Internet Shakespeare Editions


Richard II

Richard II. David Hume, The History of England (1826). University of Victoria Library.

Crowned at the age of 10 in 1377, Richard's early years under the guardianship of a regency council were spent finding places at Court for his favourites.

In 1381, at the age of 14, Richard showed great courage in his handling of the Peasant's Revolt led by Wat Tyler. By personally confronting the rebels, he prevented a disastrous confrontation after Tyler's murder.

But heavy taxation* to meet war debts made Richard extremely unpopular, and provided support for his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who forced Richard to accept a new council--which immediately charged the king's unpopular favourites with treason. More about Richard's downfall.

The fate of Thomas of Woodstock

Richard's fear of conspiracy, and perhaps a desire for revenge, led to the arrest of Gloucester (Thomas of Woodstock), whose death while a prisoner was attributed to the king and heightened the nobility's animosity towards him.

Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with this story through an anonymous play on the subject, acted in the years just before he wrote his play of Richard II*.


  1. Heavy taxation

    Campaigns in France continued yearly during most of Richard's reign, creating the need for extortionate taxes. But Richard adopted a sounder foreign policy in his later years, achieving peace with France in 1396 and marriage to Charles VI's daughter Isabella. Unfortunately, they had no children and war with France was resumed after the accession of Henry V.

  2. "Let heaven revenge"

    Towards the beginning of Richard II, old John of Gaunt is urged by the widow of Thomas of Woodstock to take revenge:

    But Thomas, my dear lord, my life, my Gloucester,
    One vial full of Edward's sacred blood,
    One flourishing branch of his most royal root,
    Is cracked, and all the precious liquor spilt,
    Is hacked down, and his summer leaves all faded,
    By envy's hand and murder's bloody axe.

    Gaunt chooses, however, to take the Christian path:

    "God's is the quarrel; for God's substitute,
    His deputy anointed in His sight,
    Hath caused his [Thomas's] death, which if
    Let heaven revenge.
    (1.2.16-21, 37-40)

    (Revenge and the Bible.)