Richard the Lionheart
NOTES for a Lecture given for SWAN HELLENIC CRUISES by The Very Rev. Tony Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen. You have been bombarded with lectures about the unseemly warfare between Christians and Muslims, with accounts of faith and atrocity, with tales of sublime courage and acts of bestial cruelty and viciousness all committed in the name of one man’s God or another man’s Allah, until the words ‘Crusade’ and ‘Crusader’ must be anathema to you; and here I am again about the assault you on a similar subject, Richard I of England, known universally as the Lionheart.
My excuse for doing so is that while you have been given an inadequate overall view of the spread of Islam, and equally scrappy thumbnail sketch of Islam’s main Christian opponents - the Byzantines - a sketch of one of the Crusades, namely the First - a look at the world of Islam at its most powerful under Suleiman, and a portrait so to speak of one particular battle, the battle for the island of Rhodes, you have not yet had a look at any one given Crusader or any one of his religious enemies in particular.
What were they like as men? What made them tick? And even perhaps, what did God and the world look like when viewed from inside their heads, even if we can only get a glimpse of the landscape in which they lived and hoped and prayed and died? So I thought that I would finish - and probably finish you off in the process, - with a look at the almost legendary rivalry between Richard and Saladin, both of whom have touched the romantic imaginations of generation after generation of both Christians and Muslims ever since their own days. Richard the tall, golden-haired, dauntless hero of millions of schoolboys’ dreams - the prototype of a Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche - whose name is still occasionally used by Arab mothers to frighten naughty children into obedience, by threatening that Malik Rik will come and get them unless they stop bopping each other over the head or whatever, and Salah ed-Din Yousuf, known to his enemies as Saladin, Richard’s noble, chivalrous, romantic opponent, who has been almost as much admired as Richard himself. What were they really like? How much truth is there in the legendary version of their rivalry and the nobility of their characters?
You probably imagine that I’m going to say, ‘None at all - absolute rubbish’. But I’m not. On the contrary, I think that there is a great deal if truth in the old romantic version of events - the legend, if you like - though I should be less than honest, if I didn’t admit that at least one contemporary popular historian has accused Richard of being a royal thug, whose sole interest in life was waging war, callous, brutal, bone-headed, and a homosexual.
What makes that so insidiously dangerous is that Richard was born into a social position and at a time when he would inevitably be faced with the necessity of making war, and in fact he was a brilliant soldier at his best - and it was a very good best indeed - at times of crisis when lesser men go to pieces; but that is not the same as saying that he was a mindless warmonger. It is also true that there were occasions when he did things which would be unhesitatingly condemned as appalling today - I’ll describe one such atrocity later - but which were condemned by no one, not even his enemies, at the time; and to judge men of the past by today’s standards, often without understanding the context of their actions is nearly always misguided. Indeed, nothing illustrates that truth better than the accusation that Richard was homosexually inclined - an accusation which, taken together with that of his brutality, was plainly intended by the historian, who made it, to blacken his character, not merely to interest his readers. It was based on one or two well-attested facts. As a young man, Richard is known to have shared a bed with the young French king, Philip Augustus, while later at Christmas time in the winter of 1194, when he was thirty-seven years old, a saintly old hermit confronted Richard and warned him - and I quote ‘to remember the destruction of Sodom, and to abstain from illicit acts, for if you do not, God will punish you in fitting manner.’ - end of quotes. In view of which, he must have been homosexual; or so Richard’s accuser has argued. But a closer look at the evidence is informative. Yes, Richard shared a bed with Philip Augustus, just as his father, Henry II a well-known womaniser and lover of Fair Rosamund amongst others, shared his bed with William Marshal the Earl of Pembroke, and as most other men lucky enough to have a bed shared it occasionally with their guests; for the fact is that, just as we sometimes say to a friend, ‘Why not stay the night? There’s a perfectly good spare bed upstairs?’ - in the days when few people had beds at all, and no one had spare beds, guests were often invited to share a bed with their host. What he did with his wife on such occasions, I don’t know; probably told her to sleep on the floor.
But the final proof that for men to share a bed in those days was no indication of homosexual leanings on their part is to be found - rather surprisingly - in Canterbury Cathedral, where there is a stained glass window dating from about 1200 in which the Three Wise Men of St Matthew’s Gospel are portrayed in bed together as an angel warns them to avoid Herod on their way home; whereas presumably, if their co-dormition had been proof that they were gay, the angel would have been delighted that Herod was about to give them their just deserts.
As to the story of the saintly old hermit’s dire warning to Richard to avoid the fate of Sodom by abstaining from illicit acts, since one of the few things that most people today know about the Old Testament is that the people of Sodom went in for sodomy, it is perhaps understandable that they should conclude that Richard was being warned to abstain from such behaviour, though I can’t help feeling that historians should know better than to leap to such a hasty conclusion. for, as those who know their Bible a little better will appreciate, it is just as likely that he was being reminded that all sin was liable to bring down the punishment of God on the head of the sinner, unless he repented and changed his ways; for the fate of the Cities of the Plain was used again and again by prophets and preachers to warn people of the terrible consequences of sin in general, not just of sexual misbehaviour. And finally, another fact conveniently forgotten by Richard’s accuser is that, in his own day, he was said to be something of a Casanova, having affairs with a number of mistresses and acknowledging at least one illegitimate son, Philip, whom he made Lord of Cognac.
I’m afraid that I have devoted too much time to a subject that doesn’t really matter all that much. After all, some of the world’s great men have been homosexual - Alexander of Macedon, Michelangelo, and many others - while others have been heterosexual. But I have done so because the subject shows how dangerously easy it is to misinterpret the men and women of the past by looking back at them through binoculars manufactured and tinted in the twentieth century, which focus on a distorted version of them against a totally out-of-focus background. And Richard, of all people, must be seen against his background and in the context of his time and family, if he is to be understood; for he was the third son and eventual heir - his two older brothers died one in infancy and the other as a young man - of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
That doesn’t sound very interesting. So what? might be many people’s reaction. But Henry was a Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou with feudal estates in France far larger than those of the King of France, while Eleanor, as Duchess of Aquitaine from the age of fifteen, brought him an even larger feudal lordship, to which was added the whole of England on the death of Stephen, one of the most disastrous Kings ever to preside over the fortunes of our ancestors.
The marriage of Richard’s parents was stormy, and he was brought up at odds with his father and adoring his mother. What must it have been like to be Richard at that time? when he was eight, for instance, knowing what sort of life the future held for him? If Prince Charles bewails his round of endless engagements, speeches, openings of this, that, and the other as a life set in concrete, what must a vulnerable, affectionate little boy have felt as he was brought up by his nurse, Hodierna, facing such an intimidating future, having to live up to being the King’s son - brave, capable, envied by all and watched by all? It must have been terrifying. That he loved his nurse is sure, for when he became King he gave her the Manor of East Knoyle in Wiltshire, naming it after her. Indeed, it is still known as Knoyle Odiern.
We know too that his mother would have told him tales of the Crusades - stories of holy warfare against the infidels, of the capture of Jerusalem, and of derring-do under the banner of the Cross - which could not but have affected him; for during her previous marriage to King Louis of France, he had accompanied him on a Crusade to the Holy Land. Later, her marriage had been annulled by an obliging Church, so that Louis could try to beget a son and heir by someone else, the marriage having proved childless, and she married Henry. We know too that he was given the best education available at the time, though it did not include lessons in English, which was regarded as the language of serfs. Like his parents, he spoke French as his native language.
In parenthesis, it is edifying to reflect that Henry II - arguably the greatest King ever to sit on the throne of ‘this sceptred isle, this other Eden, this demi-Paradise, this England’ was born in France, died in France, and was buried in France, while Eleanor his wife was French to her finger-tips. None of which I would have dreamt of admitting if M. Mitterand had been one of Mr Swan’s passengers on this Cruise. Richard grew up to be a superb athlete and an intelligent, cultured man with a love of music and poetry and a reputation as a pet in his own right - all of which makes the idea that he was a bone-headed military thug without any interest other than killing his fellow men absurd. But however talented this may have been, when he was made Duke of Aquitaine at the age of fourteen, it is difficult to believe that he was not daunted by the life that lay ahead of him or worried by the inevitability of the patronising scorn with which his formidable vassals, some of whom were at enjoyable war with one another, must have welcomed the coming of this royal striping as their liege lord.
But however unsure of himself Richard may have been, his vassals were in for a shock; for he came down on trouble-makers like the wrath of God, taking command and showing a military flair and brilliance, which both astonished and delighted his followers and leaves us feeling that such an achievement, while still so young, borders on the incredible; and of course he must have been helped and advised by older men in his entourage; but even so, it is undeniable that he made his mark and won the admiration and loyalty of his feudatories while still in his teens, and though this was unusual, it was not so unusual as it seems to us. Because life was short, people didn’t hang around; they married young, bred families, killed their rivals, lived with immense gusto, and died young. In Richard’s case, this meant that by the time he was barely twenty, a contemporary chronicler, Gerald of Wales, could say of him that ‘Among the virtues in which he excels, three especially distinguish him: supereminent valour and daring; unbounded liberality and bountifulness; and steadfast constancy in holding his purpose and his word.’ This quality of ‘steadfast constancy’, so much admired in the Middle Ages, is regarded by some people today as synonymous with ruthlessness. Be that as it may, Richard’s reputation for valour, liberality, and steadfastness of purpose was destined to grow and become ever more illustrious as the years passed. So much then for the early years. At the age of thirty-four he became a Crusader.
By this time, Henry II had died, Richard had become King. The Third Crusade was the result of a catastrophic defeat inflicted upon the combined forces of the Christians in the Middle East on the 4th of July, 1187 by a new leader of the Muslim armies named Saladin, and it resulted in the loss of Jerusalem and most other Christian-held cities except Tyre and Tripoli. On receiving the news the whole of Christendom was appalled, and Richard was one of the first to take the Cross; but to volunteer to go to the aid of one’s fellow Christians a couple of thousand miles away and actually to do so, are two very different things.
It took nearly four years to unblock the political, administrative, economic, and military logjams before Richard and Philip Augustus, the young French king, who didn’t trust each other an inch, were ready to go. But go they eventually did, and Richard arrived with the army he had raised, and disembarked at Acre on the 8th of June, 1191 to a rapturous welcome and an extremely odd situation.
The Christians who had not been killed or captured in the disaster in 1187 had managed to hold out in Tyre, and over the years since then they had been reinforced in dribs and drabs by men from Europe, who had got tired of waiting for their kings to get moving. Eventually, enough men had arrived for some of the Christians in Tyre to sally forth and launch an attack on Acre, which they failed to take, and so immediately besieged. Saladin then swooped down on them from behind, failed to break their existence or dislodge them, and promptly besieged them in their turn, camping on the hills to landward of the city. Stalemate had then been reached and had lasted for some months before Richard’s arrival. Philip Augustus had arrived with his Frenchmen a few weeks before Richard, but had done nothing but sit around looking gloomy, as the situation both of the Muslims cooped up in Acre and of the Christians hemmed in by Saladin’s troops and the walls of the city had become more and more desperate. It was high summer, the heat was appalling, water was short, there were no latrines so that men did what they had to do wherever they could, bodies and bits of bodies lay black and bloated, rotting in the sun, and flies were everywhere. Yet it was at this time that something very like mutual respect and admiration for each other took hold of the Christians and their enemies. ‘What can we say of this race of infidels, who thus defend their city?’ asked one of the Christians of the Muslims defending Acre. ‘Never were there braver soldiers than these, the honour of their nation. If only they had been of the true faith, it would not have been possible, anywhere in the world, to surpass them.’
Meanwhile, an Arab eye-witness of the fighting named Beha ed-Din ibn Shedad, described one of Saladin’s attacks. ‘The Frankish fanatics, standing in their trenches, presented the appearance of a solid wall. Several of our men penetrated into the camp, only to be met by an unbreakable resistance. An enormous Frank, standing on the parapet, drove our men back single-handed, hurling stones, with which his comrades supplied him. he had more than fifty wounds from arrows and stones, but nothing stopped him or broke his courage. He held up our men until he was burnt alive by a bottle of naphtha thrown over him by one of our officers.’ Apparently, the courage of this indomitable giant of a man was rivalled by that of a woman, who did not stop shooting at the enemy until she was trampled to death. ‘We killed her,’ says Beha ed-Din, ‘and took her bow to Saladin as a salute to her courage.’ After a few weeks below the walls of Acre, during which he won the men’s hearts by his energy and courage, Richard fell ill with a fever, and as if echoing this admiration of the ordinary soldiers for each other, he sent a message to Saladin together with the gift of a negro slave, suggesting that they might meet and discuss peace; but Saladin replied politely that the time for a meeting was when peace was in prospect, not in the middle of a war. He wished Richard a speedy recovery, and sent him a present of fresh fruit.
Eventually, Acre surrendered on terms, whereupon the French King announced that he was going home. His subjects, probably wrongly suspecting cowardice, were appalled; Richard, rightly as events were to prove, suspecting evil designs upon his own huge feudal estates in France while he himself was absent, was equally appalled; but neither he nor the unanimous voice of the French nobility had the smallest effect, and Philip Augustus duly sailed away for France. Almost at once, Richard left in sole command found himself in a dilemma. Most of the citizens of Acre had been allowed to leave the city, when it fell, but all fighting men had been held as hostages, until Saladin fulfilled the conditions imposed on him at the time of its surrender, when they too would be released.
When the deadline for his compliance, August 20, passed with no word from Saladin, Richard was faced with a choice. What should he do? Wait indefinitely until Saladin had had time to recover and launch a surprise attack on him? March out of the place leaving the hostages behind to live and fight another day? Or what? After waiting an extra day or two, he had them taken out of the camp and executed, and not surprisingly he had been roundly condemned by many later historians for doing so, though not even his enemies condemned him at the time. But his enemies would have remembered that after the disastrous defeat suffered by the Christians, which had given rise to the Third Crusade, Saladin had ordered the slaughter of all captive Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller on the grounds that they were simply too dangerous to live. I am as appalled as the next man by what Richard did, but I am also glad that I am not faced - in the heat and dust and stench of death of a small defeated Middle Eastern city - with the unenviable task of making a decision, upon which the lives and fortunes of several hundreds of either my enemies or my own men will almost certainly depend.
After the fall of Acre, there followed two years of warfare between Richard’s men and Saladin’s Muslim warriors, during which the legend of the rivalry between Richard and his noble opponent grew and blossomed. By birth, Saladin was a native of Kurdestan. He had been brought up in Damascus, the most illustrious centre of Islamic learning outside Cairo, where he had grown to be a devout Muslim.
Physically, he was an unimpressive little man, short, rather stout, red-faced and blind in one eye. He was highly intelligent, well-read, and a brilliant soldier, and though he could be ruthless, usually he was modest and courteous. As a result, he was greatly respected by both friend and foe alike. I can’t possibly describe the warfare between him and Richard in detail, but I hope that the description of one of their encounters may give you some idea of it.
Richard’s first action after the fall of Acre had been to capture Jaffa, roundly defeating Saladin en route, though out-numbered by him. A year later on July 27, 1192 Saladin counter-attacked, launching a lightning attack on the city. He failed to take it by assault, and an urgent plea for help was rushed to Richard, who was back in Acre. he immediately sent a large body of Templars and Hospitallers by road to Jaffa, while he himself set out by sea with a similar body of men. By the time he arrived on July 31, the walls had been breached, and the city’s defenders pressed back into the citadel after a ferocious defence. Not knowing this and seeing Saladin’s soldiers on the beach and on the city walls, Richard assumed that the city had fallen; but a priest, who had spotted his arrival, jumped from the wall into the sea, and swam out, arriving dripping and out of breath to pour out his story to Richard. The garrison was intact; on seeing Richard’s arrival they had launched an attack on the enemy, but were greatly outnumbered, and could not hold out much longer. Richard gave immediate orders to row for the shore and beach his ship, and without even waiting to put on his full armour, he leapt into the water and waded ashore followed by his men, scattering the startled Muslim soldiers as he went. He had only a handful of Knights and a few hundred infantrymen with him, but he burst into the city at their head with such ferocity that Saladin’s men were taken by complete surprise and routed, spilling out of the city in panic, chased by packs of jubilant, whooping Crusaders.
Saladin was appalled. If he was to shore up a few shreds of respect against the ruins of his prestige, he had to defeat Richard and do so quickly; for his spies had told him that the Templars and Hospitallers were on their way. Meanwhile, Richard almost invited an attack; for instead of remaining in the city, he and his little army camped outside the walls in the open countryside. During the night, Saladin moved his army up as silently as possible; but if men can be persuaded not to make a sound, horses cannot.
Just before sunrise, a Genoese sentry heard horses whinnying and men moving nearby, and as the sky began to lighten in the east, he saw a glint of steel a field’s length away. Running back to the camp, he raised the alarm, and although some of Richard’s men were only half dressed by the time that Saladin moved up to the attack, he found them waiting for him. Richard had drawn up his infantry in a tight half circle; the men in the front rank were kneeling behind a protective wall made up of their shields, their lances planted in the ground and facing outwards at the enemy like a great steel hedgehog, while behind them crossbowmen were stationed in pairs, one acting as loader for the other, so that the enemy could be subjected to an uninterrupted fire, when they launched their assault.
They did so soon enough. Saladin ordered his cavalry to attack, and a thousand horsemen charged to within a few yards of the solid, bristling mass of Christian pikes; but there they checked their horses before they were impaled, wheeling them round under a murderous fire from the crossbowmen, the horses rearing and bucking in a confusion of hoofs, limbs, fallen riders and corpses. Again and again they charged, and again and again they were forced to retreat leaving men and horses dead or wounded on the ground around the perimeter of the Crusaders’ position, until by the afternoon their losses were so heavy that Saladin called them off.
Then, a quite astonishing thing happened. Before Saladin could decide which of his forces to launch next against the still unbroken Christian hedgehog, in spite of its enormous inferiority in numbers, Richard and his little handful of Knights charged at the head of his spearman, falling on the exhausted enemy with such impetuosity and vigour that they broke in disorder while Saladin watched in near disbelief and grudging admiration of the indomitable resolution of his opponent. Indeed, so moved was he by Richard’s dauntless spirit, that when the English King’s horse was killed under him, Saladin ordered one of his grooms to lead a pair of horses across the battlefield under a flag of truce as a present to Richard with his compliments. It was a gesture as immortal in its way as Richard’s valour.
I must stop. Richard failed to capture Jerusalem, Saladin failed to turn the Christians out of the Holy Land; and in the end they made peace. What are we to say of them? especially of Richard, the subject of this lecture? In the twelfth century, faith and courage were admired above all other virtues; today neither are fashionable, and the ages of faith are so very different from our own - remote, strange, in many ways fascinating, but in others abhorrent - that a man like Richard, a supremely twelfth century man, baffles and antagonises many people. But even if he does so, no one should be so lacking in grace or historical imagination as to deny that he was one of that century’s great children, worthy of the title bestowed on him by an admiring posterity; Richard the Lionheart.