Literature

A Short Analysis of John of Gaunt’s ‘This sceptred isle’ Speech

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle’: so begins probably the most famous speech from Richard II, William Shakespeare’s 1590s history play about the fall of the Plantagenet king. These words are spoken by the dying John of Gaunt, and the phrases he uses – from ‘this royal throne of kings’ and ‘this sceptre isle’ to ‘this other Eden’ and many others – have become known in the popular consciousness. Before we proceed to a short analysis of the meaning of John of Gaunt’s speech, here’s a reminder of what he says, in Act II Scene 1:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

This speech is embedded in many people’s minds as a paean to England as a great nation, and certainly John of Gaunt comes out with a string of memorable epithets to describe England here. But the context of the speech is very different: John of Gaunt is lamenting the fact that England is being ‘leased out’ under King Richard II. As he lies dying, John of Gaunt pronounces the death of England.

‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle’: John of Gaunt begins by appealing to the royal power of England, ruled over by a succession of ‘kings’ with their crown and sceptre.

However, it’s worth remembering that these words, though often quoted outside of the play, are actually part of a longer speech Gaunt makes at this point. When Gaunt goes on to observe that England is ‘this seat of Mars’, he reminds us that kings have only held onto their kingdom because of their warlike nature, Mars being the Roman god of war, of course. England is like another Garden of Eden, halfway towards being paradise: an earthly paradise.

John of Gaunt then goes on to analyse England’s advantages in terms of might and defence: these come down to its island status, as being a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, standing apart from the mainland of Europe. (We’ll resist the urge to throw in a Brexit reference here.) Nature has built England as a ‘fortress’: the fact that England (more accurately, England, Scotland, and Wales, of course!) stands islanded apart from the mainland makes it like a fortress to withstand invasion or attack, with the sea washing England’s shores acting much as a moat does around a castle.

How much we should credit John of Gaunt’s words, and how far we should see them as ironic, is something worth stopping to consider and analyse. After all, saying England’s island status protects it against ‘infection and the hand of war’ rather overlooks the various outbreaks of plague which England had been subjected to, both in Shakespeare’s time and in the real John of Gaunt’s (he was alive when the first wave of Black Death arrived in England, in 1348; and Shakespeare wrote Richard II in around 1595, shortly after the London playhouses had been reopened following their closure owing to another outbreak of pestilence).

And it overlooks the fact that during Richard’s reign, England was engaged in a bloody war with France, to say nothing of the various invasions that had helped to make England the ‘happy breed of men’ and the ‘little world’ (so, not such a parochial island after all, then?) that Gaunt proudly proclaims it to be. England would undoubtedly not have been such a proud and warlike race if that race hadn’t been forged in the wake of the Roman and Norman invasions, for instance.

And, of course, England has raged war overseas, not just in France but in the Middle East:

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son

These words of Gaunt’s refer to England’s involvement in the Crusades, when another King Richard of England, Richard the Lionheart, had travelled to Jerusalem to face off against Saladin and the Muslim fighters in the Holy Land.

And ‘land’ is how Gaunt sees England now: as a plot of land that is being ‘leased out’ like a ‘tenement’ (a piece of land rented by a tenant) or a ‘pelting farm’ (i.e. a paltry or petty farm – in other words, a small, two-bob piece of land). When King Richard II arrives shortly after Gaunt has delivered this speech, John of Gaunt calls out the king for surrounding himself with flatterers and allowing the once-great nation of England to go to ruin. So, what appear to be words praising England’s greatness are, in fact, elegiac: John of Gaunt fears that England is no longer great.

And in saying this, he prophesies the civil war to follow, whereby Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, whom Richard has banished from the kingdom, will return and challenge Richard, eventually (spoiler alert) usurping him and taking the throne for himself. Gaunt is Richard’s uncle, but he is Bolingbroke’s father. His words are not spoken purely out of familial anger, though, but – as Duke of Lancaster and a powerful figure in the realm – as one who loves England but fears it is being destroyed by a bad, weak ruler.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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