The Case for Richard the Lionheart
There was a time, not so long ago, when Richard the Lionheart was a revered English king, thought of as a magnificent, chivalrous warrior of the Middle Ages. But recently, Richard’s reputation has taken a beating. His recent depiction in the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie “Robin Hood” is the latest of example of Richard’s more recent image as a brutish thug. With this post, I will make the case that Richard does not deserve the complete reversal from hero to villain. I will cite some recent propositions against Richard’s prior reputation as glorious king, and I will place those issues in perspective. My objective here is to offer a balanced view of this complex, fascinating icon of the Middle Ages. This will, of necessity, be a simple overview, not an attempt to deal with every nuance of this famous English king.
Richard the Lionheart was a failed king because he spent most of his time away from England. He did spend a lot of time away from England—true. But this is where events took him. Before he became king, he swore an oath to go on a “crusade,” a fighting pilgrimage to take back Jerusalem for western Christians. To violate that oath would have been unthinkable for an honorable king of his time. He spent nearly a year preparing for the expedition, to try to assure its success. On his way back, he was seized by Leopold of Austria and held for ransom by German Emperor Henry VI. This delay getting back to England was not Richard’s idea. While Richard was held for ransom, Philip II of France chiseled away at Richard’s French holdings. So after Richard returned to England, he needed to go fairly quickly to France to protect his position there. He eventually died during the siege of a minor castle in France. Richard’s absence from England for most of his ten-year reign was more evidence of the duplicity of key rivals of Richard the Lionheart than evidence of some failure on his part. By any fair standards of the period, Leopold of Austria, Emperor Henry VI, Philip II of France—and John, Richard’s brother—should all have been excommunicated for their treatment of a fighting pilgrim for Christianity.
Richard was a brutal thug, good at violence but an otherwise unsophisticated ruler. It is true Richard was a huge, strong man, an accomplished fighter, who often led his men into battle from the front. (Saladin himself criticized Richard for being too reckless with his personal safety. This was probably a legitimate criticism. Richard’s arrogant failure to armor himself properly while besieging a minor castle in France led to his death.) But Richard was also well-educated, dabbling in music, poetry and song-writing. His military victories were not just the result of brutish power, but showed a keen mastery of tactics and strategy. The Battle of Arsuf, one of his greatest victories while on the “Third Crusade,” came after a long hot march down the coast toward Jerusalem, a march meticulously controlled by Richard as it was harried by Saladin’s forces all along the route. The battle itself was won as a result of Richard’s grasp of the situation, and his tactic of unleashing a well-timed cavalry charge to drive off and crush the attackers. When it looked as if a premature move by some of his men would jeopardize the plan, Richard acted quickly to adjust and to orchestrate a successful charge. He had arranged for a series of bugle calls to signal his commands, and gave clear instructions to his men before the battle began. And yes, he led that charge, from the front. In just a few moments of that charge, Richard’s forces prevailed at the Battle of Arsuf.
Richard was a religious fanatic who committed atrocities against Muslims. This was an era of religious fanatics. Richard believed in his faith and the idea that he needed to fight for it. He did order the executions of 3000 unarmed prisoners taken at Acre. The killing of the Acre hostages was a brutal act, and through our eyes, appears to be a negative against Richard. I won’t defend it too much here, except to say that this was a more violent time, when such executions occurred. Saladin executed the knights of the orders taken prisoner at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. When Richard felt was being trifled with over the payment of the ransom for the Acre prisoners, he leveled consequences. There is no doubt this angered Saladin, as he then executed prisoners his forces captured during Richard’s march south toward Jerusalem, just after the Acre hostage executions. But this is the only incident that can be fairly called an “atrocity.” And Richard and Saladin negotiated a peace agreement just over a year later, with declarations of mutual respect from both of them (including mutual respect between Richard and Saladin’s brother al-Adil as well—Richard went so far as to award knight spurs to Saladin’s nephew al-Kamil). This does not sound like the actions of a rabid religious fanatic.
For all his great military ability, Richard failed to take Jerusalem during the “Third Crusade.” Richard got to within twelve miles of Jerusalem twice, but did not follow through with a siege. Richard was no impetuous fool. Besieging Jerusalem in both situations (once during the rains and winds of winter, and once during the stifling heat of summer with unreliable water sources) would have been logistically challenging, and the city would have been difficult to hold after it had been taken. He saw the situation objectively and did not let ego lead him into foolishness. Besides logistical problems, Richard also led a coalition army that was severely factionalized and shrinking. More and more ominous messages were coming from home to the effect that his brother John was trying to take his throne. When Richard arrived on the eastern Mediterranean coast, the western Christians clung to a few strongholds. When Richard left, western Christians held coastal cities from Tyre south to Jaffa and defensible territories inland, though not the prize of Jerusalem. Though Richard himself felt his expedition had been a failure without the capture of Jerusalem, the truth is he could claim a great deal of success.
There is one other Richard the Lionheart issue that has surfaced over the last half-century—the idea that Richard the Lionheart may have been gay. I don’t consider this a positive or negative. If he was gay, so be it. But I do not believe the evidence supports it. I discussed this at length in my guest blog post at “History Undressed” on July 13th.
|Tomb of Richard the Lionheart|
So there is the case for Richard the Lionheart. Views of history, interpretations of facts, shift with changing perspectives. Richard has gone from hero to heal. I like to think of him as a complex talented man, who had flaws as we all do, and who deserves a balanced look through the lens of history.
Thanks so much Richard for writing such an informative and interesting piece on one the the most legendary rulers in history!