The destination for history

Richard I: A mighty king or a menacing tyrant?

coronation_of_richard_i_in_westminster_abbey

Ask people in the street to name one English king, and most would answer, ‘Richard the Lionheart’. Known to film buffs as ‘King Richard of the Last Reel’, he appears at the end of every Robin Hood epic as the crusader hero returning to right the wrongs suffered by his loyal subjects during his long absence from these shores. Seeing his grand equestrian statue outside the Palace of Westminster, one might assume he was also a great law-giver.

Not so, in his homeland of southwest France he was called Ricart Oc-e-No or Tricky Dick. Forget the myths of chivalry and knights protecting the poor and rescuing damsels in distress. The twelfth century was a time of constant warfare with no holds barred and Richard was a formidable warrior, whose whole life was spent on campaign. Once king, he plundered the Exchequer and departed on the Third Crusade with Philip Augustus, the French monarch whose bed he had shared. The two of them never stopped squabbling and, in the following two years, Richard alienated all his other allies too. In the Holy Land, he squandered the lives of his followers, slaughtered thousands of civilian hostages and failed to reach Jerusalem despite his brilliant generalship against the forces of Saladin – about which new material has recently become available thanks to Israeli and Australian archaeologists.  So, if this was a king who detested England, never learned its language and impoverished the kingdom twice – the second time was to raise his ransom and gain his release from imprisonment in Germany – where did the enduring legend of ‘good king Richard’ originate? The answer is good old Mum. To raise the enormous ransom, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine devised a brilliant PR campaign depicting him as a Christian hero.

Richard’s greatest failing as monarch was to provide no heir to inherit what was then the mightiest empire in Europe. When he was crowned in Westminster Abbey at the age of thirty-one, the only queen present was his formidable mother, for Richard had no interest in women. His untimely death at Châlus castle, where he was stealing someone else’s treasure, left the throne vacant, so that Eleanor had to let his unstable brother John become king. Many gay monarchs have fathered children as a duty. Why did Richard not do so, even after Eleanor bullied him into marrying poor Berengaria of Navarre? The answer to that will surprise many people.  

By Douglas Boyd

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books