I’m proud to be a part of the long tradition of historical fiction and the not-so-long tradition of historical mystery with last year's debut novel Veil of Lies; A Medieval Noir and the upcoming release of the second in the series, SERPENT IN THE THORNS. My protagonist Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, solving a French-courier’s murder tangled with international intrigue, an assassination conspiracy, and a mysterious religious relic. All for sixpence a day…plus expenses.
But what does a fourteenth century detective have to do with his thirteenth century ancestor Edward II?
Edward II was the great grandfather of Richard II, the boy king who took the throne at the time my novel is set. Though Richard’s reign began with great promise—as did his famous ancestor’s—like his noble great grandfather, it also ended in civil unrest and tragedy.
In 1384 when my novel takes place, Richard had already been king for some seven years, ascending the throne when he was a boy of ten. Neither he nor his nobles ever expected that he would be on the throne so soon. His father, the gallant Edward of Woodstock (also now known as the Black Prince) was an accomplished warrior, but after contracting dysentery in Spain in 1370, he never fully recovered his strength. In 1376, Edward died of his long illness. His father Edward III wasn’t doing too well either, and parliament was running scared that Prince Edward’s brother, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster—the wealthiest man in England and a superb warrior in his own right—would seize the throne. This was not an unwarranted fear at a time when thrones seemed to change hands with the seasons. So young Richard was ushered through the ceremonies of becoming the Prince of Wales and many other titles his father had had, perhaps a bit like that famous scene of Danny Kaye in the Court Jester getting his knighthood (at least I can’t stop picturing it that way).
As it happened, Edward III died the following year and Richard—his handlers surrounding him—was set upon the throne. Much was made of his divine right: Three kings were present at his birth and comparisons to a certain manger in the past attended by another three kings was a natural fit. There is even the endearing story of his losing a slipper while going through the long and probably exhausting ceremony of coronation, something a bit boring, no doubt, to a ten-year-old boy. He dozed off and lost his shoe and he was scooped up by none other than his uncle the duke of Lancaster.
We have a difficult time imagining it today, but it was a precarious time when monarchs changed crowns. Perhaps the closest we can come to it in recent memory was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Certain as Americans were in the Constitutional line of succession, there is still a bit of uncertainty when the seat of great power is left empty too long. These feelings rumbled through the kingdom when Edward III died, leaving a ten-year-old heir. To have the nobles—including the possibly dangerous John of Gaunt—supporting him was probably a relief to the populace.
And so it was with great promise that Richard took his crown. Like his predecessors, he spoke French, but the language of court these days was English, at least Middle English. As a language, English was coming into its own. Geoffrey Chaucer, who’s patron was John of Gaunt (who had a long time affair with Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Kathryn Swynford, and finally married her, reminiscent of Prince Charles and Camilla) was a popular author/poet in his day. In English. Changes were afoot. Indeed, even the peasants felt their own sense of Englishness enough to take their protest of high taxes to the king himself. In 1381, the peasants revolted (I know, I know), with the enigmatic Wat Tyler at its head. The rabble reached London and even burnt down the Savoy, John of Gaunt’s London palace. Richard agreed to meet with him himself and when they met in a field outside of London, it looked as if the tide had turned. Richard agreed to many of the stipulations Wat Tyler demanded—until it all turned ugly.
Did Richard merely lure Tyler to his doom, pretending to agree to his demands, foreswearing his chivalric code to speak the truth and be fair in all his dealings? We don’t really know today, but at the time, he was seen as a shrewd manipulator. It was only in his later years when he came to insist on his rights as king, to be addressed as “Majesty” and “highness” that we see these seeds in his dealings with Tyler: as King, he was far, far above the normal rabble. He was anointed, he was born on Epiphany--an auspicious birth from a noble father and a nobler lineage.
But he took it too far.
In later years, he had a falling out with his cousin, John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, and banished him for ten years. By this time, there was much grumbling amongst the nobles about the favors Richard was conferring on his favorites, ignoring those who used to counsel him. When Gaunt died in 1399, Richard seized Bolingbroke’s lands. And when Richard left England to campaign in Ireland, perhaps trying to prove he was worthy of his Plantagenet heritage, something that the nobles were beginning to doubt (after all, he couldn’t even beget an heir) Henry Bolingbroke took that opportunity to return to England...with an army.
No longer being well-liked by the populace, Richard didn’t stand a chance when Henry captured him in Wales. He was forced to abdicate and Henry was urged to take the crown, becoming Henry IV.
After a brief stint in the Tower, Richard was sent to Pontefract Castle where he was essentially starved to death. Was Richard a terrible king? He wasn’t a tyrant as some kings have been. Much like Edward II, he surrounded himself with the wrong characters, and when push came to shove, Richard and Edward found themselves utterly alone. I don’t think Richard was a terrible king, but certainly was he neither a particularly good one. Even when you are born to it, a crown does not rest comfortably on every royal head.
Note: This blog post of mine first appeared in 2008 as a guest post on EdwardtheSecond.blogspot.com