Richard I: An English King or a Crusader King?

Was Richard I really an English king, or was he a glorified crusader?

Jun 6, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

richard the lionheart tomb


Richard I, better known by his sobriquet “Richard the Lionheart”, was king of England from 1189-99. But incredibly, during this period, he was only in England for a grand total of six months. So why is he regarded as one of England’s greatest ever kings, revered as a nationalistic symbol? His statue stands tall and proud outside of the Houses of Parliament in London, but was he really an English king, or was he simply a king who ruled England in titular form only?


Richard the Lionheart’s Early Life

richard the lionheart effigy
Effigy of Richard the Lionheart at Fontevraud Abbey, photograph by Adam Bishop, 17 October 2011, via Wikimedia Commons


Richard was born on 8 September 1157 in Beaumont Palace, Oxford, England. He was the fourth child of King Henry II of England (r. 1154-89) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard had two older brothers, William IX, Count of Poitiers, who died in infancy, and Henry the Young King, who was crowned as King of England while Henry II was still alive, but who also died before Henry II did, thus leaving Richard as heir to the English throne.


Much of Richard’s early life was spent in France with his mother, who had separated from Henry II due to claims of his adultery. In hindsight, this was a valuable move: Richard knew from an early age that being a ruler of any sort, let alone a king, meant that familiarising oneself with one’s subjects was hugely important. It also taught him that he had Plantagenet lands on the continent to protect, too.


Richard was made Duke of Aquitaine in 1172, and he began to spend the majority of his time there. Following his mother and father’s fall-out, Eleanor favored Richard while Henry favored their youngest son, John. While in Aquitaine, Richard struck up a friendship with Philip Augustus, then heir to the French throne. In 1187, news came through of a disaster in the east: the Muslim armies under Saladin had taken Jerusalem.

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Island Conquests: Sicily and Cyprus

saladdin portrait
Saladinus, by Christofano dell’Altissimo, c.1552-68, via the Chicago Tribune


Upon hearing the news of the Muslim capture of Jerusalem, Pope Gregory VIII took it upon himself to announce another crusade to retake the Holy Land for Christianity. Richard immediately made his crusading vows, which was referred to as “taking the cross”. He was the first monarch in Northern Europe to take the cross, and he was swiftly followed by his French contemporary, Philip Augustus. However, due to the ongoing familial quarreling and conflicts at the end of his father’s reign, Richard did not depart for the Holy Land until 1190 — almost 3 years after he had taken his crusading vows, and ten months after his coronation. At this point, too, Philip Augustus had been crowned Philip II of France, following the death of his father, Louis VII.


Both Richard I and Philip II set out on crusade together, but this was not simply down to friendship. It was largely because both were suspicious of one another, and they both thought that their counterpart might usurp their own territories in their absence.


Richard I and Philip II had sailed for Sicily, and when they landed on its shores in September 1190, they found the island in turmoil. The death of the Sicilian King William II the previous year had resulted in his cousin, Tancred, seizing the crown, instead of it passing onto William’s legal heir Constance, wife of Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. Tancred had imprisoned William’s widow Joan, who was Richard I’s sister. Richard demanded that she be released, and her inheritance given to her. She was released on 28 September, but without her inheritance.


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The coronation of Philip II Augustus, artist unknown, c. 1333-49, from Grandes Chroniques de France, via British Library


The presence of Richard and Philip’s troops on Sicily also caused unrest for the locals, who rioted in Messina, demanding that they leave. In response, Richard attacked the city and had captured it by 4 October. Richard established a military base in Messina and remained on the island until Tancred agreed to sign a peace treaty, which he did on 4 March 1191. Following the signing of the treaty, the crusaders set out for the Holy Land.


Before they set out on crusade, Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had found a potential future wife for him: Berengaria of Navarre. She was the eldest daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, and thus a good ally on the continent for Richard to have. A marriage to Berengaria would ensure protection of the Plantagenet lands in Aquitaine, and would also improve relations with Castile, the neighbouring county, whose queen, Eleanor, was Richard’s sister.


Initially, Richard the Lionheart was not keen on the marriage, as he was too focussed on crusading. However, Eleanor of Aquitaine did not give in that easily: she traveled with Berengaria to Sicily, and they arrived in 1191 (Richard I and Philip II had arrived in 1190). Berengaria and Eleanor were joined by Joan, the widowed Queen of Sicily, and another of Richard I’s sisters. Eleanor left for home, while Berengaria and Joan sailed onto the Holy Land to catch up with the crusaders.


eleanor of aquitaine effigy
Eleanor of Aquitaine tomb effigy, photograph by Adam Bishop, 17 October 2011, via


In April 1191, a huge storm had dispersed Richard’s fleet, and after some searching, it was found that the ship carrying Joan and Berengaria had washed up in Cyprus, along with other shipwrecks including the treasure ship. As a result, the shipwrecked survivors had been taken prisoner by the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Komnenos. Richard demanded the release of the prisoners, and when Isaac refused, Richard attacked Limassol. Thanks to the support of other European princes who had also arrived in Cyprus, including Guy de Lusignan, the crusaders forced Isaac Komnenos into surrender. Richard then sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar.


The conquest of Cyprus was a key strategic achievement for Richard the Lionheart, and it was thanks to his courage around this time that he was first referred to as “Richard Coeur de Lion”, or Richard the Lionheart. However, before he left Cyprus, he married Berengaria of Navarre on 12 May 1191 at the Chapel of St George in Limassol.



richard the lionheart mural
Richard the Lionheart Embarks on Crusade, mural by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1927, via Art UK


Richard arrived in Acre on 8 June 1191, and the crusading forces joined in the siege of the city, which had been ongoing since August 1189. Philip II’s forces had arrived in April, and had been busy preparing siege engines and trebuchets in order to attack the city from a distance. Philip was eager to attack the city when Richard arrived, but Richard was still waiting on some of his forces to arrive from Cyprus. He had also fallen ill from a disease which was likely scurvy, so was not in a fit state to attack.


Nevertheless, Philip decided to attack anyway, and although his machines helped to break down the walls of the city, the defenders made huge amounts of noise and sent up smoke signals which alerted Saladin’s armies outside the city walls to push forward and attack the crusaders, thus giving the defenders time to repair the city’s walls. On 2 July, Richard deployed his own siege engines — which he named Bad Neighbor and God’s Own Catapult — and they managed to penetrate a huge hole in Acre’s walls. There was one final battle on 11 July, and the following day the city offered terms of surrender to the crusaders. The crusaders accepted the terms of surrender, and the Muslim army was taken into captivity. It was now up to Richard I and Saladin as to how the surrender of the city would be formally finalized.


saladin engravind gustave dore
Engraving of Saladin, by Gustave Dore, 19th century, via Thoughtco


The Christian armies began rebuilding the city, while Saladin collected money to pay for the ransoms of the prisoners. By August, Richard the Lionheart had grown impatient waiting for Saladin to pay the full amount, and executed 2700 Muslim prisoners. In response, Saladin executed all of the Christian prisoners in his camp. The Lionheart’s execution of Muslim prisoners was referred to as the “Massacre at Ayyadieh”.


Following the Massacre, the Crusader army marched south and Saladin’s army followed them — they eventually met at the Battle of Arsuf on 7 September 1191. This was a huge Christian victory, and instrumental to the Fall of Jaffa two months later. However, throughout the remainder of 1191 and into 1192, Richard I was unable to capture Jerusalem. It was during this time that he was informed that his younger brother John was attempting to usurp his throne back in England. Richard the Lionheart agreed to a treaty with Saladin, and the Third Crusade formally came to an end on 9 October 1192 when Richard set sail for England.


Return to England

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Trifle Castle in Germany, via Berkhamstead Castle


Upon his return from the Holy Land, Richard I’s ship was forced to land at Corfu, in Byzantine territory. Corfu was under the control of Isaac II Angelos, who objected to the Lionheart’s annexation of Cyprus, which had formerly been Byzantine territory. Richard disguised himself as a Knight Templar, but his ship was shipwrecked in northern Italy, meaning he had to traverse a dangerous land route through Europe to reach England again.


Richard the Lionheart was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria (r. 1177-94), a man whom he had personally offended during the Third Crusade by lowering his flag from Acre. He was imprisoned in Dürnstein, Austria. He was only released when a ransom of 35,000 kilograms (77,000lbs) of silver was paid. He was then transferred over to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1191-97), and kept prisoner in Trifels Castle, Germany, from December 1192 until February 1194.


However, Richard the Lionheart’s pre-planning had essentially saved him. He had promoted the royal advisor, Hubert Walter, to Archbishop of Canterbury, and he successfully governed England and quashed John’s rebellions. Walter had also raised enough money to pay Richard’s ransom of 100,000 marks — almost the same cost of a crusade.


actor playing king john
Herbert Beerbhom Tree as King John, by Charles A Buchel, 1900, via the Folger Shakespeare Library


Upon his release from prison, Richard returned to England and stayed there from March-May 1194, while his brother John begged his forgiveness over his rebellions: Richard forgave him. In June 1194, Richard returned to the continent, but rather than crusading, he dedicated the next five years to recapturing Plantagenet territory that had been lost either while he was on the Third Crusade, or while he was imprisoned.


Unfortunately for historians, there is a huge gap in records which covered Richard’s life from 1194-99, although it is largely assumed that the majority of his time was spent in Normandy — adding to the issue of him being an English King or just a king who ruled England.


Richard the Lionheart’s Death and Legacy

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Richard Cœur de Lion, sculpture by Carlo Marochetti, 1856, via the British Library


In March 1199, Richard the lionheart was in Limousin attempting to surpress a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. He besieged the castle of Châlus-Chabrol, as there was a rumour that there was a Roman treasure horde hidden there. On 26 March, Richard was hit in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt. The wound got infected and turned gangrenous. On 6 April 1199, he died in the arms of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Having left no legitimate children behind, the crown went to Richard’s younger brother, who was crowned King John of England (r. 1199-1216) on 27 May 1199. But what legacy did Richard leave behind? The fact that he is more well-known as “Richard the Lionheart” than by his regnal number speaks volumes: he is more remembered as a warrior king than a king who sat on the throne of England and dished out orders to his subjects. Despite the fact that he only spent six months in England, he is still very much an English king, associated with the Arthurian imagery which glorifies him as an English warrior to this day.


Richard the Lionheart is also fondly thought of by historians today. For example, Dan Jones (2012) states that “he left [the Holy Land] as a living legend. Hated by some, revered by others, feared by all.” In a similar vein, David Starkey (2010) acknowledged Richard’s kingship: “he was popular with his subjects and admired by contemporaries as the very model of a good king.” 


richard the lionheart painting
Richard the lionheart, by Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1841, via the Telegraph


Even contemporaries reveled in Richard the Lionheart’s achievements. John of Joinville, a chronicler writing in the 1250s said that Muslim mothers would tell their unruly children “Hush! Or I will send King Richard of England to you!” (John of Joinville, The Life of Saint Louis, trans. and ed. Caroline Smith, 2008).


To follow the footsteps of such a strong king like Henry II was no easy task: but Richard I took up the role of King of England as if he had been born to inherit the Crown. He is absolutely one of the greatest Crusader — and English — kings of all time.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.