For my demonstration of learning last semester, I produced a review of literature pertaining to several important topics within Richard II’s reign (an overview of which can be found here) in the period between 1389-97. This period is not arbitrarily defined, but is marked by the two crisis which form its boundaries. The first of these is the Lords Appellant crisis of 1387, as well as the ensuing Merciless Parliament of 1388, which essentially gave the opponents of the Richard’s inner circle control of government. May 1389 is generally regarded as the point by which Richard had regained his political authority and it is therefore this date that I chose as a rough beginning point for my survey of literature. The end of the period I examined is marked by the initiation of what is widely regarded as Richard’s “tyranny”, during which time his policies took on a more erratic and authoritarian nature, ultimately prompting his deposition in 1399.
Predictably, these two defining political crises have already been given considerable scholarly attention. Thus, I decided not to examine them directly, but to look at the period between them, which has alternatively been viewed as a time of political stability, a drawn-out period of transition from one crisis to the other, or some combination of the two.
The purpose of my literature review was to identify a subtopic within this period which especially merits further investigation. Fortunately, this ended up being a rather easy task. As I read various scholarly accounts of the period, it became clear to me that the most pertinent area of scholarly disagreement is Richard’s creation of a royal affinity, in which he recruited members of both the gentry and nobility in the localities into his personal service much as a magnate would have done at this time. Therefore, this is where I will focus my research this semester with the ultimate goal of producing a research paper.
Richard II’s personal badge of the white hart, which became a symbol of his affinity, as seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych
The one aspect of this topic where I discovered general scholarly agreement is the novelty which historians attribute to this policy (Given-Wilson, 99; Saul, 265; Gundy, 150). There is clear evidence that Richard’s approach to retaining differed significantly from that of his predecessors. Up until the mid-14th century, men retained by the king served an overwhelmingly military purpose, with their principle duty being to serve as the heart of the king’s retinue during campaigns. Beginning around 1360, a new model of royal retainer appeared with significant courtly responsibilities. What made Richard’s approach to retaining different was the decentralized nature of the royal affinity, with retainers being taken on primarily for their role in local rather than courtly politics (Given-Wilson, 88-92).
So did Richard’s new approach to retaining represent an innovative and intelligent policy? This is where significant disagreement among scholars emerges. Two prominent historians who offer a positive interpretation of Richard’s affinity are Chris Given-Wilson and Nigel Saul. In my literature review, I provided the following summary of their stances on the topic:
“Given-Wilson asserts that Richard’s retaining policy ‘was not only sensible but successful’. He highlights Richard’s efforts to target the most influential members of the gentry and recruit across a wide geographical range as being particularly conducive to the effectiveness of the policy, which he cites as a major contributing factor in the production of ‘the most harmonious few years of the reign’ (Given-Wilson, 94-5). Saul largely agrees with the positive interpretation of the policy put forth by Given-Wilson, whose work he cites frequently in his discussion of the royal affinity. According to Saul, ‘[t]he expansion of the royal affinity was the most striking and innovative of the measures that Richard took in the 1390s to reassert his power’. Through his vigorous retaining efforts, Richard ultimately succeeded in attaining ‘what he had previously lacked – a wider following among those who were socially and politically influential in the shires’. Saul’s praise goes even further, placing Richard’s policy not just in the context of his own reign but in that of late medieval government more generally, when he states that ‘Richard’s formation of a magnate-style affinity represented an intelligent and practical response to the problems raised by the exercise of royal authority in the later middle ages’ (Saul, 268).”
An alternative interpretation is offered by A.K Gundy, who takes a much more negative stance on Richard’s retaining policy. Her book Richard II and the Rebel Earl is a local study of the West Midlands, a region dominated by the earl of Warwick, who had been one of Richard’s leading opponents during the Appellant crisis. Gundy concludes that the ultimate impact of Richard’s retaining policy was to increase local instability, stating that “as Richard used his affinity, of both nobility and gentry, deliberately to undermine the power and influence of Warwick and to replace him with men he thought he could trust, the result was more, not less, local disorder” (Gundy, 159).
The arguments crafted by Given-Wilson and Saul on one side and Gundy on the other are all well thought out and supported by substantial evidence. Thus, I am not yet in a place where I can definitively agree with one or the other. At the moment, my next step is to look at primary sources from the reign in the hopes that they may provide more insight into the role which Richard’s affinity played in the localities.
Given-Wilson, C. “The King and the Gentry in Fourteenth-Century England: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 37, 1987, pp. 87–102. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3679152.
Gundy, A. K. Richard II and the Rebel Earl. Cambridge UP, 2013. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. Yale UP, 1997. Yale English Monarchs.
Richard II’s Badge from the Wilton Diptych. 1396. The Telegraph, Telegraph Media
Historical-warnings-about-killing-white-deer.html. Accessed 27 Jan. 2018.