The problem with being a forceful, domineering, alpha male, the kind of man that other men will follow into battle, is that you risk making a lot of enemies. And so it was with Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and lord of lands from the Pennines to the Pyrenees. A shining hero of the age, a legend in his own lifetime, perhaps the most renowned warrior of the latter part of the 12th century – there were a lot of people who absolutely loathed him.
So when the Third Crusade ran out of steam in the autumn of 1192, and Richard was contemplating a retrun to England, all the routes back home from the Holy Land were thick with enemies. And all these foes were eager to capture the Lionheart if they could and, as was the custom of the day, hold him prisoner until – literally – a King’s ransom could be collected and paid.
As I describe in my novel King’s Man, and in earlier books of the series, the Lionheart had fallen out with King Philip of France during the course of the crusade and had insulted Duke Leopold of Austria, the leader of the German contingent. He had even alienated Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, by supporting the King of Sicily against him. The Emperor controlled most of Germany and much of the Italian peninsula; southern Spain was in Muslim hands; and France was barred to him by Philip – so Richard knew that he would have a serious problem getting home overland. However, the naval technology of the day did not allow ships to overcome the powerful currents flowing through the straits of Gibraltar and pass westward into the Atlantic, thus preventing Richard from taking the long way back to England by sea.
The only chance that Richard had of making it safely home was through subterfuge. So his ship left the Holy Land and made a feint westward towards Sicily, then doubled back, entered the Adriatic and sailed north. On 10th December 1192, King Richard found himself ashore, at Aquileia, near Trieste in north-eastern Italy, with only a few companions, and hundreds of miles from friendly lands. Disguised as a Templar knight, Richard headed north in secret into the heart of Europe, making for safe territory controlled by his brother-in-law the Duke of Saxony. However, after an icy, gruelling journey on poor roads, the King was spotted and apprehended by his Duke Leopold’s men. It was only a few days before Christmas, the weather was awful and the King was sheltering in a brothel in the outskirts of Vienna. Some stories suggest that it was his aristocratic habit of demanding roast chicken for dinner, rather than humbler fare, that led to his discovery; other tales say that it was his companions’ practice of calling him ‘Sire’ that gave away his royal identity.
Duke Leopold must have been delighted to have the King of England in his clutches, and he promptly locked Richard up in Durnstein Castle, a stronghold on the Danube fifty miles west of Vienna, and began to contemplate the vast ransom he could collect. He informed his overlord, Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, of his windfall, and a letter still exists, which I have quoted in King’s Man, from Henry VI to King Philip of France, in which the Emperor gloats shamelessly about the capture of this returning royal pilgrim. By the conventions of the time, seizing King Richard was an illegal act, as the Pope had decreed that knights who took part in the crusade were not to be molested as they travelled to and from the Holy Land. And Duke Leopold and Emperor Henry were both subsequently excommunicated for their actions.
Richard was passed from stronghold to stronghold in the German-speaking lands until he wound up at Ochsenfurt, a fortified town in northern Bavaria, in mid-March 1193. It was there that English emissaries caught up with their captive King and began the long process of bargaining for his freedom.
Negotiations for Richard’s release took the best part of a year. And King Philip and Prince John, the Lionheart’s treacherous younger brother, actively colluded to prevent his ransom being paid and the King being released. These two went so far as to make a huge counter-offer in cash to the Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned until Michaelmas 1194. But after strenuous diplomatic efforts by Richard’s mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the payment of 100,000 marks – an enormous sum, perhaps twice the GDP of England at the time – and the handing over of hostages, the King was finally released in early Februrary 1194.
Sadly, there is no historical basis for the legend of Blondel, which I have co-opted for my hero Alan Dale in King’s Man. The legend goes like this: after Richard’s imprisonment in Europe, his faithful trouvere Blondel searched high and low for him, 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 Richard during the crusade, Blondel was rewarded by a familiar voice singing the second verse from a tower high above him.
There really was a Blondel, a famous trouvere from Nesle in France who was a contemporary of the Lionheart and some twenty-five of his songs have been preserved in French museums and libraries – including one that begins ‘Ma joi me semont . . .’ on which I have loosely based Alan Dale’s song ‘My Joy Summons Me’ in King’s Man. In reality, Blondel would not have needed to seek out his lord, the Emperor and Duke Leopold would have gained little advantage in hiding King Richard’s whereabouts from Richard’s followers. They wanted the ransom money, and they needed to be in touch with the King’s subjects if they were to negotiate a price.
King Richard eventually returned to England, a free man, in March 1194. He briskly cowed the supporters of Prince John and retook the powerful castle of Nottingham (as told in King’s Man), displaying once again his qualities as a supreme medieval warrior and charismatic leader in battle. While the Lionheart may have made enemies, there can be no doubt that his loyal fighting men adored him.