The success of Game of Thrones, Skyrim, Lord of the Rings, and the like in the world of entertainment prove that modern people are deeply enthralled with the Middle Ages. I myself am more familiar than most with the allure of the epic battles, court intrigue, and romantic costumes associated with the medieval era. And yet for all our fascination with the period, medieval history is given very little attention in an academic context, especially in high school. Here at Westtown, we are given the opportunity to study ancient history and modern history, but not the 1000 or so years that come in between the two. Hence the creation of my independent project – a study pertaining to the Middle Ages, the historical period I love most.
The idea to pursue independent research came to me during my sophomore year, when I first decided I wanted to become a medievalist. At the time, I was completely uncertain as to what exactly my project would be on. My first semblance of a narrower focus was to examine the three English kings who were deposed between the Norman conquest in 1066 and the rise of the Tudors in 1485: Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI. Deposition, in my opinion, is an extremely interesting event, as it is the most extreme expression of dissatisfaction the polity are capable of. The kings who provoked such resentment from those they governed have always been the figures that left the strongest impression on me when reading about the medieval English monarchy, as they inspire fascinating questions about the role of personality in politics and the shortcomings of the feudal system.
I eventually settled in on one king who sparked my curiosity more than the others: Richard II, who was king from 1377 until his deposition in 1399. Here is a brief overview of his reign for all those who are interested. There are numerous aspects of Richard’s personality and rule that make him a particularly interesting figure in my eyes. First of all, he was only ten years old at the time of his ascension to the throne. Since many of his most crucial developmental years were spent as king, Richard provides an excellent example of the psychological effects that kingship can have on an individual. Furthermore, and perhaps for reasons relating to my first point, he had – or at the very least is often thought to have had – a rather unique conception of kingship. Richard has come to be thought of as a king who emphasized the ceremonial and aesthetic aspects of his office to an extreme extent, portraying himself as a godlike figure and demanding to be worshipped as such. Whether or not this perception of Richard’s reign has been exaggerated by historians is a topic of historical debate, but it still adds another interesting layer to Richard’s reign. Another aspect of Richard’s character that I find to be a compelling topic for further research is the authoritarian nature of his rule, particularly in the final two years of his reign, but quite possibly permeating his entire time as king. The clash between Richard’s attempted absolutism and a political system in which the nobility expected to be able to exert a certain influence over government was what ultimately led to Richard’s deposition. As I move further along with my research, I hope I will be able to explore in more depth the extent to which Richard can be deemed an authoritarian ruler and the reaction of the English polity to heightened control from the center.
When I submitted my proposal for this project last spring, I had hoped to come back to school in the fall with a solid idea for a thesis. Now that I’m back, however, I am still pretty unsure as to what aspect of Richard’s reign I will be working on. Therefore, my task at the moment is to continue reading some broader overviews of the reign and hopefully narrow in on an interesting topic to research soon. Currently, I am reading A. K Gundy’s Richard II and the Rebel Earl, which explores Richard’s reign from the perspective of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; one of the five Lords Appellant who led the rebellion against Richard in 1388 (see the biography of the king linked above). So far, I have found that reading a local study (this one is focused on the West Midlands) for the first time has deepened my understanding of the political terrain that formed the backdrop of Richard’s rule.
To conclude this blog post, I’d like to express my excitement for this semester of independent seminar. Not only am I looking forward to seeing what direction my own work takes, but also to staying updated on the work everyone else is doing. Best of luck to everyone as you continue to explore whatever it is you are interested in!
The Wilton Diptych. Circa 1395-9. The National Gallery,
Accessed 11 Sept. 2017.