Richard II begins with a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, King Richard’s cousin, and Thomas Mowbray. Both Henry and Mowbray accuse each other of treason, and Henry also accuses Mowbray of conspiring to murder the king’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. The irony here, as expressed in the next scene by Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, is that everyone knows that Richard himself was involved in Gloucester’s murder. After Gaunt and Richard are unable to calm the men down, Henry and Mowbray agree to settle the matter with trial by combat.
Before the fight, the Duke of Gloucester’s widow (the Duchess of Gloucester) tries to convince Gaunt to take action against Richard, but Gaunt refuses, since he believes his duty to the king is a religious matter. Though Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke are both prepared to fight to the death for their honor, Richard arbitrarily decides to stop the battle. The king then banishes both men, Mowbray for life, and Henry for first ten but then only six years.
After delivering the sentencing on Mowbray and Henry, Richard decides he will go to Ireland, believing it is important that he lead the war there in person. To make money for this war, Richard leases land owned by the monarchy and imposes heavy taxes. When he receives news that John of Gaunt is on his deathbed, Richard decides to seize Gaunt’s lands and money (Henry’s inheritance) as further financial support for his war in Ireland. When Richard visits Gaunt, the dying man takes the opportunity to speak honestly to the king. Gaunt curses at Richard and calls him a failure, before being taken offstage to die. Though he is advised against it, Richard still elects to seize Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance, which causes some nobles to begin turning against the king.
Meanwhile, as Richard heads off for Ireland, Henry returns in secret to England with an army to reclaim his inheritance. It soon becomes clear, though, that he is truly after the crown. Outside Berkeley Castle, Henry meets the nobles joining him on his mission to reclaim his inheritance and the throne. The Duke of York confronts them and, despite sympathizing with Henry, tries to uphold Richard’s ruling. Ultimately, however, the Duke of York is powerless to stop Henry’s large army, so he ends up conceding without any battle.
As Henry continues gathering power, it becomes clear that Richard has all but lost before even returning to England. When Richard does return, he still believes that since he is the ruler by divine right, God will protect him against Henry’s usurpation. But when he learns that his supporters have dispersed, been executed, or joined Henry, Richard realizes that his throne is truly in jeopardy. He then decides to break up his army and retreats to Flint Castle. There he is confronted by Henry and his followers, and, without many options, Richard consents to return Henry’s inheritance, lift his exile, and return with him to London.
Back in London, it becomes apparent that Richard will soon be deposed. Henry continues investigating Gloucester’s murder, and the Duke of York tells him that Richard is going to give up the crown. As Henry begins to become king, the bishop of Carlisle calls him a traitor and prophesizes a civil war (which will be the War of the Roses). Henry then has Carlisle arrested and Richard summoned. Once in front of Henry, Richard formally relinquishes his throne and crown, and Henry Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV. Richard is taken off to a tower, and a plot against Henry is revealed to Aumerle, the son of the Duke of York.
Later, the Duke of York is sympathetic towards Richard, but he continues to support Henry. He then learns that Aumerle is involved with the plot against Henry, and he decides to tell the new king about this plot and beg for mercy for his son. Before the Duke of York can arrive, Aumerle begs king Henry for a pardon, though he won’t say what the crime is. Soon, though, the Duke of York arrives and explains that the crime is a plot to assassinate Henry. After much begging, Henry grants mercy to Aumerle but orders the other conspirators be captured.
As Henry exits, Exton and servants enter, and Exton reflects that Henry wants someone to take care of Richard. Exton decides to take matters into his own hand and leaves to kill the former king. Alone, Richard reflects on his fall from power, and soon the murderers enter. Though Richard kills some of Exton’s men in the struggle, Exton eventually kills Richard as planned.
Henry learns first that his orders to arrest the conspirators have been followed: the men are captured and punished. In the wake of this news, the bishop of Carlisle, despite speaking so strongly against the king, is pardoned, because Henry sees sparks of honor in him. Finally, Exton enters with Richard’s body, and Henry denies any involvement with or desire for this murder. To rid himself of any guilt, Henry says that he will start a crusade to the Holy Land that will “wash this blood off from [his] guilty hand.”