Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, April 07, 2006

Dead King Watch: Richard I

Richard I died on 6 April 1199, which made yesterday the 807th anniversary of his death. Richard 'the Lionheart' is quite well known, as Kings go, but for mainly myths and legends about him rather than hard facts. Thanks to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe we tend to think of the 'good king Richard' who was imprisoned abroad, with 'bad King John' as the illegitimate tyrant at home and only Robin Hood to uphold justice in 'Merrie England'. Even historians have tended to paint Richard in a rosy light - as Steven Runciman put it of Richard, 'he was a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.'

Richard was born in 1157, the third of King Henry II's legitimate sons, and was never expected to ascend to the throne. Though born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England, he grew up in France in the care of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He grew up learning the arts of military combat, but also obviously fitted in French lessons. When he was eleven he was given the Duchy of Aquitaine, and then later that of Poitiers. This was his consolation prize for the fact that his eldest surviving brother, Henry the Young King, was simultaneously crowned as his father's successor - and his other brother, Geoffrey, was given the Duke of Brittany. One wonders how the French peasants of Aquitaine, Poitiers and Brittany felt about being ruled by a couple of English rich kids, but I suspect we will never know.

Now a lot of families have quarrels and arguments, but Henry II's family took this to rather an extreme. Henry II's three sons were not particularly loyal to their father and in 1173, the three united to try and force him to give up his power, with the backing of King Louis VII of France. Understandably, for Henry this amounted to treason. Henry II gathered his army and invaded Aquitaine twice to maintain control. After holding out the longest out of the three sons, the 17 year old Richard refused to fight his father face to face and humbly begged his pardon. In 1174, after the end of the failed revolt, Richard gave a new oath of subservience to his father. Apparently, as King Henry gave the kiss of peace to his son Richard, he said softly, 'May the Lord never permit me to die until I have taken due vengeance upon you.'

Henry's vengeance was actually quite harsh - he effectively appropriated Princess Alys - the daughter of Louis VII of France and Richard's betrothed - for himself as his mistress. This made a marriage between Richard and Alys technically impossible – at least in the eyes of the church, but Henry, not wishing to cause a diplomatic incident, prevaricated and did not confess to his misdeed. As for Richard, he was discouraged from renouncing Alys because she was the sister of King Philip II of France, a close ally. This meant that a reconciliation between Richard and his Dad was always going to be unlikely.

Not that Richard was a particularly nice guy himself. After his failure to overthrow his father, Richard concentrated on brutally putting down internal revolts by the dissatisfied nobles of Aquitaine, especially the territory of Gascony. Richard had a terrible reputation, including reports of various rapes and murders. The rebels of Gascony hoped to dethrone Richard and asked his brothers Henry and Geoffrey to help them succeed. However, Henry II, fearing that the war between his three sons could lead to the destruction of his kingdom sent his army to help Richard suppress the rebels.

In June 1183, Henry the Young King, the chosen successor died leaving Richard next in line to the throne. Henry II wanted another son, the very young John to be the next king, but Eleanor favored Richard (poor Geoffrey was to be trampled to death by a horse in 1186). On 4 July 1189, Richard, with the assistance of Philip II Augustus of France, decided to settle this issue by force (we can see a pattern emerging here perhaps) and attacked and defeated Henry II in battle in France - and Henry II died a couple of days later. Richard was now King of England.

As King of England, one might have thought it traditional to like, rule over England. Yet on arriving in England, Richard took a dislike of the country. He couldn't speak English and was not inclined to learn. He spent only six months of his reign in England, claiming it was 'cold and always raining.' No shit. Richard thought 'sod this for a game of soldiers' - quite literally in fact. He wanted to build up a big army - an English Crusader army in fact - and then go on the rampage, fighting wars in the Middle East (hmm, this bit sounds kind of familiar).

The Crusades

The Crusades had began a century earlier, in 1096 and were initially about Barons getting more territory and so more money through conquest. English Barons tended to be happy doing this in Ireland and Wales as anywhere else. Of course, most of the time it was not the Barons themselves doing the fighting - but as AL Morton notes 'hordes of land hungry peasants who straggled across Europe plundering and being attacked until they perished miserably'. However, Richard's Crusade - the Third Crusade - was something new. Increasingly the crusades had taken on a religious character - and were essentially a counter-attack against Muslims organised by the Papacy to protect its political power and the business of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

However to recapture Jerusalem from the armies of Saladin required European rulers to build up massive military forces of their own. Richard needed money. He spent most of his father's treasury (filled with money raised by the Saladin tithe), raised taxes, and even agreed to free King William I of Scotland from his oath of subservience to Richard in exchange for 10,000 marks. To raise even more money he sold official positions, rights, and lands to those interested in them. Even those already appointed were forced to pay exorbitant sums to retain their posts. William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely and the King's Chancellor, made a show of bidding £3,000 to remain as Chancellor. He was apparently outbid by a man named Reginald the Italian, but his bid was refused. During this period when he was raising funds for his Crusade, Richard was heard to declare, 'If I could have found a buyer I would have sold London itself.'

In England itself, one of the first consequences of the Crusade was a pogrom directed against the Jews, who at a time when money was being extracted for war, had the unfortunate business of being money lenders (they were banned from ordinary trading) and so took the blame of people instead of the King. In 1189, their special protection from the Crown was relaxed and they were exposed to massacre and pillage - in particular in York.

His army buillt up, Richard and King Philip (his French mate) set off for the Middle East - leaving Richard's bitter brother John at home scheming about how he could become King. This was the first time English ships had entered the Mediterranean - and you'd have thought they might have wanted to make a good impression. Nothing of the sort. After pillaging the city of Messina in Sicily, the war party swung by Cyprus, wiping out those who resisted him, looting it and turning it into a military base for themselves. Richard was also a bit of a womaniser - remember he was still officially betrothed to Alys - but now he apparently seduced Isaac of Cyprus's adolescent daughter as well as marrying Berengaria, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, a French province in 1191.

However, the crusade was not just all sweetness and light. In fact it was a bloody disaster, costly in lives and treasure. After storming the city of Acre, controlled by Saladin's forces, Richard's alliance with Philip of France collapsed as both of them wanted control of Cyprus. Philip, in ill health, returned to France - leaving Richard trapped in Acre. Richard feared his campaign could not advance with the prisoners they had picked up so far, and so in a fit of impatience, he ordered all the prisoners (2,600 people) killed. However, without the French King, Richard had little chance of capturing Jerusalem as he had set out to do, and so was forced to ultimately retreat. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to invade Egypt (a precursor to Suez 1956?), Richard finally realised that his return home could be postponed no longer, since both Philip and John were taking advantage of his absence to make themselves more powerful. He and Saladin finally came to a settlement of the conflict on September 2, 1192, with an agreement allowing Christian access to and presence in Jerusalem.

In fact, as AL Morton argues, the Crusade 'led to the establishment of direct and permanent connections between England and the trading cities of Italy, that is, to her entry into world as opposed to local trade'. Indeed, 'the adoption of St George by Richard as his patron saint was at once a symbol and a direct result of his alliance with the rising maritime republic of Genoa'.

However, it took two years for Richard to get back to England - as he had pissed off so many rulers and princes of Europe with his cavalier imperialism - and he was even captured and imprisoned for a period by the German Holy Roman Emperor. Sadly, the Germans did not imprison him for war crimes, but for killing the first cousin of King Leopold V of Austria. Raising the massive ransom needed for his release was slowgoing, as Richard wasn't really that popular back in England. So far from home, and with no means of return, Richard now wrote a song 'Ja nus hons pris' or 'Ja nuls om pres', in French and Occitan versions, expressing his feelings of abandonment by his people. It was of course a bit rich of him to claim he was abandoned by his people - given he had got the hell out of England as soon as he had become King...

To give you some idea of the man, here are the translated lyrics to 'No man who's jailed', by King Richard I:

'No man who's jailed can tell his purpose well
adroitly, as if he could feel no pain;
but to console him, he can write a song.
I've many friends, but all their gifts are poor;
they'd be ashamed to know for ransom now
two winters I've been jailed.

My men-at-arms and barons know full well;
the English, Normans, Gascons, Poitevins,
I've no companion, poor though he may be,
whom I'd abandon, leaving him in jail
and I don't say this merely to reproach
but still, I have been jailed.

Now I know well, and see with certainty,
that death holds neither friends nor relatives
when I'm released for silver or for gold
it's much for me and even more for mine,
for when I'm dead they'll greatly be reproached
if I for long am jailed.

It's no surprise if my heart's hurting me
because my father's torturing my land.
If he would but recall the oath we swore,
the one the two of us in common made
I know full well that in this place
I'd not so long be jailed.

While Angevin and Tourangeau are good,
these men-at-arms who now are well and rich,
but I am far from them, in other hands.
They loved me much, now love me not at all,
and now the plain is empty of their arms
and therefore I am jailed.

The company I loved añd still I love
all those of Caen and those of Percheraine,
tell me, O song, that they cannot be sure:
my heart is never false or vain to them.
If they make war on me, no villain would,
so long as I am jailed.

O countess, sister, your high price protects
and saves for you the one I claim against,
and by whom I am jailed.

Of her of Chartres, I say not a word,
the mother of Louis.'

Okay, we get the message mate - you are in jail and you don't like it.

On finally returning home in 1194, Richard made up with his brother John but now came into conflict with his former ally and friend, King Philip. When Philip attacked Richard's fortress, Chateau-Gaillard, he boasted that 'if its walls were iron, yet would I take it', to which Richard replied, 'If these walls were butter, yet would I hold them!' Ah, medieval humour, eh? You can't beat it. After several battles in France, it was a minor skirmish with the rebellious castle of Châlus-Charbrol in Limousin, France, on 26 March 1199 that would take Richard's life. Richard had laid siege to the castle in pursuit of a claim to treasure-trove. Pierre Basile, one of only two knights defending Châlus, saw Richard had removed some of his chainmail, and shot him in the shoulder with a crossbow. Gangrene set in and Richard, with his 77-year-old mother Eleanor at his side, died on 6 April 1199.



At 6:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's really horrifying about English-European history up until like the Renaissance is that the clerics and scholars wrote it paying little to no attention to the non-aristocrats. You'd think it was all about the Plantagenets (sp.), Tudors etc. (my fave royal byatch might be Rich. II, that little aristo who stopped all the churls in what, 1381, and friends with another fat, and mostly lying byatch, Chaucer). In fact millions of Brits and french (as well as the muslims and arabs) were killed over hundreds of years--the 100 years war an apt example. A little study of like 10th through-15th cent. Euro history and one becomes convinced of a few things: one, a "God" who creates 100 wars and black plagues is not only an absurdity but highly unlikely; two, Hieronymous Bosch was a damn fine realist painter.

At 6:32 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The west lost the crusades the first 3 times eh? And how exactly was the first crusade counted as a loss? Not only did the crusaders capture Jerusalem - their stated aim - they did it in spite of horrendous conditions, constant guerilla harassment and little support from the Byzantines. They were also able to carve out a nice little niche for themselves e.g. the states of Antioch and Edessa, satisfying the aquisitiveness of the crusader barons like Bohemond and Baldwin. However, if you look at the lengths that these barons went to appease the church at home, their motives cannot just be attributed to greedy expansionism. Rather than blame the barons, why not focus on the instigator of the whole enterprise, pope Urban II?

At 2:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry snowball - easter alchol disabled my ability to interpret ironic anti-war sentiment. I get upset when people try to rationalise the crusades in any modern social context by simplifying their causes i.e. blaming it on Frankish imperialism. I need to get myself out of the twelfth century...

At 3:08 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Commandante Gringo - I linked to a couple of articles about Robin Hood at the end of my piece about King John:


At 5:21 pm, Blogger Nance said...

I was just wondering where you got that snippet from the "Ja nus hons pris or Ja nuls om pres" of Richard's... I've been looking for a copy of that for a while and can't really find it anywhere.

At 9:31 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, a French province in 1191."

Sorry, but the kingdom of Navarre was sobereing from c.IX to 1512.

At 10:14 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post...although, being a bit of a romanticist, I don't wholly agree with everything you said about Richard, Snowball. However, I do agree that he certainly wasn't perfect. However, he was really revered (if not now) by men of his time, both Muslim and Christian. Saladin called him the 'Perfect enemy'. Most of his criticism that has arisen is from nowadays, after the end of the Romantic era.

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At 12:06 am, Anonymous bushman said...

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