The Glorification of Richard I

Merredy Jackson, Dickson College, 2010

This essay was written in response to the following self-devised focus question: "Has Richard the Lionheart been glorified since his death, particularly through the modern media?" It was submitted as part of the High Middle Ages unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

Richard the Lionheart is the archetypal King of England. He is highly regarded as both a military strategist and warrior, a reputation he was given by Europeans and Arabs alike during his campaigns on the Third Crusade in the Holy Land during the twelfth century. However, both English and Arab writers acknowledged that Richard was not a pure or holy man and he had faults. Over the years since his death, these faults have been glazed over and legends have grown, transforming Richard into a far greater and nobler man than the one contemporary sources describe. This glorification has been vastly aided by the rise in Robin Hood movies and TV series, which tend to portray Richard in the best possible light and disregard multiple historical inaccuracies. Such adaptations of Richard’s story serve only to enhance his reputation and give the public false impressions as to what life was like in medieval Europe. To create an accurate view of Richard requires analysis of all contemporary sources, both Arab and English, taking into account the religious bias held by the two groups. This view must then be compared to the modern ideal of what Richard was like to expose the inaccuracies that have formed around this legendary figure.

Modern portrayals of Richard the Lionheart tend to focus on the religious purity of the Crusades and on the Robin Hood legends. Many modern adaptations have given viewers the idea that Richard was a good and holy king. This is done in many ways, depending on the story. In Disney’s Robin Hood, Richard’s praises are heard through song, with the people singing: "While bonny good King Richard leads the great crusade he's on, We'll all have to slave away for that good-for-nothin" ('John' in Disney’s Robin Hood, 1973). Richard is also shown wearing the Crusader Cross in this movie, despite the fact that by this point he had completed the Crusade and returned to England. This symbol can be seen as a way of further emphasizing both Richard’s dedication to the Cross and his bravery in the Holy Land, as opposed to John, who wears no cross. Another example of Richard in modern culture is seen in the parody ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’. As in the Disney movie, Richard is glorified as a contrast to the insults against Prince John. In the first scene of the movie, Robin is seen imprisoned in the Holy Land and refuses to tell the guards where King Richard is. Upon first meeting Prince John, Robin comments: "Is it not also illegal to sit on the king's throne and usurp his power in his absence?" (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, 1993). This implies that John has simply stolen his brother’s power while Richard is away fighting for Christianity in the Holy Land. In addition to these comments, both movies give Richard a regal, dignified appearance as opposed to John who is portrayed as a self-absorbed coward. These movies are just two examples of the legend that has been created around the historical figure of Richard by modern story telling.

Contemporary English sources describe quite a different Richard to the one known today, however there are still considerable sources that paint Richard in a favorable light. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi was written as a chronicle of Richard’s reign and describes Richard as "The King, whose goodness always imitated higher things and who, as the difficulties were greater, now emulated God himself" (Itinerarium n.d). This account, although from a reliable contemporary source, must be carefully evaluated as an English writer of the time would have considerable bias towards Richard. His victories in the Holy Land were one reason why the writer may have placed Richard in a good light, but it was also a dangerous idea at the time to insult the king, a man who held a great deal of power over his people. The threat of the king’s wrath was so substantial that many courtiers saw it was their duty to depict their leader as virtuous and holy. However, the Itinerarium is not the only account of Richard which describes him as a grand king. Richard of Devizes, a monk who lived during Richard’s reign, wrote that:

The King was indeed worthy of the name of King, for in the very first year of his reign, for Christ's sake he left the realm of England almost as if he were going away and would not return. So great was this man's devotion and thus quickly, thus speedily and hastily he ran, or, rather, flew to avenge Christ's injuries. (quoted in Williams, 1996)

Here it must be noted that the source may contain not only bias towards the monarch of the day but religious bias. Even so, within all sources accessed there is still a very clear underlying belief that Richard was a good King in addition to being a good Christian.

However, the English chroniclers also seem to be aware that their King was not perfect as he is portrayed in modern times. The Itinerarium, in addition to highly praising Richard, mentions incidents where his judgment was rash and his actions highly questionable. This is particularly noticeable in an account of how Richard was almost captured by Saladin’s men because he had chosen to travel alone instead of with a guard. The Itinerarium states that Richard’s soldiers: "...scolded him over his frequent recklessness and cautioned him against such behavior" (Itinerarium n.d). Given that the King was leading the Crusade and was really the only reason the soldiers were able to go to the Holy Land, the fact that they went so far as to scold him indicates that the soldiers as a group were very displeased with the King’s actions as well as his careless attitude. Somewhere between Richard’s reign and the modern day, events such as this have been removed from his legacy and replaced with more fanciful stories that show Richard in a better light.

Arabic sources from the Third Crusade paint yet another picture of Richard. The Muslims appear to have respected Richard’s abilities as a warrior and military tactician, with Ibn al-Athir, a contemporary Arab historian, noting that Richard "...was the man of his age as regards courage, shrewdness, endurance, and forbearance and because of him the Muslims were sorely tested by unprecedented disaster..." ( ‘Richard and Saladin: Warriors of the Third Crusade’ n.d). However, off the battlefield he was often seen as dishonorable because he would break his word to Arab prisoners. The killing of around 2700 prisoners at Acre by Richard and his men was described by Beha ad-Din in The Life of Saladin , where he wrote that:

The king broke the solemn promises he had made them, openly showed the intentions he had hitherto concealed... As soon as the Franks reached the middle of the plain between this tell and that of Kisan, which was occupied by the Sultan’s advanced guard, they brought out the Moslem prisoners, whom God had pre-ordained to martyrdom that day, to the number of more than three thousand, all tied together with ropes. The Franks rushed upon them all at once and slaughtered them in cold blood with sword and lance.” (ad-Din, 1897)

Although this source is a chronicle of Saladin and is therefore biased towards the Arabs, it gives a different insight into Richard’s character, one that is cruel and bloodthirsty, rather than the claims of greatness put forward by the English. The bias in the Arab perception of Richard can be used to counterbalance the bias in the English perception, which allows for a more rounded view of Richard’s character.

Richard the Lionheart was a highly regarded military leader who was well-loved by his people, as is verified by all sources. However, writers of his time, both Arab and English, state that he could also be a ruthless warrior whose rash decisions could have led to disaster for the Christian armies. This historical view of Richard is considerably more accurate than modern portrayals of Richard, in spite of the religious bias held by both the Arab and the English chroniclers. Movies and television shows simply do not show a balanced view of Richard’s character, instead enshrining him as a national hero for England. This glorification of Richard’s character has rapidly turned him into a king who valiantly fought for his religion and country. The real Richard fell in between these three depictions, a leader motivated by religious zeal, yet acting with the mind of a blood thirsty warlord.


Ad-Din, Beha, ‘Life of Saladin’, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, 1897

‘Disney’s Robin Hood’, 1973, video tape, viewed September 2010.

‘Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi: Richard the Lionheart makes peace with Saladin 1192’ accessed 30/10/10

‘Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi: The Siege and Capture of Acre, 1191’ accessed 30/10/10

‘Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi: Philip Augustus Returns to France, 1191’ accessed 30/10/10

‘Richard I The Lionheart’ accessed 29/10/10

‘Richard and Saladin: Warriors of the Third Crusade’
accessed 10/11/10

‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, 1993, DVD, viewed October 2010

Rutherford-Moore, Richard, ‘Did Robin Hood ever meet King Richard?’ accessed 09/11/10

Snell, Melissa, ‘Richard the Lionheart: A biography of King Richard I of England’ accessed 07/10/10

‘Top 10 Misunderstood Figures in History’ accessed 09/11/10

Williams, Luke, ‘The reputation of Richard I, The Lionheart’ accessed 07/11/10