Thursday 1 December 2011

Richard I (8 September 1157 – 6 April 1199)

            At the outset, I must admit I am much less of a Richard I fan than I am a Richard II or Richard III fan. While my love of Richard III borders (oh, who am I kidding? I crossed that line a long time ago) on obsession and my love of Richard II knows no bounds (he’s prominently featured in my doctoral dissertation. I did not pick my topic simply in order to include him but being able to have a prominent Dick in my work certainly enhances the pleasure of the subject matter), I’ve always been sort of “eh” on Richard I. I know he’s the Lionheart and the good king Richard of Robin Hood fame (and I do love me some Robin Hood), but he’s just not that controversial. Okay, he did bleed England dry to go on Crusade, bleed them dry again to ransom his ass back from his Austrian captors, and generally not give an f about his kingdom (he liked France better and only spent about 6 months of a ten-year reign in England), but that is so run-of-the-mill for medieval kings. Scholarship on Richard I seems to run the very short gamut of “he was awesome” to “hey, guys, he really wasn’t that awesome.” Please, people. I need a little murder, mayhem, deposition, and starvation in dark castles to keep my interest. As far as military prowess goes, Richard the Lionheart is top Dick; as far as controversy and historians bickering and becoming a tad too emotionally involved, he’s on the bottom.
            So I could arouse almost no enthusiasm for Richard I until I found out about the deep dark secret you don’t get in generic history texts: he might have been gay.* I was on that like a buzzard on a gut wagon. Finally, something more interesting than dying of gangrene from an arrow wound!

*Fascinating side note: Richard II has also been rumored to be gay. Check out some of the work by John Bowers for an extremely over-wrought attempt to draft R2 for the pink team. Unless I’ve missed it, though, no one has tried to make Richard III gay. Maybe this is because Richard I and Richard II were both childless, while Richard III managed to sire some spawn. We do have some hints from chroniclers that maybe (if you squint) could support homosexuality for Richards I and II but the evidence is weak. Also, calling someone a sodomite was a fairly standard insult in the middle ages, so one guy saying Richard II had obscene familiarities with his bff does not necessarily mean the king was. It does, though, mean that said chronicler didn’t really like R2.

            The rumor draws its force from a comment made by the chronicler Roger of Howden, which claims:

Philip so honored him [Richard] that every day they ate at the same table, shared the same dish and at night the bed did not separate them. Between the two of them there grew up so great an affection that King Henry was much alarmed and, afraid of what the future might hold in store, he decided to postpone his return to England until he knew what lay behind this sudden friendship.*

As historian John Gillingham points out, people shared beds in the middle ages and Richard’s newfound closeness with Philip (the king of France and his father’s rival) was a political act, designed to piss off daddy. In essence, it was a case of politics making strange bedfellows! Before his crusade, however, Richard also did penance for a serious (yet unmentioned) sin; people have been quick to suggest said sin was sodomy. So we really don’t have much to go on. A king asking pardon for serious sins is rather dull and ordinary (any king without serious sins is lying to himself!) and budding up to your dad’s nemesis is a time-honored strategy for getting daddy to notice you.

*Quote from John Gillingham, Richard I, Yale English Monarchs Series (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 84. Gillingham is quoting Howden, Gesta Henrici II et Ricardi I, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols (Rolls Series, 1867), ii, 7. The translation is also Gillingham’s, as Howden wrote in Latin.

            Of course, that’s incredibly boring, so our sex-crazed society was only too happy to put a more scandalous and interesting spin on things. You can see this in the original The Lion in Winter in which Richard (played by Anthony Hopkins) visits Philip (played by a pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton) in Philip’s room and the two have a conversation that clearly indicates, “yeah, we totally slept together.” Some historical fiction novels have picked up on this possibility as well (see below). I realize there is the added twist of Richard’s failure to have a child with his wife, but given that the two were rarely in the same country (let alone same bed) that isn’t too surprising. We don’t have any obvious proof Richard wasn’t gay (such as an “I love you, man – no homo” note to Philip), but we don’t have any smoking guns proving he was either. Sadly, this rather weak evidence for Richard I’s homosexuality was not enough to spark lasting interest on my part. Richard thus returned to being a warrior king. Yawn.
            If you are devoted to the idea that Richard I was homosexual, know that some scholars share your view. John Boswell discusses Richard’s was homosexuality in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (see pages 231-2), as does James Brundage in Richard Lion Heart (1974). One of these authors is a fan of the possibility, while the other denigrates homosexuality. I’ll let you guess which is which.
            For those who are wailing and gnashing their teeth over my failure to mention anything about Richard’s reign, be still. Your time is now. Richard I was born on 8 September 1157 in Oxford, England. Since he had an elder brother, Richard wasn’t expected to become king of England and spent much of his youth in Aquitaine, his mother’s principality and his presumed inheritance. When Richard’s older brother died, he then became heir to the throne, which he inherited on his father’s death in 1189.
            Richard was only king for ten years, dying in 1199. As mentioned before, he spent little time in England. He came to the island for his coronation and to raise money for his crusade, after which he left for the Holy Land. Unmarried when he became king, Richard married Berengaria of Navarre in Cyprus, en route to Jerusalem. Berengaria, despite being Queen of England, never set foot there.
            Richard participated in the third crusade (the one against Saladin). He did all right, but none of the subsequent crusades were anywhere nearly as successful as the first (they should have quit while they were ahead). Returning home, Richard was traveling overland and was kidnapped by the Duke of Austria and held for ransom. If you remember Robin Hood, the benevolent outlaw is trying to raise money to spring the king from the hoosegow.
            After the ransom was paid, Richard returned, briefly, to England. He crowned himself again in an attempt to remove the taint of having been kidnapped and held hostage by an Austrian, and then skipped off to France to make war. Richard I loved war like a drunk loves cheap beer. He was all about it, all the time. He even designed his own castles (of which one, Château Gaillard, is pretty damn awesome). As Richard was going about defending all of his French territory (even though he was King of England he owned about half of France, too – long story) and generally kicking Philip’s ass,* he was hit by an arrow. The arrow lodged in his shoulder between his breastplate and his arm coverings and a wound formed. Although the doctors removed the arrow, the wound festered, became gangrenous, and the king died. Before he died, Richard asked to see the archer who shot him. Said archer was brought to the king, and Richard pardoned him, basically using the old “I know you were just doing your job” line. The king even made his officials promise not to exact revenge on his accidental killer. The men all promised, but as soon as Richard the Lionheart was dead, they flayed the poor bastard who shot him alive. Promises, promises.

*This is the same Philip who was supposedly his lover. Hell hath no fury like a lover-king scorned!

            Richard I is also cool because his mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine (who was eight thousand different kinds of awesome). Wife of two kings (obviously not at the same time), she lived into her eighties and spent a lifetime kicking ass and taking names. Read about her, she rocked the casbah.*

*Sadly, Eleanor has been rather ill-served by biographies. Several seem to take “biography” as code for “novel based on a true story,” and are filled with all manner of claptrap about Eleanor and courtly love. A pretty decent recent biography is Ralph Turner, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. My main complaint is that Turner tries to psychoanalyze Eleanor a bit, which I hate. The middle ages were a different time, and I dislike when people try to project current modes of thinking back into the past.

            And that, friends, is Richard I. For some unknown reason, the man has a statue outside Parliament, presumably to capitalize on the street cred of a national hero. I, however, like to think Parliament is making a statement: the best kind of monarch is one that leaves us (Parliament) the heck alone. (of course, Parliament didn’t exist yet back when Richard I was king, so this is Parliament projecting).

Historical Fiction

The best I can offer about Richard I are two books by Pamela Kaufman, The Shield of Three Lions and Banners of Gold. She plays into the Richard-was-homosexual angle, yet also has him fall in love with a young woman (her protagonist). I especially liked the second book, Banners of Gold, because it had a totally-awesome Jewish character named Bonel. Man, he was diggity dank.

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