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Authors: Ian Mortimer

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In the midst of these discussions a letter arrived, purporting to be from Richard II in Scotland. So popular had the rallying cry ‘King Richard is alive’ become that it had become expedient to put forward a living ex-king to be a focus for the dissent. The man chosen, Thomas Ward of Trumpington, was welcomed at the Scottish court. Jean Creton went to
visit him there in 1402, believing at the outset that he was genuinely Richard II, only to find later that year that the man was an impostor. Nevertheless, the false Richard did not actually need to do anything in order to satisfy his supporters; he had merely to exist as a rival king in order to sap the strength of Henry’s kingship. The letters now received in parliament were sealed with Richard’s privy seal, which had been removed in 1399 by William Serle. With such letters in circulation Henry could do nothing but summon Richard’s erstwhile keeper into parliament and ask him what he thought of them. The man declared he would fight a duel with anyone who declared Richard II was alive.
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It was only superficially a solution to the problem. As Henry was well aware, his real enemy in this debate could not be harmed, being less substantial and more popular than a ghost.

The parliament of January 1404 was humiliating from beginning to end. Ironically, the commons were only further weakening Henry’s kingship by placing such fetters on his expenditure. For the new tax was very far from being sufficient to solve Henry’s problems; it probably raised no more than £10,000.
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As a consequence many annuities of loyal crown servants could not be paid, and the officers responsible for the financial administration of the kingdom were faced with ever-increasing debts. Quite what the new queen must have thought on learning that the majority of her servants had to leave the country we can only guess, but it is likely that Henry bore that shame particularly heavily, especially considering his comments to Savage about the shame in annulling the ‘grants to ladies’ in the early days of the parliament.

Was it all worth it? No doubt Henry would have said yes, it was, for the simple reason that he had survived. He had been drawn into a political situation similar to Richard II’s in 1386, and yet he had managed to avert a rising similar to that of the Lords Appellant which followed that assembly. He had stooped so far and compromised his royal dignity far more than Richard would have done. And whatever humiliations he had had to endure, he was the stronger for surviving them. He was learning new political lessons with every blow struck at him. The most telling sign of this is the list of councillors which he was forced to announce in parliament. It included the usual intimates, namely two of his half-brothers (Henry and John Beaufort), his brother-in-law Westmorland and his close friend Archbishop Arundel. But it also included Lancastrian retainers of the sort who had come in for so much criticism in the parliament of 1401, such as Hugh Waterton and John Norbury. Similarly, the Lancastrian Sir Thomas Erpingham had quietly been reappointed steward of the household the previous November. The council and household were packed with his supporters. And, most interestingly, among all these Lancastrians and
old friends there was the lone critical figure of Sir Arnold Savage. Far from holding a grudge against him, Henry sought to put his critical faculties to constructive use. Where Richard would have held a grudge, and looked for a chance to execute a man who dared to speak so harshly against him, Henry sought an opportunity to accommodate the man’s skills within the government. That difference, the ability of the tree to bend and sway in the storm, was one of the key reasons why Henry survived and Richard did not.

*

Henry went down to Eltham for Easter (30 March) 1404, but was back at Westminster shortly afterwards. On 15 April – his thirty-seventh birthday – the French invaded Dartmouth. The following day, the duke of Burgundy, who had hitherto restrained his nephew, the duke of Orléans, from taking France into war against England, fell mortally ill. The day after that, Henry learned that a new plot was being hatched against him. Out of the frying pan of parliament and into the fires of invasion and rebellion: the spring of 1404 was shaping up to be a sequence of renewed challenges.

The plot of Margaret, countess of Oxford, was the sixth against Henry in four years.
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In some ways it was the strangest of them all. It involved a series of local prelates and the countess inviting the duke of Orléans and the count of St Pol to invade England by a certain route in Essex the previous December, and to march on Henry in the name of King Richard.
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That had not happened, of course, but still the plot developed as the plotters involved more and more people, shifting their expectations to a projected meeting between the supposedly living Richard II and Owen Glendower at Northampton on Midsummer’s Day 1404. The first Henry seems to have known of it was on 17 April, when he despatched his loyal esquire Elmyn Leget and Sir William Coggeshall to Essex to arrest three men: John Staunton, a servant of the countess of Oxford; John Fowler, a canon of St Osyth; and John Nele, a goldsmith. At the same time he ordered a precautionary fleet to assemble at Sandwich.

By any reckoning, it was a half-baked plan. The plotters themselves seem to have been very patient in their plotting, and we have to suspect that there was a certain degree of catharsis for the countess in the whole process. She was not only the mother of Richard’s favourite, Robert de Vere, but a first cousin of the Percys. Discussing ways to bring down Henry’s government seems to have occupied her agreeably in the wake of Shrewsbury and the loss of her kin. In reality, a French invasion was never likely to rouse the people into deposing Henry; more probably it would have been seen as a threat. If the attack on Dartmouth at this time was
anything to go by, the French were not welcome. A well-organised series of defensive measures forced the invaders to fight immediately on landing there. Even the women of Dartmouth joined in the resistance. The French lord of Château Neuf – a man who had been vociferously against Henry – was killed, and many prisoners taken, including the lord’s brothers. Another attack by the count of St Pol on the Isle of Wight similarly met with stiff resistance. Regardless of what the people of Essex might have thought of the idea of an invasion in the name of Richard II, the French parties to the countess’s plot had no illusions about being greeted as a relieving army on landing in southern England.

Henry himself seems to have given little time to the plot. Long before the first confessions came – Staunton made his at the end of May – he had departed for the north. He wrote to the mayor of Dartmouth from Nottingham on 25 May asking him to bring five of his prisoners for questioning about the French plans.
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Perhaps it was in this way that he learned of the secret negotiations between the French and Glendower, which resulted in a treaty sealed the following month. His enemies were massing against him, and increasingly acting in conjunction with each other. In June the Cistercian abbot of Revesby Abbey (Lincolnshire) preached a sermon claiming that there were ten thousand men in England who believed ‘King Richard is alive’.
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With East Anglia seething with treason, and the Percy castles in the north holding out against Henry (despite the earl of Northumberland’s surrender), and the enmity of the Welsh, French and Scots, Henry was under attack on all the points of the compass.

Henry’s motive for moving north had nothing to do with any of these outward pressures. By June he was aware that his resources were woefully inadequate. The January 1404 parliament had practically disempowered him. He thus retreated to his own estates, and tried to live more like a Lancastrian magnate, using the wherewithal of his own manors. By 21 June he was at his castle of Pontefract; after that he kept close to Lancastrian lands for several months, spending almost all of September, for example, at Tutbury Castle. Even this measure did not save sufficient money to alleviate the situation. It was for want of men and money that two of the most important castles in North Wales – Harlech and Aberystwyth – now fell to Glendower. Harlech had been defended by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welshmen.
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They had successfully held the immensely strong castle against Glendower and had even locked up their castellan who had been on the verge of surrendering, but in the end they opted for a peaceful surrender. Henry must have cursed; it would be very difficult to win it back again.

Henry did have one piece of good luck at this time. William Clifford, a retainer of the earl of Northumberland, brought William Serle to him in June.
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Henry could take a particular satisfaction in administering justice to the man who had personally killed his uncle. More importantly, Serle’s capture was a dramatic propaganda coup. He confessed he had stolen Richard’s signet ring in 1399, and that he had used it to seal the letters from the false Richard in Scotland. He also confessed that he knew the Scottish Richard to be an impostor.
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There was no doubt as to his sentence: he was to be drawn, hanged, disembowelled with his intestines being burnt before him, beheaded and quartered. It was the same full traitor’s death as that suffered by John Hall five years earlier, with one dramatic refinement. He was to be drawn through the streets of all the towns through which he passed on the way to London, going the long way, through East Anglia. Furthermore, he was hanged in each place and cut down while still alive, before being drawn on to the next town.
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In this way, over the next six weeks he was drawn through the streets of Pontefract, Lincoln, Norwich and many towns in Suffolk, Essex and Hertfordshire. Those ten thousand who said ‘King Richard is alive’ were now shown the man who had created the lie. This demonstration went a long way to persuading the clergy and commoners that it would be useless from now on to campaign against Henry in the name of Richard II. Combined with the betrothal of Richard’s widow, Princess Isabella of France, to her cousin Charles, son of the duke of Orléans – by which the French royal family demonstrated that they believed Richard truly to be dead – the name of Richard II was stripped of its political potency. For many years men continued to profess faith in the Scottish impostor but only on an individual basis. Never again was there a serious rebellion in the name of the murdered king.

*

In normal circumstances the loss of Harlech would have resulted in Henry leading a short, punitive expedition. He had led such a campaign every year of his reign to date. But this time there was no money. The cash in the hands of the war treasurers was consumed in paying for the defence of the seas and for the troops with the prince. So, when Glendower held his first ‘parliament’ at Machynlleth that summer, and had himself crowned Owen IV, prince of Wales, there was nothing Henry could do to stop him. There was no money even to pay the wages of the troops already stationed in South Wales. Predictably, Prince Owen took advantage of this English inaction. The villages around Shrewsbury were attacked. On 20 August the town of Kidwelly was captured and burned by the Welsh. Rumours reached the English court of a substantial French fleet gathering
at Harfleur to support Glendower. It was becoming apparent that the January 1404 parliament had made a grave mistake in trying to improve government by financially tying the king’s hands.

Henry was in a very difficult position. He could simply have sacrificed Wales, and done nothing, blaming parliament for everything. But that would have been breaking his coronation vows, and counter to everything for which he had returned in 1399. It would have done nothing to encourage his son, the prince, who was pawning his own goods in order to keep an army in the field to defend Herefordshire.
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Henry had to do something, even if it involved summoning another parliament and going through the whole damaging process again. On 26 August that was precisely what he decided to do, issuing writs on that day for parliament to assemble at Coventry in October. No lawyers were to be summoned this time, because it was said they spent too much time dealing with their own business and not enough with the more important matters of state. It has thus been known historically as the Unlearned Parliament.
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That is a misnomer; it was a more serious assembly than many others of the reign, for it was concerned exclusively with meeting the threats from France and Wales. Lawyers who wanted to present their own petitions could wait until the dangers had passed.

On 29 August Henry held a meeting of his council at Lichfield.
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The French fleet gathering at Harfleur was discussed, and letters were sent out to the leading maritime men of Devon, including John Hawley of Dartmouth, Philip Courtenay of Powderham, Peter Courtenay (the earl of Devon’s son) and Henry Pay (another notorious Devon privateer), instructing them to resist the expected armada. The council confirmed that, as Henry could not afford to raise an army to defend Wales, he should not attempt a campaign. Until parliament gave him enough money to do otherwise, he himself was to remain on his estates at Tutbury.

Meeting in such circumstances, the leaders of the commons might have been expected to acknowledge the deep flaws in their experiment in royal control and readily grant the necessary taxation. They did no such thing. A bitter dispute ensued, in which two forms of raising money were discussed at length. The first involved the confiscation of the temporalities – the secular income – of the entire Church. Needless to say, the commons were more than happy to think that the clergy could be forced to give up a proportion of their wealth to dig the nation out of a financial hole. But equally unsurprisingly the proposal gave rise to several sharp and impassioned speeches from Archbishop Arundel, who persuaded the commons at length to give up on the plan. Instead a petition was put forward whereby Henry would rebuild the ancient inheritance of the Crown, taking back into his hands everything – annuities, fees, castles and lands – that had
been granted since the fortieth year of Edward III’s reign, which ended on 24 January 1367. To this Henry replied in person, in English – the first time a king is recorded as replying to a parliamentary petition in English. He thanked the commons for their proposal, and agreed to put it into practice as soon as practicable. He promised that a commission would be set up to examine which grants made since January 1367 should be confirmed and which should be revoked. He did not agree to the resumption of annuities, but with regard to lands, fees and castles, he ordered that those with grants since 1367 should present their documents for inspection to the commission by 2 February 1405.
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