Between the Myth and Reality Falls the Shadow
Historian Robert Tombs gives us his account of the actual Richard the Lionheart.
King Richard I, “the Lionheart” [son of Henry II] was crowned in 1189 amid scenes of popular rejoicing and vicious attacks on Jews–a usual by-product of Crusading fervour. Richard, who would spend only six months of his ten-year reign in England, was eager to join the Third Crusade, part of the widespread European reaction to the recapture of Jerusalem by the Caliph of Egypt, Saladin (Saleh-ed-Din Yusuf ibn Ayub), in 1187. A fellow Crusader was his former accomplice and friend, Philip of France, but a series of personal, political and national disputes soon ended their always shaky alliance.
As a Crusader, Richard won a brilliant if chequered reputation. He was a vainglorious product of the warrior culture and little else.
Certain events of his life have entered legend: his chivalrous encounters with Saladin; his capture of Acre in 1191 follow by failure to retake Jerusalem; his secret journey back from the Holy Land and arrest by Duke Leopold of Austria whom he had insulted; his discovery by his faithful minstrel Blondel de Nesle, who sang outside his prison (fiction, alas); his 100,000 (pound) ransom requiring an enormous tax levy on England (not fiction, and reluctantly paid); and his release in February 1194–“The devil has been let loose,” warned Philip. His sudden arrival in England in March interrupted his intriguing brother John’s attempt to usurp the crown, with the help of the French, who invaded Normandy. (This is the time of the legendary meeting of Richard with Robin Hood.) John fled to France, and Richard soon left England for good to pursue a long and at first successful struggle against Philip Augustus and his allies, which was cut short in 1199 by a crossbow bold fired from the castle of a rebellious Aquitainian vassal. Richard, in a characteristic gesture, forgave the captured crossbowman from his deathbed–who, after Richard died was flayed alive by his men.
Richard’s international reputation, cultivated during his own lifetime, long remained potent. It combined glamour as a royal model of the new aristocratic culture of chivalry–he was “bold and courteous and bountiful,” in the worlds of a French minstrel–with his unique reputation as the only Christian warrior who could defeat Saladin. The “Lionheart” image also fed on the Arthurian legend, at this time attaining a Europe-wide circulation . . . . It was in Richard’s reign that the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were “discovered” at Glastonbury, and he carried a sword called Excalibur when he went on Crusade. But the longest-lived part of the Richard myth comes from his later association with the Robin Hood stories, in which his bravery, goodness and common touch personify an ideal English king, in contrast with the “Norman” vices of the cruel and duplicitous Prince John [his brother] and his unscrupulous sheriff. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) p. 70f.]
Alas, poor Richard. We thought we knew him well. Alas for all those childhood stories of the scrupulously upright Robin Hood and his merry men, and the honest and true King Richard who delivered Robin from the machinations of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the traitorous Prince John.
On the other hand, the stories teach us something else–something abiding and very real. They betray the longing, the craving, of the human heart for redemption through a saviour. Historical reality teaches us one thing. The construction of the myth teaches us something else–in this case, the relentless human yearning for a perfect, powerful, and triumphant Redeemer. And the good news is . . .
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, saying, The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” [Mark 1:14,15]