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Richard the Lionheart - Hero or Villain?

Richard was born at Oxford on 8th September 1157, the third son of Henry II, and, as such, never expected to succeed to the English throne. History has glamorised his reign, endowing it with an air of romance and chivalry as epitomised by his statue outside the Houses of Parliament.

Another description could be that of absentee warlord, forever seeking to expand his rule through the force of arms and spending only six months of his ten year rule in England. His undoubted military prowess earned him the title of Lionheart in Europe, while in the East, mothers would threaten their children with his Arabic name Melec Ric - “King Ric”.

He was recorded as a handsome figure, 6’5” tall with the fair hair and blue eyes of the Plantagenets. He was a bright scholar and a talented linguist; he could make jokes in Latin and recite poetry in French and Provencal. A man of some intelligence and insight, he realised that there was more to successful warfare than just being skilled in arms. He combined these qualities with a gift for strategy and tactics that enabled him to consolidate his rule in both his duchy of Aquitaine and kingdom of England.

Despite his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, he was probably homosexual, this preference being well documented. Richard of Howden, one of his clerks, records the rather close relationship between Richard and Phillip of France, noting, “Phillip so honoured him that every day they ate at the same table, shared the same dish and at night the bed did not separate them, such was their friendship that King Henry grew much alarmed”. There are however, other references to his appetite for young girls, described by one contemporary as “voracious, even on his death bed”.

At his coronation in 1189, Richard barred all Jews from the ceremony, apparently as a sign that he wished his rule to be seen as the start of a Christian Crusade, although a more likely explanation was to ally himself to the growing anti Semitism in the country. Jewish moneylenders had underwritten many loans to the crown, but Richard had begun to use Italian moneylenders instead and the ban was perhaps a convenient way to announce the change.

Despite the ban, some Jews arrived to present gifts to the new king and, according to the writings of Ralph of Diceto, Richard’s men stripped and flogged the Jews and flung them out. When a rumour spread that Richard had ordered all Jews to be killed, the people of London began a massacre with many being robbed, beaten and burnt alive.

The word spread to other towns and many Jews were killed. In York, the Jewish community tried to seek refuge in the castle from the mob, but realising that they could not hold it, murdered their wives  and children, throwing their bodies over the walls to the mob below, before killing themselves. The mob wasted no time in invading the castle where all the loan records were kept and burned them all. We need to remember that the Jews had been the main lenders of money to Richard and his father and were also the only group allowed to make money from the interest charges made on loans, usury being considered a sin by Christians.

Richard was determined to Crusade in the Holy Land. The First Crusade of 1096-1099 had attracted little support among the English nobility, but the Second Crusade of 1146-1149 provided them with a respectable excuse to leave the country with its power struggles and infighting and look good in the eyes of the church. In 1187, the Holy Land had been captured by Saladin and by October, Jerusalem had been captured following the Battle of Hattin. All of Christendom was calling for the restoration of a Christian kingdom and Richard saw himself as the one to achieve it.

Richard and Phillip of France set sail for Palestine, reaching Sicily in September 1100, where King William of Sicily had recently died. William had bequeathed his throne to his Aunt Constance, wife of the Emperor Henry VI. King William’s Cousin Tancred had other ideas and seized control of the island. None of this would have bothered Richard had it not been for the fact that William had been married to Richard’s sister Joan. Tancred imprisoned Joan and also refused to pay her a large sum of money left to her by William. Richard demanded her release and that her rights be restored to her. When Tancred refused, Richard attacked and destroyed Messina, forcing Tancred to agree to a treaty in which Joan’s inheritance was restored and that one of Tancred’s daughters was to marry Arthur of Brittany (Richard’s heir). In turn, Richard and Phillip would recognise Tancred as the King of Sicily.

Richard moved on to Cyprus, arriving in Limassol  on 6th of May 1191. Following some brutal battles, Richard conquered the island, looting and burning wherever he met opposition. His scheming mother Eleanor travelled to the island, bringing with her Princess Berengaria of Navarre and arranged her betrothal to Richard, who gifted the island to Berengaria in honour of the occasion. This did not please Phillip whose sister Alice had originally been betrothed to Richard. His father Henry however, had reputedly seduced Alice some years before and while he never admitted as much, it was sufficiently known at the time for Richard to withdraw from the arrangement. Thus began a rift between Richard and Phillip that was to culminate in the French king returning home and commence plotting with Prince John against Richard.

The Crusaders arrived in Acre in July 1191 and the city fell one month later after a siege lasting two years. During this period, in addition to falling out with Phillip, Richard quarrelled with his other ally Leopold of Austria over the respective height of the personal banners placed above their tents. Leopold demanded that his banner should be placed higher than Richard’s, but Richard refused to take second place whereupon Leopold gathered his troops and returned home. This issue of banners, badges, livery etc, was important, all seen as rallying points in battle as well as advertising the wealth and power of the owner.

It is ironic that they should fall out over the height of banners when they had already come to agreement on the wider issue of uniforms. It was recognised that a multinational army would have problems communicating and the leaders arranged for each nationality to wear the cross in a different colour. France would have a Red cross, England White and Austria Green, thus, any soldier could find someone who could speak the language.

The fighting in Palestine eventually reached stalemate with Richard realising that even if he could capture Jerusalem he could not hold it. A three year truce was agreed with Richard undertaking to leave Palestine. Saladin was to give Richard the remains of the True Cross, payment of 10,000 marks, plus Christian access to Jerusalem. The littoral of Palestine was to be restored to a Christian kingdom and knights were allowed to pray at the Holy Sepulchre. When Saladin reneged on the deal, Richard had 3,000 prisoners killed before sailing from Acre in 1192.

Richard was shipwrecked on his way home, landing in the territory of Leopold who was forced to hand him over to Emperor Henry who bore no love for Richard following the affair in Sicily. A mock trial was held and Richard was accused of having imprisoned the King of Cyprus and having insulted the Emperor. In typical fashion Richard demanded trial by combat and when he won, was released to house arrest. The Emperor demanded a ransom of 100,000 marks, a huge sum requiring a tax of 25% of income from all Richard’s estates. It says much for the efficiency of Richard’s administrators and the esteem in which Richard was held that over 70,000 marks was paid in the first six months.

Within six months of his return, Richard was off again and by 1199 almost all the land lost to Phillip had been regained. In April 1199, while he was besieging the castle of Chalus-Chabrol and just before the assault he rode around the castle walls wearing no body armour and protected only by a shield. A defender, a certain Bertrand de Gourdon fired a crossbow, hitting Richard in the right shoulder. When later captured, Gourdon said that he was revenging his father and two brothers slain by Richard’s forces.

Gervase of Canterbury rather confusingly wrote of the event, “The King was fatally wounded in the left shoulder. He was fatally wounded in the right shoulder by an arrow in such a way that the bolt, being driven down from the shoulder reached the area of the lung or liver, nor could it be checked by any skill of the physician”.

Roger de Hoveded also wrote, “Bertrand de Gourdon wounded the king with an incurable thrust. Then the king entrusted himself to the hands of Marchadeus, a physician, who after trying to pry out the javelin, removed only the wood and the head remained in the flesh. It was only when the bungling rascal cut freely round the king’s arm that he succeeded in removing the head, but the king died on the 6th of April, eleven days after his wounding”

Richard was buried at Fontenvrault and his heart was interred in Rouen.

In 1838 a small statue was discovered in Rouen containing a lead box within which was a silver casket, wherein lay, apparently, the Lion Heart of Richard, “reduced to the semblance of a dry reddish leaf”.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »