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King Richard I of England


King Richard I, known as the Lionheart in English, and Coeur de Lion in French, ruled England and continental lands (the ‘Angevin Empire’) from 1189 to 99. He won a reputation as a military leader and was very popular in his kingdom, a reputation that remained until historians got hold of him several centuries later, when the pendulum swung all the way to ‘terrible, absentee king’. The modern view of Richard is more nuanced, and neutral.

Early Life

Richard I was the third son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When he was fourteen he was invested as Duke of Aquitaine, which had been bought into the royal family by Eleanor; Richard was also given the Dukedom of Poitiers. Ruling the region required swiftly learnt skills to manage the local nobles, and Richard established a reputation for military ability. Yet Richard wasn’t satisfied, and in 1173 he joined in with the ‘Great Rebellion’, when his brothers and mother rebelled against Henry II. During the ensuing war Henry invaded Aquitaine twice before Richard conceded, and his father pardoned him.

The next few years were spent establishing control over his subjects, who grew concerned at his heavy handedness, but the royal hold on Aquitaine, and the power of the region, was greatly increased. In 1183 the Gascons revolted, and they invited Richard’s older brother Henry, known as the ‘Young King’, to help them. The Young King arrived together with another brother, Geoffrey of Brittany, but this time Henry II arrived to rescue Richard, and when the Young Kind died in 1183 not only did the rebellion peter out, but Richard was the heir to Henry II’s throne in England, as well as Normandy and Anjou. Henry II now asked Richard, with the prospect of these new lands in his future, to pass Aquitaine onto his younger brother John, but Richard refused. The argument grew, and there were periods of peace and conflict. Eleanor was sucked in, having the Duchy of Aquitaine returned fully to her from Richard. The latter appealed to King Philip II of France, did homage for the French holdings, and in 1189 took up arms with Philip against Henry. As Richard had ruled Aquitaine far more closely than Henry for years, many Aquitanian nobles preferred the Duke to the English King, who was refusing to acknowledge Richard as his heir.

King Richard I

Richard’s war against his father ended with, possibly even caused, Henry II’s death, and Richard secured Normandy in July 1189 and England on September 30th. Richard had one overriding goal: to go on Crusade, having ‘taken the cross’ while his father was still alive. To this end Richard started raising as much money as possible by making sure the administrations in his domains worked well, especially the advanced English tax system. Offices and land were traded, and while this wasn’t new, the singularity of purpose was. Philip II and Richard soon fell out over the treatment of the Angevin Empire which Richard now ruled, but war was prevented when Philip agreed to crusade too. Richard raised an army and a fleet, and departed for the ‘Holy Land’.


Richard aimed to sail to the Middle East via Sicily, where he had unfinished business. Germany had become involved in Sicilian politics, and to prevent Emperor Henry VI from taking over the Sicilians had made a native, Tancred of Lecce, king. To secure his position Tancred had locked up the previous king’s wife, who happened to be Richard’s sister Joan. Richard stormed Messina, and agreed a treaty that approved Tancred as King of Sicily, freed Joan (who now received her dower), appointed Richard’s nephew Arthur of Brittany as his own heir should he have no children of his own, and married Arthur to Tancred’s daughter. While this pleased Richard and Tancred, it upset the Germans, including the crusading contingent, and prompted Richard’s brother John to take action to try and take the throne.

The Third Crusade

Richard next conquered Cyprus, where he married Berengaria of Navarre, whose hand secured a valuable ally to the south of Aquitaine. Richard had been in negotiations for this marriage for a while, but it incensed Philip of France, whose sister had been engaged to Richard since she was a child. Both Philip and his sister were humiliated, driving Philip on to humble his powerful neighbour and vassal. Richard arrived at Acre in June 8th 1191. The latter was conquered in July, thanks in part to a siege which had begun well before he arrived, and Richard went on to lead a major victory at Arsuf and conquer Jaffa.

Richard came close to Jerusalem – the main aim of the crusade - on two occasions, but he was unable to reconquer the city. In fact, he wished to focus on other targets which would help forge a lasting Christian victory, as just taking Jerusalem secured nothing. His army, however, had different views. Much respected by the Muslim armies, Richard was not a popular crusader among some of the other European nobles present, inciting fierce disputes with the Leopold V, Duke of Austria and Philip II of France. Indeed, when the leading candidate for Jerusalem’s throne was killed, Richard – who had previously sponsored Guy de Lusignan instead – was accused of the murder by angry opponents. He hadn’t. By 1192, after more victories but with no Jerusalem, Richard decided to regroup, and he agreed a three year treaty with Saladin. Richard was ill, and had hoped to stay another year, but led a fractious and dividing group of crusaders. Had he stayed, his opponents would have been weaker as Saladin died in early 1193.

Return and Imprisonment

Richard could have returned a hero to England, but such was the enmity among rival leaders that he ran into trouble. First his route was altered to avoid French forces, and when his ship was grounded near Venice he proceeded to travel in disguise so as to avoid Leopold V. Nevertheless he was captured I Vienna, and handed to Germany’s Henry VI, who still hadn’t forgiven Richard for the Sicilian adventure. When Henry threatened to hand Richard over to Philip, the English king agreed a humiliating and huge ransom of 150,000 marks and handing over of England to Henry in return for receiving it back as a fief. Richard’s land was left to find this money, and the fact they did manage such a substantial sum quickly speaks more about the strong government of England than it does about Richard’s popularity. Richard was duly released in February 1194. Philip of France had made a start on conquering Richard’s land, and in alliance with Richard’s brother John tried to bribe the Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned.

War and Death

When Richard returned to England he took part in a crown wearing ceremony, just to stress he really was in charge. Then he went to France, and spent five years fighting Philip II over the continental lands. Richard was generous, and converted many allies, and he was definitely winning the war. During this later period he remained outside England, and in 1199, when the Vicomte of Limoges was causing problems, Richard sieged his castle, only to be killed by a very lucky shot. He died, aged 42, childless. It is possible the old story about Richard fighting the Vicomte over a hoard of treasure was true, but it looks unlikely.

Richard has been criticised by the English for being their king but spending little of his time in the country. In actual fact he was a European monarch with lands over several regions, and he attended to the ones where he was in danger of losing them: on the continent. He was tempestuous, arguably irresponsible, brave, violent, driven, but generous to allies and slyly humorous. His military victories have won him a popular reputation beyond all reckoning.

Listing of English Kings

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