Tuesday 24 January 2017

Richard the Lionheart - what we think we know by Elizabeth Chadwick

Statue of Richard Coeur de Lion outside
the Houses of Parliament, Westminster|
Carlo Marochetti  1856. Modern audiences
are frequently critical of the work and
consider it does not deserve its position.
I belong to several historical forums where Richard the Lionheart often crops up as a subject of discussion. A question such as 'What do we know about Richard the Lionheart?' will elicit a slew of responses, frequently negative, and when asked for sources or elaboration the response is usually without provenance beyond 'I read it somewhere.' Further clarification is not usually forthcoming or turns out to be from text books or teaching of a certain era.  There is also a strong tendency to view Richard through the filter of modern mindset and not engage with him on the terms by which he lived his life in the late 12th century.
Generally the same comments keep repeating in a never ending circle, so I thought I'd set out to explore them in more detail.

1. He hated/ didn't care about England: (and I have had this said to me at Dover Castle by a costumed interpreter responsible for 'informing' the general public).

 a) Because he didn't even speak English.

My findings:  He probably had at least a smattering of words.  He was born in England, at Oxford, in September 1157 and although his family was peripatetic, he spent several years of his childhood in England.  His wet nurse was an English woman from St Albans called Hodierna and he remembered her with fondness and gave her lands on which to live in her retirement.  Her name, however, suggests she was Norman, so although he had an English-born wet nurse, she may well have spoken to him in French. The fact remains though, that with English servants around the nursery court, he would have picked up a certain amount of the language.
However he would not have used it in his dealings as an adult, but then neither would any of the nobility with whom he associated where  the language of the court was either Anglo-Norman or Latin.
Sometimes you will hear it said that his first language was Occitan - the language of the south of France and parts of Aquitaine, but the main language of the Dukes of Aquitaine was Poitevan French which was closer to the French of the north.  Richard's famous song Ja Nus On Pri is not written in Occitan but in French.
Other English kings surrounding the time of his rule did not speak English as a matter of course either. Henry I may have done so to a greater degree, having an English wife and the court poked fun at him for his Englishness, but his own father William the Conqueror had never learned the language and there is no indication that King Stephen, Empress Matilda or Henry II, Richard's father were fluent. Again, Henry II would likely have had a smattering.  King John the same and Henry III. But Richard is no different to any of his close ancestors and inheritors so it's rather odd to single him out.

Face of Richard the Lionheart.  A Victorian plaster cast
tomb effigy in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
b) Because he was never there and only spent 6 months of his reign in England.  

True.  But... and there's always a but.
He was born in England and spent several years of his childhood in the country.  When he became king he was preparing to go on crusade - something set in motion before the death of his father.  Henry II himself had pledged to go on crusade. In early 1185 he had been begged face to face by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem to leave his empire and take up the throne of Jerusalem.  Henry II's grandfather Fulke of Anjou had been King of Jerusalem and Henry and his sons were close kin to the current, dying king Baldwin IV.  So Richard's involvement with Jerusalem was political as well as religious and an ongoing family thing.
The 'Angevin Empire' spanned an area from the borders of Scotland as far as the Pyrenees and that meant any ruler had to delegate and spread himself thinly.  Henry II himself spent more time across the Channel than he did in England.  Before the death of his brother Henry the Young King, Richard's inheritance portion had been designated as Aquitaine and in his teen years he was groomed for this role and indeed spent a considerable amount of time in the region. However, once he was king, he was mostly dealing with problems further north on the French border, caused by Philip of France's expansionism following his own brother John's earlier inept and treacherous mischief making. While Richard had been in prison John had been trying to negotiate keep him there and had also made a treaty with Philip of France whereby he surrendered the whole of Normandy east of the Seine except for the city of Rouen, and that included surrendering all the major fortresses. Richard spent the rest of his life following his return from imprisonment trying to put that right.

England itself was ruled by Richard by delegation.  Even despite often being long distances away or behind bars so to speak, Richard still had a vision for England.  He left - as he deemed - suitable custodians during his absence.  When some of those custodians proved to be problematic, he changed them under advice.  Even when imprisoned in Germany, he was able to hold court and govern by messenger.  By and large England remained stable under the management of a capable civil service headed by the Richard-appointed wonder-man of his day Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury who overhauled what was already a highly efficient civil service into something even more cutting edge.
Bottom line:  Richard was forced to be an absentee landlord, but that didn't mean he was a neglectful or disinterested one.

c) Because he bankrupted England. He used England as a cash cow and didn't care about it.

This is one that when you ask for sources, there are never any forthcoming.  It sort of gets pushed under the rug...

Money had to be raised for the crusade that had been agreed in his father's day and for which plans were afoot when Richard came to the throne. He did this by using the money in his father's treasury. Taxing the people who had already been forced to cough up a tax known as the Saladin tithe in his father's reign was a non starter, so he turned to the relatively small pool of the rich, both secular and clergy and sought means of wresting money from them. When the Bishop of Ely died intestate, Richard was able to seize  the Bishop's movable wealth which included 3000 marks in cash, gold, silver, precious gems, cloth, horses and grain.  At the start of his reign ambitious men were willing to pay large sums of money in order to gain positions of authority and Richard put these up for sale. However, not willy nilly. The men appointed for their cash, were also men of experience and reliability, and Richard was very careful in his selection, personally appointing all the sheriffs.

England was indeed a wealthy country and yes, he used it as a cash cow, but a good farmer looks after his livestock and doesn't neglect something as important as his cash cow in case it runs dry and Richard even during his absence was diligent.
He is sometimes accused of costing England a massive amount of money because of the ransom that had to be raised to free him from prison in Germany. But what else could he do? He had not expected to be taken prisoner but a series of unfortunate events including a shipwreck and then having to travel without a guide through difficult territory led to his capture and incarceration  by his enemy Leopold of Austria while probably trying to reach the lands of his brother-in-law Henry the Lion of Brunswick.  Leopold then handed him over to Emperor Heinrich of Germany.
The ransom demanded for Richard's release totalled 150,000 marks, a phenomenal sum. 100,000 was to be paid for Richard 's release and another 50,000 for which the German emperor would hold hostages until the sum was paid.
Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the justiciars and nobility of England and the other territories did their utmost to gather in the ransom. a 25% tax on income was raised, and on the value of moveable goods.  The entire wool clip of the Cistercian monasteries was taken and gold and silver from the Church.  England had a particularly strong civil service and this enabled the ransom to be gathered efficiently.  Indeed, Richard found English civil servants very useful throughout all of his dominions and utilised their expertise.
Returning to the business of the 'cash cow'  John Gillingham observes that a problem with this statement is that 'England is the only part of the Angevin Empire for which we can compile a series of figures for the king's annual revenue.'  We have the pipe rolls which detail England's balance sheets in essence from 1156 right through the reigns of Henry, Richard and John.  In contrast we don't have that full information for anywhere else although a few documents exist - for example the Norman exchequer rolls of 1180, 1195 and 1198. These three rolls show that by 1198, the Norman exchequer was bringing in £25,000 - compared with £6,750  in 1180 under Henry II. At that same time in 1180, England was bringing in £14,300.  Professor John Gillingham suggests that Normandy in the reign of Richard may have become even more of a cash cow than England, as its population was smaller. In 1198 in terms of payments to Richard, both Rouen and Caen had to find more than London.
On average English revenue brought in around £22,000 a year.  The preparation for the crusade upped the ante to £31,089. While Richard was away the revenue dropped to £11,000.  Once returned and excluding the ransom demand, the revenue climbed again to between £22,000 and £25,000, the latter sum toward the end of Richard's reign to fund his war in Normandy (cause by John's mischief making while Richard was on crusade).  John's revenue once he came to the throne fluctuated between £22,000 and £25,000 at the start of his reign, but in 1210 and 1212 came in  at £50,000 and in 1211 a staggering £83,291  as he went on the warpath to try and recover Normandy.  Once the non routine exchequer audit sums are added in, the amount rises to £145,000.
Bottom line.  There may have been a momentary cash flow shortage but the cow kept on producting and it was John, not Richard who milked it so much that it led him into a field named Runnymede and a document that came to be known as Magna Carta.

d) Because he said he would sell London if he could find a buyer.

This is often taken as evidence of disparagement. Fancy saying that about your country.  He mustn't have thought much of it.
 Richard was reknown for his dry sense of humour - even remarked upon by an Arab historian. Today we might say we'd sell our soul for a Gucci handbag (or whatever floats one's personal boat) but it doesn't mean one is going to pop along to the nearest black mass and do a deal with the devil!  Leeway has to be given for humour, rather than taking everything literally.

2. He was gay.


a) Because he shared a bed with King Philip of France.

King Arthur and his knights are nakedly asleep together when they
are attacked.  Guiron le Courtois mid 14thc British Library
Chronicler Roger of Howden tells us about the friendship between Richard and Philip of France in the summer of 1187.  Howden says that Philip honoured Richard so highly that every day they ate at the same table and shared the same dishes, and at night the bed did not separate them.  The King of France loved him as his own soul and their love was so great that the lord king of England was stupefied.
One has to enter the medieval mindset to understand this one.  Men shared beds all the time.  It was indeed a sign of honour and trust and there is plentiful pictorial evidence of this in medieval society. Henry II would only have been 'stupefied' because it was a demonstration that Richard had turned his back on him and was looking to Philip of France as liege lord and ally.  Henry II himself shared beds with other men - William Marshal for example on one occasion. It was an accepted norm, used to demonstrate trust and prestige.  The talk of loving as much as his own soul, is again a typical medieval literary conceit and implies nothing beyond loyalty.  It's a non starter in a cultural context of homosexuality.  Cross it off the list.
The three wise men sharing a bed. I hesitate to call it a
menage a trois!

b) Because he was accused of committing sodomy by the clergy and did penance for it.

Roger of Howden reported in 1195 that a hermit came to King Richard and rebuked him for his sins, telling him to remember the destruction of Sodom and abstain from ilicit acts.  Richard dismissed the warnings, but later, struck down by illness, did penance and took to staying in church until the service was over and distributing alms to the poor.  He was also to avoid illicit intercourse and keep his attentions solely on his wife who remained childless.

Again, it's a case of that pesky modern mindset.  Everyone today assumes that 'Sodom' is purely connected to homosexual behaviour and that tells us that most modern people don't read their Old Testament. Biblical references to Sodom are more about the terrible punishment meted out to sinners rather than being explicit about the sort of sin.  It was all about the fall of cities, not homosexuality and anyone hearing such sermons in the Middle Ages would not automatically think that Richard was homosexual because he had been accused of the sins of Sodom.  Rather it would be the notion of general debauchery, which accords with him having an illegitimate son called Philip of Cognac, and of being accused to meddling with the wives and daughters of his vassals in Aquitaine.  Roger of  Howden accuses him of  carrying off his vassals' 'wives, daughters and kinswomen by force and making them his concubines; when he had sated his own lust on them, he handed them down for his own men to enjoy.'  One chronicler accuses Richard of consorting with whores on his deathbed.

c) Because he and his wife Berengaria of Navarre didn't have any children
No one knows the reason for this - although if he was warned to keep to her bed, perhaps a political marriage was not one of personal attraction. It is no proof either way.

3. He was a war monger.


Because he was always fighting and went on crusade where he slaughtered 3,000 Muslim hostages.  He lived for war.

There is no denying that Richard excelled in the arena of war and that it was his particular skill.

 The slaughter of hostages is always terrible and reprehensible on the human scale, and that particular massacre at the siege of Acre has gone down as a red stain against Richard's reputation in history. Whatever the military circumstances, and even acknowledging medieval mindset, it is hard not to judge here.  The most neutral that can be said was that Richard needed to move on, Saladin was pretending to negotiate for the hostages while procrastinating, and Richard took a commander's decision to remove the obstacle from the field rather than let Saladin get the better of him.  It appears to have been an act of cold, political and military neutrality rather than done in hate. Today it would certainly be a war crime. In his own period the slaughter was greeted by the Christian chroniclers with either approval or a shrugged neutrality. Saladin got the blame for being intractable and the chroniclers said it was his fault for not doing a deal.  The Muslims reacted to the slaughter of their people with anger and swore revenge and to do similar in retaliation. Pretty much medieval warfare business as usual.  Which is not to exonerate, but to put in context.

Being a good warrior was an excellent defining trait for a medieval king.  A medieval monarch was  expected to be able to fight and to command successfully and this was Richard's particular skill.   A perceived lack of such skills might lead to one being called 'Softsword' as in the case of King John. As an aside,  Richard was given the Sobriquet 'Lionheart' when he was just 19 years old.

4. He was a traitor to his father


Henry II: A contemporary portrait
by Gerald of Wales

Because he was influenced by his mother and her jealousy (over Rosamund de Clifford)  and dissatisfaction and went to war against his father because of that, basically stabbing him in the back.

Henry II was a micro-manager who had his hands firmly gripping the reins of power, so firmly that he found it very difficult to delegate.  To ensure the succession was secure he had his eldest surviving son, also named Henry, anointed and crowned when he was 15 years old. Richard, the next son was to have his mother's lands of Aquitaine and Geoffrey the third son was to have Brittany.  John, happening along 9 years after Richard was born, was a problem when it came to finding him land unless he married a wealthy heiress or had estates carved out of his brothers' inheritances.  His father's first effort to do this and give John castles (belonging to Henry the Young King)  as part of a marriage negotiation with the father of little Alice de Maurienne, resulted in the first rebellion of Henry's sons against him - that and going over Eleanor's head by having the Count of Toulouse swear for Aquitaine to him, not to Eleanor and Richard. Since Henry did not have sovereignty over Aquitaine, this was an act of gross provocation to Eleanor its Duchess, and Richard her successor. There is no evidence whatsoever that Eleanor was in a jealous fluff over Henry's mistress Rosamund (who doesn't get mentioned in the chronicles until after Eleanor's imprisonment). An astute, political queen, Eleanor would not have been concerned over one of her husband's many affairs, and this one with a teenage girl from the Welsh Marches).
Later, during a second rebellion by Henry the Young King over his father's refusal to give him any sort of power, and more squabbles over castle tenures, the Young King died from dysentry in the field. Redistributing the inheritance, Henry II then tried to remove Aquitaine from  Richard and give it to his youngest son John.  Aquitaine, which Richard had been ruling and controlling for 10 years and in which Henry's only concern was as the husband of its Duchess. For Richard to hand it over to the teenage John (with Henry manipulating the puppet strings) was a step too far.  He was bound to rebel - and climb into bed with Philip of France - see point 2!

So there you have it. As always people will make up their own minds - hopefully taking into account medieval mindset,  but I hope I have given at least some food for thought in the above post.  All history is a form of archaeology and the more one digs, the more layers one discovers and the more one can evaluate the story. How much you know, will always influence your understanding.

Richard I by John Gillingham - Yale English Monarchs Series  Yale University Press

Richard Coeur de Lion in History and Myth edited by Janet L. Nelson - King's College London Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies
The Angevin Empire second edition by John Gillingham published by Arnold

The History of William Marshal - Holden, Gregory and Crouch published by the Anglo Norman Text Society

Online - British Library online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/welcome.htm

The Annals of Roger de Hovedon 

Elizabeth Chadwick is a bestselling historical novelist.  Her most recent novels are a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine and she is currently writing about the great William Marshal's missing years in the Holy Land. 


Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou Elizabeth - this is definitely food for thought. I can't say I *like* Richard any better - medieval kings aren't exactly renowned for their likeable qualities (and it's so irritating when he turns up over and over in Robin Hood movies, pardoning the Saxon rebels). But I'll think him over...

Heatherbelles said...

Brilliant, Elizabeth, I'm bookmarking this one for wheeling out when required!

Very succinct but addresses all the the points we're used to reading....

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Much needed post! Indeed Richard often crops up as a subject of discussion and it is usually the same old tale... He didn't care for England, he didn't speak the language, etc. Yes, I have received the impression that all those comments are nothing but repeated myths and stereotypes that have grown around the king for centuries. I am really happy someone made an effort to deal with them. At last.

Bev Newman said...

Excellent post... learned a lot from it too 😊

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you! Kasia, it was basically to address these repeated myths that I wrote this post - in order to put all the replies in one place! :-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you Lauren - very useful to copy and paste next time the Sodom argument comes around on a forum!

AnnP said...

Very interesting post not just about Richard but also about how these views/myths about historical figures can become accepted.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for all this thoughtful evidence and information about the Lionheart, Elizabeth, especially the need to consider the medieval mind-set.

Anonymous said...

What a marvellously clear and informative post. Thank you so much for taking the time to research and write it.

Jean Gill said...

Love the blog and you've crammed so much in! As always, plenty of well-researched detail that I did not know (even though this is 'my period'), and it's very interesting to read the claims set out so clearly, and your judgement on them.

As the first comment says, some of us were fed the Robin Hood/Richard hero in childhood so I think there's been over-reaction against that gung-ho representation.

Playing Devil's Advocate, I'd say that the notion of any historical figure being gay is often a positive search, not an attempt to knock a hero from his/her pedestal (like the other claims here). Statistics make it likely that some historical figures were actively homosexual but understandably private. In the absence of evidence, storytellers will inevitably look for possibilities. I agree completely that there is no evidence of Richard being gay but I don't think it's out of the question, and the thread to follow for those who like this idea, is that of the French king and his relationships. If HE is likely to be homosexual, then the sharing of a bed does take on a slightly different connotation.

I was strongly influenced in re-thinking Richard by reading Sir Walter Scott's 'The Talisman' (fascinating as medieval history, particularly the 3rd crusade, perceived through a romantic Regency - not Victorian - novelist's eyes). 'Ivanhoe' is interesting too but if you read 'the Talisman', there is one character who shines as a hero. That same character also seems admirable from my research into the medieval mindset from the Saracen/Moorish/Arab point of view. That character is Saladin, who had exactly the same aims and pressures as Richard and behaved very differently.

I have several books in French, giving the medieval Arab point of view, with primary sources as well as modern commentary (L'Orient des Croisades, Georges Tate is good), and I can't forget that Arab children have been threatened for centuries that 'Richard the Lionheart will get them' if they're bad. For 'the other side' in the Crusades, he is remembered as the worst villain in medieval history, whereas respect for Saladin has filtered down through the literature of Christendom.

The stories about Richard attract me, regardless, and I love 'Blondel's Song' by David Boyle; a wonderful retelling of Richard's imprisonment and legendary rescue by his minstrel. Language-wise, there seems to have been a movement from Occitan in the troubadour songs of Alienor's favourites in her court in Aquitaine, to (as you say) the northern dialect of Richard and HIS troubadours (not surprising given his father?).

Bruce B. said...

Very interesting post! Thank you, Elizabeth! I have wondered about Richard I.

Tannhaeuser said...

I have just found an interesting assertion that Richard did have a smattering of English in a book by a Victorian author and art historian, Anna Jameson, who attributes an anecdote to a chronicle by Geoffrey of Vinsauf (where I have not yet taken the trouble to verify it) in her Lives of Celebrated Female Sovereigns and Illustrious Women:

“As soon as Isaac Comnenus was safe behind the walls of his citadel, he sent a message to request a conference with King Richard, who expected he had a little lowered the despot’s pride; but when they met, Isaac was so full of vapouring and boasting, that he elicited from King Richard an aside in English; and as Cœur de Lion then uttered the only words in our language he ever was known to speak, it is well they have been recorded by chronicle:—

“ ‘Ha! de debil!’ exclaimed King Richard, ‘he speak like a fole Breton.’ ”

[Footnote: “[Piers of Langtoft.] This speech implied no offence to the English, but was meant as a reproach to the Bretons, who are to this day {1831} proverbial in France for their willfulness. Besides, Richard was bitter against the Bretons, who deprived him of the society of his then acknowledged heir, Arthur, their duke.—(Vin[e]sauf.)”]

Wait! Dirty work is afoot. I find that the chapter on Berengaria in this 1870 edition of Mrs. Jameson’s book did not appear in the original 1831 book, but has been entirely ripped without attribution from Agnes Strickland’s 1840-1848 Lives of the Queens of England. The statement of Richard’s comment is there referred to “Piers of Langtoft” (AKA Peter Langtoft), whose name I have restored to its place in Strickland’s work between brackets, but who was, disappointingly not a contemporary of Richard’s and appears to have died around a hundred years after Richard’s own death.

Tannhaeuser said...

Worse and worse: the comment is not found even in Pierre de Langtoft, but in Robert Manning of Brunne’s even later and very free English translation of Langtoft’s Chronicle, where it takes the form,

“ ‘O dele,’ said þe kyng, ‘þis is a fole Briton.
He spak no maner þing, for regne to gif raunson,
Ne no þing him bisouht, he was of kynges blode,
Bot for prison bisouht, als fole þat couth no gode…’ ”

[“ ‘Oh, the devil,’ said the king, ‘this is an idiotic Breton(?).
He spoke nothing of reigning, of giving ransom,
Nor sought anything, though he was of royal blood,
But asked for prison, like an idiot that knew of nothing good.’ ”]

Richard is referring to Isaac’s giving himself up as a prisoner as long as he was not put in irons; as is well-known, Richard proceeded to grant the request, and then put him in fetters of silver.

I cannot determine why Agnes Strickland imagined that this one speech was in English (and seemingly in broken, Frenchified English rather than simply normal mediæval English), inasmuch as the whole of Robert’s version of the Chronicle is in standard Middle English; I can only imagine that the authority whom she consulted put a note next to Richard’s speech to indicate that he was giving it in Robert’s English translation, rather than Pierre’s French original, and that she mistook that for an assertion that Richard had deliberately switched to English for this “aside.”

I’m afraid that those of us who rather hope that Richard did speak the tongue of the kingdom he ruled will have to fall back on the dubiously English Hodierna.