The lion roars in France

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Richard forgave his killer and then asked forgiveness from God for his own sins. Thus he was the epitome of a crusader king, the paradigm of a good Christian ruler even at the moment of death

The lion roars in France


'We have thought it proper to inform you of what happened to Richard, king of England, the enemy of our empire and disturber of your kingdom…he is now in our power. We know this news will bring you great happiness.’ With these words, addressed in a letter from Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor to Philip Augustus, Capetian King of France, the riddle of Richard the Lionheart’s whereabouts had been resolved. The King of England (see below for a brief analysis of Richard), returning from the Holy Lands, had been captured, giving Philip, with the campaign season of 1193 approaching, a clear chance to regain his family’s honour and begin the destruction of the Angevin Empire.


Rising storm

Almost a year beforehand, on 27 December 1191, Philip Augustus arrived in Paris a bitter man. He had returned from the Third Crusade, his health damaged and his pride mauled (see below for a brief analysis of Philip). Richard had outshone and outspent Philip at each step – at Messina in Sicily as the Crusading forces waited for departure to the Holy Land and then at the Siege of Acre. There was a raft of other arguments and bickering, both petty and major. But there was one insult that was greater than all the other combined.


In late March 1191, while in Sicily, Richard had rejected his long-term betrothal to Philip’s sister Alice and announced his decision to marry Berengaria of Navarre instead. Twisting the knife further, Richard said Alice had been his father’s mistress and borne him an illegitimate son.


To keep the crusade on the road and not be held responsible for its failure, Philip had to swallow his pride and accept a 10,000-mark payoff. Part of Alice’s dowry was the Norman borderlands of Vexin and the great fortress of Gisors. Philip agreed that this territory was to remain in Richard’s hands and that it would be handed on to his male descendants should he have any. These strategic lands would revert to Philip’s control if Richard died without a legitimate heir. If Philip died without an heir the territory would be considered part of Normandy.


For Philip it was the worst of humiliations; the kings of England paid homage to the kings of France for their continental lands and now Richard, the vassal, had freely slandered his liege’s name and had forced Philip to give up territory that by right should have returned to his control. The power of the French kings had never seemed lower and it would take all of Philip’s skill, intelligence and cunning to reverse his position.


But in tackling the Angevin Empire, Philip was treading a fine line. Richard was still on crusade in the Holy Land and the rules were very clear: a crusader’s lands were protected by the church and could not be attacked while he was still away. This did not mean that Philip was not going to stay his hand, but his objectives would had to be focussed on Alice’s dowry lands, which he could legally argue were his by right anyway.


On 20 January 1192 Philip met Richard’s seneschal of Normandy, William of FitzRalph, at a conference between Gisors and Trie. Here Philip produced fake documents that he claimed were drawn up with Richard in Messina outlining the ‘deal’ struck in March 1191. Richard had supposedly agreed that Alice’s dowry lands in the Norman Vexin were to be handed over to Philip. Sensing a ruse, FitzRalph and the Norman barons rejected the French king’s demands.


With hindsight, Philip’s efforts here seem to form part of the spadework for building up a cassus belli rather than a determined effort to start open warfare, which he was certainly not ready to do. Besides, he had bigger fish to fry. Many nobles who owed direct homage to Philip had died in the Holy Land, and many had bequeathed the French King lands, particularly Count Philip of Flanders, who had bequethed Philip the prosperous Artois region. If Philip was going to fight a major war with the Angevin Empire he would first need to secure these territories and their resources.


During 1192, Philip wooed the men who would form a block against Richard’s supporters. Key among them was Count John, the Lionheart’s brother; Count Ademar of Angouléme; Count Baldwin VIII of Flanders; and Count Raymond of Toulouse. Philip also built up pressure upon the local lords of the Norman Vexin, men who governed territories on the boundaries between Philip and Richard's lands and were obligated to both.


Once news spread that Richard, returning from the crusade, had been captured and locked up – possibly indefinitely (it had happened to Robert of Normandy brother of England’s Henry I) – many realised they would soon have no choice but to turn to the French King. As the historian J Gillingham notes: ‘If they did not leap on the bandwagon they were liable to be run down.’


The Great War begins

The year 1193 began with John arriving in Paris, where he paid homage for Richard’s French lands and, it was said, for England too. John then returned to England claiming Richard was dead and that the crown should pass to him. This last point was easily dismissed as Richard’s ministers and his mother – the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine – had already discovered he was alive and a captive of Henry VI.


With Richard now technically back from the crusade, Philip stuck with a vengeance into the Norman Vexin. The pattern that the war would take was one of mercenary bodies and armies of varying size (none exceptionally large by modern standards – hundreds to thousands, but usually no more) fighting sieges and, at times, fierce skirmishes. Set battle was considered a risky business: pillage, destruction and fast movement creating maximum disorder through the enemy’s lands was the preferred method. The Chanson des Lorrains vividly records how an army on the march conducted war at this time: ‘Out in front are the scouts and incendiaries…the incendiaries set the villages on fire and the foragers visit and sack them. The terrified inhabitants are either burned or led away with their hands tied to be held for ransom.’


Philip’s first target was the imposing castle of Gisors, described by some as the keys to the region. Gisors’ castellan was Gilbert de Vascoeuil, a man with lands in both Philip and Richard's territories. Rather than defend this mighty fortress, Gilbert meekly surrendered. English chroniclers cried foul play, and the ridiculous ease to which Philip won this strategically-vital castle suggests that this was indeed the case.


Moving on from Gisors, Philip’s stormed far into Normandy, reaching as far as Dieppe. In payment for his treachery, John was given Evreux. Philip’s army, now joined by a large contingent of men led by Count Baldwin VIII of Flanders, then went and laid siege to the ducal capital of Normandy, Rouen. The French King may have suspected a walkover, but he was halted at the last moment by Earl Robert of Leicester injecting much needed vigour and organisation into Rouen's defence. Thinking he was victorious, Philip offered the defenders a chance to surrender. They replied that – on his own – the French king could enter Rouen any time he liked. It was a calculated insult. Enraged that he had been thwarted from taking the jewel of Normandy, Philip moved on to take easier pickings.


At Mantes, on 9 July, Philip came to terms with Richard’s ministers. The King of France was to keep his gains and, indeed, was given some extra territories to halt operations then and there. If Richard wanted these possessions back he would have to pay 20,000 marks and also pay homage to Philip for them. Richard, of course, had to be freed from captivity to do this. Given his character and temperament it was improbable Richard would have ever stooped to accept these terms and those negotiating on both sides would have been well aware of this. However, Philip and John needed time to consolidate their gains and to prepare for the next campaign. No doubt it also amused them to be able to impose these terms on Richard’s camp in the first place.


Far more problematic was the chance that Richard would be freed sooner rather than later. Philip and John therefore attempted to bribe Henry VI with hefty promises of cash to detain the King of England for longer or even hand him over to them. But while Henry was no friend of Richard, the latter had impressed many at the Emporer's court with his eloquence and reputation. During his captivity Richard had built up strong relations with many lords, princes and ruling clergymen in the Lower Rhineland and this powerful faction was a key influence on Henry’s rejection of Philip and John’s advances.


The lion uncaged

On 4 February 1194, Richard was released after Angevin wealth paid off Henry VI’s eye-watering ransom demand: settled at 100,000 marks to be followed by hostages, who would then be released after another instalment of 50,000 marks. Rather embarrassingly, Richard also had to pay Henry homage for England, although this last point was hushed up in Angevin circles. Instead of racing back to his lands, Richard went to Cologne to cement his German diplomatic ties; in the future they would become an important weight to pressurise Philip with. By March 13, Richard had finally returned to England, where he swiftly reasserted his authority over the kingdom. The English King immediately began a resale of the lands, titles and positions that had been put on the market before he went on crusade. In the coming war with Philip, a large amount of disposable cash was needed and swiftly so.


But Richard did not, as many historians have accused him of, simply sell to the highest bidder. He was careful to grant the positions to trusted and efficient men, well aware that stable finances and steady supplies are the fuel of successful campaigning.


Richard met William of Scotland on 4 April and the two kings remained in each other’s company until William went north on April 22. Days beforehand, on April 17, Richard had a second crowning at Winchester to underline his rightful position as England’s monarch. By May 12, Richard set sail for Barfleur, Normandy, with a large fleet estimated to stand at 100 heavily-laden ships. In the space of a few extraordinary months Richard the Lionheart had returned to his kingdom, stamped his authority back on it and organised an army to take with him to war against Philip. This would have simply been impossible to do if England was the impoverished and disordered kingdom that some historians like to portray.


Ups and downs

Philip had not been idle in the time Richard had left the grip of Henry VI. He had consolidated the territories he had won and now controlled much of Normandy east of the Seine and, from both banks of the river, he was in striking distance of Rouen. In Touraine and Berry, Philip’s bloc had also made considerable gains, while in Aquitaine the counts of Angouléme and Perigueux, the viscount of Brosse, and Geoffrey de Rancon were all in open revolt against Richard’s authority. A desperate Count John was also making promises to Philip for the latter’s continuing support now that Richard was free and preparing for war.


The King of France opened his 1194 campaign by besieging the strong castle of Verneuil. The garrison had withstood a siege in 1193 and was confident of surviving this second effort. In fact, the defenders were so defiant that they drew a rather unflattering caricature of Philip on the main gates. By this stage Philip was aware that Richard was preparing to return to France and that he would do so soon. Strategically and psychologically it was important he take Verneuil before the war proper began.


Once Richard arrived at Barfleur, he was quick on the move towards Verneuil. On the way John suddenly arrived and grovelled for forgiveness. Richard, who viewed his brother’s treacherous efforts as almost contemptible, told his errant brother: ‘Don’t be afraid, you are a child.’ To prove his worth, the 28-year-old John then went with men to Evreux pretending to still support Philip. Once inside, he had the French garrison rounded up and massacred before moving on to other targets. In the meantime, as Richard’s forces neared Verneuil, Philip struck camp and headed for Evreux, which he retook and sacked. He had left a holding force to continue the siege, but without their king present, the French were unwilling to fight the approaching Anglo-Norman army. A general withdraw was made the next day and, on May 30, Richard entered the town unopposed. So grateful was he for the defender's resilience he lined them up and kissed each one in thanks, leaving the historian J Bradbury to ponder if they appreciated their reward.


While Philip centred his energies on northern France, without making much headway, Richard focussed his efforts on making advances in the south, taking a series of fortresses, including Loches in Touraine. Following these successes Richard turned his attention to restoring order in Aquitaine. Philip was now concerned enough to gather his army together and move south in an effort to relieve the pressure on his allies there and to unstitch Richard’s recent victories.


By early July, and aware that Philip’s forces were nearing, Richard decided to commit his forces to a set battle (suggesting a high degree of confidence) in the Vêndome across the road that the French King’s forces would have to travel on their way into the Loire valley. Philip sent word to Richard that he would enter battle. In reality he had ordered a retreat back the way his army had come. The Lionheart pursued and on July 4 caught up with the French rearguard at Fréteval. Philip’s army was put to flight after a sharp skirmish and the French King only narrowly avoided capture. However, his baggage train fell into Angevin hands. It contained the royal archives, including a list of those willing to aid him against Richard within the Angevin camp.


But Philip was far from finished; he suddenly rushed back to Normandy, his forces pouncing on John and the Earl of Arundel’s men and, in a direct reversal of the defeat the French King had just suffered, captured their baggage train. Despite this last minute success, the pace of campaigning at such a furious and fast rate was stretching Philip’s resources to the extreme. The same could be said for Richard, who was now sending out peace feelers that culminated in the temporary Truce of Tillières.


There was the mooting of ideas for a more permanent peace, to be sealed with Richard’s niece marrying Philip’s son Louis, with the Norman Vexin, Ivry and Pacy, Vernon and 20,000 marks as a dowry. This last point was put on the back burner until a time for more detailed talks could be arranged.


The conflict restarted in 1195, with Philip besieging Vaudreuil. Richard arrived at the French King’s camp, hoping to enter into peace talks. Etiquette at the time demanded that Philip halt the siege and deal solely with Richard, but the King of France was keen to knock out Vaudreuil as a defendable position and urged his sappers to continue undermining its fortifications. Thus it was most embarrassing for Philip that one of Vaudreuil's mighty walls should collapse prematurely and literally as face-to-face negotiations were underway. Along with a good number of oaths, Richard swore he would have his revenge and stormed off.


Philip retired to attack north-eastern Normandy, culminating in a memorable raid on Dieppe: Anglo-Norman ships were burnt in the harbour by Philip’s forces using a Greek Fire-like substance. Richard tried to seek revenge by attacking the French rearguard again, although this time he was beaten off.


Following his Normandy successes, the French King directed his efforts southwards in the Berry region. Richard’s top mercenary commander, Mercadier, had captured Issoudun and Philip wanted it back. The King of France had retaken the town and was busy besieging the castle when Richard and his vanguard stormed through French lines and made their way in to reinforce the garrison. Philip may have thought he had Richard trapped, but the English King had given specific instructions before making his daring break-in to have his main forces close in and cut Philip’s supply lines. The French King realised this at the last moment. Stuck in a potentially disastrous position, Philip was backed into agreeing terms that were formalised in a truce at the start of 1196.


Round two

The war in 1196 and in 1197 was short and sharp, but on a lower key. At first, events did not appear to be going Richard’s way. The English King had problems in Brittany that he was forced to attend to. In a major blow to Richard, his named heir and nephew, Arthur of Brittany was smuggled into Philip’s hands. Should Richard fail to sire a son, the Angevin Empire would now be inherited by John. Philip then besieged and took Aumale, which Richard had tried unsuccessfully to relieve. Later on, at the siege of Gaillon, the English King was wounded by a crossbow bolt, putting him out of action for over a month.


However, Richard recorded some tangible diplomatic successes. For example, he brought war with Toulouse to a close in October 1196, ending a long-standing feud that had rumbled on for around forty years. He did this by marrying his sister Joan off to the region’s count, Raymond. Richard was also building a majestic and powerful castle at Les Andelys on the Seine. Called Château-Gaillard, Richard declared it to be his bellum castrum, his saucy castle. It was built at immense cost: in two years the vast sum of £11,500 (a gigantic figure for its time) had been invested in it. Richard was so happy with the results that he confidently declared that he could defend the position even if its walls were made of butter. It is important to realise that Les Andelys was not just a defensive bastion – it was an offensive one too. It would become the base camp for Richard’s effort to retake the Norman lands that he had lost.


The Lionheart was also keen to knock out one of Philip’s key allies, the count of Flanders, now Baldwin IX. He succeeded in doing so through the use of a trade embargo. Flanders, one of northern Europe’s workshops, had far too many mouths to feed for the amount of land available. It had always imported grain from England to overcome the danger of starvation. The key economy of the region, weaving, was also heavily reliant on English wool. By kicking out these two props of the Flemish economy, Richard had placed Baldwin under immense pressure. But if the embargo was the ‘stick’, then the promise of full payment in arrears of Baldwin's English pension and a gift of 5,000 marks was the ‘carrot’ to get the count tto switch sides and ally himself with the Angevin cause, which he did during 1197.


The fox outfoxed

Richard scored a major success in 1198 on a rather unexpected front. Henry VI had died and left an heir aged just three. In his place, the German electors of the Holy Roman Empire settled on Otto of Brunswick, who just happened to be Richard’s nephew. With the Holy Roman Emperor and the coalition of Rhineland supporters backing him, Richard was now in very good position to not only increase the pressure on Philip, but also grab the Pope’s attention if and when it was needed. Richard had also successfully obtained the Count of Boulogne’s support and many other Norman lords, who were once again switching sides and hoping to back the likeliest winner.


The campaign of 1198 saw Philip making an extensive attack on the Vexin: 18 settlements were reported to have been sacked and burned. However, he was pushed back and, with Baldwin launching an attack into the Artois, Philip’s attention was now distracted from fighting Richard. On 27 September, Richard’s forces struck into the French Vexin, taking Courcelles and Boury, before returning to Dangu. Philip, back in the region, mistakenly believed that Courcelles was still holding out and rode out with 300 knights and sergeants for its immediate relief. Mercadier and a local knight witnessed the French leaving and reported back to Richard.


Characteristically, the English King called for an immediate attack. Yet again the French army was surprised and yet again started to flee, heading towards the nearest place of refuge, which was Gisors. Bunched together, the French knights and Philip rode across a bridge over the River Etpe. The bridge promptly collapsed under their weight and 18 of Philip’s men drowned. According to Anglo-Norman chroniclers, the French King also ‘drank of the river’. Despite this disaster, Philip and the bulk of his men made it to Gisors, a position far too strong for Richard to consider assaulting, let alone besieging, with the forces at his disposal.


Philip soon rallied his forces and launched yet another raid into Normandy, targeting Evreux once again. Richard countered Philip’s offensive with a counter-attack in the Vexin, while Mercadier led an attack on Abbeville. By the autumn of 1198, Philip decided to try for a more permanent peace, a prudent option given that Richard had now regained almost all that had been taken in 1193. Also the English King’s powerbase and alliances were stronger than ever before. Philip offered Richard to return all the territories he had taken, excepting Gisors. Richard refused to contemplate a separate peace without Count Baldwin being included, so a truce was arranged and a date set for further talks.


Fact and fiction

In mid-January 1199, on a winter’s day on the River Seine, a boat approached the riverbank. Standing proudly on the deck was the Lionheart, while waiting on the dry land was Philip. Two of Europe’s most powerful men spent their last meeting together, one on a boat, the other on the river bank, shouting across their terms. While they were unable to conclude a permanent truce, they did agree to further mediation. Additional negotiations occurred and a five-year halt to hostilities was agreed.


With ‘peace’ secured, Richard was able to refocus his efforts on bringing internal order to the south of the Angevin Empire. One permanent thorn in his side had been the count of Angouléme and the count of Limoges. It was high time these men were taught a lesson.


It is part of Richard’s bountiful mythology that he attacked Achard, the lord of Chalus (vassal of the count of Limoges) because of a burning desire to get his hands on buried treasure. The story goes that Achard’s men had discovered hidden loot, Roman perhaps, and delivered it to their master. Protocol dictated that Achard not only send some of the wealth to his immediate liege, the count of Limoges, but also to Richard, his supreme overlord. This never happened. On discovering he had been deprived of his cut, Richard launched an immediate invasion.


The English King’s death at Chalus, a small castle defended by no more than 40 men, was viewed by French chroniclers with glee. His hunt for booty and death at the hands of a social inferior was proof of divine displeasure at Richard’s avarice but abuse of kingly power. Anglo-Norman chroniclers, many of whom also believed in the story of buried treasure, were lost for an explanation. Some also blamed Richard’s avarice and lust for gold, so his hunt for the treasure and subsequent death was indeed divine justice. However, the crux of their accounts emphasises the moral dimension; Richard forgave his killer and then asked forgiveness from God for his own sins. Thus he remains the epitome of a crusader king, the paradigm of a good Christian ruler even at the moment of death.


It is a neat and impressive tale, but fact has become irrevocably mixed with fiction. Living close to the events, Bernard of Itier, a monk in the Benedictine abbey of St Martial in Limoges, recorded that Richard’s objective was to destroy the count of Limoges castles and towns. No mention of treasure is given in his account. On 26 March, the day of the English King’s death, Itier writes that Richard had gone out virtually unarmed to view the progress of his sappers' work. A defender on the battlements – various names are given, although Itier records it was Peter Basil – having parried the shots fired by the attackers with a gigantic frying pan, fired an opportunistic bolt at Richard. The English King was so impressed by the defender’s bravado and daring that he applauded the man’s courage before deciding to duck.


Unfortunately, Richard was late in doing so and the crossbow bolt lodged itself between his neck and shoulder. Riding confidently back to his tent with the bolt still in him, Richard sought out medical attention. As mentioned above, Richard had experienced a crossbow wound before at Gaillon. There was no cause for alarm yet. A surgeon now attempted to extricate the bolt and promptly botched the job. Indeed, the chronicler Roger of Howden described him as a ‘butcher’. Perhaps a clean and efficient extraction of the bolt would have improved Richard’s chances. Certainly a major wound made worse by inept surgery would have increased the dangers of post-combat infection considerably. And this is exactly what happened; Richard’s wound became infected and gangrene set.


Richard was too much of an old campaigning hand to know that recovery was possible. He may well have forgiven the man who shot him; he certainly called for his mother to come to his bedside. On 6 April, 1199 he died in Eleanor’s arms. She mourned: ‘I have lost the staff of my age, the light of my eyes.’ Had Richard the Lionheart lived, war with Philip would have probably resumed sooner rather than later. If the results Richard had obtained against the French king from 1194 were anything to go by then the King of England would have probably worked his way, steamroller-like, into Philip’s lands and forced a decisive peace in his favour.


But of course this is merely speculation. And if anyone could turn the tide of war against Richard it was the wily King of France, the man who had managed, until 1198, to keep the war predominantly inside the English King’s territories. When Philip faced John, the story was a different matter. John was simply not up to the job of defeating so experienced an opponent. Indeed, he failed so abysmally (even when discounting the role of simple bad luck) that by the year of Philip’s death, 1223, the French King had achieved his longed-for goal: the Angevin Empire, which his great nemesis Richard had fought like a lion to maintain, was shattered.




Richard the Lionheart: good, bad or ugly?

In popular 21st Century imagination, Richard the Lionheart is a legendary fighting warrior, but also a king who happily milked his lands dry to finance war. The classic quote often wheeled out to prove Richard’s avarice was his wish to ‘sell London' were he able to find a bidder. But this forgets that Jerusalem's fall to Saladin was considered by almost all in Latin Christendom to be the greatest disaster of the age. It was deemed not only right but imperative that the greatest Christian kings use their wealth and available manpower to regain the Holy Land. To secure funding for his crusading force, Richard had to push through a year’s worth of business in a matter of months and, in doing so, he cut a number of important corners.


The story was a similar after Richard’s return from captivity. Anglo-Norman chroniclers considered it right and proper that he use the resources of the Angevin Empire to regain what Philip had illegally taken. Although it was understood that the struggle would arduous one, few considered Richard’s departure for the continent to be permanent, expecting he would return to England once his objectives had been met.


J H Harvey first aired suggestions that Richard was homosexual in 1948. Much of his assumption was based on the belief that Richard sharing a bed with Philip Augustus during the time he was in conflict with his father – Henry II – was somehow proof of homosexuality. J Gillingham pours scorn on this theory, writing: ‘It is an elementary mistake to assume that an act that has one symbolic meaning for us possessed that same meaning 800 years ago.’ Indeed, Richard's sharing of Philip's bed was more likely a signal to one and all that he was firmly allied with the young French monarch and his house.


In the last years of his life, Richard may have become a little overweight and some commentators suggest he also suffered from painful ulcers. However, his bravery and ability on the battlefield, whether he was ill or not, remained undiminished and the Lionheart continued to lead and fight from the front until his death.



Philip Augustus: ‘King of Lesser-land’

The son of pious Louis VII, Philip inherited the Capetian kingdom in 1180 as his father’s health deteriorated. The kingdom was little more than the Ile de Paris and with its young 14-year-old king seemingly weak. Many chroniclers sneered at Philip’s lack of experience and power, Betran de Born labelled him ‘the little king of Lesser-land’. But this king had a grand vision: to restore the power of the French monarchy to that of Charlmagne’s day, although to do this he would need to crush the mighty power of the Angevin Empire, which dominated most of France.


Philip, like his father, was considered deeply religious – he wore simple clothes at court and even introduced rules against foul language in his presence. After a brush with death from illness in 1179, Philip was obsessively concerned with his health and, as an extension of this, somewhat paranoid over self-perceived threats to his life. The king of France also had a mean streak and was noted for his avarice: his expulsion of the Jews from royal lands in 1182 and the confiscation of their wealth being an early example of this.


Returning to France after the Crusade it was noted that Philip’s frame was not once what it was – campaigning seems to have aged him somewhat early, although it had far from dimmed his burning ambition. The Tours chronicle describes him at this time as ‘a fine man, well-proportioned in stature, with a smiling countenance, bald, a ruddy complexion, inclined to eat and drink well, and sensual.’ In diplomacy he was great practitioner of realpolitik and a master of assessing the situation before striking.


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