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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?

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