With the death of King Edward III, Richard, son of the good-natured and gallant Black Prince who died prematurely, and grandson of Edward, becomes the King of England at the age of eleven. People celebrate his coronation gaily, hoping much from him. But, as the time goes on, the hopes of the commoner are dashed: Richard is weak, wasteful in his expenditure, unwise in choosing councilors, regal in his approach, and detached from his country and its people.
Initially, Richard rules the country discreetly, but often finds himself carried away by flattery. Fearing the Duke of Gloucester, his uncle, Richard seizes and sends him to Calais, where Thomas Mowbray is the governor. There, in a prison, he dies mysteriously. There is no sure indication of Richard’s involvement, but people believe that he was murdered by the King’s order.
His other uncle, John of Gaunt and Duke of Lancaster, has a son by name Henry Bolingbroke. He is a soldierly man. His wife is the sister of Gloucester’s widow. He too could not accuse cousin Richard of the murder. But he charges that Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who was the governor of Calais at the time of Gloucester’s murder, was involved in the treachery.
The King summons the appellant and the accused to appear before him. Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray on three counts: detaining 8000 nobles, which should have been paid to King’s soldiery, treasons committed, and importantly for the death of the Duke of Gloucester. Then the King demands response from Mowbray, assuring that he need not fear, for the King’s eyes and ears are impartial. Mowbray then lies to Bolingbroke. Failing in his mediation attempt to appease them, the King orders them to appear at Coventry on St. Lambert’s day to settle their differences with sword and lance.
On the appointed day, when the combatants are readying for the fight, the King stops them and announces his sentence of banishment of both. He banishes Bolingbroke for 10 years and Mowbray ‘never to return.’ He then calls both of them and asks to swear on his sword that they will never meet and plot against him. As soon as Mowbray leaves, Richard, looking at old Gaunt, his uncle and father of Bolingbroke, reduces the banishment of Bolingbroke to six years. Bolingbroke leaves the court bidding farewell to his countrymen warmly.
Richard, thus relieved of the anxiety that one day the Crown may pass on to Bolingbroke, to whom common people have shown such affability, and having already emptied his coffers for his selfish extravagance, begins to rent out parcels of English land to wealthy noblemen to raise money to carry on with his wars in Ireland. On the death of his uncle Gaunt, he confiscates his estate and money for his own royal use, dispossessing Bolingbroke. This makes the noblemen and the commoners realize that Richard has gone too far.
Once Richard leaves for Ireland to pursue a war, the Earl of Northumberland, head of the great house of Percy, starts questioning the conduct of King. Hearing that Bolingbroke has landed with an army at Ravenspurgh in the north-east of England, the Earl of Northumberland joins him. The commoners, being fond of Bolingbroke and being angry at Richard’s mismanagement of the country, welcome his invasion and join his forces.
As Bolingbroke marches with his army to Berkeley, Gloucestershire, he meets his uncle, old York, who challenges his advance. Bolingbroke pleads with him: “My gracious uncle, in what have I offended? My belongings have been seized. I only came to lay my claim in person.” Hearing his argument, old York turns neutral. One by one, Richard’s allies among the nobility desert him and join Bolingbroke, as he marches through England.
Richard, thus loses his grip over the country, much before his return from Ireland. On returning from Ireland, though his aids advise him to use all the means to stall the invasion, Richard assures them that “not all the water in the sea has power to wash the balm from an anointed King.” He expects god’s angel to fight for him. Thus, there indeed is no actual battle. Bolingbroke takes him as a prisoner in Wales and brings him to London, where the crown is passed on to Bolingbroke by Richard himself.
Bolingbroke is thus crowned as King Henry IV. Richard is imprisoned in the castle of Pomfret in north England. There, an assassin murders him. Of course, no one is sure of the role of the King in the murder, though King Henry repudiates the murder. He also undertakes a journey to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his part in Richard’s death. Nevertheless, the beginning of the new regime of King Henry starts off inauspiciously.