Richard II went berserk in Salisbury….?


The Parliament of May-June 1384 was held in Salisbury. The above illustration is of a Parliament, not this particular one.

Richard III’s predecessor, Richard II, shares with him the injustice of being maligned through history. In Richard II’s case all we hear that he was a hysterical madman who was rightly removed from his throne (and this world) by his cousin Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who became Henry IV.

All sorts of scenarios are described by eminent historians and biographers, all seemingly aimed at painting a dire picture of Richard. I’m not saying Richard always made the right decisions, because he didn’t, but nor was he quite the figure carried to us through the centuries.

There is a particular incident in 1384 of which you may or may not have heard, that of the Irish Carmelite friar, John Latimer, who warned Richard of a plot against him by his royal uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (father of Henry IV)

Lancaster wasn’t popular in the land, being rightly or wrongly suspected of always having designs on the throne of his childless nephew, so Richard was a little twitchy about anything concerning him. Richard was justifiably twitchy about another of his three uncles, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who seems to have set himself against the king and who was eventually disposed of. The only uncle Richard seems to have trusted was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.

I only knew the usual (unlikely) story about what happened but have now read an exceedingly interesting paper by L.C. Hector, from the English Historical Review, Volume 69, Number 266, from January 1953, entitled An Alleged Hysterical Outburst of Richard II. Please note the word “alleged”, because for supporters of Richard III it brings to mind such tales as the strawberries and the suddenly withered arm, to which all too many still give credence.

Bishop’s Palace, Salisbury, by Turner, 1795

However, I digress from John Latimer. The Parliament that was held in Salisbury is generally recorded as having commenced on 29th April 1384 and risen again during May. One morning after hearing mass in the rooms of Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Richard was approached by the Irish Carmelite celebrant, John Latimer. The friar warned Richard of a plot on his life led by the Duke of Lancaster, which was obviously an unpleasant shock for the king. He had Latimer committed to custody in Salisbury Castle, but on the way a group of nobles and knights (mostly supporters of Lancaster, but not all) hijacked him. They were determined to prove him a liar about Lancaster and make him confess if there was any truth in the plot and if so, who was really behind it. Their actual motives and allegiances can’t be ascertained for certain. However, such awful torture then commenced that it ended with the friar’s dreadful death.

In the meantime, as soon as Latimer had been escorted from the royal presence, it seems that Richard went berserk. Trevelyan says he [Richard] “….burst into hysterical fury, threw his cap and slippers out of the window, and flung himself about the room like a madman….” Armitage-Smith uses more or less the same language, as do Ramsay, Oman and Vickers. Others too, with Vickers adding the strong overlay that such conduct was habitual for Richard. Really? Proof, please?

Shakespeare’s Richard II, as portrayed by Eddie Redmayne. The Bard stuck the knife into Richards II and III

It seems they have all based their judgement on the Westminster chronicle account of the whole affair, but examination of the printed text of the chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 197, p. 142) reveals something that has been overlooked but which L.C Hector spotted. Before certain words in the account you’ll find the letters a, b and c, which indicate that these passages should be read separately but in sequence. Hector explains that this is a common medieval scribal convention to warn readers of discrepancies. The relevant passages should be read together, not as they appear through the text. This oversight, Hector points out, is an editorial blunder by R. Lumby, the editor of the printed version.

So, bearing in mind that Richard had gone berserk, throwing things from the window and hurling himself around the room in a frenzy, a new translation of the relevant passage in the Chronicle, applying the a, b and c convention, paints a rather different story:-

“….the friar pressed home his attack on the duke of Lancaster, running on with such vehemence that the king gave orders for the duke to be put to death without further delay, but the nobles in attendance on him flatly refused to allow this to happen without further enquiry, declaring that it was wrong for anybody to be condemned unheard. After listening to them, the king, like a sensible man, undertook to act in accordance with their advice. He proceeded to ask the friar whether there was anybody else who was privy to this matter, or whether he alone knew of it. To this the friar replied ‘No, lord la Zouche has full knowledge of the affair; and I am well aware that this thing will be the death of me’. The king went on: ‘Take some parchment and draw up two indented bills containing all the charges you wish to prefer against anybody; hand one to me and keep the other in your possession; and then we shall see what we shall do about this.’ The friar, however, was somewhat disconcerted by the prospect of the duke’s replying to the charges brought against him. He therefore, according to a statement by Sir John Clanvowe, immediately shammed insanity, stripping off his cope and shoes and pitching them out of the window and generally producing the behaviour characteristic of a madman. On seeing this, the king ordered him to be kept in custody….”

So, maybe Richard’s initial knee-jerk reaction to have the duke condemned was hasty and ill-thought, but in my opinion it was knee-jerk. He calmed down pretty quickly and didn’t throw his slippers anywhere. The hysterical frothing-at-the-mouth outburst and clothes-pitching should be applied to the friar!

Richard II



  1. Richard II was 17 at this time and after two years of marriage to Anne of Bohemia was still childless which could be a dangerous situation for a king. All three of his surviving uncles
    had fathered offspring by this point and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster as the eldest was aware of how close he stood to the throne (along with his only surviving legitimate son, Henry of Bolingbroke). Then there was the question of the deceased Prince Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and his daughter Philippa who had also died before 1384. Her descendants, the Mortimers, would be the next heirs to the throne if descent through the female line was accepted because Lionel was older than John of Gaunt but Gaunt had encouraged his father, Edward III, to restrict the succession to the male line only, excluding Lionel and Philippa’s heirs. As it happened Richard and Anne had no children before her death at age 28 and his second wife, Isabelle, was still far too young when Richard died in early 1400. Richard seems to have been reluctant to publicly express any opinion himself. When Gaunt and Roger, Earl of Mortimer publicly argued about their right to the succession in 1395, a year after Anne died, Richard irritably told them both to shut up. Like Elizabeth I two centuries later Richard was presumably “not in love with [the] winding sheet” which Henry of Bolingbroke provided for him.

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  2. For the life of me I will never understand the pass that John of Gaunt has received from popular historians, scholars, writers, and ‘kindly’ treatment from the serious academics, meaning they leave lying dogs lie. A more odious member of this king’s family I cannot imagine. Coming to R2 from the perspective of studying the Hundred Years War (specifically the Free Companies, ie. the English freebooters, mercenaries) I assure you that Gaunt was never in any sense chivalrous nor trustworthy, to anyone. The common soldier turned ‘freebooter’ may have been known to exploit a situation when desperate or like cagey like Edward Dallyngrigge (builder of Bodiam Castle, clever enough to also curry a powerful ally at home in Arundel) but with Gaunt, if you follow the track of these freebooters you will find his fingerprints all over them. As a consequence, I have learned not to trust a written word about his nephew, R2.

    Moving backwards, towards Richard, I have encountered a H4 and H5, in their actions, that are equally NOT what their scholarly reputation would have you think, often slyly alluded to but never condemned with the outlandish excesses that appears to be reserved for historians’ favorite whipping boys. H4’s behavior during the Owain Gly Dwr rebellion is repugnant in the extreme, and the treatment of his widow Joanna of Navarre by that hero son H5 is sickening (yes yes yes, he just wanted her dower, the money, so let’s throw in witchcraft, plotting his death, shades of the maniacal H8! Can’t blame that streak of madness on jousting now can we?)

    The more I read about the ‘freebooters’ who came home, re-entered civilian life, became high sheriff (Calveley) somewhere, attended Parliament, left endowments and almshouses (haha NOT Dallygrigge tho), the more you find them staunch supporters of a civilized society, some even in privy counsel to R2 (Knolles), these were the men R2 could trust, his uncle Gaunt? He would have had to be a raving madman to do that!

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    1. Anya Seton’s 1954 novel “Katherine” (about the affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt) seems to have made Gaunt a romantic hero to many readers, judging from many comments on Facebook. Seton actually did use historical sources for her novel but they were imbued with the Victorian/Edwardian “Whig interpretation” of history which saw the Lancastrian dynasty as somehow standing for “constitutional” government versus the tyranny of Richard II. Most historians no longer give the “constitutional” Lancastrians any credence but Richard remains a vindictive tyrant to them.

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      1. oh yes, Anya Seton, when I was in high school my girlfriends went through that one, I did try reading it, made it through a couple chapters? (I’m guessing, it’s a long time ago!) I had already found Cecelia Holland, started with her Firedrake then the Earl before Great Maria which spoiled me completely – poor Anya never had a chance. I dread to think if any of Holland’s books have been made into Netflix or BBC series, I hope not, but you never know!
        There aren’t too many terse, spare historical writers like Holland (as I discovered) so as a genre I tended to step aside, concentrate on nonfiction research – plus I probably read Seton at the wrong time, I’ve been too long an unrepentant francophile – the Richard born in Bordeaux and I would get along swimmingly, the Richard born at Fotheringhay, well, he might turn a jaundiced eye on my advocacy!
        It’s been a curious thing to read up on the English version of the Hundred Years War, I have no illusions about the abysmal nature of what passed (and usually passes) for French governance, I suppose I am a cultural francophile rather than political. I would have been far happier if Jeanne la Pucelle had thrown that weasel dauphin to the gutter and had had herself crowned or La Hire or Bastard of Orleans (Dunois) or my favorite, ‘le gentil duc,’ Alencon; any one of them preferable to the grotesque fraud Charles VII!
        If you have time for an amazing dip into the aftermath of the anglo-french mess (ie. Hundred Years War) read Bronislaw Geremek’s “Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris” – everything I read about the Wars, from military to social costs, fell flat compared to what it meant on the very real level of how France ‘recovered’ from “winning” that War – it changed the relationship between the gentry, the military, the commons and the king, that is, the monarchy (for the worse, if that is possible) and made the king we know as Louis XI not only possible but necessary in the eyes of the Valois – after reading Geremek I went back to Scofield and finally understood why she took such pains to detail the foreign policy aspects of Edward’s reign – LXI had become a behemoth of unstoppable ambition to undo what the “War” had wrought (one would be forgiven if you thought the French felt they had in fact lost that War, in truth both England and France lost that hideous War) – LXI also never disguised his mania either!
        ( As an aside it was also the first book that actually made it possible to understand Francois Villon! And completely changed my approach how to research Richard (Gloucester) too… and I find I prefer middle French over modern French! hah, so, all good has come of this! )

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      2. I’m afraid I never quite read Anya Seton’s “Katherine” all the way through, and realized I preferred my history as straight nonfiction instead of fictional romance.

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      3. Roberta, you might try Cecelia Holland’s The Earl or Great Maria (both very early titles from her, one about the schism with King Stephen-Matilda and the other based in 11thc Sicily when the ever intrepid Normans ruled). I found Holland was a great springboard into historical topics or subjects either poorly covered or completely ignored and her writing is really (especially in those early years) spare and succinct. I drift in and out of fiction in general. Her later fiction, from just my own perspective, did become more elaborate and polished. If nothing else she chose subject matter that forced her to research and challenge herself, in “Maria” (still my favorite) none of the characters are really appealing, they have significant (and possibly stereotypical) flaws – especially to a 20thc reader! But, once you dive into the background to the Normans in Sicily, (ok, the Normans in general) not to mention the early middle ages when you don’t have the lush utopia that an Eleanor of Aquitaine knew at her childhood court with troubadours – once I knew MORE then the gritty even nasty reality the young Maria is stuck with (worse, dumped into a marriage by her boorish father to the boorish elder brother, not the gaudy hunk one) – I was ready to pitch the book as ‘yuck’ but it was unusual for Holland to write from a female character (at this early stage in her career) so I stuck with her.

        I don’t know who Holland used for her research (Caroline Barron? Barbara Hanawalt?) but I know who I have at my disposal and she got it right, these were not stereotypes, families did contract to marry off their young heir and heiresses young to prevent them becoming crown wards (heaven forbid!) and if the boorish Norman-in-a-rush just forces the capo in town to hand over his young daughter without the niceties a Joan Beaufort dangling 3000 marks for for young Richard (not yet) duke of York it is also dead on accurate – read up on the d’Hauteville brothers (and there were many of them!) who came streaming our of Normandy in the early 11thc to pursue land and fortune all over Italy. Roger (Bosso) was one of the youngest and probably the best, he ruled Sicily with a tolerance and capability, and without uprisings or the use of terror, that ‘cousin’ William the Bastard used in England. Never would have known he existed without that simple little novel haha. I tried to get my Anya Seton friends to read it, they hated it. ah well

        Since I have long known how to find my own research I find that IF I read fiction now I tend to look for quirky material, often children’s books – I found an English author who did his own version of the King Arthur cycle and then moved on to his other titles, his name is Kevin Crossley-Holland (no relation, I’m sure). He has a quasi impish way about his writing. Just lovely.

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      4. Thanks for the information! I should look into it! But as a retired librarian I agree that some of the best writing (and worst!) was for younger readers.

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  3. well well well, we have alot in common Roberta! my mom was an English teacher and was quite strict that books ONLY come from the library (soon as I could walk there alone or drive I went weekly) BUT it always irked me no end that the library wanted their books back! Imagine the nerve. Soon as I finished grad school (when you lose all your ‘visiting scholar’ library perks) I marched right into the Barnes & Noble in Princeton and asked for a job, in the History dept… and …being a teacher they put me in the Children’s department! That was 1997 and I’m still with B&N (and usually in the Kids’ dept tho any customer with a History request is sent on to me no delay; apparently I work with all fiction readers) since retirement I’m there just once a week and no, I never see a paycheck. BUT!!!! I don’t have to return the books anymore!

    Since those early days I have found nothing I need is ever still in print, sadly – so I have been back to the County Library, via Inter-Library Loans (thank goodness that finally restarted after covid) – I’ve been keeping them busy.

    As to children’s authors, I need to go back a bit to find some to recommend – anything by Rosemary Sutcliff or Leon Garfield (I “short order” their titles into the dept at my B&N for cust who have students who can read something a little more challenging than Wimpy Kid; yes, I sound like a book snob) – and unlike the WHOLE world I am not a huge fangirl of Rowling, to me Harry Potter was heavily dependent on so many earlier children’s books I was shocked no one picked up on it, some things I liked about Rowling but my first love will always be C S Lewis’ Narnia. Has there ever been a more appealing heroine than Lucy? Well, enough of a rant from me. Concerning Crossley-Holland, I found him via his recent “Between Worlds” – he really has a charming style, and since I do tend to read some dry material (just finished Hick’s ‘Companion’ about IPM’s – which was excellent, but no bodice ripper) Crossley-Holland’s fey, dreamy writing style is a delight!

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    1. Great minds think alike! Another author who preceded (and may have been an unacknowledged influencer) of J.K. Rowling was the late, great Diana Wynne Jones. Yes, Crossley-Holland is (was?) a great writer. I remember the 1960s-80s being called the second golden age of children’s literature but I wonder how many of those books are still read?

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  4. I DO remember D Wynne Jones! We carry “Howl’s Moving Castle” (it’s “short listed” meaning there should always be at least one copy on hand but I routinely bring in copies of titles we should have as there is nothing worse than suggesting an author and then having nothing to hand the parent or eager kid in front of you!)

    One of the problems (for me) is publishers keep reissuing a title with new artwork and I either think the authors I am familiar with have all gone into the rubbish heap or yippee something new is out – I’m not alone, prob 90% of what is returned to us are books people have already read but the cover fooled them. Cover art is very trendy, whatever ‘new thing’ is moving books suddenly everyone has to replicate that visual marker or ‘style’ – I never read the “Twilight” series but I am sure you saw it’s look everywhere, and then again when the “50 shades of Gray” came out – that alone caused the industry to revamp entire sections in Fiction to address all the shades (haha) of the Erotica genre (our company must allot 4 or 5 subgroups to this alone)

    With Rowling I defend her by suggesting to parents, or adults addicted to the HP series, that she is part of a long history of creative writers who have all been rediscovered because of HP and for this mania for long series, 700+ pages is nothing. (And hear me publishers, boys will read, just give them something where the male characters they are to identify with are not all creeps, nerds, losers, parasites and bullies, just try a nice kid who wants to survive a few unusual challenges and trust me boys will read 700+ in a weekend! OK, rant over)

    Once they’ve moved past HP I show parents Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Orson Scott Card, but really, if you have a kid who can handle 700 pages the world is theirs, the traditional authors still move – like Tolkein, TH White, AC Doyle, Milne, JM Barrie, and more recent authors in the fantasy genre like Pullman (I’m not a fan), when I can get them for a few minutes I suggest try ordering something and just look it over (yes, we always have Secret Garden and seriously, it’s in our Juvenile Classics dept but American literacy has deteriorated to such a degree that I am not convinced even students in their mid teens would grasp the deeper meaning of that incredible book). Same deal with Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, no one really ‘gets’ the deeper qualities of this book that make it so charming (IF anyone has time and taste for mere charm in 2022).

    Not everything has to be 700 pages either, and why not whimsy, remember that? Or just a spine tingler? Or just something to tickle the imagination? I like Joan Aiken, Edward Eager, even the old Oz series from Baum (hello Rowling, check out this guy!), John Masefield has a couple of books that are fun (Box of Delights) and anything by Avi is great (his take on why the photo of Edgar Allan Poe was taken is unique, using Poe IN the story as one of the characters playing one of hi sown fictional characters is a hoot), and I adore Sid Fleishman (I have 4 grandsons of which one will read anything, one will read only nonfic and two run like the devil is chasing them if I show up with books) but Fleishman seems to work even for them, he’s got an appeal many authors want to have with boy readers (or any reader) but just miss. (Gordan Korman and Rick Riordan have this too, and yet I am nonplussed for the most part by their books, although Riordan’s Lightning Thief Series, the chapter headings are killer, I just open to the content page, read off afew and the parent or kid is sold, a sense of humor works AND Riordan, bless his heart, did reintroduce Greek mythology into American education which was totally lacking! as in 100% absent, when I have kids coming in asking for books on Greek mythology and all I had were Robert Graves or Edith Hamilton from the adult section I knew there was a problem, which btw, the schools did not address – no, publishers did, and now we have an entire department stocked with Norse, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, mythology!

    And not to forget the animal stories! These authors are in their own genre but aside from the venerable Marguerite Henry the best I can do is keep Dick King-Smith in stock to go with Pooh and Peter Rabbit! Black Beauty is always available in our “classics” section but having read it once I can’t bear to talk about it, nor can I manage Wilson Rawls Where the Red Fern Grows (too many tears), his Summer of the Monkeys however, is a awesome treat, a grandfather- grandson marvel, about enduring and endearing resourcefulness. He only wrote those two books I think, but in a market that routinely ignores boys, facing adversity and overcoming it, and with a generational connection, it can’t be beat. A good parallel would be Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright if you remember that one!

    ok, back to work!

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