Two bad kings and two bad presidents.

Author:Abbott, Philip

One of the rewards for those engaged in presidential studies is the opportunity to rank presidents. Identifying great presidents is often the focus of this pastime. Asking questions such as which presidents were great and why is, of course, more than a diversion, as it provides a framework for analysis not only for the institution and for political development but also for the assessment of the roles of human agency and historical contingency in political action. As important, perhaps--and as engaging--is the identification of bad presidents. (1) Is their "badness" the polar opposite of "greatness"? Is badness easier or more difficult to define than greatness? Based on the insights found in Shakespeare's treatment of two bad kings, I identify two kinds of bad presidents and suggest that the relationship between great presidents and bad ones is a complex one that may lead us to revaluate what makes some presidents great.


Richard II and Richard III were kings, not presidents, and they governed in quite different political systems than their democratic counterparts. But they were chief executives who can provide us with models of bad leaders in extremis. Both had great difficulty establishing their authority. Both made several disastrous decisions. Both were challenged, defeated, and deposed without heirs. In Elizabethan political culture, both the public and elites were troubled by these two kings. Richard II was the only British monarch with unquestioned title to be overthrown. Richard III, portrayed as a "lurid king, hunchbacked, clad in blood-splattered velvet, forever gnawing his nether lip or grasping his dagger," already had an enduring place in English political demonology before Shakespeare's play (Saccio 1977, 158). In King Richard II and King Richard III, Shakespeare confronts concerns about both kings and asks, why were they bad and how were they bad?

Despite reigning for 22 years, Richard II faced two major challenges to his crown. A group of nobles who called themselves the Lord Appellants demanded that he accept collective rule. When Richard refused, the Appellants defeated the king's forces. Richard was briefly imprisoned until he agreed to permit Parliament to resolve the dispute. The Merciless Parliament of 1388 sided with the earls. The court was purged of Richard's supporters, and the Lords Appellants took their place. A year later, Richard, now 22, successfully reasserted his authority. Though Richard initially governed more cautiously, in 1397, he struck back at the Lord Appellants, executing the Earl of Arundel, exiling Warwick, and (possibly) assassinating Gloucester. After the seizure of his estates, Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile and defeated the king's forces. Richard was captured, taunted by crowds on his way back to London, forced to abdicate, and died (probably assassinated) in captivity.

Throughout his reign, Richard II created a costly court, awarding new dukedoms to his supporters with seeming abandon. This extravagance led to the first rebellion by the Lord Appellants, and while Richard promised austerity, he soon reverted to his earlier habits. This style of governance was appropriate for Richard, as he regarded himself as "the deputy elected by the Lord." (2) He was well aware, however, of the necessity for funding, which was one of the reasons he left to command an army in Ireland at the very moment he struck back at the Lord Appellants. Richard himself states, "We will ourselves in person to this war, and our coffers with too great a court/and liberal largess are grown somewhat light" (83).

The Ireland expedition was only one of Richard II's decisions that led to his overthrow. Shakespeare begins his play with a dispute between Bolingbroke and the Duke of Norfolk. Both had accused the other of treason. Richard let the quarrel continue for nine months before he canceled a scheduled duel at the last minute and instead banished both parties. Both were deeply resentful, and Bolingbroke, of course, soon challenged the edict.

While Richard was indecisive in regard to his warring dukes, he was not so in dealing with Bolingbroke's estate. The Duke of York pleads with the king to reconsider, arguing that the estate is rightfully his by the laws of succession: "How art thou a king / But by fair sequence and succession?" (94). He continues by warning the king that he will "lose a thousand well-disposed hearts." Richard ignores the counsel and reiterates that he will "seize his plate, his goods, his money, and his lands." When Bolingbroke lands in Yorkshire, ostensibly to retrieve his estate, Richard delays his return and transfers some of his troops to the command of the Duke of Salisbury. Meanwhile, Bollingbrooke raises his own army, obtaining the surrender of some of Richard's supporters and executing others. Several earls join the rebellion. When Bolingbroke's forces find Richard at Conway, he has only 100 men at this command. Believing Bolingbroke's promise that he could retain his crown if he rescinds the seizure, Richard leaves the castle, only to be captured. In Shakespeare's version, on the road back to London, crowds cheer Bolingbroke and "scowl on gentle Richard, no man cried 'God save him!'" (154).

In this account, Richard II is a bad king because he is resolute and indecisive at all the wrong moments. He listens to bad advice and ignores good counsel. He is unable to inspire loyalty, nor does he acknowledge fidelity when it does occur. He is a poor administrator. In short, he is a bad king because he is inept, unsuited for leadership. On the other hand, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) appears to have all the attributes Richard lacks. He is inspirational, decisive, and politically astute.

Shakespeare seems to attribute Richard's failure to his conception of the office. Not only did Richard conceive of his kingship in more absolute terms than his immediate predecessors, but also he is obsessed with the ceremonial aspects of his title. Richard is most at ease presiding over the elaborate medieval ritual of trial by combat at the beginning of the play. When he confronts Northumberland at Flint Castle, Richard is more angry that his subject does not bend his knee in greeting than that he has joined Henry's forces. He is unable to recognize Bolingbroke's threat, in large part, because of his belief in the inalienability of royal power: "[N]ot all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (96). When he finally comes to terms with the rebellion, Richard's conception of kingship begins to change from divine governance to divine suffering. "Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs... And tell sad stories of the death of kings," he muses (101). The most dramatic, and for some the most poignant, example of Richard's attachment to authority occurs as he contemplates his deposition. Not only is Richard's hauteur gone, but so is his connection with other suffering kings. Nevertheless, he still retains an appreciation for ceremonial aspects of authority:

I'll give my jewels for a set of beads; My gorgeous palace for a hermitage; My gay apparel for an almsman's gown; My figured goblets for a dish of wood; My scepter for a palmer's walking staff; My subjects for a pair of carved saints; And my large kingdom for a little grave. (113) Richard III's approach to governance appears to be quite different. He was a skilled military commander in northern England during his brother's reign. When Edward IV died, his 12-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Richard first executed Edward V's guardians and assumed their role. Then he declared his brother's marriage illegitimate and announced that he was now the heir to the throne. Those who challenged his actions were swiftly executed. Edward and his brother were sent by Richard to the Tower of London, where they were assassinated (possibly on the orders of Richard himself). (3) Because Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence, stood first in line to the throne, he was arrested and murdered. To solidify his authority, Richard married the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, Anne Neville, whose husband he had killed earlier. He was defeated, however, by the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard III's rise to power is remarkable. In just a matter of months, he not only becomes king but destroys the former court and any other claimant to the throne. His opponents, experienced and adept politicians themselves, such as the Duke of Clarence and Queen Margaret, are immobilized by the swiftness of Richard's actions. In Shakespeare's play, this effect is heightened because the audience is gleefully informed by Richard himself of his intentions. (4) After he orders the murders of the queen's supporters--Rivers, Dorset, and Grey--Richard reveals how he will justify his actions: "[T]hen I sigh, and with a piece of Scripture, / Tell them that God bids us do good and evil. / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stole forth of holy writ /and seem a saint, when most I play the devil." (5)

Yet while the usurpation with all the executions that follow appear to be good decisions, Richard finds that as soon as he is king, he must deal with their consequences. One of his supporters, the Duke of Buckingham, began to amass troops against Richard only three months after his coronation. Shortly later, Henry Tudor enters by way of Wales to join him. Richard was by far the more experienced military leader, but he lost his crown and life at Bosworth in large part because some of his allies refused at the last moment to commit their troops in battle. Even under these new conditions, Richard developed a battle plan to kill Henry that might have succeeded had not Lord Stanley, who watched the battle from a nearby mountaintop, joined Henry's forces.

While Shakespeare's Richard II was consumed by protecting and enhancing the ceremonial aspect of his office, Richard III is unconcerned...

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