The Death of Richard I, Cœur de Lion

Richard I, Cœur de Lion, the Lionheart, is thought of as one of England’s finest rulers. Here’s his statue outside the Palace of Westminster, known to you and me as the Houses of Parliament.


You don’t see too many other kings round there – after all, Parliament lopped one of their heads off once, and made life hard for plenty more. So he must be a pretty special chap in English history?

Well, sort of. When he finally got his hands on the throne of England, after years of plotting against his old man Henry II, having been egged on by his mum and Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, he didn’t exactly take England to his bosom. He only spent six months in the country during his reign, splitting his time between crusading the Holy Land – where he failed to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin on the Third Crusade – and squabbling with Philip Augustus of France over Normandy, Anjou and lands in between. He was also captive for over a year, the hostage of his enemies in the Holy Roman Empire.  Like noblemen of the time in England still breathing the fire of William the Conqueror he spoke French not English.

One thing that is indisputable is that he was a great warrior and general, and it is from this that he gets his reputation as something of a badass. Which makes the circumstances of his death almost comical. In March 1199 he was beseiging an unimpressive castle in Chalus, located in what is today the Limoges region and, feeling confident, was touring the perimeter without chainmail on. He was shot by one of history’s more obscure names, Bertrand de Gurdun, armed with a crossbow which hit its intended target in the arm, which became gangrenous.

In those days, it seems, one did not simply shoot someone like Richard, regardless of having the chance to. So, sensing the end was near, he called for the chap to be brought to him and asked why he had shot him. The archer replied that Richard had killed his father and two brothers and – not unreasonably – that he had intended to kill him. Richard magnanimously forgave his killer. Once the King had breathed his last the fellow was seized by Richard’s furious aides, who were less obliging. He was flayed alive and hanged.

Richard’s heir, John, lost all his French possessions and the Lionheart himself now only turns up to save the day in Robin Hood films.

Life could be cruel in the Middle Ages.

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