The True History of Richard II
David Tennant (of Doctor Who and Hamlet fame) is currently wooing audiences in the new Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II. This is one of William's Shakespeare's most famous history plays, notable for the richness of its language (“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle ... This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) and its depiction of the king's decline and overthrow. But Shakespeare was equally notorious for embellishing the facts -- to what extent does his play reflect the true history of Richard II?
The presentation page of ‘The Capture and Death of King Richard’, showing the author, Jean Creton, and the Duke of Burgundy (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 2r).
Much of our knowledge of the downfall of King Richard II of England (1377–1399) is based on a contemporary account entitled La Prinse et Mort du Roy Richart (‘The Capture and Death of King Richard’). This work was composed by the French historian Jean Creton (c. 1386–1420), and presented to Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. Creton had been sent by King Charles VI of France to accompany Richard on a doomed expedition to Ireland in 1399, and was present when the English king was seized at Conwy in North Wales by the supporters of Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV). La Prinse et Mort du Roy Richart records the official version of Richard II's death, namely that the king had died by starvation; but Creton believed that Richard remained alive and in prison. In 1402, when the French received reports that Richard II was in Scotland, Creton was despatched to ascertain the truth, at which point he finally concluded that King Richard was indeed dead.
A number of manuscripts of La Prinse et Mort du Roy Richart survive, one of which (Harley MS 1319) can be viewed in its entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Made in Paris early in the 15th century, and painted by the Virgil Master, the manuscript in question contains a series of 16 miniatures which depict events in the final year of Richard II's reign.
A selection of images from Harley MS 1319 is reproduced here. We highly recommend that you look at the others on Digitised Manuscripts, so that you can see how people living in the 15th century would have viewed the life of Richard II, events which even at that time were subject to mystery and suspicion.
The relief ships (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 7v).
Archbishop Arundel preaching (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 12r).
Richard II at Conwy (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 19v).
Henry Bolingbroke and the dukes (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 30v).
Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 50r).
Richard II delivered to the citizens of London (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 53v).
Henry Bolingbroke recognized as king by the parliament (London, British Library, MS Harley 1319, f. 57r).