Medieval masculinity: what Richard I can tell us about male friendship in the Middle Ages
English and French kings rarely got along, but Richard I enjoyed a close relationship with Philip II of France – so much so, that there were whispers about Richard’s sexuality. We need to reframe this inquiry into the monarch, writes Dr Gabrielle Storey, and acknowledge that male friendship in the Middle Ages was more intimate than we might expect
Attached to his reputation as a crusading hero has often lurked allegations and rumours of homosexuality, which – although significantly debunked by historians – have continued to arouse attention and entertainment in public opinion and media.
Chief among these is his relationship with the French king Philip Augustus, who served as both a friend and a rival. But much of what has been speculated to be male same-sex attraction and behaviour may not have been sexual after all, but instead sincere and affectionate camaraderie.
Richard and Philip
Richard I (b1157), son of the one of the most famous royal couples of England, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is known more for his military campaigns and exploits outside of England than his rulership of it.
He departed England in 1190 to join the Third Crusade (1189-92), and married Berengaria of Navarre on 12 May 1191 at Limassol, Cyprus. His brief return to England in 1194 without Berengaria – and after an extended period of captivity in Holy Roman Empire – saw him re-crowned at Winchester Cathedral to reinforce his authority, as he had been captured on his return journey and imprisoned for over a year.
Shortly thereafter, Richard took up arms again to battle against the king of France, Philip Augustus (otherwise known as Philip II), who was expanding the domains of the Capetian kings and encroaching on the continental Angevin territories. Richard died on campaign in Normandy on 6 April 1199, from infection in a shoulder wound inflicted by a crossbow.
As the first monarch to style himself king of France, Philip Augustus (b1165), ruled between 1180 and 1223 and is equally famous for his military endeavours and his successful expansion of the kingdom of France.
Philip had an equally fascinating – and debated – personal life when compared with Richard, but for very different reasons. His marriage to his second wife, Ingeborg of Denmark, in 1193, was the source of courtly intrigue and dispute for nearly 20 years. This was because Philip repudiated Ingeborg on the day of the ceremony and requested an annulment from the Pope on grounds of non-consummation.
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Despite the papacy refusing the request, Philip married for a third time, to Agnes of Merania, in June 1196, and it was only after Agnes’ death that Philip reconciled with Ingeborg.
The personal lives of these two kings lays the groundwork for an exploration of their camaraderie, friendship, and later rivalry with one another.
During the reign of Henry II, Philip was active in supporting the English king’s sons in their rebellions against their father. This in part instigated a friendship between Richard and Philip, which was to continue into the early years of Richard’s reign.
The closeness between the Angevin and Capetian dynasties had been formalised with the marital alliance between Richard and Philip’s half-sister, Alys, in 1169. Both kings had agreed to take the cross – to go on crusade – and, after the death of Henry II in 1189, plans grew apace as both feared intervention in each other’s lands in their absence.
Masculinity and homosociality
Male friendship – falling under the bracket of homosociality as a non-sexual relationship between men – is tied to masculinity, and there were several different forms of masculinity in the medieval period.
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Royal secular masculinity could be comprised of many elements, including brotherhood, chivalry, knighthood, fatherhood, and sexuality. Richard and Philip certainly fulfilled a masculine ideal of knightlihood by acting as honourable warriors and military leaders.
Medieval masculinities were also tied to concepts of fatherhood and reproduction, a role that Richard did not legitimately fulfil. Notions of fatherhood and sexuality, knightlihood, brotherhood, and companionship with other men of similar status, impacted how men embodied masculine ideals and their subsequent behaviour with one another.
Such values around masculinity and friendship – what it meant to be a man, and how this could be enacted – were also reflected in contemporary writings at the time.
Bedsharing kings: not as unusual as you might think
The speculation of the nature of Richard and Philip’s relationship has largely stemmed from misinterpretation surrounding passages from the contemporary chronicler Roger of Howden, who noted that:
“After peace was thus made [in 1187], Richard, earl of Poitou, remained with the king of France, though much against the will of his father, and the king of France held him in such high esteem, that every day they ate at the same table and from the same dish, and at night they had not separate chambers.”
Other scholars of medieval gender and sexuality have utilised John Boswell’s translation, which speaks to “the passionate love between them.” The “passionate love” between the two monarchs is a literary convention, and the bed-sharing a real-life political consideration.
Bed-sharing, whether behind closed doors or on campaign, between male rulers or between rulers and their companions was a political act, which demonstrated trust and brotherhood, as well as loyalty between the two men. There were also political and sexual symbolisms to sharing food, plate, and company, which reinforced this bond of friendship between Richard and Philip.
Though there certainly were incidents of bed-sharing with erotic undertones, that of Richard I and Philip Augustus was not one. Richard was certainly a warrior king who appeared concerned more with his brother-in-arms and companions – regularly holding feasts and celebrating with them on crusade – than his marital duties and the procreation of a legitimate heir, however this does not mean that we can conclusively define his sexuality.
By comparison, little comment has been made on the sexuality of Philip aside from in relation to Richard. Philip successfully embodied several elements of medieval masculinities, whereas as Richard’s reign progressed, it became clear he was not fulfilling expected aspects of masculine ideals. Richard was beset by military losses across the Angevin domains on the continent and the Third Crusade, and did not have a legitimate son to succeed him.
Upon Richard’s death in 1199, his failures in the realms of dynasticism, marriage, and rulership were clear. Richard appears to have been more interested in associations with his brothers-in-arms rather than with women, however this does not indicate substantively that he was interested in same-sex relationships.
It is more likely that Richard had positioned himself on the separate spectrums of homosocial bonding and sexualities with a clear preference for male companionship. Historians cannot position Richard closer to same-sex or opposite-sex attraction with any certainty unless further evidence comes to light.
The nature of male medieval friendships
Medieval male friendships, especially those between royals, can tell us much more about brotherhood, chivalry, and alliances then the sources, taken at face value, indicate. Though there is undoubtedly more that needs to be done when it comes to making LGBTQ+ history visible, considering how men interacted with one another as comrades and friends gives us further nuance to what medieval masculinities looked like in a Western European context.
There are many royal male relationships that can tell us about male friendships and relationships in the medieval world. By looking at Richard I and Philip Augustus in particular, we can see that male friendship could be one of close companionship and intimacy, but also was not static. It was affected by wider political events; Philip was politically shrewd, allying with the Plantagenet sons as suited his needs.
Richard I, as a case study, tells us about how friendships and masculinities were intertwined with each other, and that being a king meant embodying many different elements of masculine identity, including male companionship.
- From the same author | Eleanor of Aquitaine: the worst royal mother-in-law?
Gabrielle Storey is a historian, writer, and consultant specialising in medieval and public history. She is the editor of Memorialising Premodern Monarchs: Medias of Commemoration and Remembrance and the author of a forthcoming biography of Berengaria of Navarre, queen of England. She has also written several public and open access academic pieces related to Angevin queenship and gender and sexuality.
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