King Richard I, known as Richard the Lionheart and famed for his exploits in the Third Crusade, ruled over England from 1189 to 1199. He was born in Oxford on the 8th September 1157 to his parents Henry II and Elizabeth of Aquitaine. A king of considerable political and military ability, Richard I played a major role in history, despite his short reign. Only 6 months of his reign were actually spent in England, largely due to his involvement in the Third Crusade, prompted by the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187. After travelling via Cyprus to the Holy Land, King Richard engaged in numerous battles with Jerusalem in his sights, but ultimately it eluded him. After one unabridged year at deadlock with Saladin of Egypt, a truce was agreed, which allowed King Richard to start his journey home.
It was this frightful journey across rough seas in stormy conditions that saw King Richard take refuge ashore near Venice. This fateful part in his journey saw him succumb to his highly illegal and immoral capture by Duke Leopold of Austria. King Richard I was then handed over to the German Emperor Henry VI who held him to ransom for the huge sum of 150,000 German Marks; the equivalent of approximately two Billion Pounds Sterling in today’s money. The popularity of the King with the people of England saw the sum raised through various taxes, as well as confiscation of the Church’s gold and silver treasures. The amount was so vast it was an astonishing achievement that it had been raised.
In February 1194 King Richard was freed, and allowed to return once again to England, where he was crowned for a second time. Richard’s return was short lived, travelling to Normandy within a month, to engage in sporadic warfare against Phillip II. It was this decision that signified the end for Richard, as he was fatally wounded by a crossbow during a battle at the Castle of Châlus in central France. Richard was succeeded by his devious younger brother John, who had been scheming against Richard for the entirety of his absence.
The ransom money for Richard the Lionheart was used by Duke Leopold V to finance the founding in 1194 of the new city of Wiener Neustadt, which played a significant role in various periods of subsequent Austrian history.
Richard the Lionheart occupies a unique place in English history, and has been idolised by generations of English schoolchildren as a great chivalric hero. But how much do we really know about one of England’s most famous Kings? We asked renowned historian Frank McLynn, to look at the way Richard the Lionheart has been portrayed over the years and explain why – despite regular attempts over the years to besmirch his reputation – he remains such an iconic and admired figure.
Frank McLynn is the author of the classic biography, Lionheart & Lackland King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest. In this article which was specially specially commissioned for the launch of Lionheart Premium Ale, he gives us a personal view of Richard – the man and the monarch.
Richard, I, Lionheart (1157-99), so-called for his martial prowess, was by far the greatest warrior of all English monarchs, one of the great British captains of all time, worthy to rank with Marlborough and Wellington, and one of the finest military minds in the medieval world.
Perhaps the most striking thing about him was his versatility, as he was skilled in tactics, strategy and grand strategy, as well as single combat. Unlike all other medieval captains, except for Tamerlane, he liked to lead his men from the front, and it was this very daring recklessness that led him to an early death after being struck by a bolt from a crossbow sniper. His leadership on the Third Crusade was masterly at every level. He defeated the hitherto invincible Saladin at the battle of Arsuf, he displayed a brilliant knowledge of the indirect effects of sea power by his conquests of Sicily and Cyprus, and he anticipated the genius of an Ernest Shackleton by knowing when to cut his losses. He turned back when within sight of Jerusalem, his goal, simply because he realised there were too few Christian Europeans to colonise it and hold it against Saracen counterattacks. Above all, he revealed himself as a master of siege craft –the most elusive military art in the medieval world. He powered his way to success against the ‘impregnable’ fortresses of Acre, Nottingham and Loches, and his expertise in this field was such that Genghis Khan and the Mongols, initially backward at conducting sieges, learned from him and became masters in their turn. Moreover, on his return to Europe from the Crusade, he gave signs of becoming even greater as a soldier in the interminable wars against Philip of France to protect the Angevin possession of Normandy. By the time of his death he had reduced Philip to a virtual cipher and bottled up all the armies of France –an achievement soon to be undone by his incompetent brother John.
But Richard was no brutal war criminal, as his critics would have us believe. A cultivated, witty and intelligent man, he consorted with troubadours and was an accomplished song-writer.
He could go head to head in theological debate with bishops and divines. His attitude towards the Church contrasts strikingly with that of his father Henry II. Where Henry could resolve his conflicts with Archbishop Thomas Beckett only by murder, Richard proved his conciliatory statesmanship when resolving Church-state conflicts with the Beckett of his reign, Bishop (later Saint) Hugh of Lincoln. Truly it was no exaggeration when Ibn-al-Athir, the great Arab historian told the world of the admiration in which Richard was held by his Muslim enemies. Ibn-al Athir, who detested Genghis Khan and the Mongols for their attitude to Islam, by contrast spoke admiringly of the mutual respect between Richard and the Saracens and called him the most remarkable man of his age.
A wartime leader or victim of bad press?
Nevertheless, Richard has had bad press since his own era, at once, according to his detractors, a bad king and, as Sellars and Yeatman would have it, a ‘bad thing’. Many have echoed Roger of Howden’s verdict: “bad to all, worse to his friends and worst of all to himself.” Yet it seems to me that much of his poor reputation rests on anachronistic misunderstandings or is the product of humbug. ‘Crusader’ may be the ‘boo word’ par excellence in Islamic vocabulary (the equivalent perhaps of ‘elitist’ sexist’ and ‘racist’ in Western politically correct discourse) but considered in the light of medieval Christian modes of thought, to go on crusade to the Holy Land was to fulfil a sacred duty. As has been well said, modern writers no more understand the medieval notion of crusade than medieval chroniclers would understand the idea of landing a man on the Moon. But, it may be alleged, even if we absolve him from the charge of being a murderous aggressor against Islam, was he not anyway simply a militaristic blockhead, who gloried in war and lived only for conquest and martial glory?
Here is where humbug enters the picture. Why is that the three greatest US presidents are habitually identified as Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Simply because they were wartime leaders, who achieved their great fame through presiding over a nation at war. Even in the case of the generally dismal roster of twentieth-century British prime ministers, scholars usually single out Churchill and Lloyd George for honorific mention: again, wartime leaders. Why, in such a context, England’s greatest warrior king must be apologised for is a nice question.
King Richards Return, Imprisonment and Ransom
Very well, say the critics, let us leave on one side Richard’s military talents and the glory that war sheds on wartime leaders, however much this may dismay pacifists and liberals. The core issue surely is that Richard was a disastrous King of England. Here is a recent summing-up in a widely used textbook: “He used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.” Some say that Henry II had left as much as 900,000 marks (£600,000) in the state treasury, and that Richard ran through it all in a trice. It is true that taxation in England was at record levels in Richard’s reign (1189-1199). But why was this? There were two reasons. One was the so-called ‘Saladin Tithe’, a national effort to raise revenue for the crusades. But we must remember that the Saladin Tithe was introduced by Richard’s father Henry II in 1187, after Saladin’s defeat of the Christian kingdoms of Palestine at Hattin, when the Pope pronounced the holy places of Jerusalem in danger and called for a European crusade. The other reason for the high taxation was that, while he was returning from the Third Crusade, Richard was kidnapped by agents of Leopold of Austria and handed over to the Machiavellian German emperor Henry VI, who held the English king for ransom. We have to remember that kidnapping and ransoming a fellow monarch was against all the canons of international law, rudimentary as this was at the time, and that any ruler impeding the actions of a crusading head of state was automatically excommunicate; the Pope had made this an express condition of the Third Crusade, to allay fears of treachery by fellow-rulers. The sum demanded for Richard’s ransom was 100,000 marks or £66,000 sterling –an enormous sum for those times and the equivalent of about two billion pounds in today’s money. Not surprisingly, England had to be virtually ransacked to raise such a vast amount of cash. So the accusation that Richard used England as a cash-cow to finance hare brained schemes overseas evaporates. The huge sums that were raised were a direct consequence of the Third Crusade, and that in turn can be condemned only if we use anachronistic hindsight.
Heritage, and a Family Feud
The other count in the charge-sheet against Richard as ‘bad king’ is that he spent only six months of his ten-year reign in England and that he notoriously declared that he cared ‘not an egg’ for England. It is true that he was scarcely seen in the kingdom: he came to it on 13 August 1189, left it four months later to go on crusade and then revisited it for just two months on his release from captivity in 1194.But here we have to remember that Richard, like his father, was not just king of England but the ruler of an Angevin ‘empire’ that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Richard was raised and ‘formed’ in an Aquitaine culture, his native language was French, he was deeply influenced by the troubadour culture of southern France, and he shared the love of his mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) for the deep south. To Richard the title of duke of Aquitaine was more important than that of king of England. With hindsight we can blame Richard for neglecting the affairs of England for those of France, but how was Richard supposed to know that it was England, rather than Aquitaine or Normandy, that had the glittering future? By looking into a crystal ball? By his own lights, side-lining England made sense. Besides, Richard was a good delegator and left England in good hands during his absence. The only troubles in England while he was away were those deliberately fomented by his treacherous brother John. Mention of John brings us to another point. John was, in terms of ‘presentism’ a true king of England, but that was mainly because he had little choice: by his own incompetence he lost Normandy to king Philip of France. And what was the result of John’s being almost permanently in England? A stupid quarrel with Pope Innocent III which led to England’s being placed under papal interdict and deprived of the consolations of religion; tensions with the barons which ultimately erupted into civil war in 1215; and a French invasion of England which led to three years of military chaos. There must have been many who wished that John had been an absent king of England, a la Richard. Finally, it is worth mentioning that during Richard’s reign, because of his tact and diplomacy, there was no trouble with the Celtic fringes. Both Henry II and John faced major crises in Wales, Scotland and Ireland and had to wage military campaigns there, in contrast to the tranquil situation under Richard.
Richard can be criticised for many things and was by no means perfect, but history has been unfair to him. Far more plaudits have been showered by Little Englanders on those notable Tudor tyrants, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry, the ‘Bluff King Hal’ of legend, managed to kill 150,000 of his three million subjects, while Elizabeth brought the country close to disaster by her aggressive policy towards Philip of Spain. Both showed none of Richard’s political savvy, and significantly, both believed that the headman’s axe was the solution to all political problems. Yet, ironically, it is Richard the Lionheart, who fought only for the Angevin empire or for Christendom –in other words for the aims a good and dutiful ruler of the late twelfth century had to fight for –who comes down through history as the militarist and the man who believed only in force. When all allowances have been made, and when all anachronism and humbug has been consigned to the refuse bin, it turns out that Richard fully deserves his triumphalist statue in Westminster.
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