Richard and the King of France

The end of Richard the Lionheart’s life was marked by incessant conflict with his great rival, the King of France, Philip Augustus, who, keen to bring the Plantagenets back into line, had tried to involve himself in the family disputes that had torn them apart before the death of Henry II. After the Crusade, the King of France did not hesitate further in making a direct attack upon Richard’s interests. The two monarchs thus engaged in a merciless conflict.



The captive
Arrestation de Richard Cœur de Lion
Arrestation de Richard Cœur de Lion, (Chroniques de Flandres, XVème siècle, BNF).

On returning from the Crusade, having left his army to go home by sea, Richard decided to travel overland in the company of a small group of knights, because the coast of the South of France was held by his enemies, notably the Count of Toulouse. Therefore, he disembarked on the Adriatic coast and decided to continue by way of the Holy Roman Empire. The King of England was recognised and imprisoned in the autumn of 1192 by a lord, Leopold V of Babenburg, who was a vassal of the German emperor whom Richard had humiliated at Acre. He handed him over to the Emperor Henry VI, the successor of Frederick Barbarossa. He demanded a ransom of 150, 000 silver marks for his release, which was approximately two years’ revenue for the kingdom of England.

Richard’s conditions in captivity were not harsh. He was free to move around the castle where he was held and to enjoy the hospitality of his “hosts”. He even wrote a number of pieces in the courtly style during his captivity. On the other hand he was frustrated and anxious because the situation in his domains was alarming.

In England, it was Prince John who was acting as regent. The situation was delicate because during Richard’s absence the king of France had made some moves to take back the Plantagenet fiefs, particularly in Normandy, and John was far from having the same confidence as his brother. He even allied himself with Philip Augustus against Richard, and tried to convince the barons to abandon the homage that they owed to the King. John probably even tried to usurp the throne. In spite of these problems, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their mother, managed, with difficulty, to collect 100, 000 silver marks (the equivalent of 34 tonnes of silver) by taxing the Plantagenet lands, particularly England. Henry VI agreed to free Richard in exchange, in spite of the manoeuvring of Philip Augustus to prevent his release,

Finally, the ransom was paid; Richard the Lionheart was freed in February 1194 and returned to England with his mother. Richard was crowned again to secure his power over his vassals. He also pardoned his brother John, probably as a result of Eleanor’s influence. In May 1194 he crossed the Channel to land in Normandy, determined to take revenge on the king of France. He never returned to England, where he had spent at most six months of his reign. He engaged himself as soon as possible in the struggle against the king of France to protect his possessions on the Continent. War raged between the two monarchs, particularly in Normandy and Aquitaine.

The war against the Kingdom of France
Château Gaillard
Château Gaillard (image Internet Domaine Public)

Richard the Lionheart assembled the feudal army of Normandy (the “host”), probably adding troops who had come from his other domains. He began by re-taking that part of the duchy that had fallen into the hands of the Capetians. He routed the army of Philip Augustus at Fréteval on 2 July 1194. The king of France had to abandon the royal archives, which until then had accompanied him on his travels; Richard had them destroyed. He accepted the submission of his vassals by making them renew their homage.

This period was one of incessant fighting. Richard travelled the length and breadth of his domains in an effort to keep them together. He conducted numerous campaigns against the king of France and rebel vassals. He triumphed completely over Philip Augustus and ensured the security of the Plantagenet domains. As a result, in 1196, a peace treaty was signed with Philip Augustus. Even if Richard agreed to abandon several fortresses to the king of France, he recovered the bulk of his domains.

Furthermore, on 28 September 1197, Henry VI, the German emperor, died. Richard the Lionheart managed to get his nephew, Otto of Brunswick, elected in June 1198 in preference to Philip of Swabia. Otto ascended the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, which thus found itself an ally of the Plantagenets, having previously been their enemy. It was also during this period that Richard started to fortify Normandy with the aim of protecting it against the king of France, who had established himself not far away in Paris. He built a great fortress, Château-Gaillard, at the entry to Normandy, a stronghold built with all the latest defensive technology. It was a symbol of Richard the Lionheart’s triumph, his own personal brainchild and the fruit of his military and political experience.

Mort de Richard Cœur de Lion
Mort de Richard Cœur de Lion, (dans Johannes de Columna, Mare Historiarum, XVème siècle, BNF).

In spite of the treaty, the war between Richard and Philip Augustus began again in 1197. Richard led his army to Normandy and invaded the part of the Norman Vexin that had remained under the control of the king of France. He beat Philip Augustus again on the battlefield in September 1198 near Courcelles. The king of France barely escaped with his life; a hundred of his knights were killed or captured. Richard’s campaigns took him also to his old domain of Aquitaine where he had to counter his rebel vassals. It was one of these campaigns that took him to Perigord and Limousin: During a truce with Philip Augustus, Richard left to quell yet another revolt by Aimar, Viscount of Limoges; while besieging the fortress of Châlus in Limousin, he died of a wound from a crossbow bolt, a weapon that he had been involved in introducing to the armies of the 12th century.



Philip Augustus, an implacable enemy
Sacre de Philippe Auguste
Sacre de Philippe Auguste (Dans Grandes chroniques de France, XIVème siècle, BNF).

Philip was born on 25 August 1165 at Gonesse. He was the son of Louis VII, king of France, and of Adele of Champagne, Louis’ third wife. His father’s two preceding wives, one of whom was Eleanor of Aquitaine, had only given him daughters and it was feared that Louis VII would die without a male heir. That is why the birth of Philip was considered a miracle and why he was given the nickname “Dieudonné" (gift of God).

Like all the Capetian kings, Philip shared the throne during his father’s lifetime. His father had him anointed king at Reims on 1 November 1179. On 18 September 1180, Louis VII died and his son remained alone as king at the age of fifteen, under the name Philip II. There were two important threats to his domain: the Counts of Flanders and Alsace in the north and the east and the feudal Plantagenet empire of Henry II which pressed upon his royal domain from the north and south. The possessions of the king of England included some fiefs of the Kingdom of France, over which Philip was determined to exercise his rights as overlord.

Louis VII had left his son a kingdom that was stable and prosperous but under threat. The authority of the kings of France in fact only extended over the royal territory corresponding to the Ile de France. Their vassals were troublesome and did not really recognise their authority. The young king managed to break the alliances of the Count of Flanders and to isolate him from his allies. These manoevres ended with the treaty of Boves, which confirmed the King’s possession of Vermandois, Artois and Amienois. This was a first victory for Philip, which enabled him to receive the submission of his vassals within the kingdom of France and which earned him the nickname “Augustus”, which meant “to augment” (i.e. “increase”) and made reference to the Roman emperors of antiquity (“Augusti”).

Philip Augustus tried next to resolve the problem posed by the Plantagenet threat. He laid claim to Norman Vexin and tried to force Henry II to pay him homage for all the fiefs that he held in the kingdom of France. But the king of England refused. The fighting raged, particularly between 1186 and 1188. Faced with the strength of his enemy, the King of France tried to divide Henry’s supporters by involving himself in the divisions within the Plantagenet family. He ended by pushing Henry II into his last retreat, at Chinon, where Henry died in 1189.

But Philip Augustus’ tactics against the feudal Plantagenet empire came to nothing. His objective had been to shatter this empire by dividing it, but after the successive deaths of Henry the Young King, Geoffrey of Brittany and Henry II, Richard the Lionheart found himself alone at the head of his father’s feudal empire. He kept it as united as before and, having been the ally of Philip Augustus against his father, he became Philip’s main adversary.

The Crusade prevented the conflict from breaking out immediately. Philip left at Richard’s side for the Third Crusade in 1190. But from the time of the Crusaders’ stay at Messina in Sicily, the tensions between the two kings were rekindled and intensified.

The king of France arrived with his army at the siege of Acre in 1191. He managed to prevent the armies of Saladin from breaking the siege but failed to take the city. During the long months of the siege, Philip Augustus fell seriously ill and had to leave Richard to direct operations. The quarrel about the king of Jerusalem and his succession further poisoned their relationship. After the fall of the city, Philip decided to return to his kingdom.

Philip Augustus attacked the Plantagenet lands once again. The capture of Richard the Lionheart by Leopold of Austria was a godsend for the king of France. By his political, strategic and diplomatic finesse, Philip Augustus managed to keep his adversary at bay and to reattach the Norman Vexin to his territory. He also did everything to prevent the release of Richard, whose abilities and merits he well understood. As a result, the king of England developed a bitter hatred of his old ally.

On his release, his reply was immediate. War broke out between the two kings and fighting continued until 1199. Philip Augustus was forced to give back his conquests to Richard. A truce was finally signed in 1199. This allowed Richard to go to put down the revolt of the Lords of Angoumois and Limousin; he lost his life under the walls of Châlus during this campaign.

Philip Augustus was the main adversary of Richard the Lionheart, who managed all the same to hold him in check. Once Richard was dead, the king of France finally had his hands free to break the power of the Plantagenets on the Continent. He began by supporting Arthur of Brittany to succeed Richard, with the aim of destabilising John who had finally become king of England. But John lacked all the qualities that had brought about the success of his brother. After Richard’s death, the French king retook, one by one, all the Plantagenet lands. He consolidated his success at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, where he crushed the coalition armies of the Holy Roman Empire and King John. When he died in 1224, the kingdom of France had become one of the most powerful of Western Europe and the Plantagenets had lost most of their possessions on the Continent.

Bataille de Bouvines
Bataille de Bouvines (dans Grandes Chroniques de France, XVème siècle, BNF).