Richard II, The Bishop and Lichfield

Our speaker on May 23rd, 2013, was local historian Patricia Scaife and her reputation as an engaging speaker was probably responsible for the larger than average audience of members and guests.

Patricia started by explaining that Sunday, September 8th, 1398 - the Festival of Nativity - was an occasion when many Lichfield citizens would have been out on the street as well as many in the Cathedral. A procession of Clergy came out of the Cathedral to meet John Burghill, the new Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, who had come to take the oath of loyalty. He was already the Bishop of Llandaf - so this was a promotion.

It was noted at the time that, amongst other dignitaries, three Bishops, four Dukes and the King of England attended this ceremony. The new Bishop was a Dominican Friar - which was unusual - and members of the order had to earn a living. By awarding him this promotion King Richard was rewarding him for being his father confessor. Significantly both Richard's father and grandfather had had a Dominican as confessor - their secrets were safe. The Dominicans had written a very detailed manual for the confession but in fourteenth century England most ordinary people didn't have a choice of confessor - they had to go at least once a year.

The new Bishop was an intellectual. Bishops were an important part of the medieval state and provided a 'civil service' for the King; many would have studied at Oxford. However, despite the 'living' it provided, many are known to have neglected their diocese - only appearing when they fell out with the King. Bishop John Burghill did at least arrange for an Irish bishop to deputize for him.

During his reign Richard II often came to Lichfield and it is notable that Burghill's predecessor, Bishop Richard le Scrope, was described as a 'friend' to Richard when he came in 1387 to confirm the grant of a charter to the "Gild of St Mary in Lichfield".

The festivals of Christmas and Epiphany, designated as a time of 'crown wearing', were very important to kings. Richard had come to the throne when he was only 10 years old following the death of his grandfather King Edward III. In 1398 the court came to Lichfield in May, and again in June on the anniversary of his coronation, September and Christmas. On these occasions the King would have stayed in the Bishop's Palace; the Bishop moving into the Dean's residence and so on ...

Patricia told us that several things were happening to Richard about this time. His first wife, Ann of Bohemia, had died at Sheen in 1394 and it is evident from the effigies on their tomb that the couple had been devoted to each other. He married again, to a 9 year old girl, but this was a political marriage and they did not have children.

The powerful Baron's had already deposed Richard's grandfather, King Edward III, and now they were not happy with Richard's extravagant lifestyle - and the peace he had arranged with France. After the visit to Lichfield in 1398 the court went to Nottingham where, following an argument with the Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Bolingbroke was exiled to France. John of Gaunt died in 1399 and Richard confiscated his valuable estates - which Bolinbroke had expected to inherit. In the ensuing rebellion Richard was captured in Ireland, returned to Lichfield, and was locked in a tower (exactly where is not known). He was then taken to London and forced to abdicate. Sent in exile to the north of England he died, of melancholy (!), in February 1400. He had been King for just 23 years.

However history was revised as the new King, Henry IV, had not yet been crowned. Henry decided that the abdication had not happened and arranged a fabulous state funeral in London for Richard. To avoid any embarrassment John Burghill suggested that Richard should be buried quietly in a Dominican Friary at Kings Langley, near St Albans, with Burghill and the Abbot of St Albans as the only mourners.

King Richard II was a great patron of the arts, notably encouraging Geoffrey Chaucer. Patricia concluded her talk by suggesting that that he may ultimately have been responsible for us speaking English today rather than the French generally spoken by the medieval court.

Peter Cousins
May 2013