18. Richard II, A.D. 1377—1399
These were not very good times in England. The new King, Richard, was only eleven years old, and his three uncles did not care much for his good or the good of the nation. There was not much fighting going on in France, but for the little there was a great deal of money was wanting, and the great lords were apt to be very hard upon the poor people on their estates. They would not let them be taught to read; and if a poor man who belonged to an estate went away to a town, his lord could have him brought back to his old home. Any tax, too, fell more heavily on the poor than the rich. One tax, especially, called the poll tax, which was made when Richard was sixteen, vexed them greatly. Everyone above fifteen years old had to pay fourpence, and the collectors were often very rude and insolent. A man named Wat Tyler, in Kent, was so angry with a rude collector as to strike him dead. All the villagers came together with sticks, scythes, and flails; and Wat Tyler told them they would go to London, and tell the king how his poor commons were treated. More people and more joined them on the way, and an immense multitude of wild looking men came pouring into London, where the Lord Mayor and Aldermen were taken by surprise, and could do nothing to stop them. They did not do much harm then; they lay on the grass all night round the Tower, and said they wanted to speak to the king. In the morning he came down to his barge, and meant to have spoken to them; but his people, seeing such a host of wild men, took fright, and carried him back again. He went out again the next day on horseback; but while he was speaking to some of them, the worst of them broke into the Tower, where they seized Archbishop Simon of Canterbury, and fancying he was one of the king's bad advisers, they cut off his head. Richard had to sleep in the house called the Royal Wardrobe that night, but he went out again on horseback among the mob, and began trying to understand what they wanted. Wat Tyler, while talking, grew violent, forgot to whom he was speaking, and laid his hand on the king's bridle, as if to threaten or take him prisoner. Upon this, the Lord Mayor, with his mace—the large crowned staff that is carried before him—dealt the man such a blow that fell from his horse, and an attendant thrust him through with a sword. The people wavered, and seemed not to know what to do: and the young king, with great readiness, rode forward and said—"Good fellows, have you lost your leader? This fellow was but a traitor, I am your king, and will be your captain and guide." Then he rode at their head out into the fields, and the gentlemen, who had mustered their men by this time, were able to get between them and the city. The people of each county were desired to state their grievances; the king engaged to do what he could for them, and they went home.
Richard seems to have really wished to take away some of the laws that were so hard upon them, but his lords would not let him, and he had as yet very little power—being only a boy—and by the time he grew up his head was full of vanity and folly. He was very handsome, and he cared more for fine clothes and amusements than for business; and his youngest uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, did all he could to keep him back, and hinder him from taking his affairs into his own hands. Not till he was twenty-four did Richard begin to govern for himself; and then the Duke of Gloucester was always grumbling and setting the people to grumble, because the king chose to have peace with France. Duke Thomas used to lament over the glories of the battles of Edward III., and tell the people they had taxes to pay to keep the king in ermine robes, and rings, and jewels, and to let him give feasts and tilting matches—when the knights, in beautiful, gorgeous armor, rode against one another in sham fight, and the king and ladies looked on and gave the prize.
Now, Richard knew very well that all this did not cost half so much as his grandfather's wars, and he said it did not signify to the people what he wore, or how he amused himself, as long as he did not tax them and take their lambs and sheaves to pay for it. But the people would not believe him, and Gloucester was always stirring them up against him, and interfering with him in council. At last, Richard went as if on a visit to his uncle at Pleshy Castle; and there, in his own presence, caused him to be seized and sent off to Calais. In a few days' time Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, was dead; and to this day nobody knows whether his grief and rage brought on a fit, or if he was put to death. It is certain, at least, that Richard's other two uncles do not seem to have treated the king as if he had been to blame. The elder of these uncles, the Duke of Lancaster, was called John of Gaunt—because he had been born a Ghent, a town in Flanders. He was becoming an old man, and only tried to help the king and keep things quiet; but Henry, his eldest son, was a fine high-spirited young man—a favorite with everybody, and was always putting himself forward—and the king was very much afraid of him.
One day, when Parliament met, the king stood up, and commanded Henry of Lancaster to tell all those present what the Duke of Norfolk had said when they were riding together. Henry gave in a written paper, saying that the duke had told him that they should all be ruined, like the Duke of Gloucester, and that the king would find some way to destroy them. Norfolk angrily sprang up, and declared he had said no such thing. In those days, when no one could tell which spoke the truth, the two parties often would offer to fight, and it was believed that God would show the right, by giving the victory to the sincere one. So Henry and Norfolk were to fight; but just as they were mounted on their horses, with their lances in their hands, the king threw down his staff before them, stopped the combat, and sentenced Norfolk to be banished from England for life, and Henry for ten years.
Not long after Henry had gone, his old father—John of Gaunt—died, and the king kept all his great dukedom of Lancaster. Henry would not bear this, and knew that many people at home thought it very unfair; so he came to England, and as soon as he landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, people flocked to him so eagerly, that he began to think he could do more than make himself duke of Lancaster. King Richard was in Ireland, where his cousin, the governor—Roger Mortimer—had been killed by the wild Irish. He came home in haste on hearing of Henry's arrival, but everybody turned against him: and the Earl of Northumberland, whom he had chiefly trusted, made him prisoner and carried him to Henry. He was taken to London, and there set before Parliament, to confess that he had ruled so ill that he was unworthy to reign, and gave up the crown to his dear cousin Henry of Lancaster, in the year 1399.
Then he was sent away to Pontefract Castle, and what happened to him there nobody knows, but he never came out of it alive.