Pale trembling coward, there I throw my gage [gauntlet],…
If guilty dread have left thee so much strength
As to take up mine honor's pawn, then stoop.
By that and all the rites of knighthood else
Will I make good against thee, arm to arm,
What I have spoke or thou canst worse devise.
—Richard II (Act I, scene 1)
Richard II is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s "history plays." These plays tell the story of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the rival royal families of Lancaster and York, which began in 1422 and ended in 1485 with the death of Richard III. The overthrow of Richard II in 1399 set the scene for this conflict. A duel between two nobles is at the center of Richard’s fall from power. Young Henry Bolingbroke, the king’s cousin, accuses the Duke of Norfolk of diverting military funds for his own use, and of taking part in the conspiracy that killed the Duke of Gloucester. In accordance with the laws of chivalry, Bolingbroke throws down his gauntlet, challenging Norfolk to an armored duel. Norfolk accepts, and the king sets a date for the encounter. The duel is about to begin when Richard throws down his baton of office on the field of combat and calls a halt to the proceedings. Wishing to avoid bloodshed, the king instead banishes the combatants: Bolingbroke for ten years, Norfolk for life. During Bolingbroke’s absence, the king takes over Bolingbroke’s inheritance, compelling him to topple the king upon his return.
Richard tries to play the part of an absolute monarch—a “Renaissance king” —by asserting control over the historically independent body of feudal knights that descended from medieval warriors. However, by denying Bolingbroke and Norfolk their duel, and by robbing Bolingbroke of his inheritance, Richard falls afoul of the rites of knighthood. The delicate fabric of feudal kingship begins to unravel, and for the next hundred years, rival branches of the royal family struggle over the English throne.
A Lancing Blow - Knights and Dueling