As many of you will know by now, Kelmarsh was a disaster. The local river burst its banks and the whole area was flooded. So the organisers had to cancel the Festival of History and 20,000 people were disappointed. Well, these things happen. Never mind. But I had a little speech prepared on Richard the Lionheart and I thought I might as well post it here for those of you are interested. It would have been better delivered in person, but what can you do?
Oh, and one more thing, some people were hoping to get signed copies of Warlord off me at Kelmarsh. Sorry you have been disappointed in this but, if you want, I can sign copies and send them to you. It’s a bit pricey (£16.99 plus £5 P&P) but if you want them, email me and let me know.
OK, here’s the speech:
Was Richard the Lionheart a hero?
It may surprise you to learn that for the past two hundred years, it seems to have been the fashion for historians and scholars to vilify Richard the Lionheart and to deny him the status of hero.
The distinguished 20th-century British historian, Sir Steven Runciman described King Richard as: “A bad son, a bad husband, a bad king . . .”
The 19th century scholar William Stubbs called Richard: “A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler and a vicious man.”
The historian Michael Markowski writing in the Journal of Medieval History in 1997, said of the Lionheart: “As a crusade leader, Richard was a dismal failure . . . He was no hero – but a man who merely wanted to fight hand-to-hand forever.”
So . . . a bad son
It’s difficult to defend the accusation of bad son, in that he rebelled against his father, Henry II, and it could well be argued hounded him to his death in 1189. But there had been bad blood between them on and off for 15 years, Henry had imprisoned Richard’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and was trying to make him give up the Duchy of Aquitaine so that it could be given to his younger brother Prince John. But, a bad son? Maybe.
A bad husband
Richard married Berengaria, daughter of King Sancho of Navarre in May 1191, in Cyprus, on his way to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. Political marriage, brokered by his mother, as a move to defend the southern borders of Aquitaine. He did not spend much time with Berengaria, and they never had any children. He was busy the the rest of his life – eight years – either on campaign against the Saracens in Outremer or in prison in Germany or fighting the French King in northwestern Europe. But he did not make time for his wife – and he may well have been a bad husband.
A bad king
Richard spent only a few months in England during his ten year reign – perhaps as few as six months. He raised a large proportion of the cash for his Crusade from England through tax selling offices and titles and he is famous for saying: “I would sell London if I could find a buyer.” When he was captured and imprisoned in Germany by his enemies, the onus of raising the enormous ransom of 100,000 marks – two or three times the country’s entire GDP at that time, fell upon England. So a bad king . . . Well maybe not.
He was not considered a bad king by his subjects. He was, indeed, enormously popular in England despite the great financial burdens that he placed on the people. The crusade was very popular, too – and the English were extremely proud that their king was its leader.
Neither was the kingdom neglected during his long absence – he chose his officials well, by and large, although his greatest mistake was to have given his treacherous brother John too much power. The basic truth is that during his reign, England faced no external threats, unlike his other continental land – Richard was on very good terms with the Scottish King, William the Lion, and there were no attempts at invasion from abroad.
So the people of England, as far as we can tell, were quite content for their king to swan off on a Crusade.
It’s difficult for us to understand the mindset of the Middle Ages – the religious fervour, the apparent indifference to human suffering and death. But we can be sure that to the folk of the 12th century – the Third Crusade was the right thing to do. It was noble, it was honorable, it was what God wanted. Jerusalem, the holy city, had been captured by the Saracens. It was clearly a Christian monarch’s duty to recover it. The Crusade was a response to a gross provocation to contemporary Christians. And King Richard was doing good work in going off and fighting it.
And it was no easy task. Logistically, transporting thousands of men and horses, materials, food, and fodder, three thousand miles to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, was a Herculean task. No earlier or later king of England EVER took on a challenge remotely comparable to this – in fact Richard is unique among the kings of England in that he played an active, leading role in the great events of history. Other kings may have fought wars in Europe. But none led a crusade.
Was the crusade then a failure, as Markowski claims? Well, they did not capture Jerusalem, and so from that perspective it was not a success. But Richard did retake Acre in 1191– a feat that was compared at the time with the defeat of Troy by the Greeks. And Richard also took Cyprus earlier that year – which provided a logistical base for future crusades – and he systematically captured a string of strategically important towns on the coast. Most historians now agree that the Third Crusade, rather than being a dismal failure, in fact prolonged the Christian presence in the Holy Land for several more generations, indeed Acre was lost in 1291, exactly a hundred years after Richard took it. Whatever we think today about the crusades and about the morality of the existence of the Latin state of Outremer – Richard’s heroics there were seen as preserving the Christian hold on the region for a hundred years. And surely that must be judged a military success.
To the medieval mind – as evidenced by contemporary and later chroniclers – Richard was comparable to King Arthur, the Alexander the Great, to Charlemagne and the Emperor Augustus. He was a hero to medieval people – even to his enemies as we will see later. For hundreds of years after his death King Richard set the standard for kingship to which other kings were expected to aspire. He was, therefore to the people of the day, certainly not a bad king.
So what was he like – this Lionheart?
First and foremost, Richard was an enthusiastic warrior. He genuinely loved to fight, and he belonged to a class, and existed in a time and place, in which this was an honorable, even virtuous thing to do. He was also very good at it. He was rarely defeated in battle. He was an excellent general – knowing when to attack, even if he was badly outnumbered, and knowing when to retreat. He prized discipline in his troops, and in himself. And courage. But he also had a bold, even reckless streak. He was a master of applying a great deal of pressure at a precise point, and he did this several time, defeating much larger forces with relatively tiny bands of his knights.
Richard was adored by his troops; he shared their hardships on campaign and in battle he led from the front, always to be found in the thick of the fighting. But, as well as being a superlative soldier, Richard had a softer side.
He loved poetry and music – and indeed he wrote a poem called “No man who is imprisoned” which still exists
He was pious, generous, and merciful – particularly to his brother John, after his treachery during the Lionheart’s imprisonment. And John repaid his mercy by behaving himself for the rest of Richard’s life.
We have only an indistinct picture of what he looked like physically – tall, reddish-haired, muscular. And he suffered from what one contemporary called an ague – “He trembled almost constantly,” wrote Gerald of Wales, a famous chronicler. And he may well have been overweight towards the end of his life. Ralph of Cogeshall says that the surgeon who operated on him – after he took the wound that was to kill him at Chateau Chalus in 1199 – was much impeded in his work by excess fat.
However, medieval chroniclers were rarely truly objective, very often they had a political axe to grind. Their writings often were designed either to flatter their subjects or to vilify them. And so, perhaps, we should look at what his enemies had to say about the Lionheart.
Imad al-Din, a contemporary Muslim historian wrote of Richard: “Never have we had to face a bolder or more crafty opponent. Ibn Al-Athir, one of the finest Islamic historians, made this judgement on Richard: “His cunning, courage, energy and patience made him the most remarkable man of his time.”
When I was thinking about this little talk, I looked up the word hero in my Oxford dictionary. The first definition says that a hero is . . . “a person who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements.” And, by any measure, Richard was that. Was Richard the Lionheart perfect? Was he without flaws? No
Was he a hero? To my mind, a resounding, yes!
That’s all for now except to remind those of you who live locally that I’ll be signing books at Waterstones in Tunbridge Wells from 11am to 3pm on Saturday 28th July. Come along and say hello