It is an accepted interpretation of history that Richard II was a weak, dissolute ruler who was hated by the English people. But Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery makes a plausible case for the truth having been rewritten by the victors after Richard was deposed.
The version of events that has been accepted for centuries is that Henry IV saved the English kingdom by overthrowing the corrupt Richard II at the urging of the populace. Authors Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor, and Terry Dolan provide plausible evidence that Richard was neither unpopular nor weak, but that he was a relatively enlightened monarch–a patron of the arts and an advocate for the new fashion of authors writing in their own languages instead of in Latin–and that he permitted criticism of the church.
However, his rule was periodically threatened by several of the more conservative members of nobility and the church, including especially Thomas Arundel, the younger brother of the Earl of Arundel. Richard eventually had to banish some of them, including Arundel, and others were killed. The end of Richard II’s reign actually came later when he felt secure enough to travel to Ireland.
As the result of a proposed duel, Richard also banished Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt. Henry was considered the consumate knight and was admired throughout the kingdom. Richard seemed to be fond of him and probably considered him his heir. Henry’s dispute with Thomas de Mowbray resulted in charges of treason, and they were both banished. Henry was banished for 10 years, but Jones et al. find plausible indications that Richard had an agreement to allow Henry back early. One was that Richard initially did not take Henry’s property, as was usual.
But Henry met with Arundel on his European travels, despite strict injunctions not to have dealings with him. The two plotted to overthrow Richard, attacking England when he was away in Ireland with his army. Henry won and became Henry IV, treating Richard shamefully. No one was sure what happened to him, except that he was dead. (Henry’s own son, after he became Henry V, had Richard’s bones brought to Westminster to be buried.)
The book shows that Henry relentlessly rooted out records that were approving of Richard, even implicitly, or that were negative to himself. He assiduously promoted propaganda alleging that Richard was hated, weak, and dissolute. He gave Arundel free reign, as Archbishop of Canterbury, to burn heretics for the first time in England and to set his own criteria for judging heretics. In short, he instituted a reign of terror.
What does this have to do with Chaucer? This shift in power left him very vulnerable. His works under Richard II had criticized the very things about the church that Arundel considered to be heresy. Chaucer disappears from the historical record right around 1400, about a year after Richard was deposed.
The book makes a shakier case that Arundel either caused Chaucer’s death, possibly in imprisonment, or paid to have him killed. There is no evidence of this, of course; the authors’ conclusions are drawn from things that happened to other writers, from some vague accounting records, and from hazy interpretations of some of Chaucer’s work. Although I feel that they have certainly pointed toward some possibilities, even they admit that it is unlikely anyone will know the truth.
The book is easy to follow and amusing at times. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures from illuminated manuscripts. The political and historical theories about Richard’s and Henry’s reigns are very interesting. However, I believe the book falls off a bit at the end when it settles down to examining the story of Chaucer’s end, especially when it resorts to interpreting Chaucer’s poetry.