Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Problems of Richard II

Medieval government was very dependent on the personal strengths (or weaknesses) of the reigning sovereign. If the king was unable to act for some reason, perhaps because he was temporarily unwell, it did not take long for the structure to start to creak. It's true that there was a bureaucracy (the ancestor of the civil service) and a council (not quite a cabinet, but capable of taking some executive decisions on the king's absence) but the king's input was vital.

Richard came to the throne while he was still a child, and there's no doubt that he had been raised by his father, the Black Prince, with a very high estimation of his own sacred person and of the royal prerogative. In a sense this was not controversial - there was no questioning of the king's right to rule, or of his exalted status in the hierarchy. The first problem was that he never developed the broad relationship with the nobility that Edward III (for example) had enjoyed - one has the impression that he was on a slightly different wavelength to people like his Uncle Gloucester, or the Earl of Arundel. He preferred to rule through a clique of his own choice, not always giving his important relatives the power they thought they deserved. (Come to think of it Edward IV ruled in the same way, so maybe Richard wasn't that far out?)

The second problem was that he had an awful lot of relatives to satisfy, and there was no way he was ever going to make them all happy. Medieval politics (if not politics in general) was ultimately all about the control of patronage, the gift of land, offices and revenues. The available pot was very small, and Richard had a nasty habit of giving most to the people he liked rather than those he disliked. Fancy that!

Third, the country was practically bankrupt. The long war with France which was so much part of the package of Edward III's allegedly glorious reign had resulted in the crown amassing intolerable debts. The normal revenue of England was only just enough to keep things ticking over - war meant taxation, and taxation was unpopular except (rarely) when the war was going really well. It was deeply unpopular when we were losing. The appalling financial straits that Richard inherited resulted in such measures as the Poll Tax which bore down most heavily on those least able to pay. (It would seem we still have the same taxation philosophy 627 years later.)

Several historians have explored Richard's psychological profile and developed various theories the latest of which - in Nigel's Saul's biography - is that the king was narcissistic. I'm no psychiatrist but I suppose my theory is as good as anyone else's. I suspect Richard was a depressive, maybe even bipolar. This would explain the difficulty he had in functioning at times, his occasional passionate - even violent - outbursts, and the problems he had with relationships outside his 'circle of trust'.

More another day...


Lady D. said...

Very interesting - looks like history repeating itself: inherited problems, recalcitrant nobility, unpopular king - could just as well be Edward II! I actually feel quite sorry for these kings who didnt quite match up to the image of their warring, spendthrift forebears!

Also, surely "narcissistic" would just as much apply to the kings who sought self-glory through victories and looking good in the eyes of the people (no matter what it cost). Am I off the mark here, do you think?

Brian said...

I think there are certain similarities - not least of which is the tendency of historians to ignore the mess they inherited. Of course others inherited mess and successfully cleaned it up _ Elizabeth I is a good example. But I don't think we should underestimate the handicap.

Given the tendency to treat medieval kings as something close to a living god,and at the same time responsible for *everything* it would have been a remarkably balanced individual who did not suffer from some psychosis or another. Certainly it strikes me that the 'glory seekers' - medieval Custers on a grand scale - were not exceptions to this rule. However, in fairness, they were probably more in line with the aspirations of most of the nobility and gentry, who tended to see war as profitable fun unless and until it got really sticky.

scott alexander said...

I will take this back if you have discussed it and I missed it, but I see nobody in academia or commentariat discusses the fact that Richard's reign was a plague reign, and the play, Richard II, is taking place in the context of the Black Plague. If anyone doubts the impact, recall that Anne of Bohemia, Richard's beloved wife, died 10 years into their marriage, toward the end of the awful 14th Century.

In this connection, how can we possibly hold it against Richard that he "leased out" the land? While Gaunt was destroying France, Spain and Scotland it is hard to hear him complain about the waste of property in England, especially since he was never there. If the old landlords like Gaunt let their own properties go to waste because they were unwilling to free their few remaining serfs (14,000 dead in Lancashire alone, and there were not all that many people there to start with) to do any productive work, why shouldn't Richard have leased out the land to people who could make it productive. Anyway, there is hardly any aspect of Richard's attempt to rationalize the British economy, and take it away from his feuding lords, that is not made that much worse by the plague's deleterious impact.

On the whole I much distrust Gaunt as an instigator playing the long game. Besides he was probably impressed by one of the wiser things (imho) Richard did, which was to get rid of Gloucester without going through a parliamentary trial. Lancaster was the richest duchy in England. He would have been the natural lord protector for 10 year old King Richard, but that the Lords didn't trust Lancaster (third in line to the throne) not to jump the queu.