Richard the Lionheart

One of the most popular kings in English history

Richard the Lionheart from a 12th-Century Codex
Richard the Lionheart from a 12th-Century Codex. Public Domain

Richard the Lionheart was born on September 8, 1157, in Oxford, England. He was generally considered to be his mother's favorite son, and has been described as spoiled and vain because of it. Richard was also known to let his temper get the better of him. Nevertheless, he could be shrewd in matters of politics and was famously skilled on the battlefield. He was also highly cultured and well-educated, and wrote poems and songs. Through most of his life he enjoyed the support and affection of his people, and for centuries after his death, Richard the Lionheart was one of the most popular kings in English history.

Early Years

Richard the Lionheart was the third son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and although his eldest brother died young, the next in line, Henry, was named heir. Thus, Richard grew up with little realistic expectations of achieving the English throne. In any case, he was more interested in the family's French holdings than he was in England; he spoke little English, and he was made duke of the lands his mother had brought to her marriage when he was quite young: Aquitaine in 1168, and Poitiers three years later.

In 1169, King Henry and King Louis VII of France agreed that Richard should be wed to Louis's daughter Alice. This engagement was to last for some time, although Richard never showed any interest in her; Alice was sent from her home to live with the court in England, while Richard stayed with his holdings in France.

Brought up among the people he was to govern, Richard soon learned how to deal with the aristocracy. But his relationship with his father had some serious problems. In 1173, encouraged by his mother, Richard joined his brothers Henry and Geoffrey in rebelling against the king. The rebellion ultimately failied, Eleanor was imprisoned, and Richard found it necessary to submit to his father and receive a pardon for his transgressions.

From Duke to King Richard

In the early 1180s, Richard faced baronial revolts in his own lands. He displayed considerable military skill and earned a reputation for courage (the quality that led to his nickname of Richard the Lionheart), but he dealt so harshly with the rebels that they called on his brothers to help drive him from Aquitaine. Now his father interceded on his behalf, fearing the fragmentation of the empire he had built (the "Angevin" Empire, after Henry's lands of Anjou). However, no sooner had King Henry gathered his continental armies together than the younger Henry unexpectedly died, and the rebellion crumpled.

As the oldest surviving son, Richard the Lionheart was now heir to England, Normandy, and Anjou. In light of his extensive holdings, his father wanted him to cede Aquitaine to his brother John, who had never had any territory to govern and was known as "Lackland." But Richard had a deep attachment to the duchy. Rather than give it up, he turned to the king of France, Louis's son Philip II, with whom Richard had developed a firm political and personal friendship. In November of 1188 Richard paid homage to Philip for all his holdings in France, then joined forces with him to drive his father into submission. They forced Henry—who had indicated a willingness to name John his heir—to acknowledge Richard as heir to the English throne before he died in July 1189.

The Crusader King

Richard the Lionheart had become King of England; but his heart wasn't in the sceptred isle. Ever since Saladin had captured Jerusalem in 1187, Richard's greatest ambition was to go to the Holy Land and take it back. His father had agreed to engage in the Crusades along with Philip, and a "Saladin Tithe" had been levied in England and France to raise funds for the endeavor. Now Richard took full advantage of the Saladin Tithe and the military apparatus that had been formed; he drew heavily from the royal treasury and sold anything that might bring him funds—offices, castles, lands, towns, lordships. In less than a year after his accession to the throne, Richard the Lionheart raised a substantial fleet and an impressive army to take on Crusade.

Philip and Richard agreed to go to the Holy Land together, but not all was well between them. The French king wanted some of the lands that Henry had held, and that were now in Richard's hands, which he believed rightfully belonged to France. Richard was not about to relinquish any of his holdings; in fact, he shored up the defenses of these lands and prepared for conflict. But neither king really wanted war with each other, especially with a Crusade awaiting their attention.

In fact, the crusading spirit was strong in Europe at this time. Although there were always nobles who wouldn't put up a farthing for the effort, the vast majority of the European nobility were devout believers of the virtue and necessity of Crusade. Most of those who didn't take up arms themselves still supported the Crusading movement any way that they could. And right now, both Richard and Philip were being shown up by the septuagenarian German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who had already pulled together an army and set off for the Holy Land.

In the face of public opinion, continuing their quarrel was not really feasible for either of the kings, but especially not for Philip, since Richard the Lionheart had worked so hard to fund his part in the Crusade. The French king chose to accept the promises that Richard made, probably against his better judgment. Among these pledges was Richard's agreement to marry Philip's sister Alice, who still languished in England, even though it appeared he had been negotiating for the hand of Berengaria of Navarre.

Alliance with the King of Sicily

In July of 1190 the Crusaders set off. They stopped at Messina, Sicily, in part because it served as an excellent point of departure from Europe to the Holy Land, but also because Richard had business with King Tancred. The new monarch had refused to hand over the bequest the late king had left to Richard's father, and was witholding the dower owed to his predecessor's widow and keeping her in close confinement. This was of special concern to Richard the Lionheart, because the widow was his favorite sister, Joan. To complicate matters, the Crusaders were clashing with the citizens of Messina.

Richard resolved these problems in a matter of days. He demanded (and got) Joan's release, but when her dower was not forthcoming he began taking control of strategic fortifications. When the unrest between the Crusaders and the townfolk flared into a riot, he personally quelled it with his own troops. Before Tancred knew it, Richard had taken hostages to secure the peace and begun constructing a wooden castle overlooking the city. Tancred was forced to make concessions to Richard the Lionheart or risk losing his throne.

The agreement between Richard the Lionheart and Tancred ultimately benefited the king of Sicily, for it included an alliance against Tancred's rival, the new German emperor, Henry VI. Philip, on the other hand, was unwilling to jeopardize his friendship with Henry and was irritated at Richard's virtual takeover of the island. He was mollified somewhat when Richard agreed to share the monies Tancred paid, but he soon had cause for further irritation. Richard's mother Eleanor arrived in Sicily with her son's bride, and it was not Philip's sister. Alice had been passed over in favor of Berengaria of Navarre, and Philip wasn't in either a financial or military position to address the insult. His relationship with Richard the Lionheart further deteriorated, and they would never recover their original affability.

Richard couldn't marry Berengaria quite yet, because it was Lent; but now that she'd arrived in Sicily he was ready to leave the island where he had tarried for several months. In April of 1191 he set sail for the Holy Land with his sister and fiancé in a massive fleet of over 200 vessels.

Invasion of Cyprus and Marriage

Three days out of Messina, Richard the Lionheart and his fleet ran into a terrible storm. When it was over, about 25 ships were missing, including the one carrying Berengaria and Joan. In fact the missing ships had been blown further on, and three of them (though not the one Richard's family were on) had been driven aground in Cyprus. Some of the crews and passengers had drowned; the ships had been plundered and the survivors were imprisoned. All of this had occurred under the governance of Isaac Ducas Comnenus, the Greek "tyrant" of Cyprus, who had at one point entered into an agreement with Saladin to protect the government he'd set up in opposition to the ruling Angelus family of Constantinople.

After having rendezvoused with Berengaria and secured her and Joan's safety, Richard demanded restoration of the plundered goods and the release of those prisoners who hadn't already escaped. Isaac refused, rudely it was said, apparently confident in Richard's disadvantage. To Isaac's chagrin, Richard the Lionheart successfully invaded the island, then attacked against the odds, and won. The Cypriots surrendered, Isaac submitted, and Richard took possession of Cyprus for England. This was of great strategic value, since Cyprus would prove to be an important part of the supply line of goods and troops from Europe to the Holy Land.

Before Richard the Lionheart left Cyprus, he married Berengaria of Navarre on May 12, 1191.

A Truce in the Holy Land

Richard's first success in the Holy Land, after having sunk an enormous supply ship encountered on the way, was the capture of Acre. The city had been under siege by Crusaders for two years, and the work Philip had done upon his arrival to mine and sap the walls contributed to its fall. However, Richard not only brought an overwhelming force, he spent considerable time examining the situation and planning his attack before he even got there. It was almost inevitable that Acre should fall to Richard the Lionheart, and indeed, the city surrendered mere weeks after the king arrived. Shortly afterward, Philip returned to France. His departure was not without rancor, and Richard was probably glad to see him go.

Although Richard the Lionheart scored a surprising and masterful victory at Arsuf, he was unable to press his advantage. Saladin had decided to destroy Ascalon, a logical fortification for Richard to capture. Taking and rebuilding Ascalon in order to more securely establish a supply line made good strategic sense, but few of his followers were interested in anything but moving on to Jerusalem. And fewer still were willing to stay on once, theroretically, Jerusalem was captured.

Matters were complicated by quarrels among the various contingents and Richard's own high-handed style of diplomacy. After considerable political wrangling, Richard came to the unavoidable conclusion that the conquest of Jerusalem would be far too difficult with the lack of military strategy he'd encountered from his allies; furthermore, it would be virtually impossible to keep the Holy City should by some miracle he manage to take it. He negotiated a truce with Saladin that allowed the Crusaders to keep Acre and a strip of coast that gave Christian pilgrims access to sites of sacred significance, then headed back to Europe.

Captive in Vienna

The tension had grown so bad between the kings of England and France that Richard chose to go home by way of the Adriatic Sea in order to avoid Philip's territory. Once again the weather played a part: a storm swept Richard's ship ashore near Venice. Although he disguised himself to avoid the notice of Duke Leopold of Austria, with whom he had clashed after his victory at Acre, he was discovered in Vienna and imprisoned in the Duke's castle at Dürnstein, on the Danube. Leopold handed Richard the Lionheart over to the German emperor, Henry VI, who was no more fond of him than Leopold, thanks to Richard's actions in Sicily. Henry kept Richard at various imperial castles as events unfolded and he gauged his next step.

Legend has it that a minstrel called Blondel went from castle to castle in Germany seeking Richard, singing a song he had composed with the king. When Richard heard the song from within his prison walls, he sang a verse known only to himself and Blondel, and the minstrel knew he had found the Lionheart. However, the story is just a story. Henry had no reason to hide Richard's whereabouts; in fact, it suited his purposes to let everyone know that he had captured one of the most powerful men in Christendom. The story cannot be traced back any earlier than the 13th century, and Blondel probably never even existed, although it made for good press for minstrels of the day.

Henry threatened to turn Richard the Lionheart over to Philip unless he paid 150,000 marks and surrendered his kingdom, which he would receive back from the emperor as a fief. Richard agreed, and one of the most remarkable fund-raising efforts began. John was not eager to help his brother come home, but Eleanor did everything in her power to see her favorite son return safely. The people of England were heavily taxed, Churches were forced to give up valuables, monasteries were made to turn over a season's wool harvest. In less than a year nearly all of the exhorbitant ransom had been raised. Richard was released in February, 1194, and hurried back to England, where he was crowned again to demonstrate that he was still in charge of an independent kingdom.

The Death of Richard the Lionheart

Almost immediately after his coronation, Richard the Lionheart left England for what would be the last time. He headed directly to France to engage in warfare with Philip, who had captured some of Richard's lands. These skirmishes, which were occasionally interrupted by truces, lasted for the next five years.

By March of 1199, Richard was involved in a siege of the castle at Chalus-Chabrol, which belonged to the Viscount of Limoges. There was some rumor of a treasure having been found on his lands, and Richard was reputed to have demanded the treasure be turned over to him; when it was not, he supposedly attacked. However, this is little more than a rumor; it was enough that the viscount had allied with Philip for Richard to move against him.

On the evening of March 26, Richard was shot in the arm by a crossbow bolt while observing the progress of the siege. Although the bolt was removed and the wound was treated, infection set in, and Richard fell ill. He kept to his tent and limited visitors to keep the news from getting out, but he knew what was happening. Richard the Lionheart died on April 6, 1199.

Richard was buried according to his instructions. Crowned and clothed in royal regalia, his body was entombed at Fontevraud, at the feet of his father; his heart was buried at Rouen, with his brother Henry; and his brain and entrails went to an abbey at Charroux, on the border of Poitous and Limousin. Even before he was laid to rest, rumors and legends sprang up that would follow Richard the Lionheart into history.

Understanding the Real Richard

Over the centuries, the view of Richard the Lionheart held by historians has undergone some notable changes. Once considered one of England's greatest kings by virtue of his deeds in the Holy Land and his chivalrous reputation, in recent years Richard has been criticized for his absence from his kingdom and his incessant engagement in warfare. This change is more a reflection of modern sensibilities than it is of any new evidence uncovered about the man.

Richard spent little time in England, it is true; but his English subjects admired his efforts in the east and his warrior ethic. He didn't speak much, if any, English; but then, neither had any monarch of England since the Norman Conquest. It's also important to remember that Richard was more than the king of England; he had lands in France and political interests elsewhere in Europe. His actions reflected these diverse interests, and, though he didn't always succeed, he usually attempted to do what was best for all his concerns, not just England. He did what he could to leave the country in good hands, and while things sometimes went awry, for the most part, England flourished during his reign.

There remain some things we don't know about Richard the Lionheart, beginning with what he really looked like. The popular description of him as elegantly built, with long, supple, straight limbs and hair a color between red and gold, was first written nearly twenty years after Richard's death, when the late king had already been lionized. The only contemporary description that exists indicates that he was taller than average. Because he displayed such prowess with the sword, he could have been muscular, but by the time of his death he may have put on weight, since the removal of the crossbow bolt was reportedly complicated by fat.

Then there's the question of Richard's sexuality. This complex issue boils down to one salient point: there is no irrefutable proof to support or contradict the assertion that Richard was a homosexual. Each piece of evidence can be, and has been, interpreted in more than one way, so every scholar can feel free to draw whatever conclusion suits him. Whichever Richard's preference was, it apparently had no bearing on his ability as a military leader or a king.

There are some things we do know about Richard. He was very fond of music, though he never played an instrument himself, and he wrote songs as well as poems. He reportedly displayed a quick wit and a playful sense of humor. He saw the value of tournaments as preparation for war, and although he rarely participated himself, he designated five sites in England as official tournament locations, and appointed a "director of tournaments" and a collector of fees. This was in opposition to numerous decrees of the Church; but Richard was a devout Christian, and diligently attended mass, evidently enjoying it.

Richard made many enemies, especially through his actions in the Holy Land, where he insulted and quarreled with his allies even more than his foes. Yet he apparently had a great deal of personal charisma, and could inspire intense loyalty. Though renowned for his chivalry, as a man of his times he did not extend that chivalry to the lower classes; but he was at ease with his servants and followers. Although he was talented at acquiring funds and valuables, in keeping with the tenets of chivalry he was also notably generous. He could be hot-tempered, arrogant, self-centered and impatient, but there are many stories of his kindness, insight and goodheartedness.

In the final analysis, Richard's reputation as an extraordinary general endures, and his stature as an international figure stands tall. While he cannot measure up to the heroic character early admirers depicted him as, few people could. Once we view Richard as a real person, with real foibles and quirks, real strengths and weaknesses, he may be less admirable, but he is more complex, more human, and much more interesting.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "Richard the Lionheart." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Richard the Lionheart. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Richard the Lionheart." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).