Custom Search


Richard I, The Lionheart

Statue of Richard I outside the Houses of Parliament

Richard the Lionheart was admired by his contemporaries, and was usually considered a hero for his willingness to go off and fight crusades. Chroniclers during Richard's lifetime admired his prowess as a warrior. But different times admire different things. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries historians were looking for figures who apparently put Britain on the road to legal and administrative improvement. These writers, such as William Stubbs at Oxford, were not interested in stirring tales of daring do. They were interested in administration and establishment of law. Only spending six months in England during a ten year reign was seen, by them, as a dereliction of duty. Richard should have been in London working in his office.


So what do you want from history? Personally I think stirring tales are not incompatible with a humdrum story of administrative development. Late nineteenth century historians liked to see monarchs as key figures guiding countries on to a brighter future. From this point of view Richard was a bad king because he was not in England planning this great journey of improvement. But you could say that because Richard was out of the country for such long periods, and needed so much money for his foreign wars, government was forced to develop an independent organisation. M.T. Clancy in his book England and its Rulers has described the paradox of a king who seemed to take no interest in England except as a source of revenue, helping to create a formidable administrative machine. W.L. Warren in his book King John points out that Richard's father Henry II had himself been out of England for two thirds of his reign, supervising his dominions elsewhere. It was this absence which meant that "English administration had learned to run itself" (King John P132). Evolution of government happened almost as a separate agency to human will. The biographer of nineteenth century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, has written of the development of universal democracy in nineteenth century Britain: "It was like a moonlight steeple chase. In negotiating their fences few of them saw where they were going, nor much cared so long as they got there first" (Disraeli by R. Blake Ch21). Gladstone and Disraeli widened voting rights not as part of a plan with democracy as its end, but as a series of short term measures to win votes from certain groups of people. Only afterwards did it look as though their purpose was a widening of democracy. The same could be true of Richard and the development of England's administration. So this is the story of Richard I, a tale where heroics in foreign lands meets The Office.

Richard was born in England on 8th September 1157, son of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitane. Husband and wife were estranged not long after Richard's birth, so Richard grew up in Poitou - now western France - in the court of his mother. England at this time was part of a wider empire which included Normandy and large parts of modern France. In 1169 Richard was made heir to Poitou, though he did not take practical charge immediately. Between 1167 and 1173 Eleanor continued to oversee all major decisions, while Henry II himself retained control over finances and the military. Richard, an ambitious and energetic youth of sixteen found this situation frustrating. Impatient for real power, he joined forces with his older brother Henry the Younger in a rebellion against their father. Eleanor, embittered perhaps by her husband's constant infidelities, sided with her sons, and had to be arrested in the autumn of 1173. This left Richard in sole charge of Poitou. He could not establish his authority, however, and ended up hiding from his father in the fortress of Tailleboug. Henry the Younger submitted to their father in the summer of 1174, while Richard held on until late September. In the settlement that followed he received two "fitting dwelling places" and half the revenue of Poitou (see Richard Lionheart by R.V. Turner and R.R. Heiser).



Westminster Abbey

With Richard finding favour with his father again, the young man was given command over Poitou's army in spring 1175. Henry II gave his son the job of defeating castles harbouring rebels who refused to accept royal authority. Richard served a military apprenticeship fighting a remorseless challenge from rebels on the southern border of Poitou. This fighting went on almost without pause for thirteen years. Then in 1188 there was another confrontation between father and son. Heir to the throne Henry the Younger had died in 1183, and Henry II's new plan was to make Richard heir to England's throne, and give Poitou to Richard's younger brother John. Richard refused to give up Poitou, and the French king, Philip, muddied the waters by spreading rumours that Henry was gong to cut Richard out of his inheritance completely. After a stormy meeting at Boumoulins in November 1188, Richard joined forces with Philip, King of France, against his father. The following summer Richard and Philip attacked Henry while he was staying at La Ferte-Bernard Castle, in north west Touraine. Henry II was forced to flee towards Chinon. Henry also had to deal with bitter news that his favourite son John had joined the rebels. When Richard and Philip drove Henry out of his home town of Le Mans, Henry met his adversaries and gave in to their demands. He recognised Richard as heir to the throne of England, and to his continental kingdoms. Exhausted and disillusioned Henry went to Chinon Castle, and died there on 6th July 1189. By 13th August Richard had landed at Portsmouth, and on 1st September he was crowned at Westminster Abbey.








The Trip To Jerusalem

Immediately Richard began preparing to travel to the Middle East to take part in the Third Crusade. To try and reduce the danger of rebellion in his absence, he gave generous holdings of land to his brother John in both England and Normandy. He met Philip of France, who was also going on crusade, and reached an agreement where both would respect each other's territories. Measures were also taken to protect Jewish communities which crusading fervour made vulnerable to attack. Finally William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely was made chief justicier and given responsibility for ruling England in King Richard's absence. It was at this point that a king judged by some historians as irresponsible, began to contribute to England's developing administrative system. W.L. Warren writes in King John of how Richard put government posts up for sale to raise money for crusading expeditions. This is hardly the action of a man who planned to improve England's administration. But ironically the excitement of crusading idealism meant administrators worked hard to build systems that collected and controlled money needed for war. The selling of government posts tended to put people in power who wanted to maintain the status quo. Ironically, according to W.L. Warren, this perhaps lent a useful stability to England at this time, and might have been actually what was needed to maintain and develop a strong administration.

For regent William Longchamp, things seemed to go well initially. He managed to end attacks on Jews in York, ousting York's sheriff in the process. After only a year, however, escalating tension between Longchamps and Richard's ambitious brother John meant that in October 1191 the regent was forced to flee to France. At the same time as Longchamps was being overpowered in England, King Richard's crusade was enjoying apparent success. Richard left Sicily in spring 1191, and sailed to Cyprus, capturing the island and using it as a supply depot. He then sailed onto the coast of Palestine and joined in the siege of Acre. Philip of France was already there, and soon found himself overshadowed by the dashing Richard. Using the excuse of illness Philip left Palestine late in July 1191 and headed back to France where he did what he could to attack Richard's continental lands. He was to some extent frustrated in this by the reluctance of barons to attack a crusader. Even if Richard could not be there in person to defend his territories, his image as a crusader served in his stead.



The quay at Sandwich

Archbishop Walter Coutances had taken over as regent in England, and was more successful than Longchamp. While his predecessor had alienated many with his arrogant approach, Coutances issued writs in the king's name and not his own. He also made sure that decisions were tactfully taken with agreement of his associates and the exchequer. In this way Coutances managed to steer a way through a number of crises. First came Longchamp's return. He was sent back to France without too much difficulty. A far more serious problem was posed by John and his effort to seize the throne. News of John's rebellion reached Richard, and at the end of 1192 Richard made for home. Trying to avoid the territory of Philip of France, he was captured by Austrians hoping to make some money from a ransom. Imprisonment followed in Durnstein Castle. Hearing this John claimed that his brother was already dead. John installed mercenaries in Wallingford, Tickhill and Windsor castles, before demanding the crown. The regency government acted decisively, attacking Tickhill and Windsor early in 1193. Meanwhile huge efforts went into meeting the Austrians' massive ransom demands. A considerable administrative structure is shown at work in this gathering of 150,000 silver marks. All property and wealth was taxed at 25%, and all churches were stripped of their alter plate. This treasure was then stored in St Paul's Cathedral, before being transferred to the German emperor. Once it was clear that Richard was not dead, and that the ransom had been successfully raised, John fled to Paris. Richard was released in January 1194, and landed in England at the ancient port of Sandwich in Kent. He arrived in time to take command of government forces attacking John's garrison at Nottingham Castle. By the last week in March the rebellion was over, and Richard met with his council to plan a continental war against Philip of France. This war was to occupy the rest of Richard's reign. After a grand traditional crown wearing ceremony at Winchester Cathedral on 12th April 1194, Richard made his way to Portsmouth. The King sailed for the continent on 2nd May, leaving Hubert Walker in charge.


Walker got on with overhauling England's administrative system, with the aim of supplying Richard with money. Here of course the administrative historians would get excited, and perhaps the general reader might switch off. For people at the time it was Richard's heroic exploits in war that were important, a situation which to an extent continues today. People, in the last analysis will read a good story. The exciting story will get more readers and last in the memory longer than the sober examination of administrative records. This is not something to dismiss. Richard's exciting image was part of the reality of his time. Whether Richard was a warrior hero, or an uncultured thug doesn't much matter next to the historical fact that he was seen by many as a hero. This image, accurate or otherwise, is as much an historical fact as a document outlining tax returns. In Robin Hood Price of Thieves, King Richard was played by Sean Connery, no less, who returns from crusade to preside at Robin Hood's wedding ceremony. Even in its nonsense, this is a reflection of an historical reality. As W.L. Warren says in his book on King John: "History written from administrative records alone would be as defective... as that written exclusively from literary sources. This is because what actually happened is only one element in history: men's opinions, and their reaction to what they, often mistakenly, believed had happened are at least of equal importance." (King John P4)


Bosham Church

Richard fought Philip of France for many years, and built the castle of Chateau-Gaillard in the Seine Valley between Rouen and Paris. Chateau-Gaillard, a spectacular and romantic castle, much of which still survives, personifies the image of Richard. It was in service of this image that grey men in administrative jobs worked ceaselessly to find money to support the struggle. We end then where we started, with apparent heroics in foreign lands meeting The Office. It was an image of heroics which created efficient administration.

Traditionally returning crusaders would get off their boat and go to the nearest church to blunt their swords on the stones of church walls. Swords were not required back in the ordinary world of peace time. Sword marks made by returning crusaders can still be seen on stone work at the ancient church at Bosham, West Sussex. This ceremony of sword blunting seemed to confirm that the world of foreign exploits was firmly separated from a quiet life back in England. Perhaps, however, as we read of administrators working hard to support an illusion of glory, those two worlds are more part of each other than they might appear. Some people see dramatic stories as history, and judge the work of clerks as irrelevant. The History Channel generally works on such a principle. Professional historians, by contrast, could well see battles in Palestine as a passing phase, some action to keep the general public happy while the real work of history was done. In the end it is impossible to tell the difference between the irrelevant and the important.


In March 1199 Richard was besieging a fortress at Chalus-Chabrol. He was hit on the shoulder by an arrow fired by a crossbow man on the castle ramparts. The wound became infected, and Richard died on 6th April 1199.