Richard the Lionhearted, the very essence of chivalry!
The brave king of England went on crusade, fought his noble opponent Saladin to a draw in the Holy Land, and while he was away, managed to have his kingdom nearly stolen by his brother, the vile Prince John. Only Robin Hood and his Merry Men stood between John and his evil plans. Richard ultimately returned to claim his throne, pardon Robin and the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, and set things right in England.
It’s the stuff of legends, then and now. The Robin Hood stories and Richard’s place in them are a part of the collective myth of Western Civilisation, popular for centuries. There is even a statue of Richard on horseback, with sword drawn as if leading an army, outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. Richard’s deeds were spoken and sung of in his own time, so they must be true, right?
Well yes, somewhat, but with some very big qualifications. In addition to being King of England, Richard was the Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Anjou, Count of Nantes, Overlord of Brittany, and Lord of Ireland. That’s a lot of titles! How would that all fit on a cheque? But the presence of all those non-English honours says something very important: being the great-grandson of William IX, Richard’s heart belonged to Aquitaine, and he really wasn’t interested in England at all, except as his personal twelfth-century ATM. He used its considerable resources to finance his many war campaigns against various foes in France (a separate country from its modern western regions back then). Though he was born in Oxford, he spent only about ten months of his ten-year reign (1189–1199) in England, finding the place to be damp and dreary—no change there then, and that he also didn’t even speak English. Actually, none of the monarchs in England spoke English as their native language, from William the Conqueror in 1066 until Henry IV, who usurped the throne in 1399, but that’s a whole different story.
Richard had a bad temper and a reckless fearlessness in battle (hence his nickname); he loved a good fight and was a warrior king through and through—it was ultimately his undoing. So why is he listed here? Because he was also passionate about music and was a gifted songwriter himself. One of his pieces survives with music, and it’s a real beauty.
He went on crusade in the year 1190 (having vowed to do so in 1187) and had a number of adventures along the way. His success in the Holy Land was limited. The goal was to retake Jerusalem, which had fallen to Saladin’s forces in 1187, but Richard never achieved that. After a stalemate with Saladin he left the Middle East, vowing that he would never set foot in Jerusalem unless it was as its conqueror. However, he had made a number of enemies along the way back to his own continent. In order to get home safely, he had to sneak into Europe via the back door. Unfortunately for him, he was caught in Germany, imprisoned, and held for a huge ransom that his mother and family were obliged to pay to secure his release. This money was raised from, you guessed it, the taxpayers of England. Good King Richard wasn’t so popular with the English in the 1190s.
It was during this time that he is said to have written the song Je nuns hon pris that survives with music. It has a beautiful melancholy quality, despite the less-than-humble content. The song begins:
No prisoner will ever speak his mind fittingly
Unless he speaks in grief
But, for consolation, he can make a song.
I have many friends, but their gifts are poor.
It will be their shame if, for want of ransom,
I stay a prisoner for these two winters.
A legend appeared in the thirteenth century (and has persisted into modern times) that Richard’s trusty minstrel, Blondel, went in search of his master’s place of imprisonment. He heard of one castle where an important man was held, but though Blondel stayed there for the whole winter, he could not learn this man’s identity. At last he passed by Richard’s dungeon (other stories place Richard in a tower), and Richard, seeing him through a window, sang a verse from a song they had co-written. Hearing this song, Blondel knew he had found Richard, so he sent news back to Eleanor.
It’s a popular story with little basis in fact. There was a trouvère (the northern French equivalent of a troubadour) living at about that time named Blondel de Nesle, whom many would love to connect with this story, but the evidence is scant.
In any case, Eleanor paid the ransom and Richard did go back to England in 1194 for a short time to set in order some of John’s cock-ups—and this is possibly one source for some of the Robin Hood legends. However, he happily returned to the continent soon after to begin waging wars again. He continued this life for another five years before meeting his end in a rather ridiculous way.
He was besieging a poorly defended castle called Chalûs-Chabrol. On the evening of March 25, 1199, Richard was walking the castle perimeter, without his armour, to see how preparations were going for the siege. He noticed a young man standing on one of the walls and holding a frying pan as a makeshift shield, which gives you a good idea of how well the place was being defended. Just then, a crossbow bolt struck him on the left shoulder. A surgeon was brought in to remove it, but he did a poor job and made Richard’s wound worse. It quickly became gangrenous, and Richard knew he would die. There are different versions of what happened next. In one, Richard asked that the one who fired the shot be brought to him. He was a boy claiming that Richard had killed his father and brothers, and that he wanted revenge. Richard showed mercy, forgave him, and insisted that he be let go and given money for his suffering.
Richard died on April 6, 1199, in the arms of his mother, having willed his kingdom to John (and what a disaster that proved to be!). The boy he forgave didn’t fare well, after all: a mercenary captain named Mercadier had the young man skinned alive and hanged as soon as Richard had died; so much for chivalry.
Richard’s body parts were scattered into various resting places, a gross if not uncommon practice of the time, with his entrails buried where he died, his heart buried at Rouen in Normandy, and the rest of him buried at the feet of his father Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. Thus ended the life of the musician-king.
In the thirteenth century, the Bishop of Rochester claimed that Richard had spent thirty-three years in purgatory being cleansed of his sins and was admitted into heaven in March 1232. How the bishop arrived at these exact figures is unknown, but he was pretty confident about it.