It is a snowy, bitterly-cold day, and this seems like a good time to do some blogging before I have to get back to the siege of Acre, where the city has finally fallen to the crusaders. It is a relief to be able to use that term. It was not known during the MA; they called it “taking the cross” or “pilgrimage,” the latter term certainly at odds with the modern understanding of pilgrimages! But as I discovered when I sought to avoid it in dialogue, it is such a convenient shorthand, much more concise than “taking the cross.”
My blog topics seem to range all over the place, though I prefer the term “eclectic” rather than “scattershot” or “haphazard.” Today I thought that I’d actually talk about
my new book for a change. More specifically, Richard Coeur de Lion, for while he is
not the only character, he does tend to dominate whenever he is on center stage—typical Angevin.
I’ll start by admitting that Richard was never one of my favorite kings. I did not do much research about him for Here Be Dragons as he was a very minor character. The impression I had was of a man who was arrogant, ruthless, a first-rate soldier and battle commander, an ungrateful son, and a neglectful king, and that is the Richard who makes a brief appearance in Dragons. It was not until I began to do some serious research for Time and Chance and then Devil’s Brood and now Lionheart that a different Richard began to emerge.
In some ways, this Richard conformed to my earlier conception of the man. He was indeed hot-tempered and arrogant and could be utterly ruthless. He was so astonishingly reckless that it is almost miraculous he managed to live to be forty-two. And he was, plain and simple, a military genius.
What else was he? Well, I no longer agree with the infamous verdict of the 19th century historian, William Stubbs, that he was “a bad son, a bad husband, a bad king.” I think he can fairly be acquitted of two of those three damning charges. Although Henry II remains one of my favorite historical figures, I think Richard and Geoffrey had very legitimate grievances and I place much of the blame for their estrangement at Henry’s door. He played fast and loose with two-thirds of Geoffrey and Constance’s rightful inheritance and never understood why they resented his machinations and broken promises. And he made several dreadful mistakes with Richard—trying to take Aquitaine away from him and then using the crown as bait, refusing to confirm Richard’s rightful status as his heir and attempting to blackmail him into obedience. His worst failings as a father—even more so than his blatant favoritism—were his attempts to play one son off against another, as when he used Geoffrey to bring Richard to heel, and was then shocked that an embittered and disillusioned Geoffrey would look to the French court for aid. Sadly, he did not learn from this mistake, either, for he then sought to manipulate Richard by making him fear that John might be chosen if he did not surrender Aquitaine. I bled for Henry, dying betrayed and brokenhearted at Chinon, but he brought so much of that grief upon himself.
We had an interesting discussion recently on my Facebook page about going back in time and the ethics of changing what had already occurred. Well, I would be seriously tempted to get Henry to abandon the toxic advice he’d supposedly gotten from his mother about the best way to handle men. According to a contemporary writer, Walter Mapp, she taught him to “keep in suspense those who were high in hope,” for “An untamed hawk, when raw flesh is often offered to it, and then withdrawn or hidden from it, becometh more greedy and is more ready to obey and to remain.” We cannot know if this is actually true, of course. But Henry does seem to have applied the training of his hawks to his sons, too, and the consequences were disastrous.
Nor was Richard a bad king. Historians today give him much higher marks than the Victorians did. There is an excellent discussion of how Richard’s reputation has ebbed and flowed over the centuries in The Reign of Richard Lionheart by Ralph Turner and Richard Heiser, called “Richard in Retrospect.” They astutely state that “Richard’s reputation is tied directly to the value structures of the historians writing about him” and point out how anachronistic it is to fault him for spending so little time in England. It was only part of the Angevin “empire,” but Victorian historians seemed unable to grasp this concept. Turner and Heiser also remind us that warfare was a medieval king’s vocation and Richard was caught up in a bitter war with the French king, Philippe. The irony is that the very aspects of his reign that some historians have criticized—his participation in the Third Crusade and his military successes—were what his subjects most admired. By the standards of his time, he was a successful king, and historians now take that into consideration in passing judgment upon him.
So…was he a bad husband, though? It is difficult not to conclude that he was. What I find most interesting about their marriage is that he went to great lengths to take Berengaria with him on crusade, an experience that must have been shocking for a young woman of sheltered upbringing, but then spent little time with her during the last five years of his life, even though he still lacked an “heir of the body.” So what caused this change and their apparent estrangement? I have my own ideas about the reasons, but you’ll have to wait to read about them in Lionheart J
What surprised me the most about the Richard that my research revealed? I had not realized that his health was so uncertain. He apparently suffered from an ailment that may have been chronic malaria and nearly died twice in the Holy Land from illnesses. Once I learned that he was so often ill, it makes his battlefield exploits all the more remarkable. Much of what he accomplished seems to have been done by sheer force of will; for example, after nearly dying of the mystery malady “Arnaldia” at the siege of Acre, he had himself carried out to the front lines on a “silken quilt” so that he could oversee the assault and shoot his crossbow at the enemy garrison up on the city walls.
I was very surprised to discover that this man, almost insanely reckless with his own safety, was very cautious when it came to the lives of his men. A fascinating paradox there, but one which goes far toward explaining why he was loved by his soldiers, who seemed willing to “wade in blood to the pillars of Hercules if he so desired,” according to the chronicler Richard of Devizes. He also showed a strong sense of responsibility toward the men under his command. The chroniclers often mention how he took measures to see to their safety and comfort, and once when his friends tried to convince him not to go to the rescue of knights greatly outnumbered by their Saracen foes, he responded, “I sent those men there. If they die without me, may I never again be called a king.” He then spurred his stallion into the fray and once again won against all odds—as he did time and time again until an April evening before the walls of Chalus.
I’d known that Richard, like all of Henry and Eleanor’s sons, was well educated, able to crack jokes in Latin, and a poet in two languages, French and the lenga romana of Aquitaine, what we know as Occitan. Almost by accident, I discovered just how well- read he really was. One of the chroniclers reported that when his friends had chided him for taking such risks with his life, he’d laughed and jested about changing his nature with a pitchfork. I thought this was interesting, giving us a glimpse of his personality. But recently I happened upon a proverb from Horace, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork but it will still return.” I admit it, I was impressed.
Richard’s sardonic sense of humor was another surprise. I knew about his quip when he was taken to task for his exorbitant efforts to raise money for the crusade, that he’d have sold London if he could find a buyer. And I knew, too, about his celebrated response to the preacher who’d dared to scold him for his three “daughters,” Pride, Avarice and Sensuality; he quickly replied that he’d given his “daughters’ away in marriage, Pride to the Templars, Avarice to the Cistercians, and Sensuality to the Benedictines. Baha al-Din, one of Saladin’s chroniclers, reported that he habitually employed a half-joking conversational style, so it wasn’t always easy to tell if he was serious or not. He clearly inherited his father’s flair for sarcasm. He was a bitter foe of Philippe’s cousin, the Bishop of Beauvais, a prelate better known for his prowess on the battlefield than for his preaching. After the bishop had been captured by Richard, the Pope rebuked him for imprisoning a “son of the Church.” Richard reputedly sent the Pope the bishop’s bloodied mail hauberk, with the comment, “Here is your son’s shirt.”
He had good reason for loathing Beauvais, who had convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI, that Richard should be treated harshly in order to break his spirit. This surprised me, too–that for part of his captivity in Germany, he was actually kept in shackles, or as he himself later put it, “loaded down with chains so heavy that a horse would have struggled to move.” German and English chroniclers and a letter by Peter of Blois confirm that he was indeed treated in a very unkingly manner while kept at Trifels Castle. Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me so much, for Heinrich displayed a capacity for cruelty that I’ve rarely encountered in my readings about the MA. Both Richard and Philippe were capable of being quite merciless upon occasion, but neither man could begin to compete with Heinrich in that dubious department. When he seized power in Sicily, he dealt savagely with the Sicilians, had the former king, a child of four, taken from his mother and sent to captivity in Germany where he died soon afterward; one report said the little boy was castrated and blinded. Such was his reputation that the Duke of Austria, Richard’s initial captor, handed him over to Heinrich only “on condition he would suffer no harm to his body.”
What else surprised me about Richard? That his greatest fame was as a crusader and yet he showed himself to be quite interested in Saracen culture. In the words of Baha al-Din, “He had made friends with several of the elite mamlukes and had knighted some of them,” and he was willing to deal with the Muslims as he would have dealt with Christian foes, via negotiation and even a marital alliance. That some of the more unlikely legends about him turned out to be true. That notwithstanding my favorite film, The Lion in Winter, there is no real evidence that he preferred men to women as sexual partners and some evidence to the contrary. That he may have had a second son. Above all, that the more I learned about this man of so many contradictions, the more I could see him as the son most like Henry, surely the ultimate irony.
Well, those are my thoughts about Coeur de Lion. Here is my question of the day. Who would you choose as your favorite ruler? And your least-favorite? You are not restricted to the MA, and we are not necessarily talking about “great” kings or queens, though you can certainly add them to the list. For me, it would be a dead-heat between Henry II and Llywelyn Fawr, with Charles II coming in third, and then the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Elizabeth Tudor, and Owain Glyn Dwr, not necessarily in that order.
Lastly, I am delighted to be able to post here a fascinating article by Malcolm Craig, Proving Matilda, in which he sets forth his evidence for the existence of a second daughter for Geoffrey and Constance. Thank you so much for agreeing to share this with us, Malcolm.
January 31, 2010