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Authors: Ian Mortimer

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John no doubt expected that, in return for ratifying the charges against the royal officials, his own position as second in line to the throne would be ratified by parliament. But he was to be disappointed. Parliament refused to decide on this issue and passed it over to the council. As the council was headed by the earl of March, it is not surprising that its view was
contrary to John’s hopes. They declared that there was no point even in deliberating such things as the king was not yet dead and his heir was young and could be expected to have children. ‘Since they are alive, we have no need to trouble ourselves over matters of this kind.’
With that crushing dismissal John not only failed, he was humiliated.

John of Gaunt was not a man to suffer humiliation for long. And he had one enormous advantage over all his adversaries. He was now the king’s favourite surviving son. The king himself was distraught at the actions of what later became known by chroniclers as the ‘Good Parliament’, especially at the banishment of his much-loved mistress and chamberlain, and he welcomed John’s presence and attempts to overturn the judgements against the court circle. When Edward fell gravely ill later in 1376, and had to face making a will, John persuaded him to rule on the succession problem once and for all. The dying king had a settlement drawn up for the rightful inheritance of the throne. Only half of this remarkable document survives today, and that in a charred fifteenth-century copy,
but what is left is enough to show that in late 1376 the king settled the inheritance of the throne of England upon his male descendants only. This nullified the rights of the Mortimer family and recognised John of Gaunt as next in line after Richard. It also meant that Henry, after his father, was third in line to the throne.

The implications of this for understanding Henry IV’s life are huge. At some time, probably in late 1376, young Henry was told by his father that, if Richard died without issue, then he (Henry) would become king. This profoundly affected Henry’s thinking, and it allows us to see Henry’s life in a wholly different context, so that almost everything written about his character for the last 550 years is open to question. For example, for Shakespeare the single most important fact about Henry was that he was a usurper. But in Henry’s mind, he
Richard’s legal heir. Whether Henry believed in 1376 that he would actually inherit the throne is another matter, as Richard could yet have had sons, but there can be no doubt that Edward III’s settlement greatly influenced Henry’s thinking about the throne from the moment he was told about it.


Until now Henry would have seen Richard and himself as roughly comparable in status: both were royal grandchildren, heirs to great estates and contemporaries in age. But suddenly Richard had been promoted way above him, to become prince of both Aquitaine and Wales, duke of Cornwall and earl of Chester, and to be acknowledged in parliament as next in line to the throne. Great men bowed to him. Henry himself received
his father’s title of earl of Derby at about the same time, but that did not begin to compare with Richard’s elevation.
Moreover, Richard’s pre-eminence was forced on Henry in a very personal way. John now decided that Henry should live in his cousin’s household. Henry would learn how to serve his future king by being educated alongside him.

Henry was not alone in being sent to the young prince’s household. John Arundel was also placed there, and probably so were the Mowbray brothers and Robert de Vere.
The court of Richard II was gathering around the future king. They did not all like him, and he did not like all of them. In later years John Arundel was never summoned to parliament, even though he should have been entitled to his father’s seat. Richard simply never recognised him, let alone advanced him. Much the same can be said for Henry. Richard had plenty of opportunities to show favour to his cousin, if he wished to do so, but he never did. We should thus imagine this entourage in 1377 as a group of boys and young men who were all finding their feet in the world but who at the same time were wary of one another, knowing that the future king had favourites and enemies, and that they all had favourites and enemies of their own.

In April 1377 this band of youths made their way to Windsor Castle for the feast of St George, to attend the annual ceremonies of the Order of the Garter. The dying king, who had just completed his fiftieth year on the throne, was desperate to attend one last ceremony. His sight, dimmed though it was, was fixed on the future. Twelve of the most prominent young men of the realm were to be knighted in a special service. On 23 April 1377, Henry, Richard and ten of their companions, dressed in ceremonial scarlet robes, processed through the doors of St George’s Chapel at the heart of the great chivalric palace that was Windsor Castle. They were to receive the honour of knighthood from the white-bearded king.

If ever there was an event which demonstrated Henry’s position at the very heart of the English aristocracy, it was this ceremony. Imagine the oak doors to the chapel closing behind them, and each of the twelve youths casting sideways glances at each other as they stood ready to be knighted. No one, not even the king, was so well connected as Henry. He was related to all but one of them. First to kneel before the king was, naturally, his cousin Richard. Then knelt his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the king’s youngest son. Henry himself was next to go down on his knees and repeat his vows, followed by his second cousin, Robert de Vere, the fifteen-year-old earl of Oxford. Then came John, Lord Beaumont, Henry’s second cousin twice over. Of the remainder, John Mowbray and Henry, Thomas and Ralph Percy were all second cousins, and Ralph Stafford was a third cousin once removed. The only boy knighted that day who was not of
Henry’s blood was William Montagu, son of the earl of Salisbury. Even the last and least in status – John Southeray (the king’s son by Alice Perrers) – was Henry’s illegitimate uncle.

This knighting ceremony was just a prelude to a greater honour for Henry and Richard. Both were nominated to become Knights of the Garter. Why Henry was preferred over his uncle Thomas has been something of a mystery until recently. After all, Thomas was the only one of the king’s sons not to be a Garter knight in 1377, so why was a ten-year-old boy preferred over him? The discovery of Edward III’s settlement of the throne explains why, for it shows that Henry stood higher in the line of inheritance than Thomas, only preceded by his father, John, who was already a Knight of the Garter. Thus it was that Henry and Richard found themselves kneeling side by side in the chapel that day, each looking to the stall which would one day be theirs. Richard would assume the one in which the king now sat. And Henry would take that of the famous Gascon knight Jean de Grailly, better known as the Captal de Buch, one of the heroes of the battle of Poitiers.


Two months later, when Henry and Richard were at Kennington, a messenger brought news. The old king was dead; Richard was now king of England. If Henry observed the niceties of the situation, he would have gone down on his knees immediately and acknowledged his cousin as his lord. So too would everyone else. Suddenly Richard would have found everyone kneeling and making obeisance before him, forbidden from sitting if he was standing, nor permitted to turn their backs on him. For a ten-year-old boy, whose deceased father had been unable properly to prepare him for such a situation, it must have been both intoxicating and frightening at the same time. For Henry it must have been similarly confusing. He had known Richard since he had been an awkward five-year-old recently arrived from Gascony. Now Richard was his sovereign lord. And having lived under the same roof, Henry cannot have been unaware that this final advancement of his cousin would reveal aspects of Richard’s character which were not wholly in line with the public expectations of a king.

King Edward’s funeral was a magnificent state occasion. For three days his corpse was in procession. The three royal uncles – John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock – processed into the city behind the hearse and the embalmed corpse, with the earl of March alongside them. The king’s body rested on a catafalque in St Paul’s, viewed by thousands, until taken to Westminster Abbey for the funeral service on 5 July. Three tons of wax was burned in the candle-lit abbey and by the
torch-bearing mourning populace. But underlying all this ceremonial solemnity was a hope for the future: that at last England had a young king again who, in time and with luck, would lead them to be victorious once more in every sphere of activity: commercial, diplomatic and martial.

Henry attended Richard’s coronation on 16 July, and almost certainly took part in the new king’s procession from the Tower to Westminster on the previous day. So many thousands crammed the streets that John of Gaunt had to ride ahead with a body of men-at-arms to clear the route for the young king and his entourage. On the morning of the coronation day itself the new king was led along a covered and carpeted route into the abbey. As the high steward of England, John had the right to bear Curtana in the procession. This was the ancient blunt-tipped sword of mercy which, according to legend, had belonged to St Edward the Confessor. John delegated this responsibility to Henry. So ten-year-old Henry had an official role in turning this cousin into an anointed monarch. He might not have been brought up to be a king but no one was in a better position to see at first hand how kings were made.


It was a strange theatre, the court of Richard II. The principal player was a boy, surrounded by many other boys and their more modest but mature advisers interspersed with great lords, all humbling themselves before the king, and bowing before many of the king’s under-age courtiers. The council continued to function, and that body made the majority of the governmental decisions. Henry’s father – although he had no official position on the council – exercised a heavy influence over proceedings. Sir Peter de la Mare was arrested and thrown into prison at Nottingham Castle, and those he had sought to undermine were restored to power or acquitted. But everything was done in the name of the king. It was thus a court of ceremony, in which there was a universal acceptance that the king was a symbolic figure and an unspoken acknowledgement that real power lay elsewhere.

The mismatch of Richard’s regal privileges and regnal responsibilities would have been obvious to Henry. It became even more noticeable soon after the accession, when the French attacked Calais, Gascony and the ports on the south coast of England. It was widely believed that a good king was a fighting king, like Edward III had been in his heyday: a leader who could draw together the forces of the entire nation and inspire them to take the fight to their enemies. If the king was too young or too old, the leadership of the armies fell to men of lesser status who could not easily instil in their men the sort of confidence needed to make expeditions deep
into enemy territory. In this way an under-age king like Richard was not only incapable of living up to his regnal responsibilities, his incapability detracted from the authority of the principal military leaders. One tends not to want to fight for a commander who, if he is unsuccessful, will simply be made a scapegoat for a council’s poorly thought-out strategy.

The reason why this predicament must have been apparent to young Henry is that his father was given overall command of the English forces in 1377. Criticism of John over the years had weakened people’s eagerness to fight for him, and even made them reluctant to provide the ships in which he was to sail.
As a consequence, he was delayed, with the inevitable result of further criticism. The chronicler-monk Thomas Walsingham presumed that John was too fond of his womenfolk to set out to fight. But trying to fight an offensive without the king’s leadership was like the lion of England lifting a paw but refusing to show its head. Henry, as the nominal lieutenant of the Lancastrian estates during his father’s absences abroad, cannot have been ignorant of John’s frustrated attempts to gather sufficient ships for an expedition, nor of the vicious circle of popular criticism underlying that failure.

Another reason for Henry to note the mismatch between his cousin’s regal privileges and regnal responsibilities lies in the boys’ military education. Over the four years between his coronation and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Richard revealed himself to be unwilling to practise the art of war. He never took part in tournaments at any time in his career, which is strange considering jousting was regarded as the benchmark of individual military prowess.
Given the age at which he became king, it would appear likely that initially his youth excused him this duty, and later he used his royal authority to refuse to take part in such a violent manifestation of kingly responsibility.

Henry, in stunning contrast, stands out as one of the most remarkable exponents of the joust the English royal family ever produced. The reason for this emphasis lies not only in the honours he won in future years but in the very first reference to his jousting, in January 1382. He was at that time just fourteen years and nine months old, and thus the youngest public exponent of the joust in England for whom we have documentary evidence.
No one else – not even the Black Prince – is known to have taken part in public jousts at the age of fourteen.
Some men are recorded to have won fame in the joust at fifteen, and this suggests that they had been taking part in public jousts at an earlier age, but, even so, Henry’s participation is remarkable, especially considering his proximity to the throne and that he was his father’s only legitimate son. In fact, he had probably been learning ever since the age of nine, when William Montendre
had been appointed as his military tutor.
The contrast between Henry’s eagerness to become a military leader and the king’s reluctance was obvious to all. Henry was learning the skills expected of a king; Richard was refusing to compete.

BOOK: The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King
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