Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

— Richard II

In a 2011 NPR feature in which Sharon Kay Penman shared her best historical fiction picks, she said, “When I read a historical novel that really resonates with me, I want to know more about the time, the country and the characters who actually lived. I see books as the keys that unlock our curiosity.” This is true of my own experience reading Ms. Penman’s The Sunne In Splendour (reviewed here), as I learned more about the Wars of the Roses as well as Richard III, thus beginning my fascination with this particular era of British history.

I am also a fan of Shakespeare, and as I researched more about the real kings and queens, dukes, earls, and other nobility, I began to wonder about Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, specifically how the history was portrayed. I’d seen The Hollow Crown series by the BBC that dramatized these plays last year (it was broadcast by PBS in the States this year; the Twitter fan account @HollowCrownFans live tweeted the broadcasts) and I gradually became more curious about the real history versus the drama.

The Henriad is Shakespeare’s four history plays, usually grouped together: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V. Shakespeare’s history plays are usually framed as commentary, indirectly, on his own time, the Elizabethan age, and as drama; ultimately portraits of the human condition. While it can be argued that these plays are not historically accurate – Shakespeare shifting certain events or characters to suit his needs – over time, though, his writings have contributed and gradually shaped our perception of that time in history and even our beliefs about them and the individuals. Some taking so firm a hold that it’s only recently that we have begun to question the commonly accepted view – going to such lengths as to restore the reputation of the long-maligned King Richard III, whose skeleton was found in a parking lot earlier this year and it was discovered that he was not a hunch back; or, beyond the Henriad plays, the real Macbeth as a champion of men instead of the popularly held, Shakespearean image of the Scots king as bloodthirsty and lusting for power. We know about these kings without needing to have studied history or read or seen a performance of Shakespeare, for the popular images of them, both good and bad, from his plays are so ingrained into our mass consciousness.

While Shakespeare did not invent that Richard III was a hunchback or born with teeth and hair – he relied upon contemporary historical sources, most notably Holinshed’s Chronicles, for source material – he not only perpetuated certain myths but heavily influenced the king’s posthumous reputation for centuries. Less extreme but no less significant, in the Henry VI plays he made Henry a pious man who would rather not be king but there is no mention or allusion at all to his mental illness, as Elizabeth I was a descendant of Henry VI.

It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction replaces the truth.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is well-known primarily for the portrayal of an evil king, deformed and bent on murdering all who are in his way to claim the throne. Even if one does believe that Richard was a brutal, bloodthirsty king, there are still historical inaccuracies that one might take as creative license by Shakespeare to tell the story, such as shifting certain events so that Richard would be old enough to have participated in them. As I learned more about the time period and about the Plantagenets, in context of the Tudor dynasty it interested me how Shakespeare cast Henry IV and Henry V as heroes, in the simplest of terms, but both Richards – Richard II and Richard III – were maligned, and neither left heirs; both succeeded by Henrys. Richard II is portrayed as a weak and ineffectual king, whereas Richard III was hell-bent on getting what he wanted at all costs. Through their respective actions, both Richards ensured their downfalls. However, why the disparity in portrayal of these Plantagenet monarchs? I’ve done my best to attempt to provide an answer, by examining the real history Shakespeare portrayed in his plays.

Having written this post over the course of nearly two months, I’ve struggled with how best to present the material. The further research I did, the deeper I went and the further it continued to grow and expand. I’m afraid I’ve provided more questions than any solid answers, and in some respects I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface or haven’t examined aspects of this history closely enough, yet that would require an essay beyond the five pages that I’ve split this post into.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post – and do take your time, as it is long. To avoid overwhelm, I’ve split this post into five pages. When you reach the bottom of the post, simply click the next number to continue reading.



Richard II was but a boy (either eight or ten years old, sources differ) when he ascended the throne in 1377, as immediate successor to Edward III, his grandfather, after the death of his father Edward, the Black Prince. Richard was to be the last king of the main Plantagenet lineage, tracing back to Henry II: the first Plantagenet king. The name Plantagenet derived from Henry II’s father Geoffrey of Ajou’s nickname, who was said to have stuck a branch of brush in his hat. The name would not be used, however, to refer to the dynasty until Richard, Third Duke of York, asserted the Yorkist claim to the throne. Henry III, son of King John (yes, that King John in the Robin Hood tales) is generally regarded as the first Plantagenet king as he was considered truly English rather than French (the previous kings before him, descending from Henry II, are sometimes distinguished as Angevins.)

Lancaster and Tudor 

Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt was the First Duke of Lancaster and wielded great influence during the child Richard II’s reign. It’s from John of Gaunt’s three marriages that two of the houses of English sovereigns were descended: Lancaster and Tudor. His male Lancaster heirs were Henry Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV), Henry V, and Henry VI.

Tudor was descended from his son John Beaufort, by Gaunt’s third marriage to Katherine Swynford. Thus Tudor would have strong ties to Lancaster, as Henry VII was descended from John Beaufort; additionally, Catherine of Valois, after her husband Henry V’s death, married (perhaps secretly) Owen Tudor. Their son Edmund would marry Margaret Beaufort and father Henry Tudor, becoming Henry VII and the founder of the Tudor dynasty.


John of Gaunt’s brother Edmund of Langley founded the House of York and it was through the marriage of his son Richard, Third Earl of Cambridge, to Anne Mortimer that the Yorkist claim to the throne was sealed. Anne was a descendant of Edward I and Henry III through her mother, Alice Holland – whose other daughter Margaret was married to John Beaufort – in addition to being a descendant of Edward III through her grandparents. Her grandmother was Philippa of Clarence, the daughter and only child of Edward III’s son Lionel of Antwerp, and would marry Edmund Mortimer, Third Earl of March.

Thus the stage was set for the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses, with the House of Lancaster and the House of York both making claims to the throne. According to Shakespeare’s portrayal, it all began with Henry Bolingbroke deposing Richard II.

While some may prefer to view the Wars of the Roses in isolation from Richard II and his reign, it cannot be denied that there are precedents during this time that would come into effect later; particularly Richard, Third Duke of York’s claim to the throne and that would begin the Yorkist cause. I do not think that Richard II is to blame for the Wars of the Roses, however there is some cause with Henry Bolingbroke taking over the throne.

Shakespeare and the Tudors – Richard II

In addition to the Henriad, Shakespeare also wrote Henry VI Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Richard III. These four latter plays are often grouped together, thus covering the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare wrote these plays during the reign of Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen, and most of the monarchs dramatized are victors – excepting the two Richards, and possibly Henry VI.

It is actually from Sir Walter Scott that we have the name Wars of the Roses for this cousins’ war, who borrowed it from a scene in Henry VI, Part 1, when supporters of the rival houses pick either red or white roses to show their allegiance. The roses refer to the heraldic badges of the two Houses, the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster.

Believed to have been written in 1595, Richard II was performed late in Elizabeth I’s reign. Elizabeth was without issue and due to her advanced age, an heir seemed unlikely – with some believing that she had been on the throne too long. Although the history in Shakespeare’s plays was according to Tudor historiography, the political implications of Richard II, whether intentional or not, were apparent – a weak and ineffectual king, deposed – and did not go unnoticed. A well-known anecdote, albeit apparently dubious, is that the Queen stated, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

The play even had a hand in a quashed rebellion in 1601 led by Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex. The night before the planned rebellion, Essex’s supporters paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre. Before the rebellion could even take hold, however, Essex was captured and subsequently executed for treason.

Although only spanning the last two years of his life, Shakespeare’s play did much to influence the reputation of Richard II, causing him to be blamed for the Wars of the Roses and the perception of him as a cruel king, yet ultimately ineffectual. Shakespeare’s sources of information included works by Edward Hall and Samuel Daniel as well as what would prove to be Shakespeare’s main source for most of his history plays, Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland; Tudor historiography being highly unsympathetic toward Richard. It was only as recently as the twentieth century that this common perception began to be challenged and now some prefer to see the Wars of the Roses as isolated from Richard’s reign.

Aside from the political implications of Richard II, though, Shakespeare seems to have stood in the Queen’s favour. In the play, Richard II is deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son, whom he exiled for six years after a quarrel with a duke, Thomas de Mowbray, First Duke of Norfolk, due to a remark that Bolingbroke had made. John of Gaunt dies, and Richard disinherits Bolingbroke from claiming his father’s lands and extends his exile to life. However, Bolingbroke comes back, at first claiming to only want to regain his lands, but ultimately decides to also depose the King. He, of course, becomes Henry IV, beginning the Lancastrian rule of the English throne and therein lies the antecedent for the future Wars of the Roses. Richard II dies without an heir, thus ending the main Plantagenet line.

Richard’s reign and deposition; Bolingbroke’s rise to the throne

Although Richard’s reign was fraught with tyranny and unrest – the Hundred Years War was started by Edward III and Richard tried to end it, unsuccessfully – the arts also flourished during his reign; in particular, the career that of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Richard was his grandfather Edward III’s immediate successor, after the death of his father Edward, the Black Prince (Richard became second in line to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Edward of Anglouême). A product of his time, he believed strongly in the Divine Right of kings and this is a view challenged by Bolingbroke in the play, as Richard, divinely chosen according to the old-fashioned, traditional view, loses his ground in the wake of Bolingbroke, whose supporters are quickly won by his Machiavellian tactics.

Bolingbroke, however, was not the heir to the throne. As Richard did not have an heir, the heir presumptive was Edmund Mortimer, Fifth Earl of March – then a child – who was descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp. It was argued in Bolingbroke’s favour, though, that he was descended from a direct male line whereas Mortimer’s descent was through his grandmother, Philippa of Clarence – Lionel’s daughter and only child. During her lifetime she was the heiress presumptive of Richard, who was her first cousin; after she died, this position passed on to her son Roger, Fourth Earl of March and after he was killed in battle, to his son Edmund. Due to his claim to the throne, he would become become a focal point of plots against Henry IV and Henry V. His sister Anne would marry Richard, Third Earl of Cambridge and their marriage would result in Richard, Third Duke of York.

3 thoughts on “Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

  1. Pingback: Muse of Fire | trend & chic

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