The Strange Death of Richard the Lionhearted

Church of Fontevraud Abbey Richard I effigy (Wikicommons)

By Nancy Bilyeau

In April 1199, the French King, Philip II, thanked God for the providential death of his great rival: Richard I. Ever since the English king was freed from his prison in Austria in 1194, he had turned his war machine on the French, reclaiming the lands and castles that were taken while he was captive. Had he continued his relentless campaign, Richard might well have conquered the whole of France, and medieval history would have turned out quite differently.

But at the age of 42, Richard died of an infection caused by an arrow wound. He was slain during a siege of a small and seemingly unimportant French castle, and certain aspects of his death struck the chroniclers of his time–and later historians–as strange, almost sordid. It was an anticlimactic end to the life of the Lionheart.


Richard was taken captive on his way back from the Third Crusade. Leopold of Austria held grudges against Richard, and he put him in a secret prison. Once Queen Eleanor, Richard’s mother, discovered where her beloved son was, she appealed to the Pope. The Holy Roman Emperor set a ransom of 150,000 marks–65,000 pounds of silver. It was an astronomical sum, estimated to be three times the annual income of the English crown. But Eleanor raised it.

In the legends of Robin Hood, Richard is a benevolent ruler, who after being freed forgives his brother John and returns to the task of governing England. But Richard had little interest in England his whole life–he is rumored to have said, “If I could have found a buyer, I would have sold London itself”–and was passionate about going on Crusades or fighting for more French territory than he already possessed as the ruler of the Aquitaine.


Richard decided what he needed was an impregnable castle from which to defend Normandy and then retake critical French land. The vast one that he built required two years of punishing around-the-clock labor and cost an estimated £20,000, more than had been spent on any English castle in the last decade. Legend has it that while building the Chateau-Gaillard, Richard and his men were drenched with “rain of blood,” but he refused to take it as an evil omen.

In March 1199, Richard was in the Limousin, suppressing a revolt by the Viscount of Limoges. He “devastated the Viscount’s land with fire and sword.” Then he besieged the nearby small chateau of Chalus-Chabrol. Accounts differ on why; some say it was because a peasant found treasure underground–either Roman gold or valuable objects–and Richard was so desperate for money, he lay siege to the castle. But some historians say that this entire area was of strategic importance to Richard’s hold on France, and he was only there to suppress rebellion.

What most historians agree on is that Richard was walking the chateau’s perimeter without wearing his chain mail and he was shot by a castle defender using a crossbow. The wound in his left shoulder turned gangrenous. It steadily grew worse over the next 10 days. Some wrote that while dying Richard asked that the bowman be brought to him. He then forgave the man, who was named Peter Basil, and instructed that he should not be harmed. Richard died in the arms of his mother on April 6th. Later, defying Richard’s orders, Peter Basil was flayed alive and hanged.

Why did Richard I, a seasoned and expert warrior, expose himself to a bowman’s shot? Did the king and crusader put his life at risk to claim some grubby treasure dug up from the ground–why?


Following the custom of the time, Richard’s body was buried in different places. His heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy; his entrails in Chalus; and the rest of his body near his father’s remains in Anjou. A French forensics expert received permission last May to analyze a small sample of Richard I’s heart to determine if the cause of the king’s death was indeed septicemia, an infection of the blood. Tests results have not yet been released. When completed, they may confirm what disease killed Richard. What’s harder to understand is what put him at that particular castle at that particular time so that he was killed while in his prime. There is no test for that.

Nancy Bilyeau’s historical thriller The Crown examines the mystery of what killed Richard I. The Crime Writers’ Association put T on the shortlist for the 2012 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. To learn more, go to

Top Image: Richard I effigy at the Church of Fontevraud Abbey  Photo: Wikimedia Commons