“Good” King Richard? Re-appraising the Lionheart


Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...
Richard the Lionheart being anointed during his coronation 

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.

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