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Boris Johnson’s hollow crown

The prime minister is the Richard II of modern politics - and he must learn the bitter lessons of the 14th-century monarch

Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks back into 10 Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings”

William Shakespeare, Richard II

Before becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson wrote a biography of Winston Churchill. Johnson sees himself as Churchill’s heir, but maybe he is instead the heir of an earlier leader, one whose reputation comes to us largely through our greatest playwright. The playwright – who happens to be someone else Johnson is writing a biography of – is Shakespeare, and the leader is Richard II.

Richard also had to manage the aftermath of a pandemic and a difficult relationship with Europe. Comparing the pair provides warnings for both the prime minister and for us, the voting public.

On Richard’s accession in 1377, England faced various problems, not least the threat of invasion from France and the ongoing Hundred Years’ war. Four years later, the 14-year-old Richard was confronted with the Peasants’ Revolt. The spark for revolt was the poll tax of the same year; the root of the conflict lay in tensions between peasants and landowners caused by the economic consequences of the waves of an earlier pandemic: the Black Death, also called the Plague. 

In the years after the Black Death, a high death rate among the peasantry meant that land was relatively plentiful and labourers in short supply. Labourers could demand higher wages and the profits of landowners were therefore eroded.

The authorities responded by passing emergency legislation which attempted to fix wages at pre-Plague levels, making it a crime to refuse work or to break an existing contract, punishable by fines. In 1361, the penalties increased to include imprisonment. As the spending power of the lower classes increased, parliament also brought in new laws to prevent them from consuming expensive goods formerly only affordable by the elite. Like today, the post-pandemic economy highlighted the need to reset the relationship between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. 

On June 12, 1381, bands of peasants gathered at Blackheath near London under the leaders Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw, demanding an end to serfdom. The king didn’t have the forces to disperse the growing number of rebels, so his only option was to negotiate. Richard met them and agreed to their demands, but the violence continued. Richard met Tyler again the next day and reiterated that he would meet the demands. Tyler was not convinced of the king’s sincerity. An altercation broke out, and Tyler was killed. 

When news of the killing spread, the situation escalated. The young king took it upon himself to defuse the situation. For the first time since 1066, a King of England spoke to the ordinary English in English. He told them “I am your captain, follow me!” and they followed.

Richard granted clemency and allowed the rebels to return home. However, he soon revoked the charters of freedom and pardon that he had granted. As the rebellion continued, he marched out to suppress it by force, finally defeating the last rebels at Billericay in Essex, ending the revolt.  

As in 1381, Brexit voters wanted change. Voters in 2016 and 2019 saw in Johnson someone who was speaking to them directly, saying things they felt but had been told they could not say. Johnson promised long-neglected regions new investment and opportunity, but like Richard’s pardons, levelling up has vanished from the agenda, not receiving a single mention in the government’s pre-Easter update. Infrastructure projects such as the Leeds to Birmingham trainline have been shelved, the ending of the energy cap is hitting the poorest households hardest, and earlier this year, researchers at the University of West London found that 61 per cent of England’s most deprived areas have not been allocated anything from the £4.8bn levelling-up fund.

Richard restrained the power of the aristocracy and relied on a private retinue for military protection instead. The king’s dependence on a small number of courtiers caused discontent, and when he asked for an unprecedented level of taxation to prepare for a potential French invasion, parliament refused the request until the chancellor was sacked. 

Johnson and his own chancellor have announced tax rises worth 2 per cent of GDP in just two years (the same as Blair and Brown did in 10 years). The prime minister faces a similar level of discontent from some in his own party. 

The king refused to sack his man and in 1387, after defeating the king’s allies, control of the government was taken over by a group of aristocrats known as the Lords Appellant. Several of Richard’s chamber knights were sentenced to death. Any move against Johnson would probably be the end for many in his cabinet. 

The Lords Appellant, though, failed to build a wide, anti-French coalition. After a Scottish incursion in the north, Richard re-established his authority and assumed full control of the government in 1389. Like the current prime minister, who has repeatedly thrown advisers under the bus to save his own skin, Richard blamed the difficulties of the previous years as being solely down to bad counsellors. 

Richard U-turned on the foreign policy of the appellants by seeking peace and reconciliation with France, and promised to lessen the burden of taxation on the people. However, this promise was not fulfilled as the cost of his retinue, the opulence of court and his lavish patronage of his favourites was as expensive as war had been, without offering commensurate benefits. 

While the expensive redecoration of Downing Street was funded by donors rather than the public, it resulted in an ethics inquiry over transparency and appropriateness. There have been accusations of favouritism and corruption in the awarding of PPE and other pandemic-related contracts by Johnson’s government and widely reported examples of MPs taking lucrative second jobs. 

 In 1399, after the king’s uncle John of Gaunt died, the king disinherited his son, the exiled Henry Bolingbroke. Henry invaded England with a small force that quickly grew. The usurper deposed Richard and crowned himself Henry IV. Richard died in captivity within the year. 

Richard’s posthumous reputation has largely been shaped by Shakespeare’s play The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. It portrays Richard as a cruel, vindictive, and irresponsible king, whose misrule and his deposition are responsible for the 15th-century civil wars, the Wars of the Roses. While Shakespeare undoubtedly manipulated history to make points about the politics of his time, his portrait of Richard is not completely inaccurate. The biographer Nigel Saul claims that – even though there is no basis for assuming he had a mental illness, as some historians have claimed – he showed clear signs of a narcissistic personality. 

In his 1957 The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz uses Shakespeare’s play to explore the medieval concept that kings had two bodies: a body natural, and a body politic. The body natural is a mortal body, subject to all the weaknesses of mortal human beings. The body politic is a metaphor for the state, in Shakespeare’s case it represents this “blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”. It is eternal, perfect and cannot be affected by mortal infirmities such as diseases like Covid-19, unhealthy living, old age, or our baser human vices. 

These two bodies form one indivisible unit, with the body politic superior to the body natural. In Tudor and Stuart England, this was a legal doctrine held that upon the “demise” of an individual king, his body natural fell away, but the body politic lived on. 

In Shakespeare’s play, when Richard arrives back in his kingdom from Ireland, he kisses the soil, demonstrating his bodily attachment to his land. Later, at Flint Castle, we find a Richard who has become fixated on Bolingbroke’s rebellion. He has been forced to give up his jewels, losing his kingly appearance. He has also lost followers who have joined Bolingbroke’s army, diminishing his army on which the body politic rests.

The base emotions of the physical body take over as he loses his temper at Bolingbroke. By the end of the play Richard has become mentally unstable as his authority slips away. Before Richard is sent to his death, he gives away the physical objects of his kingship, including his “hollow crown” and sceptre. After examining his physical appearance in a mirror, he shatters it. 

The 18th-century jurist William Blackstone claimed that the king “in his political capacity” manifests “absolute perfection”; he can “do no wrong”, nor even is he capable of “thinking wrong”. Soon after Blackstone, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that legal fictions like the body politic were conducive to royal absolutism and should be avoided in law. Bentham’s position went on to dominate later British legal thinking, even though aspects of the theory of the body politic would survive in subsequent jurisprudence. 

In our current politics we now have the prime minister’s two bodies. The PM has tied his physical body to the political ideology of getting Brexit done. Those who believe in the cause believe that he can “do no wrong”. The mistakes of the physical body are forgiven because of their unity with a more superior body politic; an idea of what the post-Brexit state can be.

But by excusing behaviour by the individual, it undermines the state the wider body politic represents. The highest office in the land is meant to embody the highest ideals of that land. And as Bentham highlighted, this type of thinking leads to absolutism, the type of which we can already see in our increasingly polarised politics. 

Johnson should learn from Richard that when the gap between the leader and the body politic becomes too great, legitimacy is lost. If you don’t respond to emerging economic realities and keep your promises to create a more just society for all, people will eventually see through the garbs of state and privileged upbringing to the flawed physical body beneath. As Richard shows, we should hold up a mirror to our leaders. Repeated reminders of their physical vices captured in the reflection will speed this process of separation.

Lastly, even though Richard is portrayed negatively by Shakespeare, his is a sad tale. Richard’s fall and the doubts around the legitimacy of future successions led to the Wars of the Roses. This too has echoes in recent history, notably in the US, where claims over the last presidential election are seriously undermining trust in the body politic.

Let us learn from our own history and make sure the undermining of the democratic process is not another political trend from over the pond that we follow. When a leader’s legitimacy is undermined, be they king or PM, through their own actions or those of others, it is rarely good for either body. 

Andy Owen is an author and former intelligence officer in the British army.

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