Thursday, April 3, 2014

Was Richard the Lionheart a Homosexual?

by Rosanne Lortz

I still remember watching it for the first time. The Lion in Winter. The first historical piece that I encountered which asserted that Richard the Lionheart was a homosexual.

Naturally, I could hardly help wondering whether the portrayal was accurate. What evidence did the playwright and screenwriter James Goldman have for depicting Richard in this manner? Why had none of the history books I had read during my teenage years mentioned it?

Doing a little research, I discovered that no one had seriously mooted the idea that Richard the Lionheart was a homosexual up until the middle of the twentieth century. At this time a case for Richard's homosexuality was made based on these three points:

  1. He had no children (except for possibly one illegitimate son);
  2. He didn't seem very interested in getting married (deserting his wife Berengaria right after they tied the knot);
  3. In his early days, he had a very close relationship with Philip Augustus of France. 

When I saw these three points, I had to wonder if the case they made for Richard’s homosexuality was actually a compelling one. I researched a little more….

The first fact, that Richard had no children, is neither here nor there. It does not take a genius to think of other reasons for childlessness than being a homosexual. And in the medieval world, a homosexual king would have likely also been married (to a woman) and fathered children (the kings Edward II and James I come to mind), because no matter what one’s sexual proclivities were, producing an heir and preserving dynastic succession was paramount.

The second assertion, that Richard wasn’t very interested in marriage or in Berengaria, is, if you believe the well-respected novelist Sharon Kay Penman, surprisingly incorrect. In an interview with the Historical Novel Society, Penman said:
Another myth is that Richard was reluctant to wed Berengaria and Eleanor had to push him into it; he was actually the one who negotiated the marriage with Berengaria’s father…. I was surprised to discover that Richard went to some trouble to have her with him during their time in the Holy Land.
Although their marriage does not appear to have been one of the world’s greatest love matches, there is no evidence of “reluctance to marry” on Richard’s part, a fact which has been used to bolster the argument for his homosexuality.

Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart

The final piece of evidence used to prove Richard’s homosexuality is his relationship with the French king Philip Augustus. One of the most pertinent primary source excerpts says:
And after this peace, Richard the Count of Poitou remained with the king of France against the will of his father; and the king of France was honoring him in such a way that each day they would eat together at one table from one dish, and in the night their bed did not separate them. And because of this exceeding love which appeared between them, the king of England [Henry II] was struck with much astonishment and marveled at this, and being on his guard for himself in the future, sent his messengers frequently to France to recall his son Richard....
So, there you have it. “In the night their bed did not separate them.” But does this text give a homosexual connotation to Richard and Philip sharing a bed? Not really. It seems to be just another way that Philip was honoring Richard. Although my husband would probably object to sharing a bed with another man, we must remember that in the Middle Ages, men (yes, heterosexual men) shared beds all the time.

Some have read into this text that Richard's father Henry is upset about the strange relationship developing between his son Richard and Philip, the King of France. The text clearly shows that he is upset, but it does not seem to be from a fear of homosexual activity. His son Richard is befriending the longtime enemy of England, and Henry is trying to stop them from allying against him.

Judging this quote by the standards of the time it was written in, I think it is fair to say that the author is making no implications, veiled or otherwise, of homosexual relations between Richard and Philip.

So, given what we know about the evidence, was James Goldman within his rights to depict a homosexual relationship between Richard the Lionheart and Philip Augustus? Certainly. His play The Lion in Winter is, after all, a work of historical fiction. But viewers (and readers) must always keep in mind that the historical fiction writer deals with the realm of possibility, and not necessarily the realms of plausibility or probability.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


  1. Regarding the Philippe Auguste chapter, if the king of France was gay or busexual, It would have been notorious. Philippe well documented tragic second and third marriages prove the contrary. (come to think of it, his first one too). Now it is now because he got married, but because he broke one marraige in favour of the 'other' woman. In short, he chose heterosexual partners not because it was the thing to do but because he loved the person

    1. Yes, there's really not much primary source evidence pointing to any scandal of this nature surrounding Philip (except for the one piece I cited, which I think doesn't point to anything either unless you read modern notions into the text). Thanks for commenting!

    2. Ever heard of bisexuals? His liking women really says nothing about whether he had sex with Richard.

    3. Apparently he loved Richard too...?

    4. Well, J.R. Tomlin, there are actually MANY other alternatives than just 'Richard must have been bisexual'.

      1) This was common practice for kings to lie with confidants.

      2) That of Philip, 12 years younger, having a bro-mance with the tall, handsome and successful Richard.

      3) As a kid, I had sleep overs with boys all the time. We did not bugger one another regularly, so simple teen/male solidarity/friendship

      4) PHILIP was gay or bisexual and found Richard attractive and showed him favoritism in trying to inveigle him into seduction.

      5) That Richard was willing to do ANYTHING to win the war against his father despite it being against his inclinations. Though this seems to go at great odds with him as a pushy, cruel, Alpha Male and not a submissive at all.

      All of these are as plausible as the one note flute of him sleeping with Philip. Not a particularly good instrument to create a symphony.

      And please note: there are a LOT of heterosexual Alpha men in America who, while wildly successful and able to sleep with a plethora of women, see no need to having a nagging screw of a wife get in the way of his fun. It is, after all, good to be the king...and a prince! So the evidence of 'married late' has many other explanations.

  2. Good summary of the arguments! We need to remember that even good historical fiction often tells us more about the age it was written in than the age it describes. Homosexuality became a "hot" topic in the late 20th century and Goldman's film reflected a growing interest in making homosexuality "acceptable."

    1. Good point, Helena! Thanks for reading and commenting. :-)

  3. Hi Rosanne, really interesting article, and I love your conclusion: 'the historical fiction writer deals with the realm of possibility, and not necessarily the realms of plausibility or probability.'- very quotable!

  4. Very concise and well written piece. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Michele!

    2. According to the page below linked "Personal servants of the lord might often sleep in the lord's chamber on a portable pallet". Admittedly nobles and Princes were not servants, but I imagine royal bedchambers would generally have been fairly roomy, so sharing a bedroom might not necessarily have involved sharing a bed!

  5. I can think of two or thee references to men sharing beds in a Medieval or Renaissance context. In Henry V (I believe you know the play so you may know the reference) Lord Henry Scrope is described as the King's 'bedfellow', and King Edward IV of England is supposed to have been so keen to win over the Lancastrian Duke of Somerset that he went hunting with him and... allowed him to sleep in the same bedchamber,
    It does not seem to have carried any sexual connotations, but rather trust and closeness to the King. Also Kings seem to have had more than one 'bedchamber', perhaps the other being used to meet people, so perhaps this is what was meant?

  6. Have you read Norah Loft's The Lute-Player? She works with the theory that Richard I was homosexual. It's an interesting read.

    1. Ditto James Reston's "Warriors of God" which unbelievably puts Saladin and Richard in the same bed. The 16 year old book is billed as historical non-fiction, but labelled fictitious by some.

  7. I've always been intrigued by the seal of intimacy and confidence mentioned in the Bible where Abraham sends his servant on a vital mission, first having him clutch him "under the thigh" ! Also the fact that young men in the Middle East frequently walk hand in hand. Both customs suggest that homosexuality is so inconceivable to the protagonists that they can express their intimacy without inhibition.
    Our distance in time and culture threatens to distort our vision.
    Thanks so much for your enlightening research and reason.

  8. I really love history and historical fiction. Richard 1st of England was one of my favourite reads. His sexual preference was always a bone of contention I found. English author Jean Plaidy (Philippa Carr, Victoria Holt) wrote fascinating, very detailed historical fiction. I have all her books under each pseudonym. She more or less had decided Richard the Lionheart was homosexual & I pondered over her sources. Plucked up the courage to write to her in the 1900's only to discover she had passed away, I never did get around to pursuing the info.
    Do you know anything about Jean Plaidy, as she was in reality.Apparantly she was a very private person who spent almost every waking hour writing. To write so profusely & with so much detail surely would warrant that. No mention was made in what I could find out about her of a husband or children. But I believe she passed away in Australia. I believe I got my love of history through first reading her fiction. She made it all come alive & I sometimes still browse through her books, although I have read them over and over. I do get great enjoyment from your website. Thank you for it.
    D W Waterman

    1. Actually the fact that Richard did have one son is a hint at either homosexuality or bisexuality with perhaps a preference for men. It certainly shows that he was capable of fathering a child which leads one to wonder why only one, which was highly unusual. No one of those factors you mentioned is proof of Richard's sexual preferences but they do make portraying him as either homosexual or bisexual as quite plausible.

  9. By the way, I agree that he wanted to marry Berengaria but that doesn't answer the fact that he waited until he was thirty-four years old to marry. This by itself is enough to at least raise a few eyebrows. As you point out, kings who were homosexual married. They had to and he no doubt chose her. But waiting to such a late age is definitely very unusual. If I were to portray him in historical fiction (I won't since I write about Scotland), it would at least be as bisexual.

  10. The princes in our current royal family married later in life. Granted the lifespan in medieval times was shorter, but didnt Richard lose his first betrothal when his father took her as a mistress

  11. God this is so frustrating...

    Following this line of reasoning, we might as well assume that every gay historical figure was in fact not gay - unless they specifically wrote a note saying they were. Considering in many cases, there wasn't even a word for it to translate to our modern understanding of such a term and/or the era in which it IS, is often proof enough for a death sentence... it would be stupid to make that the standard. Not to mention that the idea is ridiculous on its own.

    It's also worth noting that being gay is not just about sex. Do ppl stop being straight if they should reach an age of diminished libido? Being gay/straight is, no matter how cliché it may sound, it is about intimate love.

    2nd, the text used as reference was NOT simply about them sharing a bed, but all parts as a whole considered; everything included, that has been passed down and accepted as such through history. If men sleeping in the same bed as a customary act of solidarity IS something so common from the time, even among straight men - which it was - then what was so unique about THIS relationship?? Your own point makes this case... This is an article which goes through great lengths to establish the distinct depth of affection between the men, so much so that it's being commented about by those who knew of it. So much so, to the point that his father is taking exception to it while making a concerted effort to remedy the situation. If it WAS the case that his reason for objecting was merely one of political aspiration for England and a question of loyalty, then where is the supporting narrative for that? It's out of context.

    Why not then accept the obvious picture the whole presents unless one is purposefully trying to disprove it?? And for what reason? Is it so hard to simply assume that there were gay kings? Historical figures? Doesn't seem so hard for me to believe. Given how many gay figures we have written off as straight, it doesn't seem such a tragedy for me to settle on Richard being gay.... Hasn't been that hard for all of the historians in centuries past to accept it either.

    1. Here is the flaw in this thinking. Medieval Society did NOT have privacy and kings had less than other men. So to believe the 'absence of evidence' train of logic here, one needs to believe that, in an Age where Richard's fathers mistresses were widely known, somehow NO ONE noticed that Richard was a switch hitter except for ONE inconclusive fact with Phillip. Did Richard ONLY sleep with Philip?

      So asserting that ' just don't like the idea of gay kings' is a strawman. Edward II was clearly gay and we have a plethora of facts which support this assumption. Other kings, Frederick the Great, Nero, Caligula, all had a preponderance of evidence which suggested they were clearly gay.

      We do not have that same chain of evidence with Richard, despite the fact that any such actions on his part would be so incredibly noteworthy.

  12. So, if men sharing a bed was such a frequent occurrence, why did scribes of the Middle Ages go to such great lengths to document that Richard and Philip did so? Where are similar accounts attesting to other intra national monarchs also doing so?

    There is a hidden bias in all this. Lortz and others, in the absence of indisputable, ironclad proof of Richard's homosexuality, despite an abundance of chronicled evidence, default to the theory that he MUST have been heterosexual. Frankly, that conclusion seems both insensitive and offensive. Else, how would you expect the historical accounts to read? "Richard was a flaming Sodomite who distinctly preferred the company of men."

    To presume that someone is heterosexual betrays an unacknowledged supposition and judgment.

  13. Well in fact it is documented that during the third crusade Richard did a public penance for the sin of buggery (on the Messine Island I think)


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