King Richard the Lionheart

19 October 2018

King Richard the Lionheart or Richard Cœur de Lion. Often portrayed as a brave and noble warrior, much has been written about Richard’s crusades in the Middle East. However, in this blog we are going to look at how his ongoing battles with the people of France shaped the appearance of many of the towns and villages here in the Dordogne and in other parts of the south west. Even today, several of the most imposing chateaux and many other beautiful buildings owe their existence to Richard the Lionheart.

Born in Oxford on 8 September 1157, Richard was the third son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Among the various titles bestowed on him during his early lifetime were the dukedoms of Gascony, Normandy and Poitiers and Count of Anjou. Due to his mother’s high standing, Richard was also given the duchy of Aquitaine. The title, ‘Duke of Aquitaine’, was one Richard used to sign off charters long after he had renounced the title.

Richard the Lionheart in the Dordogne

Some of the most dramatic views in the Dordogne are provided by the fortresses which the English and French fought over. Château de Beynac (just over the river from Les Milandes) is both imposing and beautiful. Despite being protected by ditches, double walls and a sheer drop of 150 metres, Richard took and held Château de Beynac for around a decade. It took a wound to finally end his occupancy.

Apparently, the heart-shaped keyholes in the chateau were made in Richard’s memory. Outside the chateau the views are tremendous. From certain vantage points you can see the chateaux of Marqueyssac, Fayrac and Castelnaud.

King Richard the Lionheart

The chateau at Fayrac

During the Hundred Years’ War the English occupied Château de Castelnaud while the French dug in at Château de Beynac.

King Richard the Lionheart

Beynac from the river

Another great way to view Beynac is from the river. It’s well worth hiring a canoe to paddle down this stretch of water.

Duke of Aquitaine

It was as Duke of Aquitaine that Richard spent much of his time fighting with rebellious French lords. These lords were often provoked by the behaviour of Richard’s eldest brother, Henry. (William, the first born son died in 1156.) Henry would tell the local nobility that he could offer them a far better deal than Richard. Subsequently, Richard spent a great deal of time ruthlessly quashing these uprisings. Henry’s mischief making came to an end when he contracted dysentery and died. This left Richard as heir to the throne.

However, it wasn’t just brother Henry who was good at stirring up trouble. Richard did not trust his younger brother John (his mother Eleanor was often tasked with keeping an eye on him) and his own father, King Henry II was a master at reneging on promises.

Thus the English royal family were not a happy unit. Richard’s father even ended up imprisoning his estranged wife Eleanor. King Henry also set about trying to give Aquitaine to his youngest son John. Richard refused to acquiesce and joined forces with Philip II of France. As Duke of Aquitaine, Richard believed he owed homage to the King of France and not the King of England. Some commentators believe that Richard’s subsequent hounding of his father led to Henry’s premature death.

Richard’s alliance with Philip II of France was an uneasy and fragile one . Although they fought in a crusade together they also battled against one another. Richard’s actions in war made him incredibly unpopular. He often deposed influential rulers and reneged on deals (like father like son…). One of his traits was to refuse to share the spoils of victory (despite promising to do so). His actions ultimately lead to his imprisonment, but more of that a little later.

Marshalling the defences

While Richard was away fighting a crusade, the French regional overlords took the opportunity to strengthen their defences. Today, you can take a tour of the fortified towns and villages which form a strategic line across south west France.

Château de Jumilhac is one of the buildings that is well worth visiting. There are some fascinating stories hyperlink attached to this property. Back in the time of Richard the Lionheart it is believed the premises were used to mint coins. Quite an allure for someone seeking wealth.

The Monastery of St Augustine at Le Chalard is famous for its fortified Romanesque church. Here, you will find 40 medieval monks’ tombs and a fortress which had to be added in an effort to defend the abbey from Richard the Lionheart’s attacks.

In the Lot Valley lies the fortress town of Penne d’Agenais. The Notre Dame de Peyragude had been constructed here around 180 years before Richard fancied occupying the site. The chapel sat on a pinnacle of rock and its position was a great one for fending off would-be attackers. So Richard set about building a castle right next door. Once complete, the chapel found itself in the crossfire of numerous skirmishes. Battles were won and lost, so the place changed hands four times (and would pass between Protestants and Catholics during the Wars of Religion). Back in Richard’s day it was hardly a place for quiet contemplation! Visit the town today and you can still see medieval walls and the square keep of the castle.

In La Reole in Gironde, you will find Place Richard Coeur de Lion. This square is very near to the old Town Hall which was founded by Richard. It’s one of the oldest civil buildings in France. La Reole lies on the banks of the Garonne – an excellent strategic location – so it’s easy to see why Richard the Lionheart was keen on the place.

The coronation of King Richard

After the death of his father, Richard was crowned in Westminster Abbey. He was 32. Some chroniclers suggest that Richard was 6ft 5″ tall with bright red hair, but regardless of his appearance it is doubtful that many of the watching crowds actually recognised him. Incessant fighting overseas had led Richard the Lionheart to spend very little time in England. Being King of England would make no difference. During his 10 year reign, Richard would spend only 6 months in England.

His post coronation spending spree was an eye-watering £14,000! Now that sort of money would buy a fair amount today. Back in 1189 it enabled him to stockpile an enormous amount of goods for war. Among his orders were huge numbers of cheeses, 14,000 cured pig carcasses and 60,000 horseshoes!

This was partly funded by selling off sheriffdoms and other offices. Then off he went on the Third Crusade. Richard stopped off in Cyprus to marry Berengaria (daughter of the King of Navarre) and, forgoing a honeymoon, he continued on his journey to try and capture Jerusalem.

Captured & released

After failing in his ultimate quest a truce was agreed in the Middle East. Time for Richard’s life to take a more peaceful turn? No, this was a man who had made some very influential enemies. He was subsequently imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria and only a ransom paid to the German emperor secured his freedom. (It was Richard’s mother Eleanor who not only raised the ransom but also delivered it!)

It is said that Richard spoke incredibly eloquently at his trial. This was a man who spoke French, Latin and Occitan and apparently had a softer side. Richard the Lionheart enjoyed listening to music and singing. He even composed a song which highlighted his loneliness. Richard is also alleged, after a particularly memorable feast, to have knighted his cook!

Following his release, Richard returned to England for a second crowning. His visit was short and he was soon setting sail for Normandy to renew hostilities with Philip II. He set off from Portsmouth on 12 May 1194 in a fleet of 100 ships. King Richard the Lionheart would never set foot in England again.

Arriving in Barfleur, Richard received a very warm welcome. It is recorded that the crowds were so great that, ‘you could not have thrown an apple in the air and seen it land’.

King Richard the Lionheart

Stained glass window in Chapelle St. Martin

Around this time Richard founded the lovely Chapelle St. Martin – it’s just 20 minutes away from Les Milandes. This small but beautiful chapel is dedicated to St. Thomas à Becket. (You may recall that the words of Richard’s father were interpreted by some as a request to kill Thomas.)

King Richard the Lionheart

The beautiful floor

The chapel features stained glass windows and the most amazing floor.

The death of King Richard the Lionheart

Much of the warfare in Richard’s time involved sieges. A proven technique of the day was to weaken the outer wall of a castle by digging tunnels. Holes were often filled with combustible materials – think huge tree trunks and pig carcasses covered in pitch – and these would be set on fire to bring down the props supporting the walls.

In 1199, Richard was besieging Châlus castle in Limousin. This was not well defended. (While a castle might be manned by over 1,000 soldiers during hostilities at other times a handful of men usually sufficed. If the drawbridge was up and the portcullis was down those inside felt relatively safe.) Inside the castle were 2 knights and 38 men, women and children. After 3 days of siege Richard went out to inspect matters. He wasn’t wearing full armour. Battle hardened, he was confident of avoiding the sporadic missiles being fired from the castle.

Protected by a large frying pan, a lone man (probably Peter Basilius) fired a bolt which hit Richard in the shoulder. As King and leader he could show no pain, so he made his way back to the royal tent with a long bolt deeply imbedded in his flesh. He tried to pull out the bolt but simply succeeded in snapping off the wooden shaft. The metal barbed point was still inside. A surgeon was secretly summoned and after much digging around (alcohol was the only anaesthetic) the barb was removed. In some accounts it is said that Richard continued to direct siege operations the next day.

It is also alleged that when the castle walls were eventually breached Richard ordered that Peter Basilius be hauled before him. He duly was and Richard pardoned him (the others in the castle were not so fortunate and met a grisly demise). Richard gave Peter a purse of gold coins and sent him on his way. It wasn’t to be a happy ending for Peter though. He was subsequently attacked by mercenaries, flayed alive and hanged from the castle he had so nobly defended.

Richard’s fate was also sealed. Surgery on a 12th century battlefield was not hygienic. Richard’s wound became infected and gangrene quickly set in. With a wound close to his heart Richard knew his time was up. While his condition was kept secret, a message was sent to his mother Eleanor who rode to see him. Even on his deathbed Richard continued to order attacks. He had even planned his next target – the castle at Montbrun, which was rumoured to contain treasure.

Without legitimate children and estranged from his wife Berengaria, Richard named his younger brother John as his successor. Eleanor was with her favourite son when he died on 6 April 1199. He was 41.

On Richard’s instructions, his heart was taken to Rouen Cathedral to be interred next to his brother Henry’s. His body went to Fontevraud Abbey where he was buried at the feet of his father – atonement for his betrayal. It appears that England was not in his thoughts.

The impact of King Richard the Lionheart can still be seen and felt in both England and France. The three lions passant which featured on his shield are still on the Royal coat of arms of Great Britain. While in France, numerous fortifications and buildings still stand which owe their existence to him. Many of these are well worth a visit.

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