Richard Lionheart > RICHARD AND HIS TIMES > Richard the warrior > His early military experience

His early military experience


From a young age, Richard the Lionheart had been trained as a warrior. War was one of the functions of the nobility, especially in the second half of the 12th century when the culture of the nobility and the culture of the knights were gradually merging.

“The Lionheart”
Chevaliers (miniature du XIIème siècle, BNF (Nvlle acquisition latine 710).

Richard experienced his first battles at the age of sixteen when he was Duke of Aquitaine. In 1173 he rebelled against his father, Henry II, at the side of his brother, Henry the Young King. Named as successor to Henry II, Henry the Young King had nevertheless not been given a fief. It seems that Eleanor had also plotted to set her sons against the king of England. The revolt failed, in spite of the support of numerous lords from Anjou, Poitiers and Aquitaine, as well as the King of France, Louis VII. The rebel armies were all repulsed by Henry II, in Normandy, in Aquitaine and even in Scotland; his victory was complete. Richard and his brothers were reconciled with their father and swore allegiance to him again.

The king therefore ordered his son Richard to pacify the rebel lords in Aquitaine. That is why Richard turned against the lords who were in revolt against his father, although they had supported Richard himself several months earlier. He led campaigns in the Toulouse region and in Gascony, but also in Angoumois and Limousin. The Viscount Adémar (or Aimar) of Limoges, who had been his ally against his father, Henry II, became after that an implacable enemy. He triumphed over the barons of Limousin and Angoumois at the Battle of St Maigrin in May 1175, the first battle in which he took part.

He next tried to pacify Limousin and Angoumois to consolidate his victory. The Viscount of Limoges and the Count of Angoulême, William Taillefer, were sent to England to ask for pardon from King Henry II at the end of the year 1176. Richard next went to Gascony and the Basque country where he subdued the robber lords who were ransoming pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Imprudently, and perhaps calculatingly, he then let loose his mercenaries in Poitiers where they pillaged and murdered, treating Limousin in the same way. The enraged population was obliged to raise a “peace-keeping militia” who wiped out the mercenaries at the Battle of Malemort in April 1177.

It was during this period, after the capture of Agen and Castillon in 1175, that Richard showed his qualities as knight and leader in war, being given his nickname “Lionheart” as a mark of his courage but also of his ferocity and perhaps of his cruelty. He carved out for himself as much of a reputation for being a model knight, brave and modest, as for being brutal. This volatile aspect of his character also earned him the nickname “oc e no”, in Occitan meaning “yes and no”, given to him by the knight troubadour Bertran de Born.

Family quarrels
Chevaliers (« bataille entre les francs et les turcs » dans La Chanson d’Antioche, manuscrit du XIIIème siècle, BNF).

During the years that followed, Richard was involved in numerous feudal conflicts in his domain of Aquitaine. The barons of the duchy never stopped rebelling, particularly the counts of Angoulême and the viscounts of Limoges. Revolt rumbled on in Limousin and Richard, sometimes accompanied by his father, had to undertake several campaigns to pacify the region.

Henry the Young King finished by rebelling again against his father, encouraged by his brother Geoffrey. They managed to rally the rebel barons of Aquitaine and Poitou to their cause. They ravaged Limousin, Perigord and Poitou, pillaging and committing numerous atrocities. Richard, with his father in support, led a campaign in Limousin and subdued the rebel vassals again. This was the moment when everything changed for Richard. His oldest brother, Henry the Young King, became ill and died prematurely in 1183. The war with his brothers came to an end and Richard the Lionheart found himself heir to the throne of England.

But his father, Henry II, was wary of Richard and tried to take Aquitaine from him in order to give it to his other son John who had not received any fiefdom. Enraged, Richard claimed his dead brother’s inheritance and entered into a conflict with John, considering that he held Aquitaine from his mother and that therefore his father had no power over it. At this point, Richard recruited the mercenary leader Mercadier, who became one of his most loyal lieutenants. Richard was remarkable for his employment of so many mercenaries, a fact which was not without consequence for local populations, as his troops were violent and predatory. The Church had tried several times to limit the predations of these bands of mercenaries, and equally the use of the crossbow, a murderous weapon also favoured by Richard.

The beginning of the struggle against the Capetians
Philippe Auguste et Richard Cœur de Lion
Philippe Auguste et Richard Cœur de Lion (Miniature de Guillaume de Tyr, historia, XIIIème siècle BNF).

It was at this moment that the recently crowned King of France, Philip Augustus, involved himself in the quarrel within the Plantagenet family. He applied a divisive strategy, supporting one camp and then the other in order to weaken his dangerous rivals.

In this situation, Geoffrey began to lay claim to Anjou as well as Brittany, of which he was duke by marriage. Supported by Philip Augustus he took refuge at the French court. He joined himself in friendship to the French king but he died, trampled by horses during a tournament in 1186. Therefore, Philip Augustus began to attack Normandy and Berry. He took as his pretext the fact that Alice, his sister, should have married one of the sons of Henry II some time earlier. The King of England had let the matter drag on, all the while keeping her dowry. It seemed, in fact, that Henry II had made the young Alice his concubine. Only the prospect of his departure on Crusade, after the announcement of the taking of Jerusalem by the Muslims, brought peace between the two kings.

But the Crusade was slow to be organised, and new revolts took place in Aquitaine. Richard was obliged to go to re-establish order. On this occasion he entered into conflict with Raymond of Toulouse and he went to besiege his castles in Quercy. Philip Augustus, overlord of the Count of Toulouse, took the part of his vassal and the conflict between the Capetians and the Plantagenets threatened to begin again.

It was Richard who was to act as intermediary to guarantee the peace but Philip Augustus brought him over to his side by letting it slip that Henry II was not intending to let Richard succeed him, and they entered an alliance against the King of England. They led victorious campaigns in Normandy and Berry. The defeat of Henry II seemed unavoidable and he fled to his castle at Chinon, pursued by Richard and his knights. William the Marshal, a knight eternally loyal to the old king, enabled him to escape by killing Richard’s horse. Several months later, Henry II died.

Richard the king

So, on 3 September 1189, Richard the Lionheart ascended the throne of England. He was crowned in an impressive ceremony at Westminster. His coronation was marked by the religious fervour that was rife in Europe at this time and preparations for the departure on Crusade were increasing. Since his brothers were dead, with the exception of John, he inherited all his father’s domains, that is, England, The Duchy of Normandy, the County of Anjou, The County of Poitiers and the Duchy of Aquitaine. Brittany, where the duke was Arthur, his nephew, son of Geoffrey, was also loyal to him. Thanks to the diplomacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the barons loyal to the dead king also rallied to Richard, who thus saw that his power was virtually uncontested in all the Plantagenet domains except for Limousin and Angoumois.