As promised in my previous blog post, this week I will be discussing some of the most principle chroniclers active during the reign of Richard II. Of these, one of the most important and frequently cited is Thomas Walsingham (c. 1340 – c. 1422), a monk at the prominent Hertfordshire monastery of St. Albans. Although Walsingham is widely recognized as having been a prolific author, there remains scholarly debate as to exactly which of the numerous chronicles produced at St. Albans he contributed (Stow 69-70). Stow attributes the Chronicon Angliae, the Annales Ricardi Secundi, the Ypodigma Neustriae, and the Historia Anglicana to Walsingham. Although none of the books I have read cite the Ypodigma Neustriae, each of the other three sources are cited and attributed to Walsingham in at least two of my books, with the Historia Anglicana cited in all three books (Gundy; Fletcher; Saul). Thus it seems to me that these three texts can be said to have been definitively attributed to Walsingham by scholars.
The Cathedral at the former Abbey of St. Albans, where Thomas Walsingham spent most of his life.
The main strength of Walsingham’s work is the breadth of events it covers. However, it suffers from frequent instances of misinformation and the fact that Walsingham often revised his chronicle to reflect changing political circumstances (McHardy 10-11). This latter problem becomes particularly significant when we consider the fact that Walsingham lived through Richard’s downfall and well into the period of Lancastrian rule. Consequently, Walsingham often adopts a very critical attitude towards Richard’s policies and behavior. For instance, when describing the transfer of power from the Appellants back to the king, Walsingham states that Richard “removed the duke of Gloucester and the earl of Warwick and many other worthy men from the council, and brought in others who pleased him…Meanwhile certain detractors in the king’s circle made him so paranoid that he believed his uncle, the duke of Gloucester, had gathered troops to attack him” (McHardy 248). Significantly, the impression of a naive, easily influenced king who favored manipulative counselors over those worthy of his trust conveyed by this passage and many others in Walsingham’s work has continued to shape perceptions of Richard to this day.
Another prominent chronicler active during Richard’s reign was Henry Knighton, a canon at the abbey of St. Mary in the Meadows. Unlike Walsingham, Knighton did not live through Richard’s so-called tyranny and deposition. Rather, Knighton died around 1396, although his chronicle ends for the most part in 1392, at which point he had begun to go blind. However, another source of bias can be found in Knighton’s work – namely his loyalty to the house of Lancaster, which dominated his home county of Leicester (McHardy 11). That his Lancastrian leanings were indeed pronounced is suggested by Saul’s reference to Knighton as “the Lancastrian chronicler” when describing Knighton’s account of the attack on the Duke of Lancaster’s property during the 1381 Peasants revolt (Saul 64). This bias can be clearly detected in Knighton’s praise of Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and the most prominent, as well as controversial, magnate during most of Richard’s reign. While numerous chronicle accounts paint an overwhelmingly negative picture of Gaunt, Knighton’s does quite the opposite, claiming instead that “this excellent duke was so grounded in the strength of virtue that, in all his tribulations, and in every tight corner and all the injuries maliciously heaped upon him, he never sought revenge, nor did he order punishment by his men. But he endured patiently, and forgave the wrongs of those who asked his forgiveness” (McHardy 89). Clearly, Knighton held Gaunt in high esteem. Unsurprisingly, according to McHardy, Knighton showed similar favor to Gaunt’s son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke (McHardy 11-12). However, although Knighton did live to witness tensions between the king and both Gaunt and Bolingbroke, these did not become permanent until after Knighton’s death. Thus, it can not be said that Knighton’s Lancastrian loyalties would likely have given him an overly negative view of the King.
A third important chronicle source from the reign is the Westminster Chronicle. In all likelihood, this work was composed by two different monks at Westminster Abbey, with the first writing from 1381 until November 1383 and the second writing from after the “merciless” parliament of 1388 until 1394. The greatest strength of the Westminster writers is the proximity they had to the central organs of government. Afterall, Westminster Abbey was located next to the King’s palace of Westminster, as well as the hall which housed the central courts. During parliament, the Commons assembled in the chapter house of the Abbey itself. Furthermore, some of the members of the Abbey’s legal counsel were also involved in the royal administration. Thus, the authors of the Westminster Chronicle were in all likelihood the most well informed writers at the time about contemporary politics. However, the usefulness of the Chronicle is diminished by the fact that it ends in 1394, six years before Richard’s death. This is particularly problematic for my study, which focuses on the 1390s. Nonetheless, the extent to which the Westminster writers were informed about political life under Richard II makes their Chronicle an indispensable source for my study and any other study of the reign (McHardy 12-13).
Westminster Abbey in modern-day London
Together, Walsingham, Knighton, and the Westminster Chronicle constitute the major body of contemporary narrative accounts which historians of Richard’s reign draw on. Unfortunately, these sources provide little information about the later 1390s, since both Knighton and the second Westminster writer end before 1396 and Walsingham’s account becomes considerably biased at this point. Thus, historians need to turn to other chronicle sources to get a solid picture of the end of Richard’s reign. In my next blog post, I will be discussing some of these supplementary sources.
Fletcher, Christopher. Richard II: Manhood, Youth, and Politics, 1377-99. Oxford
UP, 2008. Oxford Historical Monographs.
Gundy, A. K. Richard II and the Rebel Earl. Cambridge UP, 2013. Cambridge
Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series.
McHardy, A. K. The Reign of Richard II: From Minority to Tyranny 1377-97.
Manchester UP, 2012.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. Yale UP, 1997. Yale English Monarchs.
Stow, George B. “Richard II in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronicles.” Speculum,
vol. 59, no. 1, 1984, pp. 68102. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/