A successful monarchy relies upon a stable leader who is concerned with the satisfaction of those he rules over. Henry Bolingbroke the IV in Shakespeare’s Henry the IV Part I follows a trend set by his predecessor in Richard II of self-indulgence and neglect of his kingdom. These leaders worry about the possibility of losing their kingdom or their soldiers to other nobles who were also concerned more with obtaining a higher position rather than governing. The king must also be wary of his own life, something that was once revered and guarded closely by other nobles. Wars once fought for gaining or protecting land are overshadowed by personal battles fighting for the position of king. Henry proved himself a powerful and fearless leader when he forcefully overthrew King Richard despite the divine rights bestowed upon him. While this was disruptive to the country, it appeared that this new leader would be successful because of confidence and military strength. However, shortly after he obtained his position, Henry became aware of the forces pulling the king away from his duties. He fails to either ignore or eliminate these distractions and becomes absorbed in them instead; “It seems then that the tidings of this broil/Brake off our business.” (Henry, I, i, 47-48).
Unfortunately, the king is not the only one neglecting the country. Most of the nobles realize their potential for additional power after the throne has been usurped. This disease, known as neglect, spreads through the ruling class unnoticed by the inflicted. John of Gaunt is one of the few nobles to see what the English peasants have seen; “That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” (Richard, II, i, 69-70).
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John of Gaunt scorns King Richard with some authority rooted in his old age. He has seen the system of monarchy begin to collapse over his many years; “For sleeping England long time have I watched; Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.” (Richard, II, i, 82-83).
Unfortunately, Gaunt would not have been much more satisfied with Richard’s replacement, Henry. Raising a child is always a challenging and time-consuming task, and raising a prince is even more difficult. Henry puts his leadership aside to focus his efforts upon preventing Prince Hal from absolute corruption or even betrayal. Hal enjoys the company of an unruly thief, the drunkard John Falstaff, as well as several other less respectable persons. Henry is more realistic and rational than Richard, and he is able to see that his position is not a good one. He may fear that he is a bad example for his son, for he too was a robber when he stole the throne. He fears that his son will ruin his image as king or even assist in overthrowing him;
“Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes, / Which are my nearest and dearest enemy? / Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear, / Base inclination, and the start of the spleen, / To fight against me under Percy’s pay, / to dog his hells, and curtys at his frowns, / To show how much thou art degenerate.” (Henry, III, ii, 127-133).
When Henry hears Hal’s promise to kill Percy as a display of his loyalty and ability to lead with valor, he again puts his responsibilities as king aside to assist his son in battling personal foes. Hal becomes the prodigal son; however, the sacrifices made for him cannot be afforded at this time. Still, King Henry focuses his efforts on promoting his son rather than his country; “Our business valued, some twelve days hence/ Our general forces at Bridgenorth shall meet. / Our hands are full of business. Let’s away.” (Henry, III, iii, 182-184).
Henry’s realization of the large amount of business to be tended to is dismissed when he says “Let’s away.” He is attempting to escape the inescapable. The proposed division of the Kingdom is a problem that must be dealt with. Yet, Henry may have been able to avoid this dilemma if he had better pleased the English people before they began to support rebellious nobles. Hotspur, Mortimer, Worcester, and Glendower all plot against the king and join their personal infantries against Henry. These men are not foreigners who come to overthrow the English throne. Rather, they are of the English nobility supposedly serving in the court of King Henry. A stable monarchy cannot stand with these internal conflicts that have no system other than battle to resolve them. Even the traitors themselves argue childishly amongst themselves when trying to divide land; “Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. / Hotspur: Why, so can I, or any man, But will they come when you do call for them?” (Henry, III, i, 55-57).
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Henry fails to use his power as king to shut this operation down before it gains too much control, and soon he finds himself at battle with his nobles. Lord Acton has said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” According to this, it is not possible to have a virtuous monarch. A monarchy depends upon one being having total power. This paradox can function successfully on a governmental level with a ruler who controls the corruption and uses the power to eliminate problems and create a greater nation. However, on a human level, promises must be broken, lies must be told, and lives must be taken for the ruler to maintain his position and the well being of the country. King Henry IV and King Richard II allowed the corruption to be a part of their personal lives and became engulfed in it rather than controlling it. Although the general population is given no say in what they would like, they must receive attention and be appeased as much as possible in this new era where he with the strongest army becomes king. Both Richard and Henry attempted to be humans as well as kings, a combination which proved to be impossible.