Historical Heroes: Richard the Lionheart

Ben Kane reflects on the controversies surrounding Richard the Lionheart, and explains why he merits celebration.
the Lionheart outside the Houses of Parliament. Credit: Creative Commons.
Home » Articles » Historical Heroes: Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart is easily one of the most well-known English monarchs, by name at least. Sadly, Robin Hood is often the next name connected with Richard, when in fact the hooded outlaw is accepted by modern historians to be either a myth or a conflation of medieval folk heroes. The Lionheart, on the other hand, was very real. Was he someone to look up to, however; someone to admire? The other day, I saw a comment under a Facebook post promoting Crusader, to the effect of, ‘Richard was the worst king England ever had.’ A comment below read, ‘Yes, he never even set foot in England.’ More than 800 years after his death, people still have strong opinions about Richard, which in my mind proves that he was, at the least, an interesting character.

These are not the only ‘insults’ levelled at him. He didn’t speak English. He bankrupted England (and didn’t care). He was gay. A jingoistic monarch who sought war at every opportunity. I will address all of these, before going on to explain why I think that Richard the Lionheart is worthy of admiration, and fully deserved his nickname.

‘The worst king’: this unpleasant accolade could just as easily be attached to monarchs during the Wars of the Roses, when various parts of England saw incredibly bloody battles in which thousands died. It could also be aimed at John, Richard’s wayward brother, who in one year (1211) spent almost three times as much as the Lionheart did to go on crusade.

The siege of Acre during the Third Crusade

‘Never set foot in England’: this comment is based on ignorance, as anyone with even a little knowledge of Richard can attest. He was born in or near Oxford and spent at least the first few years of his life in England, as well as part of the time to adulthood. Once he became Duke of Aquitaine, he spent most of his time there, or in other parts of the Angevin empire. This pattern continued when he became king in 1189, and also when he returned from crusade and captivity in Austria. But – there is always a but! – there was a reason for this. Henry II spent most of his reign abroad, because most of the territories he left to Richard were not in England or Wales. They were across the Channel, and encompassed most of modern-day France. Richard did not do anything differently to his father in this regard. The king of France, Philippe Capet, was Richard’s archenemy; his forces constantly threatened the borders of Richard’s realms, Normandy in particular. If the Lionheart wasn’t dealing with Philippe, he was quelling rebellions in Aquitaine, where the nobility took poorly to overlords.

‘He didn’t speak English’: it is true that he probably did not speak it well, but then almost none of the English nobility at the time did. 100 years after the Conquest, it was still the language of the peasantry. As a child, Richard had a much-loved nurse, Hodierna, whom he left money to; it is entirely feasible that she taught him English. Given his popularity with the ordinary people and soldiery, I think it possible that he knew enough to converse with his subjects and followers.

‘He bankrupted England’: see my comment about John’s expenditure in 1211 above. He did levy a 25 percent tax on all income to raise the money for his ransom when captive in Austria, but what was he supposed to do? The sum was non-negotiable. There are fewer figures surviving from parts of his empire such as Normandy and Aquitaine, but the ones that do survive suggest these territories might have contributed more per capita towards his ransom than England. These regions also recovered quickly, as is evidenced by John’s ability to spend the money he did in 1211.

‘He was gay’: this is another 20th century opinion reached by judging Richard’s behaviour by comparing it to our own. ‘Evidence’ of his homosexuality includes his sharing a bed with Philippe Capet when visiting the French royal court, and his confessing to illicit intercourse and being warned to remember the destruction of Sodom by a hermit. These are easily set aside. In medieval times, it was commonplace for men to share a bed; numerous illustrations of this survive in manuscripts and stained-glass windows. When it comes to mention of Sodom – 800 years ago, this did not refer to the act of sodomy, but to general debauchery and sinful behaviour. True, he didn’t have children with his wife Berengaria, but he had a bastard with another woman, so Berengaria might have been infertile.

19th century depiction of Saladin.

‘He was a warmonger’, and he slaughtered almost 3000 Muslims after the siege of Acre. It was the norm for medieval kings to go to war, and Richard excelled at it. However, the military actions he was involved in in Aquitaine and Poitou during his youth and young adulthood were, in the main, responses to rebellion, insurrection or invasion. Yes, he took the cross, but so did his father Henry II (although he never went), the French King Philippe Capet and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Yes, he did massacre those Muslim prisoners – in modern-day terms, a war crime – but Saladin was delaying his march on Jerusalem, and Richard could not risk leaving those captives behind when he left with his army. Chroniclers of the time passed no judgement on his actions, which is telling; what he did was not regarded as outrageous.

So, if he was not guilty of all of the above, was he a king worth looking up to; a war leader to admire? I think he was, for the following reasons: Richard remained loyal to his father throughout most of the 1180s, when his brothers, Henry (‘Hal’) and Geoffrey, abandoned the family cause time and again, often allying themselves with the French king; Richard did cross to the French side at the end, but only when his father had exhausted his patience; The Lionheart was an astute politician entering into a strategic marriage that paid off in dividends (his Spanish in-laws invaded the county of Toulouse on his behalf in 1193). He also made wise appointments of justiciars and officials in England who kept his kingdom stable and running well during his time on crusade and captivity from 1190 to 1194. He was a leader par excellence, winning renown as a teenager and the title Lionheart when he was possibly just 19. An expert at besieging castles, he was also heroic in battle, nearly always leading from the front, just as Alexander the Great had. As a novelist, one is always on the lookout for standout scenes to enrich a book, and with Richard’s crusade, I was utterly spoiled for choice. There are countless accounts of his almost mad bravery in battle, the finest of which was his leading a charge on Saladin’s army at Jaffa with just 12 other knights. Yes, you read that correctly. He charged an army of thousands with a dozen men. This was attested not just by Christian chroniclers who were there, but Muslim ones as well.

That contest alone makes Richard the Lionheart an iconic figure, in my mind at least.

Ben Kane is the Sunday Times bestselling author of Sands of the Arena. Lionheart is his first book set in the medieval period, with the second, Crusader, the latest.

Lion HeartRichard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart