For this week’s blog post, I want to get back to talking specifically about the work I have been doing on my independent project. So far, this has consisted primarily of reading. Last week, I finished a particularly interesting chapter in my current text, a local study of the West Midlands region by A.K Gundy entitled Richard II and the Rebel Earl, about Richard II’s attempts to increase royal control of the localities from 1389-1397. Typically, Richard’s policy of building up local authority is associated only with the period referred to as his “tyranny”, which lasted from 1397 until his deposition in 1399. However, Gundy makes the argument that Richard had been pursuing this policy since 1389, when he first regained power after being placed under significant restraints following the Lords Appellants’ coup in 1388. Overall, I think Gundy’s argument is very compelling and may have significant implications for the way that Richard’s transition into tyranny is viewed.
To begin my explanation of Gundy’s argument, it is necessary that I provide a bit of context about the political environment of the late 14th century. Although it is often assumed that medieval kings exercised absolute authority over their subjects, this was far from the case. In fact, the monarch depended on the support of the elite noble and gentry classes, whose “land gave them the ability to raise an armed force from their tenants to enforce the king’s rule” (Gundy 19). Furthermore, the existence of parliament, which had the power to grant (or to not grant) the taxes necessary to fund royal policies, “meant that [medieval] government was necessarily consensual, needing the support of an articulate and informed propertied class” (Harriss 39). Thus, Richard II did not possess absolute power, but was held accountable to the nobility and gentry who ruled the localities. Paranoid by the ease with which his nobles had stripped away his power during the crisis of 1388, Richard sought to subvert this check on his authority by replacing the influence of the nobility in the localities with his own influence.
Map showing the historic counties of Great Britain (Worcestershire and Warwickshire are located towards the south-west)
Gundy argues that Richard’s policy in the 1390s sought to erode the power of his opponents by replacing their affinities as sources for local officers, as well as discrediting them publically (Gundy 164). One tactic he used in pursuit of these goals was controlling the appointment of local officials (Gundy 159), two of the most important of which were the sheriff and the Justices of the Peace, or JPs (see here for more specific information about local offices). In the two counties examined in Gundy’s study, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, Richard aimed to limit the positions held by men loyal to the dominant magnate, the Earl of Warwick, who had been one of the leaders of the 1388 coup. For example, of the eight men appointed to the shrievalty of Warwickshire (which was held jointly with neighboring Leicestershire) between 1389 and 1397, none came from Warwick’s affinity. Furthermore, one of these sheriffs was connected with Richard himself, a second with the king’s ally Thomas Mowbray, while a third and possibly a fourth had ties to Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Lancaster (Gundy 161-162). In Worcestershire, Richard was met with a greater challenge, as Warwick’s influence was more absolute than in Warwickshire and he held the position of sheriff permanently, since it was passed down hereditarily in this particular county. Richard targeted Warwick’s influence through the peace commission, which was restructured in 1393 with fewer men from Warwick’s affinity and in their place, more men close to the king (Gundy 173). Warwick’s response to these appointments lends validity to Gundy’s argument that these moves were deliberate attempts by Richard to push Warwick’s men out of local office. Breaking with the typical behavior of a hereditary sheriff, in the 1390s Warwick began presiding as sheriff of Worcestershire in person rather than using a deputy for the first rather (Gundy 176-177). Similarly, in Warwickshire, where Warwick was a frequent JP, the 1390s saw him acting as JP in person more frequently than in the period from 1374-89 (Gundy 181). The implication of Warwick’s increased use of his local offices during the 1390s is that he was attempting to use his own authority to check the clear intrusion of royal influence into his localities.
According to Gundy, Richard made significant use of two more tactics in his attempt to increase his local power during the 1390s: “manipulation of legal procedure and supporting his own men in local disputes” (Gundy 159-160). Since legal procedure was the typical means through which local disputes were resolved, these two strategies are closely intertwined and thus can be examined together. One way in which Richard used legal procedure to his advantage was by prosecuting his opponents though means outside the common law, such as his council. This allowed him to take opponents by surprise and leave them unprepared to defend themselves (164). Richard also attempted to further his interests in the localities by addressing disturbances with commissions specifically designed to bring about a particular outcome. For example, Richard excluded Warwick’s men and instead appointed “an increasing number of outsiders” to various commissions issued in the 1390s pertaining to a dispute between royal officials and the bishop of Worcester over land in Worcestershire (Gundy 163). Additionally, a commission appointed to investigate the misdeeds of one of Richard’s most trusted retainers, William Bagot, was purposefully given limited powers that went so far as to prevent it from inflicting any punishment upon Bagot (Gundy 184).
After reading this chapter, I feel that Gundy’s argument has a good deal of potential. It offers a compelling explanation for Richard’s sudden slip into tyranny in 1397 – that it was not sudden at all, but rather the final stage of a policy he had been unrolling for years. However, before I can come to a conclusion regarding the validity of this argument, I feel that I need to look further into the specifics of royal intervention in the localities from earlier in the reign and from the reigns of different monarchs in order to deduce just how unusual Richard’s tactics were.
Gundy, A. K. Richard II and the Rebel Earl. Cambridge UP, 2013. Cambridge
Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series.
Harriss, Gerald. “Political Society and the Growth of Government in Late Medieval England.” Past & Present, no. 138, 1993, pp. 28–57. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/651187.
“Historic Counties of Great Britain.” Pictures of England, 2017,
17 Oct. 2017.