Even now, as though still defending the realm, he sits astride his horse outside the Houses of Parliament in London, sword raised aloft, defiant, muscular, formidable.
This was the king for whom a nobleman of folklore gave up his title and lands to become the outlaw Robin Hood, living in a forest, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor as he defended the interests and legacy of his beloved monarch who was away fighting in the Crusades.
And yet . . . in the whole of his reign from 1189 this iconic English king spent no more than a total of six months in the country. If he was not off fighting in the Crusades, he was in France defending his castles and other extensive interests there.
Neither of his parents were English and there is some doubt that Richard, born in 1157, ever learned to speak the language of his subjects.
There is certainly no doubt about his courage, though. He liked a good scrap and relished his role as leader of the Third Crusade (1188-92) against the Saracens under Saladin, the Muslim leader of Egypt and Syria. Richard’s avowed aim was to capture Jerusalem and restore Christianity to the Holy Land.
Some historians believe, though, that the king was really more interested in grabbing the gold and vast treasure on offer there.
For it has been claimed that in truth Richard was greedy, violent and ruthless. Historian William Stubbs described him as “a bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler and a vicious man.”
His cruel streak came to the fore in 1191 when his forces attacked and took control of the city of Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. More than 2,700 prisoners were taken and Richard ordered that they should all be put to death. He sat and watched from a balcony as the executions took place.
The Crusade was unsuccessful and when it came to an end Richard’s thoughts turned towards home.
But he had a problem. Having insulted and alienated many of his French and German Christian allies in the Crusade, none were willing to help him return and he was reduced to trying to make it in disguise.
He was caught and imprisoned by the Emperor of Germany who demanded a colossal ransom of 150,000 marks – truly a king’s ransom.
Richard’s mother, Queen Eleanor, led the taxation drive and fund-raising effort to have her son freed, campaigning across the empire on behalf of “Good King Richard”.
But a month after arriving “home” in England, the seemingly ungrateful Lionheart left for France, never to return.
It seems it was his greed that led to his early death at the age of 41. A French nobleman whose land was under Richard’s control refused to hand over a hoard of gold that had been unearthed by a peasant.
The king promptly laid siege to the man’s castle and was fatally wounded by a crossbow in the fighting. He was buried in France.
Published: March 6, 2017