Richard the Lionheart: A most un-English King

Written by Chris Riley.

The only king with a statue outside of the Houses of Parliament, Richard I of England has filled the imagination of generations of Englishmen but, for man who didn't speak English and, only spent a combined 6 months of his reign in England, why is he so highly regarded?

19th-century portrait of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel SOURCE:

A turbulent start

Born in Oxford in 1157, Richard was the third son of Henry II of England. Henry ruled not just England but Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and through his wife Eleanor, the Duchy of Aquitaine. Henry had emerged as king of England after the disastrous years of The Anarchy, in which his mother, the Empress Matilda was pitted against her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Henry was an active king, splitting his time between his giant realm, rarely staying in one place for too long but, his later years were plagued with constant conflict between himself and his spoilt children.

Richard's older brother Henry, who had been crowned during the life of his father, was given absolutely no power or land, quickly becoming enraged and along with Richard and their other brother Geoffrey, rebelled multiple times against their aged father in pursuit of greater wealth and lands. Richard was the supposed favourite of their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and was being groomed to become the Duke of Aquitaine, as his brothers Henry and Geoffrey, would inherit England and Brittany respectively but, Henry II was reluctant to carve up his now vast empire and kept his succession cards close to his chest.

A map showing the extent of the 'Angevin Empire' SOURCE: Reddit Via u/rojo_red12

By the late 1180's, Henry II was dying. Embittered and resentful, Henry had spent the last decade of his life fighting both his sons and, his wife, with both Henry and Geoffrey dying in the process. Richard, now heir to the entire Angevin Empire (never described as such at the time, a 19th century description of the lands owned by Henry II) was again, in rebellion against his father and this time with the help of the French King Philip II 'Augustus'; a king that would manipulate both Richard and his bother John, eventually overseeing the downfall of the Angevins.


A one track mind

Henry II died on 6th July 1189, leaving Richard as sole heir to his entire empire, stretching from the Scottish Borders to the Pyrenees, but Richard had his eyes fixed further east. During the later half of the 12th century, the Crusader states in the Holy Land that had been established as part of the 1st Crusade (1096-1099) had been all but destroyed by the Sultan of Egypt, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub better know as Saladin, and Richard wanted nothing more than to take back these lands, especially the most holy of cities, Jerusalem that had fallen to Saladin in 1187.

As soon as he was crowned king at Westminster Abbey, Richard set about gathering both a large army and a large amount of money to pay for it- using the famous Saladin tithe and the profits of justice to gather vast amounts from his English subjects. The new king cared little for England, seeing it as a virtually infinite source of income, rather than his greatest prize (a title reserved for Aquitaine). Richard loved his ancestral home of Aquitaine, this is where he grew up and learned about statecraft and warfare, honing his skills to become a more than effective military leader. The years spent fighting both his father and, rebellious lords in and around Aquitaine made the 32 year old king a most feared and respected military man, teamed with his supposed insatiable piety, Richard embodied all that a medieval king should have been.


A family affair

By 1190, Richard was financially and militarily ready for the what would be called the 3rd Crusade, joining up with his old frenemy Philip II of France, the two set off for the holy land. Choosing to sail around the coast of Portugal and into the Mediterranean basin, rather than the traditional over land route, allowed Richard to take care of some family business on the way. Richard's sister, Joan, the widow of William II of Sicily, had been dethroned by William's cousin, Tancred. He held Joan as a prisoner, took her inheritance and was ruling in her place. Richard being the ever loving brother, had the capital of Messina torched. Tancred eventually agreed to all of Richard's terms, including Joan's freedom, inheritance and that their cousin Arthur was now heir to the Sicilian throne.

Feeling pretty content with his dealings in Sicily, Richard decided to stay a while and enjoy the Mediterranean sun, managing to rub Philip up the wrong way. With thousands of French and English (anti-capetian Anglo-French would be more accurate) soldiers cooped up on the tiny island fighting and falling out amongst themselves, Philip and Richard had an almighty falling out leading to Richard refusing to marry Philip' sister Alys, his betrothed of several years, driving an ever growing wedge between the two crusading kings. Choosing not to marry Alys had been on Richard's mind for some time now, choosing instead to marry Berengaria of Navarre on 12 May 1191 in Cyprus.


Crusader King

Eventually, Richard left Sicily and by June of 1191, was at the important port city of Acre where Guy of Lusignan (king of Jerusalem) had been laying siege since 1189. Wedged between the defenders inside and a relief force outside, Guy was well and truly trapped but, Richard was able to bolster the Crusader forces to well over 25,000 men leading to the eventual taking of the city. The siege of Acre was to be Richards first victory of the Crusade but, he managed to upset yet another European monarch in the process. Richard had removed the flag of the Austrian duke, Leopold V (that had been raised above the city), and had replaced it with his own Standard. His reasons for this are simple. In his eyes, the city fell because of him and thus the victory was his and his alone. This would, understandably rub the Emperor up the wrong way and would come back to haunt Richard in a big way.

A contemporary painting of the Siege of Acre (1189-1191) SOURCE: Biblotheque Municipale de Lyon

After the siege was completed, Richard's main rival Philip returned to France. Whether this is because of tensions back home or, as the rumours go, that Philip believed he had fulfilled his oath, and was free to return to the relative safety of France, we will never know but, this did allow Richard to become the sole commander of the Crusader forces now on the hunt for Saladin.

By August 1191 Richard was growing restless, and after many failed attempts to get Saladin to agree to a winter truce, even choosing to massacre Muslim prisoners to force Saladin's hand, Richard decided enough was enough. Marching out of Acre, down the Palestinian coast towards Ascalon and Jaffa, Richard and his Templar allies soon met 20,000 Muslim soldiers led by Saladin himself just outside the town of Arsuf. Richard showed his military might, having his 15,000 strong army march in formation and constantly battle ready, using the sea as a defensive shield but, after hit and run attacks all along the left flank of the army, the men could take no more. When the left hand flank, without orders, charged at the circling Saracen cavalry, Richard decided not to call it back instead, ordering the rest of his army to charge at Saladin’s army. The Battle of Arsuf was over quickly and, was a complete route for the Crusader forces, handing Richard perhaps his greatest victory.

Richard certainly seemed to earn his nickname of ‘Lionheart’ at the battle, charging in he fought with ‘valour and bravery’ killing ‘many Muslims’ acting as all good medieval kings should. After the fighting was over the overall death count for the Muslim forces was said to be around 7,000 with the Crusaders only loosing 700 dead. A brilliant victory for Richard and the Crusaders forced Saladin to hobble back to Jerusalem whilst the Crusaders continued their march onto Jaffa.


The Ultimate Prize

After Arsuf, the sheer magnitude of the crusade reared its ugly head, Richard's war was costing him men and money he did not have, spending the winter months of 1191-2 camped just 12 miles from Jerusalem, looking longingly at perhaps the greatest prize of them all, knowing he didn't have the men or the material to take the city. Several attempts were made to get Saladin to give the city up but, Saladin had the 'home field advantage' and was able to call upon his allies all across the region, using scorched earth to ruin the Crusader's chances of winning a drawn out war.

As 1192 rolled around, Richard's Crusader dreams were crushed, unable to take Jerusalem and with news that his brother John was causing problems back home by having Richard's very able minsters William de Longchamp and Hugh de Puiset removed, Richard decided to leave for Europe.


A Holy Roman Prisoner

With tensions growing between England and France, due to John's disastrous alliance with Philip, Richard had to change his plans for the return trip to Normandy. Choosing to travel over land to avoid any French navy, Richard ended up getting caught by the Duke of Austria, Leopold V, who Richard had upset during the siege of Acre. Leopold handed Richard over to his powerful friend the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI who held him prisoner in what is now modern day Germany, Richard's ransom was set at 150,000 marks, equivalent to over two years revenue for England but, somehow his mother, Eleanor was able to gather the money within less than a year- securing her son's release.

Henry VI (left) and his famous father Frederick Barbarossa (middle) and his brother Frederick (right), Historia Welforum, Weingarten Abbey, c. 1180 SOURCE: Public Domain


A Fighter to the End

Richard returned to England in February of 1194 but, didn't stay long as he was at war again , this time it was with Philip II of France, leaving the country in the capable hands of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter. Spending the next four years fighting Philip for Normandy and other areas that both kings claimed to rule.

One thing that came out of this conflict is the impressive castle built by Richard on his Norman frontier with France, called Château Gaillard. A masterpiece of 12th century engineering, the castle was built to be virtually impenetrable with its high, thick walls and layered defence, fully putting off Philip from attacking Normandy. Things were on the up and up for Richard and by early 1199 he was laying siege to Limoges, a city in Aquitaine after a local peasant found a large amount of gold and refused to hand it over to the King. During the siege, Richard was struck in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt, fired from a lone peasant on the castles battlements using a frying pan as a shield. The Kings armour did little to help him and the wound soon turned gangrenous. It is rumoured that when Richard was on his death bed he sparred the peasant from the hangman but on 6th April 1199, King Richard the Lionheart expired and the Killer of the king was definitely not spared. Conflicting stories have Richard’s men butchering him in different ways, some have him being skinned alive whereas others have him merely being hacked to bits.

A modern day photograph of the surviving inner Bailey of Château Gaillard SOURCE: Sylvain Verlaine CC BY-SA 3.0

Richard left no heirs, his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre seemed to be more of a formal arrangement and they spent very little time together and there were several rumours that the king was a homosexual. The death of Richard left John to inherit the crown and all the dukedoms and counties that came with it.

Richard’s somewhat underwhelming death did no justice to the man and king that he was, but has the Lionheart’s reputation outgrown his achievements? When it comes to Medieval monarchs, Richard I of England is usually one of the first mentioned but recently, he has taken somewhat of a battering from historians. Not judging him by the standards of his day leaves arguments open to counter arguments. Richard was a true medieval king, putting conquest and the Church at the centre of everything he did. He was a fierce warrior but a lack lustre administrator something that would come to symbolise later monarchs.

Even though he was a French speaking, warmongering king who used his vast lands to fund his constant wars with little regard for his people, Richard is still held in the highest esteems of English nationals and fans of the fairytale side of English and British history, with the tales of the crusades and his chivalrous victories at Acre and Arsuf completely white washing his rather terrible reign filled with cruelty and bouts of anger and rage. He left his empire in capable hands, and responded to the Crusade as many nobles and kings did but he had no interest in anything that wasn’t Aquitaine and this showed in his famous ‘ill sell London for a few quid’ quote.

Overall, Richard was exactly what it said on the tin, a warrior king with the heart of a lion, and England would soon begin to miss him.


About the author:

My name is Chris, I’m 27, live in Sheffield England and I have been a passionate history fan as long as I can remember. I would describe my self as a self taught, amateur historian keen to both learn and teach, with a specific interest in medieval England and the World Wars. Outside of history, I’m a big fan of American football, the NBA and video games, spending far more time than I care to admit on my Playstation. I’m always keen to have historical debates and share ideas on topics to cover so , please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

77 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All