Although the word appellant in modern terms refers to a petitioner appealing to a higher court, when we look at the fourteenth century the whole concept takes a left turn. First of all, you always see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, and it only seems to refer to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II’s reign. The Lords Appellant “appealed” (in essence, accused) Richard’s supporters of treason. 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.
Initially there were three Appellants: Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel (who served in the wars with Edward III, mostly as admiral), Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III), and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick (also served with Edward III in the French war). Later on they were joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (son of John of Gaunt and future Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, 1st Duke of Norfolk (great-great grandson of Edward I and son-in-law to Arundel). All these Lords had impressive pedigrees, but the first three had age and experience on their side and considered the young king more of an upstart than a man to be respected. After all, when the Merciless Parliament was called in 1388, Richard may have been 21 years of age but he still hadn’t officially reached his majority.
I’ll refer to events leading up to this pivotal moment in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that the barons wanted to control the young king who was attempting to rule in a way that was detrimental to their interests. Richard’s advisors, supporters, and friends were accused of giving him bad advice; since the nobles didn’t have enough ammunition to go against the king himself, they would have to be satisfied with eliminating his close supporters. The lords were determined to clean house, so to speak, and appoint a council of their choosing to take over the ruling of the country.
This happened in several steps. The king wasn’t to know it until later, but when John of Gaunt left the country in 1386 to pursue his Castilian interests, Richard lost the only impediment to the barons’ collaboration. Their first target was Michael de la Pole, Chancellor and newly created Earl of Suffolk. Alas, his long service to Edward III accounted for nothing once the Appellants had their hackles up and they “called for his dismissal—adding that they had ‘business to do with him which they could not transact so long as he remained in office’” (Nigel Saul’s Richard II p.157). What business was this? Why, nothing less than the first impeachment of any official in English history! Richard was furious and stood his ground: he would not dismiss so much as a kitchen scullion at their request. And at that, he withdrew from the Wonderful Parliament, as it was called, and went to his manor at Eltham. Ultimately, Gloucester and Arundel followed him there, and with a combination of bullying, falsehoods and cajoling, they persuaded him to return to Parliament—primarily because of their veiled reference to Edward II’s fate. Cowed, Richard dismissed Michael and the commons launched immediately into impeachment proceedings against him, alleging embezzlement and dereliction of duty in office. He was found guilty and briefly imprisoned, but Richard procured his release and kept his company for much of the next year. Arundel’s brother Thomas became chancellor in Michael’s place.
Satisfied with the first part of their strategy, the nobles and commons insisted on a “great and continual council” to implement financial reforms, clear up the backlog of debt, and curb the king’s expenditures. Their commission was to last one year and their powers were wide; they had control of both the great and privy seals. After some tiresome attempts to interfere with their efforts, Richard took off on a long tour of the north, only returning nine days before the expiration date. Although contemporaries thought he was wandering around aimlessly, in reality it seems he was trying to consolidate his power base and start the recruitment of an army loyal to himself. In the process, he also called two meetings with eminent judges in which he questioned them as to the legality of the previous Parliament; did the House infringe upon the royal prerogatives? Did they have the authority to impeach a Crown officer without the consent of the king? Whether the judges acted under pressure or not is unknown, but their response was that Parliament overstepped its bounds and the offenders should be punished ‘as traitors’.
This was an interesting development, because the Statute of Treason from 1052 “had limited the definition of treason to such acts as aiding the king’s enemies and levying war against the king in his realm” (Nigel Saul p.166). This is why the judges did not call the Appellants traitors per se, for the definition wouldn’t fit. But Richard’s questions did give him some ammunition to use against his enemies, though in the end his strategy backfired.