The Complete Works of



Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter XIX

A Child's History of England

Chapter XIX


RICHARD, son of the Black Prince, a boy eleven years of age,
succeeded to the Crown under the title of King Richard the Second.
The whole English nation were ready to admire him for the sake of
his brave father. As to the lords and ladies about the Court, they
declared him to be the most beautiful, the wisest, and the best -
even of princes - whom the lords and ladies about the Court,
generally declare to be the most beautiful, the wisest, and the
best of mankind. To flatter a poor boy in this base manner was not
a very likely way to develop whatever good was in him; and it
brought him to anything but a good or happy end.

The Duke of Lancaster, the young King's uncle - commonly called
John of Gaunt, from having been born at Ghent, which the common
people so pronounced - was supposed to have some thoughts of the
throne himself; but, as he was not popular, and the memory of the
Black Prince was, he submitted to his nephew.

The war with France being still unsettled, the Government of
England wanted money to provide for the expenses that might arise
out of it; accordingly a certain tax, called the Poll-tax, which
had originated in the last reign, was ordered to be levied on the
people. This was a tax on every person in the kingdom, male and
female, above the age of fourteen, of three groats (or three four-
penny pieces) a year; clergymen were charged more, and only beggars
were exempt.

I have no need to repeat that the common people of England had long
been suffering under great oppression. They were still the mere
slaves of the lords of the land on which they lived, and were on
most occasions harshly and unjustly treated. But, they had begun
by this time to think very seriously of not bearing quite so much;
and, probably, were emboldened by that French insurrection I
mentioned in the last chapter.

The people of Essex rose against the Poll-tax, and being severely
handled by the government officers, killed some of them. At this
very time one of the tax-collectors, going his rounds from house to
house, at Dartford in Kent came to the cottage of one WAT, a tiler
by trade, and claimed the tax upon his daughter. Her mother, who
was at home, declared that she was under the age of fourteen; upon
that, the collector (as other collectors had already done in
different parts of England) behaved in a savage way, and brutally
insulted Wat Tyler's daughter. The daughter screamed, the mother
screamed. Wat the Tiler, who was at work not far off, ran to the
spot, and did what any honest father under such provocation might
have done - struck the collector dead at a blow.

Instantly the people of that town uprose as one man. They made Wat
Tyler their leader; they joined with the people of Essex, who were
in arms under a priest called JACK STRAW; they took out of prison
another priest named JOHN BALL; and gathering in numbers as they
went along, advanced, in a great confused army of poor men, to
Blackheath. It is said that they wanted to abolish all property,
and to declare all men equal. I do not think this very likely;
because they stopped the travellers on the roads and made them
swear to be true to King Richard and the people. Nor were they at
all disposed to injure those who had done them no harm, merely
because they were of high station; for, the King's mother, who had
to pass through their camp at Blackheath, on her way to her young
son, lying for safety in the Tower of London, had merely to kiss a
few dirty-faced rough-bearded men who were noisily fond of royalty,
and so got away in perfect safety. Next day the whole mass marched
on to London Bridge.

There was a drawbridge in the middle, which WILLIAM WALWORTH the
Mayor caused to be raised to prevent their coming into the city;
but they soon terrified the citizens into lowering it again, and
spread themselves, with great uproar, over the streets. They broke
open the prisons; they burned the papers in Lambeth Palace; they
destroyed the DUKE OF LANCASTER'S Palace, the Savoy, in the Strand,
said to be the most beautiful and splendid in England; they set
fire to the books and documents in the Temple; and made a great
riot. Many of these outrages were committed in drunkenness; since
those citizens, who had well-filled cellars, were only too glad to
throw them open to save the rest of their property; but even the
drunken rioters were very careful to steal nothing. They were so
angry with one man, who was seen to take a silver cup at the Savoy
Palace, and put it in his breast, that they drowned him in the
river, cup and all.

The young King had been taken out to treat with them before they
committed these excesses; but, he and the people about him were so
frightened by the riotous shouts, that they got back to the Tower
in the best way they could. This made the insurgents bolder; so
they went on rioting away, striking off the heads of those who did
not, at a moment's notice, declare for King Richard and the people;
and killing as many of the unpopular persons whom they supposed to
be their enemies as they could by any means lay hold of. In this
manner they passed one very violent day, and then proclamation was
made that the King would meet them at Mile-end, and grant their

The rioters went to Mile-end to the number of sixty thousand, and
the King met them there, and to the King the rioters peaceably
proposed four conditions. First, that neither they, nor their
children, nor any coming after them, should be made slaves any
more. Secondly, that the rent of land should be fixed at a certain
price in money, instead of being paid in service. Thirdly, that
they should have liberty to buy and sell in all markets and public
places, like other free men. Fourthly, that they should be
pardoned for past offences. Heaven knows, there was nothing very
unreasonable in these proposals! The young King deceitfully
pretended to think so, and kept thirty clerks up, all night,
writing out a charter accordingly.

Now, Wat Tyler himself wanted more than this. He wanted the entire
abolition of the forest laws. He was not at Mile-end with the
rest, but, while that meeting was being held, broke into the Tower
of London and slew the archbishop and the treasurer, for whose
heads the people had cried out loudly the day before. He and his
men even thrust their swords into the bed of the Princess of Wales
while the Princess was in it, to make certain that none of their
enemies were concealed there.

So, Wat and his men still continued armed, and rode about the city.
Next morning, the King with a small train of some sixty gentlemen -
among whom was WALWORTH the Mayor - rode into Smithfield, and saw
Wat and his people at a little distance. Says Wat to his men,
'There is the King. I will go speak with him, and tell him what we

Straightway Wat rode up to him, and began to talk. 'King,' says
Wat, 'dost thou see all my men there?'

'Ah,' says the King. 'Why?'

'Because,' says Wat, 'they are all at my command, and have sworn to
do whatever I bid them.'

Some declared afterwards that as Wat said this, he laid his hand on
the King's bridle. Others declared that he was seen to play with
his own dagger. I think, myself, that he just spoke to the King
like a rough, angry man as he was, and did nothing more. At any
rate he was expecting no attack, and preparing for no resistance,
when Walworth the Mayor did the not very valiant deed of drawing a
short sword and stabbing him in the throat. He dropped from his
horse, and one of the King's people speedily finished him. So fell
Wat Tyler. Fawners and flatterers made a mighty triumph of it, and
set up a cry which will occasionally find an echo to this day. But
Wat was a hard-working man, who had suffered much, and had been
foully outraged; and it is probable that he was a man of a much
higher nature and a much braver spirit than any of the parasites
who exulted then, or have exulted since, over his defeat.

Seeing Wat down, his men immediately bent their bows to avenge his
fall. If the young King had not had presence of mind at that
dangerous moment, both he and the Mayor to boot, might have
followed Tyler pretty fast. But the King riding up to the crowd,
cried out that Tyler was a traitor, and that he would be their
leader. They were so taken by surprise, that they set up a great
shouting, and followed the boy until he was met at Islington by a
large body of soldiers.

The end of this rising was the then usual end. As soon as the King
found himself safe, he unsaid all he had said, and undid all he had
done; some fifteen hundred of the rioters were tried (mostly in
Essex) with great rigour, and executed with great cruelty. Many of
them were hanged on gibbets, and left there as a terror to the
country people; and, because their miserable friends took some of
the bodies down to bury, the King ordered the rest to be chained up
- which was the beginning of the barbarous custom of hanging in
chains. The King's falsehood in this business makes such a pitiful
figure, that I think Wat Tyler appears in history as beyond
comparison the truer and more respectable man of the two.

Richard was now sixteen years of age, and married Anne of Bohemia,
an excellent princess, who was called 'the good Queen Anne.' She
deserved a better husband; for the King had been fawned and
flattered into a treacherous, wasteful, dissolute, bad young man.

There were two Popes at this time (as if one were not enough!), and
their quarrels involved Europe in a great deal of trouble.
Scotland was still troublesome too; and at home there was much
jealousy and distrust, and plotting and counter-plotting, because
the King feared the ambition of his relations, and particularly of
his uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, and the duke had his party
against the King, and the King had his party against the duke. Nor
were these home troubles lessened when the duke went to Castile to
urge his claim to the crown of that kingdom; for then the Duke of
Gloucester, another of Richard's uncles, opposed him, and
influenced the Parliament to demand the dismissal of the King's
favourite ministers. The King said in reply, that he would not for
such men dismiss the meanest servant in his kitchen. But, it had
begun to signify little what a King said when a Parliament was
determined; so Richard was at last obliged to give way, and to
agree to another Government of the kingdom, under a commission of
fourteen nobles, for a year. His uncle of Gloucester was at the
head of this commission, and, in fact, appointed everybody
composing it.

Having done all this, the King declared as soon as he saw an
opportunity that he had never meant to do it, and that it was all
illegal; and he got the judges secretly to sign a declaration to
that effect. The secret oozed out directly, and was carried to the
Duke of Gloucester. The Duke of Gloucester, at the head of forty
thousand men, met the King on his entering into London to enforce
his authority; the King was helpless against him; his favourites
and ministers were impeached and were mercilessly executed. Among
them were two men whom the people regarded with very different
feelings; one, Robert Tresilian, Chief Justice, who was hated for
having made what was called 'the bloody circuit' to try the
rioters; the other, Sir Simon Burley, an honourable knight, who had
been the dear friend of the Black Prince, and the governor and
guardian of the King. For this gentleman's life the good Queen
even begged of Gloucester on her knees; but Gloucester (with or
without reason) feared and hated him, and replied, that if she
valued her husband's crown, she had better beg no more. All this
was done under what was called by some the wonderful - and by
others, with better reason, the merciless - Parliament.

But Gloucester's power was not to last for ever. He held it for
only a year longer; in which year the famous battle of Otterbourne,
sung in the old ballad of Chevy Chase, was fought. When the year
was out, the King, turning suddenly to Gloucester, in the midst of
a great council said, 'Uncle, how old am I?' 'Your highness,'
returned the Duke, 'is in your twenty-second year.' 'Am I so
much?' said the King; 'then I will manage my own affairs! I am
much obliged to you, my good lords, for your past services, but I
need them no more.' He followed this up, by appointing a new
Chancellor and a new Treasurer, and announced to the people that he
had resumed the Government. He held it for eight years without
opposition. Through all that time, he kept his determination to
revenge himself some day upon his uncle Gloucester, in his own

At last the good Queen died, and then the King, desiring to take a
second wife, proposed to his council that he should marry Isabella,
of France, the daughter of Charles the Sixth: who, the French
courtiers said (as the English courtiers had said of Richard), was
a marvel of beauty and wit, and quite a phenomenon - of seven years
old. The council were divided about this marriage, but it took
place. It secured peace between England and France for a quarter
of a century; but it was strongly opposed to the prejudices of the
English people. The Duke of Gloucester, who was anxious to take
the occasion of making himself popular, declaimed against it
loudly, and this at length decided the King to execute the
vengeance he had been nursing so long.

He went with a gay company to the Duke of Gloucester's house,
Pleshey Castle, in Essex, where the Duke, suspecting nothing, came
out into the court-yard to receive his royal visitor. While the
King conversed in a friendly manner with the Duchess, the Duke was
quietly seized, hurried away, shipped for Calais, and lodged in the
castle there. His friends, the Earls of Arundel and Warwick, were
taken in the same treacherous manner, and confined to their
castles. A few days after, at Nottingham, they were impeached of
high treason. The Earl of Arundel was condemned and beheaded, and
the Earl of Warwick was banished. Then, a writ was sent by a
messenger to the Governor of Calais, requiring him to send the Duke
of Gloucester over to be tried. In three days he returned an
answer that he could not do that, because the Duke of Gloucester
had died in prison. The Duke was declared a traitor, his property
was confiscated to the King, a real or pretended confession he had
made in prison to one of the Justices of the Common Pleas was
produced against him, and there was an end of the matter. How the
unfortunate duke died, very few cared to know. Whether he really
died naturally; whether he killed himself; whether, by the King's
order, he was strangled, or smothered between two beds (as a
serving-man of the Governor's named Hall, did afterwards declare),
cannot be discovered. There is not much doubt that he was killed,
somehow or other, by his nephew's orders. Among the most active
nobles in these proceedings were the King's cousin, Henry
Bolingbroke, whom the King had made Duke of Hereford to smooth down
the old family quarrels, and some others: who had in the family-
plotting times done just such acts themselves as they now condemned
in the duke. They seem to have been a corrupt set of men; but such
men were easily found about the court in such days.

The people murmured at all this, and were still very sore about the
French marriage. The nobles saw how little the King cared for law,
and how crafty he was, and began to be somewhat afraid for
themselves. The King's life was a life of continued feasting and
excess; his retinue, down to the meanest servants, were dressed in
the most costly manner, and caroused at his tables, it is related,
to the number of ten thousand persons every day. He himself,
surrounded by a body of ten thousand archers, and enriched by a
duty on wool which the Commons had granted him for life, saw no
danger of ever being otherwise than powerful and absolute, and was
as fierce and haughty as a King could be.

He had two of his old enemies left, in the persons of the Dukes of
Hereford and Norfolk. Sparing these no more than the others, he
tampered with the Duke of Hereford until he got him to declare
before the Council that the Duke of Norfolk had lately held some
treasonable talk with him, as he was riding near Brentford; and
that he had told him, among other things, that he could not believe
the King's oath - which nobody could, I should think. For this
treachery he obtained a pardon, and the Duke of Norfolk was
summoned to appear and defend himself. As he denied the charge and
said his accuser was a liar and a traitor, both noblemen, according
to the manner of those times, were held in custody, and the truth
was ordered to be decided by wager of battle at Coventry. This
wager of battle meant that whosoever won the combat was to be
considered in the right; which nonsense meant in effect, that no
strong man could ever be wrong. A great holiday was made; a great
crowd assembled, with much parade and show; and the two combatants
were about to rush at each other with their lances, when the King,
sitting in a pavilion to see fair, threw down the truncheon he
carried in his hand, and forbade the battle. The Duke of Hereford
was to be banished for ten years, and the Duke of Norfolk was to be
banished for life. So said the King. The Duke of Hereford went to
France, and went no farther. The Duke of Norfolk made a pilgrimage
to the Holy Land, and afterwards died at Venice of a broken heart.

Faster and fiercer, after this, the King went on in his career.
The Duke of Lancaster, who was the father of the Duke of Hereford,
died soon after the departure of his son; and, the King, although
he had solemnly granted to that son leave to inherit his father's
property, if it should come to him during his banishment,
immediately seized it all, like a robber. The judges were so
afraid of him, that they disgraced themselves by declaring this
theft to be just and lawful. His avarice knew no bounds. He
outlawed seventeen counties at once, on a frivolous pretence,
merely to raise money by way of fines for misconduct. In short, he
did as many dishonest things as he could; and cared so little for
the discontent of his subjects - though even the spaniel favourites
began to whisper to him that there was such a thing as discontent
afloat - that he took that time, of all others, for leaving England
and making an expedition against the Irish.

He was scarcely gone, leaving the DUKE OF YORK Regent in his
absence, when his cousin, Henry of Hereford, came over from France
to claim the rights of which he had been so monstrously deprived.
He was immediately joined by the two great Earls of Northumberland
and Westmoreland; and his uncle, the Regent, finding the King's
cause unpopular, and the disinclination of the army to act against
Henry, very strong, withdrew with the Royal forces towards Bristol.
Henry, at the head of an army, came from Yorkshire (where he had
landed) to London and followed him. They joined their forces - how
they brought that about, is not distinctly understood - and
proceeded to Bristol Castle, whither three noblemen had taken the
young Queen. The castle surrendering, they presently put those
three noblemen to death. The Regent then remained there, and Henry
went on to Chester.

All this time, the boisterous weather had prevented the King from
receiving intelligence of what had occurred. At length it was
conveyed to him in Ireland, and he sent over the EARL OF SALISBURY,
who, landing at Conway, rallied the Welshmen, and waited for the
King a whole fortnight; at the end of that time the Welshmen, who
were perhaps not very warm for him in the beginning, quite cooled
down and went home. When the King did land on the coast at last,
he came with a pretty good power, but his men cared nothing for
him, and quickly deserted. Supposing the Welshmen to be still at
Conway, he disguised himself as a priest, and made for that place
in company with his two brothers and some few of their adherents.
But, there were no Welshmen left - only Salisbury and a hundred
soldiers. In this distress, the King's two brothers, Exeter and
Surrey, offered to go to Henry to learn what his intentions were.
Surrey, who was true to Richard, was put into prison. Exeter, who
was false, took the royal badge, which was a hart, off his shield,
and assumed the rose, the badge of Henry. After this, it was
pretty plain to the King what Henry's intentions were, without
sending any more messengers to ask.

The fallen King, thus deserted - hemmed in on all sides, and
pressed with hunger - rode here and rode there, and went to this
castle, and went to that castle, endeavouring to obtain some
provisions, but could find none. He rode wretchedly back to
Conway, and there surrendered himself to the Earl of
Northumberland, who came from Henry, in reality to take him
prisoner, but in appearance to offer terms; and whose men were
hidden not far off. By this earl he was conducted to the castle of
Flint, where his cousin Henry met him, and dropped on his knee as
if he were still respectful to his sovereign.

'Fair cousin of Lancaster,' said the King, 'you are very welcome'
(very welcome, no doubt; but he would have been more so, in chains
or without a head).

'My lord,' replied Henry, 'I am come a little before my time; but,
with your good pleasure, I will show you the reason. Your people
complain with some bitterness, that you have ruled them rigorously
for two-and-twenty years. Now, if it please God, I will help you
to govern them better in future.'

'Fair cousin,' replied the abject King, 'since it pleaseth you, it
pleaseth me mightily.'

After this, the trumpets sounded, and the King was stuck on a
wretched horse, and carried prisoner to Chester, where he was made
to issue a proclamation, calling a Parliament. From Chester he was
taken on towards London. At Lichfield he tried to escape by
getting out of a window and letting himself down into a garden; it
was all in vain, however, and he was carried on and shut up in the
Tower, where no one pitied him, and where the whole people, whose
patience he had quite tired out, reproached him without mercy.
Before he got there, it is related, that his very dog left him and
departed from his side to lick the hand of Henry.

The day before the Parliament met, a deputation went to this
wrecked King, and told him that he had promised the Earl of
Northumberland at Conway Castle to resign the crown. He said he
was quite ready to do it, and signed a paper in which he renounced
his authority and absolved his people from their allegiance to him.
He had so little spirit left that he gave his royal ring to his
triumphant cousin Henry with his own hand, and said, that if he
could have had leave to appoint a successor, that same Henry was
the man of all others whom he would have named. Next day, the
Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall, where Henry sat at the
side of the throne, which was empty and covered with a cloth of
gold. The paper just signed by the King was read to the multitude
amid shouts of joy, which were echoed through all the streets; when
some of the noise had died away, the King was formally deposed.
Then Henry arose, and, making the sign of the cross on his forehead
and breast, challenged the realm of England as his right; the
archbishops of Canterbury and York seated him on the throne.

The multitude shouted again, and the shouts re-echoed throughout
all the streets. No one remembered, now, that Richard the Second
had ever been the most beautiful, the wisest, and the best of
princes; and he now made living (to my thinking) a far more sorry
spectacle in the Tower of London, than Wat Tyler had made, lying
dead, among the hoofs of the royal horses in Smithfield.

The Poll-tax died with Wat. The Smiths to the King and Royal
Family, could make no chains in which the King could hang the
people's recollection of him; so the Poll-tax was never collected.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Charles Dickens. Copyright © 2022,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.