Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Richard and the Crusade

Steve Muhlberger

This lecture is about the other great knight of twelfth-century England, Richard Lionheart.

Richard is the English king who closest approaches the medieval ideal of chivalry. He was a bold warrior: not only a good general, but also a champion at individual combat. He was a poet in the southern French troubadour tradition. He was a generous patron of knights and their tournaments. He was also an enthusiastic crusader.

As such, he has a great historical reputation, even among sober historians: "an able as well as a heroic king," says one [Clanchy, 142].

If you like warrior-kings whom no one dared defy, Richard is certainly one of the best of that lot, but romanticizing such figures is dangerous.

There is a revealing anecdote about Richard that brings him down to earth. On his way to Palestine, Richard rode through southern Italy with only a single attendant. In Calabria, the toe of the boot, he saw a hawk in a peasant's hut. Richard decided that this hunting bird was far too noble to be owned by such a churl. So he took it upon himself to steal it. A man of vast wealth, he did not hesitate to steal from someone far poorer. The end of the tale is as unromantic as the rest: the valiant king was set upon by the villagers and beaten almost to death. [Runciman, History of the Crusade III: 37-38.]

Those historians who don't like Richard have been tempted to dismiss him as a Crusading fool. They hold it against him that he only visited England twice, for a total of six months, during a reign of ten years. The argument shows a certain English chauvinism, and forgets his commitments in France.

Even as king of England, Richard is not easily written off. Although he was absent from the kingdom almost all the time, he had little trouble getting his orders obeyed.  Richard's reign provided challenges to the power of the new royal bureaucracy built up in his father's time, and it passed those tests with flying colors.

It is hard to dispute that Richard was an able king -- in other words, he was able to get his own way. He did pay close attention to his own business as ruler of England. But we cannot really understand him without looking at him as a chivalric, Crusading king. There is little doubt that he was a warrior first and foremost.

Richard is remembered mainly for his leading role in the Third Crusade. Immediately after he succeeded his father, Henry II, in 1189, he devoted his energies to launching a great expedition to the Eastern Mediterranean.

This was not a personal eccentricity. It was part of a wave of concern that was sweeping western Europe at the time. It was also Richard's effort to complete some unfinished personal business.

The Crusades began at the end of the previous century with an expedition that captured Jerusalem from Turkish rulers in the year 1099.  As the twelfth century progressed, however, the western Christians in Palestine began to lose ground. In the 1170s and 1180s the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem came under heavy pressure. A Kurdish adventurer named Saladin had united Egypt and Syria and was intent on regaining Jerusalem. In 1187, he succeed. At the battle of the Horns of Hattin, the King of Jerusalem and most of his nobility were destroyed. Every city in the kingdom save for Tyre was taken by Saladin. Jerusalem was lost again, and the failure of the whole Crusading enterprise seemed near.

When the news came to Europe, its kings came under great pressure to do something "for the Holy Land," as people then would have put it. King Henry II and Richard and Philip of France all took the cross, swearing to go to Palestine and rescue the Holy Sepulchre, Christ's tomb.

Their personal divisions derailed this plan. The three princes were soon fighting each other again. Henry's death in 1189 changed things. Henry had always been a reluctant crusader. But Richard  loved war for its own sake, and retaking Jerusalem was the ultimate challenge. He responded to it with enthusiasm, and once crowned, began making preparations to fulfill his earlier oath.

One very important matter that concerned Richard was convincing his former ally and present rival Philip of France to fulfill his oath. Philip was more like Henry than Richard: he preferred ruling to fighting. Nevertheless, Philip decided to go -- not only Richard but the whole western church was urging him. Philip was able to wring some concessions from Richard strengthening his position as overlord of Richard's French lands.

Richard had to make other preparations at home. He had to scrape up a vast amount of money to finance his expedition. Extraordinary taxation was called for. Here, too, the church was helpful. The papacy had declared what was called "the Saladin tithe," a tax to be paid by all who did not take the cross themselves. It was the beginning of systematic papal taxation, and an important precedent in English finance. In England the Saladin tithe, which had actually been approved by Henry II in 1188, amounted to 10% of yearly income and 10% of the value of all movable goods. It is interesting to note that juries were used to assess property in any disputed cases.

The Jews were also shaken down. Legally all Jews in England were the property of the king, and Jewish moneylenders, still an important part of the economy, worked only at his pleasure. They could be taxed without limit. During the preparations for the Crusade, some Jews were massacred, especially in York, as xenophobia, religious prejudice, and the desire of some debtors to kill those they owed flared up.

I will not follow the Third Crusade in detail, but something must be said about it. Richard's own conduct exemplified the mixture of selfish and religious motivations behind the entire movement. Richard was sincerely determined to take Jerusalem, and did more than anyone else toward that goal. At the same time, however, he was out for profit, and didn't care much how he got it.
Along his way:

Richard is deservedly noted for his military accomplishments in Palestine. He put heart into the disunited crusading army, captured some important towns, and laid the foundations for a restored, if much smaller, Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was a kingdom that did not include the city it was named after, though. The best Richard could do was get a long truce and guaranteed access to the shrines for Christian pilgrims.

One reason that Richard gave up and started for home in 1192 was trouble at home. Philip of France had left the previous year, and Richard was understandably nervous about what he might be up to. There were also political problems in his own realm. Richard had left the bishop of Ely, William Longchamp, behind as one of two justiciars, or prime ministers. William was an ambitious man, and he proceeded, once Richard was gone, to force his partner in power to resign. As sole ruler of England, he went on to alienate many of the most important of the king's subjects.

William's unpopularity gave John, Richard's brother and possible heir, the opportunity to pose as the champion of English interests against Longchamp, who was French. In 1191, Longchamp was forced out of office by an alliance of John, various members of the nobility, and the citizenry of London. The Londoners had formed a commune, an association of members sworn to support each others' interests, and then required the leading nobles and prelates of the church to join. It was this ad hoc political association that pushed Longchamp out.

The actions of the commune was an omen for the future. It showed how a broadly based political alliance, including commoners, could stand up against an unpopular administration.

Despite the rising against Longchamp, Richard's own position was not in danger. The strength and loyalty of the central government built by Henry II was demonstrated dramatically during Richard's captivity in Germany.

Richard had no one to blame for his trouble for himself. After the fall of Acre, he had gone out of his way to belittle the part played by German knights. He had ordered the banner of the duke of Austria, who was standing in for the German emperor, to be taken down from its place by the English and French banners, and thrown in the moat. Then, in 1192, Richard found himself required to cross Austria on his way home. He was detected and the duke gleefully seized him. Richard was turned over to the emperor Henry VI, long a rival of his. Henry then told Richard that if he did not pay 150,000 marks ransom, he would be turned over to Philip of France.

Imagine, if you like, what would have happened to any previous king of England in the same situation.

But Richard's empire did not crumble and he did not lose his throne. William of Coutances, Hubert Walter, the newly elected archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard's mother Eleanor of Aquitaine started to make arrangements to pay the ransom. Although it was an immense amount, and required people to pay a quarter of the value of their movables, the money was collected quickly and without notable resistance. No greater test of a late twelfth-century monarchy could have been devised.

The result was to confirm the solidity of the central government and its ability to govern the country even in the absence of the king. Several factors account for this solidity. There are some personal ones: Richard was personally popular with his nobility. Would they have gone to such lengths for John? Eleanor's influence must have done much to stabilize the situation.

Also, Richard was well served by his capable and professional officials. But here we are crossing from personal factors to institutional ones. It was no accident that Richard had such servants. His father, and to some extent his great- grandfather Henry I, had worked hard to develop a cadre of such men.

Something more should be said about the royal servants. The important ones tend to show up in the history books under titles that disguise their character. I have mentioned three of them, William Longchamp, William of Coutances, Hubert Walter. They were all bishops. A leading lay official, Geoffrey fitz Peter, was like the others a justiciar, but ended up as Earl of Essex. Despite their ultimate promotions to the clerical or lay nobilities, all four were professional administrators who had come up through the ranks of Henry II's bureaucracy.  A learned enemy of Hubert Walter complained to the pope that Hubert had got all of his education in the Exchequer (rather than in a notable ecclesiastical school). William of Coutances had begun his career in Henry's chancery, or record office. Geoffrey fitz Peter was a judge and a part-time general. These were people who had helped create the systematic recordkeeping and who promoted the systematic extension of jurisdiction that typify royal government in the late 12th century.

Such officials were in some ways greater champions of royal authority than even so arrogant a king as Richard could be. They believed very strongly in the crown as the ordering principle of society, because they believed in their work, and also because the king's power was their power.

With such men and such institutions, the king's government could now impose itself on local communities in entirely new ways. Hubert Walter ordered weights and measures standardized throughout the kingdom, and had fish-weirs -- barriers to catch fish -- removed from the river Thames so that navigation would be unimpeded. Geoffrey fitz Peter established standards of quality for bread and ale -- the Assize of Bread and Ale that would continue for centuries. It all sounds very sensible and rational, and indeed Angevin government was a wonder of modern rationality, consciously so.

But from the subject's point of view, government, whatever its advantages (and there were some), was getting increasingly intrusive. The king was forcing them to use bilingual cereal boxes and buy gasoline in liters instead of gallons -- so to speak. Royal government was uniting the kingdom as never before, but one of the unifying factors was irritation and resentment of new taxes and new royal powers, and fear of potential abuses.

Trouble was brewing, although it would not come in Richard's time.

The king was sprung in early 1194, after paying all but the last 10,000 marks and doing homage to the Emperor Henry for his kingdom -- he was now officially an imperial vassal. Richard returned to England, where he staged a ceremonial recoronation. He immediately put in train a diplomatic offensive against those who had humiliated him, and got the pope to release him from his homage to the emperor and condemn the duke of Austria for imprisoning a homeward-bound crusader.

Richard also crossed to France spoiling for a chance to fight Philip, who had seized some of his castles and territories.

Richard would live for five more years, but he never went back to England.  In France, Richard won all the important sieges and skirmishes and was able to force Philip into an unfavorable peace. Richard capped his triumph by building a spectacular fortification, Chateau Galliard, on the French-Norman border. It was an expensive and well-designed edifice, and Richard boasted that he could hold it even if the walls were made out of butter.

In the late 1190s, he had recovered whatever prestige he had lost in Germany, and was once again the foremost warrior in Europe, and one of the most powerful monarchs of the time -- the most powerful after Henry VI of Germany died prematurely.

But Richard, too, was fated to die in relative youth. The story is fairly well known, if not certainly true. Richard heard that a great treasure had been discovered by one of his Aquitanian vassals. Richard hurried there to claim it -- buried treasure was a traditional right of the overlord. The discoverer, the viscount of Limoges, shut himself in his castle rather than hand it over. Richard then besieged him. In the midst of this confrontation, Richard was hit by a fluky crossbow shot. The wound became gangrenous, and he died of it.

Whether this was actually a spat over buried treasure we will never know. But if it was, it was not so absurd an end for a great king as is sometimes thought. Richard, like the rest of his family, got he was by pushing his claims to the limit, even in such trivial matters. Satisfying his greed was his constant occupation, and so we should not be surprised that death claimed him in the midst of it.

When Richard died, the empire he had received from his father and mother was again imperiled. It had come to him intact more or less by accident, and no steps had been taken to ease the transition to a new ruler.  This failure led to the disintegration of Henry II's Angevin Empire.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.