Placed in opposition to Richard is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the man who will challenge the king, dethrone him, and claim the crown for himself, eventually taking the name Henry IV. The origins of Bolingbroke’s conflict with the king precede the opening of the play, when Richard ordered the assassination of their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Richard adds insult to injury when he banishes Bolingbroke for six years in act 1, then proceeds to steal his inheritance when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies in act 2. It’s clear from early in the play that Bolingbroke’s complaints against the king are just, which makes it relatively easy for him to convince the people of England of his rebellion’s righteousness. Whereas Richard is selfish and inept as a politician, Bolingbroke is a canny political performer who has a gift for winning hearts and minds. As Richard himself grudgingly admits, Bolingbroke can “[woo] poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles / And patient underbearing of his fortune” (1.4.29–30). He also has a gift for wooing nobles. He wins Northumberland to his side with companionable discourse that “hath been as sugar, / Making the hard way sweet and delectable” (2.3.5–7).

As Bolingbroke amasses nobles and commoners to his cause, he begins to ascend in proportion to Richard’s descent. Once Richard has officially been deposed and Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, certain ironies begin to show themselves regarding his character. For one thing, soon after he becomes king, he tacitly orders Richard’s assassination. He thus begins his reign with the blood of a family member on his hands—the very same sin that condemned Richard before the play even began. Also ironic is the growing ambiguity of Bolingbroke’s speech once he becomes Henry IV. Whereas Bolingbroke spoke in direct and honest language, Henry IV engages in increasingly tactical obfuscations. Note how masterfully he maintains plausible deniability for Richard’s assassination while still celebrating his death: “I hate the murderer, love him [i.e., Richard] murderèd” (5.6.40). And yet he also implicitly admits responsibility when he announces his desire to go to Jerusalem to shed “the guilt of conscience” (5.6.41). Henry will carry this guilty conscience into the pair of plays that bear his name: Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2.