The Usurpation of Henry IV

Henry IV

The usurpation of the English throne by Henry IV in 1399 is an issue we’ve touched upon a number of times, but never directly covered. It’s a significant one, for it not only brought about an abrupt end to the House of Plantagenet, but it arguably set into motion the dynastic divide that would later feed into the Wars of the Roses half a century later. The latter question is one that we’ll delve into in a bit more detail later this week, but for the purposes of today I want to cover the events of the actual usurpation, from its causes to its immediate impacts.

So, let’s get into it. At its most basic level, the events of 1399 removed Richard II from the throne in favor of his cousin, Henry IV. Richard ascended the throne at the age of 10 in 1377 following the death of his grandfather, Edward III. The presence of a minor king was due to the untimely death of Richard’s father, Edward, Prince of Wales (aka “the Black Prince”), who succumbed to illness the year before.

Henry IV, then Henry of Bolingbroke, was Richard’s first cousin. Henry’s father was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger brother of the Prince of Wales, and an extremely wealthy and powerful one at that. During Richard’s minority he held (at times) considerable levels of control – so much so that there was concern that he might attempt to overthrow his nephew much in the way Richard III would a century later.

Richard eventually took over his own government following the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, but his rule grew unpopular with Parliament and a number of his magnates. When Richard’s chancellor, Michael de la Pole, attempted to increase taxes in the autumn of 1386, Parliament responded by asking for his removal. Richard refused and was eventually met with the banding together of “Appellates” in the form of the Duke of Gloucester (Richard’s uncle), the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick, who demanded de la Pole be charged with treason. They were eventually joined in support by Henry of Bolingbroke.

A unified front, they forced the removal, banishment or execution of a number of Richard’s closest advisers. But if peace was found by 1388, it was a tenuous one at best, for the King had not forgotten his humbling and he was not inclined to forgive and forget.

Richard’s wife, Anne of Bohemia, died in 1394 and Richard remarried to Isabelle of Valois, the eldest daughter of King Charles VI of France, in 1396. Still, he had no children of his own and the question of succession was mostly unanswered. One candidate was Richard’s cousin, Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March – he was the grandson of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second son of Edward III. Some, however, favored the claim of John of Gaunt, who had his own political supporters and was the late King’s third son.

The political standing of Gaunt and Henry as the 1390s wore on waxed and waned, while Henry’s motivation at times seems particularly difficult to discern. Certainly, whatever sense of justice or idealism – or self-interest – that spurred his strong stand a decade earlier had evolved and when 1397 began he found himself on the other side of the political arena. Gaunt and Henry, alongside Thomas Mowbray, another former ally of the Appellates, colluded to bring about the falls of Warwick, Gloucester and Arundel.

In July 1397, all three were arrested. In September, following an argument with Richard, Arundel was condemned and executed. Warwick was also condemned, but his sentence was soon commuted life imprisonment. As for Gloucester, a prince of the blood, he was originally held in Calais by the Earl of Nottingham while he waited for his trial, but Richard ordered Mowbray to murder him. Terrified of not only committing the crime, but of being scapegoated for it, Mowbray hesitated but eventually carried the deed out on September 8 or 9.

When Glouceter’s death became public knowledge, a cloud of suspicion hung over Richard’s court, but Mowbray was doubly screwed, for not only was he guilty of murder, but he had also angered Richard by waiting so long to do it. In the meantime, the surface water seemed serene – that autumn he was elevated to Duke of Norfolk while Henry was made Duke of Hereford. Both were once again pardoned for their crimes in 1387. That October, Richard hosted Gaunt and Henry at Windsor, a visit that would prove quite prophetic.

Two months later, Henry and Mowbray are believed to have a had a conversation during which Mowbray told Henry that had other people not been at Windsor, Richard would have had him and his father killed. Even more, he claimed that Richard was still planning to bring both men down. In a quandary as to what to do and the veracity of Mowbray’s intel, Henry turned to his father. Together, they decided to have Gaunt relay the information to Richard and separate themselves from Mowbray’s possible treason.

Henry was summoned to Richard in January 1398 to repeat and write down his claims. Furious, Mowbray attempted to ambush and kill Gaunt, but the older man got away. By the spring, the claims against Mowbray by Henry included the murder of Gloucester, who Richard still maintained died of natural causes. The King decreed that since the men wouldn’t be reconciled they would undergo a trial by combat, scheduled for September. The interim five-month cooling off period didn’t work and come  September, the two men stood armed and ready – literally – before Richard and his court.

When Henry advanced on Mowbray, who remained still, Richard suddenly stood up and halted proceedings. Two hours later he re-emerged to announce he intended to banish Mowbray for life and Henry for a period of 10 years. An interpretation of Richard’s actions is often seen as him getting his final revenge on both men for their participation in 1387 rebellion, but frankly this could very well be simply yet another example of Richard’s incompetence – after all, at least one man to have been being punished too harshly.

At this time, Henry was a 31-year-old widower with six children who would still need to be cared for while he was away – ostensibly for a decade. His youngest three children – Humphrey, Blanche and Philippa – were still nursery age as of 1398. His eldest three, all sons, were a bit more difficult to protect from their father’s changed circumstances. The third son, John, ended up residing with his tutor, primarily in London. The eldest, Henry, was brought to Richard’s court, technically under his protection, but for all practical purposes a hostage to ensure his father’s good behavior. The second son, Thomas, ended up going with his father to Paris. The two formally left England on October 13.

Henry received a warm welcome from France’s Charles VI and the other French princes of the blood. Indeed, it was so warm that Richard ended up sending an envoy to remind Charles that Henry was in fact a traitor. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Richard was married to Charles’s daughter, most of the French were less than impressed with the English King and sympathized with the more legendary Gaunt’s son.

For his part, Henry was comforted by the knowledge that his father was still in England able to oversee his lands. Unfortunately, that set up wouldn’t last for long, and on February 3, 1399, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster passed away at the age of 58 at Leicester Castle. Henry, already Duke of Hereford, was now Duke of Lancaster and heir to his father’s enormous estate and fortune. All of this would have been alarming in and of itself with Henry remote, but Richard took it a step further roughly a month later when he extended Henry’s banishment into a life-sentence and took possession of the Lancastrian inheritance.

Fatefully, Archbishop Arundel made his way to France and met with Henry where the two of them decided to forge a partnership, allowing Henry to return to England. The participation of the French at this juncture is debatable, but Henry maintained – and many believed him – that his return was also supported by Charles’s younger brother, Louis, the Duke of Orleans. Regardless, Henry landed in England two weeks later.

At the time, Richard was in Ireland (with Henry’s eldest son) with a sizable retinue. Henry’s official reason for returning was merely to take back the duchy of Lancaster, however many assumed that he meant to depose Richard from the start and that may very well be true. It’s impossible to say with complete certainty what Henry’s motivation was at the outset, but given that Richard had thus far refused to forgive him for his actions in 1387, he could well have decided Richard’s rule was untenable, an opinion for which he would have had considerable agreement.

Indeed, Henry gained support easily as he moved through England, building up an impressive army. Bands of resistance either fell or switched causes, including that which was led by the Duke of York (uncle to both Richard and Henry). Richard returned to England late in July, saw he was in no position to confront Henry’s forces and moved to Wales, hoping others could do what he could not. Instead, Henry made his way to Cheshire, received its homage and oversaw its plundering in early August.

And yet, Richard was still king. Negotiations between the two men were facilitated by a number of lords, including the Earl of Northumberland. There are differing views on what information was shared by each side during these first conversations – the version of events later repeated by Henry and his government is that Richard said he was willing to abdicate. Likelier is that he was willing to let Henry rule in his name, so long as he remained on the throne. Regardless, a meeting was set up at Flint Castle on August 16. Brought to the same room, they removed their headwear and Henry bowed twice.

“Fair cousin of Lancaster, you are right welcome,” Richard said.

“My lord, I have come sooner than you sent for me,” answered Henry, “And I shall tell you why: it is commonly said among your people that you have, for the last twenty or twenty-two years, governed them very badly and far too harshly with the result that they are most discontented. If it please Our Lord, however, I shall now help you to govern them better than they have been governed in the past.”

“If it please you, fair cousin, it pleases us as well,” Richard responded.

Henry then brought Richard to Chester where he and a few of his loyal advisers were kept under lock and key in the castle keep.

It took 12 days to travel to London, during which time Richard attempted to escape – further proof that he was in agreement with very little of what was going on. Nevertheless, the party made it to the capitol, Parliament was summoned and Richard was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Even now, Richard still remained king. The next month was thus spent coming up with the legal argument for deposing him in favor of Richard.

The final document listed out all of Richard’s faults and “crimes,” but all of those were secondary to the claim that he had willingly given up the crown. This last part is almost certainly a lie, but it was an important one, for Henry had no desire to legalize the removal of a king from a throne by the will of Parliament and the people. As such, even as Richard protested the documents which stripped him of his rule, the official cover read very differently. The prepared documents were approved by Parliament unanimously and Richard was officially deposed on October 1, 1399, nearly a year after Henry left England a banished traitor.

On October 13, Henry was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey.

The angst of these events were certainly not over. Henry was a king by usurpation, which meant his rule continued to be threatened for years after it began. There was not only the small matter of Richard still being alive (though not for long), but the presence of the lords who resented how Henry came to power. Further still was the fact that in death Richard was less offensive and memories of him softened. The usurpation, which is at its core an unnatural crime against the very function of a succession and monarchy, would continue to undermine the House of Lancaster to varying degrees through the reign of Henry’s son, Henry V, and his grandson, Henry VI. Finally, it would rear its head in the Wars of the Roses when the descendant of Edward III’s second son decried the “theft” of the crown by the descendant of the third. This claim is complicated, though, and we’re going to take a closer look at it on Thursday.

4 thoughts on “The Usurpation of Henry IV

  1. Richard’s marriage, aged 29, to the daughter of Charles VI of France, Isabella (his third cousin once removed and half third cousin), aged 7, effectively ensured Richard would not have an heir for seven years at least, further undermining Richard’s authority. Whoever recommended that marriage (if it wasn’t Richard’s idea) effectively contributed to Richard’s subsequent usurpation.


    1. Yeah, the child bride certainly didn’t help. I didn’t get into Isabelle too much here to stay on-topic, but I wrote a post on her last autumn that deals with her marriage in slightly more detail:

      Richard was in favor of the match, believing that he was young enough for her to reach maturity, but the real draw was the possibility of French military support for him personally. All in all, it certainly speaks to a poor understanding of his role.

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!


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