Tales of the Lionheart

Ruins of Durnstein Castle sit above the Danube

Sailing Up The Danube

In Europe I am like a kid in a candy store. I do love history and here it comes at you from every direction. Two days ago we were on a boat west of Vienna on the Danube and glided past the ruins of Durnstein Castle.

In western legends there are a number of romantic tales that reference historic events and are notable because of spinoff stories that remain in literature and legend to this day. Few are as significant to English history as the tales of Richard the Lion Heart in the twelfth century.

Already a popular ruler, Richard answered the call of the Pope to free the Holy Land and make it available to Christian pilgrams. Richard marched off to the third crusade with a number of his trusted knights and soldiers.

Leaving England in the hands of his younger brother John, things didn’t go well at home. John set his sights on becoming the new sovereign of England and systematically replaced lords and knights with men loyal to him. As legend indicates he greatly increased taxes claiming they were needed to support the crusades while putting them to his own use. There are also historical indications that he attempted to later block the use of ransom to free his older brother.

One particular legend, that actually does not appear in literature for over two hundred years after the time of Richard the Lionheart, is that of Robin Hood. This legend grew out of a number of popular ballads regarding a highborn group of men that became outlaws in resistance to the rule of Prince John and in support of King Richard.

While many of these legends have little historical basis there was a historical crusader king known as Richard the Lionheart with a younger brother Prince John, who was imprisoned for a ransom in Austria.

At the end of the third crusade Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land in October 1192. The Third Crusade had been only a partial success and, after three years of fighting the Saracens, the Christian warriors were depleted by disease, desertion and death in battle. Richard was one of the leaders of the Christian forces and negotiated a three-year truce with the great Muslim general Saladin, where the Christians were to keep a thin strip of land on the Mediterranean coast and several fortified strongholds, and Christian pilgrims were to be given safe passage to visit Holy sights in Jerusalem unmolested.

This agreement allowed King Richard to make plans to return to England, something that he badly needed to do. King Philip Augustus of France had been taking his holdings in Normandy, and his younger brother, Prince John had been steadily increasing his power in England, illegally taking and garrisoning castles with his own men and constantly undermining the authority of the officials put in place by King Richard to govern the country in his absence. King Richard stated he intended to return to the Holy Land, once he had settled matters in Europe and removed the threat to his throne from his brother, but events were to conspire against him.

King Richard I, the Lionheart had made many enemies during the Crusade. A French King Philip, once a close friend, now had designs on advancing his power by diminishing Richard’s authority and Duke Leopold of Austria, the leader of the German contingent of the crusaders had become a serious rival if not a sworn enemy. He had alienated Henry VI, the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, by supporting King Tancred of Sicily against him. The Austrian Holy Roman Emperor controlled most of Germany, Hungary, Austria and much of the Italian peninsula, much of Portugal and Spain not in Muslim hands. Richard knew that he would have a problem getting home via land.

The whole story of Richard’s return is not entirely clear; the facts are fragmentary, and sometimes seem contradictory, but most scholars agree that Richard decided to attempt a clandestine eastern land route homeward. After sending his wife Berengaria by ship to Rome where she would be protected by the Pope, he took to the Adriatic and sailed north. The weather was bad, and after a couple of attempts Richard landed on the northern Adriatic coast at Aquileia, near Trieste in north-eastern Italy although some scholars suggest that this landing wasn’t planned and that he was shipwrecked there after bad weather. Either way that’s where the King found himself, on or about the 10th December 1192, ashore, with only a small contingent, and hundreds of miles to cross thru hostile territory.

Legend says Richard traveled as a Templar knight, and headed north into the heart of Europe, making for safe territory controlled by his brother-in-law Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. However, after an icy, grueling journey on poor roads, the King was apprehended by men loyal to Duke Leopold of Austria. He is said to have given himself away by his demeanor at an inn in rural Austria. It was only a few days before Christmas, the weather was awful and the King was apparently sheltering in a road house a number of miles west of Vienna. Some stories suggest it was his companions’ practice of calling him ‘Sire’ that somehow gave away his royal identity.

Duke Leopold must have been delighted to have his great enemy the King of England in his clutches, and he promptly locked up Richard in Durnstein Castle, a stronghold on the Danube fifty miles to the west of Vienna. He also informed Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, of his windfall, and a letter still exists from Henry VI to Philip Augustus of France, which has the Holy Roman Emperor gloating about the capture of this royal pilgrim. Seizing King Richard was technically an illegal act, as Pope Celestine III had decreed that knights who took part in the Crusade were not to be molested as they travelled to and from the Holy Land. Both Emperor Henry and Duke Leopold were later excommunicated by the Pope himself for Richard’s detention.

Negotiations for Richard’s release took the best part of a year, and after strenuous diplomatic efforts by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, a ransom that included 23 tons of silver, twice the domestic product of England at the time was agreed to. 12 tons went to Louis VI of France for facilitating the transfer and 11 tons to Leopold with the Richard being released in early February 1194.

Another legend that came out of this historical event is the story of Blondel. This legend relates to King Richard’s imprisonment in Europe, and his loyal friend Blondel, which was a nickname for anyone with blond hair at that time. The legend says that Blondel searched across Europe for his king and friend, playing his lute outside the walls of castles all over Germany in an attempt to find his lord. While singing a song under the walls of Durnstein Castle, a song he had written with King Richard during the Crusade, Blondel was rewarded by a familiar voice singing the second verse from a small cell in a tower high above him. The loyal trouvère had found his King.

Although this legend has many highly improbable elements, there really was a Blondel, a famous trouvère from Nestle in France who lived at the time of the Lionheart and, if he didn’t actually seek his King by playing music under castle walls in Austria, at least he has been immortalized with some twenty-five songs preserved in French museums and libraries.

Partly based on notes by Angus Donald, July 2011

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