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Richard the Lionheart? More Revisionist History as Scientists Examine Kingly Remains

March 2, 2013

A few weeks ago it was the turn of Richard III. His body found in a parking lot, and no sign of a validated ticket. In that case the facts were pretty much as described by contemporaries, and little to change the historical view of the man. He was hunchbacked. He had a spine twisted with scoliosis, and he was killed by traumatic blows to the head, consistent with the accounts of him charging in to attack Henry VII (the man who replaced him as king) before being surrounded, felled, and hacked to death. Late fifteenth century battles for the throne were not kindly affairs it seems.


Now it’s the heart of Richard the First (Lionheart) that has been subjected to scientific analysis ( There are no surprises for historians there either, but conspiracy theorists might be disappointed that he was killed by the bolt from a crossbow rather than poisoned.

Richard the First has been entangled with the Robin Hood legend where he is portrayed as a good King in contrast to his evil brother John. Richard the First was 41 when he died and he ruled England from 1189 to 1199.

He also ruled as Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, and Overlord of Brittany at various times ( and he spent very little time in England. He was a fierce fighter and scored considerable successes in the third crusade.

The story of Richard and his family is an amazing one, and it makes contemporary soap operas seem unimaginative. Richard was the son of Henry II of England and Eleanor Aquitaine, who was a formidable woman in her own right. Their story is portrayed in the movie “Lion in Winter” which is one of my favorites. I was really surprised when I did the research and found that the movie was more than just a good yarn and actually matched up with the historical records reasonably well. In the movie, the role of Henry II was played by Peter O’Toole, while Katharine Hepburn played Eleanor of Aquitaine. They both did an amazing job, but I thought that Hepburn in particular was absolutely brilliant. The Helen Mirren and Judy Dench of her day.


You can get a flavor of the family soap opera from the following excerpt from Richard the First’s wikipedia page.
“When Henry II and Louis VII made a truce on 8 September 1174, Richard was specifically excluded. Abandoned by Louis and wary of facing his father’s army in battle, Richard went to Henry II’s court at Poitiers on 23 September and begged for forgiveness, weeping and falling at the feet of Henry, who gave Richard the kiss of peace. Several days later, Richard’s brothers joined him in seeking reconciliation with their father.[37] The terms the three brothers accepted were less generous than those they had been offered earlier in the conflict (when Richard was offered four castles in Aquitaine and half of the income from the duchy) and Richard was given control of two castles in Poitou and half the income of Aquitaine; Henry the Young King was given two castles in Normandy; and Geoffrey was permitted half of Brittany. Eleanor remained Henry II’s prisoner until his death, partly as insurance for Richard’s good behavior.”
We know he was a good fighter, and not just with his family. He was pretty assertive about getting what he thought was his (and then some) but how was he as a person? Well they say that actions speak louder than words and his actions, other than bravery and skill in battle perhaps, do not paint a pretty picture. He schemed with his mother against his father. He took the throne of England from his father by force, and some say that he actually caused his father’s death.
On his return from the crusade at the end of 1192 Richard was imprisoned by a disgruntled Duke Leopold of Austria (who accused him of arranging the murder of his cousin). He was eventually ransomed for a very large sum of money that was raised by his mother, and released after more than a year of captivity.


Some historians have not had particularly kind words about Richard. Consider the voice of William Stubbs, cited on Richard’s wikipedia page:
‘He was a bad king: his great exploits, his military skill, his splendour and extravagance, his poetical tastes, his adventurous spirit, do not serve to cloak his entire want of sympathy, or even consideration, for his people. He was no Englishman, but it does not follow that he gave to Normandy, Anjou, or Aquitaine the love or care that he denied to his kingdom. His ambition was that of a mere warrior: he would fight for anything whatever, but he would sell everything that was worth fighting for. The glory that he sought was that of victory rather than conquest.”
Richard met a strange end. But he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would die in his sleep. Here is how his Wikipedia page describes what happened:
“In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Missiles were occasionally shot from the castle walls, but these were given little attention. One defender in particular amused the king greatly—a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan which he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles. He deliberately aimed at the king, which the king applauded; however, another crossbowman then struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck. He tried to pull this out in the privacy of his tent but failed; a surgeon, called a ‘butcher’ by Hoveden, removed it, ‘carelessly mangling’ the King’s arm in the process. The wound swiftly became gangrenous. Accordingly, Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called alternatively Pierre (or Peter) Basile, John Sabroz, Dudo, and Bertrand de Gurdon (from the town of Gourdon) by chroniclers, the man turned out (according to some sources, but not all) to be a boy. This boy claimed that Richard had killed the boy’s father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. The boy expected to be executed; Richard, as a last act of mercy, forgave the boy of his crime, saying, “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day,” before ordering the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings. Richard then set his affairs in order, bequeathing all his territory to his brother John and his jewels to his nephew Otto.

Richard died on 6 April 1199 in the arms of his mother; it was later said that “As the day was closing, he ended his earthly day.” Due to the nature of Richard’s death, he was later referred to as ‘the Lion (that) by the Ant was slain’. According to one chronicler, Richard’s last act of chivalry proved fruitless; in an orgy of medieval brutality, the infamous mercenary captain Mercadier had the crossbowman flayed alive and hanged as soon as Richard died.”


And the moral of this story? There are probably many, but one that comes to mind is “don’t applaud when someone points a weapon at you”.

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