Post-classical history



The Lionheart – Richard I

Queen of kingdoms while King Richard lives . . . your position is secure under so great a helmsman . . .

Geoffrey of Vinsauf1

The Crusader

The sudden collapse of the Crusader states in 1187 caused the same sort of horror among Christians that Jews might feel today were they to hear that the Israeli armed forces had been wiped out and Jerusalem lost, with the remnant of Israel’s population huddled in one or two beleaguered seaports. Every major Western ruler took an oath to go on the Third Crusade and rescue the Holy Land. Among them was England’s new king.

In 1860 a statue of Richard I was erected outside the Palace of Westminster, although some Victorians did not think he deserved one. ‘His subjects, fortunately for themselves, saw very little of him,’ wrote Stubbs. ‘His ambition was that of a mere warrior: he would fight for anything whatever, but he would sell everything that was worth fighting for.’ As late as 1974, The Oxford History of England argued that his only use for his kingdom was to finance ambitions overseas, a generally accepted view until his convincing rehabilitation in 1991 by John Gillingham. While he may have been essentially a Frenchman and ‘No Englishman’ (Stubbs’s phrase), he valued his kingdom. Nor did his English subjects feel any resentment, idolizing him as the leader who saved Christian Palestine.

One of Richard’s first acts was to pardon William Marshal who only recently had nearly killed him. He also gave William the hand of the greatest heiress of the day, Isabel de Clare, so the landless knight from the Kennet Valley became Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Leinster. ‘The Marshal’, as everyone called him, was the most celebrated knight of the age, a hero of the tournament and the battlefield, who rose through sheer ability and ended his career by uniting England behind the Plantagenet dynasty.

After Richard’s investment as Duke of Normandy, he was crowned King of England at Westminster on 3 September 1189. The coronation was marred by the crowd outside, who attacked and killed a deputation from the Jewish community when it tried to present the new king with gifts. The incident turned into a pogrom that spread from London to as far north as York, and many Jews were murdered or even burned alive. Richard tried to save them, from greed rather than compassion – he wanted to fleece the entire community to help pay for his Crusade.

Even so, he did not forget the oaths sworn at his coronation; his remark ‘I would sell London if I could find a buyer’ was only a witticism.2 If he sold offices and lordships to finance his Crusade, he made the Welsh princes swear not to attack in his absence and guarded the North by selling Roxburgh and Berwick back to the Scots. Marrying his brother John to Isabel of Gloucester, heiress to the great earldom of Gloucester, giving him other English estates and creating him Count of Mortain in Normandy, was less of a risk than leaving him dissatisfied.

In July 1190 Richard joined his fellow crusader Philip II at Vézelay, with 4,000 men-at-arms and as many foot soldiers. A hundred ships took the soldiers from Marseilles to Messina where they waited for King Richard before sailing on to Sicily. No English monarch had brought so large an expedition on such a long journey. To preserve discipline Richard issued a list of penalties – anyone who killed a man was to be thrown overboard tied to his victim’s corpse, anyone who drew blood in a quarrel was to lose his hand, and thieves were to be tarred and feathered.

He himself went overland with a single knight – and was nearly lynched in Calabria for stealing a peasant’s falcon. On arrival, he found that his sister Queen Joanna, William II of Sicily’s widow, had been imprisoned by King Tancred. A usurper, Tancred lived in fear of Emperor Henry VI, who had married the heiress to the throne, Constance of Hauteville. After the English king sacked and occupied Messina as a punishment for Tancred refusing to admit him, Tancred, desperate to avoid making another dangerous enemy, hastily freed Joanna, signing a treaty by which he agreed to pay her compensation. In return, Richard promised that one of Tancred’s daughters should marry his nephew Arthur of Brittany, whom he had adopted as his heir.

During the winter at Messina, Richard told King Philip he could not marry Alice of France because of her reputation. Instead, he would wed Berengaria of Navarre, whom Queen Eleanor was bringing to Sicily. The insult did not improve relations between the two men.

The man

Handsome and well built if a bit plump, with reddish-blond hair, Richard, despite having been born at Oxford in 1157 (presumably just outside, in Beaumont Palace), had become a man from south of the Loire, whose languages were Poitevin, Provençal and Latin. He knew no English and complained of his kingdom’s cold and rain.

‘Well aware of what a filthy life he had been leading and regretting it, he summoned all the archbishops and prelates to Reginald de Moyac’s chapel in Messina where, throwing himself naked at their feet, he openly confessed to God his filthiness’, Roger of Howden tells us.3 In token of repentance, the king held three scourges. What was Richard’s sin? Some historians, but only since John Harvey in 1948 and without any evidence, have suggested he was homosexual, citing his failure to produce an heir. Yet Berengaria may have been barren, as Richard fathered at least one bastard and had raped captive ladies in Aquitaine.4

The overall picture from chronicles is of a man with enormous self-confidence and dynamism. (His only physical handicap was malaria, caught before he went to the Holy Land – during bouts he shook all over.) In Palestine and France he proved to be a magnificent soldier, who inspired loyalty in his men and terrified his enemies. His one fault was rashness, behaving as though he bore a charmed life.

Contemptuous of most prelates, Richard respected Hugh of Lincoln, remarking ‘If other bishops were like him, no one would dare to argue with them.’5 Occasionally cruel, he could also show breathtaking magnanimity. The name ‘coeur de lion’ was bestowed in his lifetime, Gerald of Wales writing of ‘our lion, our more than lion’, even before he became king, which gave rise to the tale of Richard reaching down a lion’s throat and pulling out its heart. Only an unusually impressive personality could inspire such a legend.

Cyprus and Palestine

En route for the Holy Land in April 1191 Richard’s fleet ran into a storm and many ships were wrecked off Cyprus. Survivors were imprisoned by its ruler, ‘Emperor’ Isaac (a dissident Byzantine), who invited Queen Joanna and Berengaria to land when they anchored off Limassol. They wisely declined so he refused to let their boat take on fresh food or water. As soon as Richard arrived, he stormed Limassol, then conquered the whole island within days and imprisoned Isaac, adding a vast booty to his war chest.

While the mountains of the Holy Land could be seen from Cyprus, it was sufficiently far away to be safe from Muslim invasion. Aware that it could give the Crusade a base from which to bring in reinforcements and supplies, almost immediately Richard sold the island to the Templars. When they did not pay, he presented it to Guy de Lusignan, the former King of Jerusalem.

Before setting out on the last lap of his journey, he married Berengaria at Limassol. He also had her crowned as Queen of the English, instead of waiting for a coronation at Westminster, which shows that he was hoping for an heir. (By all accounts, Berengaria was an unusually pleasant if not very good-looking lady.) Then he sailed for Palestine, which he reached only just in time to save the Second Crusade.

‘Outremer’, as Anglo-Normans called the Kingdom of Jerusalem, had disintegrated. While always under threat from Muslim neighbours, it had been a thriving little country for ninety years, with a French nobility, an Italian bourgeoisie and a Christian Arab underclass. But now, having lost its entire military manpower and its capital in 1187, it was reduced to a few toeholds on the coast. Even so, there was bitter rivalry for the lost Crown between the ex-king, Guy de Lusignan, and the Marquis of Montferrat, who was eventually elected to take his place, only to be murdered in 1192.

When King Richard joined the camp near Acre (once Outremer’s biggest seaport) on 8 June 1191 he found a siege that had already lasted so long that the besiegers were comparing it to the siege of Troy. Handpicked by Sultan Saladin, the Muslim garrison knew the Crusade would collapse if they held out. Even Christians admired Saladin. A Kurd who had united Syria and Egypt, and wiped out the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, he was renowned for magnanimity, generosity and bravery, and it seemed inconceivable to the defenders that he would not rescue them.

Weakened by epidemics and starvation – they were eating their horses – the besiegers could not take Acre, despite Philip II’s arrival. But everything changed when Richard came. After capturing a big enemy ship bringing reinforcements, he added his siege engines to those already in place and, when he went down with malaria, had himself carried in a litter to the walls, sniping at the enemy with a crossbow. His determination restored morale.

Soon such large areas of the walls collapsed that, despite having sworn to fight to the death, the defenders surrendered on 12 July, the two kings’ banners flying in triumph from the citadel. When Duke Leopold of Austria had his own banner hoisted, the English threw it down into the ditch, an affront he did not forget. Richard moved into the former royal palace where his men drank like fishes amid the braying of horns and trumpets.

At the end of July Philip went home. Richard stayed on as undisputed leader of the crusaders, whose aim was to recapture Jerusalem. The lives of the Acre garrison had been spared in return for 2,000 dinars, 1,500 Christian captives and the Holy Cross. However, when it became clear that the ransom would not be paid, in the most shameful crime of his entire career Richard massacred his prisoners – and, as some of them had swallowed gold coins, they were disembowelled.

Richard then set out for Jaffa on 25 August, marching along the shore and supplying his army from the sea. When Saladin’s much bigger army attacked at Arsuf on 7 September, the king had difficulty holding back his knights. Finally, the Hospitallers disobeyed, charging the enemy. Richard saved the day by riding with them and then regrouping to launch further charges. In the end, the enemy broke. Not only had Richard won an overwhelming victory but he had destroyed Saladin’s reputation for invincibility.

His dilemma was to recover Jerusalem or rebuild the Christian kingdom on the coast. Besieging the Holy City meant exposing his supply lines, so he offered Saladin’s brother, al-Adil, the coastal cities and his sister Joanna as wife if he would convert to Christianity. ‘To get what he wanted, he used force first, then smooth talk,’ says one of Saladin’s officers. ‘We never had a bolder or more crafty opponent.’6

Early in 1192 Richard stormed Ascalon, which he refortified, cutting Saladin’s communications with Egypt. In June, the sultan sent a big, heavily escorted caravan to revictual the Holy City. When it camped for the night near the wells of Kuwaifa, the king, after reconnoitring in the darkness disguised as a Bedouin, attacked at dawn, seizing the entire caravan and its valuable cargo – once more humiliating Saladin.

In July the enemy captured Jaffa, but its citadel held out. On 1 August a flotilla of Christian ships sailed into the harbour, led by Richard in a red galley with a red sail and, wading ashore with a small force, he drove the astonished Muslims out of the city. Four days later Saladin came in person with a large army. Richard’s troops were a mere 2,000 foot soldiers and fifty-four knights, only fifteen of whom were mounted, but his spearmen and crossbowmen fought on from behind a barrier of tent-pegs until he charged out with his handful of cavalry and cowed the attackers. A Muslim eyewitness recalled how fearsome he appeared: ‘The King of England, lance in hand, rode along the whole length of our army from right to left, and none of our soldiers dared to leave the ranks.’7

In the end, the Palestinian barons convinced the king that Jerusalem was beyond his reach. Having done all he could, in August 1192 he signed a treaty with Saladin by which the Christians kept the territory they had recovered and were given access to the Holy City. Although he had failed to regain Jerusalem, Richard had restored the kingdom of Outremer, if much reduced in size, with Acre for its capital.

Because Western Christians were so obsessed with the Crusade, everybody heard of Richard’s heroic deeds in the Holy Land, from the sermons of the parish priests who obtained their information from his letters to the bishops. If Englishmen were groaning beneath the Saladin Tithe, they knew that Richard had given them value for their money.


Leaving Palestine in October 1192, Richard’s ship was driven by contrary winds into Corfu. Here, with twenty followers and disguised as a Templar, he took passage on a small pirate vessel, only to be wrecked between Aquileia and Venice. Twice arrested and twice escaping, the king was caught in a brothel near Vienna – cooking a leg of lamb – by the Duke of Austria’s men and imprisoned at the castle of Dürnstein.

On Palm Sunday 1193 Richard was handed over to Emperor Henry VI, who had him tried at Speyer on a charge of betraying the Holy Land, King Philip’s agents claiming that he had organized the Marquis of Montferrat’s murder and poisoned the Duke of Burgundy. He defended himself so eloquently that Henry withdrew the charge. Even so, Richard remained in captivity. (Regrettably, there is no truth in the story of the minstrel Blondel recognizing the king when he sang a song they had written together.)

Meanwhile Philip II attacked the Plantagenet empire, capturing the great castle of Gisors. John, who hoped he would help him seize the English throne, did homage to the French king, surrendering eastern Normandy and the key strongholds of Touraine. In England John’s men occupied royal castles while he invited the Welsh and Scots to overthrow his brother. But the English magnates stayed loyal to Richard.

In June 1193 the emperor agreed to release his prisoner for £100,000 (double the English Crown’s entire revenue.) Although this meant a tax as heavy as the Saladin Tithe, it was raised without complaint. Early in 1194 Henry freed his captive, rejecting bribes by Philip and John to keep him prisoner. ‘Look to yourself,’ Philip warned John. ‘The Devil is loose.’8 The castellan of St Michael’s Mount, who was one of John’s supporters, died of fright when he heard of Richard’s imminent return.

Rebuilding the Plantagenet empire

The king had left his chancellor, William Longchamp, in charge, a good administrator but intolerably heavy-handed, ‘with a sneer, a savage grin and contempt in his eye’.9 In 1191 William was dismissed by an angry assembly of barons and bishops at St Paul’s, cheered on by 10,000 Londoners, led by their first mayor, who complained that William had insulted the English nation. Richard had already sent Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen, to take his place. Meanwhile, panic-stricken, John fled to France.

During the two months he spent in England, Richard prepared for war with Philip II. To ensure that reinforcements and supplies reached his troops across the Channel, he began Portsmouth’s long career as a naval base, granting it a charter. He used the port as a harbour for a fleet of galleys, modelled on those he had seen in the Mediterranean. Another innovation was naming specific localities (Salisbury, Stamford, Warwick, Brackley and Blyth) where tournaments – more like miniature pitched battles than the tilting yard duels of later days – were to be held regularly. These were supervised by two experienced knights and two clerks, to whom participants paid a fee graded according to their social standing. The purpose was to provide a steady supply of well-trained men-at-arms.

Richard did not confine himself to the war effort; he also witnessed charter after charter, chose bishops and appointed sheriffs. He made sure that forest laws were maintained – convicted deer poachers must lose their eyes and virility ‘as in the days of Henry, grandfather of our lord the king’.10He established a customs service that levied a tenth of the value on all goods for export at every port in his domains. Since these included London, Southampton, Bristol, Dublin, Nantes, Rouen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Bayonne, it became a valuable source of royal revenue. The Welsh were cowed while peace was made with the Scots. Finally, he appointed a superb administrator, Hubert Walter – about to become Archbishop of Canterbury – to rule in his absence.

In summer 1194 he sailed to Normandy. When he arrived, John threw himself at his feet. ‘Don’t worry,’ Richard told him, ‘you’re just a child who has had bad advisers.’ Next year, he restored the twenty-eight-year-old ‘child’ to his county of Mortain and English estates.11 To show repentance, having installed a French garrison at Evreux John invited its members to a dinner where he had them murdered and their heads stuck on poles.

The war – a struggle for the area between Paris and Rouen – involved endless fighting for control of the bridges and fords over the Seine, and for strategically sited castles. Inspired by the Byzantine strongholds he had seen in the East, Richard built a huge fortress on a rock above the Seine at Les Andelys, Château Gaillard, whose functions were safeguarding the road to Rouen and enabling his troops to raid deep into French territory. Neither side could win decisively because neither could afford to maintain an army in the field for long enough.12

Even so, Richard won a string of minor successes. Often led by a Provençal mercenary named Mercadier, who had been with him in the Holy Land, his army’s unexpected attacks after forced marches or from sailing barges demoralized the enemy. Mercadier raided Beauvais, taking prisoner its bishop, while in September 1198 Richard nearly captured King Philip during an ambush in eastern Normandy. A bridge at Gisors collapsed beneath Philip as he fled in terror across the River Epte – he had to be pulled out of the water by the legs while twenty of his knights were swept away. ‘We heard reports that he had to drink from the river’, Richard wrote in a letter to the Bishop of Durham.13 Through relentless campaigning and diplomacy, by the end of 1198 he had recovered everything lost during his captivity.

Then an obscure Limousin baron, Achard of Chalus, discovered a buried treasure, said to be a gold model of a Roman emperor and his family sitting around a golden table, together with a hoard of gold coins. Unwisely – and illegally – he refused to let Richard have it all, keeping back part at his little castle. In March 1199, with Mercadier, the king besieged Chalus which, although defended by only fifteen men, refused to surrender. Reconnoitring without his armour, the king was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow quarrel and the wound turned gangrenous. When the castle fell, he had the garrison hanged, except for the crossbowman, who turned out to be a mere boy.

‘What harm have I done you, to make you kill me?’, the dying Richard asked the boy, who was called Pierre Basile. ‘You slew my father and my brothers with your own hand, and you meant to slay me too – so revenge yourself in any way you like,’ answered Pierre. ‘I forgive you for my death, live on,’ replied the king, ordering his release. After Richard died on 6 April, despite the pardon, Mercadier had the boy flayed alive before hanging him.14

A Frenchman until the very end, the king left instructions for his body to be buried in the abbey church at Fontevrault, at the feet of the father he had betrayed, and for his heart to be interred at Rouen. Queen Berengaria was so grief-stricken, ‘almost heartbroken’, that Bishop Hugh of Lincoln journeyed through a wild and dangerous forest region to comfort her,15 which refutes the stories that Richard neglected his wife.

Always objective, despite his admiration for the late king, Roger of Howden notes an enemy’s comment: ‘Valour, avarice, crime, unbounded lust, foul famine, unscrupulous pride and blind desire have reigned for twice five years.’ But Roger also quotes another verdict, ‘His courage was undaunted by countless mighty obstacles, his advance never checked by any barriers, whether raging, roaring seas, the abysses of the deep or towering mountains’.16 The History of William Marshal records Marshal’s opinion of the king – ‘the best prince in all the world’.17


If Richard I failed to regain Jerusalem for Christianity, he ensured that at least part of the Holy Land survived as a Christian kingdom for another century, fed from Cyprus. He also kept the Plantagenet empire intact. A recent historian of warfare in the West during the High Middle Ages does not hesitate in calling him ‘the greatest commander within this period’.18 In England, despite his absence overseas, well-chosen justiciars improved the laws and administration left by his father. The kingdom continued to prosper.

The name ‘lion heart’ was justified. Richard had become a folk hero for all Western Europe and a demon in Arab legend. The English never forgot him. He really does deserve that statue at Westminster.

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