Richard the Lionheart

Few kings are remembered by their epithet and not their number. Since I was young, Richard the Lionheart has always fascinated me. He was played by Patrick Barr (1908-1985) in Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood and TV’s Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960), but before Barr there is a whole host of actors that have played Coeur de Lion stretching right back to the days of the Tudor stage, the golden days of cinema and up to modern television. These include: Arthur Hollingworth, Wallace Beery, Ian Hunter, George Sanders, Norman Wooland, Patrick Holt, Dermot Walsh, Peter Ustinov (Voice), Robert Hardy, Sean Connery, John Rhys Davies, and Steve Waddington.

Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) remains a king of colourful legend and mythology like King Arthur, and continues to be ensconced with the stories of Robin Hood. He has been described by some historians as the greatest king of England in the Middle Ages, his brother John-the worst. No other English or British monarch comes close to him in terms of his impact on the wider world. The Muslims (Saracens) knew him as him Melek-Ric or Malek al-Inkitar-King of the English.Winston Churchill described him as:

“Worthy, by the consent of all men, to sit with King Arthur and Roland and other heroes of martial romance at some Eternal Round Table, which we trust, The Creator of the Universe in His comprehension will not have forgotten to provide."

But what was this powerful king’s character really like? Richard was born on 8th September 1157 at Oxford, but the next twelve years of Richard’s life is shrouded in mystery. Ralph of Diceto implies that this son was special to his mother Eleanor from birth, recalling one of the ancient prophecies of Merlin, which in the twelfth century were widely believed to apply to Henry II and his feuding family: ‘The eagle of the broken covenant shall rejoice in her third nesting.’ Eleanor was the eagle, the broken covenant - the dissolution of her marriage to Louis and the third nesting was the birth of her third son, Richard. Richard was certainly Eleanor’s favourite and he shared his mother’s love of show and sophistication. Her documents always describe him as her ‘very dear son, while her younger son, John-his father’s favourite-only managed a ‘dear son’ at best.

Richard was the third son of King Henry II (1133-1189) and his glamorous, strong-minded consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) without doubt one of the most extraordinary women of her age and the mother in the archetypal dysfunctional family-the so-called ‘Devil’s Brood.’ The new prince would be known in his own lifetime as Richard the Lionhearted. Gerald of Wales commented that his father ‘Henry was a shield but Richard was a hammer.’ Like his father he understood the world of devastated castles and of sore legs from being constantly in the saddle. Also like Henry, Richard was never interested in tournaments, only the screams and excitement of real warfare. He soon proved his generalship while still a teenager in the bitter struggles to bring the uncontrollable vassals of Aquitaine to heel. He was second in line to inherit his parents’ joint empire, including not just England and Normandy but duchies and other ancient fiefdoms stretching right down to the Spanish peninsula.

Coeur de Lion was capable of writing verse in French and the language of southern France-Provencal. He could speak Latin well enough to crack a Latin joke at the expense of the less learned Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Eleanor, Richard enjoyed music and could while away the hours in his German prison writing songs. He is often described as a Renaissance man before the Renaissance. When the clerks of the royal chapel were singing in choir, he would often walk among them urging them, with voice and hand, to sing with great gusto.

But Richard seems to have inherited his sense of humour from his father, who was known to chuckle a great deal. William of Newburgh rather critically said that the Lionheart ‘turned everything into a joke and made his listeners laugh uncontrollably’. Although the full quota of the infamous Plantagenet temper also flowed through his veins.

John Gillingham, emeritus professor of medieval history at the London School of Economics explains,’ Richard of course, enjoyed war, and no war could bring greater prestige to the warrior than the war against the Saracens, the war in the Holy Land, the centre of the Christian world. On this battle ground no act of bravery, no chivalrous deed, would go unnoticed. But it would be a mistake to think that Richard was indifferent to religion and to the attractions of a plenary indulgence..........on two occasions were recorded by Roger of Howden when Richard went through a religious and emotional crisis.’

Arab historian Baha ad-Din wrote that Richard was, 'a man of great courage and spirit. He had fought great battles and showed a burning passion for war. His kingdom and standing were inferior to those of the French king, but his wealth, reputation and valour were greater.’ He was undoubtedly a leader men could follow, just as his severity made him a king to be feared. When Prince John’s castellan of Mont St Michel heard that King Richard had returned to England after his captivity, he dropped dead from fright.

19th century image of Richard I leaving for the Holy Land

There is unanimity about certain key features of his character and personality. His appearance was often commented on. He was over 6ft tall and had his father’s penetrating blue eyes. The chronicler Richard de Templo described him during his coronation:

‘He was tall, of elegant build; the colour of his hair was between red and gold; his limbs were supple and straight. He had quite long arms which were particularly suited to drawing a sword and wielding it to great effect. His long legs matched the rest of his body.’

Richard was slightly overweight in his later years, frequently sick and suffered from a continual shaking in his hands from some kind of malarial fever that nothing seemed to control. Gerald of Wales wrote: ‘While thus almost continually trembling, he remained intrepid in his determination to make the whole world tremble before him.’

He had a lifelong habit of chivalric gestures. His favourite weapon on the battlefield was the long reaching mace and is stated to have said, "I am born of a rank which recognizes no superior but God". But the Lionheart was also said to be fond of quoting the Angevin family legend "From the Devil we sprang and to the Devil we shall go."

In modern times Richard’s personality has received a complete mix of opinions from historians and scholars. Recent media interpretations of the Lionheart have not been all that flattering to him either, compared to the glorious king in shining armour that returns to rescue downtrodden England from the clutches of his evil brother and reward Robin Hood in the golden days of cinema.

Today Richard I is portrayed as the absent King who was willing to sell London, couldn’t speakEnglish, taxed the country to its knees to pay for his ransom and crusade and was probably...........homosexual.

I had a small discussion with someone on a forum a while ago about this modern view of Richard:

STEVE: “Richard was a great warrior and he captured the imagination for this reason, but he was a poor king for England. His ransom of 150,000 marks was a ruinous amount, especially following so closely on the money that the country had been obliged to pay for his Crusade.

To me he is no hero because while he was capable of isolated noble gestures he also committed many ignoble acts. His massacre of Turkish prisoners, being just one example of his worst. He also committed atrocities against his subjects in Europe and his European enemies. The misfortune of his capture and ransom was brought on by his own actions. He alienated himself from Leopold of Austria by casting his standard from the walls of Acre because Leopold was not a King.

He was also believed to have played a part in arranging the assassination of Leopold's cousin. In many ways he was like a talented sportsman of modern times, idolised because of the success he has achieved in his sport, but who has set a bad example in his private life. Having said that, Richard's success was all for nothing. The Crusade failed and his continental gains were soon lost.

Clement: I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Firstly, surely we should judge Richard through the eyes of someone in the twelfth century, not a modern sportsman, but a medieval monarch. By the standards of the time Richard was right to spend his reign fighting for the Angevin Empire and for Jerusalem. The Holy Cross, a most sacred relic had been captured, and the flourishing Holy Christian City was invaded. For a Christian Prince it was right and expected that he should attempt to appease the wrath of God and re-capture the Holy City from the infidel.

Within months, the campaign to raise an army to recapture it was in full swing right across Europe, not just in England. It was his father who has set up the 'Saladin Tithe' to help pay for the Crusade. Yes the beheading of the Muslim garrison of Acre was, barbarous and horrific. But once again we have to look through the eyes of a Christina King of the twelfth century. The lives of the unbelievers were of no account. They were, in any case doomed to hell. In the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 'the Christian glories in the death of a pagan, because thereby Christ himself is glorified.'

Yes the ransom was a phenomenal amount. But one reason why England was better able to afford the ransom was for the first time in history it was beginning to suffer the first signs of serious inflation. Although they didn't realise it at the time, removing a quarter of the nation's money from circulation provided just the deflationary shock that needed to calm the inflation that was beginning to eat its way into everyday life. Also taxation for Richard's ransom had a profound effect on English government. It marked the beginning of a shift from feudal payments to the very start of taxing income.”

Steve: ‘I suppose we have to put aside the truth about Richard in the context of Robin Hood and see him as the Richard of legend. My own knowledge of King Richard originally came from Robin Hood and other fictions and consequently I saw him as a great hero. When I learned about the historical facts of his life and the nature of the man I was disappointed with him. He fell far short of the mythic hero we had been presented with.”

How do we judge a medieval king? Looking through the eyes of our ancestors is something very difficult to do, particularly from our own centrally heated, double glazed, hi-tech world. For example, what about this question regarding Richard’s sexuality? Historians have debated this since the eighteenth century, fuelled by the accounts of his stay in Paris when he used to share a bed with Philip Augustus himself.

But this in itself is evidence of nothing very much-people regularly shared beds in the twelfth century. If you were to stay in a medieval hall at this time it was not unusual to find several beds accommodating two or three or even more men. Women were also expected to share the same quarters.

Effigie of Richard I in Fontevrault Abbey

The historian John Gillingham, one of the best authorities on the life of Richard I, described the act of Richard and Philip sleeping together as "an accepted political act, nothing sexual about it; ... a bit like a modern-day photo opportunity." Henry II and William Marshall also did likewise and the heterosexual credentials of Henry are unimpeachable.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks on the United States, President George W Bush described the ‘War on Terror’ as a ‘Crusade.’ This was regarded as an unfortunate choice of words by political commentators and did very little to reduce tensions with the countries in the Middle East, who regard Westerners as aggressive invaders. Bush was quickly condemned. And it is in these highly sensitive times that Richard I of England has become low profile and regarded little more than a particularly violent king who spent nearly all his reign abroad, leaving Robin Hood to rescue his kingdom from his evil brother.

But, historical evidence shows us that Richard was without doubt one of the greatest statesmen and warriors of the medieval age, hence his status in myth and legend. Yes, he was absent from England for most of his reign, but England was only a small part of his domains. Most modern scholars now have to agree that in the short period he was in England he performed wonders of diplomacy and statesmanship. His relations with the Celtic fringes; Ireland, Scotland and Wales remained largely trouble free and the efficiency of the English administration was remarkable. It is also sometimes forgotten that Richard ‘the absent king’ also managed to place a financial and administrative genius and at the head of his Exchequer and government, when he delegated Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury as his right arm. Walter became one of the most outstanding government ministers in English history.


Clement Glen said...

Richard I (The Lionheart)


Kathryn Warner said...

Great post, Clement! I'm never quite sure what I think of Richard, myself, but he was certainly a complex and fascinating character who seems to have inspired just about every emotion possible in commentators!

Clement Glen said...

He certainly is a complex and fascinating character, Kathryn. And that is exactly why I became so interested in him.

The legendary image of him that we see in films and novels present only one aspect of Richard's character. I think it was John Gillingham who said that King Richard in no way lets down the legend, and provides a story to equal the most gripping tale of Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe or The Talisman.