When Edward III died, his ten-year-old grandson succeeded as Richard II (r. 1377-1399). Richard’s reign was marked by mounting factionalism and peasant discontent. Both conflicts strongly resembled their French counterparts—the strife between Burgundy and Armagnac, and the Jacquerie of 1358. Just as the Jacquerie opposed attempts to regulate life in ways ultimately bound to benefit the nobility and the entrepreneur, so did the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The social disorders arose out of protests against the imposition of poll (head) taxes, which fell equally upon all subjects; the poorer classes bitterly resented paying their shilling a head for each person over fifteen. Riots provoked by attempts to collect the tax led to the Peasants’ Revolt. Under the leadership of John Ball, a priest, and Wat Tyler, a day laborer, the peasants burned manor records to destroy evidence of their obligations, murdered the archbishop of Canterbury, and demanded the end of serfdom and the seizure of clerical wealth. When they marched on London, the fifteen-year-old king promised to settle their grievances. But Richard failed to keep his promises and permitted severe reprisals against the rebels.
The most longstanding popular statement of the grievances of the rural population is the legend of Robin Hood, who seems to have been a thirteenth-century Yorkshire criminal. The first written reference appears in Piers Plowman. The legend became firmly entrenched in the fifteenth century, and Robin Hood’s adventures became part of the gest, some thirty ballads accompanied by lute and harp. These ballads spoke of economic and social grievances, of the constant savaging of open lot and woodland by the followers of noblemen and gentry, of fears of both tyrants and towns.
Under Richard II and his successors, factional strife assumed critical dimensions. During the fourteenth century the baronage had become a smaller and richer class of great magnates, whose relationship to their vassals grew to be based more on cash and less on military service and protection. These great lords recruited the armed following they still owed to the king by hiring small private armies to go to war for them.
Soldiers in these armies were bound by written indenture and a retaining fee. This was known as livery and maintenance, since the lord provided uniforms for his retainers, who, in turn, maintained others. Though forbidden by statute in 1390, this practice continued to flourish. The danger from private armies became greater during each interlude of peace in the war with France, when mercenaries accustomed to plundering in a foreign country returned to England.
Strife had begun during the last years of Edward III, when effective control of the government passed from the aging king to one of his younger sons, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt could mobilize a private army of fifteen hundred men, and his faction persisted under Richard II. New factions also appeared, centered on two of the king’s uncles, the dukes of York and Gloucester. After defeating Richard II’s supporters in battle, Gloucester had royal ministers condemned for treason in a packed Parliament (1388).
Richard II waited a few years and then in 1397 arrested Gloucester and moved against his confederates. The king packed Parliament in his own favor and had it pass retroactive treason laws. Richard’s confiscation of the estates of his exiled first cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, set off a revolution. After Bolingbroke’s landing in England, Richard was forced to abdicate in 1399 and was murdered. Bolingbroke became Henry IV (r. 1399-1413), first monarch of the house of Lancaster.