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Richard the Lionheart, Page Two

A Biography of King Richard I of England


Richard and Joan Greet Philip

Richard and Joan Greet Philip in Sicily. Illumination by by Matthew Paris c. 1236.

Public Domain

Richard the Lionheart in Sicily

In July of 1190 the Crusaders set off. They stopped at Messina, Sicily, in part because it served as an excellent point of departure from Europe to the Holy Land, but also because Richard had business with King Tancred. The new monarch had refused to hand over the bequest the late king had left to Richard's father, and was witholding the dower owed to his predecessor's widow and keeping her in close confinement. This was of special concern to Richard the Lionheart, because the widow was his favorite sister, Joan. To complicate matters, the Crusaders were clashing with the citizens of Messina.

Richard resolved these problems in a matter of days. He demanded (and got) Joan's release, but when her dower was not forthcoming he began taking control of strategic fortifications. When the unrest between the Crusaders and the townfolk flared into a riot, he personally quelled it with his own troops. Before Tancred knew it, Richard had taken hostages to secure the peace and begun constructing a wooden castle overlooking the city. Tancred was forced to make concessions to Richard the Lionheart or risk losing his throne.

The agreement between Richard the Lionheart and Tancred ultimately benefited the king of Sicily, for it included an alliance against Tancred's rival, the new German emperor, Henry VI. Philip, on the other hand, was unwilling to jeopardize his friendship with Henry and was irritated at Richard's virtual takeover of the island. He was mollified somewhat when Richard agreed to share the monies Tancred paid, but he soon had cause for further irritation. Richard's mother Eleanor arrived in Sicily with her son's bride, and it was not Philip's sister. Alice had been passed over in favor of Berengaria of Navarre, and Philip wasn't in either a financial or military position to address the insult. His relationship with Richard the Lionheart further deteriorated, and they would never recover their original affability.

Richard couldn't marry Berengaria quite yet, because it was Lent; but now that she'd arrived in Sicily he was ready to leave the island where he had tarried for several months. In April of 1191 he set sail for the Holy Land with his sister and fiancé in a massive fleet of over 200 vessels.


Richard the Lionheart in Cyprus

Three days out of Messina, Richard the Lionheart and his fleet ran into a terrible storm. When it was over, about 25 ships were missing, including the one carrying Berengaria and Joan. In fact the missing ships had been blown further on, and three of them (though not the one Richard's family were on) had been driven aground in Cyprus. Some of the crews and passengers had drowned; the ships had been plundered and the survivors were imprisoned. All of this had occurred under the governance of Isaac Ducas Comnenus, the Greek "tyrant" of Cyprus, who had at one point entered into an agreement with Saladin to protect the government he'd set up in opposition to the ruling Angelus family of Constantinople.

After having rendezvoused with Berengaria and secured her and Joan's safety, Richard demanded restoration of the plundered goods and the release of those prisoners who hadn't already escaped. Isaac refused, rudely it was said, apparently confident in Richard's disadvantage. To Isaac's chagrin, Richard the Lionheart successfully invaded the island, then attacked against the odds, and won. The Cypriots surrendered, Isaac submitted, and Richard took possession of Cyprus for England. This was of great strategic value, since Cyprus would prove to be an important part of the supply line of goods and troops from Europe to the Holy Land.

Before Richard the Lionheart left Cyprus, he married Berengaria of Navarre on May 12, 1191.


Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land

Richard's first success in the Holy Land, after having sunk an enormous supply ship encountered on the way, was the capture of Acre. The city had been under siege by Crusaders for two years, and the work Philip had done upon his arrival to mine and sap the walls contributed to its fall. However, Richard not only brought an overwhelming force, he spent considerable time examining the situation and planning his attack before he even got there. It was almost inevitable that Acre should fall to Richard the Lionheart, and indeed, the city surrendered mere weeks after the king arrived. Shortly afterward, Philip returned to France. His departure was not without rancor, and Richard was probably glad to see him go.

Although Richard the Lionheart scored a surprising and masterful victory at Arsuf, he was unable to press his advantage. Saladin had decided to destroy Ascalon, a logical fortification for Richard to capture. Taking and rebuilding Ascalon in order to more securely establish a supply line made good strategic sense, but few of his followers were interested in anything but moving on to Jerusalem. And fewer still were willing to stay on once, theroretically, Jerusalem was captured.

Matters were complicated by quarrels among the various contingents and Richard's own high-handed style of diplomacy. After considerable political wrangling, Richard came to the unavoidable conclusion that the conquest of Jerusalem would be far too difficult with the lack of military strategy he'd encountered from his allies; furthermore, it would be virtually impossible to keep the Holy City should by some miracle he manage to take it. He negotiated a truce with Saladin that allowed the Crusaders to keep Acre and a strip of coast that gave Christian pilgrims access to sites of sacred significance, then headed back to Europe.

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