Richard II, Deposition of

   In the sixteenth century, William SHAKESPEARE and his contemporaries, concerned with the uncertain succession of the house of TUDOR, viewed the deposition of Richard II in 1399 as the cause and starting point of the WARS OF THE ROSES.
   In late June 1399, Henry of Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster, returned to England from continental exile to claim his late father’s extensive estates, an inheritance of which he had been deprived by his cousin Richard II (r. 1377–1399). Nervous about the king’s willingness to abrogate the property rights of a subject, and angered by a series of highhanded and arbitrary royal actions, the English ruling classes quickly abandoned the childless king in favor of his Lancastrian kinsman. On 29 September, Richard II, a prisoner in the TOWER OF LONDON, reluctantly bowed to pressure and resigned his Crown to his cousin. When this action was confirmed next day by PARLIAMENT, Richard ceased to be king, and the throne passed to Henry IV (r. 1399–1413), first king of the house of LANCASTER. The Lancastrian usurpation, although approved at the time by the political elite of the realm, bypassed the line of legal succession. In 1399, Richard II’s heir was Edmund Mortimer, the eight-year-old earl of March (1391–1425), the grandson of his cousin Philippa (1355–1381), only child of Lionel, duke of Clarence (1338–1368), second son of Edward III (r. 1327–1377). Henry IV, the new king, was the eldest son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340–1399), third son of Edward III.Within months of Henry’s accession, disgruntled former supporters were disputing his right to the throne. Chief among these opponents were Sir Henry Percy (known as Hotspur, 1361–1403), who was married to March’s aunt, and Sir Edmund Mortimer (1376–1409), March’s uncle. Henry IV survived a series of pro-Mortimer uprisings in the early years of his reign and successfully passed his Crown to his son, Henry V (r. 1413–1422). The second Lancastrian king secured the dynasty by reopening the HUNDRED YEARS WAR, crushing the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and conquering much of northern FRANCE, actions that made the king and his family a focus of national pride. When March died childless in 1425, his family’s claim to the throne, which passed to his sister’s fourteen-year-old son, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, was virtually forgotten.
   It only revived in 1460, when York, after striving unsuccessfully for years to control the government of the incompetent HENRY VI, the third Lancastrian monarch, laid the house of YORK’s claim to the Crown before Parliament. York’s action, which led in 1461 to his son’s coronation as EDWARD IV, turned the political rivalries of the 1450s into the intermittent dynastic wars of the following three decades. When HENRY VII established the Tudor dynasty on the throne in 1485, his propagandists stressed the horrors of the dynastic warfare from which the new king had rescued England (see Propaganda). Sixteenth-century Englishmen, most notably represented by Shakespeare in his history plays, traced the root of these horrors to the 1399 disruption in the natural line of succession. Although most modern historians reject this view, finding the origins of the wars in Henry VI’s inability to function effectively as king and in the local feuds and national ambitions of wealthy and militarily powerful noblemen, the deposition of Richard II is still sometimes taken as the start of the Wars of the Roses.
   Further Reading: Bennett, Michael, Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999); Saul, Nigel, Richard II (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1997); Strohm, Paul, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399-1422 (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1998); the text of William Shakespeare’s play Richard II can be found online at

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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