Richard the Lionheart: King of war

Richard I knew the business of war from his early experience in France. But, says Thomas Asbridge, it was in the Third Crusade that the English king honed his military genius. On his return to the west, Richard proved himself the best commander of his generation...

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Richard the Lionheart (right) demonstrated his military acumen during clashes with the French king Philip Augustus at the key strategic stronghold of Gisors in the 1190s. © Bridgeman

On 25 March 1194, Richard I, the Lionheart, laid siege to Nottingham Castle. Intent upon reasserting his authority over England, the king directed the full force of his military genius and martial resources against this supposedly impregnable, rebel-held fortress.

Eleven days earlier, Richard had landed at Sandwich in Kent, setting foot on English soil for the first time in more than four years. During his prolonged absence – first waging a gruelling crusade in the Holy Land, then enduring imprisonment at the hands of political rivals in Austria and Germany – the Lionheart’s devious younger brother, John, had sought to seize power. Richard thus returned to a realm threatened by insurrection and, though John himself soon scuttled across the Channel, Nottingham remained an outpost of those championing his dubious cause.

King Richard I fell upon the stronghold with chilling efficiency. He arrived at the head of a sizeable military force, and possessed the requisite tools to crack Nottingham’s stout defences, having summoned siege machines and stone-throwing trebuchets from Leicester, 22 carpenters from Northampton, and his master engineer, Urric, from London. The castle’s garrison offered stern resistance, but on the first day of fighting the outer battlements fell. As had become his custom, Richard threw himself into the fray wearing only light mail armour and an iron cap, but was protected from a rain of arrows and crossbow bolts by a number of heavy shields borne by his bodyguards. By evening, we are told, many of the defenders were left “wounded and crushed” and a number of prisoners had been taken.

Having made a clear statement of intent, the Lionheart sent messengers to the garrison in the morning, instructing them to capitulate to their rightful king. At first they refused, apparently unconvinced that Richard had indeed returned. In response, the Lionheart deployed his trebuchets, then ordered gibbets to be raised and hanged a number of his captives in full sight of the fortress. Surrender followed shortly thereafter. Accounts vary as to the treatment subsequently meted out to the rebels: one chronicler maintained that they were spared by the “compassionate” king because he was “so gentle and full of mercy”, but other sources make it clear that at least two of John’s hated lackeys met their deaths soon after (one being imprisoned and starved, the other flayed alive).

With this victory Richard reaffirmed the potent legitimacy of his kingship, and support for John’s cause in England collapsed. The work of repairing the grave damage inflicted by John’s machinations upon his family’s extensive continental lands would take years – the majority of Richard’s remaining life in fact – but the Lionhearted monarch had returned to the west in spectacular fashion. Few could doubt that he was now the warrior-king par excellence; a fearsome opponent, unrivalled among the crowned monarchs of Europe.

 

Rex bellicosus

Richard I’s skills as a warrior and a general have long been recognised, though, for much of the 20th century, it was his supposedly intemperate and bloodthirsty brutality that was emphasised, with one scholar describing him as a “peerless killing machine”. In recent decades a strong case has been made for the Lionheart’s more clinical mastery of the science of medieval warfare, and today he is often portrayed as England’s ‘rex bellicosus’ (warlike king).

Current assessments of Richard’s military achievements generally present his early years as Duke of Aquitaine (from 1172) as the decisive and formative phase in his development as a commander. Having acquired and honed his skills, it is argued, the Lionheart was perfectly placed to make his mark on the Third Crusade, waging a holy war to recover Palestine from the Muslim sultan Saladin. The contest for control of Jerusalem between these two titans of medieval history is presented as the high point of Richard I’s martial career – the moment at which he forged his legend.

However, this approach understates some issues, while overplaying others. He embarked upon the crusade on 4 July 1190 as a recently crowned and relatively untested king. Years of intermittent campaigning had given him a solid grounding in the business of war – particularly in the gritty realities of raiding and siege-craft – but to begin with at least, no one would have expected Richard to lead in the holy war. That role naturally fell to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Europe’s elder statesmen and veteran campaigner, and it was only Barbarossa’s unfortunate death through drowning en route to the Levant that opened the door for the Lionheart.

Arguably, the extent and significance of Richard’s achievements in the Holy Land also have been exaggerated. True, he brought the crusader siege of Acre to a swift and successful conclusion in July 1191, but he did so only in alliance with his sometime-rival King Philip Augustus of France (of the Capetian dynasty). The victory over Saladin’s forces later that year at the battle of Arsuf, on 7 September, appears on closer inspection to have been an unplanned and inconclusive encounter, while Richard’s decision to twice advance to within 12 miles of Jerusalem (only to retreat on both occasions without mounting an assault) suggests that he had failed to grasp, much less harness, the distinctive devotional impulse that drove crusading armies.

A manuscript thought to depict Richard I fighting Saladin during the Third Crusade, where the Lionheart honed the military skills for which he became famous. © AKG Images

This is not to suggest that Richard’s expedition should be regarded as a failure, nor to deny that his campaign was punctuated by moments of inspired generalship – most notably in leading his army on a fighting march through Muslim-held territory between Acre and Jaffa. Rather, it is to point out that the Lionheart was still sharpening his skills in Palestine. The Third Crusade ended in stalemate in September 1192, but it was in the fires of this holy war, as Richard and Saladin fought one another to a standstill, that the English king tempered his martial genius.

He returned to the west having acquired a new depth of experience and insight, and proved only too capable of putting the lessons learned in the Levant to good use as he strove first to subdue England, and then to reclaim the likes of Normandy and Anjou from Philip of France. It is this period, between 1194 and 1198, which rightly should be recognised as the pinnacle of Richard I’s military career.

By the time he reached England in March 1194, the 36-year-old Richard had matured into an exceptionally well-rounded commander. As a meticulous logician and a cool-headed, visionary strategist, the Lionheart could out-think his enemy; but he also loved frontline combat and possessed an exuberant self-confidence and inspirational charisma, allied to a grim, but arguably necessary, streak of ruthlessness.
All of these qualities were immediately apparent when Richard marched on rebel-held Nottingham. This veteran of the siege of Acre – one of the hardest-fought investments of the Middle Ages – understood the value of careful planning, the decisive capability of heavy siege machinery and the morale-sapping impact of calculated violence. Though one contemporary claimed Nottingham Castle was “so well fortified by nature and artifice” that it seemed “unconquerable”, Richard brought its garrison to the point of surrender in less than two days. Other striking successes in siege warfare followed, not least when the Lionheart captured the mighty fortress of Loches (in Touraine) in just three hours through a blistering frontal assault.

 

Sparring with the enemy

While campaigning on the continent to recover Angevin territory from Philip Augustus, Richard also demonstrated a remarkably acute appreciation of the precepts governing military manoeuvres and engagements. During the crusade he had sparred with Saladin’s forces on numerous occasions, through fighting marches, exploratory raids and in the course of the first, incremental advance inland towards Jerusalem conducted in the autumn of 1191.

This hard-won familiarity with the subtleties of troop movements and martial incursion served the Lionheart well when, in the early summer of 1194, Philip Augustus advanced west towards the town of Vendôme (on the border between the Angevin realm and Capetian territory) and began to threaten the whole of the Loire Valley.


The seal of Richard the Lionheart depicts the ultimate medieval warrior-king, who eagerly threw himself into the heat of battle. © Bridgeman

Richard responded by marching into the region in early July. Vendôme itself was not fortified, so the Angevin king threw up a defensive camp in front of the town. The two armies, seemingly well-matched in numerical terms, were now separated by only a matter of miles. Though Philip initially remained blissfully unaware, from the moment that the Lionheart took up a position before Vendôme, the Capetians (French) were in grave danger. Should the French king attempt to initiate a frontal assault on the Angevin encampment, he would have to lead his troops south-west down the road to Vendôme, leaving the Capetian host exposed to flanking and encircling manoeuvres. However, any move by the French to retreat from the frontline would be an equally risky proposition, as they would be prone to attack from the rear and might easily be routed.

At first, King Philip sought to intimidate Richard, dispatching an envoy on 3 July to warn that a French offensive would soon be launched. Displaying a disconcerting confidence, the Lionheart apparently replied that he would happily await the Capetians’ arrival, adding that, should they not appear, he would pay them a visit in the morning. Unsettled by this brazen retort, Philip wavered over his next step.

When the Angevins initiated an advance the following day, the French king’s nerve broke and he ordered a hurried withdrawal north-east, along the road to Fréteval (12 miles from Vendôme). Though eager to harry his fleeing opponent, Richard shrewdly recognised that he could ill-afford a headlong pursuit that might leave his own troops in disarray, perilously exposed to counterattack. The Lionheart therefore placed one of his most trusted field lieutenants, William Marshal, in command of a reserve force, with orders to shadow the main advance, yet hold back from the hunt itself and thus be ready to counter any lingering Capetian resistance.

Having readied his men, Richard began his chase around midday on 4 July. Towards dusk, Richard caught up with the French rear guard and wagon train near Fréteval, and as the Angevins fell on the broken Capetian ranks, hundreds of routing enemy troops were slain or taken prisoner. All manner of plunder was seized, from “pavilions, all kinds of tents, cloth of scarlet and silk, plate and coin” according to one chronicler, to “horses, palfreys, pack-horses, sumptuous garments and money”. Many of Philip Augustus’s personal possessions were appropriated, including a portion of the Capetian royal archives. It was a desperately humiliating defeat.

Richard hunted the fleeing French king through the night, using a string of horses to speed his pursuit, but when Philip pulled off the road to hide in a small church, Richard rode by. It was a shockingly narrow escape for the Capetian. The Angevins returned to Vendôme near midnight, laden with booty and leading a long line of prisoners.

 

The power of a castle

By the end of 1198, after long years of tireless campaigning and adept diplomacy, Richard had recovered most of the Angevin dynasty’s territorial holdings on the continent. One crucial step in the process of restoration was the battle for dominion over the Norman Vexin – the long-contested border zone between the duchy of Normandy and the Capetian-held Ile-de-France. Philip Augustus had seized this region in 1193-94, while Richard still remained in captivity, occupying a number of castles, including the stronghold at Gisors. Long regarded as the linchpin of the entire Vexin, this fortress was all-but impregnable. It boasted a fearsome inner-keep enclosed within an imposing circuit of outer-battlements and, even more importantly, could rely upon swift reinforcement by French troops should it ever be subjected to enemy assault.

The Lionheart was uniquely qualified to attempt the Vexin’s reconquest. In the Holy Land, he had painstakingly developed a line of defensible fortifications along the route linking Jaffa and Jerusalem. Later, he dedicated himself to re-establishing the battlements at Ascalon because the port was critical to the balance of power between Palestine and Egypt. Richard might already have possessed a fairly shrewd appreciation of a castle’s use and value before the crusade, but by the time he returned to Europe there can have been few commanders with a better grasp of this dimension of medieval warfare.

Drawing upon this expertise, Richard immediately recognised that, in practical terms, Gisors was invulnerable to direct attack. As a result, he formulated an inspired, two-fold strategy, designed to neutralise Gisors and reassert Angevin influence over the Vexin. First, he built a vast new military complex on the Seine at Les Andelys (on the Vexin’s western edge) that included a fortified island, a dock that made the site accessible to shipping from England and a looming fortress christened ‘Chateau Gaillard’ – the ‘Castle of Impudence’ or ‘Cheeky-Castle’. Built in just two years, 1196–98, the project cost an incredible £12,000, far more than Richard spent on fortifications in all of England over the course of his entire reign.


Richard’s Chateau Gaillard (meaning ‘Castle of Impudence’) allowed him to neutralise his enemies in the Norman Vexin. © Rex Features

Les Andelys protected the approaches to the ducal capital of Rouen, but more importantly it also functioned as a staging post for offensive incursions into the Vexin. For the first time, it allowed large numbers of Angevin troops to be billeted on the fringe of this border zone in relative safety and the Lionheart set about using these forces to dominate the surrounding region. Though the Capetians retained control of Gisors, alongside a number of other strongholds in the Vexin, their emasculated garrisons were virtually unable to venture beyond their gates, because the Angevins based out of Les Andelys were constantly ranging across the landscape.

One chronicler observed that the French were “so pinned down [in their] castles that they could not take anything outside”, and troops in Gisors itself were unable even to draw water from their local spring. By these steps, King Richard reaffirmed Angevin dominance in northern France, shifting the balance of power back in his favour.

In the end, Richard’s penchant for siege warfare and frontline skirmishing cost him his life. One of the greatest warrior-kings of the Middle Ages was cut down in 1199 by a crossbow bolt while investing an insignificant Aquitanean fortress. The Lionheart’s death, aged just 41, seemed to contemporaries, as it does today, a shocking and pointless waste. Nonetheless, he was the foremost military commander of his generation – a rex bellicosus whose martial gifts were refined in the Holy Land.  

 

Crusader to war king

8 September 1157
Richard is born, son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine (below), founders of the Angevin dynasty


© AKG Images

June 1172
Invested as Duke of Aquitaine in the abbey church of St Hilary in Poitiers

11 June 1183
His elder brother dies. Richard becomes heir to the English crown and Angevin realm (including Normandy and Anjou

Autumn 1187
Saladin reconquers Jerusalem. Richard is the first nobleman north of the Alps to take the cross for the Third Crusade

3 September 1189
Having rebelled against his father Henry’s authority and hounded the old king to his death, Richard is crowned king

4 July 1190
Sets out on crusade to the Holy Land, leaving younger brother, John, in Europe

Summer 1191
Richard seizes Acre from Saladin’s forces. He marches to Jaffa, defeating the Muslim army at Arsuf en route

2 September 1192
After abortive attempts on Jerusalem, Richard agrees peace with Saladin

December 1192
Travelling home, Richard is seized by Leopold of Austria, then held by Henry VI of Germany until 1194

26 March 1194
Richard takes Nottingham Castle. His brother John’s cause in England collapses

1196–98
Richard spends £12,000 on ‘Chateau Gaillard’ which helps him reassert Angevin dominance in northern France

6 April 1199
Richard dies during the siege of Chalus

Dr Thomas Asbridge is reader in medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London. He is currently writing a new biography of Richard I for the Penguin Monarchs series.

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