“Good” King Richard? Re-appraising the Lionheart

Coronation of Richard Lionheart, King of Engla...

Coronation of Richard Lionheart, King of England (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v) Deutsch: Krönung von Richard Löwenherz, König von England (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v Français : Sacre de Richard Coeur de Lion (British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 347v) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during his coronation in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard the Lionheart, an illustration from a ...

Richard the Lionheart, an illustration from a 12th century codex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know from the story of Robin Hood that Richard the Lionheart – the first king of England called Richard – was a thoroughly good egg who went off to fight the wicked Saracens in the Holy Land.  The moment he was out of his country, the kingdom of England, his wicked brother John would seize power and begin a reign of tyranny.  Then Richard would have to come back – three lions emblazoned on his tunic – and put everything right again.

Hmmm. Is there any truth in this at all? Let’s go through a little list:

1) Richard was more a Coeur de Lion than a Lionheart – he was thoroughly French in background and outlook.  His ancestry was in the county of Anjou and from his father he inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and was also Duke of Normandy. Together, these domains were bigger than the kingdom of France – of which they are now a part.  And more often than not, the ‘Angevin’ monarchs of England were more powerful than the kings of France.  For Richard, Aquitaine was arguably more important than England – he certainly spent more time there – even though he was a mere Duke in Aquitaine compared to a King in England.

2) Richard’s coronation in England was marred by a massacre of the Jewish population – hardly an auspicious start to a reign.  The Jews had previously enjoyed the protection of the Norman kings but clearly no longer.  After being crowned king of England, Richard spent about three months in his new kingdom. And it wasn’t for love of the place.  His energies were entirely devoted to raising money by selling as much of the kingdom off as he could.  Richard even boasted that he would sell London if he could find a buyer. The reason for this fire sale of bishoprics and castles was to raise money to go on crusade – which is all he really wanted to do.

3) Richard was a crushing tax gatherer. Poor king John gets roundly blamed for the crisis that led up to Magna Carta but it’s actually Richard who imposed the most eye watering levels of taxation to raise money for his crusading activity.  If he’d lived long enough – he’d have probably faced a baronial revolt and not his hapless brother.

4) Once he got on crusade, was Richard all about chivalry? Certainly not. When it came to the Muslim Saracens, this king was super-bloodthirsty. In one sitting, he watched the execution – beheading to be precise – of an estimated 3,000 Saracen prisoners.

Here is a description of that massacre from the time: “They numbered more than three thousand and were all bound with ropes. The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Musulmans, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Musulmans stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.”

5) On his way back from crusade, Richard got himself captured by a political rival – the Duke of Austria – who demanded the astonishingly enormous sum of 150,000 Marks if anybody wanted to see him free again.  England was squeezed to pay the ransom.

Once free, Richard decided to go and take out his anger against the French – who had tried to keep him imprisoned. He embarked on a murderous five year campaign of town destroying and village burning paid for by…..the English.  So exacting was this new round of taxes that a man called “William the Beard” led the citizens of London in open revolt.  William was caught and hung at Tyburn by a chain.  Clearly William was a popular figure because people in London touched the chain for years after to effect cures for various ailments.

Plague pits of London

Illustration of the Black Death from the Togge...

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A scene showing monks, disfigured by the plagu...

A scene showing monks, disfigured by the plague, being blessed by a priest. England, 1360–75 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You could spend a ghoulish holiday in London searching out its plague pits and forgotten cemeteries – if you wanted to.   Good way to start would be to buy the book ‘Necropolis’ which is an excellent primer on where to find London’s dead from centuries past.   Basically, as you shop round the West End or walk round Westminster, they’re under your feet.  Some are even in the walls of churches.  And there are huge plague pits under office blocks and green parks.  London is full of dead people.

If you went to the Tower of London, you could take in the graves of the beheaded in the church by the scaffold within its walls.  But after leaving, go past the Royal Mint and up a road called East Smithfield.  You will already be tramping over the bodies of the dead from the 14th century Black Death.  Most of this huge cemetery is underneath the courtyard of the Royal Mint.  These poor unfortunates succumbed to a massive attack of the bubonic plague, carried by rats, that devastated a third of the population of Europe.  Some dispute the disease in question saying it was Ebola and was transmitted human to human.  Recent research interestingly suggests that healthy people could survive this plague more easily than previously thought while those already a bit frail, were much more likely to die.

Charterhouse Square near Farringdon Station was also another site of a medieval plague pit.   The dead would also have been buried around the City of London’s many churches or even within the walls.  These churchyards were extended even further when many of the medieval churches were consumed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.  However, by the 19th century, the overcrowded cemeteries were a health hazard and the Victorians built huge out of town graveyards.  The previous cemeteries round the churches were gradually claimed by office buildings.  So if you work for a financial institution in the City, you are more than likely sitting above hundreds of medieval dead.

The medieval dead, by the way, were more often than not buried in cloth wrapping or in the case of the plague dead, just chucked in to a pit wearing nothing but the clothes they died in.   Exhumation to make way for new bodies was standard practice right up to the 19th century.  There are horrible stories of bodies being ‘mulched’ to make way for the recently deceased.  Underneath church floors, there was often an extremely tight squeeze – very cosy!

Other plague pits you could visit include one at 37-39 Artillery Lane excavated in 1976.  There is a park in south London called Blackheath where there are undoubtedly plague dead beneath the lovely grass but the park does NOT derive its name from the Black Death – a common misconception among Londoners.  The name was recorded two hundred years before the Black Death and probably refers to the colour of the soil.

One Londoner, Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote about a much later plague in 1665 that had an appalling impact on London.  Defoe was a journalist and a writer and in his diary of the plague year, he described the great pits that consumed the dead:

“I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug – for such it was, rather than a pit.

“They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did: for, the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. I doubt not but there may be some ancient persons alive in the parish who can justify the fact of this, and are able to show even in what place of the churchyard the pit lay better than I can. The mark of it also was many years to be seen in the churchyard on the surface, lying in length parallel with the passage which goes by the west wall of the churchyard out of Houndsditch, and turns east again into Whitechappel, coming out near the Three Nuns’ Inn.”

Funeral effigies – how the dead appeared at their own burial

English: Funeral effigy of Henry VII

English: Funeral effigy of Henry VII (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visited Westminster Abbey today – where Wills and Kate just got married of course – and what held my morbid attention the most was the funeral effigies.  These strange objects are located in the 11th century vaulted undercroft of the abbey.

Basically, the abbey you know and love was built in the 13th century but below it are the remains of the earlier 11th century church of St Peter built by Edward the Confessor and completed by William the Conqueror. Most of it was demolished to make way for the much bigger building you see today, constructed in the Gothic style.  However, when you go to the cloister, you can access several rooms built around the 1050s and 1060s.   The Templar era covers the existence of both churches.

The abbey museum is in a room in the undercroft and the main objects to view are these life size effigies of England’s previous monarchs.  Up to around 1300, the real king was dressed up after death and put on display at funerals.  In spite of some sterling efforts at preservation – nothing on a par with Egyptian mummification though – the bodies tended to putrefy and even explode.  This being rather disagreeable, an alternative was devised.  A wooden model of the corpse was made with real hair, finely painted and dressed in the dead monarch’s clothes.  This was then lain on top of the casket during the funeral procession.

The model was then frequently sat next to the gravestone for years – and in some cases, centuries.  They weren’t always treated with respect and the wax and wood effigy of Elizabeth I had to be completely remade in the 18th century – 200 years after her death.  What was left of the original effigy of 1603 is still on display – a headless wooden figure (the original wax head was long gone) in just its undergarments….not very dignified.

The 17th and 18th century models of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne and various aristocrats are in amazing condition but obviously fall way out of the historical zone of this blog.  But go see them.  Henry VII – father of Henry VIII – has only got his wooden head and shoulders on display.  Believe it or not, the rest of the body was destroyed by a bomb in World War II.  From the Middle Ages, we have Anne of Bohemia (queen of Richard II) and Katherine de Valois (queen of Henry V).

This practice of displaying models of the dead at their funerals goes back at least to Roman times.  The likeness of many of these models to the dead are said to have been eerily accurate.  And one must assume that pre-Christian ideas of communing with the ancestors through these figures had to be a common belief.  Whether you’re a student of funerary rites through the ages or just like to gawp at historical fashions – the clothes on the dummies are original and very sumptuous – then go down to the undercroft and feast your eyes.

Top Ten movies about the Middle Ages

This YouTube contributor has made a video about his top ten movies on the Middle Ages – see below.

His first is El Cid with Charlton Heston in the lead role.  A typical 1960s historical star vehicle but with a memorable scene where El Cid – scourge of the muslims in medieval Andalusia (though often working for them as a mercenary) – rides out to his last battle….with one twist, he’s already dead.  Sorry, that’s kind of ruined the movie a bit.  Whoops!

13th Warrior is a good choice.  Not the critics’ favorite movie though.  Set in the Dark Ages, a young Islamic noble is sent to live among the Vikings of northern Europe.  There’s a good contrast between the civilised world he has come from and the uncouth one he is forced to join.   The muslim east had inherited all the refinement of Rome and Persia and the learning of Greece but Antonio Banderas, who plays the young Saracen, has to forget all that to fight shoulder to shoulder with his new Viking chums against a mysterious beast.

At number eight, my friend on YouTube has picked The War Lord – another Charlton Heston vehicle but arguably more sinister and brutal than El Cid.   Next up is Ladyhawke – an 80s fantasy thriller where two medieval lovers have difficulty consummating their love as one habitually transforms in to a wolf and the other in to a hawk.  Only by lifting a curse can they get down to it.  Juana La Loca is more my cup of tea – about the first queen of a united Spain and the onset of her madness, believed now to have been clinical depression.  The movie puts forward its explanation for why her majesty lost her marbles.

Kingdom of Heaven is next up.  Obviously steeped in the Templar period and covering the events around the Battle of Hattin, it’s a movie of huge interest to those who study the Knights Templar.  Director Ridley Scott was accused of presenting a nineteenth century romantic view of the struggle between crusaders and Saracens though one has to allow for some dramatic license.  I thought the depiction of Saladin and of the leper king Baldwin were excellent and the battle scenes were gripping.  Where the film fell down for me, as for others, was the casting of Orlando Bloom.  I shall say no more.

Henry V – the Kenneth Branagh version and not the Laurence Olivier war-time movie – is a strangely dated choice.  But it was hugely popular at the time and Branagh evoked a medieval battlefield that was in tune with our modern knowledge of war as messy, dirty and bloody.  No neat sword fights but heaps of mud and piled up corpses.  I remember loving Derek Jacobi’s ultra-hammy prologue at the start of the movie – worth watching just for that.

The Message – Anthony Quinn plays the prophet Mohammad and the movie goes through the key events of the emergence of Islam in the seventh century AD.   As an actor, Quinn always got parts requiring a heavy accent and strong good looks, so he played Mexican hero Zapata, Zorba the Greek, Attila the Hun and he even played an Italian pope.  I’m going to confess I’ve never seen The Message but will put that right as soon as possible.

Good choice of the Seventh Seal next – a Swedish movie directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman fifty years ago about a knight returning from crusade who plays the devil at chess to be able to live longer.  Massively influential film and a recommended view.

The Name of the Rose is my YouTube friend’s first choice among medieval films with Sean Connery breezing through the movie as a monk getting to grips with dirty doings and clerical corruption in a monastery – ably assisted by a very young Christian Slater.  Based on Umberto Eco’s acclaimed book of the same name, it’s a great film and if you haven’t seen it – book an evening indoors with the DVD.  The fate of the papal envoy is particularly gruesome and well deserved.

My top ten would have excluded one of the Charlton Heston movies in favour of the Lion in Winter – the story of the tempestuous relationship between Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn).  And I think I’d have swapped Quinn’s biopic of Mohammad for the 1963 movie Saladin (or El Naser Salah el Dine, as it’s also called) because I have a hunch it’s a better movie and there’s lots of interesting resonances with what was going on in Nasserite Egypt at that time.   I would not have included Braveheart – a movie which has diminished rapidly since I saw it in the cinema many years ago.  Neither would I put in the fantasy stuff like Excalibur (which I enjoyed back in 1981) or the Lord of the Rings cycle (also enjoyed but wouldn’t want to sit through again!).

Battle of Hattin – Templar disaster

So what exactly happened at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 – aside from Orlando Bloom (my least favourite actor) re-enacting it in the movie Kingdom of Heaven?    The battle is one of those events that it’s difficult not to call a decisive turning point.  In this case, it was the point at which the crusader project in the Middle East started to crumble.

From the end of the 11th century – barely a hundred years before – the crusaders had embarked on taking the places sacred to Christendom away from the control of the muslim caliphate.  These same places were of course sacred to muslims as well as they shared Christianity and Judaism’s Abrahamic roots.  From the 7th century AD, the muslim wave had swept across the Levant and ended eastern Roman rule from Constantinople.  The new rulers were fairly benign until the Seljuk Turks took control of the caliphate – after which, things turned a little nastier for Jews and Christians living in the region.  In truth, toleration of the so-called ‘dhimmi’ faiths of Christianity and Judaism went in waves – under some muslim rulers, things were fine and under others, not so good.

Increased repression in the Holy Land and the disintegration of the Christian empire of Constantinople (called Byzantine today but not back then), led to the crusades.  Jerusalem fell to the crusaders along with most of the shoreline of the Levant.  Rival princes carved out kingdoms like Tripoli, Jerusalem and Edessa.  Divisions within the Islamic body politic and skilful diplomacy as well as warfare by the crusaders kept these new kingdoms in existence for a surprisingly long time.

But by the reign of the muslim leader Saladin, there was a new resolve to push the crusaders out once and for all.  Saladin had managed through force and guile to unite the Islamic east whereas now, in marked contrast, it was the crusaders who were at each other’s throats.  The leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV had finally died of his debilitating disorder and been succeeded by Baldwin V – his nephew.  Baldwin V was a child and the regency – real decision making – passed to Raymond of Tripoli. 

Unfortunately, Baldwin V died very young and this sparked off a succession crisis.  The agreed plan had been for Raymond to remain regent until the Pope and Europe’s great monarchs expressed their preference.  But Baldwin V’s mother Sybilla had no interest in such formalities and essentially grabbed the crown for herself and her husband Guy.  Raymond, in the foulest of moods, slunk off to Nablus.  He formed a faction that was extremely hostile to Sybilla who was basically viewed as something of an illegal usurper. 

Saladin must have viewed these splits within the crusader camp with glee.  What would have also given him an excellent pretext to attack was the activities of medieval headbanger and all round psychopath – Reynald of Chatillon.  The so-called ‘men of Jerusalem’ – long established crusader families in the kingdom – had come to something of a modus vivendi with the Arab and muslim world.  There was no need to antagonise the neighbours – why not just get along and get wealthy?  But Reynald had no intention of getting on with the muslim world.  No, he was spoiling for a fight 24/7.

His favourite activity seems to have been attacking caravan trains trekking through the desert laden with goods.  The story that he attacked one which included Saladin’s sister is possible erroneous and is a confusion of two stories.  the Arab chroniclers do not agree that Reynald took or even killed Saladin’s sister or any other relative. 

Attacking caravans was small beer compared to Reynald’s most audacious and lunatic project which was to descend on Mecca with a crusader force and dig up the tomb of the prophet Mohammed.  If Saladin was looking for a reason to push the crusaders in to the sea – then Reynald handed him several on a plate.  Having been a prisoner of the caliphate for 17 years in Aleppo, Reynald just couldn’t contain his hatred of the saracens and further outrages impelled Saladin to march on Jerusalem.

As Saladin prepared for war, the disunity among the crusaders had appalling results.  Turning his back on King Guy in Jerusalem, Raymond of Tripoli made a truce with Saladin.  Bohemond of Antioch also renewed an existing truce.  As a result, Raymond was honourably obliged to allow Saladin’s troops to move through his territory, which duly happened.  Regretablly, this multi-thousand Saracen force met a much smaller Templar army and predictably – wiped it out.   Raymond now seems to have decided that he was probably next on Saladin’s hit list and sank his differences with Guy.

These spats between crusader princes look insane to our eyes but in so many ways were an extension of the turbulent feudal politics of mainland Europe – a continent divided up in to a patchwork of rival duchies, counties, kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics, etc, etc.   Petty warfare just exported itself from Europe to the crusader kingdoms of outremer.

Saladin lured the crusaders to where he wanted them by attacking and taking Tiberias – holed up in the citadel and fighting to the last was Raymond’s wife.  He naturally flew to her aid.  This proved to be a disastrous error and it was on the dry and parched hill of Hattin that the crusaders and Templars camped ahead of fighting Saladin.  The Saracens were in the valley with their supply routes intact.  The crusaders had a dry well and not much to eat and drink.  They were also tired from their marching.

Saladin famously lit fires round the hill where the crusaders were camped to make their thirst that much more unbearable.  He then fired arrows through the smoke and slew the Christians where they stood.  The battle was lost before it was fought.  Here is how Kingdom of Heaven portrayed the carnage.

What armor the Templars didn’t wear

This chap has made a very beautiful video and credit to him for admitting that though he calls it a Templar suit of armor – it’s of course incorrect.  The main no-no is the plate armour.  This kind of suit of armour developed decades after the dissolution of the Templar Order and the burning to death of its leaders.  It’s basically a suit of armour from the fifteenth or sixteenth century and not the twelfth or thirteenth.  But as he says – that would have been chain mail and less fun for him to film and make.  Still – nice video – enjoy!