Richard the Lion-Heart sets out, 1188-91

If we had to choose one person to stand for the Third Crusade, without question it is Queen Eleanor’s third son Richard. There isn’t really much to tell, apart from his story.

Richard was 32 when his father suddenly died. He had been collecting titles from his brothers and mother in the previous years: Duke of Normandy, Count of Poitiers, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine. He had been an active knight and war leader since he was 16, too. (Some of that “war leading” was part of his brothers’ rebellion against their father.) He was really not prepared to step into the task his father had cherished: governing and reforming England’s laws. But he was very much prepared for taking on his father’s last task: taking the Cross to go and save Jerusalem.

Richard stopped in London long enough to be crowned and to shake down the kingdom thoroughly. In addition to rounds of special taxation, he looked for creative funding methods, like selling the King of Scotland freedom from his oath of allegiance. He sold many important government positions, including the Chancellorship (the highest office!). He’s known for declaring that he would have sold London itself, had there been a buyer.

The atmosphere of feverishly hustling up all the gold he could get contributed to the first tragic event of his reign. Everyone wanted the new king’s favor, and he wanted money, so some leaders of Jewish communities came to London to present gifts. They were stripped and flogged, and rumor flew that the king had ordered a massacre of the wicked killers of Christ. Mobs attacked Jewish businesses and homes around London, then later in other cities. The following year, Jews in York took refuge in the city’s tower, but knights headed out on Crusade stormed the tower and massacred them all.

It seems that what Richard got right about kingship was the great principle of not actually doing it. He appointed regents in England and Normandy, and then he left, never to return to England. Folk legend gave him virtues he did not have, since they knew so little about him. Might he have been the best king ever? Sure, as long as it was an open question. It’s very unlikely that actual adventures of Robin Hood took place during his Crusade years, as later legends stated. It’s even less likely that, had he returned to govern, he would have set all to right. During these years, the barons were starting a long, ferocious power struggle against the king, which led to the creation of Parliament. Richard would have followed the same course of favoritism, robbery, and arrogance that the other kings did.

Richard and King Philip II of France went on Crusade together as a way of keeping the peace; each feared that the other would invade his territory. They went first to Sicily, where Richard’s sister Joan had married the Norman king. But Joan’s husband had died while Richard prepared his Crusade army, and a nephew had taken the throne. Richard sacked the city of Messina and negotiated a generous pension for Joan.

In these negotiations, he also rather carelessly made other provisions. He promised that his successor would be his brother Henry’s newborn son, and that this boy would marry a Sicilian princess. Then he sent Joan to collect a bride from the small kingdom of Navarre, while he had not yet formally ended his own betrothal to a French princess. Philip and Richard were barely on speaking terms by the time they left the island. Richard’s time in Sicily has the feel of a bull’s teatime in a china shop. He just did things without looking too far ahead.

Joan brought Richard’s chosen bride, Berengaria, to Cyprus. They actually had intended to meet Richard in the Holy Land (where he’d quickly conquer), but terrible storms had shipwrecked them. Cyprus was Byzantine territory. Joan, Berengaria, many other people, and all their gold were now Byzantine captives.

Richard arrived in Cyprus and started to work his magic. First, he sacked the town of Limassol. When Guy of Lusignan (now set free by Saladin) and other Crusade leaders arrived, together they just defeated all other Byzantine forces and seized Cyprus. Richard offered the Byzantine governor surrender terms of “I will not put you in irons,” so he surrendered—–and was locked up in *silver* chains.

Oddly, this governor was the older brother of the now-deceased Emperor Manuel Komnenos. He’d been passed over for the throne, but by 1190, he was living this independent life on Cyprus. He was known as a violent, unjust man, so I guess his father had been right in passing him over. Nobody on Cyprus was sorry to see him go. He became a prisoner of the Hospital Knights until years later when Richard himself was a prisoner being freed, and those terms included “oh yeah, let’s not forget Isaac back in Tripoli. He can go now.”

Richard married Berengaria with a lavish feast on Cyprus, and he crowned themselves King and Queen of Cyprus. Later, he sold the island to the Templars. If only they had been in the market to buy London…! And if only succeeding at life was just all about lavish feasts…he’d have been a great husband, had the story ended right there.


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