King Richard I (reigned 1189-99) has always been a ruler who inspired strong feelings, in his contemporaries and near-contemporaries and among subsequent historians.
He has been seen as the model of ideal kingship, a truly Christian ruler, a wise monarch and a great warrior-king, particularly in contrast to his successor King John; and as neglectful of his true responsibilities, violent and bigoted, a bad ruler who neglected his realm and his people. King Richard's role in the Crusades has always been seen as central to his significance, and indeed there are few rulers who are so entirely identified with a particular cause as Richard is with the Crusades. He organized and commanded the Third Crusade (1189-92). Writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw his crusading achievements as the proof of his greatness as a king; later historians have tended to see them as distractions from his true responsibilities of governing England. This essay will argue that to criticize Richard for his Crusading involvements and to suggest that the Crusades prevented him from acting as an effective ruler of his dominions (which encompassed more than merely England) is to misunderstand the role, as understood by Richard's contemporaries, of the duties of a Christian king.
Richard, second son of King Henry II, became king in 1189 of the Angevin Empire assembled by his Plantagenet predecessors and above all by his father, which stretched from the Scottish Border to the Pyrenees. As well as England his lands incorporated much of present-day western France: Normandy, Maine and Anjou, and Aquitaine.
The vast extent of this realm -- the dominant political power in the Europe of its time -- and the complex demands it placed upon its ruler must be remembered when the reign of Richard I is analysed. England was a central part of this realm; it was a wealthy, highly-organized, well-governed and prestigious kingdom, but it was only one part of a greater whole. Richard understood this, and this is a key point in understanding his attitude to his kingship and in appreciating why the criticism of him as an absentee king (from an English point-of-view) is mistaken. Richard had been made Duke of Aquitaine in 1172, at the age of 14, and after that spent most of his life on the continent rather than in England. Even after becoming King of England he retained his awareness that he ruled much more than England and that his interests, rights and responsibilities extended much further than just the borders of that country. He had himself acted as essentially a continental ruler rather than an English prince at the end of Henry II's reign, when he had allied with the French king, Philip Augustus, against the authority of his own father.
Modern historians, particularly from the nineteenth century onwards, who have regarded Richard as first and last a king of England, and have criticized him for spending so much time and effort on affairs beyond England, have missed this essential point.
It was when this sense of being a part of the wider world of Christendom engaged with Richard's status as a continental noble that he became involved in the Crusading movement. In 1187 the great Muslim warrior Saladin defeated the Crusader armies lead by Guy of Lusignan and extended his authority over Jerusalem and almost all of Palestine.
Guy was one of Richard's vassals as Duke of Aquitaine, a reflection of the long-standing involvement of knights and nobles from the Angevin lands in the Crusader Kingdoms, so the Christian imperative to recover the Holy Land from the hands of the 'infidels' coincided with the demands of family, locality and feudal obligation in drawing Richard into the Crusade. He was one of the first to take the cross in 1187, laying the foundations for his engagement in Crusade even before he became king in 1189.
The Crusades were thus not an external imposition on Richard's position as King of England, but a direct result of his responsibilities as overlord of the Angevin Empire. In pursuing the 'war against the infidel' in the East he was doing precisely what contemporaries believed he should be doing, and their approval is clear in the evidence that has come down to us from Richard's own lifetime and immediately afterwards. The thirteenth-century chronicler Roger of Wendover described Richard as not only 'the most victorious' of monarchs but also as 'pious, most merciful, and most wise', while his Muslim contemporary Ibn-al-Athir paid tribute to Richard's 'courage, shrewdness, energy and patience' and called him 'the most remarkable ruler of his times.'
One contemporary, a clerk, referred to him in official documents as 'Richard the Good.'
Churchmen honored his commitment to the Crusading ideal. In his coronation oath, Richard's first promise had been to protect the Church, and contemporary clergy saw his willingness to go far beyond the usual lip-service of English monarchs to the Crusades as admirable in every way. It is notable that Richard's reign was free of the church-state conflicts that plagued the reigns of his predecessor, Henry II, and his successor, John. His reputation as a Crusader-King, a defender of the Church and a truly Christian monarch certainly played a role in easing the relationship between Church and State under Richard, and the successful nature of that relationship was embodied in the figure of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Justiciar, and thus head of both religious and secular government in England.
Walter was an extremely capable administrator and a far-sighted officer of the state, and his qualities were well displayed in his effective response to the rebellion of Richard's brother John in 1193.
No king who brought figures of such quality to the government of England could be considered to have failed his realm.
In more general terms, the king's frequent absences from England necessitated the development of robust governmental systems to administer the realm while he was away. The financial and organizational demands of the Crusades required an extensive and effective means of raising and distributing money from the kingdom, and that that system would operate in the king's absence -- as would the systems of justice and administration at every level. There was considerable innovation in taxation and other means of raising revenue throughout Henry II's and Richard I's reigns, and there is no question that the systems that evolved did work effectively, enabling Richard successfully to mount the vast enterprise of the Third Crusade without bringing his kingdom to the point of financial or administrative collapse. Furthermore, his successor John inherited, and made energetic use of, a very effective fiscal system in England.
To criticize Richard for not involving himself in the fine details of English administration is unjust and misunderstands the role played by the medieval king in his own government. It was not necessary for the king to be directly involved in the niceties of raising and spending money; his role was to ensure that systems existed which allowed the processes to be carried out successfully, and to delegate his authority to competent and trustworthy officials, who were able to deal with the day-to-day business of running the kingdom. This Richard was able to do, and very successfully.
It is notable that the men Richard selected were very often those whom he had come to know well and trust during periods when they accompanied him on Crusade: this is the case with Hubert Walter, Philip of Poitiers, Robert of Thornham and Geoffrey de la Celle, all of whom held high appointments in church and/or state under Richard. The demands and pressures of Crusade were an excellent school for administrative competence, reliability, and the all-important bonds of personal trust, and all these factors served Richard and royal government well during his reign. A clearer example could not be found of the king's achievements at home and on Crusade meshing into a seamless whole, to the benefit of his realm and his subjects.
The king's relationship with the significant figures of his realm, those from whom he drew the administrators and courtiers he required to make the system of government work, reflected the importance of the network of obligation and patronage that underlay medieval society. Here again Richard the Crusading King and Richard King of England cannot be divided and set against each other, but are integrated as a unified whole. The King's control over the aristocratic individuals who made up the court was not simply a matter of master and subject, but of feudal overlordship. As feudal overlord of the knights and lords of his realms Richard controlled not only their lands and their positions in society but also their marriages and inheritances. By granting the hand of a rich heiress to a particular knight the king could make his fortune and his career; by preventing such a marriage a promising career could be ruined at a stroke. Similarly, the knights who accompanied Richard on military campaigns, whether in France or the Holy Land, could expect to benefit if they acquitted themselves…