Was King Henry IV a Usurper?
Some medieval English kings have unfairly gotten a bad rap. Others are deservedly vilified (Richard III immediately comes to mind).
Our modern-day perception of English kings is largely constructed from only a few sources. Of course we have the writings of Shakespeare which were generally based on the real events of English monarchs but had lots of extra drama added in to spice things up. We also have the writings of chroniclers who actually lived in the middle ages, but they aren’t always reliable. Just imagine if you were hired by Henry VIII to write the history of his reign. You would definitely write it in a way that reflected very well on the king. And we have modern-day historians who try to bring the past to life with new interpretations of English monarchs and their new explanations of their controversial actions.
One of the English kings who has received very little attention over the years is Henry IV, also known as Henry of Bolingbroke and Henry of Derby. The common perception is that Henry was a usurper, but was he really? Did he seize the throne from Richard II illegally or was he the rightful heir?
What was Henry IV’s claim to the throne?
To answer this question we must go back a couple of reigns to Henry’s grandfather, King Edward III, a Plantagenet king that ruled England from 1327 to 1377. King Edward was also the nephew of King Charles IV of France through his mother Isabella. When Charles IV died childless, Edward asserted his right to the French crown as Charles’ nearest male relative. The French overruled him citing Salic Law which said inheritance could not be passed through a female line. So the throne went instead to Philip of Valois, Charles’ cousin through a completely male line. As if losing his claim to the kingdom of France wasn’t enough of a blow to Edward, Philip also confiscated Edward’s land in France. Edward was not one to take things lying down so he took military action against France and initiated the Hundred Years War.
One of King Edward’s best military commanders was his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince. The king’s son was raised and educated in preparation to be the next king and he was perfectly suited to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, there was a major problem. His repeated military expeditions around Europe caused him to become quite ill, including a raging case of dysentery. He died in 1376 at the age of 45. He had not outlived his father, therefore he never got the chance to fulfill his destiny as King of England.
After the death of the Black Prince, King Edward wrote his will and “Act of Entail” in which he named his heir. Rather than naming his eldest living son (John of Gaunt) to be the next king, he did something unusual. He instead named his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux, eldest living son of the Black Prince, to be next in the order of succession using a device called “Right of Substitution”. Essentially since the Black Prince died prematurely, his son Richard was accepted as a substitute.
After Richard, he named the next in line for succession to be John of Gaunt and the male heirs of his body, followed by his other living sons, Edmund, duke of York, and Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Interestingly enough, the “Act of Entail” document was kept secret from the public. The only people who knew about it were those named in the entail and the king’s closest confidants. It was never introduced to Parliament to put into law. Many rulers were hesitant to publicly name their heir because that gave any discontented subjects someone to rally around and overthrow the king.
If King Edward had followed traditional Salic Law rules, his eldest living son, John of Gaunt, would have been named his heir followed by Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, which would have left Richard completely out of the succession. Imagine how different the course of English history would have been if Edward had not made this decision to use the uncommon right of substitution. The inheritance would have been strictly through the house of Lancaster, cutting out the house of York. The Wars of the Roses may have never even happened.
Henry of Bolingbroke would have known about King Edward III’s act of entail and that he had been named third in line for the throne (after Richard and John of Gaunt) rather than second in line after Gaunt. Even so, being third in line to the throne wasn’t so bad for Henry. He lived a relatively comfortable life as a royal heir and spent his youth preparing to be a successful ruler like his grandfather. Henry became one of the most respected knights in Europe, he traveled abroad on crusades, and he learned it was better to work with the nobles and forge alliances rather than trying to control them. There was only one problem…Richard absolutely hated Henry. Richard was none of the things that Henry was. Richard was not strong and athletic, he did not joust, and he was not an experienced military leader. He was basically the antithesis of Edward III. Richard was terribly jealous of Henry and felt threatened that Henry or his father might one day try to wrestle the crown from his head.
For the first 10 years of Richard’s reign, it was assumed that Edward’s entail would be upheld by Richard but in the Parliament of 1386, Richard did something shocking. He threw out his grandfather’s entail and instead declared that his heir would be the twelve-year-old earl of March, Roger Mortimer, great grandson of King Edward III. Roger’s mother Phillipa was the daughter and only child of King Edward’s second-born (yet deceased) son Lionel of Antwerp. Even though Lionel was deceased, Richard used the right of substitution in selecting Roger, just as Edward III had done in selecting Richard as the Black Prince’s substitute. However, it was highly unusual to name an heir through a female line, especially when there were plenty of other male heirs to choose from. Richard selected the Mortimers so that John of Gaunt, Henry of Bolingbroke, and the entire Lancastrian line would be excluded from the succession. He was putting them on notice that they better work for him instead of against him.
Richard’s declaration was met with great resistance from the lords of his realm who were already disgruntled from enduring years of his tyrannical treatment. They had been terribly unhappy about Richard’s style of kingship, lack of military experience, misguided attempts to negotiate with France, reckless financial spending, attempts to degrade the power of Parliament, and general misrule resulting from Richard’s circle of favorites. Threatening civil war and deposition, the Lords were successful in pressing Richard to exclude the minor Roger Mortimer from succession and to reinstate King Edward III’s entail naming John of Gaunt and his son Henry as the next in line to the throne.
Richard was a very spiteful and vengeful man. He would agree to a deal when he was face-to-face with the nobles, but behind their backs he would plot to punish them for any sign of disloyalty. Over the next 10 years he continually threatened the lords and nobles with arrest, confiscation of lands, titles, goods, and even exile if they didn’t bend to his every whim. Richard again changed the order of succession, throwing out John of Gaunt, Henry, and the Mortimers. He decided that the person who would be the least threatening to his reign would be Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of Langley, duke of York, who was an arthritic invalid.
Henry of Bolingbroke was always at the top of Richard’s hit list but since he was such a close royal relative, Richard couldn’t afford to take him out. His reputation would have been destroyed if he used force to get the likable, respected knight out of the picture. So instead of using force, he used a 1397 civil dispute between Henry and Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, as the mechanism to remove him. Richard ruled both men guilty and sentenced them both to exile: Henry for 10 years and Norfolk for life.
As if exile wasn’t punishment enough, just one year later when John of Gaunt died, Richard delivered the knock-out punch. Despite his promise to Gaunt, Richard revoked Henry’s entire Lancastrian inheritance and confiscated all of his lands and assets. Furthermore, Henry was to be considered a traitor to England. Henry of Bolingbroke had nothing left. To fall so far from being the heir to the throne down to a penniless vagabond was untenable for Henry. And there was only one person at fault: his cousin, King Richard II.
Henry’s Return to England
As Henry lived in exile, he thought about his situation and strategies for getting back what was rightly his. There weren’t many options. There was certainly no chance now at reconciliation with Richard, things had simply gone too far. The only way he would be allowed to return to England and be restored to his rightful inheritance would be if Richard was no longer the king of England.
Removing King Richard II from the throne is not something Henry could do by himself. Luckily, he had friends in high places who had also been unfairly treated by Richard. Together with several dukes and earls, Henry planned an uprising against Richard to protest his tyrannical rule. Henry landed in England on July 4, 1399 at Ravenspur in Yorkshire with only 300 men. As he traveled towards the safety of the Lancastrian stronghold, Pontefract Castle, his army grew into the thousands. Henry had become the leader of the revolution. He swore to his followers that his only intent was to defend England from Richard’s tyranny and to reclaim his Lancastrian inheritance. He promised that he would not take the throne for himself by force.
King Richard was with the royal army in Ireland at the time of Henry’s invasion. The Keeper of the Realm during his absence was his 58-year-old heir, Edmund of Langley, duke of York. Edmund knew that his nephew was a cruel despotic ruler and he instead threw in his lot with Henry. Edmund agreed to support his uprising and would not take measures to suppress his army. Edmund also believed that Henry had been treated unfairly and was perfectly within his rights to reclaim his inheritance.
So Henry’s army moved across the country unchallenged until he came to Conway Castle where King Richard was hiding. Rather than fighting, they negotiated. Henry demanded that he be allowed to return to England and that his lands be restored to him. Richard agreed but then shortly thereafter declared he had no intent to keep his promise. In fact, he was more determined than ever to see Henry dead. Henry’s army arrested Richard and took him into their possession.
While Richard was kept under lock and key in a variety of royal castles, Henry was working with English lawyers to legally reinstate his claim to the Lancastrian inheritance. They determined that the best course of action would be for Richard to sign a written resignation which would then be ratified by Parliament. After much resistance, the king finally relented and signed the document. In doing so, he stepped down from the throne and agreed to Henry’s accession, just as King Edward III’s act of entail had outlined nearly twenty five years earlier.
The Rule of Succession in England
Was Henry right to overthrow Richard II in an attempt to restore justice to the kingdom of England? Or did he take advantage of the circumstances by claiming the throne for himself?
It all comes down to this. Were any laws broken when Edward named his grandson Richard as his heir instead of his eldest living son John of Gaunt? Likewise, did Richard break any laws when he bypassed Edward’s entail and named Edward of Langley as his heir? Did Henry break any laws when he accepted the crown for himself and deposed his cousin Richard? Should kings have to uphold entails from their predecessors or was it legal for them to change it to their own personal liking?
We cannot judge these decisions as morally right or wrong, rather we can only judge them in terms of the law or the absence of law. In England during the Middle Ages there was no law that strictly defined the order of succession. Other European kingdoms, such as France, observed Salic Law which prohibited women from being crowned as well as their sons. Germanic kingdoms followed semi-Salic rule which allowed a woman to inherit but only if all the men in the royal bloodline were dead.
England was a kingdom heavily influenced by their different European neighbors so England’s laws and customs were a mish-mash of the various customs immigrants had brought with them to England. Since England had never put the order of succession into a legal act, it was basically up to the current ruler to choose the next heir to the throne.
Is it any wonder England had so many disputes over control of the kingdom during the Middle Ages? With no legal rules governing the order of succession it became open to interpretation and that’s when the royal heirs and nobility used it to their advantage. It made it much more possible to maneuver their own royal relatives into positions where they might someday have a shot at the throne themselves.
Was Henry IV a Usurper?
It is my judgement that Henry IV was not a usurper. To be a usurper, one has to either seize authority illegally or by force.
Although Henry did amass a sizable army, they did not resort to violence to solve the conflict. The army was merely a show of force so that Richard would take them seriously and understand the gravity of the situation.
Henry was careful to use lawyers to find a legal way to depose King Richard II and thus overturn his previous statute naming Edmund of Langley as his heir. With Richard deposed and all of his previous acts of Parliament voided, the order of succession had to revert back to the previous king. That would make King Edward III’s act of entail valid again and Henry of Bolingbroke next in line to the throne.