Legend of the Lionheart

30 May

The myth of the hero king, Richard I of England, is a powerful one. He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion (‘the Lion-hearted), even before his accession to the throne, because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. By the age of just sixteen, Richard had taken command of his own army, putting down rebellions in Poitou against his father, King Henry II. Richard was a central Christian commander during the Third Crusade, leading the campaign after the departure of Philip II of France and scoring considerable victories against his Muslim counterpart, Saladin, although he did not succeed in re-conquering Jerusalem itself. Although, during his ten year reign, he spent hardly any of his time actually in his own country (he barely spoke English), he remains an iconic figure – one of the few kings of England remembered by his epithet, rather than regnal number. An heroic statue of Richard I was erected outside the Palace of Westminster and his deeds, both real and imagined, are remembered in song, story and folk tale to this day. Just this year, French scientists conducted a study of the mummified heart of Richard I. The relic, rediscovered beneath the choir in Rouen cathedral in the 19th Century, was analysed using the very latest forensic techniques in order to rule out any conspiracy theories that he was poisoned. In fact, the state of this mummified heart revealed that the crusader king had deep concerns for his soul – it was soaked in frankincense, suggesting that the monarch feared that his many acts of treachery and brutality might exclude him from the kingdom of heaven. How much truth is there, therefore, in the legend of the lionheart? Was Richard I truly the greatest warrior in Christendom or simply an absent king?


As a prince, Richard was a handsome, strong and athletic young man – everyone’s idea of a dashing and chivalrous knight. Charm he had in plenty, but what he lacked above all – and it was a lack most serious in a king of England – was judgment. His reign began on a sombre and ominous note. When his father, Henry II, died of what many said was a broken heart after Richard and his younger brother John had rebelled against him, Richard journeyed to Fontevrault, the French abbey where Henry’s body lay. As Richard approached the corpse of the dead monarch, it began to bleed. People said that this proved that Richard had had a hand in his father’s death, for it was believed that a corpse always bled in the presence of its murderer. Although his father had done much to improve the laws and administration of England, Richard had little interest in such matters. Much more to his liking was the thought of leading a crusade to Jerusalem, which had fallen into the hands of the Muslim leader, Saladin. There was no denying his military prowess – when in 1191 Richard landed with his army at the Palestinian town of Acre, such was his reputation as a ruthless general that the garrison promptly surrendered. This reputation for ruthlessness was well-deserved – when Saladin refused to pay a ransom for the Acre garrison, Richard had all his prisoners beheaded in full view of the Muslim army.

Sadly, Richard’s capacity for diplomacy was very limited. Richard had promised to marry the sister of his ally King Philip of France, but he demonstrated his tactlessness by proclaiming instead his engagement to Berengaria, the daughter of the King of Navarre. Richard also managed to insult another of his allies, the Duke of Austria, when he had the Austrian banner thrown into a drain! In 1192 Richard started his journey back to England, uneasy in the knowledge that his brother John was claiming the throne for himself in his absence. When Richard at last returned he found his kingdom in disarray. Rebels had captured many of the royal castles and some of the barons had joined forces with his brother John. Richard lost no time in restoring his authority, but he was never able to impose the kind of rule that had been the hallmark of his father. In 1199 Richard was in France when he was stuck by a bolt fired from a crossbow. The wound on his shoulder became infected and he died on 6 April. While to many of his subjects he was still the popular hero, Richard the Lionheart, the brave and fearless soldier, there is no denying that as a king of England he was singularly unsuccessful.

Richard’s legacy has since his death mingled fact and fiction. In particular, Richard’s sexuality has become an issue of wider interest and controversy. It is commonly alleged that, despite their mutual antipathy, Richard and Philip of France had a homosexual affair at one point. This allegation is complicated by accounts of Richard having had at least one illegitimate child (Philip of Cognac), and suggestions that Richard had sexual relations with local women during his campaigns. At some time around the 16th century, tales of Robin Hood started to mention him as a contemporary and supporter of King Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to outlawry, during the misrule of his evil brother John, while Richard was away at the Third Crusade. Although this view has become increasingly popular, it is certainly not supported by the earliest ballads (or historical accounts for that matter). Richard was also a major character in Sir Walter Scott’s novels Ivanhoe and The Talisman, where he retains the heroic characteristics ascribed to him by medieval folklore. Even during his lifetime there is evidence that he regretted some of his actions and was not simply an unreconstructed killer. For example, he famously forgave the wielder of the weapon that killed him, saying, “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day”, before ordering the crossbowman to be freed.  Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, the entrails in Châlus (where he died) and the rest of his body was buried at the feet of his father at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. When scientists analysed the remains of Richard’s heart this year they found that it had been embalmed with various substances, including frankincense, a symbolically important substance because it had been present both at the birth and embalming of Christ. Whether these final acts of mercy and piety saved the soul of England’s absent hero king can only be speculated upon.

3 Responses to “Legend of the Lionheart”

  1. Marc Winger at 2:57 am #

    You’re summation of the old king is smooth as butter.
    Perhaps Errol Flynn was miscast as Robin Hood in one of his earlier movies. He should have portrayed Richard I. Both cads, that would do everything & everybody. Likable, but scattered about. Unfocused. I love these kind of people, but never try to keep up with them.

  2. Nathan at 4:44 am #

    But was his mummified heart that of a lion or of a human?

  3. simon7banks at 6:43 pm #

    Interesting and I think balanced. We need to forget modern ideas about nation states when looking at the Middle Ages. Richard was lord of various lands in France as well as all of England, as was his father, so spending time in France was unsurprising. You’re right that he was no administrator, but no king could have done a good job at home while being a long journey away for so long.

    Saladin admired his courage. The Greeks (Byzantines) had good reason to hate him: he showed extreme cruelty against the Greek population in Cyprus and absolute contempt for their ancient version of Christianity. He was a bully – but a very brave one.

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