The legend of Richard the Lionheart in the Middle Ages

The end of the 12th century was marked by numerous changes, social, cultural and economic. Among them, the emergence of chivalry- elite combatants linked by their own particular system of values- was very significant. Richard the Lionheart liked to think of himself as a paragon of this “order of chivalry” and was regarded as such.

The heir of one of the most powerful families of his time, he behaved from every point of view as a simple knight, seeking glory and fortune through his prowess as a warrior. Moreover, some chroniclers criticised him for this attitude, the role of a king being to command and govern, not to involve himself in actual combat.

In spite of that, his reputation was forged in combat and by the numerous campaigns that he led. His nickname “Lionheart” reveals this warlike and heroic character which has been gradually amplified and exaggerated by the chroniclers in creating his legend. In the warlike and chivalric culture of the Middle Ages the lion was a symbol of ferocity, strength and courage.

Unlike his brothers, particularly Henry the Young King, he was not a keen participant in tournaments. He preferred “real” war. After his coronation in 1189 the legend really began to take shape. His exploits in the Holy Land were retold and exaggerated. His involvement in battles, whether at Acre, Arsouf or Jaffa, was from then on repeated and contributed to the creation of the legend of the “Knight King”, brave and fierce in combat, showing his generous largesse off the field of battle. Even some Muslims, like Al Adil, Saladin’s brother, acknowledged Richard’s qualities as a warrior and knight.

Wounded many times, he was often criticised for the foolhardiness that put his life in danger. His death from a crossbow bolt at Châlus confirmed the fears of his entourage. Although Richard, a knightly Crusader king, had been able to gain the respect of fearsome enemies like Saladin or Philip Augustus, he came to besiege a little castle in Limousin, his umpteenth minor feudal conflict, and there died from an arrow and not from a sword wielded on the field of battle. Right from the start, however, this inglorious death was embellished and embroidered into the legend.

In the centuries that followed his death, Richard continued to be a symbol of chivalry and its values. He became the subject of numerous epic poems and romances. He was compared to the greatest heroes: Julius Caesar, Roland and the Knights of the Round Table.

His father, Henry II, had already tried to identify himself with King Arthur, the model of a just and wise king. The myths attached to King Arthur and his knights were used from the end of the 12th century to the end of the medieval period to exemplify the chivalric culture at its best. Richard was compared to Lancelot or Gawain, models of chivalry, and even to Arthur himself. Like his father, he instigated a search for the tomb of this mythical king. By attaching themselves to the Arthurian myth, the Plantagenet dynasty tried to establish their legitimacy by means of the myths associated with England, Brittany and part of Northern France.

Very soon his life was considered legendary. His feats of arms, his role in the Crusade, his exploits in the Holy Land were all glorified, despite the fact that he had not taken Jerusalem. This is a typical aspect of the medieval mentality: appropriate behaviour matters more than the result. Thirty years after Richard’s death, Frederick II, the German emperor, succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem where Richard had failed. Yet Frederick was virulently criticised by his contemporaries because he retook the Holy City by negotiation and diplomacy, not by acts worthy of a knight.

Although Richard the Lionheart ruled for a relatively short time, the legend has come down through the centuries. A vast and diverse literature has been inspired by this figure, from the Middle Ages to the present time. His story has been widely exploited since the 19th century, a time when authors and other artists with a taste for heroic and colourful figures embraced him and his legend.