Richard the Lionheart

He was lofty of stature, of shapely build, his hair halfway between red and yellow, his limbs straight and supple. His arms were somewhat long and, therefore, better fitted than those of most men to draw or wield a sword. He also had long legs in keeping with the character of his whole frame. . . . He far surpassed other men in courtesy and the greatness of his strength.”1

Richard I, count of Poitou and king of England, better known as “the Lionheart,” is another figure whose legend has obscured his real history. Like the Templars, Richard’s legend began in his own lifetime and continued to grow long after his death.

Richard was born at Oxford on September 8, 1157.2 His mother, Eleanor, was countess of Poitou and duchess of Aquitaine in her own right as well as having been queen of France before she became queen of England.3 His father, Henry Plantagenet, was descended through his mother, Matilda, from William the Conqueror and through his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, from the devil.4

The story is that a distant ancestress of Richard was Melusine, a demon in disguise who married a count of Anjou. She seemed perfectly normal except for a habit of leaving church halfway through the Mass. One day, suspicious vassals forced her to stay in the church for the consecration of the Host, at which point, she shrieked and vanished forever, leaving a startled husband and children behind. The Plantagenets always seemed very proud of her. However, this same story was told about a number of medieval families as well as being a popular theme in fiction so they were not unique in their fascinating ancestry.

Nevertheless, according to a contemporary, Richard was known to have said, “It’s not strange that, with such a family history, the children are always attacking their parents and each other for they all came from the devil and to the devil they will return.”5

But Richard also had strong ties to the early crusaders and to the Latin kingdoms. His great-grandfather Fulk of Anjou had started a second life as king of Jerusalem when he married Melisande, the heiress to the kingdom. And his mother’s uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, had done the same thing when he married the heiress of Antioch.6 And, of course, his mother Eleanor had scandalized half the continent with her adventures with her first husband, Louis VII of France, on the Second Crusade.

Richard was the third son of Henry and Eleanor. The first, William, had died as a baby. The second, Henry, was being groomed to be the next king of England. Richard was to inherit his mother’s lands. Therefore, he spent much of his time in Poitou and Aquitaine. This territory was not only larger than England, but much more prosperous and produced much better wine. I don’t blame Richard for being attached to it.

One often repeated story is that Richard passed less than a year of his life in England. That’s not exactly true. He spent less than a year in England as king. In his early years he went back and forth across the channel several times. His parents probably left him with his nanny, Hodierna, much of the time. She may have come from the Oxford area. He was certainly fond of her, and when he became king he gave her a large pension that allowed her to retire to Wiltshire in style.7

Like most of the Anglo-Norman nobility, Richard never learned to speak English. He did, however, learn to read and write French and Provençal and “was sufficiently well-educated in Latin to be able to crack a Latin joke at the expense of a less learned Archbishop of Canturbury.” 8

He became king in July 1189 at the age of thirty-two. His elder brother Henry had died. At the time Richard was at war with his father and not on great terms with his younger brothers, Geoffrey and John. His mother had been imprisoned by his father for several years as a result of her plots against him. Maybe there is something to the demon story.

The year before he assumed the throne, Richard had been one of the first to answer the summons of Pope Gregory VII for the Third Crusade. As king, he not only still had to fulfill this vow but also to honor that of his father, Henry II, who had also promised to go.9

But before that he went to Westminster for his official anointing and coronation. On September 13, 1189, he became Richard I of England. He then immediately set about collecting as much money as he could to finance his expedition to the Holy Land.10 “He put up for sale everything he had—offices, lordships, earldoms, sherriffdoms, castles towns, lands, the lot.”11 He was also able to collect the tax that Henry II had started, known as the “Saladin tithe,” which shows that the people of Europe knew who had taken Jerusalem from them. This was not always paid cheerfully, especially by the clergy, but Richard knew how to convince them. Both he and his father made the Templars his tithe collectors.12 This didn’t endear people to them.

The intense demand for money from the people of England, along with the usual crusading fervor, may have been responsible for an outbreak of violence against the Jews in England. It seems to have started when some Jews arrived at Richard’s coronation with gifts and were told they couldn’t come in. Women and Jews had not been invited. The crowd outside, who apparently also hadn’t been invited in, attacked the Jews, killing some of them. This led to a general riot in London. Jewish homes were ransacked and burned and many people murdered.13

Richard was not particularly pro-Jewish, but all the Jews of England were under the king’s special protection and had been since they first came to England in the time of William the Conqueror. They were also a great source of revenue. He was furious about the attacks and tried to stop the destruction but, over the next few months, the violence spread to other towns of England.

This culminated in a horrifying massacre on Friday, March 16, 1190, Shabbat ha-Gadol, during which 150 people were killed in the city of York when they took refuge in a tower there. The chronicler William of Newburgh lived nearby and reports, “And there were not lacking among the mob many clergymen, among whom a certain hermit seemed more vehement than the rest . . . frequently repeating with a loud voice that Christ’s enemies ought to be crushed.”14 The instigators seem to have been friends of the bishop of Durham, Richard Malebysse and William Percy. Richard saw that the men were fined and had their lands taken away.15No one seems to have offered to help the Jews rebuild.

By the time this happened, Richard had already left England.

On the way to the eastern Mediterranean as part of the Third Crusade, Richard decided to forge an alliance with Sancho VI, king of Navarre, and became engaged to his daughter, Berengaria.16 This immediately proved a problem with Philip II, king of France and Richard’s stepbrother. Richard had been engaged to Philip’s sister, Alix, for most of his life and Alix had been raised at the English court, effectively keeping her from meeting anyone new.

The two kings met on Sicily and Philip was bought off. Queen Eleanor, who was in her late sixties at the time, brought Berengaria to Richard and they were married in Cyprus May 12, 1191. Richard seems to have spent most of the time before the wedding conquering the island. It later proved to be too much trouble to maintain so he sold it to the Templars.17 The Templars also found Cyprus difficult to hold and so it was passed on to Guy of Lusignan, the widowed husband of Sybilla, queen of Jerusalem.

King Philip and Richard finally arrived at the city of Acre, which had been taken by Saladin four years before. They joined the besiegers and, after a long and horrible winter, the city finally fell.18

Here two things happened that would come back to haunt Richard. The first was something that seemed minor at the time. Leopold,


RiChard the Lionheart takes ACre, from Les Grandes Chroniques de
France. Note that the other lords are not shown. (The British Library)

duke of Austria, had been fighting at Acre longer than the two kings. When the city fell, he had his standards raised along with those of Richard and Philip. Richard, believing that Leopold intended to take a third of the booty, had them torn down. He and Philip had already decided on a fifty-fifty split. Leopold was naturally offended by this and decided to take his soldiers and go home. With him, he took a grudge against Richard.19

The second thing was much more immediately damaging to Richard’s reputation. He had captured nearly three thousand Moslem citizens of Acre who were being held for a ransom of one hundred thousand bezants. At some point he decided that Saladin wasn’t going to pay. Richard wanted to leave Acre but couldn’t until the captives were got rid of. So one morning he took them outside the city and slaughtered them all.20Both the Arab and Christian chroniclers agree that this happened. The Arab chronicler states:

Many reasons were given for this slaughter. One was that they had killed them as a reprisal for their own prisoners killed before them by the Muslims. Another was that the King of England had decided to march on Ascalon and take it, and he did not want to leave behind him in the city a large number [of enemy soldiers]. God knows best.21

Whatever his reasons, this act did not reflect well on Richard, among his own people or the Moslems. Even the king’s chronicler, the poet Ambroise, who thought Richard was practically perfect, seems to stutter over this event. “And Richard, the king of England, who had on earth killed so many Turks, did not wish to be bothered any longer, and so to lesson the pride of the Turks and to dishearten their beliefs and to avenge Christianity . . .” he had them killed.22

It must have sounded pretty thin even to him.

Richard soon realized that, even if he took Jerusalem, he couldn’t hold it. In 1191, he made a three-year truce with Saladin and set out for home.23 While he had some success in securing the coastal cities, the Holy City, the goal of the crusade, remained in Moslem control.

On the way back he was forced by shipwreck to travel through the lands of Leopold of Austria. He and his companions went in disguise, as simple pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. However, they weren’t very good at disguise. The men were far richer than the usual pilgrims and always wanted to get the best accommodations. Richard was recognized and captured by Leopold’s men. He spent the next year and a half in the custody of the Germans, first Leopold and then the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. The pope immediately excommunicated Leopold but this doesn’t seem to have made much difference to anyone.24

Richard’s behavior during this time amazed both friend and foe. He passed his days writing poetry, playing jokes on his guards, and charming one and all.25

Henry VI put Richard up for ransom. This was one of the things that was Not Done among Christian rulers, but if the pope couldn’t stop Henry, no one else could, either.

Richard’s youngest brother, John, had no interest in seeing him come home so it fell to Eleanor to raise the money, one hundred thousand pounds. This was more than the annual income of the king and had to be found in a country that had just collected a huge amount to finance the crusade.

No one should underestimate the power of a mother whose favorite son is being held captive. Eleanor tore off letters to Pope Clement III, reminding him that the king of England was also “the soldier of Christ, the anointed of the Lord, the pilgrim of the cross.”26She took charge of raising the cash. Taxes were assessed at 25 percent on all moveable goods. Churches were told to surrender all their gold and silver. The Cistercian and Gilbertine orders may have thought they would be spared for they didn’t believe in such extravagance, using plain ornaments in their churches. Eleanor told them they could hand over that year’s wool crop instead.

She then took the treasure and the hostages that Henry VI had also demanded and set out for Germany, arriving at Richard’s prison in Speyer on January 17, 1194.27She was seventy-one years old. Richard was released a month later. She then returned to England with him, where he had a ceremonial wearing of the crown, just to remind everyone that he was back and in charge.28Oddly, his wife, Berengaria (remember her?) was not with him. She had stayed on the continent. Eleanor was at his side for Richard’s triumphant return.29

The rest of Richard’s reign was spent in mopping up the mess caused by his baby brother, John, and Philip of France. They had done their best to carve out as much as they could from Richard’s property while he was away. John had even insisted at one point that Richard was dead and that he, John, should be king. Eleanor had put her foot down on that one but, even so, there were rebellions in Richard’s southern territories and he soon left England, never to return.

The story of Richard’s death is also the stuff of legend. The bald facts are that he was shot in the shoulder while besieging the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in the Limousin area of southern France. Twelve days later he died of complications from the wound. It was April 6, 1199. He was forty-one years old.

Almost before he was buried (at the convent of Fontevraud, where his mother, Eleanor, was spending her last years) the rumors were flying. It was said that Richard had been besieging the castle because he had heard there was a treasure there and wanted it for himself. This was made more reprehensible because it was Lent and the church had forbidden war during the Easter season.30

The treasure might have been a group of golden statues left by the Romans or a hoard of coins or just a lot of gold and silver.31 No one could agree. The interesting thing is that none of the stories mention what happened to the “treasure” after Richard died trying to get it.

While Richard did indeed die while fighting during Lent and it may have been divine judgment, the treasure story seems to have come from the same sort of wishful thinking that led to the tales of a Templar treasure. Richard was putting down a rebellion of the viscount of Limoges and Chalus-Chabrol was one of several castles that Richard was besieging.32 There wasn’t anything special about it. Like many kings who led their own armies, Richard died in battle.

He is remembered as a hero, a barbarian, a protector of the poor, a greedy and absent king, and a valiant knight. Like many people, my first introduction to Richard was at the end of Robin Hood when Good King Richard comes home to save his country from Bad Prince John. It’s hard to shake a glorious image like that.

But it is just an image. Robin Hood is a legend and the Richard of the story is legend, too. Despite not being able to retake Jerusalem, the crusade was Richard’s finest hour. He must have been to some extent a charismatic person. He certainly inspired devotion and respect from his followers and even from some of his enemies.

The burning question seems to be whether he was a homosexual. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to decide and actually, I don’t think it’s important. He apparently did have a bastard son in Aquitaine, named Philip.33 His name wasn’t linked to any man in particular, as was the case with Edward II. He and Berengaria spent very little time together and, although they were married eight years, they had no children. But there might have been other reasons for this than his distaste for women. She might have been unable to have children. Richard may have found her unattractive. The fact that he didn’t leave an heir was a serious problem for the stability of his kingdom. But even homosexual kings (and queens, I imagine) have done their duty and produced children.

Does it really have anything to do with what Richard accomplished or failed to accomplish?

The only person it might have mattered to was Berengaria. She is one of the lost children of history. After Richard’s death, she retired to Le Mans in Normandy, where she founded an abbey. She died there in about 1230.34

Richard’s wife had as little part in his life as she does in his legend. Richard was definitely a “man’s man,” a strong warrior, a brilliant strategist, not afraid to get his hands dirty and yet still cultivated, a lover of music and poetry. His exploits on the Third Crusade, his nobility while in captivity, and the dramatic tragedy of his death are all the stuff of high adventure.

As with the Templars, it’s hard not to prefer the fantasy of Richard’s life to the reality.


Richard of Aldgate, Itninerarium Peregrinorum et Gestis Regis Recardi, tr. A. F. Scott, in The Plantagenet Age (New York: Crowell, 1976) p. 4.


John Gillingham, Richard the Lionheart (New York: Times Books, 1978) p. 24.


There are numerous biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Many of them are entertaining but I have found none that are historically satisfying.


Gabrielle M Spiegal, “Maternity and Monstrosity: Reproductive Biology in the Roman de Mélusine .” In Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Georgia University Press, 1996) p. 101.


Giraud de Barri, De Principi Instructione, III 27, p. 301, quoted in Laurence Harf-Lancer, Les Fées au Moyen Age: Morgane et Mélusine, La naissance des fées (Paris, 1984) p. 399, “non esse mirandum, si de genere tali et filii parentis et sese ad invicem fratres infestare non cessent: de diabolo namque eos omnes venisse et ed diobolum . . . ituros esse.” Of course the same thing was supposed to have been said about them by Saint Bernard, in the form of a curse. The history of this legend doesn’t belong here but it’s lots of fun. By the end of the thirteenth century, Eleanor has been demonized as the Fairy Queen.


For the problems this caused, please see chapter 10, Melisande, Queen of Jerusalem, and chapter 14, The Second Crusade.


Gillingham, p. 32.


Ibid., p. 33.


Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) p. 141.


Gillingham, pp. 129-34.


Roger of Howden.


Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 278.


Gillingham, p. 130.


William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs.


A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta 1087-1216 (Oxford, 1955; 2nd ed.) p. 353.


Gillingham, p. 139. It’s not clear if Richard saw her before the marriage or if he let his mother pick her out.


Barber, pp. 119-220.


Please see the reference to the Third Crusades elsewhere in this book.


Gillingham, p. 176.


Ambroise, Estoire de la Guerre Sainte, ed. Marianne Ailes and Malcolm Barber (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2003) p. 89, ll. 5508-36.


Baha’ al-Din, in Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades, tr. from Italian by E. J. Costello (Dorset, 1989) p. 224. I know this is a translation of a translation and am not happy about it, but we take what we can get.


Ambroise, ll. 5524-30. “E Richardz li reis de Engleterre, Qui tanz Turs ocist en la terre, Ne volt plus sa teste debatre, Mais por l ’orgoil des Turs abatre, Et por lor lei desaëngier, Et por cristïenté vengier.”


Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades (Oxford University Press, 1988; 2nd ed.) p. 149.


Gillingham, pp. 223-28.


Ibid., pp. 217-40.


Quoted in Ralph V. Turner, “Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Governments of Her Sons Richard and John,” Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (Palgrave NYC, 2003) p. 85.




Gillingham, p. 242.


Turner, p. 86.


Gillingham, p 11. This was smart of the church since it was traditional for the nobility to get out of its winter stupor by riding out to fight someone, and this delayed them at least until after Easter.


According to Eudes Rigord, Guillaume le Breton, and Roger of Howden, respectively, in Gillingham, pp. 11-13.


Gillingham, pp. 9-23. This is an excellent example of how historians study the sources in order to come up with the most probable facts.


Gillingham, p. 162. The child must have been born before Richard and Philip II broke up.


Anne Echols and Marty Williams, The Annotated Index of Medieval Women (New York: Markus Wiener, 1992) p. 79.

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