A Hard Act to FollowThe Coeur de Lion, as he became known, was a younger son of a brilliant father, who had welded together an empire. Henry II, who started a soldiering career at the age of 13, had taken his patrimony of Anjou and added it to the kingdom he helped win, as part of his mother’s inheritance from her father King Henry I. England came with Normandy tacked on and to this, by virtue of his marriage to Eleanor, was added Aquitaine.
|Henry II & Eleanor holding court|
Henry was a hard act to follow and Richard and his brothers Henry[i], Geoffrey and John were desperate for power, encouraged by their mother. A veteran of the war between the sexes; she married first Louis, King of France and then Henry. Eleanor in her own right had been heiress to the lands of Aquitaine. This had been added, on her marriage to Henry, to what became known as the Angevin Empire.Born on 8th September 1157, Richard was a little older than his father when he first went into battle putting down a rebellion, against his father, in Poitou at the age of 16. He was a very competitive son of a very competitive father, who was usually at odds with his liege lord, the king of France[ii].
Family InfightingBy the time Richard was born Henry was finding that ruling his far-flung empire was more than one man could manage on his own. Despite this realisation Henry gave up power to his sons only grudgingly and often humiliated them by abrupt removal of that power.
The Young King Henry was driven into rebellion chafing against his lack of power, despite having been crowned junior king. That rebellion was crushed, but Henry was forgiven by his father. He died in 1186 of dysentery. Geoffrey, the second son, was crushed to death in a tournament mêlée. Richard and John were now the eldest sons and their mother, bitterly estranged from their father[iii], encouraged their ambitions.Eleanor encouraged her favourite son Richard to demand that he be named heir to the throne. Henry refused; believing that satisfying the demand would only increase Richard’s demands. The refusal resulted in the second rebellion against his rule by his sons.
Richard’s marriage on 11th May 1191 to Berengaria, the eldest daughter of the King of Navarre was promoted by his mother and required the repudiation of Princess Alys[iv], sister to Philip II. Rumour claimed that Richard’s father was already sleeping with Alys, who bore Henry a half-brother to Richard and John.
Philip II of France
King Philip II[v] of France was eager to reduce the power of his English over-powerful vassal and schemed with Henry’s sons to overthrow him. According to Roger of Howden at this time the relationship between Philip and Richard was such that
‘Philip so honoured him that every day they ate from the same dish, and at night the bed did not separate them.’[vi]Philip may have been persuading Richard that Henry would pass over him in favour of making John, his favourite son, king. Richard drew on the treasury at Chinon[vii] and began putting his castles in Poitou on readiness for a fight. Learning of problems in the Holy Land merely honed Philip and Richard’s desire to deal with Henry; a thorn in both their sides. Richard took the Cross[viii] without seeking the permission of his liege lord, a serious breach of his responsibility as his father’s vassal.
Richard and Philip had the whip hand and Henry was forced to terms, humbling himself before the two younger men. Giving the kiss of peace Henry told his son
‘God spare me long enough to take revenge on you.’[ix]Henry was further humiliated by the knowledge that his favourite child John had joined the rebellion against him. Richard’s rebellion had resulted in part from having lands taken from him and given to John Lackland, as his brother was known. Within two days Henry was dead, the only child present at the death was his illegitimate son Geoffrey, who had been Henry’s chancellor.
Richard the King
Richard’s coronation was on 6th July 1189; he was king for barely more than ten years and in those ten years he spent as little as twelve months in the country he ruled; preferring to chase the chimera of retaking the kingdom of Jerusalem for Christianity to the everyday slog of ruling. He left his empire in the hands of his brother John.Eleanor now planned on being the power behind the throne, something that she had never been, even in the early days of her relationship with her husband. The most unpopular of Henry’s senior officials were removed from office and the coronation was a bling-ridden affair to please the masses. Women and Jews were forbidden to attend but the Jewish population of London presented a gift to Richard. The Jewish gift was considered part of a heinous plot and a massacre ensued. It took so long
‘To send them to the devil, that the work had to be continued a second day.’[x]Richard was in too much of a hurry to go on crusade to give the Jews the protection he had promised and after he left for the Holy Land a massacre took place in York.
Richard’s departure resulted in his barons busying themselves with re-arming themselves and strengthening their strongholds; bringing back memories of the era of havoc before Henry II.
‘As the earth shudders at the absence of the sun, so the face of the kingdom was changed by the departure of the king. Nobles became busy; castles were strengthened, towns fortified, moats dug.’[xi]The king’s choice of the Bishop of Ely as his senior official led to the barons flocking to support John, when Ely starting flooding government posts with his own men. John took over the reins of government and in 1192 news reached the country that Richard had been taken prisoner on his journey home by the Holy Roman Emperor.
Castle Durnstein where Richard held captive
Richard now became the subject of a bidding war and was finally released in February 1194 on the promise of payment of 34 tons of gold; three times the annual income of the country. His brother had hoped that Richard would remain incarcerated and was horrified when Richard arrived to forgive him, thus successfully emasculating him as an alternative power source, telling the 27 year old John
‘Think no more of it John, you are only a child who has been led astray by evil councillors.’[xii]Richard’s focus during his reign was not on England but on his lands in France, and most of his time following his return from crusade was spent there. On his return from captivity Richard focussed his efforts on the recapturing of his lands in Normandy lost in his absence. Payment for the armies came from his cash cow, England. By 1198 Richard had re-conquered most of his French possessions.
In 1199 besieging a castle at Limoges, Richard was shot by a stray arrow from one of the defenders. Richard had refused to allow the defenders to surrender as he was infuriated by their resistance and was determined to punish them. His wound turned gangrenous and he died to be succeeded by John, his life-long rival. There appears to be evidence that Richard was at least bisexual, if not homosexual[xiii] and his marriage to Berengaria was childless.
ReputationWithin five years of his death John had lost Anjou and Normandy to Philip. This loss has led to him being viewed as incompetent, while his brother has been seen as a romantic hero and ‘a good thing’[xiv]. He was positively viewed by his opponents in the Holy Land;
‘Richard’s courage, shrewdness, energy and patience made him the most remarkable ruler of his times.’[xv]This verdict of course related to his actions in Outremer[xvi].
Richard was a warrior, although not the ‘parfit gentil knight’ that later historians have portrayed. He and his brother were both violent, vain and given to ornamental excess. Churchill tells us
‘Although Richard was an absentee king, whose causes and virtues had proved a drain and a disappointment to his subjects, his realm had not suffered as much as it would have seemed. The intrigues of the nobles and the treacheries of Prince John had been restrained by an impersonal government ruling with force.’[xvii]The system of governance set up by his father had functioned in Richard’s absence. Perhaps his absence was the reason Richard failed to undo his father’s ground work in law and government.
BibliographyA History of the English Speaking Peoples, Vol 1 – Winston S Churchill, Cassell & Co 1967
Richard the Lionheart – John Gillingham, George Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1989A History of Britain, Vol 1 – Simon Schama, BBC Worldwide 2001
Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000King John – WL Warren, Yale University Press 1997
[i] Also known as the Young King
[ii] For his lands held in France
[iii] She had been imprisoned by Henry following the first rebellion of her sons in 1173 again fomented by herself. She was released following the death of young Henry.
[iv] Henry had already designated Alys as Richard’s future wife
[v] Enthroned on 1st November 1179
[vi] Henry II - Warren
[vii] One of Henry’s key fortresses
[viii] A commitment to go on crusade
[ix] A History of Britain - Schama
[xiii] Disputed by Gillingham
[xiv] In the immortal words of Sellar and Yeatman
[xv] Richard the Lionheart - Gillingham
[xvi] Another name for the Holy Land in medieval times.
[xvii] A History of the English-Speaking Peoples - Churchill