Who—and What—were the Lords Appellant?
By Mercedes Rochelle
Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick, Before the King Source: Wikimedia.
When I first bumped into the Lords Appellant I was confused because as far as I knew, an appeal was filed after a court conviction in an attempt to reverse the decision. But as it turns out, in the fourteenth century an appeal was the starting point—an indictment or an accusation against someone, initiating a legal procedure. What made the case of the Lords Appellant so special was that this was the first time the appeal was introduced into Parliament; up until then, it was used in common and civil courts.
When you see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, it refers to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II's reign. Their case was against Richard's friends, counselors, and officers who were accused of giving the king bad advice—misleading and deceiving him. Most historians agree that the Appellants were driven by resentment, ambition, and dissatisfaction. Here they were, some of the most powerful magnates in the realm, shut out of Richard's inner circle. No influence with the king, no power, no opportunities to reward their retainers—all these obstacles put them in a bad position. However, they weren't powerful enough to go after Richard directly; there was no popular swell of discontent as in the case of Edward II. The second best solution was to eliminate the king's despised supporters and get him under their control.
The only person that stood between the Appellants and the king was John of Gaunt, the eldest surviving son of Edward III and a stickler for protocol. However, in 1386 when he sailed for Spain to pursue a crown of his own, his absence left Richard exposed to his enemies. They immediately went on the offensive and the young king was too inexperienced to know how to deal with them. Nonetheless, the Lords Appellant had a problem. If they went through the courts, the rulings wouldn't be permanent enough. The only way to completely destroy their enemies, take away their titles, lands—even their lives—and dispossess the heirs was through Parliament. Not only were their motives questionable, but the whole process had no legal basis from which to act, and the Appellants were forced to make up the rules as they went along, twisting the system to accommodate their self-serving objectives.
The driving force behind the Lords Appellant was Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III). One would think that the king's uncle would not be his worst enemy, but Gloucester was a bitter, aggressive man. He reminds me of John Lackland because he, too, came out on the losing end of land distribution after all his siblings were taken care of. He only became duke two years before all this unpleasantness started, and even so he was dependent on the exchequer for his revenue. If it weren't for his wife, one of the great Bohun heiresses, he would have had nothing at all. His only hope of prominence would have been from the French wars like his brother the Black Prince and his father Edward III; but here, too, the king disappointed him. There was to be no major campaigning in this reign, and Gloucester became the spokesman for warmongers amongst his peers. As the Appellants gained the upper hand, Gloucester even went so far as to put himself forward as a possible replacement (after having deposed Richard), but young Henry of Bolingbroke put an end to that scheme. There were stronger claimants to the throne, himself included.
In almost total accord with Gloucester, Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel was a stout collaborator. He was an experienced, if unexceptional warrior and served under John of Gaunt, mostly as admiral. Although he won brief popularity by sharing a year's worth of wine with all of England at rock-bottom prices (from 100 captured Flemish vessels), his brusque and overbearing personality made him few friends. From the beginning of Richard's reign he was on the council of regency, and in 1381 he was appointed co-councilor in constant attendance upon the young king, ironically alongside his future victim Michael de la Pole. Although Richard warmed up to Michael he found Arundel detestable, which I suspect contributed to the crisis.
The third original Appellant was Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick. He was the son of the famous Thomas Beauchamp known for his bravery at Crecy and Poitiers. Rather mediocre and undistinguished, Thomas never lived up to his father's reputation. But he was, after all, a noble from a great family and hence valuable as an ally. He pretty much went along with everything Gloucester said and didn't rock the boat.
The three Appellants originally appealed five of Richard's supporters: Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk and chancellor of England, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Richard's closest friend, Robert Tresilian, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, Sir Nicholas Brembre, wealthy London magnate and former Mayor, and Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York. After the Lords Appellant made their formal appeal, Richard arranged for Neville, de la Pole, and Tresilian to slip away, and secretly sent Robert de Vere to Cheshire to raise an army to defend him. Brembre stayed put, certain of his innocence, and sought to gain support in London for the king (he paid for that with his life).
But this wasn't the end of the matter. For three weeks the King refused to sign Burley's death warrant. In the meantime, controversy continued to go back and forth between the Commons and the Lords—all the Lords favoring Burley, that is. By now the discussions were about sparing the life of the accused. The Commons clamored for the death of Burley, deaf to any arguments which were uttered by those of all ranks, from the Duke of York all the way down to Richard's household clerks, willing to risk their necks to put in a good word for the vice-chamberlain.
Finally, after much hesitation, Henry Bolingbroke stood—to the amazement of the King and the wrath of Gloucester. After a moment, Mowbray stood with him. "My lords," Henry said, "I am of the opinion that Sir Simon Burley does not deserve the death penalty. By all means, remove him from the offices he now occupies. But do not debase yourself by this disgraceful verdict which reeks of partisanship." The last words had to come out at a shout, for before he had finished the members started hooting and booing at him. For some minutes he continued to holler at the crowd before giving up and sitting back down. He ignored Gloucester's furious glare.
The next morning, when the Appellants were sitting in the judges' chamber awaiting the beginning of Parliament, Gloucester couldn't restrain himself. "I cannot believe what you did," he spat at Bolingbroke who sat at the other end of the table. "You could have ruined everything we have worked for."
Henry casually picked an apple from a bowl. "Everything you have worked for. It would not be a great exaggeration to say I do not agree with your policy of extermination."
Gloucester stood, leaning over the table. "Don't you understand? If we let them live—even one of them—they will come back and destroy us!"
"Sit down uncle, please. If we pull their teeth, they cannot bite." Just to emphasize his statement, he took a bite out of the apple.
"As long as Richard lives, we are not safe unless we render him powerless."
"And thus we should prove ourselves more disgraceful, more ignoble than the King could ever be. No, my Lord, I do not fancy such a reputation."
"Henry, you are committed to this course of action. As are we all."
An uncomfortable pall fell over the room; they jumped when the door flew open and the queen entered, holding up the edge of her mantle. Richard was right behind her. Guiltily, the men stood. She gestured for them to sit. "No, my lords. It is I who must kneel to you." To their great dismay, Queen Anne fell to her knees before Gloucester. "My Lord, I beg you, with all my heart, to spare the life of Sir Simon Burley. Do not impose this terrible penalty."
Richard moved over to the fireplace, leaning against the mantle in disgust. He was clearly against this show of humility. But Anne didn't care. This was all her idea.
"Simon Burley was the man who brought me to England when I was just a frightened girl. He has been my staunch ally and my dearest friend. Please, I beg you. Do not take him from me." A tear ran down her cheek.
After his first astonishment, Gloucester turned away. She grabbed his hand, putting it against her wet face. "He is not the traitor you accuse him to be. He is loyal, and true. See how the King mourns." She kissed his hand, but he carefully withdrew it, trying not to insult her.
"Take pity, Lord Thomas. I beg you not to do this thing."
How Gloucester endured this woeful behavior was more than anyone in the room could fathom. The chroniclers were to state that she spent three hours on her knees, but how could that be possible? It was certainly long enough to be remembered throughout history, much to his discredit. After an uncomfortably long demonstration of her abject humiliation, he finally reached his limit. "You had best save your prayers for your husband," he said roughly, "for he stands in great need of them."
Stung by this remark, Richard came over and lifted the sobbing queen into his arms. "Have you no shame?" he retorted.
Still sitting, Gloucester turned to the King. "I will tell you this one last time. If you do not sign the warrants, you will face the same fate as Edward II. Do not take my warning lightly."
Richard looked in panic at Bolingbroke but his cousin was studying his fingernails. Why wouldn't he? Henry had nothing to gain from helping his beleaguered king.
Silently cursing his opponents, Richard whispered in Anne's ear. "Come from this terrible place."
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Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.