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18 September 2014
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All Change at the Palace of Westminster

By Jacqueline Riding
The great drama of Richard II

Image of portrait of Richard II
Richard II - his deposition broke the line of kingship ©
The deposition of Richard II was a significant moment both historically and in regard to the status and dignity of kingship. Kings had been deposed before - most notably Edward II - but the direct line had been maintained through the assumption, in Edward II’s case, of his son Edward III.

Richard had no direct heir and he was therefore the last of an unbroken line from William the Conqueror. Henry IV was haunted by his role in the deposition and murder of Richard, who was after all an anointed king, and although his son (Henry V) inherited without opposition, the latter’s early death and the assumption of his infant son as Henry VI, reactivated an extended family feud. This eventually led to the Wars of the Roses, during which kings were made and unmade by alternating Yorkist and Lancastrian factions.

'Shakespeare’s Richard II was a deeply flawed but poetic king ...'

In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare focused on the cataclysmic effect of this reign on national history - a situation that ended only with the ‘good government’ of Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII. The result of this focus was the play King Richard the Second, the story of a deeply flawed king, containing some of the most patriotic lines in English literature. They come in the speech by John of Gaunt where he extols his native land:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden – demi-paradise – This fortress built by nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England ...’

Due to the unheroic nature of its lead character, Shakespeare’s play was rarely performed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, in the early 19th century, the medieval period began to be viewed in a romantic and essentially human way.

'... a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory ...'

At the same time, a more vigorous appreciation, documentation and conservation of the nation’s antiquities occurred, and the surviving evidence of Richard’s cultural patronage at Westminster - his exquisite tomb and life-size portrait in Westminster Abbey and Great Hall at the Palace - raised his status as a defining example of medieval magnificence and an embodiment of the Age of Chivalry.

The antiquarian interest in the medieval period and the new sympathy with Richard II combined in the revival of Shakespeare’s play by Charles Kean (1857). Whilst the new Gothic Palace was rising from the ashes of the old - with the venerable hall at its heart - a chapter of medieval history was being re-enacted, in all its antiquarian glory, to packed audiences at the Queen’s Theatre. The production was remembered for years afterwards, as Walter Pater wrote in 1889:

Yet it is fair to say that in the painstaking "revival" of King Richard the Second, by the late Charles Kean ... afforded much more than Shakspere’s [sic] play could ever have been before - the very person of the king based upon that stately old portrait in Westminster Abbey ... the tasteful archaeology confronting vulgar modern London with ... the London of Chaucer.

Published: 2005-02-02

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