Snippets of French history: Richard the Lionheart

This part of France, now called Nouvelle-Aquitaine, was once Aquitaine and was ruled by the English.  Richard I of England, and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, once rode these lands.

King Richard I of England and King Richard IV of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes and Overlord of Brittany, 1157-1199.

Some historians claim that he was nicknamed the Lionheart long before he became king, because at age only 16 he was already head of a huge army and fearless in battle.  Other historians claim that Lionheart was a name attributed to him in legend, long after he died.  As is the way with so many heroic figures there is a lot of myth surrounding Richard the Lionheart and, in view of the antiquity of information, not a great deal to go on.  Most 16 year-old boys are lion-hearted (or so they like to think) and the romantic notion of a nickname like that was characteristic of the romances of medeival writings, popular for hundreds of years after Richard’s death.  So we don’t really know for sure.


Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart

The Lionheart’s tomb at Fontevrault. He appears to have been a good-looking man with stong, regular features

Richard was the son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine of France.  He was born in Oxford but spent only the first 8 years of his life in England.  He was one of 8 legitimate children, and had up to 10 other siblings, either by his mother’s previous marriage to the King of France (two half-sisters) or by his father’s various mistresses … but again, not a lot is known about this.

Accounts have Richard as very good-looking, red-blond, and 6’6″ in height.  His bones have disappeared so scientists have not been able to verify this, but it is known that his brother John was 5’5″, so it seems unlikely that Richard was such a giant.  But it is possible.

Did he speak English?

Richard was raised as a Norman (or a Frenchman if you like) and spoke the langue d’Oc (tongue of the Oc = Languedoc today) and the langue  d’Oil – of the same area but long since faded in to obscurity.  Most mothers of children born in to a foreign family and a foreign land will know that it is instinctive to speak to your baby in your own tongue and, as Eleanor doubtessly also had a great retinue of servants from Normandy & Aquitaine with her, it is perfectly plausible that Richard grew up knowing very little – if any – English.  Certainly any written records of his – he wrote poetry and songs especially – are in French or the Langue d’Oc.

On the other hand most royal children all over Europe knew the essentials – French, English, Latin, Greek, perhaps Spanish.  So if it is true that Richard spoke no English – and it appears to be true because it was one of the things held against him by his brother John during an attempt to wrest the crown – it is odd.  You’d have thought he would.

Richard the Lionheart

French tapestry showing the king Philippe of France in talks with Richard. Both kings are mounted and accompanied by soldiers. The French king on the left, represented by the fleur-de-lys. The French king holds his hand out to shake hands but Richard, the eternal fighter, wants to remonstrate. Philippe of France was alternately friend and enemy of Richard.


There are several legends and myths about Richard.  One is that he was homosexual, and this is based on a) the fact that he had no legitimate children and b) that he is recorded as having spent the night in the same bed as Philippe of France.  But sharing beds was very common in those days, even for kings; and there are all sorts of reasons why he perhaps had no children with his wife, Berengaria. We won’t go in to that, but we do know he had one illigitimate son, Phillip of Cognac (62 kms). I expect he was heterosexual.  There is a record of him having made a public confession to what appears to have been sodomy.

Another myth (which has added to the gay legend) is that his favourite minstrel, Blondel, wandered around what is now Germany singing a song that he had composed with Richard (and that, therefore, only he would know), till eventually he heard the King’s voice coming from a prison cell in Durnstein Castle, singing the same song.  I mean, with a name like Blondel and singing songs – well, you have to be gay!

Richard has also been completely inaccurately linked to heros like Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and others.

Richard the Lionheart The Chateau Gaillard in Normandy was almost certainly designed by Richard himself and it contained several innovative features that were not to be seen in other castles for another 300 years.  This was Richard’s favourite place and he referred to it as The Fair Castle.

A good man, a bad man

He seems to have been a good man in many ways – he was wet-nursed by a woman called Hodiera, and she remained his faithful servant all her life.  He took care of her in her old age and was generous and kind with her.  He also did things like issuing a writ demanding that Jews, who were persecuted, be left in peace.  On the other hand he would have neither Jews nor women at his coronation (1189), was completely ruthless and cruel with the enemy, and rape was a regular occurence.  He seems to have been enamoured of his wife, whom he married in Cyprus, yet he left her for months on end and she returned alone to France.  When his famous chateau, the Chateau Gaillard in Normandy was built, he didn’t care at all about the workers and many were killed and badly injured during construction.  He was probably one of those men where you never really know where you stand and who cannot abide to be crossed.

Richard the Lionheart The castle at Taillebourg, 35 kms from Rochebonne, and the scene of one of many of Richard’s campaigns & battles

Richard lived in violent times when uprisings were common and fights over the crown all but endemic of the era.  He believed that the only authority above him was God – but then  most kings thought that.  It was he who adopted the motto “Dieu et mon Droit” which the Royal family use to this day – God and my right.

The Lionheart’s death

Richard died aged 41 as the result of a wound obtained not while in battle, as one would suppose, but while he was walking around the outskirts of the little Chalus-Chabrol castle. The stories vary slightly, some historians saying that he was hit by a stray arrow, and others that the arrow was shot by a boy avenging his family member’s deaths.  The boy is called Dudo, sometimes, Jean or Pierre, and sometimes Batiste. Either way – and again, this could be just legend, though I fear it is true – Richard, as he lay dying, forgave the boy but as soon as he (Richard) died the boy was flayed alive during an orgy of pillage, rape and murder.

Richard the Lionheart died with his head in his mother’s lap, probably in terrible pain.  He is buried in the abbey at Fontevrault alongside his mother.  We always think of him as a great hero of the middle ages, but the truth of the matter his that, while he may well have been a gallant soldier who cut a splendid figure, he was nonetheless in many, if not most, ways a bad man,  a bad husband and son, and a bad king.

Posted on 08/06/2013 by Catherine
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