Richard was born in England, on 8th September 1157, third son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As was normal for the monarchy of the times, he spoke two dialects of French although contrary to popular belief was more than likely able to speak or at least understand some English too. His wet-nurse had delivered her own son the same night Richard was born, Alexander Neckham who went on to become one of the greatest scientists of the period. Most of his childhood was spent in England with his eventual transfer to France, when he was an adolescent where he began to demonstrate his future skill as a warrior, putting down the rebellions of his father’s Barons. It was during this period that he earned the nickname Coeur de Lion. Some historians have argued that being a third son, it was considered highly unlikely that he would accede the throne, however his eldest brother passed away before his birth, therefore in effect making him the heir of his brother Henry.
With his mother’s birth right the duchy of Aquitaine in France, and the dukedom of Normandy amongst their lands and titles, Richard was born to inherit at least part of the family titles and would as a consequence be raised to rule. Richard was according to contemporary sources a very tall athletic man, some claim he stood at around six feet five inches (196 cm) and had the Plantagenet fair hair. This is debatable as his younger brother was around five feet five, but given the height of others in his line, Edward I and Edward IV notably, who were both clearly over six feet in height, not impossible.
Following the bestowing of the title of ‘Young King of England’ on his brother Henry, by their father in preparation for the eventuality of his succeeding his father as King, Henry soon became disillusioned with their father’s reluctance to hand over much of the responsibilities of his future domain, or the finances that accompanied them, which led to discontent and eventual rebellion. Young Henry was compelled to turn to his mother’s first husband Louis VII of France. Richard soon followed along with their younger brother Geoffrey and their mother who was dismayed to find that her husband had mortgaged her lands in Aquitaine without her knowledge. The rebellion failed and the brothers were forced to grovel for forgiveness from their father.
In 1183, following his increased cruelty to his subjects and his father’s demand that he pay homage to his older brother and that he hand over Aquitaine to his youngest brother John, which Richard refused, he faced rebellion from the Barons of his lands, which brought him into another conflict with his father, this time his brothers fought against him. The conflict paused briefly in 1183 with the death of Young Henry.
Richard was now heir to the throne. In 1187 Richard strengthened his position by joining forces with Phillip II. Historians argue that their close relationship was sexual in nature, reinforced by two apparent public confessions of sodomy and acts of penitence in 1191 and 1195. Richard had been betrothed for many years to Phillip’s sister Alys, but was unable to complete the marriage as Henry II had taken her as his mistress. In the eyes of the Church any marriage would be invalid, yet Henry had refused to let Richard put her aside. On 6th July 1189, two days after agreeing to name Richard as his heir, Henry II died. Richard the Lionheart was now King of England.
*Updated paragraph due to further information thanks to D.Irwin, (2015)*
Richard’s reign as king got off to an unfortunate start, when at his Westminster coronation in September 1189, all Jews and women were barred from attending. Despite this edict, a number of Jewish leaders arrived to offer gifts and blessings. Contemporary chronicler Ralph de Diceto states that Richard ordered them to be stripped, flogged and thrown out; allegedly claiming all Jews should be killed, (W.Stubbs,1876) however modern Historians of worth seem to debunk this source, citing that Richard’s actions following the event contradict the source in that he issued an order demanding all violence and action against Jews was to stop immediately, although the rioting and burning continued in some places until the following day. Richard ordered Ranulf de Glanville to arrest and fine some of the perpetrators, as perhaps a statement of justice in a situation where it was impossible to punish all. Others were hanged or taken as hostages. What we can say is however accurate the claim of how involved Richard was in the events following his coronation, his population had taken the edict of barring Jews from attendance as an order and used it as validation for a mass outbreak of violence and murder of Jews across the country. It is noted that one of the visiting Jews, Benedict of York, was severely injured during the violence and died later of his wounds. A further notable example of this violence was the massacre that took place at Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190, by which time Richard and his contemporaries had left for France.
Richard had previously taken the cross in 1187, and enforced Phillip of France to accompany him on a crusade to the Holy Land on crusade. This journey took place in 1190, after Richard had sold as much of his land, property and titles as he could manage. Famously he quoted that “I would have sold London, if I could have found a buyer.” During the siege of Sicily in 1191, Richard succeeded in rescuing his widowed sister, Queen Joan, and after a period of tension between the two kings, Richard formally ended his contract with Alys. Following shipwreck off Cyprus, Richard found many of his fleet gone, and the crew taken prisoner. Richard ordered their release from the ruler Isaac Komnenos. He refused, so Richard invaded and took the island, supported by his men. Before leaving, Richard married his new fiancé, Berengaria of Navarre in St George’s Chapel, Limassol Castle. In a double ceremony, they were also crowned King and Queen of Cyprus and Berengaria also Queen of England. Richard later sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar.
After 3 years of fighting Saladin’s Muslim forces in the Holy Land, although never managing to take back the land, Richard finally negotiated peace terms with Saladin. On his way back to France and England, Richard was first forced onto Corfu by a storm, where he had to escape the Byzantine ruler Isaac of Corfu, disguised as a Templar. Then he had to make dangerous land passage through Central Europe following a shipwreck, where he was taken prisoner firstly by Duke Leopold V of Austria, then handed over to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Both were excommunicated by Pope Celestine III for the crime of imprisonment of a Crusader. Richard refused to show deference to the Emperor citing ‘I am born of a rank which recognises no superior but God’. Richard was eventually released following the raising and subsequent loss of a large ransom, in 1194.
He was forced to re-take Normandy in 1196 after rebellion in his absence, and by 1198 was fortifying his lands with the building of his favourite castle Chateau Gaillard. The following year, whilst putting down a rebellion in Limousin, for which Richard adopted his new motto, still used by the monarchy today ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ – God and my Right, he was shot through the left shoulder near his neck by a crossbow bolt. He attempted to remove it himself in his tent, but was unable to. He called a surgeon who managed to remove it, but mangled his arm in the process. Gangrene set in, and Richard, after forgiving the crossbowman, died in his mother’s arms on 6th April 1199 without any legitimate heir. Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen, his entrails at Chalus and his body at the feet of his father in Fontevraud Abbey. Allegedly his remains were disinterred and lost during the French Revolution, thus demonstrating that even in death, as in life, Richard was in the middle of conflict. But he never met Robin Hood.