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13.05.04, McHardy, trans. & ed., The Reign of Richard II

13.05.04, McHardy, trans. & ed., The Reign of Richard II

It has been a banner two decades for scholars and students of the reign of Richard II; 1993 marked the publication of Chris Given- Wilson's Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397-1400, and the publication highlights of the 1990s included the Oxford edition of Knighton's Chronicle 1337-1396, Nigel Saul's volume for the English Monarchs Series, Richard II, as well as the Oxford Medieval Texts edition of The Chronicle of Adam Usk 1377-1421. The post-millennial period has been made equally rich with Andrew Galloway's translation of Thomas Favent's important account of the Merciless Parliament of 1388, the Oxford Medieval Texts edition of The St. Alban's Chronicle, and the publication on CD-ROM of The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. [1] No matter that quite recently another king named Richard attempted to steal the limelight by turning up in a car park at Leicester; over the last twenty years Richard II's reign has received the sustained and serious attention it has long deserved. Thus how appropriate to mark this two- decade anniversary of scholarly accomplishments with the publication of A. K. McHardy's The Reign of Richard II: from Minority to Tyranny, 1377-97.

Nevertheless despite all of information now available by means of the aforesaid editions, there remains something inscrutable about the character of Richard II, if not unpopular. For example, Shakespeare's Richard II is one the more uncommonly performed of the history plays despite the fact that it sets the entire historical saga of the Wars of the Roses in motion (although the actor David Tennant performing as Richard II with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 might well entice a new generation to appreciate the play). Among historians, Anthony Steel tried to solve the question of Richard's inscrutable character in the fashion of another generation by focusing on the king's emergent neurosis; Nigel Saul's fine biography did much to contextualize Richard's behavior within the political history of the reign, but Saul ultimately explained the highs and lows of Richard's conduct by classifying him as a narcissist. Most recently, Christopher Fletcher offered a different perspective in keeping with current scholarly trends and the interest in all things masculine by suggesting that Richard was operating within the bounds of late medieval manhood, and this is precisely what made him appear dangerous to those who would have a hand in his government and thus fostered opposition to his rule. [2]

I am not quite as confident that we will ever have a satisfactory answer as to the underlying causes of Richard's so-called tyrannical conduct--a tyranny which Caroline Barron long ago demonstrated consisted of primarily financial exactions, and is thus not quite as glamorous as the chronicler Thomas Walsingham's oft-used descriptive makes it sound. However I find most persuasive those scholars who suggest that one of the keys to understanding Richard II's behavior lies in the theatricality of his actions, a theatricality exemplified by the way the adolescent conducted himself in his confrontation with Wat Tyler in 1381, as well as in such dark moments as the Revenge Parliament of 1397, when parliament essentially became a stage for the blackest of comedies. May McKisack commented on the parodic nature of 1397 in The Fourteenth Century; something of this theatricality is captured in McHardy's essay on Thomas Haxey's petition where Richard unleashes his anger against a critic and in Matthew Giancarlo's "Murder, Lies and Storytelling: the Manipulation of Justice(s) in 1397 and 1399," where we learn that even the official records of the period take a turn at performance. These essays remain two my favorites on the period because they help make sense of the tenor of political opposition which informed the king's dramatic actions. Richard's flair for the dramatic also comes across quite vividly in McHardy's essay on the king's character, "Richard II: a personal portrait," which appears in a volume edited by Gwilym Dodd. [3]

Now McHardy has handed students of the reign many of the sources and documents which must inform any portrait of the king, all clues to the mystery that is Richard II. These sources have been made available in The Reign of Richard II, from Minority to Tyranny, 1377-97. This collection is the splendid and long-awaited prequel to Given- Wilson's Chronicles of the Revolution which covers the years 1397-1400, and McHardy's volume appropriately arrives at the two- decade anniversary of the former. I imagine the task of writing a prequel to a revolution is not an easy one--what of everything which comes before is necessary to understanding the end? McHardy has cast the net wide here to enable the student to make up her own mind. Items include the standard chronicle accounts for the early part of the reign, entries from the Close, Patent, and Parliament Rolls, numerous letters from London and elsewhere, the wills of Thomas Holland (one of the earliest we have in English) and of Richard himself, as well as more than a few documents which emphasize the cost of projects such as the attempted canonization of Edward II.

The collection begins with a brief but forceful introduction which does two things admirably well--McHardy clearly explains the issues surrounding the succession to the throne in 1377, and she cuts John of Gaunt down to size, remarking that "He was seen as supporter of corrupt and greedy courtiers, and an enemy of patriotic critics...His haughty manner was also a handicap...His military record was undistinguished" (2). (I find that Gaunt's popularity remains rather high with students of the period.) McHardy makes some apology for the lack of documents on the Lollard movement and on church history, but no edited collection is going to please all comers, and many of her choices reaffirm that political history has made its long awaited comeback. The documents are arranged under six overarching headings, the names of which tell the received history. Readers will find sections on "the minority," "the struggle for power," "the rule and fall of the Appellants," and "from appeasement to tyranny." These are broken into subsections designated by year or significant event. McHardy offers short explanations of many of the documents which will help guide the reader--we are well advised that "careful study" of the terms of the commission of government appointed in the aftermath of Michael de la Pole's impeachment will "repay" the reader, for Richard's "bitterness at this humiliation, as he saw it, persisted until the end of his reign" (157).

This readily affordable volume of sources will encourage students to dig into the meat of the reign. They will find material on England's longstanding military conflict with Scotland, and a great many documents on Richard's expedition to Ireland in 1394-1395. Both illustrate the serious financial pressures placed on the crown, and the limited enthusiasm for Richard as a martial king. While "the first Irish expedition was the military highpoint of the reign" (287), Ireland could never take the place of victory over the French in the imagination of the community of the realm. McHardy observes in the introduction that "Richard's failure to prosecute a successful continental war underlay much of the political friction of his reign" (5). Students will also find a subtle emphasis placed on the actions and character of the earl of Arundel--McHardy presents him as a provocateur, describing him as "abrasive and tactless" (282). I found a few documents to support my interest in Richard's theatricality, such as Walsingham's account of the manner in which Richard reclaimed power in 1389 (248), and the elaborate nature of Queen Anne's funeral (285). My students might find any number of things to make Richard II's self-image more intelligible. Digging through the Reign of Richard II, from Minority to Tyranny will prove equally rewarding to excavating a car park for that other king Richard.



1. Andrew Galloway, trans., "History or Narration Concerning the Manner and Form of the Miraculous Parliament, Declared by Thomas Favent, Clerk," in The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, eds. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 231- 252.

2. Anthony Steel, Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941); Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Christopher Fletcher, Richard II: Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-99 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

3. Caroline Barron, "The Tyranny of Richard II," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 41 (1968): 1-18; May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 483; A. K. McHardy, "Haxey's Case, 1397: The Petition and its Presenter Reconsidered," in The Age of Richard II, ed. James L. Gillespie (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1997), 93-114; Matthew Giancarlo, "Murder, Lies and Storytelling: The Manipulation of Justice(s) in the Parliaments of 1397 and 1399," Speculum 77 (2002): 76-112; A. K. McHardy, "Richard II: A Personal Portrait," in Gwilym Dodd, ed., The Reign of Richard II (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2000), 11-32.