The Absentee King – Richard, the Lionheart

Richard I (8 September 1157 – 6 April 1199) was King of England from 6 July 1189 until his death. He also ruled as Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, and Overlord of Brittany at various times during the same period. He was known as Cœur de Lion, or Richard the Lionheart, even before his accession, because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. The Saracens called him Melek-Ric or Malek al-Inkitar – King of England.


By the age of sixteen, Richard was commanding his own army, putting down rebellions in Poitou against his father, King Henry II. Richard was a central Christian commander during the Third Crusade, effectively leading the campaign after the departure of Philip II of France and scoring considerable victories against his Muslim counterpart, Saladin, but was unable to reconquer Jerusalem.

He was seen as a pious hero by his subjects. He remains one of the very few Kings of England remembered by his epithet, rather than regnal number, and is an enduring, iconic figure in England and France. Richard was tall and muscular and athletically built. He was also a well-educated man. A third son, Richard became King of England upon the death of his father in 1189. During Richard’s absence, William Longchamp served as Chancellor of England. However, in 1191, Longchamp falls from power, and Richard’s brother John assumed the throne. During his ten-year reign, Richard spent but seven months in England.

Richard I was officially crowned duke on 20 July 1189 and king in Westminster Abbey on 3 September 1189. When he was crowned, Richard barred all Jews and women from the ceremony, but some Jewish leaders arrived to present gifts for the new king. According to Ralph of Diceto, Richard’s courtiers stripped and flogged the Jews, then flung them out of court.

When a rumour spread that Richard had ordered all Jews to be killed, the people of London began a massacre. Many Jews were beaten to death, robbed, and burned alive. Many Jewish homes were burned down, and several Jews were forcibly baptised. Some sought sanctuary in the Tower of London, and others managed to escape. Among those killed was Jacob of Orléans, a respected Jewish scholar. Roger of Hoveden, in his Gesta Regis Ricardi, claimed that the rioting was started by the jealous and bigoted citizens, and that Richard punished the perpetrators, allowing a forcibly converted Jew to return to his native religion. Baldwin of Forde, Archbishop of Canterbury reacted by remarking, “If the King is not God’s man, he had better be the devil’s.”

Realising that the assaults could destabilise his realm on the eve of his departure on crusade, Richard ordered the execution of those responsible for the most egregious murders and persecutions, including rioters who had accidentally burned down Christian homes. He distributed a royal writ demanding that the Jews be left alone. The edict was loosely enforced, however, and the following March there was further violence including a massacre at York.

In 1191, Richard defeated Saladin at Arsouf, near Jaffa. He forced Saladin into an agreement that would guarantee Christians safe pilgrimages to Jerusalem. However, upon his return to England, Richard was taken prisoner by Henry VI, Emperor of Germany. Henry demanded a ransom of 100,000 marks from England for Richard’s safe return. 

Richard’s ship had wrecked near Aquileia and was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. On 28 March 1193, Richard was brought to Speyer and handed over to Henry VI, who was aggrieved both by the support which the Plantagenets had given to the family of Henry the Lion, and also by Richard’s recognition of Tancred in Sicily, and who imprisoned him in Trifels Castle. Henry VI, needing money to raise an army and assert his rights over southern Italy, continued to hold Richard for ransom. In response Pope Celestine III excommunicated Henry VI, as he had Duke Leopold, for the continued wrongful imprisonment of Richard.

Richard famously refused to show deference to the emperor and declared to him, “I am born of a rank which recognises no superior but God.” Despite his complaints, the conditions of his captivity were not severe.

The emperor demanded that 150,000 marks (65,000 pounds of silver) be delivered to him before he would release the king, the same amount raised by the Saladin tithe only a few years earlier, and 2–3 times the annual income for the English Crown under Richard.  Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, worked to raise the ransom. Both clergy and laymen were taxed for a quarter of the value of their property, the gold and silver treasures of the churches were confiscated, and money was raised from the scutage and the carucage taxes. At the same time, John, Richard’s brother, and King Philip of France offered 80,000 marks for the Emperor to hold Richard prisoner until Michaelmas in 1194. The emperor turned down the offer. The money to rescue the King was transferred to Germany by the emperor’s ambassadors, but “at the king’s peril” (had it been lost along the way, Richard would have been held responsible), and finally, on 4 February 1194 Richard was released. Philip sent a message to John: “Look to yourself; the devil is loose.”

In March 1199, Richard was in the Limousin suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. Although it was Lent, he “devastated the Viscount’s land with fire and sword.” He besieged the virtually unarmed castle of Chalus-Chabrol.

Tomb containing the heart of King Richard at Rouen Cathedral

In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Missiles were occasionally shot from the castle walls, but these were given little attention. One defender in particular amused the king greatly—a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan which he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles. He deliberately aimed at the king, which the king applauded; however, another crossbowman then struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck. He tried to pull this out in the privacy of his tent but failed; a surgeon, called a ‘butcher’ by Hoveden, removed it, ‘carelessly mangling’ the King’s arm in the process. The wound swiftly became gangrenous. Accordingly, Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called alternatively Pierre (or Peter) Basile, John Sabroz, Dudo, and Bertrand de Gurdon (from the town of Gourdon) by chroniclers, the man turned out (according to some sources, but not all) to be a boy. This boy claimed that Richard had killed the boy’s father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. The boy expected to be executed; Richard, as a last act of mercy, forgave the boy of his crime, saying, “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day,” before ordering the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings. Richard then set his affairs in order, bequeathing all his territory to his brother John and his jewels to his nephew Otto.

King John

Richard died on 6 April 1199 in the arms of his mother; it was later said that “As the day was closing, he ended his earthly day.” Due to the nature of Richard’s death, he was later referred to as ‘the Lion (that) by the Ant was slain’. According to one chronicler, Richard’s last act of chivalry proved fruitless; in an orgy of medieval brutality, the infamous mercenary captain Mercadier had the crossbowman flayed alive and hanged as soon as Richard died.

Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, the entrails in Chalus (where he died) and the rest of his body was buried at the feet of his father at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.

A 13th-century Bishop of Rochester wrote that Richard spent 33 years in purgatory as expiation for his sins, eventually ascending to Heaven in March 1232.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to The Absentee King – Richard, the Lionheart

  1. Alex says:

    It always amazes me how we quite literally lionise Richard in the UK. The fact that he its buried in France sums it up really. He caused trouble when he was crowned and then swanned off and left us to it. His brother is always known as Bad King John and he was certainly neither saint nor wise ruler, but why he should be seen as any worse than his brother has always puzzled me.

  2. John was much more effective than Richard. If I recall correctly, Richard’s English was less than stellar.

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