Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Death of Richard the Lionhearted

This enormous bronze statue, cast in 1860 by Carlo Marochetti (actually a copy of one made for the Great Exhibition in 1851) neatly sums up the Victorian attitude towards Richard the Lionhearted - noble, heroic, and as quintessentially English as King Arthur; not by accident was it given pride of place outside the House of Lords in London when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1834.

PhotobucketHistory, though - since it is constantly in the process of revision - has vacillated wildly both before and since on the contributions made by this extremely French King of England (who spent just six months of his decade-long reign in his kingdom); currently he is either considered a merciful tyrant, a bipolar whoopsie, or whatever else his most recent biographer can make of him from the scant propaganda that serves us as his biography.

What we thought we knew is that sometime in 1199 a farmer living near the Château de Chalus-Chabrol had uncovered a cache of Roman gold, which Richard considered his by right under feudal law, but which the local viscount Aimar V of Limoges refused to surrender; this story appears now to have been a later fabrication, but which is such a great story it's no wonder it caught on. Aimar's feud with Richard was unrelated to anything so petty, and longstanding enough that on March 25th and with characteristic zeal, the King's army set about plundering the woefully undefended place, killing the unruly noble in the process.

During the siege - carrying a shield but cockily not wearing his armor - Richard came too close to the castle and was struck in the left shoulder by a crossbow bolt. Calmly returning to his tent (so as not to give the defenders a boost in morale at his expense) he received the very best medical attention the 12th Century had to offer; frankly, it's a miracle he managed to live the twelve days he did considering the butchery he must have suffered at the hands of his surgeon.

Figuring he was already a goner, and seeing as it was the Easter season, the King summoned Peter Basile - the boy responsible for this grievous injury - and forgave him, tossing in a purse of 100 shillings for good measure. And so, just after 7 PM on this day in 1199, as dusk was falling and with his sins expunged, Richard the Lionhearted died of gangrene in the arms of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

As soon as the King was dead the captain of the guard - the ruthless Mercadier - found the forgiven regicide and ordered him skinned alive and then hanged, no doubt pocketing the 100 shillings for himself as a reward. As agonizing as Richard's death had been, his burial was no less gory than the fate assigned his killer: as the King lay dead his entrails were buried in the castle's chapel, his brain sent to the Abbey at Charroux, his heart to Rouen Cathedral, and what remained to Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, next to his father Henry II.

One of the more thrilling books I've ever read on the subject of Richard I is David Boyle's engaging history The Troubadour's Song; truly, as a medieval scholar he is the Lionhearted one, managing to fashion a memorable narrative out of an historical record which is not only in tatters but as shot through as the King's shoulder with legends, half-truths, and outright lies.
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Gareth said...

quintessentially English as King Arthur

As a pedant and a Welshman it's my duty to point out that Arthur was not English, and if he existed would have spent most of his time fighting the Saxons.

michael sean morris said...

Bore da!

It's nice to know someone is reading my work closely enough to pick out the little jokes I embed in there.

To the Victorians the Scots, Welsh, and Irish were all English, as were Canadians, Australians, etc. The comment was intended as a barb against English cultural imperialism at the time.

Whether Arthur was Welsh, Cornish, or fictional he was no more English than Richard the Lionhearted who, although he was born in England to a mainly English father, was French through and through. England mattered so little to him no part of him is buried there even.

Thanks for the comment, Gareth; I hope to see your fuzzy face in my comment roll again. ;)