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  • Chapter 4:1399: A Royal Revolution Reversed
  • John L. Leland

For many years, 1399 was accepted as a significant chronological boundary in English history. The convenient coincidence of the end of a reign with the end of a century made it almost irresistible as the end of a volume (as in May McKisack's The Fourteenth Century) or the end of a chapter (as in the standard undergraduate history of England—a chapter whose section on Richard's fall could be called "The defeat of absolutism)."1 More recently, however, specialists in the period have questioned the significance of this date. It has been argued that after Richard's deposition the forms and, to a considerable extent, the personnel of the administration continued much as before,2 and few now believe, as William Stubbs believed in the nineteenth century, in a sharp contrast between Ricardian absolutism and a precocious ideology of "Lancastrian constitutionalism" embodied in the new regime. The development of the old image of the Lancastrian constitutional revolution and the more recent rejection of that image have been described in detail by John Theileman and, more recently, by James Gillespie.3 However, it may be that now the reaction against the older interpretation has gone too far, and it is time to accept again that the deposition of Richard II did mark a significant political change in England, though that change, rather than a step forward toward a modern parliamentary system, as Stubbs supposed, might be better thought of as a step backward from a more modern monarchy to a more traditional feudal state.

To the extent that Henry IV's government was carrying on older traditions, it must be recognized that they were not, on the whole, the policies of the last years of Richard II. The reversal of an attempted revolution may be as important as a revolution itself, and in 1397 King Richard had, as Nigel Saul put it, unleashed a "political and territorial revolution."4 When Henry landed, he appeared as the last credible opponent of the king who had established himself since1397 in a position which was, in many respects, different from, and stronger than, those of the kings [End Page 63] before him, "indisputably master of the realm" in the words of Anthony Steel.5

In hindsight, hidden weaknesses in his position would become apparent, but in the years before his deposition he had humbled the city of London, built up a strong body of noble supporters, eliminated nearly all his leading noble opponents, made parliament an instrument of his personal will, created the principality of Chester as the nursery of his bodyguard—which Turner has called the first standing army in English history6 —and made himself, if not an absolute monarch, at least a king who was exercising to the full every aspect of his royal prerogative. The strength of his domestic position has been recognized by a number of scholars, particularly Caroline Barron,7 but his strength compared to others outside of England itself has been less discussed. Beyond his achievements in England, he was in a strong position in regard to the other British lands, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, strong even when compared to France, the Empire and the papacy. By a combination of Richard's own interventions by force and diplomacy on the one hand, and the internal weaknesses of these traditional rivals of England on the other, Ricardian England appeared to be in a powerful, if not dominant, position in western Europe.

The basis of England's impressive status among foreign lands was Richard's revival of the rights of the Crown at home. Richard's domestic achievements were the more notable because they marked the restoration of royal power from its lowest point since the deposition of Edward II. In 1387-88, the Lords Appellant, a group of noblemen hostile to the policies of the young king and his advisors, had seized power, executed or exiled many of the king's closest associates, and allegedly even considered deposing the king himself.8 King Richard, however, had not accepted his defeat as final. He was able, almost immediately (in 1389), to have himself recognized as being legally...