Books interview with Thomas Asbridge: “Richard was a member of medieval Europe’s most dysfunctional family”

Thomas Asbridge speaks to Matt Elton about the myth and reality of Richard the Lionheart

Thomas Asbridge

This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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In context

Born in 1157 to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I ‘the Lionheart’ succeeded his father as king of England, and also ruled over much of what we today know as France. His decade-long reign was characterised by his involvement in the Third Crusade, of which he was a key Christian commander. Spanning three years (1189-92), the crusade aimed to retake Jerusalem from the Muslim leader Saladin. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful in this goal, the campaign led to the recapture of the ports of Acre and Jaffa. Richard’s role in the military effort has led to him often being seen as a heroic, almost mythic figure.


How far did Richard’s early experiences shape him?

Richard grew up as a member of the Angevin dynasty, one of the most potent and powerful of the mid-12th century, but probably also the most dysfunctional family in medieval Europe.

His family was remarkable, but also fraught with infighting. There was an incredibly viperous atmosphere in the family and at court, with everyone seeking to achieve power, if necessary at the cost of their wider dynastic fortunes. So it’s certainly fair to suggest that some of Richard’s ambition and ruthlessness was bred into him from an early age.

Did that infighting influence his attitude as he got close to the throne?

What’s often forgotten about Richard is that he was not expected to succeed Henry II. Richard’s elder brother, Henry the Young King, was predesignated as Henry II’s heir – and led two rebellions against their overbearing father, the first of which Richard was also involved with. After his brother died of dysentery in 1183, Richard became heir – and had already had his eyes opened to the idea that, if you wanted power, you had to pursue it doggedly.

The big question on Richard’s mind in the late 1180s was whether he was going to be designated king of England and ruler of the rest of his family’s continental domains. The critical issue with the Angevin dynasty was that they not only had the right to the crown of England, through Henry II, but also to a huge array of land in what is now France. They ruled a territory that went from the border with Scotland to the foothills of the Pyrenees – and Richard didn’t want just part of that, he wanted all of it. He was willing to fight with his father to get what he wanted.

Some people argue that his rule extending into the continent meant he was negligent of his English realm. What’s your take on that?

That’s a core question of Richard’s reign, and I think there are two ways of answering it. The first issue, and perhaps the most important, is to recognise that Richard did not take his role as king of England lightly. He pursued the crown with absolute vigour, and the fact that he succeeded in becoming king marked him out distinctly. In the medieval world there was a significant leap between being something like a count or an earl and becoming the divinely ordained monarch. So the status of king very much mattered to him.

It’s true to say, though, that Richard was absent for the majority of his reign. He ruled for the best part of 10 years and, of those, we think that he was on English soil for a maximum of six months. But that was driven by external matters and by events on the world stage, such as those that led to the Third Crusade calling him east. There was a strong element of necessity to his absence, in other words.

In addition, although he was willing to tax England hard to pay for the wars he intended to fight, that approach wasn’t dissimilar to that adopted by his father or earlier Anglo-Norman rulers of England. So I certainly don’t see him as a neglectful king.

To what extent do you believe Richard was driven by piety?

That’s a very thorny issue, because we only get occasional glimpses of his piety. He made donations to a number of religious institutions, and seems to have been a patron of a specific English saint, but we have relatively limited opportunities to assess what his attitude to piety might have been.

There’s a famous moment when, on his way to the Holy Land, Richard paused on the island of Sicily. There, he is described in an eyewitness account as stripping almost naked and throwing himself to the floor in front of an assembled group of clergy, seemingly to declare his willingness to show his penitent soul in preparation for the coming crusade. That seems to have been crafted as a very public event, designed to show his desire to see the crusade as a form of penance. It perhaps suggests that he felt some burden of sin for what he’d done to get the crown – most notably turning against his own dynasty and attacking his father’s forces in Le Mans in 1189 – but I don’t think we have anywhere near the amount of evidence we would need to say that categorically.

The only other really significant doubt about Richard’s piety is due to the fact that he never made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Saladin, ruler of the Muslim world, allowed unarmed crusaders to come as pilgrims, and many made the trip – but Richard did not.

Some have argued that, on that basis, we cannot see him as being religiously devoted to the Christian ideals that drove many of the other crusaders. I think that, actually, this is a misreading of the evidence – most significantly because Richard was remarkably unwell in 1192 when he could have made the pilgrimage. He was so ill, in fact, that he couldn’t even get out of his bed, so we shouldn’t misread his inability to make the journey as a lack of piety.

On the other hand, some events of Richard’s reign can be read as almost senseless in their brutality. How can we explain those?

The most infamous of these episodes is Richard’s massacre of 2,700 prisoners outside the Mediterranean city of Acre at the start of his participation in the Third Crusade. Crusaders had retaken the port in July 1191, terms of surrender had been agreed, and a large party of Muslim captives had been taken prisoner. Then, on 20 August, Richard had them executed – pretty clearly, I think, in cold blood.

Yet the term ‘senseless’ is open to debate. I’m involved in a long-running research project on crusade violence, which explores whether it was more extreme than other forms of warfare. This massacre is one of the key episodes I’ve looked at, and I think we can say that it was unusual to execute so many prisoners even in the context of the crusade. But I don’t think that we can accurately present it as ‘senseless’ or, as some historians have, the product of Richard’s blind rage. Instead, I think it was quite a calculated decision on his part.

In one way, of course, the fact that he was willing to carry out such a horrific act of violence makes it far more chilling. But I think Richard intended it to do two things: first, to allow him to continue with the crusade without leaving behind a large party of Muslim prisoners that needed protecting, and, second, to send a very direct, forceful message to Saladin that this was the way in which he was going to conduct the holy war.

Yet the crusade wasn’t successful in its ultimate goal of regaining Jerusalem. How important should we see it, then, in shaping Richard’s reputation?

It was absolutely fundamental. Of all the things that put him in a different class as a medieval king of England, as a monarch of Europe, and as a ruler across the whole of the Middle Ages, it’s the one that puts him in the spotlight. It was the single most far-flung military campaign ever waged in person by an English monarch.

What’s also notable is that, actually, there was a strong element of chance that gave Richard the opportunity to emerge as the leader of the Third Crusade. Nobody expected him to become the figurehead when the campaign began, but the death of Europe’s elder statesman, Frederick Barbarossa, left a power vacuum that Richard was able to fill.

Richard’s role in the crusade has gained him almost mythic status. Why do you think this is?

I spent a lot of time considering why Richard’s myth developed so significantly throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. I think that, partly, it’s because he knew the power of reputation: for instance, he cultivated the use of his famous nickname, ‘Lionheart’, during his own lifetime. Even during his reign he understood the importance of image.

But the fact remains that he did become leader of the Third Crusade and he did become an opponent of Saladin. People have become fascinated by both these subjects and we find them depicted in literature and art. What really struck me was how often historical complexities about these subjects are thrown away. Even though, as far as we know, Richard and Saladin never met, and the crusade was significantly short of full success, you can find many accounts of Richard and Saladin fighting in single combat – and, of course, Richard wins every time. That speaks, I think, to the popularity of him as a mythic figure, as well as how such tales can alter the warp and weft of actual history.

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Book: Richard I: The Crusader King by Thomas Asbridge (Allen Lane, 128 pages, £12.99). Reader in medieval history at Queen Mary University of London, Asbridge researched and presented the 2014 BBC documentary The Greatest Knight: William Marshal. His previous books include The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land (Simon and Schuster, 2010).