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Richard I

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Richard I

  Thomas Asbridge

  * * *


  The Crusader King


  Genealogical Table


  1. In Search of the Lionheart

  2. The Absent King

  3. The Crusader King

  4. The Warrior King

  5. The Legendary King



  Further Reading

  Picture Credits

  Follow Penguin

  Penguin Monarchs


  Athelstan Tom Holland

  Aethelred the Unready Richard Abels

  Cnut Ryan Lavelle


  William I Marc Morris

  William II John Gillingham

  Henry I Edmund King

  Stephen Carl Watkins

  Henry II Richard Barber

  Richard I Thomas Asbridge

  John Nicholas Vincent


  Henry III Stephen Church

  Edward I Andy King

  Edward II Christopher Given-Wilson

  Edward III Jonathan Sumption

  Richard II Laura Ashe


  Henry IV Catherine Nall

  Henry V Anne Curry

  Henry VI James Ross

  Edward IV A. J. Pollard

  Edward V Thomas Penn

  Richard III Rosemary Horrox


  Henry VII Sean Cunningham

  Henry VIII John Guy

  Edward VI Stephen Alford

  Mary I John Edwards

  Elizabeth I Helen Castor


  James I Thomas Cogswell

  Charles I Mark Kishlansky

  [Cromwell David Horspool]

  Charles II Clare Jackson

  James II David Womersley

  William III & Mary II Jonathan Keates

  Anne Richard Hewlings


  George I Tim Blanning

  George II Norman Davies

  George III Amanda Foreman

  George IV Stella Tillyard

  William IV Roger Knight

  Victoria Jane Ridley


  Edward VII Richard Davenport-Hines

  George V David Cannadine

  Edward VIII Piers Brendon

  George VI Philip Ziegler

  Elizabeth II Douglas Hurd

  For my mother Gerd Asbridge


  In Search of the Lionheart

  Just before dawn on 5 August 1192, Richard I of England lay sleeping in his resplendent royal tent on the coast of the Holy Land, two thousand miles from home. Unbeknownst to the king, a large party of Muslim warriors were at that moment stealing their way through the half-light, planning to launch a surprise attack and take him prisoner. They might well have succeeded had it not been for a lone Christian sentry, who spotted the first rays of sunlight glinting from their helmets as they approached and immediately raised the alarm. With the camp thrown into frenzied confusion, Richard leapt from his bed, hurriedly pulled on a mail shirt and rushed out to give battle.

  The odds that day were not in the king’s favour. Only ten of his knights actually had horses, leaving the remaining seventy or so to fight on foot alongside a small force of crossbowmen and assorted infantry – all against an enemy numbering in the thousands, most of whom were mounted. A different man might have contemplated flight, but Richard chose to make a desperate and daring stand, fighting from first light until dusk. Contemporary chroniclers marvelled at his bravery and prowess: ‘never was such a battle seen’ remarked one, while another likened the king to a ‘ferocious lion’ felling all in his path. The king’s expertise as a military commander was severely tested, but he managed to impose order, throwing up a defensive shield and spear wall, behind which his crossbowmen could operate to good effect, strafing the enemy.

  At one point, as the melee reached fever pitch, Richard was said to have ‘charged into the accursed people, so that he was swallowed up by them and none of his men could see him’. Brandishing his ‘sword with rapid strokes’, the king began ‘cutting [the enemy] in two as he encountered them’, mowing them down ‘as if he were harvesting them with a sickle’ – carrying himself all the while ‘with indescribable vigour and superhuman courage’. At last he emerged from the fray, ‘his body completely covered with arrows, which stuck out [from his armour] like the spines of a hedgehog’, having shattered the enemy’s morale. By day’s end, the Muslim army had been driven from the field, leaving behind more than 700 troops and 1,500 horses ‘lying scattered everywhere through the fields’.1

  In many respects, this remarkable military encounter – played out near the port of Jaffa during the closing stages of a hard-fought war for control of the Holy Land – reveals Richard I in all his glory. Here is the English sovereign as a crusader, battling on the fringes of the known world; the warrior-king, possessed of unrivalled martial genius, able to achieve victory no matter the enemy faced. Here too is Richard the knight, fearless and indomitable: skilful (and perhaps foolhardy) enough to fight as a champion in his own right – endowed with the heart of a lion. And here, perhaps most importantly of all, is Richard caught somewhere between fact and fiction – a figure living half in the realm of history, yet also conjured from the mists of myth and legend.

  Looking back from the distance of more than eight centuries, we might imagine the stirring tale of King Richard’s deeds outside Jaffa to be pure invention – a grandiose story, manufactured by fawning court historians. But independent Arabic sources confirm the broad details of the confrontation, with one Muslim contemporary noting that the Christians fought like snarling ‘dogs of war … willing to battle to the death’, and another admitting that Richard rode out alone, ahead of his troops, to seek battle.2 The earliest Western European accounts of the fighting were written by chroniclers who had travelled to the Near East with the crusading army. These were men with a detailed knowledge of events, but also a desire to promote the achievements of their king and a willingness to embroider their narratives. Their testimony, in common with much of the contemporary evidence for Richard I’s life, presents a version of events grounded in reality, yet sometimes interwoven with heightened elements of hyperbole and even fantasy. One challenge, therefore, of charting the course of Richard’s career is teasing apart the myth and the man.

  This task is rendered no easier by the fact that King Richard I did indeed enjoy an extraordinary, if short, reign. His was a flame that burned briefly, but brightly. It would seem that many of his contemporaries were moved to describe him as a hero for the ages – a rival to Achilles or a match for Alexander the Great – because, in some respects at least, he had actually earned this praise. No other king of England ever led so grand a military campaign, to such far-flung shores. Richard’s leadership of the expedition to reconquer Palestine and reclaim the city of Jerusalem from Islam propelled him on to the world stage. This war – now known to history as the Third Crusade – saw him pitted against the mighty Muslim sultan Saladin in a titanic contest for control of the Holy Land, earning Richard fame and renown to eclipse that achieved by any of his predecessors.

  The course and consequences of the crusade dominated Richard’s ten-year reign. From the moment he ascended the throne in 1189, his mind was bent upon the prosecution of this military campaign and all the resources of his realm were directed to this end. Yet, for all of the king’s energy and determination, his masterful generalship and many feats of arms, the conflict ended in stalemate, with Jerusal
em unconquered, in 1192. Richard’s devotion to the holy war raises a number of essential questions. Why did a king of England devote so much to such a distant cause? Was the expedition pure folly, a selfish quest for glory or a religious obligation? And how can it be that Richard is remembered as one of Western Europe’s greatest crusade leaders when he failed to achieve outright victory in the East?

  Had King Richard been able to make an immediate return to England in late 1192, the shape of his career might have been radically altered. As it was, he was taken prisoner by a political rival while travelling through Austria and remained in captivity until 1194. Back at home, Richard’s enemies – his duplicitous younger brother John and the King of France, Philip II Augustus – capitalized upon his incarceration, conspiring to overthrow his rule and seize his territory. Once released, Richard was forced to fight for the next four years to reclaim his realm. Much of this struggle was played out on the continent, in the territorial equivalent of modern-day France. When taken together with his absence on crusade and in prison, this meant that Richard spent only a tiny proportion of his reign in England – less perhaps than any other English monarch. Should Richard therefore be branded a neglectful king – a sovereign who cared little for his kingdom and ransacked its resources to fund his foreign wars?

  Richard I’s reign was brought to an abrupt and premature end in 1199. In the midst of besieging an insignificant castle in south-western France, the king was fatally wounded by a crossbow bolt. His seemingly insatiable appetite for front-line battle cost him his life, but the nature of his demise reflected a deeper truth about his career. Richard conceived of himself not just as a king, but also as a knight: as a warrior-general who could not only lead men in battle, but also wield sword, lance and crossbow with his own hands to deadly effect. In this, he was the product (and perhaps the epitome) of his age, for Richard was born into a culture newly obsessed with the notion of chivalry – one in which prowess was esteemed and honour craved; where a man’s value might be gauged by his reputation and measured by the admiration of his peers. Richard seems to have been driven by a raw passion for action, but he was also moved, like so many of his contemporaries, by a gnawing hunger for chivalric recognition and a deeply felt need to avoid shame and dishonour. Perhaps all monarchs aspire to make their mark, but Richard sought to draw the gaze of the world not just as a king, but as a knight. He actively cultivated the sense of awe and mystique that came to surround his career, revelling in the nickname that was already in common usage during his lifetime: Coeur de Lion, the Lionheart.

  Richard’s quest for fame and glory as a warrior proved remarkably successful. After his death, he was lauded as a paragon of chivalric virtue throughout the Middle Ages, and in the modern era even those scholars who might censure other facets of his character have conceded that he was ‘a peerlessly efficient killing machine’.3 But considerable debate remains about the precise quality of the Lionheart’s military leadership, not least because – regardless of his fascination with the precepts of chivalry – Richard perpetrated a number of acts of extreme violence: most infamously, the cold-blooded execution of close to 3,000 Muslim prisoners in a single day during the Third Crusade. What manner of commander was he, then: a reckless brute, governed by a raging temper; or a deft mastermind and consummate professional? Perhaps Richard’s much-celebrated status as one of the finest generals of the medieval era must itself be contested, given that the contemporary evidence for so many of his achievements was infused with elements of exaggeration and even myth.

  The search for the real Lionheart begins in 1157, with his birth into the mightiest and most dysfunctional family in Europe. To begin with, Richard was not the presumptive heir to the crown, but rather the fourth-born child and second surviving son of King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The union between the Lionheart’s illustrious parents endowed the nascent Angevin dynasty (so called because of Henry II’s hereditary status as Count of Anjou) with extraordinary power. Together they could lay claim to lands that included all of England and a vast swathe of territory across the Channel, sweeping in an arc from the duchy of Normandy in the north, south through the regions of Maine and Touraine, to the duchy of Aquitaine and the fringes of the Iberian Peninsula. This immediately placed them at odds with the rather enfeebled titular King of France, the Capetian monarch Louis VII, whose own lands were dwarfed by the upstart Angevins (even though he was nominally their overlord on the continent) – and who just happened to be Eleanor’s recently estranged former husband. The intense rivalry between these two houses – the Angevins and the Capetians – would dominate much of Richard’s career, particularly once Louis was succeeded by his considerably more able and ambitious son, Philip II, in 1180.

  Richard was not raised to become King of England, nor was he expected to inherit the vast Angevin realm. Indeed, for the first twenty-five years of his life, he was eclipsed by his elder brother, the glamorous Henry the Young King (crowned as co-ruler of England alongside his father in 1170). Richard’s own formative years were spent not in England, but in Anjou and Aquitaine. His close association with this latter region was established in 1169 – probably through the influence of his mother – and three years later, once Richard reached the age of fifteen (the medieval equivalent of adulthood), he was formally installed as Duke of Aquitaine.

  It was here, then, in south-western France, that Richard was shaped into the ruler he would become. Twelfth-century Aquitaine was a wealthy and cultured region – the home of some of Europe’s foremost court singers and poets – and, in the course of his youth, Richard gained a fine appreciation for music and verse, even composing songs of his own. He was also literate, having been tutored in medieval Latin, apparently to a high standard. The fact that Richard was bred as a man of arts and learning might immediately give lie to any suggestion that he was simply a feral brute, but he also received a firm education in the realities of war and power politics through these early years. Proud and independent-minded, the people of Aquitaine were notoriously difficult to govern and far from content to bear the yoke of Angevin rule. Through the 1170s and 1180s, Richard had to quell a series of incipient local rebellions, often through force of arms. This brought him invaluable experience of military command from a very young age and enabled him to garner expertise in two staples of medieval warfare: horse-borne raiding and siege-craft.

  Richard also had to contend with the viperous infighting that beset his family. In all, Henry II and Eleanor produced seven children who survived into adulthood, the last of whom – John – was born in 1167. With such a bumper crop of potential heirs and heiresses at his fingertips, Henry looked set to establish the Angevins as an enduring and immensely influential dynasty. His plan was to hold his eldest son and namesake, Young Henry, in the wings as primary successor. Other sons, like Richard, were deployed to govern portions of the burgeoning Angevin empire in his name, while Henry’s three daughters were used to secure a complex web of international alliances through marriage. The problem with this handsome scheme was that Henry II was an inveterate hoarder of power, never content to release the reins of government. It was said that, as a young boy, he had been conditioned by his formidable mother, Empress Matilda, to instil loyalty in his servants and subjects not through kindness or generosity, but rather the harsh denial of favour – acting as if he were seeking to tame an ‘unruly hawk’ by repeatedly offering the bird a reward of meat, only to snatch it away at the last second. With this in mind, Henry – or the Old King, as he came to be known – sought to control the members of his family by keeping them hungry for praise and advancement, while simultaneously sowing seeds of doubt, mutual suspicion and distrust among their number.4

  Henry the Young King was the first to bridle at this treatment. Sick of being a monarch in name alone, he rebelled against the authority of his father in 1173, instigating a full-blown civil war. With the connivance of Queen Eleanor, Young Henry forged an alliance with his family’s arch rival, Louis VII, a
nd sought to seize control of Normandy. Though still just a teenager, Richard fought alongside his elder brother for a time, but by the autumn of 1174 the uprising had been quashed. Young Henry and Richard were eventually forgiven for their transgressions, but Queen Eleanor was taken into confinement for the rest of Henry II’s reign. Henry the Young King launched a second attempt to seize power in early 1183, this time targeting Richard’s own position in Aquitaine. By this stage, however, the Lionheart was in his mid twenties and already something of a veteran campaigner. He blunted the first force of Young Henry’s attempted invasion with ruthless efficiency and then, with the support of the Old King, penned his brother’s forces into the city of Limoges.

  Young Henry soon met with a rather tragic and squalid end. Thwarted in all his ambitions, the king without a kingdom contracted a severe case of dysentery and died on 11 June 1183. His demise transformed Richard’s own position and prospects. No longer the second son, or a mere princeling, he became Henry II’s primary heir and the potential successor to not only the kingdom of England, but the entire Angevin realm.

  By this stage, Richard had apparently grown into his athletic frame. A contemporary chronicler offered this striking – if somewhat overblown – portrait of his physical appearance:

  He was tall, of elegant build; the colour of his hair was between red and gold; his limbs were supple and straight. He had quite long arms, which were particularly convenient for drawing a sword and wielding it most effectively. His long legs matched the arrangement of his whole body.5

  Though they had briefly fought together as allies in 1183, the radical shift in the Lionheart’s status soon reshaped his relationship with the Old King. Like Young Henry before him, Richard quickly learned that he would have to fight for his right to power, as Henry II threatened to reclaim Aquitaine and even dangled the suggestion that he might designate his youngest son, John, as his heir in England.

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