Statues are very much in the news. The footage of Edward Colston’s monument being dumped unceremoniously into the harbour in Bristol is one for future history books. Figures associated with slavery, the slave trade, and racism generally across the globe have come under close inspection from people questioning whether they should still stand as commemorative artefacts. Most of these statues are of figures from the 18th century and later, though the conversation has drifted back in time to the likes of Sir Francis Drake and the 16th-century development of the Atlantic slave trade. Globally, statues of Christopher Columbus have also been drawn into the debate.
However, little has been said about statues in Britain depicting medieval figures, some of whom may be equally problematic when viewed through a modern lens, as the likes of Colston. Why is that? I recorded a conversation with Dr Simon John of Swansea University for the HistoryExtra podcast.
Dr John is both a medievalist (an expert on the socio-cultural impact of the Crusades in Latin Christendom) and an authority on statuary; his current project is ‘Contested Pasts: public monuments and historical culture in Western Europe, 1815-1930’ (funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust), which explores the political uses of public monuments and statues in 19th-century European states.
We particularly talked about the statue of King Richard I, the Lionheart, which stands directly outside the Palace of Westminster in London. Dr John has studied the circumstances in which this statue was erected in 1860, and also considered whether it is an appropriate monument to stand at the heart of British democracy (many in the 19th century did not think so).
Along with many of the statues that are proving to be objects of contention today, its origins lie in the mid-19th century, an age of statue-mania, when they were springing up in capital cities across the continent. Many of the people honoured with statues at this time were associated with European imperialism, but there were also a number that depicted people from the medieval past.
“There’s a real fashion in creating monuments to medieval figures, and it’s continental-wide,” explains Dr John. “So Charlemagne, for example, we see statues of him created in both France and Belgium. Joan of Arc is commemorated by numerous statues in France and figures like Frederick Barbarossa have statues created in their honour in the German-speaking lands. So we can connect this on one hand to a far wider 19th-century interest in the Middle Ages, which manifests itself in other ways.
“In Britain, for example, we have the novels of Walter Scott, and the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. What we’re seeing is a society that’s reaching toward the Middle Ages for a very particular reason. The 19th century witnessed great societal upheavals caused by industrialisation. For many, this brought about spiritual anxieties. And in this context, the Middle Ages was idealised as a simpler, more pious age, as a soothing antidote to the societal changes that industrialisation was bringing around.”
Many commentators have noted that these statues do speak more of 19th-century attitudes, in terms of state-building and positive attitudes to imperialism, than they reflect the activities or legacy of the people actually commemorated. That is the context in which Richard I came to be commemorated in Westminster.
The statue was the work of the Italian-born, French-raised sculptor Carlo Marochetti. His muscular King Richard, raising his sword aloft and sitting astride a noble horse, caught the attention of no lesser figures than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who championed the statue, the first version of which was created for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Dr John’s research has shown that it was partly due to their patronage that the statue was funded and erected outside parliament, though it faced some opposition from those who were against a foreigner getting such a prominent commission. Others felt that a man known principally for his martial achievements was not appropriate for a place of government and seat of industrial progress, and particularly not a monarch who spent most of his time outside of England campaigning in foreign lands, funded by taxes on his English subjects. This indeed reflected a more critical analysis of Richard I in academic circles at the time.
The life of Richard I
Dr Simon John gives a potted history of the life of King Richard I
“He was born in Oxford in 1157, the third son of the incumbent king of England, ruler of the Angevin empire, Henry II. This was an empire that encompassed about half of what we would today call France. So he wasn’t just king of England, he had authority over this great continental empire as well.
“So Richard spent his early years in England, but then from 1172, he was active almost exclusively on the continent because in that year, his father appointed him Duke of Aquitaine. So basically for the rest of his life, the most dominant feature of Richard’s life was warfare. His two older brothers both died before him and their father, which meant that when Henry II died in 1189, Richard was the successor.
“Richard succeeded to be king of England and ruler of the Angevin lands. But even before his inauguration as king of England in 1189, he had been planning to go on crusade in response to the loss of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin in 1187. Between 1190 and 1192, he was away from the west participating in what historians call the Third Crusade. It was this above all that propelled him towards legendary status because it was the crusade that brought him into conflict with the legendary figure of Saladin.
“The Third Crusade ended, but the Christian forces and Richard didn’t recover Jerusalem. They did shore up the Christian presence in the Holy Land, making a bridgehead that their 13th– century successors would use to try and recover Jerusalem. Richard left the Holy Land in 1192. But on the way home through Austria he was captured by an enemy. For just over a year he was held captive at the behest of Emperor Henry VI. He was moved through various locations in Germany while his subjects back in his lands were raising the necessary ransom.
“The money was finally raised, and in 1194 Richard was released and went back to his lands, briefly to England, but for most of the rest of his life from 1194 he was on campaign in his continental lands, trying to restore the position that he’d had before he left. While he was away, his younger brother, John, of Magna Carta fame, had been in cahoots with Richard’s enemy Phillip II, king of France, and undermined Richard’s position in his lands.
“So it was in the context of this effort to recover his position, as he was taking part in a siege in 1199 in his old duchy of Aquitaine, that he was struck by a crossbow bolt. The wound turned gangrenous, and a week or so later, he died.”
As Professor John Gillingham notes in his entry for Richard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “Although works of literary fiction, most notably Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825) by Walter Scott, continued to present a glamorous image of Richard I, one given lasting visual form by the equestrian statue of the king by Carlo Marochetti which was financed by public subscription and placed outside the houses of parliament in 1860, virtually all historians came to think of Richard as ‘a bad ruler’, an absentee king who neglected his kingdom”.
Wider public perceptions of Richard in England in the 19th century were less critical and tended to associate him more with muscular Christianity, chivalry and honour, and for many he probably carried with him broader notions about the importance of morality, religion, and the monarchy in Victorian society.
The contemporary conversation
Richard I was, of course, a famed warrior and an enthusiastic crusader. It’s his actions on campaign and in the Third Crusade, upon which he embarked not long after his 1189 succession to the throne of England, that for Dr John, make Richard a candidate for inclusion in the current statue conversation. The reaction of his contemporaries to his martial activities is particularly instructive.
“He is a figure that even in his own lifetime evoked very strong reactions, both positive and negative,” says Dr John. “There are contemporaries, including his critics, who really emphasised his bravery and his abilities as a leader, his qualities as a fighter himself, as a man of war. He was known as the Lionheart while he was still alive, and the kernel of his legend came into existence while he still lived.
“In the centuries after his death, it evolved and developed. However, there was a sense amongst some contemporaries that sometimes he waged war in a way that went beyond normal levels. As part of his efforts in Aquitaine, for example, in the 1170s, some of his opponents saw him as acting in an overly brutal, cruel way. Some critics wrote that he spent much of his time chasing around the wives and daughters of his subjects – hardly behaviour that was going to endear him to his subjects. And in terms of the financial issues, contemporaries complained time and again about the financial demands he was placing on his subjects, first to raise money to go on Crusade and then to raise funds to pay for the ransom that would see him released from the captivity of Henry VI of Germany”.
Listen to Rebecca Rist responding to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Christian campaigns in the Middle East:
There is one particular incident that is often overlooked in modern public assessments of Richard I: his treatment of hostages after the siege of Acre in 1191, as Dr John outlines: “Richard arrived in June 1191 and the crusaders captured the city in July. In the process, they captured several thousand hostages: some reports say around 3,000 Muslims were taken captive. And in the period afterwards, these hostages became bargaining chips in the negotiation between Saladin and Richard. The crusaders made several demands from Saladin for their safe return. When Saladin failed to meet them in time, this prompted Richard to take a fateful decision. So on 20 August he ordered these hostages to be marched out of the city, placed in front of the Muslim camp and executed.
“Again, this comes down to the question of perspective. Richard himself, in a letter sent back to the west in October 1191, said this was quite proper because Saladin defaulted on his agreement and, therefore, he was completely within his rights to order the deaths of these hostages.
“What’s crucial, though is that as we saw with some of Richard’s activities in Aquitaine earlier in his career, there were at least some contemporaries who believed that this was beyond the pale and exceeded normal standards. On the one hand we have Islamic chroniclers, the biographers of Saladin, who, as we might expect, saw this as a barbarous, treacherous act. But there are some Christian writers who outright decried it. Others were very anxious to shift blame away from Richard saying that this wasn’t his fault but Saladin’s, for failing to follow through on the agreement.
“In terms of where this fits in to our collective understanding and memorialisation of Richard today, I would say that this event is almost completely overlooked. What comes to the fore, what is embodied in the statue in Westminster, is the glorious, heroic, chivalrous figure. So there’s almost a collective amnesia to put to one side the bits that don’t fit that narrative and instead to focus on the aspects that do match up to it.”
On this podcast, Professor Jonathan Phillips is joined by medieval historian Dan Jones to discuss the life and legacy of the Muslim ruler Saladin:
Was there racism in the Middle Ages?
King Richard I’s actions after Acre, and the 12th-century reaction to it, opens the question about how far he stands up to the 21st-century moral compass. It also leads into the wider question of our view and understanding of the Crusades in general, and whether they should be seen in the context of racism in the Middle Ages. The work of Professor Geraldine Heng has been ground-breaking in this debate, particularly in her 2018 book The Invention of Race (a very thought-provoking read, also helpfully summarised to some extent in this online article.)
“I regard Professor Heng’s research as a really important contribution to a subject that needs to be treated very carefully,” says Dr John. “Her work is important is because it encourages us to consider not only what people did or didn’t think in the Middle Ages, but also how modern historians have gone about approaching this topic as well. So an argument that she makes that I find very convincing is that a form of racism did exist in the Middle Ages, but that modern historians writing about the Middle Ages have been very unwilling to refer to it in those terms.
“She says that historians have used euphemisms such as chauvinism or xenophobia to describe what actually we should call racism. It’s clear from the start of human history that people have noted differences between different groups and in some contexts, those differences have given grounds for discrimination. What Professor Heng points out is that while in the Middle Ages the key grounds for discrimination were indeed religion and religious difference, in some contexts those differences were seen to include physical differences as well. In other words, particularly hated groups were ascribed particular physical characteristics as part of the process of discriminating against them.
“I think we should speak of racism in the Middle Ages, while accepting that racial difference was construed in a way that doesn’t fully map onto how it’s construed today. But what Professor Heng would say is that if we use a word or term other than racism, arguably what we’re doing is an injustice both to the period of the Middle Ages and our own conversation about the relevance of that period to our own modern-day discussions on race.”
Placing Richard I’s enthusiasm for the Crusades within the context of racist attitudes puts an entirely different spin on his reputation today. But he wouldn’t be the only medieval monarch to come under the microscope. Professor Heng’s thesis about medieval racism is particularly focused around anti-Semitism and the way that Jews in England were discriminated against, in a very extreme fashion, as a group. As she says in the web article noted above, “Rather than oppose premodern ‘prejudice’ to modern racisms, we can see the treatment of medieval Jews – including their legalised murder by the state on the basis of community rumours and lies – as racial acts, which today we might even call hate crimes, of a sanctioned and legalised kind.”
With that in mind, how should we view statues of King Henry III, the great re-builder of Westminster Abbey, who also presided over an attempt to convert the Jews of England to Christianity? Or indeed his son Edward I, who infamously expelled England’s Jews in 1290? None of these figures have yet come under the microscope of the current debate, though it should be said that there has been some discussion around a statue of Henry III’s close contemporary, King Louis IX of France, in St Louis, USA, for his role in the Crusades and his persecution of Jews. Also, a statue of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn was recently defaced, though the circumstances of that are somewhat enigmatic.
Why, then, are these medieval figures and attitudes not for the most part included in this conversation?
“On the one hand, there’s potentially the same kind of cultural dynamic that we talked about in relation to the 19th century, a tendency to regard the Middle Ages as a safer, simpler time associated more with qualities like chivalry, moral values rather than some of the more complex issues that we’ve started to talk about,” says Dr John. “I think there’s a wider issue that Geraldine Heng’s work might help us to push through, namely the fact that premodern discrimination – racism – in the Middle Ages isn’t seen in the same kind of continuum as subjects like slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. Whereas if we’re to have a conversation about the impact of subjects like the Crusades and the treatment of Jews in the Middle Ages, we might be raising some of the very same issues that are so vital in our own conversations about statues now, statues of more modern figures involved in the slave trade and so on.”
Specifically, as regards King Richard and the Westminster statue, Dr John wonders if his very English appeal is appropriate: “If we are to have a conversation about Richard in the 21st century, we might well discuss whether an icon of Englishness fully encapsulates the ideas and values of all the peoples of Britain and Ireland who are represented at Westminster. I see this issue from the perspective of someone who isn’t English. And I can see the case for arguing that, actually, an icon of Englishness in the home of British democracy might not be all that in keeping with the ideas of everyone to whom that building is important today.”
Finally, to sum up, Dr John proclaims a call to arms for us all to engage more fully with, and seek to better understand, the place of Richard I and his contemporaries within the current important conversations: “From the very start, the act of creating a statue is political. It’s a symbolic act. And above all, it’s designed to create a group identity amongst a particular set of people designed to bring a group together. So in instances like those we’ve been seeing recently, certain statues have caused controversy. The real debate behind this is the fact that these statues of past figures are invoking history in a way that causes division in the present, and that division ultimately stems from the fact people have different interpretations of the past.
“What history will tell us is that when such examples arise, when controversial statues become part of a wider conversation, it’s only right that society’s response is to hold a conversation about whether these artefacts still merit their status as cultural symbols. So we come back to our case study of Richard I and his statue at parliament. I think it’s only natural that we as a society might want to ask whether this 19th-century statue of a 12th-century figure fully matches up to what we hold to be dear about our own 21st-century society.”