Richard II is a story of power and plotting. in it, Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster, usurps the throne from his cousin Richard II, and is crowned King Henry IV (image 1). This sets the stage for the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, between factions of the Plantagenet dynasty.
Here, in brief, is the story of Bolingbroke’s journey to the throne, as told in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II.
Bolingbroke and Richard are descendants of King Edward III on different branches of the family tree. Richard is 10 years old when he becomes king, so his powerful uncles and advisers hold significant influence in England’s rule until he comes of age. In time, some consider him an inadequate leader; others harbor ambitions of their own.
Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, is exposed in a plot to overthrow Richard and is imprisoned. The Duke of Gloucester is then murdered, sparking outrage and a search for blame.
In the presence of King Richard II, Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray (Duke of Norfolk) of embezzling crown funds and of plotting Gloucester’s death. They will not be reconciled and are about to fight, but Richard II stops the combat before it can begin.
Bolingbroke is exiled for ten years (later reduced to six). Mowbray is exiled for life. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster, uncle to the king), dies after accusing Richard II of improper government. Richard II orders the seizure of Gaunt’s property and wealth, denying Bolingbroke his inheritance.
Richard II then departs for war in Ireland (image 2), appointing his uncle York to govern in his absence.
The Duke of Northumberland (Percy) reveals that Bolingbroke has returned to England with an army.
Bolingbroke persuades his uncle York that he has returned for his rightful inheritance, not to start a rebellion against the crown. Richard II returns from Ireland to discover that his Welsh troops have deserted him, that York has allied himself with Bolingbroke, and the common people are rising against him.
Bolingbroke and his supporters meet with Richard II. Bolingbroke promises to surrender his arms if his banishment is repealed and his inheritance restored. Richard II agrees to his demands, abdicates (image 3) and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle. Bolingbroke is crowned King Henry IV.
Richard is killed while imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.
With a heavy heart, Henry IV promises to undertake a pilgrimage to atone for his sins (image 4).
This brings us to the action in Henry IV, Part I.
When Henry IV opens, the king faces the many consequences of his actions, including his own lingering guilt over the murder of Richard.
Henry IV had not been next in line to the throne. The presumptive heir was Edmund Mortimer. Passing over Mortimer has led to rebellions and plots to overthrow Henry IV’s rule.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
The king’s burdens also include new friction with the Percy family: They helped him gain power, but now feel bitterness. They believe Henry has forgotten the debt he owes the Percy family.
As this play opens, a conflict between English and Scottish armies at Holmedon has ended. The valiant and triumphant Henry “Hotspur” Percy has taken many prisoners, but the king does not want him to ransom them (for profit) or release them back to Scotland (where they could fight another day). Hotspur feels cheated.
As if these burdens were not enough, Henry IV is exasperated with his wayward heir, Prince Hal (image 4).
Why can’t Hal be more devoted to duty like his cousin, Hotspur?
Sources: The Royal Shakespeare Company, Richard II. Images: (1) The National Archives UK – Illumination of Henry IV, circa 1402, from a manuscript in the records of the Duchy of Lancaster. (2) King Richard II departs England for war in Ireland. Jean Froissart from Chroniques (the ‘Harley Froissart’), Vol. 4 Part 2, originally published in S. Netherladns (Bruges), 1470-1475. Courtesy of the British Library Board. (3) Jonas David Grey as King Richard II and Patrick Kilpatrick as Henry Bolingbroke in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of Richard II. Photo by Teresa Castracane. (4) Patrick Kilpatrick as King Henry IV. Photo by Teresa Castracane. (5) Seamus Miller as Prince Hal with Ron Heneghan as King Henry IV. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.