Path to Power: The Linked Reigns of Richard II and Henry VIII

Jade Revell

The year 1545 saw Henry VIII give his last great speech to parliament.

He had been on the throne for 36 years and had the reins of total power firmly in his fist. No monarch had ever been so powerful or ever would be again. However without a previous monarch’s rule over a century before, Henry would not have even been born, let alone become king. Richard II’s time as king, which followed years of plague, war, and economic unrest, allowed Henry’s more peaceful reign to happen in two ways. Firstly, his style of kingship was very different to what had gone before. While Richard’s father and grandfather enjoyed the finer aspects of court life, they were equally at home on the military campaign trails of the Hundred Years’ War. Richard was a peaceful king who actively sued for peace with France, and instead used courtly display and the divine mystique of being king to elevate his power. Richard poured his efforts and riches into hunting, fine clothing, furnishings, and food, while also making his court a home for writers and artists alike. He was the first monarch to commission a full portrait of himself to ensure his image was seen, acting as an extension of his royal power. He was also the first to be addressed as ‘your majesty’ and had a habit of sitting upon a raised dais, imperiously sweeping his eyes over his court. Henry was also the son of a military father and, although he never sought peace with France, enjoyed all the sport and entertainment that a learned and cultured court provided. He was also well aware of his own importance and appearance, utilising the talents of one of his court artisans, Holbein, to create his famous portraits that were said to leave the viewer in awe. Both monarchs challenge the viewer by staring directly out of the painting.
Path to Power: The Linked Reigns of Richard II and Henry VIII
King Richard II

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Path to Power: The Linked Reigns of Richard II and Henry VIII
King Henry VIII

Like Richard, he was also incredibly aware of how the grand spectacle could be an indicator of personal power on the political stage.

Henry’s impossibly opulent showboating and peacocking with Francois I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 was nothing new. Richard and the French King Charles IV also met at Ardres in 1396. With the eyes of the world on them, both kings spent eye-wateringly lavish sums of money on tents, entertainment, food and gifts, trying to outdo each other during their diplomatic power play. The second way in which Richard directly impacted Henry’s future was the ending of his own reign. His unpopular acts included keeping to a small group of favourites, seizing lands unjustly, and creating a private retinue instead of turning to his barons for military might. His tyrannical tendencies, which had been kept in check by his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, were unleashed by her death and he started on a downward spiral towards his own demise. His downfall was due to his utter belief in total obedience from his subjects and in his own absolute rule, but once his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, seized his crown, much like the Wizard of Oz, Richard’s cultivated image of power fell away. Henry, however, never had a Bolingbroke, and a combination of executions, people willing to do his bidding, and pure force of personality let him rule with absolute power. The act of taking away the crown and deposing a king anointed with holy oil had consequences for Bolingbroke and those who came after him. The crown could never lie easy again once this mystical taboo had been broken, as it unlocked the ‘what if?’ question in any would-be pretenders minds for centuries after. This led directly to the upheavals of the Wars of the Roses, and set in motion the series of events that allowed the Tudors to take the throne of England. Both kings were similar in their largesse, admiration of high culture, inflated sense of self, and their belief in the divine right to rule, but only Henry was successful in attaining total power. However, without Richard laying the groundwork, Henry may not have had these tools to utilise so magnificently himself. Ultimately, if Richard had not attempted to rule in such a tyrannical manner and had never been deposed, the events that followed would not have happened. Henry Tudor would never have landed at Milford Haven and marched to Bosworth to pluck the crown for a Tudor dynasty. Without Richard, there simply is no Henry.
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Path to Power: The Linked Reigns of Richard II and Henry VIII

Jade Revell

Jade wrote for Edition 3, Key events in History.
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