Richard “Coeur de Lion” (or “Lionheart”) is fondly remembered in England as the crusader-king. He was a triumphant war hero despite being a French King who spent a mere 6 months mainly in England during his reign. His short, 10 year reign was marred by his departure to the Holy Land on Crusade -an act that very nearly caused a civil war.
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, though he did father a bastard child out of wedlock.
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 in 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 and now was the time to spend those funds in glorious battle. He was a lover of war for the sake of strategy and magnificence, hence why he was given the moniker “Lionheart,” a name which has long associated Richard with the flower of English chivalry (including his kingship portrayed in Robin Hood).
En route, 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 then Cyprus, much to the chagrin of the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VI of Germany), before joining with his Christian allies in the latter named “Third Crusade” wherein Saladin’s stronghold was surrounded by Christian warriors and the 2-year siege was brought to a close in five weeks of Richard’s arrival. The French King returned home immediately following the victory to attend to issues in Flanders and to encourage Richard’s brother John to rise up in rebellion. In essence, he cleverly exploited the lasting family resentments between Richard and John. Dismayed by the news, Richard attempted to return home amidst a stalemate in Arsuf, however his ship was waylaid by inclement weather and wrecked along the coast. He tried to make his way 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 get a delightful, though likely false story about Richard’s court minstrel, Blondel, as he traveled 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 indulgence and capture 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 to Richard and the rebels with John, the French King Philip II (“Philip Augustus”) saw an opportunity to regain his lost Angevin Empire. 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 King Richard’s kingship.
In 1193, news reached home that Richard was imprisoned “somewhere in Germany.” Immediately, John claimed the crown but it was disputed by the Church, certain barons, and even his mother Eleanor. Once again, news spread that Richard was actually 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 request was denied, King Philip II warned John that Richard was released from captivity: “look to yourself for the devil is loosed” -an allusion to an old myth that the Plantagenets descended from a she-devil named Melusine. At any rate, Richard carefully made his way across France and reclaimed his throne by setting foot 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 granted bearing the full knowledge that John preferred Richard rot in a German prison. However, in doing so Richard regained the admiration of his people for his act 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 further for himself, Richard was shot by a crossbow arrow in the shoulder that became gangrenous. With calm and fortitude, he recognized the gravity of the situation and began his preparations for 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 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, David Starkey’s Crown and Country.