Death of a Lion

After spending almost all of his adult life at war and then taking an arrow to the shoulder, King Richard I (the Lionhearted) died on April 6, 1199, leaving his brother John to take the throne and completely botch the job of being king.

Richard was the third son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, so he wasn’t expected to become king. In fact, his elder brother, Henry, was actually crowned king during their father’s lifetime (at their father’s behest). For a while, there was a plan to divide Henry’s and Eleanor’s lands between their three eldest sons: Henry would get England, Anjou, Maine, and Normandy; Richard would have Aquitaine; and Geoffrey would inherit Brittany through his wife. Everyone was ok with that for a year or two, but then young Henry decided he wanted complete control (Henry II still held ultimate control over the lands of all three of his sons), and Richard and Geoffrey threw in their lots with him. The rebellion lasted until 1174, when Richard, finding himself all alone and friendless, went groveling to his father, begging for forgiveness. His brothers soon followed.

Richard spent a few years quelling rebellions in Aquitaine before rebelling against his own father again in the 1180s. After his brother Henry’s death, Richard became heir to the throne, and his father asked for Aquitaine back so he could give it to his youngest son, John. Richard refused and the conflict between them continued. Fed up, Henry planned to name John his heir, but then he died before he could make it official, and Richard succeeded him in 1189.

Barely had the crown settled on his head than he decided to take up arms and join Philip II of France on a crusade. To fund the expedition, he plundered the royal treasury, raised taxes, sold official positions, and forced those already appointed to pay enormous sums to hold onto their jobs. He set sail, having spent all of six months of his reign in England. He and Philip spent the next few years occupying Sicily, conquering Cyprus and Acre, and taking thousands of Muslims prisoner. After failing to take Jerusalem, Richard decided to head home.

Along the way, he accidentally found himself in hostile territory after being forced to travel through central Europe. He was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, who had some personal beefs with Richard and kept him prisoner for several months before handing him over to the Holy Roman Emperor, who demanded an enormous ransom in return for the king’s release. The ransom being somewhere in the neighborhood of £2 billion in today’s money, it took a little while for Richard’s mother, Eleanor, to raise it. Taxes were increased again, and church treasures plundered. Once the cash was raised, it was sent to the Emperor, who released Richard in 1194.

Richard wandered through France and decided to conquer Normandy, a project that dragged on for years. By March 1199, he was in the Limousin, and on March 25, he decided to take a stroll—without his armor, mind—around the castle he was besieging to see how the sappers were doing on the walls. One defender, standing on the walls with a crossbow in one hand and a frying pan in the other, seemed to amuse the king, who waved to him. The man fired an arrow back, catching Richard in the shoulder, near his neck.

Richard tried to remove it himself but was unsuccessful. A surgeon was called (a loose term, considering the state of medicine at the time) and was able to remove the arrow, but the damage was done. The wound turned gangrenous, and in his last days Richard had the fateful crossbowman brought before him. The young man (or boy, depending on whom you believe) said Richard had killed his father and brothers and the boy was only getting revenge. Richard understood that and ordered the boy freed (his followers would rather horrifically fail to honor that last request.) Richard finally breathed his last in his beloved mother’s arms at the end of the day on April 6. His brother, John, famously remembered as one of England’s worst kings, officially ascended the throne after his brother’s death.

One thought on “Death of a Lion

  1. A small footnote about 1199 – it would not be fair to say he was conquering Normandy. His Plantagenet family line already owned Normandy (after all they were the folks that conquered England in 1066). His business was to settle claims and take back recalcitrant lords who were falling in with King Phillip of France.

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