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Coeur de Lion in Captivity

Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI grants a pardon to Richard I of England

Coeur de Lion in Captivity

By John Gillingham

Quaestiones Medii Aevi Novae, Vol.18 (2013)

Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI grants a pardon to Richard I of England

Introduction: In December 1192 Richard I was seized near Vienna by Duke Leopold V of Austria. The duke, once he had negotiated terms with Henry VI in February 1193, handed him over to the emperor, and he was then held prisoner in Germany until 4 February 1194 when payment of a sum of 100,000 marks was completed and hostages for a further 50,000 marks provided. According to the calculation made by Roger of Howden, the widely-travelled and well-informed royal clerk and chronicler, he had been held for one year, six weeks and three days. Richard became, in Adam Kosto’s phrase, “the model of the captive king”; in the only general study of the subject, Carl Pfaff ’s “Der gefangene König”, his ransom was “paradigmatisch”. For the historian of hostages, Richard was the model because he was “a valuable pawn in a complex and highly public international diplomatic episode involving the duke of Austria, the emperor, the pope, the king of France, and Richard’s own lieutenants and rivals back in England”, and because his use of hostages made him “a key fi gure in the history of European diplomacy”. His capture and ransom dramatically changed the course of events in Germany and the kingdom of Sicily. Some historians have argued that it had a major impact on English and French history too, leading directly to the king of England’s “loss of Normandy” in 1204.

Richard also became the model of the captive king because he was widely regarded as a model king who suffered captivity in scandalous and astonishing circumstances. Despite being a crusader he had not been taken by enemies of his faith, as had happened to King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1123 and was to befall Louis IX in 1250. He was not captured by dynastic rivals as King Stephen had been in 1141, nor was he taken by enemies with whom he was formally at war, as was, for example, Isaac Comnenus, the “emperor” of Cyprus, whom Richard captured in 1191. True, Henry VI described Richard as “the enemy of our empire” in the exultant letter which he sent to King Philip II of France on 28 December 1192, and Richard’s actions in Sicily could plausibly be represented in that light. Similarly, much as the narrative set ing out the duke of Austria’s view of events makes plain that Richard had deeply off ended Leopold at Acre in the summer of 1191, there was not a state of war between them.

Unquestionably Richard had taken a risk by trying to travel incognito through lands where he would not have been a welcome guest. He had made many enemies, off ending all who belonged to the party of Conrad of Montferrat and humiliating two of them, King Philip and Duke Leopold. On his early return from crusade, Philip set up what was in effect a black propaganda factory in order to represent Richard as a traitor to Christendom who was responsible for the assassination of Conrad. But the mere fact that enemies captured him did not make him a prisoner of war, and in official documents there was no talk of ransom. As a returning crusader Richard was a pilgrim, theoretically therefore under the protection of the church. This was not mentioned in the principal German chronicles writ en in the 1190s; Otto of St Blasien, writing nearly twenty years later, acknowledged that many blamed Leopold for an act of sacrilege but observed drily that their condemnation was of little use to the captured king. English chroniclers were outraged, complaining that his fellow-Christians had sold him as though he were an ox or an ass, treating him worse than he would have been had he been captured by Muslims. His imprisonment “had much in common with the modern kidnapping of wealthy businessmen to raise money”.

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