Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land in the second week of October 1192. The Third Crusade had been only a partial success and, after three years of fighting the Saracens, the Christian warriors were exhausted and their numbers much depleted by disease, desertion and death in battle. Richard finally agreed a three-year truce with Saladin, the great Muslim general, under which the Christians were to keep a thin strip of land on the Mediterranean coast and several important strongholds, and pilgrims were to be allowed to visit Jerusalem unmolested.
This face-saving temporary agreement allowed King Richard to make plans for his return home, something that he badly needed to do. In his absence, King Philip Augustus of France had been encroaching on his lands in Normandy, and his ambitious younger brother Prince John had been steadily increasing his power in England, illegally taking and garrisoning castles with his own men and constantly undermining the authority of the officials put in place by King Richard to govern the country in his absence. King Richard fully intended to return to the Holy Land, once he had settled matters in Europe and seen off the threat to his throne from his brother, but events were to conspire against him.
Unfortunately, the Lionheart’s forthright character meant that he had made many powerful enemies during the course of the Crusade. He had fallen out with Philip of France, a close boyhood friend, and had insulted Duke Leopold of Austria, the leader of the German contingent of the crusaders. He had even alienated Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, by supporting King Tancred of Sicily against him. The Emperor controlled most of Germany and much of the Italian peninsula, southern Spain was in Muslim hands, corsairs infested the North African coast, and France was barred to him by King Philip – so Richard knew that he would have a problem getting home by land. Furthermore, the naval technology of the day did not allow ships to overcome the powerful currents flowing through the straits of Gibraltar and pass westward into the Atlantic, thus preventing Richard from taking the long way back to England by sea.
The whole story of Richard’s return is not entirely clear; the facts are fragmentary, and sometimes seem contradictory, but most scholars agree that Richard decided to attempt a clandestine eastern land route homeward. After sending his wife Berengaria by fast ship to Rome where she would be protected by the Pope, he made a feint westward towards Sicily, then doubled back, entered the Adriatic and sailed north. It was the end of the shipping season, the weather was stormy, and after a couple of stops Richard ultimately landed on the northern Adriatic coast at Aquileia, near Trieste in north-eastern Italy – although some scholars suggest that this landing wasn’t planned and he was shipwrecked there after bad weather. Either way that’s where the King found himself, on or about the 10th December 1192, ashore, with only a few companions, and hundreds of miles from friendly lands.
Disguised as a Templar knight, or possibly as a merchant, Richard headed north into the heart of Europe, making for safe territory controlled by his brother-in-law Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. However, after an icy, gruelling, dangerous journey on poor roads, the King was apprehended by Duke Leopold of Austria’s men. It was only a few days before Christmas, the weather was awful and the King was apparently sheltering in a ‘disreputable house’ or brothel in the outskirts of Vienna. Some stories suggest that it was his aristocratic habit of demanding roast chicken for dinner, rather than humbler fare, that led to his discovery; other tales say that it was his companions’ practice of calling him ‘Sire’ that somehow gave away his royal identity.
Duke Leopold must have been delighted to have his great enemy the King of England in his clutches, and he promptly locked up Richard in Durnstein Castle, a stronghold on the Danube fifty miles to the west of Vienna. He also informed his overlord, Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, of his windfall, and a letter still exists from Henry VI to Philip Augustus of France, which has the Holy Roman Emperor gloating shamelessly about the capture of this returning royal pilgrim. Seizing King Richard was considered an illegal act, as Pope Celestine III had decreed that knights who took part in the Crusade were not to be molested as they travelled to and from the Holy Land. Both Emperor Henry and Duke Leopold were subsequently excommunicated for Richard’s detention.
As was the custom of the day, Richard was passed from stronghold to stronghold in the German-speaking lands controlled by Henry and Leopold until he wound up at Ochsenfurt in mid-March 1193. It was there that English emissaries, in the shape of the abbots of Boxley and Robertsbridge, caught up with their captive King and began the long negotiations for his ransom and eventual release.
Negotiations for Richard’s release took the best part of a year, and after strenuous diplomatic efforts by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the payment of 100,000 marks – an enormous sum, perhaps twice the gross domestic product of the whole of England at the time – and the handing over of hostages, the King was released in early February 1194.
Sadly, there is no historical basis for the legend of Blondel and his role in locating his captive king. The legend goes like this: after King Richard’s imprisonment in Europe, his loyal friend and faithful trouvère Blondel – a nickname for anyone with blond hair – searched high and low for him, playing his lute outside the walls of castles all over Germany in an attempt to find his lord. While singing a song under the walls of Durnstein Castle, a song he had written with King Richard during the Crusade, Blondel was rewarded by a familiar voice singing the second verse from a small cell in a tower high above him. The loyal trouvère had found his King, and all would now be well.
Although this charming legend has many highly improbable elements, there really was a Blondel, a famous trouvère from Nesle in France who was a contemporary of the Lionheart and, if he didn’t actually seek out King Richard by playing music under castle walls in Austria, at least he has been immortalised in another way, as some twenty-five of his songs have been preserved in French museums and libraries – including one that begins ‘Ma joi me semont … ‘ on which I have loosely based Alan Dale’s song ‘My Joy Summons Me’ which my fictional hero writes with Richard in Holy Warrior, and uses to discover his sovereign’s cell in King’s Man.
In reality, the Emperor and Duke Leopold would have gained little advantage in hiding King Richard’s whereabouts from Richard’s followers. They wanted the ransom money, and they needed to be in touch with the King’s subjects if they were to negotiate a price. I have to admit that because I like the legend of Blondel, and wanted to include it as a key element of the story, I have made slightly more of the importance of finding King Richard than would bear close historical scrutiny.
If anyone is interested in reading in more depth about the real history of Blondel de Nesle, trouvère culture in general and King Richard’s capture, imprisonment and ransom, I’d recommend David Boyle’s excellent book Blondel’s Song (Penguin Viking, 2005).
Angus Donald, July 2011