The Plantagenets: Richard I “Coeur de Lion” (1189-1199)

Richard “Coeur de Lion” (or “Lionheart”) is fondly remembered as the crusader-king of England. He was a triumphant war hero despite being a French King who spent a mere six months in England during his reign. He valued England only for its riches. His short ten-year rule was marked by his departure to the Holy Land on Crusade -an act that very nearly caused a civil war on the English isle.

Richard was a tall blonde-haired, blue-eyed king. He was a lover of culture, having written troubadour poetry, and he never sired any legitimate children during his lifetime, although he did father a bastard child out of wedlock. He is best remembered today in the legendary tales of Robin Hood. After forcing England’s throne from his father, Richard was finally crowned king in 1189 and he soon began preparing to depart on foreign Crusade.

A 12th century chronicle of Richard I’s coronation at Westminster Abbey

A Note on the Crusades
The small Christian community of Jerusalem was founded around the 1st century and it was precariously protected by the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers for many years. It survived for centuries largely because of the fractured disunity of the surrounding Islamic states, however those states were unified under the Turkish or Saracen Empire, especially under its greatest leader: Saladin. Saladin made himself Vizier of Egypt, and then Sultan of a vast Asian and North African Empire, and soon his power stretched into Syria when he took Damascus in 1774, and then Aleppo in 1183. In 1186, Saladin turned his gaze toward Jerusalem -he proclaimed a Holy War promising riches and eternal paradise in exchange for the martyrdom of his soldiers. Shortly thereafter, Saladin and his hordes cut the defending army to pieces in Jerusalem in 1187 causing shockwaves throughout Christendom.

Knights from the three greatest nations in Western Europe -England, France, and Germany- responded to the Papal call to arms and made haste for Jerusalem.

King Richard, son of Henry II, was one of the leaders who rose up to defend the Holy Land. He spent the early part of his reign raising great sums of money by selling offices throughout the empire in an effort to support the Crusade. Richard was a lover of war because he was obsessed with strategy, magnificence, and valor -hence why he was given the moniker “Lionheart,” a name which has long connected Richard with the flower of English chivalry (especially his portrayal in the legend of Robin Hood).

En route to Jerusalem, Richard married a Spanish princess, Berengaria of Navarre in 1191 on the island of Cyprus (famously known as the “only English Queen never to set foot in the country”). Richard then conquered Sicily and Cyprus, much to the chagrin of the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VI of Germany), before joining with Christian allies in the “Third Crusade” wherein Saladin’s stronghold was surrounded by Christian warriors and the 2-year siege was brought to a close in five weeks after Richard’s arrival. Philip II (“Philip Augustus”), King of France and an ally to Richard in the crusade, returned home immediately following the victory to attend to issues in Flanders and to encourage Richard’s brother, John, to rise up in rebellion against Richard. In essence, Philip II cleverly exploited the smoldering family resentments between Richard and John. Dismayed by the news, Richard attempted to return home while caught in a stalemate in Arsuf, however his ship was waylaid by inclement weather and it wrecked along the coast. Richard tried to make his way home through Germany in disguise but his enemy, the Duke of Austria, captured Richard and handed him over to the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany (who was furious at Richard’s conquests in Sicily and Cyprus). Richard was imprisoned at an unknown remote castle in Germany. From this period, we imagine a delightful, though likely false story of Richard’s court minstrel, Blondel, traveling the countryside from castle to castle playing Richard’s favorite songs outside the castle walls until finally he found the secret dwelling of his king, thus confirming Richard was alive.

In the midst of Richard’s indulgences abroad, Prince John was allowed to effectively build a state within a state. He had gained control of the shires of Derby, Nottingham, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall and other lands with sheriffs responding directly to his authority alone. Meanwhile, amidst the brewing turmoil between loyalists of Richard and the rebels with John, the French King Philip II (“Philip Augustus”) saw an opportunity to regain his lost Angevin Empire from England. Regrettably, John agreed. France raised a rebellion on the continent and John raised a rebellion in England, but it soon failed and John was perceived as a traitor. This is the context in which we find Robin Hood and his merry men -loyalists to King Richard who took cover in Sherwood Forest, north of Nottingham, in order to defend the true King Richard from John the usurper.

The Plantagenet’s vast Angevin lands in France (12th Century)

In 1193, news reached home that Richard was imprisoned “somewhere in Germany.” Immediately thereafter, John claimed the crown but it was disputed by the Church, certain barons, and even his own mother, Eleanor. News spread throughout the country that Richard was alive, thus forcing John into French exile. The Holy Roman Emperor demanded a ransom of 100,000 marks for Richard’s release -amazingly Prince John and Philip II of France offered to pay to keep Richard imprisoned! The Holy Roman Emperor changed his mind and released Richard anyway. King Philip II warned John that Richard had been released from captivity. His message read: “look to yourself for the devil is loosed” -an allusion to the old myth that the Plantagenets were descended from a she-devil named Melusine. At any rate, Richard carefully made his way across France and reclaimed his throne by landing at Kent which was enough to put France on the defensive and solidify the English Kingdom. Prince John begged for a full pardon from his brother, a pardon which Richard willingly granted bearing the full knowledge that John would have much preferred for Richard to rot in a German prison. By pardoning his brother, Richard regained the admiration of his people. It was a demonstration of self-sacrifice.

The five remaining years of Richard’s reign were spent defending his French domains. He delegated much of his responsibilities in England to Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile in France, while on a mission to secure greater territory for himself, Richard was shot by a crossbow arrow in the shoulder and it became gangrenous. With calm and fortitude, he recognized the gravity of the situation and he quickly began making preparations to pay a soldier’s debt. He named John as his heir and brought all his family together to swear fealty. Then, at the age of 42, Richard gave up the ghost on April 6, 1199. Of Richard, Winston Churchill writes that he was “worthy by the consent of all men, to sit with King Arthur and Roland and other heroes of martial romance to some Eternal Round Table, which we trust the Creator of the Universe in His comprehension will not have forgotten to provide” (99).

Richard is buried at the Abbey Fontevraud in France alongside his father and mother (Henry II and Eleanor).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, David Starkey’s Crown and Country.

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