Monday, February 15, 2016

England and the Aquitaine Part II: Richard

by Helena P Schrader

Last month, I noted that an English Friend used to lament that: “England has gone downhill ever since she lost the Aquitaine!” (For those of you who are a bit rusty with the date: that was 1454.) You might be forgiven—thinking of the Glories of the Empire—that he was very much mistaken, although I dare say he was thinking mostly of the climate and the wine. Nevertheless, the Aquitaine was immensely important to England in the three hundred years preceding its final loss and is strongly associated with three of England’s most charismatic historical figures: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and Edward, the Black Prince. Today I continue my three-part examination of England and the Aquitaine with a look at the importance of Aquitaine to Richard the Lionheart.

Richard I's Tomb at Fontevault

Richard was born in 1157 to Henry II, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was the third son born to the couple, but his eldest brother, William, had already died before he made his appearance, making him effectively the second son. His elder brother Henry was, in an age where primogeniture was increasingly common but not 100% institutionalized, the heir apparent to his father’s kingdom and other possessions. Fortunately for Richard, his mother was also a great heiress. She held not only the Aquitaine, from which she derived her title, but also Gascony and Poitou. Her domains stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees, from the Massive Central to the Atlantic. Furthermore, it was already common practice (though not legally necessary) for younger sons to be endowed with lands acquired by marriage or purchase. In 1168, Henry II did exactly this; he announced his intention to give his eldest son his own inheritance and to give his son Richard his wife’s inheritance. 

In early 1169, Richard did homage to the King of France for Poitou and Aquitaine, while his elder brother did homage for Normandy, Anjou and Maine. Richard was also formally betrothed to the daughter of King Louis VII, Alice (or Alys). Shortly afterwards, he started taking part in official functions beside his mother. In June 1172, he was symbolically invested with Aquitaine in the Abbey of St. Hilaire in Poitiers, where he was handed the lance and banner of Aquitaine from the bishops of Bordeaux and Poitiers. But it was not until 1173, when at the age of 15 he was knighted by the French King, that he officially entered manhood in the medieval world and thereby acquired the right to “take up” his inheritance.

Meanwhile, however, Richard had already started to identify himself strongly with the Aquitaine.  He had already spent much of his life there. Eleanor is known to have kept her children with her as much as possible, and she was frequently in her possessions even in the early years of her marriage to Henry. In 1166, however, she officially took up residence in Poitiers, and she took Richard with her. From then until Richard joined his elder brother’s first rebellion against their father in 1173, Richard lived with his mother in the Aquitaine. These were highly formative years, from the age of nine to fifteen. They left their mark on Richard in many ways.

This was when Richard not only learned to speak the Langue d’Oc of his mother’s territories (and incidentally the language of his future wife as well), he also learned a love of music and troubadours that remained with him to his death. Indeed, Richard was capable of composing lyrics and music himself. In that he took after his great-grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who in addition to being a crusader had been an outstanding troubadour and allegedly a man who “turned everything into a joke” (according to William of Malmesbury).  The Aquitaine also contained some of the most magnificent architectural monuments of the age, schools of sculpture and the home of enamel working in Limoges — all things that Richard would have been exposed to while growing up. Furthermore, Aquitaine was rich in wine, game, and agricultural produce — everything needed to support a lifestyle of luxury in the medieval context. Richard, unlike his father, was known to love the trappings of wealth as much as the substance. Richard, like his great-grand father, had a sense of humor appreciated even by his Saracen enemies. Richard was very much a product of the South of France by the time he became a man. He remained it all his life. 

Cloisters at Moissac
As for the rebellion against his father in 1173, we cannot know his motives for sure, but John Gillingham argues in his biography of Richard that Eleanor had reasons to fear her husband trying to extend his control over her territories and infringing on the independence of her inheritance. As long as Eleanor and Henry had been in harmony, jointly building an empire for posterity, there had been no rivalry between them, but as the break between Eleanor and Henry grew, Eleanor appears to have resented her husband’s interference in her lands. She is widely credited with convincing Richard that he should toss off his father’s yoke just as his elder brother was doing and take control of the lands settled upon him for himself. In short, he should seek to become Duke of Aquitaine in fact as well as name.

Richard’s first rebellion against his father was not a success. Many citizens had no desire to support an untried youth against a king with as formidable a reputation as Henry Plantagenet. Although Richard had some supports and was stubborn in his resistance, he did not dare risk a direct confrontation with a man who had won so many battles already. When he learned his elder brother and the French King had already submitted to Henry, Richard too bowed to the inevitable and threw himself on his father’s mercy. He was forgiven, and not just nominally. Richard had lost his bid for autonomy and real power, but he had not (yet) lost the Aquitaine itself. For the next ten years, he ruled the Aquitaine as his father’s deputy.

These were not peaceful years. Richard had temporarily given up his fight for independence, but many of the barons of Aquitaine had not. Richard was sent by his father to subdue his erstwhile allies—and he did. But not easily. He had to ask his father for help more than once. In the end, however, as Gillingham writes: “Richard … exceeded his father’s expectations. The combination of the father’s resources and occasional presence with Richard’s determination and burgeoning military skills had, it seems, pacified even the most independent parts of the duchy.” (Richard I, p. 63.)  Church chroniclers were quick to claim that Richard was hated by his barons for his “cruelty,” but the lords of Aquitaine needed no such excuse for rebellion. They had rebelled against Eleanor (because she was a weak woman) and her father and her grandfather…. Rebellion was in their nature, and Richard did what any ruler of his time had to do: assert his authority by force of arms.

The rebels, however, faced with an indomitable military leader like Richard, looked for allies—and found the perfect candidate in the Richard’s elder brother, Henry the Young King. The latter was intensely jealous of Richard’s independence and success. In a complicated family drama, Henry the Young King sought to garner support from the Old King by doing homage and swearing eternal loyalty – and then turning on his brother and claiming the Aquitaine. Henry II didn’t fall for the trick. He tried to make peace between his sons. Unfortunately, Henry the Young King didn’t want peace, he wanted the Aquitaine. Richard wasn’t about to give it up. It came to a bloody showdown with the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy, the Count of Toulouse and the perpetual rebel barons of the Aquitaine all lined up behind Henry the Young King  to fight against Richard — and his father the Old King. The latter two won!

The image of Richard hounding his father to a terrible and lonely death in 1189 tends to so overshadow all that went before that the degree to which Richard and Henry II worked together in the decade from 1173 - 1183 is all but forgotten. While it goes beyond the scope of this essay, I think it is fair to remember that love and hate are often intimately interrelated. Betrayed love is a common cause of bitter hatred. Many crimes of passion grow from exactly this motive. We may think of betrayed erotic love — the murder of a faithless lover or the seducer of one’s love — but the filial love betrayed might also ignite hatred, especially in a man as passionate as Richard the Lionheart. 

With the death of the Young King, however, the dynamic and the relationship between Richard and Henry II unalterably changed. Suddenly, Richard was no longer the younger son, he was instantly the heir apparent to his father’s heritage. That is, he was heir to England, Normandy, Anjou and Maine. There were three fundamental problems with this: 1) Henry II had no intention of giving up the real power in his territories to Richard any more than he had to the Young King, and 2) Richard was not inclined to become a puppet king like his elder brother, and 3) Richard was still Duke of Aquitaine.

Richard's Castle in Poitiers
The latter was a problem because it made him master of everything, but he had a younger brother who had practically nothing. Henry, not unreasonably, thought that if Richard was getting a kingdom (plus Normandy, Anjou and Maine), he ought to share with his little brother — namely give him the Aquitaine. Unfortunately, by now Richard was 26 and he’d spent the better part of his life in Aquitaine. He’d attended his father’s court in Normandy and Anjou often enough, but he’d had no cause to go to England for almost two decades. England might be a kingdom, but it wasn’t home. More important, he’d fought for the Aquitaine — risking life, limb and fortune there. Predictably, therefore, when Henry II ordered Richard to turn over the Aquitaine to John, Richard flatly refused. He told his father he would never allow anyone to take his place as Duke of Aquitaine. And so a new intra-family war began.

Henry first tried to persuade Richard to relent, and when this didn’t work, he apparently told John if he wanted the Aquitaine he should take it by force of arms. The remark was probably made more in a fit of exasperated temper (such as the one that resulted in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury) because when Henry heard that John (joined by brother Geoffrey) had indeed attacked the Aquitaine he summed all three of his sons to England and effected a formal reconciliation. 

But, of course, nothing had been resolved. Richard was still heir presumptive to his father’s domains and very much in control of his mother’s as well. Henry next tried to persuade Eleanor to use her influence over Richard. It is interesting that at this juncture, ten years after her rebellion and imprisonment that Henry still presumed she had influence over Richard. But he didn’t trust Eleanor entirely and now (foolishly it seems in retrospect) started to himself play his sons off against one another, making Geoffrey (of all people!) his deputy in Normandy. Henry may have hoped that Richard would come to heel if he thought his claim to his patrimony was not secure, but the tactic did not work.

So Henry played the Eleanor card again: he ordered Richard to surrender Aquitaine not to John but to his mother. Richard dutifully did so — a very strong statement about his relationship to her despite ten years of separation and despite the fact that he got nothing in return. One can only speculate that he was confident that she would not give the Aquitaine to anyone but him! But the agreement also notably reconciled him (temporarily) with his father. Once again, father and son acted in harmony.  Richard moved against a rebellious Count of Toulouse, and received financial support for doing so from his father. They also campaigned together against a French invasion of Angevin territories on the Loire.

It was not until summer of 1187 that the break really came between Richard and Henry. The instigator appears to have been the French King, who convinced Richard that his father meant to disinherit him entirely. It’s hard to believe Philip would have been successful if Richard hadn’t harbored doubts already or if his relationship with his father had been good. There must have been quarrels and tensions that did not make it into the chronicles. Richard must have felt threatened or slighted or cheated. In any case, he rebelled again, and this time alone. He seized his father’s treasure at Chinon, but before it came to outright conflict the news of the loss of Jerusalem reached the West.
Richard was one of the first to “take the cross” and swear to regain the Holy Land. Henry II is said to have been stunned by Richard’s move. Indeed his reaction (he allegedly did not talk to anyone for days) is evidence of how much he respected and depended on Richard. Had he truly planned to disinherit him, Henry would have been delighted to see Richard go to Jerusalem — and stay there, dead or alive. He could had sent him off to regain the crown of Jerusalem, and given his own empire to John. But Henry did not want to see Richard go to distant Jerusalem. He wanted him at home defending the Angevin Empire from a clearly hostile Philip of France.

The situation was temporarily resolved by Henry II and Philip also taking the cross. The general idea being that no one would be around to prey upon the other’s weaknesses if they all went crusading together. In the event, however, the mutual suspicions were simply too great for this solution. Returning to the theme of this essay, it was a revolt in the Aquitaine that distracted Richard from the crusade. He turned to put it down and then became embroiled in a new war with the Count of Toulouse. The King of France used this as an excuse to attack along the Loire again. Henry and Richard were partners again; the Plantagenets were fighting the Capets, the crusade forgotten.  

French King at War against the English during the 100 Years War
Then Richard and Henry quarreled yet again. The reason was the apparent willingness of Henry to sacrifice some of Richard’s gains in Toulouse in exchange for securing better terms in Anjou. Richard would not accept this. He sought better terms from Philip — and was again caught in the French King’s web. Philip persuaded him to publicly demand recognition as his father’s heir (without giving up the Aquitaine, note!). Henry replied evasively and Richard took offense. He publicly did homage to Philip II of France. It was November 1188.

Eight months later, Henry II was defeated and dead, a victim less of his son than his own intransigence. Gillingham sums it up like this: “The Old King may have been obsessed by the problems that had arisen after he had recognized young Henry as his heir and determined not to make the same mistake. But it would not have been the same mistake. Richard was not Henry. In character he was very different from his dead elder brother. He was now thirty-one years old and a soldier and a politician of great experience. When entrusted with government, he did not make a mess of it.” (Richard I, p. 97.)

Henry II's Tomb at Fontevrault

Henry’s death was certainly tragic, and had he been less stubborn a reconciliation with Richard would almost certainly have been possible. They had fought together far more often than against one another!  Had Henry fully acknowledged Richard as his heir (without taking away the Aquitaine!), Richard very likely would have joined forces against Philip II — or gone happily off on crusade — rather than fight his father. What is of interest to us here is that the bone of contention with his father was consistently the Aquitaine. Richard was not willing to give it up at any price, and every time his father tried to take it — or even parts of it — away, Richard rebelled.

At his father’s death, Richard indeed inherited it all: England, Normandy, Anjou, and Maine, without surrendering his rights as his mother’s heir to Aquitaine, Gascony and Poitou. He was also still committed to recovering Jerusalem, and the next four years of his life were spent preparing for, conducting and then returning from crusade. The last six years of his reign were spent fighting for the Angevin Empire in a horrible war of attrition mostly carried out in Normandy.

But it was the Aquitaine that claimed him in the end.  His determination to hold on the Aquitaine led him to the fateful siege of Châlus. Had he not felt compelled to put down yet another revolt by lords in Aquitaine, he might have lived to either defeat Philip II once and for all or go on another crusade and reclaim Jerusalem. (No, the story of Richard seeking treasure being the cause of his siege of Châlus has been completely debunked. See Jean Flori’s biography, Richard the Lionheart, for a very comprehensive discussion siting all the primary sources).

Richard the Lionheart was King of England and a famous crusader, but his heart was in the Aquitaine.

Gillingham, John, Richard I, Yale University Press, 1999.
Flori, Jean, Richard the Lionheart, Praeger, 2006.

Helena Schrader is the currently writing a three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin, who served as Richard the Lionheart’s envoy to Saladin in 1192. Balian’s relationship with Richard and their common struggle to recapture Jerusalem 1191-1192 is the subject of the third book in her Balian series, Envoy of Jerusalem. The first two books in the series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem, were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. You can find out more about them and Crusader Jerusalem at and more about all of Helena’s books at:


  1. An excellent read! And very informative. It really points out the nonsensical nature of "Robin Hood." Not that Richard would have given up England, once it was his, but that he had any real knowledge of the locales, or spent any real time there.

  2. Excellent article. I am particularly interested in Richard and Eleanor as I live only an half hour's drive from Chalus, where Richard died. Our village was part of their estate, and in summer there are many fetes and events to celebrate the connection.