Was Richard I a Great King of the English?


Famed both for his chivalry and his bravery in the battles of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), King Richard I has been the hero of countless romantic legends, from the time of his reign to the present day. Often held up as a figurehead of English pride and a champion of the oppressed, Richard was given the title ‘Coeur-de-Lion’ or ‘Lion Heart,’ as he was a brave soldier, a great crusader, and won many battles against Saladin, the leader of the Saracens who were occupying Jerusalem. Does Richard truly deserve this image, though?

Born 8th September 1157, Richard was the third son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. His brothers Henry and Geoffrey died- leaving him as heir to a country that he had little interest in. Crowned king in 1189, in reality Richard spent only a few months of his ten year reign in England. In fact, there’s some doubt as to whether he could even speak English, preferring instead to use the French spoken in the Royal Court at Poitiers, where he spent much of his childhood with his mother.

There was fierce rivalry between King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor. The Queen frequently plotted against her husband to improve the lot of France, and encouraged her sons to do the same. In July 1189 Richard and his mother’s troops defeated his father in battle and Richard became the King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou.

As he’d already vowed to go, Richard left soon after his coronation to join the Third Crusade and free the Holy Land from Saladin. Reports of his daring deeds and exploits in the Holy Land reached and excited the people of England, who sang of their brave monarch’s exploits (particularly the taking the city of Acre on 8 June 1191). However, despite such actions, Richard ultimately failed to regain control of Jerusalem as he’d hoped.

The following September, having secured a peace-deal with Saladin, King Richard made his way back home. However, the ship Richard travelled in was the victim of a shipwreck in the Adriatic, and he was captured by the Duke of Austria. An enemy of England and France, the Duke demanded a heavy ransom for Richard’s release, the paying of which almost bankrupted England. The popular songs of the time turned from celebrating their king’s successes to how his return was costing a quarter of every man’s income for a whole year. It wasn’t until March 1194 that Richard eventually returned to England.

Only a few months later Richard left England again, for what proved to be the last time. He returned once more to France, where he indulged in his passion for fighting, either in tournaments or battles to secure his French lands. Historic UK’s historian, Ben Johnson records, “It was while besieging the castle at Chalus in France that he was shot by a crossbow bolt in the shoulder. Gangrene set in and Richard ordered the archer who had shot him, to come to his bedside. The archer’s name was Bertram, and Richard gave him a hundred shillings and set him free.”

Sadly, the king’s wishes were not followed, and Bertram was executed shortly afterwards.

On 6th April 1196, King Richard died of his wound. He was just 41. As he and his wife, Queen Berengaria, who appears to have been no more than a token wife, had no children, the throne passed to his brother, John.

While contemporary documents record that Richard was a capable politician and a man of great energy, he is also depicted as cruel and hot tempered.  There is some reason behind the good press history has afforded Richard, though. As well as being a lover of the battlefield and tournaments, he is also known to have enjoyed poetry and the songs of the balladeers. Their work, it must be imagined, helped create the often rose-tinted view of Richard. They would undoubtedly have courted his favour by making him their hero. After all, a happy King would pay a minstrel well to hear of his own brave adventures.

Visitors to London today will see a statue to King Richard I seated on his horse outside the Houses of Parliament, a monument to one of England’s bravest and greatest kings. Brave he most certainly was, but there can be no denying that Richard I was also a king who was appears to have been more interested in personal glory than his country, and who spent far more time in foreign fields than our green and pleasant land.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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