The Crusader King of England

Shortly after the terrible events of 9/11 2001 in New York, President George W. Bush made an appeal for support in his efforts to right the wrongs done to his country. In the process, he unthinkingly used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the actions of the coalition he was attempting to form. He quickly had to withdraw the term as there was a widespread furore about the use of a word that for some still has extremely negative connotations.

Neither was he alone in using the ‘crusade’ word. His main opponent, Osama Bin Laden, was quick to seize on the slip as evidence that indeed another ‘crusade’ was about to be launched in a rallying-cry for resistance against perceived Western aggression. He reminded his audience of some of those crusaders who had in the past unleashed chaos on the Muslim world; prominent amongst those singled out for particular mention was Richard Coeur de Lion.

The last surviving remnant of the Castle at Tailleboug, site of one of Richard's great early triumphs in France. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

So eight centuries on Richard continues to court controversy. The crusades, in which he took a leading part, are in the modern world an embarrassment. However, eight centuries ago the perception of the movement was vastly different, certainly in Western Europe. The crusades were not only sanctioned by the church, they were encouraged and organised by it. Whilst this may seem morally indefensible through our eyes, it highlights the difficulty of judging the medieval world through a modern prism. We cannot expect a ruler of England in the late 12th Century to think and act in the same way as we would.

When Richard became king of England in 1189 following the death of his father, Henry II, one of his first acts was to put flesh on the bones of his plans for a crusade. This had already been in formulation for a while; Richard had reacted quickly after the news of a disastrous crusader defeat at Hattin two years before had hit Christendom like a thunderbolt. He had quickly ‘taken the cross’ in a symbolic sense, pledging himself to be a crusader; but he was not so quick to turn his good intentions into practical reality. Now that he was king though, he had the resources of England at his disposal and he was quick to use them to further his crusading ambitions.

Saladin's castle, one of the major Muslim fortresses in Syria on the borders of Outremer. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

The crusade that followed certainly courted considerable controversy. One such moment came early on after a great triumph at Acre following one of the great set-piece sieges of the Middle Ages. Richard was left after the victory with several thousand Muslim prisoners on his hands. Negotiations were held for their release with the Muslim leader Saladin but the terms agreed for whatever reason were not complied with. Keen to move on to the next stage of the campaign, Richard ordered that the prisoners should be massacred.

The killing of the prisoners at Acre still casts a huge shadow over Richard’s career – though it did not seem to do so at the time where cold-blooded acts such as this were not unique. Much more controversial back then were his relationships with his fellow-crusaders, particularly King Philip of France and Duke Leopold of Austria. Philip could not wait to get back to France and did so not long after he arrived in Outremer (the name for the crusader territories in the Holy Land). By that time, his relationship with Richard had completely broken down, not least because Richard had spurned Philip’s sister Alice to whom he had been betrothed for the ridiculous time of nearly three decades.

The Victorian image of Richard the Crusader; the statue stands outside Parliament in Westminster. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

Richard fell out with Duke Leopold over the grimy details of how to split the considerable amount of plunder after Acre fell. Leopold’s banner was flung into a ditch soon after he had put it up over the walls of the city; this was not just some empty symbolic gesture but Leopold staking a claim to a share of the loot that had been taken. Throwing the banner into the ditch was a symbolic rebuttal of his claim to any booty. This act came back to haunt Richard with a vengeance when he was captured by Leopold on his way back to England and held for a huge ransom.

Controversy also courted Richard in the shape of his relationships with Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was an adventurer who had arrived in Outremer just as the kingdom was on the point of collapse after Hattin. He managed to organise the defence of the port of Tyre and in the process laid the foundations for a fight-back against Saladin. Conrad was elected king of Outremer whilst Richard was in the country, a decision that was not supported by the Lionheart. Shortly after, Conrad was killed in the streets by Muslim assassins. Though definitive evidence of who was behind the killing is elusive, Richard was one of the prime suspects and accusations of his involvement were given as reasons for his imprisonment and ransom by Duke Leopold’s relative, the immensely powerful Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

The face of the Lionheart: Richard's tomb at Fontevraud. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

Even the outcome of the crusade in which Richard was so heavily involved is controversial. Was it a success? It is true that the basis of a reduced but revived crusader kingdom of Outremer was in place by the time that Richard sailed back homewards.  But on the other hand, Jerusalem – lost after Hattin – remained firmly in Muslim hands and that was always seen as the main objective of the expedition. As part of the peace deal negotiated between Richard and Saladin, crusaders were allowed free access to Jerusalem before they returned home. Richard was conspicuously one of those who chose not to go; a sure sign that he would only make the journey to the sacred city on his own terms. This is an indication perhaps that Richard himself did not see the crusade as a success that remained, for him, unfinished business; sadly for him, his premature death in 1199 brought all hopes of his leading a repeat expedition to an end.

All these unsolved questions and moments of controversy help to explain Richard’s continuing fascination to a modern audience. Later historians tended to criticise him for his obsession with crusading. Ironically it is a claim that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Richard reached Outremer in 1191 and left it less than two years later; he did not go back there during the last seven years of his reign, being far too busy trying to recover lands he had lost to Philip in France during his absence. A number of contemporary chroniclers accused Richard of not being concerned enough about Outremer rather than being obsessed with it; how times have changed and how differently we see the world now.

W. B. Bartlett's new book Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England is available for purchase now.