Because no historical person or event can be accurately examined outside of its wider context, I thought it would be a good idea to use this blog post to provide some basic information regarding society during the reign of Richard II, with particular emphasis on the world of politics. At the time that Richard became king, England was shaped by two defining events in its recent history: the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.
The first of these ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1353, with England suffering some of the heaviest losses. The plague struck at a time when Europe was already experiencing economic instability and social conflict between urban and rural populations, as well as between monarchs and barons. As one might expect, the Black Death only amplified these problems. For instance, the massive fatalities resulted in labor shortages, which required landowners to devote more resources to paying workers. Furthermore, the ruling class, which already made up only a tiny portion of the population, was weakened by the loss of many of its members to the disease. The overall impact of the Black Death was to reduce the level of control exerted by the aristocracy and promote improved working conditions for laborers (Jotischky & Hull, 120-1).
Victims of the Black Death
Since Richard II came to the throne several decades after this catastrophic event, enough time had passed for its impact to become deeply embedded in society. The most noteworthy example of this is found in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, during which members of the working class demanded greater political rights. The heightened conception of their place in political society displayed by the rebels is indicative of a more widespread social phenomenon resulting from the increased value which peasants held in post-Black Death society.
The second major event which defined English society at the time of Richard’s ascension was the Hundred Years War, begun in 1337 by Richard’s grandfather and predecessor, Edward III. Frustrated by ongoing conflict with France over the status of the English-held French duchy of Aquitaine, Edward attempted to bring a definitive end to the issue by claiming the kingdom of France in its entirety by virtue of his mother Isabelle, the daughter of Philippe IV of France. This move initiated an ongoing war for the French crown between the Plantagenet monarchs of England and the Valois rulers of France, which would not be brought to an end until 1453. Although the English won several major victories over the French in the 1340s and 1350s, the tide had begun to turn against them by Edward’s death in 1377 (Saul 7-8). Although there were several somewhat significant military engagements with the French in the early part of Richard’s reign, the English were hampered by the inevitable inability of the conciliar regime which ruled during Richard’s childhood to come up with clear and decisive strategies (“Richard II – Hundred Years War”). For a more detailed overview of the conflict early on in the reign, see here. In 1389, the conclusion of a truce at Leulingham initiated a period of prolonged peace which lasted for the remainder of Richard’s reign thanks to successive extensions (Saul 205).
Depiction of the 1346 Battle of Crécy, a major English victory during the Hundred Years War
For much of Richard’s reign, the war served as a major point of contention within the English political community. Competition between those favoring the continuation of hostilities and those who advocated for peace, as well as between factions supporting conflicting military strategies, placed significant strain on the polity. Furthermore, wartime costs necessitated increased taxation, resulting in resentment such as that which erupted in 1381 and conflict between the King and the Commons in Parliament. At the same time, the King was at times able to use the war to persuade the Commons to make additional grants of taxation in excess of what was necessary for defense. Under such circumstances, Richard was able to accumulate money to be used for other purposes, including his own vanity.
In addition to specific historical events, it is important to discuss some general trends which characterized Europe in the later Middle Ages, a period which is generally defined as stretching from 1300 until 1500. The development of institutions during this period was slower in comparison to the fast-paced institutional evolution experienced over the previous three centuries. By the beginning of the 14th century, the political framework which would continue to operate into the modern era was for the most part already in place. During the late medieval period, European monarchies grew stronger, prompting a parallel growth in national identity. At the same time, the bureaucracy of kingship expanded within these monarchies (Jotischky & Hull, 112).
It is the English manifestation of this royal bureaucracy that I will discuss for the final portion of this blog post. The heart of the central government was Westminster, which housed the most important organs of government. Generally, these can be split into two categories: secretarial and financial. The chancery was the principle secretarial department. It was headed by the chancellor, who held the great seal, which was used to issue official letters on the orders of the King. The primary financial office was the exchequer, responsible for collecting the majority of the royal income and inspecting the sheriffs’ accounts. Another significant financial office was the chamber, which essentially served as the King’s privy purse. The central government at Westminster was linked to the localities through the members of the gentry who served as officials in their shires. These positions were not full-time and were often exploited by their holders for personal gain. The most important local officer was the sheriff, who managed writs, collected county revenues, and arrested those suspected of committing crimes. Several new positions were created during the 13th century, including those of escheator, who collected the King’s feudal revenues, and justice of the peace. Although this bureaucratic system was certainly impaired by corruption and self-interest to a substantial degree, 14th century England should be considered a “much governed country” by the standards of its day (Saul 7).
Jotischky, Andrew, and Caroline Hull. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Medieval World. Penguin Books, 2005.
“Richard II – Hundred Years War.” Weapons and Warfare: History and Hardware of Warfare, WordPress, 22 July 2017, weaponsandwarfare.com/2017/07/22/richard-ii-hundred-years-war/. Accessed 5 May 2018.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. Yale UP, 1997.