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Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857

Richard II

Richard wastes money, steals land, and kills political rivals; people are angry and rebel; Henry becomes king.; he kills political rivals.

Richard II Summary

King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, and uses the money to fund wars. Henry returns to England to reclaim his land, gathers an army of those opposed to Richard, and deposes him. Now as Henry IV, Henry imprisons Richard, and Richard is murdered in prison.   

More detail: 2 minute read 

Act I 

The play opens in King Richard's court, as Henry Bolingbroke, son of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), challenges Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Henry accuses him of being involved in the recent death of the King's uncle (who is also Henry's uncle; Henry and the King are cousins). Richard gives in to their demands to work out their differences in one-on-one combat at Coventry. As the tournament begins, however, the uncertain and impulsive Richard stops the contest, choosing instead to exile both Henry and Mowbray. He banishes Mowbray for life and, responding to Lancaster's pleas, limits Henry's exile to six years.

Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857
Charles Kean as Richard II, 1857

Act II

In line with his customary behaviour, Richard is misled by his friends into poor government of the country. Henry's father, Gaunt, dies, finally broken by his son's banishment, and by the state of the kingdom under Richard's rule. Richard takes possession of Gaunt's land and money. It turns out that he has also been leasing out royal land. Both of these monetary acquisitions have helped him to fund wars with Ireland, much to the dismay of his nobles (not only because of the waste of the kingdom's money, but also for fear over the security of their own estates). To make matters worse, Richard leaves on an expedition to Ireland. When Henry hears that his father has died and that his inheritance has been taken by Richard, he returns from exile with an invading army. Since the commoners and nobles are already critical of Richard, they welcome Henry in the north, led by the powerful Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Henry marches through England, gathering his willing forces. 

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

— Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1


Richard arrives back after the Irish war to find that his Welsh allies have dispersed. Furthermore, his cousin, Duke of York,  unable to prevent Henry's triumphant return, has joined him instead. Some more of Richard's friends have also betrayed the King's cause, while others have been executed on Henry's orders. After taking refuge at Flint castle, Richard surrenders and agrees to go to London, where the lords will decide what should happen next. 

Act IV-V

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, and is subsequently imprisoned in Pontefract castle. His queen is sent home to France. Some lords join in a plot against Henry but York, the father of one of the nobles, relates their machinations to Henry. Henry spares the son of York, but is now aware of his tenuous position as king.

Richard II 1903 Tree
Richard II, 1903

Henry implies to Exton that he would like to be rid of his threats, and Exton thereafter murders Richard. He brings the body to London. Henry claims innocence, blaming Exton for misunderstanding his intentions. The play ends as King Henry banishes Exton, orders a funeral for Richard, and swears to make reparation for his cousin's death by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

With mine own tears I wash away my balm, With mine own hands I give away my crown.

— Richard II, Act 4 Scene 1
Richard II 1973
Richard II, RSC, 1973

King Henry IV's rule (and his dealings with his son, Hal, who eventually becomes King Henry V) are dealt with in Shakespeare's plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2

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