Like many of us, I first learned about Richard II from Shakespeare. The consummate storyteller, Shakespeare gave us a grown-up queen who threw herself into Richard’s arms as he was led to prison. Imagine my surprise to learn that in reality, Richard’s queen was only ten years old! Ah, and she was his second queen. His first, Anne of Bohemia, had died five years before his deposition and two years before he remarried. How in the world did that happen?
We don’t know very much about Anne of Bohemia. She was of impeccable ancestry, the eldest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. But the real reason Richard married her was for politics. By then, the Great Schism had occurred and Europe had two popes. Clement VII moved to Avignon, and was supported by the French. Urban VI was in Rome and was supported by England as well as the Holy Roman Empire. After much negotiating, Richard was betrothed to Anne so he could gain the Emperor’s support against their mutual enemies. This was far from a popular match; Anne’s brother, the wily Wenceslaus, had succeeded her father in 1378 and was in financial straits. Not only would Anne come without a dowry, Richard was obliged to loan Wenceslaus £12,000. Many argued against the marriage, but for some reason Richard was adamant.
Anne’s journey to England was perilous. Accompanied by Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s vice-chamberlain and a slew of Bohemian ladies and knights, Anne had to wait on the Calais side of the Channel for a couple of months. She was a prize, and Norman privateers were trolling the waters looking for her—stopping and pillaging every ship they could get their hands on. Finally, her uncle the Duke of Brabant managed to persuade King Charles of France to provide a safe-conduct for her, as she was the King’s distant relative. Once the wind was favorable they crossed to Dover and landed on December 18, 1381—just in time to meet her future husband for Christmas at Leeds Castle.
By all accounts, theirs was a love match from the first. Although she was not considered a great beauty, Anne had a sweet disposition. At age fifteen she was one year older than Richard and their closeness in age (and inexperience) probably contributed to their affection for each other. Unlike most kings of the middle ages, he was not unfaithful to her. She provided him with love and support even during his most troublesome episodes with his overbearing uncles. They were rarely apart during their twelve year marriage. He built a private getaway on a little island in the Thames across from Sheen Palace (same site as Richmond Palace) called Le Neyt—a rarity in times when royalty was almost never alone. Even so, sadly, she never conceived.
Anne is best known for introducing the sidesaddle to England—a strange contraption which consisted of a little bench strapped to the horse with a footrest. Each lady’s palfrey was led by a footman who managed the bridle-rein while the lady held onto a pommel; this meant that they could proceed at no faster than a walk. But this was no matter; the sidesaddle was merely used for ceremonial purposes. The Bohemians also introduced those funny shoes with elongated points called Crakows, or sometimes Poulaines because they were originally from Poland (the extreme version was attached to the knee with a gold chain). They were also the first ladies in England to wear the outrageous headdresses with wires and pasteboard horns extending two feet high and two feet wide and shaped like a wide-spreading mitre, draped with fine glittering veils.
Queen Anne died suddenly in 1394, possibly from the plague because it all happened so quickly — but this seems unlikely to me since nobody else was ill. Richard was inconsolable and ordered his workmen to destroy Le Neyt (or maybe even the whole palace; no one knows for sure). He swore he wouldn’t enter any building they lived in for a whole year, excepting the churches. Anne was buried at Westminster Abbey and her gilt bronze effigy (alongside Richard) can still be seen.
But a kingdom without an heir left itself open to civil war, as Richard knew all too well. At the same time, for many years he had been leaning toward peace with France, even though many of his militaristic subjects strongly disagreed. Two years after the death of Queen Anne, Richard concluded a 28 year truce with France, and part of this agreement was his offer to marry King Charles’s seven year-old daughter Isabella. Why did he do this? I’m inclined to think that this gave Richard plenty of time to grieve for Anne while accomplishing an alliance that was very important to him. At 29 years of age, he felt that he still had plenty of time to beget an heir.
A great ceremony was held on a large field at Andres, eight miles south of Calais. Ironically, this was exactly the same site as the Field of the Cloth of Gold attended by Henry VIII and Francis the First 124 years later. It was said that Richard’s pageant was every bit as elaborate and expensive as his successor’s. Interestingly, on opening day Richard’s retinue was dressed in red velvet with heraldic trappings from Queen Anne’s livery. He was determined not to forget her.
Little Isabella came back to England with her handsome new husband and was housed at Windsor Castle. She was crowned at Westminster the following year. Richard doted on his Queen and it was said she adored him, but there was no question that many years would pass before he took on his conjugal duties. As it turned out, of course, he was dead in four years, leaving her a prisoner of the usurper Henry IV; the new King wanted her to marry his son, the future Henry V. But she showed amazing fortitude for someone so young; Isabella refused and went into mourning. A year later Henry allowed her to go back to France but he kept her dowry. When she was sixteen she married her cousin Charles, Duke of Orléans who was only eleven. And yet, three years later she died in childbirth. Poor Isabella never got a break. If they had been given more time and had Richard II managed to sire an heir, it would have been much more difficult for anyone else to usurp the crown. And perhaps the Wars of the Roses would never have occurred.