Monday 30 July 2012

The Historical Character I Just Don't Get: Richard Coeur-de-Lion

In this month of July, the History Girls have been celebrating their first year as joint Bloggers by writing about their favourite Historical Characters. Katherine Langrish has already praised Harold Godwinson. But we also have an occasional series of 'Characters I just don't get', and here is hers:

Picture it. The closing scene of ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’. Kevin Costner’s Robin, fetchingly garbed in outlaw chic, and Marion, robed in white with a harvest crown of wheat upon her head (to symbolise an ungreenwoodly but earth-goddess-like fertility, no doubt) are about to be joined in matrimony by Friar Tuck - when hoofbeats are heard, and from between the trees emerges a stately but familiar figure clothed in mail.

‘Richard!’ Marion cries, her face lighting up.

And lo, it’s Sean Connery as Richard Coeur-de-Lion - Richard the First - Richard of England! Here to add his benison to the union of the happy couple, reinstate Robin in his lands, and set right all the evils which have befallen Sherwood under the iron fist of Alan Rickman’s splendidly black-hearted Sheriff of Nottingham and - one presumes - the faulty and self-serving regency of Prince John.

Jack shall have Jill, nought shall go ill,
The man shall have his mare again and all shall be well.

This is the satisfactory denouement of pretty much every one of the Robin Hood films and most of the books, including Rosemary Sutcliff’s early work ‘The Chronicles of Robin Hood’ and Robin McKinley’s ‘The Outlaws of Sherwood’. Here’s Sutcliff’s Richard, casting off his disguise as an abbot:

As the long sable folds parted, the astonished outlaws beheld the golden leopards of England blazing on his scarlet surcoat. He thrust back the cowl from his head and stood before them - the king! For a second there was an utter silence. Then Robin dropped on one knee at the king’s feet.

Illustration by C. Walter Hodges of Rosemary Sutcliff's Chronicles of Robin Hood

Merrie Englande indeed! And it’s notable that these fictional King Richards all speak English, and can sympathise with outlaws and peasants in a quite incredible manner. It’s as if Coeur-de-lion has been melded with King Arthur so that Richard’s return to England is the mythical Return of the King - the True King, whose coming will bring peace and justice to the land. It taps into an almost religious longing.

In fact, until the 16th century the king of the Robin Hood tales, if named at all, wasn’t Richard at all but ‘Edward’, not specifying whether I, II or III. So Richard I owes his modern fame to a fictitious connection with legendary Robin Hood. But I doubt he would thank us for this image of a king who identified with the poor and oppressed - with Saxon or even Celtic peasantry against Norman overlords. To begin with, he was an aristocrat to the bone, with no empathy whatever for the lower estates. Next, he couldn’t even have talked with them. Like most of the Angevin nobility Richard spoke no English. His native tongue was French - both langue d’oïl and langue d’oc - in which languages he composed poems and songs.

Richard I by Matthew Paris

I know one shouldn’t judge historical personages by modern standards, though it’s hard not to, but even in the context of his times, Richard was by no means universally admired. The chronicler Giraud le Cambien tells how Richard loved to boast descent from a countess of Anjou who was in fact the fairy Melusine, so that therefore his family ‘came from the devil and would return to the devil’. And this is a pretty good clue to the quality of his family life. In 1170 his father King Henry II made the disastrous, Lear-like decision to divide his territories in England and France between his three eldest sons, Henry, Richard and Geoffrey, with the intention of remaining their over-lord. Aged 14, Richard set off with his tempestuous mother Queen Eleanor to become Duke of Aquitaine, and was soon busy supporting his elder brother Henry “The Young King” in a rebellion against their father. It didn’t work. Henry put down the revolt and made peace with his sons (blood is thicker than water), dispatching Richard back to Aquitaine to punish those very barons who had fought for him. Ever the pragmatist, Richard obeyed with gusto, razing their castles: it was during this campaign that he earned the soubriquet ‘the Lion-hearted’.

Fratricidal strife soon broke out again. Henry’s sons never stopped quarrelling with him and each other. Richard’s ultimate attempt to seize the throne from his father ended with Henry’s ghastly death from illness in Chinon, 1189. As his elder brother had already died, Richard became King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. He returned briefly to London for his coronation, but was already preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, having ‘taken the cross’ a couple of years previously as Count of Poitou. His only known remarks about England are: ‘cold and always raining’, and that he would have ‘sold London if I could find a buyer’ to raise money for the Crusade - for which purpose he emptied the Treasury.

Yet here he is. perpetuated in bronze, outside the Houses of Parliament!  I just don't get it! 

Setting off for the Holy Land (and bickering constantly with his rival crusader lords), Richard’s military skill and courage brought victory in a number of sieges, notably Messina in Sicily (which he captured and burned when the common people protested the presence of all these foreign troops - so that showed them, then!) and Limasol in Cyprus, where the island’s unspeakably cruel despot made the mistake of imprisoning Richard’s fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre and Castile, who’d been shipwrecked there. Having overthrown the despot and chained him in silver chains, Richard married Berengaria… but in case you are thinking ‘how romantic’, I should point out that the poor girl was only wrecked in the first place because, having been betrothed to Richard in Pamplona, he set off to the Holy Land without her and left her to catch up.

Richard then joined in the siege of Acre, which fell after holding out against the Crusaders for two years. Here, negotiating with Saladin over an exchange of prisoners, Richard lost his patience and had at least 2,700 of his Muslim prisoners decapitated. The mind boggles at the bloodshed. Defeating Saladin at the Battle of Jaffa and hearing news that - in true family style - his brother John was about to usurp his English throne, Richard hastily prepared to leave for England, but not before being implicated in the assassination of the ‘King of Jerusalem’ Conrad of Montferrat, whose pregnant wife was immediately married off to Richard’s nephew.

Of course, on his way home (once again leaving Berengaria to find her own way back) he was captured by the Austrian Duke Leopold, Conrad’s cousin, who accused Richard of arranging the murder and locked him up in the castle of Dürnstein. (Stories of how he was found by the minstrel Blondel, strumming Richard’s own lute-songs outside the castle walls, are later fabrications.) Richard was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor who demanded a colossal ransom of 65,000 pounds of silver, raised by heavy taxation on the English people. On its payment, Philip of France sent Prince John the famous message ‘Look to yourself: the devil is loose,’ and Richard made a last visit to England to accept his brother’s submission and - a political necessity - confirm him as his heir. In all, he is not thought to have spent more than six months in England as King. He never came back to England and is buried at Fontevraut Abbey in France.

Could anyone be further from the magnanimous, understanding, compassionate King Richard Lionheart who turns up at the end of Robin Hood?

Yes, he could be generous - kings must, if they are not to be universally hated. But mainly he was arrogant and quarrelsome, a blue-blooded aristocrat who most certainly believed what he told the Emperor: ‘I am born of a rank which recognises no superior but God’, and who coined the motto ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ - ‘God and my Right’, still the motto of the British Royals to this day.

Perhaps the main reason why Richard is still so popular is that there are so many good stories about him (even if many are inventions).  He clearly had courage, style, good looks and charisma, and it’s an unfortunate human failing that we find it easy to forgive faults in such people. ‘I’d have sold London if I could have found anyone to buy it.’ We forgive it - even find it amusing - because it sounds outrageous and daring, just like Richard himself.

But you know what? Don’t be fooled. He meant it.

He really meant it.

Picture credits: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, 1991: Sean Connery as Richard I
Richard of England by Matthew Paris, Wikimedia Commons 
Richard I - bronze statue - Wikimedia Commons
Richard I's tomb at Fontevraut, France Wikimedia Commons


Leslie Wilson said...

I SO agree! And didn't he also massacre the Jews in order to steal their money for his Crusades? Maybe it's just because John was even worse - so people started to think things had been better under Richard, and the image of the King returning to right all wrongs must have comforted quite a few people, erroneously, during John's regency? Or maybe the whole thing is just due to historians wanting, Gove-like, to Celebrate our Island Story?

H.M. Castor said...

What a fantastic post! Yes, there's an Arthur-like quality to the return of the king in Robin Hood, isn't there... How on earth did it change from Edward to Richard, given all you've said? Was it just a king who'd been conveniently absent for a long time, used by generations who'd forgotten his devilishness? (I love that warning to John!)

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for pulling all these damning facts together in one place, especially the Arthur-alike. I feel like printing this post off to wave about whenever neccessary.

However, I also fear the "true good king" myth is very deep in the national psyche.(Lions and football and Beckham?)

Susan Price said...

Loved this, and so agree! Never did get Richard. But my god, he summed England up, didn't he? - 'Cold and always raining.' As I've had to put my fan-heater on again, can't fault him there.
As for selling London - well, our present day governments have allowed London to sell us...
I've always preferred John, myself. He may have been a bad man, who had his little ways, but he spoke English! And he had a bad press. And Richard flounced off to kill people, taking all the money, and leaving John to cope with his mess

Catherine Butler said...

Mr and Mrs Anjou would definitely have been on Cameron's list of "troubled families"...

Anonymous said...

Great post Kath.
Did Richard coeur de lion sire any children in the northwest who eventually became the ascendants of Mitt Romney? Just what we need, another charismatic, good-looking, aristocratic, self-centered, allergic-to-England, crusader in power.

On another note, today in France we still celebrate this lion-heart.
go to minute 9:30. at least he speaks French here!!!

Then we get our history lessons from the great fromage camembert Coeur de Lion. With that and Asterix, who needs historians?

adele said...

By coincidence, I'm reading new History Girl Karen Maitland's terrific new novel at the moment. It's called THE GALLOWS CURSE and is set during the time of King John. A bit about the Acre massacre in it too! Highly recommended. Loved this post, Kath!

Sarah said...

I read somewhere - a LONG time ago, as I am now very old - that Richard once appeared naked in the council chamber where his fellow leaders were discussing strategy, and confessed to commiting various sins, including sodomy. This of course doesn't necessarily mean what we think it means, but still.

bnachison said...

I'm put in mind of the old joke: "God bless & keep the Tsar... far away from us!"

It seems to me Richard's good press may be because he spent so little time in England, not in spite of it -- while John, who was not necessarily a worse king (& may in fact have been better, depending on your criteria) had the PR misfortune to (1) lose most of his overseas holdings and (2) spend most of his reign IN England, making himself unloved at home rather than abroad.

Sue Purkiss said...

Oh dear. Another hero destroyed! Will never think of him in the same way again...

madwippitt said...

Yes, I've always been a bit baffled by the popularity of this absentee king too. But as far as film portrayals go, don't forget The Lion in Winter and Robin and Marion which show him in a much less favourable light than the Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner epics!

Debbie Watley said...

Congratulations, History Girls, on your first year! Your blog is one of my favorites, and I'm a faithful reader. I enjoyed the month of historical people, too--quite varied and educational!

Debbie Watley
South Dakota, USA

Freyalyn said...

Excellent blog post, and some well thought out points in the comments too. As you all say, I think a lot of the fond memories of Richard come from him not being here, the 'King Overseas', Arthur being tied up in in somehow. Not a nice man - and you didn't even touch on the rumours of 'sodomy', whatever that was considered to be at the time!