RICHARD II – Synopsis

We begin in King Richard’s court, as Henry Bolingbroke, son of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk of being involved in the recent death of the King’s uncle (who is also Henry’s uncle; Henry and the King are cousins). They demand to work out their differences in one-on-one combat at Coventry, and Richard gives in.

As the tournament begins, the uncertain and impulsive Richard stops the contest, choosing instead to exile both Henry and Mowbray. He banishes Mowbray for life, but when John of Gaunt, Henry’s father, begs, he limits Henry’s exile to six years (which doesn’t do Gaunt much good, as he figures he doesn’t have six years left. 

Unfortunately, Richard allows his friends, including his bestie, Lord Aumerle (son of the Duke of York), to influence him in his governing, and let’s just say that they don’t do much to curb his worst impulses. When they receive word that John of Gaunt is dying, they race to his deathbed, where Gaunt tells Richard exactly what he thinks of him, then dies. Immediately, Richard takes possession of Gaunt’s land and money. It turns out that he has also been leasing out royal land to fund wars with Ireland. The Duke of York is not happy. He desperately wants to be loyal to the king, but Richard is making it very difficult!

Meanwhile, Richard’s Queen is experiencing some high anxiety, despite the best attempts of the King’s friends, Busy and Bagot, to cheer her up. She receives word that Bolingbroke is returning to claim his rightful inheritance. 

That’s right! When Henry hears that his father has died and that Richard took his inheritance, he returns from exile with an invading army. The commoners and nobles are already critical of Richard, so they welcome Henry in the north, led by the powerful Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Henry marches through England, gathering his willing forces. 

Richard arrives back after his Irish war to find that not only have his Welsh allies dispersed, but his cousin, Duke of York, unable to prevent Henry’s triumphant return, has joined him instead. Several more of Richard’s friends have also betrayed the King’s cause. Others have been executed on Henry’s orders. Things are looking pretty hopeless, and after taking refuge at Flint castle, Richard surrenders and agrees to go to London, where the lords will decide what should happen next. 

In view of the insurrections against him, King Richard is persuaded to step down in favour of Henry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV. Richard hands over his crown in a ceremony. Henry imprisons Richard in Pontefract Castle, and Richard’s queen is sent home to France. 

There are a few plots against Henry, including one that Aumerle is a part of, and when York discovers this, they both race to Henry, along with the Duchess of York, who begs for her son’s life. Henry spares Aumerle, but he is now aware of his tenuous position as king, and implies that he would like to be rid of his threats. Aumerle, to regain his trust, goes against his feelings, and murders Richard. He brings the body to London. Henry claims innocence, blaming Aumerle for misunderstanding his intentions. The play ends as King Henry banishes Aumerle, orders a funeral for Richard, and swears to make reparation for his cousin’s death by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

This handy graphic can be very helpful in navigating all the personalities!!