In Shakespeare's Richard II,‎ Henry Bolingbroke raises an army and comes to demand King Richard return his ancestral lands.‎ However,‎ he claims that if they are restored,‎ he will return to being a loyal citizen,‎ and Richard accepts.‎ In the next scene however,‎ Richard is coming to Bolingbroke to announce his resignation.‎ Is there an explanation for what changed in between those two exchanges?‎ Did Bolingbroke always intended to depose Richard,‎ but just was acting deferential for appearances?‎

1 Answer 1


Clarifying the question

If I understand it right, the question is asking how to reconcile Bolingbroke’s pledge of loyalty if his lands are restored (III.3):

Henry Bolingbroke
On both his knees doth kiss King Richard’s hand,
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person; hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repeal’d
And lands restor’d again be freely granted

with Richard’s abdication (IV.1):

I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths;
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues, I forgo;
My acts, decrees, and statutes, I deny.
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!

The garden scene

The first thing to say about this difficulty is that Richard’s abdication is not “in the next scene” as suggested in the question. Shakespeare wrote an intervening scene (III.4) to provide some breathing room between the highly dramatic scenes on either side, and to allow time for the actors to change out of the war gear of III.3 into the court dress of IV.1.

The stage direction for III.3 is “Wales. Before Flint Castle” and this scene represents the events of 19th August 1399, when Richard surrendered to Bolingbroke. The stage direction for IV.2 is “Westminster Hall” and this scene compresses the events between 29th September 1399 (Parliament assembles to witness Richard’s abdication) and 13th October 1399 (Bolingbroke is crowned king Henry IV). In the intervening six weeks Bolingbroke escorted Richard to London, confined him in the Tower, and pressured him to abdicate. This is described in III.4 by the duke of York’s gardener:

King Richard, he is in the mighty hold
Of Bolingbroke. Their fortunes both are weigh’d.
In your lord’s scale is nothing but himself,
And some few vanities that make him light;
But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,
Besides himself, are all the English peers,
And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

I suppose that a director might choose to cut III.4 to save time, but if it is cut then it makes it harder to follow the sequence of events.

Why did Richard abdicate?

What pressure was Bolingbroke able to bring to bear on Richard in this period? The chronicler Raphael Holinshed (one of Shakespeare’s sources for the play) wrote:

The next day after his coming to London, the king from Westminster was had to the Tower, and there committed to safe custody. Many evil disposed persons, assembling themselves together in great numbers, intended to have met with him, and to have taken him from such as had the conveying of him, that they might have slain him. But the mayor and aldermen gathered to them the worshipful commoners and grave citizens, by whose policy, and not without much ado, the other were revoked from their evil purpose: albeit, before they might be pacified, they coming to Westminster, took master John Sclake dean of the king’s chapel, and from thence brought him to Newgate, and there laid him fast in irons.

Raphael Holinshed (1585). The Chronicles of England, pp. 501–502. Spelling modernized.

That is, Richard had made many enemies when he was king, who saw his downfall as a chance to get their revenge. No doubt Bolingbroke put it to the king that if he did not abdicate then he would abandon him to the mercy of these enemies.

Jean Froissart gave a more explicit account of Richard’s motives:

King Richard knowing himself taken, and in the danger of the Londoners, was in great sorrow in his heart, and reckoned his puissance nothing: for he saw how every man was against him, and if there were any that owed him any favour, it lay not in their powers to do him any aid, nor they dared not show it. Such as were with the king said: Sir, we have but small trust in our lives as it may well appear; for when your cousin of Lancaster came to the castle of Flint, and with your own good will you yielded you to him, and he promised that you and twelve of yours should be his prisoners and have no hurt, and now of those twelve, four be executed shamefully, we are like to pass the same way. […] we see for truth that these Londoners will crown your cousin of Lancaster as king, and for that intent they sent for him, and so have aided him and do; it is not possible for you to live, without you consent that he be crowned king. Wherefore sir, we will counsel you, to the intent to save your life and ours, that when your cousin of Lancaster comes to you to demand any thing, than with sweet and treatable words say to him how that you will resign to him the crown of England, and all the right that you have in the realm, clearly and purely into his hands, and how that you will that he be king; thereby you shall greatly appease him and the Londoners also; and desire him effectuously to suffer you to live and us also with you, or else every man a part, as it shall please him, or else to banish us out of the realm for ever; for he that loses his life, loses all. King Richard heard those words well, and fixed them surely in his heart, and said he would do as they counselled him, as he that saw himself in great danger. And then he said to them that kept him, how he would gladly speak with his cousin of Lancaster.

Jean Froissart (1400). English translation by John Bourchier, Baron Berners (1525). In W. E. Henley, ed. (1903). The Chronicle of Froissart, volume VI, pp. 374–375. London: David Nutt. Spelling modernized.

Was Bolingbroke sincere?

So, what did Bolingbroke mean by sending “allegiance and true faith of heart / To his most royal person” in III.3? I can see three possibilities:

  1. Bolingbroke was sincere in III.3 but changed his mind afterwards.

    This seems doubtful to me, because in III.3 he follows the conditional pledge of loyalty that I quoted above with this naked threat:

    If not, I’ll use the advantage of my power
    And lay the summer’s dust with showers of blood
    Rain’d from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen;
    The which how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
    It is such crimson tempest should bedrench
    The fresh green lap of fair King Richard’s land,
    My stooping duty tenderly shall show.

    It’s hard to read “stooping duty” and “tenderly” as other than sarcastic in this context, but no doubt a skillful actor could do it.

  2. Bolingbroke’s words were a ruse de guerre, that is, a lie to trick Richard into surrendering quietly, without further fighting and loss of life.

    This is more plausible, though if Bolingbroke intended Richard to believe it, he should have left the threat unsaid. Perhaps we are to understand the threat as being an aside to Northumberland, and not part of the message, or at least it could be played that way. Certainly Richard is not fooled: he knows right away that Bolingbroke has come to depose him:

    What must the King do now? Must he submit?
    The King shall do it. Must he be depos’d?
    The King shall be contented. Must he lose
    The name of king? A God’s name, let it go.

  3. Bolingbroke’s words were a piece of conventional politeness, perhaps with an eye for propaganda purposes (keeping up the pretense that his rebellion is only the act of a loyal subject concerned to restore his rightful privileges) and the promises were not intended to be kept, nor to be believed by Richard.

A director of the play could choose any of these (or a mixture of them) depending on how they intend their production to portray the character of Bolingbroke: is he a loyal subject finally driven to rebellion by mistreatment, an opportunist who takes advantage of Richard’s weakness, or a proud man easily provoked to violence? Shakespeare gives us Bolingbroke’s public words but not his private thoughts (he has no soliloquys) so all of these (and more) are playable.

Shakespeare modelled III.3 on Holinshed’s account of Richard’s surrender:

The king herewith went to Beaumaris, & after to Caernarfon: but finding no provision either of victuals or other things in those castles, no not so much as a bed to lie in, he came back again to Conwy, and the mean time was the castle of Holt delivered to the duke of Hereford,† by those that had it in keeping wherein was great store of jewels, to the two hundred thousand marks, besides a hundred thousand marks in ready coin. After this, the duke, with advice of his council, sent the earl of Northumberland‡ unto the king, accompanied with four hundred lances, & a thousand archers, who coming to castle of Flint, had it delivered until him; and from thence he hasted forth towards Conwy. But before he approached near the place, he left his power behind him, hid closely in two ambushes, behind a craggy mountain, beside the highway that leadeth from Flint to Conwy.

This done, taking not past four or five with him, he passed forth, till he came before the town, and then sending a herald to the kind, requested a safe conduct from the king, that he might come and talk with him, which the king granted, and so the earl of Northumberland passing the water,§ entered the castle, and coming to the king, declared to him, that if it might please his grace to undertake, that there should be a parliament assembled, in the which justice might be had, against such as were enemies to the commonwealth, and had procured the destruction of the duke of Gloucester, and other noblemen, and herewith pardon the duke of Hereford of all things wherein he had offended him, the duke would be ready to come to him on his knees, to crave of him forgiveness, and as a humble subject, to obey him in all dutiful services. The king taking advice upon these offers, and other made by the earl of Northumberland on the behalf of the duke of Hereford; upon the earl’s oath, for assurance that the same should be performed in each condition, agreed to go with the earl to meet the duke, and here upon taking their horses, they rode forth, but the earl rode before, as it were, to prepare dinner for the king at Rhuddlan but coming to the place where he had left his people, he stayed there with them.

The king keeping on his way, had not ridden past four miles, when he came to the place where the ambushes were lodged, and being entered within danger of them, before he was aware, showed himself to be sore abashed. But now there was no remedy: for the earl being there with his men, would no suffer him to return, as he gladly would have done if he might; but being enclosed with the sea on the one side, and the rocks on the other, having his adversaries so near at hand before him, he could not shift away by any means, for if should have fled back, they might easily have overtaken him, ere he could have got out of their danger. And thus of force he was the constrained to go with the earl, who brought him to Rhuddlan, where they dined, and from thence they rode unto Flint […]

The king […] came forth into the outer ward, and sat down in a place prepared for him. Forthwith as the duke got sight of the king, he showed a reverend duty as became him, in bowing his knée, and coming forward, did so likewise the second and third time, till the king took him by the hand, and lift him up, saying; “Dear cousin, you are welcome.” The duke humbly thanking him said; “My sovereign lord and king, the cause of my coming at this present, is (your honour saved) to have again restitution of my person, my lands and heritage, through your favourable licence.” The king hereunto answered; "Dear cousin, I am ready to accomplish your will, so that you may enjoy all that is yours, without exception.”

Raphael Holinshed (1585). The Chronicles of England, p. 500. Spelling modernized.

† Bolingbroke. ‡ Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. § The River Conwy.

You’ll see that Shakespeare reordered and simplified the sequence of events, but kept the essential points: that Bolingbroke sent Northumberland to the king with promises to get him out of his castle; that the king surrendered himself to Bolingbroke, and that the latter professed that his cause was only to restore his lands and titles.

Shakespeare’s ambiguity about Bolingbroke’s sincerity is also present in Holinshed, though the “four hundred lances, & a thousand archers” that Bolingbroke sends with Northumberland, and the latter’s preparation of an ambush, show that they intend force of arms to have the last word.

Froissart, on the other hand, said that it was Bolingbroke who delivered his own message, and was fairly clear that any promises he made were a ruse de guerre:

The earl of Derby† and the Londoners had their spies going and coming, who reported to them all the state of the king. And also the earl knew it by such knights and squires as daily came from the king’s part to the earl, who had sure knowledge that the king was gone to the castle of Flint, and had no company with him but such as were of his own household, and semed that he would no war, but to escape that danger by treaty. Then the earl determined to ride thither, and to do so much to have the king out by force or by treaty. Then the earl and all his company rode thither, and within two miles of the castle they found a great village: there the earl tarried and drank, and determined in himself to ride to the castle of Flint with two hundred horse, and to leave the rest of his company still there. And he said he would do what he could by fair treaty to enter into the castle by love and not by force, and to bring out the king with fair words, and to assure him from all peril, except going to London, and to promise him that he shall have no hurt of his body, and to be mean‡ for him to the Londoners, who were not content with him. The earl’s device semed good to them that heard it, and they said to him: Sir, beware of dissimulation: this Richard of Bordeaux must be taken either quick or dead, and all the other traitors that be about him and of his counsel, and so to be brought to London and set in the tower; the Londoners will not suffer you to do the contrary. Then the earl said: Sirs, fear not, but all that is enterprised shall be accomplished; but if I can get him out of the castle with fair words, I will do it; and if I can not, I shall send you word thereof, and then you shall come and lay siege about the castle. And then we will do so much by force or by assault, that we will have him quick or dead, for the castle is well pregnable.

Froissart, pp. 365–366.

† Bolingbroke. ‡ “to be mean” = to be an intermediary.

Bolingbroke delivering his own message to the king in a castle under siege seems very implausible, but possibly Froissart had misunderstood the sequence of events, conflating the king’s surrender to the rebels at Conwy with his meeting with Bolingbroke at Flint on the following day.

  • Wow,‎ very thorough,‎ thanks!
    – ak0000
    Nov 1, 2020 at 11:42

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