Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Truth Behind the Fiction: Two Brothers, Two Kings

by N.B. Dixon

When I began working on my Robin Hood series, I had to research the real characters in the story as well as the fictional. The two Kings most closely associated with the Robin Hood legend are King Richard I, also known as the Lionheart for his fearlessness in battle, and his brother John. Usually, Richard is portrayed as the chivalrous knight, a man of honour and decency, while John is the dastardly villain, a man greedy for wealth and power. But were things really as cut and dried as that?

It’s true that in many ways, Richard and John seemed to have been opposites. Richard was a warrior, a born soldier. He was never happier than when he was on a battlefield. During his ten year reign, he spent only four months on English soil.

John, being the youngest son, was never expected to amount to much. He seems to have favoured strategy and manipulation as his weapons of choice. When he did take to the battlefield, it was often disastrous. His brief spell in Ireland when he was in his late teens, is a study in mistakes. Far from bringing the Irish lords to accept English rule, he succeeded in alienating every one of them.

However, the two brothers do have more in common than is evident at a first glance. Firstly, neither of them was born to be King. They were the sons of Henry Plantagenet, later to become King Henry II, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard was the elder of the two, but he was the third son born to Henry and Elinor. His eldest brother William died in infancy. The next brother, Henry, did survive into adulthood. However, his life was a short, tempestuous one, mainly spent in rebelling against his father. His father outlived him. Between Richard and John, there was another brother, Geoffrey, as well as some sisters. Richard was, however, destined to rule from birth. His mother always intended him to take over the Duchy of Aquitaine at her death.

The ambition that Richard and John shared, was that of triumphing against their father. Richard joined his elder brother’s rebellion against King Henry. The rebellion did not succeed, and for a time, John’s star was in the ascendant as his father’s favourite son. However, when it became evident that the King was dying, John switched his allegiance to Richard. He was quick to renege on that almost as soon as Richard became King.

Richard was crowned King of England in September 1189. Almost immediately he set out preparing to go on crusade to the holy land. It was an oath he and several kings and princes had taken, to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims and return it to Christian rule. Richard’s friend and ally, Philip of France, had also sworn to go on crusade. Richard fully expected Philip would keep his oath.

Richard was delayed in reaching his goal. First he was held up at Sicily, where he liberated his sister, the former Queen, who, on her husband’s death, had been taken prisoner by his bastard cousin, Tancred. Tancred had seized power, and Richard was held up as he attempted to bring peace to the region. This he eventually succeeded in doing, by suggesting that his brother Geoffrey’s young son Arthur could be betrothed to Tancred’s daughter, thus uniting their two families. Richard’s brother Geoffrey had died before his son was even born, and it is doubtful whether Richard ever intended to honour this agreement. Arthur was, at that time, his only heir Besides John.

In Cyprus, Richard wed his queen, Berengaria. He was a reluctant bridegroom, and spent as little time with his wife as possible.

By the time they reached Aker, the crusade was already well underway. Attempts had been made to breach the city, but they had been unsuccessful. Philip of France was ill. The climate was not agreeing with him. When Richard arrived and succeeded in doing what he had been trying and failing to do, Philip had had enough. He chose to return to France. Richard accused him of going back on his oath, and their friendship was broken.

It’s at this time that Richard did something that even the Robin Hood legends have been unable to gloss over. After the fall of acre in 1191, many of its citizens became prisoners of war. Richard agreed to return them to the enemy side in exchange for a large sum of gold. When Saladin refused to pay, Richard had nearly 3000 men, women and children beheaded. Saladin retaliated in kind. Despite this, there does seem to have been some respect between the two men. When Saladin heard that Richard was ill, he sent him a present of fruit.

Richard was never able to reclaim Jerusalem. Finally in 1192, a peace treaty was agreed. Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands, but Christians would be permitted to visit and worship at the holy sepulchre. Richard was ready to return home, but he’d made many enemies during his time in the holy land, and not all of them were those he’d come to fight.

In December 1192, Richard was captured in Vienna by Leopold of Austria and later handed over to Henry of Germany. There is a charming legend that his minstrel, Blondel, travelled from castle to castle, singing a song that both he and Richard knew well. When Richard heard him and answered, that was how Blondel was able to discover his location. In reality, Richard’s location was never a secret. The ransom demanded was a hundred thousand marks.

So what was John doing all this time? When Richard left for the Crusades, he left his mother Queen Elinor as regent. John, however, lost no time in capitalising on his brother’s absence. He said that he would be an English king for the people. Richard is rumoured not to have spoken a word of English. John had stayed in England all this time, not deserting his people the moment the Crown was on his head. There were some who rallied to his support. His greatest enemy, the Chancellor Longchamp, was eventually forced to flee the country.

John entered into negotiations with Philip of France, who was still smarting from his humiliation at Richard’s hands. It is rumoured that they wrote a letter to Henry of Germany, stating that they would pay twice the amount of money specified for Richard’s release, if he died in his prison cell and never came home at all. But John had reckoned without his mother. Somehow, despite the fact that England was already suffering owing to the amount of money Richard had demanded to fund his crusade, part of the ransom was raised. Promises were given that the rest would be paid, and Richard was released. He returned to England in 1194, but it was to find a divided country. Some declared for John.

Nottingham Castle refused to surrender to Richard, and a bloody battle ensued. The castle Gatehouse was burned down, and Richard hanged several rebels. Those left alive surrendered, and John’s hopes of seizing his brother’s throne came to nothing. He was loyal throughout the rest of Richard’s reign, but he didn’t have long to wait. Richard lived only five years after his release. Much of that time he spent in France, and he was killed in action.

John became king in 1199. However, he did face a threat to his own rule in the form of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. There were many who felt that Arthur’s claim was just a strong as John’s. Arthur laid siege to the Castle of Mirabeau in France, where Queen Elinor was staying. John was forced to go to her rescue, and Arthur was captured. In 1203, he disappeared. Later a body was found washed up on the banks of the River Seine, but it was never positively identified as that of Arthur of Britany. It was widely believed that John had had the boy murdered. Philip of France had turned against John by this time, and he lost no time in vilifying him.

Like Richard, John made many enemies in his reign. Many of John’s barons turned against him, which eventually led to the signing of Magna Carta, a charter giving power to the barons, and restricting the King’s ability to pass laws without consulting them.

John ruled from 1199 to 1216. He was a lecher, and also cruel and vindictive. However, he did often give money to beggars if he came across them in the street, not something the Robin Hood legend would report.

Richard’s reign was short and eventful. He was generous to his friends, but murdered three thousand innocent people. To think of Richard as the good King and John as the evil one is perhaps to make things two black and white, but as the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire.


N.B. Dixon is an author of historical fiction. Her love for the Robin Hood legend began in a neglected corner of the school library and has continued ever since. She is a self-confessed bookworm and also a musician.

She began work on the Outlaws Legacy Series in 2013, and was accepted by Beaten Track Publishing in 2016. Outlaws Legacy is a historical series based around the Robin Hood legend. The author describes it as Exciting Historical Adventure with GLBT romance. Knight of Sherwood is available now.


  1. Wow. This was so informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Love the 12th century, but would like to point out that none of the contemporary chroniclers, including Muslim ones, mentioned the slaughter of women and children at Acre. For example, the chronicler Baha' Al-Din writes:
    Then they brought the Muslim prisoners whose martyrdom God had ordained, more than three thousand men in chains. They fell on them as one man and slaughtered them in cold blood, with sword and lance . . .


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