Richard II, who reigned from 1377 until 1399, had very little in common with his great-grandfather, Edward II, except their eventual fate – to be deposed. In most other ways, the men were complete opposites. In contrast to the virile and earthy Edward II, with his easygoing repartee with ordinary people and passion for manual labour, Richard II was a slender aesthete with an obsessive passion for the niceties of palace etiquette.
|King Richard II.|
At Richard’s court, ceremonial was turned into an art form, an elaborate and complicated political dance with the King and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, in the starring roles. Deportment was compulsory, manners strict and pageantry, even when surrounding seemingly trivial everyday moments such as the royal family’s mealtimes, was constant. Bejewelled cutlery was introduced alongside gastronomic delights boasting the latest spices and recipes, as silent courtiers, decked out in ruinously expensive finery, watched their masters eat. Fashion at Richard II’s court was dedicated to showing off the male physique – tights accentuated muscles well-toned from hunting or jousting, high-necked robes complemented broad shoulders, while the arrival of the codpiece obviously drew attention to the most prized attribute. Queen Anne and her European entourage also pioneered riding side-saddle for ladies, as well as modish continental conceits like shoes for men that were so long and pointed they required golden chains buckled to the knees to hold their curls upright. Anne, shimmering from head to toe, was doted upon by her husband, who built her a bathhouse, a painted audience chamber and a new ballroom in her favourite home, along with a private lavatory decorated with two thousand painted tiles. Richard II, fair-haired and softly handsome, and Anne of Bohemia, by no means a great beauty but with a regal presence and a ‘gentle and pretty’ face, gazed down at their courtiers from the remote plinths on which they had installed themselves as icons of absolutism, the venerated custodians of the Plantagenet legacy.
However, as Richard’s feud with his cousin Henry, Duke of Hertford, and other members of the nobility accelerated, he found it difficult to escape the legacy of his great-grandfather. Edward II’s deposition had struck at the sacral notion of kingship and the political legacy of Isabella of France’s quarrel with her husband was to bedevil their descendants for the rest of the Middle Ages. The notion that a king could be deposed rather than simply challenged and openly opposed, as had been the case with King John and King Henry III in the thirteenth century, was one that Richard II seemed to disregard as an aberration rather than a living threat. His push towards absolutism, faintly reminiscent of Edward’s own alleged tyranny in the last years of his reign, helped unite the aristocracy against him, culminating in mass revulsion when he tried to disinherit his cousin Henry after the death of his father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. As the political accusations of similarities with Edward II mounted, so did aspersions about Richard’s sexual activities. Richard’s detested cabal of favourites were likened to Piers Gaveston and allegations that he had gone to bed with some of them, including Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, helped damage the King’s prestige.
|Anne of Bohemia (d. 1394). Richard II's first queen.|
I can remember first hearing suggestions that Suffolk was Richard II’s lover at a postgraduate lecture in Belfast, in a tone that depressingly suggested that homosexual activity was somehow still a cause for slight mirth. Unlike Edward II with Piers Gaveston, however, there is in fact very little to support the idea that Richard II had sex with Michael de la Pole, who was thirty-seven years his senior and a trusted adviser whose prominence in Richard’s government helped fuel almost certainly inaccurate rumours that he seduced the King. As with many of the rumours surrounding Edward II, it seems the theory of Suffolk’s affair with Richard is the product of the fertile speculations of subsequent generations.
There is admittedly more contemporary whispers about de Vere than de la Pole, particularly in Thomas Walsingham’s chronicle of Richard’s reign, though it is of course difficult for an historian to known how reliable Walsingham’s sources were – or how active his imagination. De Vere was about five years older than the King and custodian of one of the oldest aristocratic titles in England as 9th Earl of Oxford following his father’s death in 1371. He married and then divorced the King’s cousin Philippa and for his second wife married one of Anne of Bohemia’s ladies-in-waiting. Richard’s affection for de Vere resulted in him being made England’s first marquis as Marquess of Dublin in 1385. The introduction of the rank of marquess, from the French marquis, was problematic. It helped upset the apple cart of the English nobility’s rankings, since the ancient title of ‘earl’ had always been the highest and only eclipsed recently by the rank of duke, usually given to a member of the royal house and introduced by Richard’s predecessor, Edward III. Importing a new title that outranked the earls was bound to play badly and after Richard’s deposition, Henry IV discontinued the practice on the grounds that the title was an alien one to the English nobility. The half-French King Henry VI restored its use in 1442 and Henry VIII’s French-educated wife, Anne Boleyn, enjoyed the rank in her own right after a ceremony at Windsor Castle in September 1532. A year after his marquisate, de Vere was given the royal-sounding title of Duke of Ireland. This not only tied him to a country rather than a county, but it should be borne in mind that before 1542 the English kings were ‘Lords of Ireland’, rather than kings, which meant that de Vere’s Hibernian title potentially suggested a parity of esteem with his monarch.
As aristocratic opposition to de Vere’s prominence and rapid promotion solidified, comparisons to Piers Gaveston proliferated. De Vere lacked Piers’s spirited and ultimately suicidal optimism – when he was forced to flee abroad, he stayed there. He died of natural causes in Louvain at the age of thirty in 1392. When his embalmed body was brought back to England for burial, many nobles stayed away from the funeral because they could not yet hide their hatred for him. King Richard kissed the corpse’s hand and gazed lovingly on the duke-marquess-earl’s face. Whether their relationship was an intense friendship, an unconsummated passion or a sexual affair is something which, I think, is likely to remain unknown. It is difficult to comment on it with the same confidence as one can discuss Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston that, to my mind at least, has most of the evidence supporting the fact that it was romantic.
What is perhaps more revealing is the timing of comparisons between de Vere and Gaveston, and Richard and Edward, in gauging how much “revulsion” towards the King’s sexuality had helped bring down Edward II in 1327. Robert de Vere fled Richard’s court and died seven years before Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV. Insinuations linking him to Piers Gaveston and Richard II to his great-grandfather may have been brought up in the more hostile chronicles after or just before Richard was dragged off his throne, but they were not the immediate cause of it. Richard survived for seven years after his alleged lover’s death in exile, in much the same way as Edward II recovered from Gaveston’s horrible death to rule for fifteen more years, and it was his feud with his cousin Henry and Edward’s favour towards the Despensers that ultimately brought the two men down. If anything, the politico-sexual allegations flung at the Plantagenet kings in the 1310s and 1390s reflect the flexibility of medieval attitudes towards same-sex activity – on the one hand, it could be used as an insult to undermine a king or his favourite, but on the other the revulsion that modern writers seem to imagine it provoked clearly was not strong enough to wrest a crown from God’s anointed. In that way at least, medieval people continue to have more subtleties and nuances than we are often prepared to allow them.
Gareth Russell is an historian and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied Modern History at the University of Oxford and completed a postgraduate in medieval history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including his most recent book, A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I. He is currently writing a biography of Queen Catherine Howard.
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