Of all the characters in Richard II, the Duke of York is the one most directly caught in the middle of Bolingbroke’s conflict with King Richard. His in-between position causes him much agony as he struggles to decide which faction to align himself with. His internal struggle is largely a product of how much he prides himself on his loyalty to his nephew, the king. York has sworn an oath to Richard, and he believes this oath to be divinely protected. Indeed, York is a man who has faith in the doctrine of the divine right of kings. He indicates as much when, in act 2, scene 3, he rebukes Bolingbroke for thinking he could simply steal the throne while Richard is in Ireland. A king isn’t made simply by assuming the throne. Rather, a king must be anointed by God. York’s loyalty to the divinely sanctioned king earned him the responsibility of watching over England while Richard is away fighting a foreign war. In faithful service to his king, York takes this position seriously.

Yet despite his loyalty to Richard, York also recognizes that the rightful king is poorly suited to his office. This recognition erodes York’s faith in Richard’s divinely sanctioned appointment. Hence, even as he chastises Bolingbroke for breaking the terms of his exile, York still invites his lawbreaking nephew to stay with him. Even so, he insists: “I do remain as neuter” (2.3.163). But York’s neutrality doesn’t last long. At the close of act 2, scene 3, Bolingbroke invites him to travel to Bristow Castle the next day. Although York doesn’t respond in the moment, he evidently accepts the invitation, for the next time we see him—in act 3, scene 1—he is standing at Bolingbroke’s side. Newly sworn to his nephew, York’s sense of loyalty seems more intense than ever. Many critics have noted the strangeness of act 5, scene 3, where York pleads with Bolingbroke—now King Henry IV—to execute his treasonous son, Aumerle. This plea may be read as a sign of York’s ongoing insecurity. Having just abandoned his sworn oath to one king, he ends the play overly eager to prove his loyalty to another.