise his son Henry Bolingbroke as his official heir. If that really was the case, nothing came of it. Richard indeed now tended to favour the line of his uncle Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, neither the heir male nor the heir general. York was made keeper of the realm in 1394 and took precedence over Bolingbroke in witnessing documents, even after Henry had been made a royal duke. Richard seemed determined to prevent Henry Bolingbroke from following him on the throne.

The Lords Appellant:

Henry Bolingbroke was not quite a year older than his royal cousin King Richard II. Even as children there was a lack of sympathy between the boys, and as they matured this developed into an ill concealed mutual dislike. Richard surrounded himself with favourites. These men were often sycophants and fops; new men who replaced the traditional great lords in his counsel. Richard's bad government succeeded in alienating the nobility and the commons, even eventually the originally supportive Londoners. The very real threat of a French invasion in 1386 and the inadequacies of the royal precautions against it, brought matters to a head. Richard demanded a much inflated tax from parliament to meet the crisis, but the lords and commons complained of mismanagement of royal finances and demanded reform of the royal household. Richard left parliament in an angry huff for his palace at Eltham. Parliament demanded he dismiss some of his chief ministers, all favourites of the King and suspected of squandering his wealth. Under the influence of the King's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and the Earl of Arundel, parliament demanded that Richard return to Westminster or they would depose him. Richard had to accept this humiliation, returning and accepting the dictates of the so-called Wonderful Parliament. On top of everything he had to accept a demand from the commons for a commission of the lords which would control the government for the next year.

Richard did not lie down quietly under this new regime. He swore to support his unpopular favourites and began casting about for troops to subdue his opponents. He got his justices to declare the commission unlawful and those who had brought it about worthy of a traitor's death. Gloucester, Arundel and the Earl of Warwick gathered their own forces and marched to London to confront the King. They “appealed” Richard's favourites of treason – hence the name “Lords Appellant”. Caught without troops, King Richard accepted their demands to hold those accused in custody, but in fact he allowed them to escape to France. Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford (whom Richard had elevated to “Duke of Ireland” in 1386), was gathering a royal army in Cheshire to bring south to London. At this point the three Lords Appellant were joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham. Robert de Vere was intercepted at Radcot Bridge near Oxford. His army disintegrated and de Vere also fled to France. King Richard took refuge in the Tower of London.

The assurances of the Lords Appellant as they marched again towards London, that they were no rebels but the King's loyal subjects intent only on removing corrupt ministers of state, have the unpleasantly familiar ring of the protests of Richard Duke of York and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, in the 1450s against King Henry VI and his ministers, Suffolk and Somerset. The appellants confronted the King in the Tower in no uncertain manner. They had all London and the country at large behind them. Richard's vacillation convinced them that he could not be trusted. For three days he was held incommunicado, effectively suspended from his royal powers while the appellants decided whether to depose him or not. Not only Richard's crown, but his very life was in jeopardy. Bolingbroke was against such a step, but his uncle of Gloucester appeared to see himself replacing his other nephew on the throne. Henry finally scotched that intention by insisting that in such a case he himself stood before Thomas of Gloucester in the line of succession. Richard's throne was saved, but he had to acquiesce in the condemnation of his favourites in absentia by the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Richard would never forgive the Lords Appellant.

Richard's revenge followed years later. In 1397 he had his uncle Thomas Duke of Gloucester arrested and held in Calais. Arundel was also arrested, condemned and executed. Warwick was arrested and condemned, but was held in prison. Gloucester, however, was murdered in Calais, probably at the behest of King Richard to avoid the embarrassment of executing a prince of the blood. Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham brought the news of his death, and he may have in fact been involved in the deed. Henry was created Duke of Hereford in 1397 and Mowbray was created Duke of Norfolk.

The Usurpation of Henry IV:

Late in 1397 Mowbray warned Bolingbroke that there was a plot to destroy them both as the last appellants. Richard had already got his revenge on three (with Mowbray's assistance, it must be added) and now had set his sights on them. Henry responded cautiously, saying the King had pardoned them and had sworn to be his good lord, but perhaps he feared that Mowbray was working to trap him just as he had betrayed the other appellants. On his father's advice, Henry repeated the conversation to the King in London. Richard was aware of his widespread unpopularity and was always nervous and arbitrary in his reactions. Perhaps he saw here the occasion to be rid of both of his newly made dukes and complete his revenge for the humiliations of ten years before. It was decided to try the conflict before parliament, but on the grounds of lack of evidence, it was decreed the two lords should decide the issue in trial by combat. The challenge was issued and accepted. The date for the duel was set at 16 September 1398. When it came to the confrontation, however, King Richard stopped the duel and banished both lords from the realm: Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for ten years (later reduced to six). Old Gaunt could do naught but accept the King's banishment of his son and heir. Bolingbroke went across to Paris, Mowbray to Germany. (He was to die of the plague in Venice on 22 September 1399.)

Henry Bolingbroke went into exile in October 1398. At the beginning of February 1399 his father, John of Gaunt, died at his castle in Leicester. Many regarded Bolingbroke's banishment as arbitrary and unjust, but now Richard foolishly went even further. Instead of permitting Bolingbroke to succeed his father as the Duke of Lancaster, he revoked Henry's pardon, thus also banishing him for life while confiscating the Lancastrian estates into his own hands. It was a breach of the laws of property and inheritance on an unprecedented scale. If the King could so move against the greatest family of the realm, what security was there for the rest of the lords?

In France Henry conferred with the exiled Archbishop Thomas Arundel of Canterbury, brother of the executed Lord Appellant. Together they determined to return to England. Richard apparently felt he had definitively dealt with his unloved cousin. He did not believe that the Court of France would be interested in allowing Bolingbroke to leave again for England. Consequently, at the end of May 1399 Richard crossed with a force to Ireland with the intention of conquering the unruly Irish chieftains. (The twenty-four-year old Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, had been slain in July the year before in a skirmish at Kells. His heir was the seven year old Edmund, 5th Earl of March.) As surety King Richard took with him Bolingbroke's son, Henry of Monmouth, whom he knighted among others in Ireland. Back in England he left his uncle, Edmund Duke of York, as keeper of the realm.

Henry Bolingbroke, bearing his late father's title as Duke of Lancaster, landed at the mouth of the river Humber near Ravenspur on or about 4 July 1399. Henry maintained that he had returned only to reclaim the lands of his father, which the King had unlawfully seized and partially divided among his favourites. Indeed, he is reputed to have sworn an oath to this effect, and there is no reason to doubt his intentions at this point. Despite their differences, Henry Bolingbroke had so far always been against any moves to dethrone his royal cousin. In the north he was joined by the Percy earl of Northumberland, the Neville earl of Westmorland, and the lords Willoughby, Greystoke and Roos with their retinues at Doncaster. The unpopularity of Richard's bad government, which was regarded as a “tyranny”, was widespread through all social classes. Henry's treatment at the hands of the King had gained him much sympathy and many people saw him as the “saviour of the realm”. Castles and towns opened their gates to him and recruits flooded in from everywhere to join his growing army. He moved to Leicester and on to Coventry and Warwick. His uncle the Duke of York tried to raise forces in defence of the King and kingdom as he was bound to do. He crossed over to the west, presumably to maintain contact with King Richard in Ireland, but he knew that everything was coming undone and privately he believed Henry's cause was just. They met at Berkeley on 27 July 1399 where York assured his Lancastrian nephew that he had neither the wish nor the capacity to resist him. The combined army moved on Bristol and captured three of Richard's most hated counsellors, who had taken refuge in the castle there.

In Ireland Richard received the disturbing news of Bolingbroke's return, but could not react immediately. He sent John Montague, Earl of Salisbury, across to raise troops for him at Chester, and he himself landed at Milford Haven in southern Wales, where the dukes of Albemarle and of Gloucester had been raising local troops. On learning of Henry's rapid advance, the capitulation of the Duke of York and the imminent taking of Bristol, he left this army in the hands of Albemarle and the Earl of Worcester and set off to reach the Earl of Salisbury in Chester. The army in Wales disintegrated and both Worcester and Albemarle (who was York's son) submitted to Henry of Lancaster. In Chester Salisbury's troops were plagued by desertions and Richard's army was hardly in a state to challenge the insurgent host approaching northwards from Shrewsbury. Richard and Salisbury sought refuge in Conway castle. The moment when Henry set his sights on the crown must remain a matter of conjecture. He had already exercised some royal powers as the hereditary Lord High Steward of England, like the trial and execution of the favourites captured at Bristol. He seemed intent on ruling England in the King's name to restore peace, order and justice, although we may be sure there were enough people at his elbow prompting him to assume the crown itself. Clearly the aims of the rebellion now exceeded the mere restoration of the Lancastrian inheritance or that of Archbishop Arundel. Richard hoped to negotiate with Henry and agreed to accompany Northumberland from Conway to Flint castle, where he was horrified at the extent of his betrayal. Henry was delighted that Richard was in Northumberland's custody and came with a great host (including Albemarle and Worcester) from Chester to meet the King at Flint. Henry knelt before his cousin – sincere reverence or diplomatic show? Henry brought the captive King back to London, cries for his deposition becoming louder on the way. In a hostile London Richard was taken for safety to the Tower while preparations were made for a parliament and Henry and the great lords wrestled with the constitutional problems.

Willingly or not, Richard was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his cousin Henry of Lancaster. He had very little choice. Abandoned and reviled, his crown was lost and he probably hoped that abdication would put an end to his miseries and at least save his life. The justification lay in his acknowledgement that his misgovernment and tyrannies made him unfit to rule. A gold ring from his finger was given to Henry to signify Richard's will that he should succeed. The articles of deposition, detailing Richard's misdeeds, were read before the assembled lords and commons in Westminster Hall. The lords were asked if they accepted the King's deposition and gave their overwhelming consent. Henry then claimed the throne, not by right of conquest, but as the heir male descended from “the good lord King Henry III”. The lords spiritual and temporal were asked individually if they would accept him as their king and lawful liegelord. They all assented. Thereupon the two archbishops, Arundel and Scrope, together with Edmund Langley, the duke of York, kissed Henry's hand and he was led to the empty throne. He knelt in short prayer at the foot of the throne before he took his place upon it. There was cheering both within the hall and from the crowds gathered outside. The coronation of the new king was set for 13 October 1399. On the morning before Henry IV knighted 46 young squires in the Tower in the presence of Richard himself.

The lords in parliament recommended that the deposed king “be kept in safe and secret ward”. It was apparent to Henry that he had no alternative, as neither freedom nor exile were hardly feasible for a dethroned monarch. Richard finally was incarcerated in Pontefact castle, where, after an abortive attempt by his displaced favourites to kill Henry IV on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January 1400), he had starved to death or been otherwise killed by mid February 1400 – with or without the knowledge and connivance of the new King.

The Claim of York:

In 1460 Richard Duke of York, grandson of Edmund Langley, claimed to be the rightful King of England in place of King Henry the Sixth as the heir general, as heir to the extinct Mortimer line from Lionel of Clarence's daughter, Philippa. The Yorkist line descended from Edmund of Langley was neither heirs male as long as the senior Lancastrian line survived, nor the heirs general. Richard Earl of Cambridge, who was the second son of Edmund of Langley and thus a cousin of Henry Bolingbroke, married Anne, the eldest child of Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, in 1408 – almost nine years after the Lancastrian Henry IV had succeeded to the throne. The Mortimers had been explicitly excluded from the succession by the entail of King Edward III, and although Richard II apparently toyed with the idea of making them his heirs, he did nothing to enhance their rank or estate and never formally confirmed the Mortimer claim. Indeed, by 1394 he had decided against inheritance through the female line except in the absence of any heir male. This accorded with the general inheritance customs of the nobility and others for titles and properties.

When Richard was deposed in 1399, Edmund Mortimer, the 5th earl, was a boy of eight. Nevertheless , he became the rallying point for all conspiracies and rebellions during the reign of Henry IV. He was consequently placed in close custody together with his younger brother. When Henry of Monmouth became King Henry V in 1413 the Mortimers were set free once more and were knighted on the eve of the coronation. In 1415, as Henry V prepared to invade France, Richard Earl of Cambridge and two others plotted to kill the King at Southampton and place Richard's brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer on the throne. On 31 July it was Mortimer himself who betrayed the plot to the King and even sat on the commission that sentenced Richard of Cambridge and his fellow conspirators to death for high treason. Cambridge's titles and estates were forfeited, but the Yorkist line was not attainted. In fact his elder brother Edward died fighting for King Henry V at Agincourt. Cambridge's son, Richard (the future Duke of York), was knighted together with the young King Henry VI by the Duke of Bedford in 1426, and in 1432 King Henry restored him to his titles and inheritance, with full control over the Yorkist and Mortimer estates. Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, had died without issue from the plague in Ireland in early 1425. With him the male line of the Mortimers became extinct.

Despite his repeated oaths of loyalty and allegiance to King Henry VI, Richard Duke of York claimed the crown in 1460 as heir to the Mortimers, heirs general to Edward III through his granddaughter Philippa. His claim was backed by force and was received with horror by his peers and even without overt support from the usually favourable commons. He had the King and the government in his power, but all that he could get them to concede was the so-called “Accord”, disinheriting Henry's son and making himself heir to the throne after King Henry's death. The true weakness of the Lancastrian position was not a question of whether the heirs general had superior claims to the heirs male, but the fact that Bolingbroke had dethroned an anointed king, no matter how unpopular and tyrannical in his misrule he had been.

Towards the end of his life in the Tower of London, King Henry justified his occupancy of the throne as follows:

My father was king of England, and peaceably possessed the crown of England for the whole time of his reign. And his father and my grandfather was king of the same realm. And I, a child in the cradle, was peaceably and without any protest crowned and approved as king by the whole realm, and wore the crown of England some forty years, and each and all of my lords did me royal homage and plighted me their faith, as was also done to other my predecessors. Wherefore I too can say with the Psalmist: The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage. For my right help is of the Lord, who preserveth them that are true of heart. (Blacman, p. 44)