Richard I, the Lionheart

views updated

Richard I, the Lionheart

September 8, 1157
Oxford, England

April 6, 1199
Chaluz, Aquitaine, France

King of England

"Since the beginning of the world we have never heard of such a knight, so brave and so experienced in arms. In every deed at arms he is without rival, first to advance, last to retreat.... His deeds are not human."

—A Muslim leader, quoted in Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade.

Richard I was king of England for a decade at the end of the twelfth century, but in that time this "absent" king spent only six months in the country he ruled. Although he was born in England, he was raised at his mother's court in the French province of Aquitaine, speaking French and practicing the noble art of poetry. But this third son of King Henry II of England (1133–1189) also practiced the manly arts of battle to such an extent that he was dubbed Coeur de Lion, or the "Lionheart," for his bravery and mercilessness. More famous in literature than in life, Richard I was one of those leaders who anger allies and enemy alike. Returning from the Holy Land, he was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, who headed the Christian kingdoms of Europe; the ransom paid for Richard's release nearly ruined England financially. He spent the final years of his life in France, where he battled his boyhood friend, the French king Phillip II (1165–1223). Richard's early death in 1199 ended what has been called one of the worst reigns (periods of rule) in English history in terms of the hardships suffered by his subjects.

Born to Intrigue

Richard was the third son born to Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204; see entry). The relationship between his strong-willed parents was a stormy one. Eleanor, who was previously married to Louis VII, the king of France, preferred her cultured court at Aquitaine, in the center of France, to England. Richard was raised in Aquitaine, the favorite of his mother, as she was for him. As was the custom of the day, during his youth he wrote verses in French and in the local Provençal dialect. He also learned the arts of war from William Marshall, his tutor for jousting (combat on horseback). As Richard reached adolescence, it was clear he would be a handsome man: he was tall and powerfully built, which was exactly how a knight (noble military leader) and future king should look. Richard's older brother Henry (following the death of the first son, William) was meant to inherit his father's kingdom, but Richard had powerful ambitions in this area.

At age eleven Richard became duke of Aquitaine and left behind childish things, such as composing and reciting poetry. Soon he began plotting to gain more land and power, sometimes siding with his mother against his father or with his father against his brothers. He badly wanted to gain control of more than just the French possessions of the Plantagenet line of kings, which was also called the Angevin line after the French landholdings in Anjou. This English dynasty, or ruling family, began with Henry II in 1154 and would last until the beginning of the Stuart line of kings and queens in 1603. Besides being king of England, Henry II was also duke of the French holdings of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and Touraine; through Eleanor he also held title to the duchy of Aquitaine. He was thus a powerful figure both in England and in France. If the Plantagenets fought among themselves, they were also engaged in an ongoing rivalry, if not outright war, with the Capets, another French dynasty (987–1328).

At least on paper King Henry II and his holdings in France were under the control of the king of France. During Richard's lifetime the main representative of that line was Philip Augustus, son of Louis VII, the former husband of Richard's mother. Philip, who was eight years younger than Richard, spent much time at the court of Aquitaine in Poitiers, where Henry II attempted to win through treaties what he could not win by war. Many historians believe that Richard and Philip developed a homosexual, or same gender, love for each other in adolescence and early adulthood. To complicate matters, Philip's half-sister, Alais, had been engaged to Richard from an early age. However, Richard's father, Henry II, who always had an eye for pretty women, took the girl for his own mistress, or lover. While still a youth of fourteen, Philip was declared king of France in 1179 and took the name Philip II.

Aquitaine, which was Richard's inheritance, was also a feuding (fighting) region. Its nobles were always rebelling against the rulers in Poitiers. By 1169 Henry II had managed to get these dukes and counts in line, but four years later family peace was threatened by a rebellion of sons against their father. Richard joined his older brother Henry, already proclaimed the next king, and younger brother Geoffrey, duke of Brittany, in open rebellion against Henry II. Their mother, Eleanor, angry at her husband for his continual cheating with other women, encouraged her sons. Henry II invaded Aquitaine and quickly put this rebellion down, but Richard was the last to give in. The sons were forced to pledge loyalty to their father; Richard lost the title of duke of Aquitaine and had to take orders directly from his father.

A Soldier-King in the Making

Such orders, however, were to Richard's liking. During the next five years he was constantly battling with the nobles of Aquitaine and nearby Gascony, who refused to bow to the power of King Henry II. It was during these years that Richard gained the reputation of a fierce and relentless fighter, attacking and seizing castles throughout the Plantagenet lands in France. His resourcefulness and bravery were demonstrated time and again. For example, he gained fame throughout Europe in 1179 for taking the fortress of Taillebourg, on the Charente River, which was believed to be impregnable, or too strong to conquer. Richard staged a scorched-earth campaign, burning crops and poisoning wells, which won him this prize.

Family problems broke out again when King Henry II demanded that Richard pay homage, or pledge his loyalty, to his older brother Henry, who was destined to be the future king of England. Richard stubbornly refused to do so, so in 1183 this brother invaded Aquitaine. He was joined in this campaign by Geoffrey, his other brother. Now even Henry II grew alarmed. This war between brothers threatened the Plantagenet line, for it quickly spun out of control, with Richard taking the offensive and slaughtering some of the invaders. The king rode to Aquitaine to try to stop the fighting. However, a truce was put in place only when Henry the Younger, Richard's brother, died of an illness in June 1183. Suddenly, nothing stood in Richard's way to becoming king himself—or so it seemed.

Now that Richard was the new heir, Henry II demanded that he give Aquitaine to his youngest brother, John, who had no duchies. John's nickname "Lackland" points to his landless condition. Richard would not hear of it, for Aquitaine was his homeland. A new round of hostilities broke out between father and son, in part spurred on by King Philip II, Richard's old friend and rival. With the accidental death of Geoffrey in 1186 in a jousting tournament, Richard and John became the only possible heirs to the crown. Philip II, always eager to play one Plantagenet against another, formed an alliance with Richard against Henry II, with both setting out to take the throne away from the father by force. This they accomplished by surrounding the king in his birthplace of Le Mans and burning down the town. Henry II had to flee on horseback from his own son. Deserted by most of his followers, on July 6, 1189, the aged and ill king died, with Richard at his deathbed. Then, on September 3, 1189, Richard traveled to England—one of his few brief visits to that country—to be crowned king of England. Taking the title Richard I, he set out on the new mission of saving the Christian kingdom in the Holy Land.

The Third Crusade

Word had already reached Europe of the Muslim victories under the leadership of Saladin (see entry), specifically his taking of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1187 from Christian Crusaders, who had held it for almost a century. The Crusaders began their struggles against the Muslims, believers in the faith of Islam, at the end of the eleventh century, in an effort to win back the Holy Land for Christianity. This Crusade, or holy war, would last until the end of the thirteenth century. By Richard's time there had already been two Crusades. With the First Crusade (1095–99) the Christian armies had established kingdoms in the Middle East. With the Second Crusade (1147–49) their strength was challenged by new Muslim leaders, among them Nur al-Din (1118–74). Now the pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, called for a new Crusade to free the holy city of Jerusalem from Saladin, the latest Muslim warrior, and his armies. Even before becoming king, Richard had "taken the cross," or promised to join this new Crusade. Thus, his first act after becoming king of England was to raise enough money to outfit a Crusader army. He sold all his possessions in England, from church lands to sheriffs' positions; legend has it that Richard said he would even sell London if he could find a buyer. By the summer

The Crusade Begins at Home

When Richard I was crowned king of England in 1189, the event seemed to inspire an outbreak of anti-Jewish feeling throughout England. Houses were burned down in the Jewish quarter of London. During one incident in 1190, five hundred Jews in the English city of York killed themselves rather than have an angry mob massacre them. Jews had long been persecuted in Europe as the enemies of Christianity. It was said that they had handed Christ over to the Romans to be crucified, or nailed to the cross, and were thus the targets of hatred for centuries. It was as if the local population in England and Europe felt that they should begin to kill the "infidels" (non-Christians) at home before they set off for the Holy Land to murder Muslims.

The Third Crusade, led by Richard I, was not the only one to inspire such terrible events. With the First Crusade (1095–99) the killings had already begun. One of many unofficial leaders of a Crusader army, Count Emich of Leiningen was especially infamous, or notorious, for his cruelty toward Jews that his army encountered along the route to the Crusades. This German set his band of mercenaries, or paid soldiers, loose on the Jewish populations in towns throughout Germany, including Spier, Worms, and Mainz, taking prisoners and demanding ransom, or payment to set them free. Even when the money was paid, Emich killed his helpless victims anyway. Another German Crusader named Volkmar did the same thing to the Jewish community in Prague while on his way to the Holy Land; however, when he tried the same deed in Hungary, he and his band were killed by the Hungarian army, one of the few countries in Europe to protect its Jewish population. Emich, too, was defeated by the Hungarians and never reached the Holy Land.

These Jewish massacres were an awful foreshadowing, or warning, of what could be done in the name of Christianity or any strong belief system. While these soldiers claimed they were only fighting the enemies of God in Europe, they were actually motivated by a shameful reason: greed. They were after the money and wealth they could steal from the Jews along the route to help pay for their travels to the Holy Land.

of 1190 he was ready to set sail for Palestine, leaving England to be ruled by his chancellor, William Longchamp. His brother John did not join the Crusade; instead, he stayed in England and immediately began to stir up factions (smaller groups) against Richard.

Richard sailed with the French king, who was also taking an army to fight the Muslims. A third army, under the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1123–1190), traveled by land to the Middle East. Richard, however, was not content to journey peacefully to the Crusades. He managed to fight battles and create new enemies for himself along the way. Arriving in Sicily, in the far south of Italy, he became involved in the struggle for succession to determine who would become the next king. Richard ultimately backed a man named Tancred, who had seized control after the death of the previous king. Tancred had imprisoned Richard's sister, Joan, widow of the former king, and was ruling in the place of Constance, the rightful heir to the throne and the wife of Henry VI, the man who would shortly become Holy Roman Emperor.

Although this emperor was really a ruler in name only, officially he was the head of a loose collection of kingdoms making up the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806), in present-day eastern France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Nevertheless, it was not a good idea to anger him, as Richard would later learn. Charging ahead into this dangerous and delicate situation, Richard sacked and burned the city of Messina, won the release of his sister, and stayed on until March 1191. He then made another stopover on the island of Cyprus, where he again fought over and captured the Christian city of Limassol, looting and killing all who opposed him. In Cyprus he married Berengaria of Navarre, the woman his mother had handpicked for him. This wedding angered his Crusader partner, Philip II, because Alais, the French king's own half-sister, had long been pledged to Richard, even though she had been the mistress (lover) of Henry II.

Richard finally reached the Holy Land in June 1191, in time to aid in the siege of Acre, a Saracen stronghold. (The Saracens were a nomadic Muslim people who came from a region between Syria and Arabia and whose name was equated by the Crusaders with all Muslim or Arab forces.) Despite being sick with fever, Richard and the Crusaders finally captured the city on July 12, 1191. This victory occurred after a two-year siege, and though the Crusaders came to respect the defending Muslims, this did not prevent them from slaughtering most of the Muslims—under Richard's orders—once they had been disarmed and were defenseless. During the battle for Acre, Richard managed to anger yet another ally, Austrian duke Leopold V, who was placed in charge of the German Crusaders following the death of Frederick Barbarossa. At one point in the fighting Richard threw Leopold's standard, or flag with his battle colors, into the mud, not wanting it to stand alongside his and Philip's.

Soon Richard and Philip also had a disagreement, and the French king set sail for his homeland. Richard was now solely in charge of the Crusader army. Despite being badly outnumbered, he defeated the Muslims under Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf. These two military leaders continued to fight each other for the next few months, with talks of a truce repeatedly called off because of Richard's unreasonable demands. At one point Richard even offered to give his widowed sister to Saladin's brother in marriage if the man converted to Christianity. This offer, like his demands for total control of the Holy Land, was rejected by the Muslim leader. A final victory at Jaffa was not enough to win Richard his most desired prize—Jerusalem. Badly outnumbered, he knew that he would not be able to hold the city even if he were able to capture it. Also, word had reached him of trouble at home: His brother John and King Philip II of France were conspiring against him to rob him of his crown. In July 1192 he set sail for England, determined to hold on to his kingdom.

The Final Years

Fearful of the enemies he had made during the Third Crusade, Richard traveled secretly, in the company of pirates. When his ship was wrecked, he made his way by land, still disguised because of his earlier insult to Leopold of Austria. In the city of Vienna, Austria, Richard was recognized and thrown into a cell in Leopold's castle at Dürnstein on the Danube. From there he was handed over to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, who also had a grudge against him. Henry kept Richard as a hostage, and for the equivalent of roughly one hundred billion dollars in the currency of modern times, he agreed to set Richard free.

Meanwhile, John continued his scheming to become king. However, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, now entered this battle and managed to gather supporters for Richard. The English finally raised a first installment on his ransom, and in March 1194 Richard reached England, put down the revolt, and was crowned king of England for the second time. He remained in the country for just two months, long enough to raise more funds to help him regain territory lost in France along the border of Normandy. Leaving in place Hubert Walter as governor, Richard returned to Aquitaine, where he fought for the next five years. Although the ransom paid for Richard all but ruined England economically, he demanded more funds to build a series of castles to defend his far-flung lands in England and France, the largest being the fortifications at Château Gaillard, on the river Seine, which cost almost two years' income of the British Crown. While other military leaders would end hostilities from harvest time to Christmas every year, for Richard it was always war all the time. His victories against Philip II of France kept the barons (men who had earned titles and land through service to a lord) in line and the money coming in to fuel his war machine.

In the end, however, it was not fighting his longtime rival Philip II that ended Richard's career, but rather a petty (silly) argument over discovered treasure. Philip and Richard agreed to a five-year truce in 1198, but Richard was stirred back into battle when the viscount (a rank of nobleman) of Limoges, France, refused to turn over to the king a treasure that had been discovered by a peasant while plowing his field. When Richard surrounded the castle of the viscount at Chaluz, he forgot to wear his armor and was shot in the shoulder by a crossbow. The surgery to remove the metal tip left his shoulder badly torn, and deadly gangrene (a blood infection) set in. After making his younger brother John the new king, Richard II died on April 6, 1199, and was buried in the abbey (home for nuns) church of Fontevrault, where his parents were also laid to rest.

Richard had so weakened the English treasury, or royal bank, that when John was king (1199–1216) it was impossible for him to retain the lands in France that the English had long held. Despite his reckless act of pushing the monarchy to the edge of financial disaster with his war economy, Richard was made famous by the balladeers and troubadours, or roving singers and poets, of the day. His fame became the stuff of legend in stories by the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and tales about the good-hearted bandit Robin Hood. Richard's claim to fame is a complex one: He was an outstanding soldier and military leader, but he was also capable of great cruelty. In many ways he was politically intelligent, but he was also ignorant of the most basic skills of diplomacy, or international relations. His overblown sense of himself made foes of friends, but his actual enemies, such as Saladin and the Muslims, respected his energy and battle skill.

Richard was one of the most famous of medieval kings because of his warlike nature, yet his accomplishments were not as great as those writing about him after his death would have us believe. As James Reston Jr. has noted, Richard I of England

is one of the most romantic figures of all of English history. In lore that has been embellished [made larger than life] over the centuries and read to schoolboys at bedtime, Richard has become the very epitome [prime example] of chivalry [honorable behavior], the knight fighting bravely for his kingdom, his church, and his lady with axe, shield, and horse. ... Richard is remembered for his bravado [boldness] and cunning—and his extravagance [wastefulness]. He is not remembered for his compassion [kindness and caring], his tact, or his restraint.

For More Information


Brundage, James A. Richard Lion Heart. New York: Scribner, 1974.

Gillingham, John. Richard I. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. The Plantagenet Chronicles. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.

Regan, Geoffrey. Lionhearts: Saladin, Richard I, and the Era of the ThirdCrusade. New York: Walker, 1998.

Reston, James Jr. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in theThird Crusade. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Turner, Ralph V., and Richard R. Heiser. The Reign of Richard Lionheart:Ruler of the Angevin Empire, 1189–99. London: Longman, 2000.

Web Sites

"Kings and Queens of England to 1603: The Angevins: Richard I Coeur de Lion ('The Lionheart') (r. 1189–1199)." The Official Web Site of the British Monarchy. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Richard I, King of England." New Advent. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

About this article

Richard I, the Lionheart

Updated About content Print Article