The Military Legacy of Richard the Lionheart: Constructed Heroism and Selective Memory in Modern English Historiography
By John Hosler
Paper given at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History
Introduction: There is a well-known legend in the mid-thirteenth century text Romance of Richard Coeur de Lion about the English king winning a joust with the Kurdish general Saladin. The force of the Richard’s charge was unstoppable: after piercing Saladin’s shoulder and driving him to the ground, he pushed forward to slay a host of Muslims with his battle-axe. His attack was so severe that it inspired his knights to join the charge, and as a result no less than sixty thousand of the enemy were killed. Although the story has no basis in fact, it gives a sense of the long-celebrated reputation of Richard, one of England’s great medieval warrior-kings, and his individual combat prowess.
I am currently in the midst of writing a book about one of Richard’s more-famous victories, the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, and have found myself confronted with a massive literature on that stretches back centuries. The process of unwinding the historiography has been…longer than I anticipated. My purpose today is to examine a slice of the pie, so to speak, by comparing and contrasting some historical assessments of Richard’s military career from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This paper is not exhaustive and is intended only as a window into the copious historiography. In particular, I have relegated myself to British authors and English-language texts, partially for brevity’s sake but also in order to get a sense of native memory. I will suggest that, while modern interpretations of Richard’s career appear initially to break sharply with the older views, our reliance upon them is tangible and important to recognize.
Over the course of the long nineteenth century, British historians confirmed Richard’s legendary reputation as the quintessential medieval general. Most of the histories from that period proceed by narrating Richard’s reign from his coronation in 1189 to his death from gangrene ten years later. The historians tally his military exploits one by one, which — since he seems to have always been at war — results in an impressive list of campaigns, victories, and conquests. Upon reaching the point of his demise, the authors look back at the entirety of the reign and reach two common conclusions: 1) he was a neglectful and mostly-absent ruler of England, but 2) he attained spectacular success in war, which was, after all, his primary interest.