A Brief History
On March 24, 1199, while fighting in France at Limousin, an administrative region in the South-Central part of France that is now Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the King of England known as Richard I, the Lionheart, was struck in the shoulder by a bolt launched by a crossbow, leading to the King’s death on April 6, 1199. Bearing a famous name among English Kings and the subject of numerous (usually fictional) stories, movies and the like, Richard was famous as a Crusader King and curiously, hardly spent any time at all in England! Today we take a look at the real man behind the legends. (See our other articles about the Crusades.)
Born in Oxford, England, possibly at the Beaumont Palace, Richard’s parents were King Henry II and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. In the manner common to European royalty, Richard was part of an intertwined bloodline that connected much of the royal families of Europe. The second of the Plantagenet Kings, Richard was basically French of Norman heritage, the great-grandson of William the Conqueror. Richard is uncommon in that he is known almost exclusively by his sobriquet, The Lionheart (Richard Cœur de Lion) rather than by his name followed by a regnal number. Possibly because of his involvement in the Crusades, he is mostly thought of as a particularly pious man, though this impression may or may not have a basis in fact.
Richard’s path to the throne was originally barred by his older brother, Henry the Young King, who was the only King of England (since the Norman Conquest of 1066) crowned while the reigning King was still alive. Henry actually did not wield normal kingly powers, as his father continued to reign in the meantime. Henry the Young King died in 1183 at the age of 28, while his father, Henry II outlived him by 6 years. Henry the Young King revolted against his father and younger brother and was engaged in fighting against his own family in Limousin when he contracted a fatal case of dysentery. As the remaining eldest son, Richard ascended the throne upon the death of Henry II. In fighting against Henry II in a revolt against the King, Richard also battled alongside his younger brother who had allied with Henry the Young, enlisting the aid of the French nobility. The fighting over the kingdom and lands of Henry II came about when Henry II made a decision to divvy up his realms between his wife and his sons when the King became ill in 1170. Richard became Duke of Aquitaine and the Count of Poitou, and the others received various titles and lands assigned to them. When Henry II ended up retaining his kingdom in 1174, Richard begged for forgiveness and was granted a lesser realm than he previously ruled. Following Richard’s example, the other sons of Henry II also successfully begged forgiveness. Their mother, the wife of Henry II, had sided with her sons and spent most of the rest of her life in captivity.
(Note: We have previously noted the contentious and miserable character of the “nobility” in previous articles in which we seriously question the entire idiotic idea of a monarchy. Sordid behavior, duplicitousness, cruelty, lying, cheating, murdering, incest, narcissism, avarice, megalomania and every negative human trait imaginable has characterized many of the so-called nobility. Feel free to make your own comments, especially if you disagree.)
Speaking of French, it must be noted that Richard did not speak English but spoke either French or a dialect of French known as Occitan. In fact, Richard spent little of his reign in England, spending most of his time either fighting in France or engaged in the Crusades. Richard led an army in France as early as age 16, fighting the rebellion of his brothers. Richard gained a reputation as a brave and intelligent military man.
After the failed rebellion, Richard ruled in Aquitaine (in France) until Henry II decided his youngest son, John should have that region for his own. By 1180 Richard prepared to once again go to war against Henry II, after subduing other rebellious nobles on behalf of his father! Richard objected to his father’s plans, so Henry II released his wife (Queen), Eleanor, to go back to her homeland of Aquitaine and rule as a way to circumvent Richard’s claim. By 1188 Richard prepared to once again go to war against Henry II in an effort to finally wrest the throne of Henry II for himself. Henry II obligingly died in 1189, precluding a protracted civil war, resulting in only a single major battle at Ballans in which Richard was victorious. Henry II agreed to name Richard as his heir, and then died only 2 days later. Richard ascended to the throne of England and the related lands in France that were part of the Kingdom. When the body of Henry II allegedly bled from the nose in the presence of Richard, some believed it to be a sign that Richard had caused Henry’s death.
When Richard was crowned King of England and Duke of Normandy, Jewish citizens were prohibited from attending the ceremonies, but some well to do Jews showed up bearing gifts for the new monarch. Mistake! The well meaning Jewish leaders were stripped, flogged and cast out of the court. The population heard of this action and believing Richard had ordered Jews to be killed, went on a rampage of violence against their Jewish brethren. Although probably for his own political benefit, Richard did try to correct the wrong that had been done by ordering the execution of those that had committed the worst crimes and murders against the Jews. (The rioters had also accidentally burned down some Christian homes, and those perpetrators were also ordered executed.) Richard ordered Jews to be left alone and in peace, though his order was not faithfully followed, especially in the form of a massacre of Jews at York in 1190. (The York massacre included a large number of Jews, about 150, and their families that had taken refuge in the local tower and ended up committing suicide rather than face torture and forced conversion. Survivors that did not kill themselves died in a fire set by the rioters. The rioters were mainly those preparing to embark on the Third Crusade with Richard.)
Almost as soon as taking the throne, Richard swore to change his previously sinful ways and take up the cross for Christ in the form of joining the Third Crusade. In September of 1190, Richard and his French and English army along with their allies arrived in Sicily, creating chaos in Sicily as he sought to force Tancred, the usurper to the throne of Sicily, to release the widow of the previous King, Joan, who just happened to be Richard’s sister! (Convoluted and stab in the back royalty at work, as usual.) Laying waste to the capital city of Messina, Richard forced the release of Joan. A treaty was finally arrived at wherein Joan would be given 20,000 ounces of gold and other marriage and power arrangements were worked out.
Richard and his crusaders sailed for Acre in what is now Israel with the aim of assisting the armies of the Second Crusade that were besieging the city. Blown off course, Richard’s ships were separated and he ended up at Cyprus to reconstitute his fleet. While at Cyprus Richard demanded the release of some of his retinue that had wrecked there, as well as demanding return of goods and money that had been seized by the Cypriot king. By June 1, 1191, Richard’s army had conquered the island. Richard took King Isaac Komnenos prisoner, and having promised not to put Isaac in irons, bound the captive king in chains of silver! Richard then sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar.
While still on Cyprus, Richard married his fiancé who had been traveling with his army, Berengaria, the first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. In spite of his “holy” quest, Richard married Berengaria despite being betrothed to another woman, basically for political gain. The union bore no children.
Arriving in Acre to assist Guy of Lusignan with his attempt to retake the “Holy Lands” from the Muslims, Richard entered a world of intrigue and malleable alliances in which Christians competed for control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Although Richard personally became very ill, perhaps from scurvy, the armies of Richard and Guy were successful in taking Acre. Part of the legend of Richard is that he supposedly used a crossbow to snipe Islamic guards off the city’s walls while Richard was being borne on a stretcher, grievously ill! Changing alliances left Richard on his own while other Christian leaders chose sides. Richard used his large bag of Muslim prisoners as collateral to guarantee his own position. Then, believing caring for so many prisoners would effectively confine himself to Acre, Richard ordered ALL the Islamic prisoners to be executed, an atrocity called the Massacre at Ayyadieh in which perhaps 2600 men were killed and another 2000 wounded. The beheadings were carried out in full view of Saladin’s Islamic army, which not surprisingly attacked Richard’s men, though unsuccessfully. Richard marched on Jerusalem, defeating Saladin’s army in key battles along the way. Upon nearing the Holy City, Richard hesitated, afraid of being trapped by a relieving Islamic army if Richard attempted to besiege Jerusalem. Foul weather helped Richard decide to cease the attack for a while, attempting negotiate a surrender of Jerusalem instead, negotiations which failed.
The squabbling Christian Crusaders held an election amongst themselves and elected Conrad of Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. Disappointed, Richard brokered the purchase of Cyprus by his erstwhile ally, Guy of Lusignan. Adding to the pandemonium that was the Medeival world and the Crusades in particular, Conrad was murdered by Assassins only 2 days after beginning his reign! Crusader squabbling ensued, with a failed attempt to take Jerusalem and disagreement as to whether or not to continue the attack on Jerusalem or instead attempt to conquer Egypt as a way of forcing Saladin to cede Jerusalem. The divided Crusaders accomplished neither, and a disgusted Richard swore to fight as a common soldier instead of leading an army in vain. By October of 1192, the stalemate in the Holy Land was apparent, and facing intrigues against his throne back home, Richard knew he had to return or face losing his kingdom. A treaty was worked out with Saladin, who guaranteed the safety of Christian pilgrims and their access to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and an ailing Richard headed for England.
Sailing being a risky proposition in those days, Richard found himself at Corfu, an island owned by Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelos, who was still holding a grudge against Richard for seizing the Byzantine island of Cyprus. Richard attempted to elude the forces of Isaac II by disguising himself as a Knight Templar and leaving with 4 companions, but this time his ship was wrecked on the coast of Italy and Richard was obliged to travel by land, an even riskier proposition than sailing! Managing to get all the way to Vienna, Richard was finally captured by Leopold, Duke of Austria. Leopold had considered Richard responsible for the murder of Conrad, a cousin of Leopold, and even worse, Richard had disrespected the flag of Leopold at Acre. Hearing of a Crusader being taken prisoner by fellow Christians, an illegal act in the eyes of the Church, Pope Celestine III excommunicated Duke Leopold. Taken prisoner around Christmas of 1192, Richard was turned over to the custody of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who also had taken exception to some of the actions of Richard in the “game of thrones” chaos that was European nobility. Pope Celestine III then excommunicated Henry VI as well. Henry VI demanded a ransom of 100,000 pounds of silver for the release of Richard, an exorbitant sum.
While Eleanor, Richard’s mother, frantically tried to raise the money by seizing riches from the Church and levying a heavy tax on rich and poor alike, Richard’s brother John, along with King Phillip of France, tried to bribe Henry VI with 80,000 marks to continue to hold Richard until September of 1194! By February 4, 1194, the ransom had been paid and Richard was released. Upon return to England, Richard made amends with John and named John his heir. To wash away the shame of imprisonment, a new coronation of Richard was conducted. Richard then set about to reconquer Normandy which had been lost to Phillip of France while Richard was away.
Richard was successful in driving Phillip from Normandy, and as the war in France progressed, on March 24, 1199, Richard suffered the fateful wound via a bolt shot from a crossbow. The crossbowman was allegedly a youth, who had blamed Richard for the death of his father and brothers. Of course, the story is somewhat murky, with various names attributed to the crossbowman and whether or not he was a man or a boy. In any case, Richard is reputed to have spared the lad’s life (apparently. he had been captured by Richard’s men), an act of piety as well as mercy. Richards wounded shoulder became gangrenous, and he died of the infection on April 6, 1199. Richard is said to have died in the arms of his mother, after making it clear that John would be his heir, although Richard bequeathed his jewels to his nephew, Otto. Richard’s death was mourned with the description, “The Lion by the Ant was slain.” It is possible that the crossbowman killer of the King was flayed alive and then hanged immediately after Richard’s death, in defiance of Richard’s mercy.
Richard was buried at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, reverently placed at the feet of his father, but not in his entirety! His heart was buried at Anjou, and his guts were buried at Châlus, the scene of his death. Researchers disinterred Richard’s heart in 2012 and found it to have been embalmed with various chemicals, including frankincense. Richard left no legitimate heirs, though he did father an illegitimate son, Philip of Cognac, which is why John was named his heir. Richard’s lack of a direct heir meant the beginning of the end of the Angevin Empire.
King Richard the Lionheart is known to have been a fierce individual combatant, combining the fighting mastery of a knight with the stature of a king, an unusual combination for the time. He was known for being generous and intelligent, a good leader of men and tactician, but also as a lustful and cruel person as well. Richard was not above a kingly level of pride, and he certainly was not one to turn down the opportunity to enrich himself. He engaged in composing poetry and songs and was a patron of the troubadours in his retinue. Usually portrayed as a pious man of God, the clergy of his day was highly critical of his willingness to tax the Church, a measure he took both to finance his participation in the Crusades and to raise his ransom.
For some reason, whether or not Richard may have been homosexual has also become a modern topic of debate, with his lack of a child by marriage as “evidence” of his alleged homosexuality. On the other hand, he is known to have fathered an illegitimate son and to have consorted with women on his travels. Others claim Richard had sexual relations with men and women both! Accounts of Richard actually forcing himself on women are also in the record. Ambiguous “confessions” are pointed to allegedly hinting at Richard confessing to “sodomy.” While various reports exist hinting at different conclusions, no definitive information is available. (One wonders if all this speculation is really an effort to advance the agenda of the historians!)
Historians are also in disagreement as to the significance and value of Richard’s reign. Was he a great king or a self-absorbed lout? His mythical value has waxed and waned over the centuries, but generally he is portrayed as some sort of magnificent leader and pious servant of God. What do you believe?
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For more information, please see…
Bartlett, WB. Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England. Amberley Publishing, 2019.
West, David and Jackie Gaff. Richard the Lionheart. Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by AYArktos of the Tomb of Richard I of England at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon, in Anjou, France, has been released into the public domain worldwide by its author.