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Richard the Lionheart

A Biography of King Richard I of England

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Richard the Lionheart from a 12th-Century Codex

Richard the Lionheart from a 12th-Century Codex

Public Domain

Richard the Lionheart was born on September 8, 1157, in Oxford, England. He was generally considered to be his mother's favorite son, and has been described as spoiled and vain because of it. Richard was also known to let his temper get the better of him. Nevertheless, he could be shrewd in matters of politics and was famously skilled on the battlefield. He was also highly cultured and well-educated, and wrote poems and songs. Through most of his life he enjoyed the support and affection of his people, and for centuries after his death, Richard the Lionheart was one of the most popular kings in English history.

Richard the Lionheart's Younger Years

Richard the Lionheart was the third son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and although his eldest brother died young, the next in line, Henry, was named heir. Thus, Richard grew up with little realistic expectations of achieving the English throne. In any case, he was more interested in the family's French holdings than he was in England; he spoke little English, and he was made duke of the lands his mother had brought to her marriage when he was quite young: Aquitaine in 1168, and Poitiers three years later.

In 1169, King Henry and King Louis VII of France agreed that Richard should be wed to Louis's daughter Alice. This engagement was to last for some time, although Richard never showed any interest in her; Alice was sent from her home to live with the court in England, while Richard stayed with his holdings in France.

Brought up among the people he was to govern, Richard soon learned how to deal with the aristocracy. But his relationship with his father had some serious problems. In 1173, encouraged by his mother, Richard joined his brothers Henry and Geoffrey in rebelling against the king. The rebellion ultimately failied, Eleanor was imprisoned, and Richard found it necessary to submit to his father and receive a pardon for his transgressions.

Duke Richard

In the early 1180s, Richard faced baronial revolts in his own lands. He displayed considerable military skill and earned a reputation for courage (the quality that led to his nickname of Richard the Lionheart), but he dealt so harshly with the rebels that they called on his brothers to help drive him from Aquitaine. Now his father interceded on his behalf, fearing the fragmentation of the empire he had built (the "Angevin" Empire, after Henry's lands of Anjou). However, no sooner had King Henry gathered his continental armies together than the younger Henry unexpectedly died, and the rebellion crumpled.

As the oldest surviving son, Richard the Lionheart was now heir to England, Normandy, and Anjou. In light of his extensive holdings, his father wanted him to cede Aquitaine to his brother John, who had never had any territory to govern and was known as "Lackland." But Richard had a deep attachment to the duchy. Rather than give it up, he turned to the king of France, Louis's son Philip II, with whom Richard had developed a firm political and personal friendship. In November of 1188 Richard paid homage to Philip for all his holdings in France, then joined forces with him to drive his father into submission. They forced Henry -- who had indicated a willingness to name John his heir -- to acknowledge Richard as heir to the English throne before hounding him to his death in July, 1189.

Richard the Lionheart: Crusader King

Richard the Lionheart had become King of England; but his heart wasn't in the sceptred isle. Ever since Saladin had captured Jerusalem in 1187, Richard's greatest ambition was to go to the Holy Land and take it back. His father had agreed to engage in Crusade along with Philip, and a "Saladin Tithe" had been levied in England and France to raise funds for the endeavor. Now Richard took full advantage of the Saladin Tithe and the military apparatus that had been formed; he drew heavily from the royal treasury and sold anything that might bring him funds -- offices, castles, lands, towns, lordships. In less than a year after his accession to the throne, Richard the Lionheart raised a substantial fleet and an impressive army to take on Crusade.

Philip and Richard agreed to go to the Holy Land together, but not all was well between them. The French king wanted some of the lands that Henry had held, and that were now in Richard's hands, which he believed rightfully belonged to France. Richard was not about to relinquish any of his holdings; in fact, he shored up the defenses of these lands and prepared for conflict. But neither king really wanted war with each other, especially with a Crusade awaiting their attention.

In fact, the Crusading spirit was strong in Europe at this time. Although there were always nobles who wouldn't put up a farthing for the effort, the vast majority of the European nobility were devout believers of the virtue and necessity of Crusade. Most of those who didn't take up arms themselves still supported the Crusading movement any way that they could. And right now, both Richard and Philip were being shown up by the septuagenarian German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who had already pulled together an army and set off for the Holy Land.

In the face of public opinion, continuing their quarrel was not really feasible for either of the kings, but especially not for Philip, since Richard the Lionheart had worked so hard to fund his part in the Crusade. The French king chose to accept the promises that Richard made, probably against his better judgment. Among these pledges was Richard's agreement to marry Philip's sister Alice, who still languished in England, even though it appeared he had been negotiating for the hand of Berengaria of Navarre.

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