(Marty Rosen’s article appeared in Leo Weekly, 7/14.)
In 1398, King Richard II of England did something that astonished the cutthroat, blood-soaked world of medieval England: he stopped two noblemen from killing one another.
The incident is recounted in great detail in Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland” and in another chronicle by Edward Hall — and should you ever find yourself wishing desperately for another season of “Game of Thrones,” just download Holinshed from Project Gutenberg — you’ll soon wonder how anyone at all survived the Middle Ages.
These chronicles, published in the 1500s, had an enormous influence on the course of English culture and history. They became source material for a slew of Shakespeare’s plays (not only the histories, but “Macbeth “and “King Lear”), as well as a number of his contemporaries.
What happened in 1398 is that two noblemen, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, came to Richard’s court and accused one another of treason. Richard tried to talk them down, but failed: They threw their gages (armored gloves) upon the ground and in the custom of the day the challenged one another to trial by combat as part of a code of honor.
According to both chronicles, the day of their battle was a grand affair, with some 10,000 knights on hand to keep the peace in case a fight broke out between the men’s factions.
But, at the last possible minute, Richard halted the affair and sentenced both men to exile. This moment leads inexorably to Richard being deposed and Bolingbroke eventually becoming King Henry IV.
For hundreds of years, trial by combat was a fixture of European law, and though King Richard II had the power to stop the duel, his doing so must have felt as disruptive as, say, a U.S. President deciding to suspend the Supreme Court.
It was such a fraught moment that 200 years later, in 1595, Shakespeare used the incident to kick of his play “Richard II” and the epic four play cycle that contemporary critics call The Henriad: “Richard II,” “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2), and “Henry V.”
These four plays cover a quarter century that ushers in a new world order. By the end of “Henry V,” the romanticized old world order — represented in “Richard II” by John of Gaunt, who famously laments Richard’s degradation of his beloved “sceptered isle” — has given way to a world where “honor” can first be mocked by the smart, cynical Falstaff — and then comically satirized as Shakespeare depicts people in the scruffy lower classes start to mimic the language and behavior of the gentry.