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Richard the Lion-Hearted

King Richard I
(Richard The Lion-Hearted)
English King

Richard I, whose great individual courage in battle earned him the title Coeur de Lion (the Lion-Hearted), took charge of the Third Crusade and became one of the medieval Europe’s greatest military leaders. Although his fame is the result of romantic legends as well as heroic actions, Richard’s accomplishments on the battlefield are remarkable in themselves.

Born in Oxford on September 8, 1157, the third son of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard, from his youngest days, preferred the adventure of military operations to the duties of the court. Acknowledged as the duke of Aquitaine (southwestern France) in 1172, Richard joined his brothers in a revolt against their father. Although the rebellion failed, Richard’s father allowed him to maintain his position.

From 1175 to 1186, Richard added to his growing reputation as a brave warrior and brilliant organizer by quelling numerous internal revolts. One of his more famous exploits during this period was the capture of what was through to be the impregnable, heavily fortified castle of Taillebourg in Saintonge in 1179. Following the death of his older brother in 1183 and familial infighting, Richard became the heir to his father’s crown.

As a result, when Henry II died in 1189, Richard succeeded the thrones of both Normandy and England. King Richard showed little interest in ruling either of his kingdoms; in fact, he spent only six months in England during the next ten years. He did appreciate, however, the riches the crown provided his to form an army to join the Third Crusade and free the Holy Land from its Muslim occupiers. Richard nearly bankrupted England by selling property and imposing taxes to finance his expedition.

Richard and his army sailed from Palestine in 1190 with plans to winter in Sicily. When he found the Sicilians unhospitable, he stormed Messina and took by force what had not been offered in friendship. In the spring, Richard sailed to Cyprus and established a supply base. He arrived in the Holy Land on June 8, 1191.

Through force and personality, Richard linked his English army with the French and Germans and took command of the two-year-long siege of Acre. Within six weeks, Richard, with his united, stronger force, defeated the Muslims and entered the city. Ruthlessly, he put twenty-seven hundred prisoners to the sword.

With Acre secured, Richard marched toward Jerusalem to free it from Muslim sultan Saladin, who had captured the Holy City in 1187. During the march Richard displayed his abilities as a strategist and logistician, moving his allied army of fifty thousand along the coast so that his fleet could parallel the advance and provide resupplies. Enforcing strict discipline, Richard did not allow his soldiers to break rank to pursue small Muslim bands that harassed the formation in an attempt to lure them into ambushes. Richard ignored the harassing Muslims until September 7, when, at a prearranged signal, Richard turned his entire army against Arsuf, killing seven thousand with the loss of only seven hundred.

While the crusaders now faced little armed resistance en route to Jerusalem, they had to contend with “scorched earth” between Arsuf and the Holy City because Saladin ordered his retreating army to destroy all food and water sources.

For the next year, Richard and Saladin skirmished, and Richard could not muster enough supplies and water to besiege Jerusalem. Saladin refused to engage in a decisive battle, and in September 1192 the two leaders, who, despite there great differences, had developed a mutual respect, agreed to a three-year truce, with the Crusaders maintaining Acre and a strip of land along the coast. Although the Muslims continued to occupy Jerusalem, Christian visitors had access to their holy shrines in the city.

Late in 1192, when Richard was sailing fro home, his ship wrecked near Venice, and he became a prisoner of Leopold of Austria. Leopold held Richard in a series of castles, releasing him only after the payment by the English people, in February 1194, of an enormous ransom of 150,000 marks.

Back home, Richard was crowned for the second time, to reaffirm his title, on April 17, but he did not remain in England for long. In May he sailed for Normandy, where, for the next five years, he engaged in minor skirmishes with various enemies that were contesting his crown and territories. Richard’s major military accomplishment during this period was to demonstrate his understanding of fortifications and engineering by building the great fort Chateau-Gaillard on an island in the Seine River.

In the spring of 1199, Richard besieged the castle of the archbishop of Limoges because the latter refused to turn over a horde of gold discovered by a peasant farmer. During a minor skirmish, Richard, leading his soldiers, as usual, received a wound in the shoulder from a crossbow arrow. Gangrene set in, and Richard died on April 6 at age forty-one.

Although Richard had married Berengaria, the daughter of Sancho VI of Navarre, in Cyprus during his journey to the Holy Land in 1191, it was strictly a marriage of convenience. Richard left no heir, all evidence indicating he was a lifelong homosexual.

While the adventured of Richard “the Lion-Hearted” are told in countless books, poems, and films of marginal accuracy, his courage and military leadership are authentic. He proved himself one of the few commanders who could organize and coordinate the varied outstanding commanders of medieval times.