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Music for a Captured King: Richard the Lionheart and Blondel

By Danièle Cybulskie

Love him or hate him, one thing you can say about England’s Richard the Lionheart is that there are some great stories about him. However complex our modern portrait, Richard’s image in the medieval mind (as well as in later periods) gave birth to legends that encompass heroism, chivalry, and romance. One of these stories involves his capture in Austria, and his discovery by his devoted minstrel Blondel.

Blondel meeting Richard I - Photo by JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD / Wikimedia Commons
Blondel meeting Richard I – Photo by JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD / Wikimedia Commons

Although Richard had been determined to stay in the Holy Land and defeat Saladin, his French rival Philip Augustus was beginning to stir, creating alliances that would help him to take over the absent English king’s holdings in what is now modern-day France. Philip was a real threat, not least of all because of his burgeoning friendship with Richard’s own greedy little brother, Prince John. Though it was late in the year and the Mediterranean was becoming treacherous, Richard had to risk making it back to English soil to get his kingdom back under control, and to prepare for Philip’s inevitable attack. Unfortunately, Richard was shipwrecked in hostile country (between Venice and Aquileia, according to contemporary chronicler Roger of Howden), and although he made a grueling trek of somewhere around 500 kilometres to reach safety, he was captured on December 21, 1192 by Duke Leopold of Austria just outside of Vienna. (For a great article on contemporary sources, click here.) This was bad news, since Richard had recently highly embarrassed Leopold by casting down his banner at Acre – Leopold was not feeling friendly towards his former ally. Leopold handed Richard over to the (likewise unfriendly) Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VI), who held him captive for over a year while the English raised the £100,000 necessary to free him. It was literally a king’s ransom.

It didn’t take long for Henry VI to begin to gloat, but there was a short interval in which everyone friendly to Richard who knew where he might be had been captured. Out of this moment sprang the legend of the minstrel, Blondel, who wandered Europe, singing for his master. Legend has it that Blondel discovered Richard by either hearing him sing in his tower cell, or from singing upwards from a garden and hearing the second verse come down from above. Either way, there was a special song that reunited the two men and allowed Blondel to reveal to Richard’s allies where he was being held.

There is no record of Blondel’s discovery of Richard in chronicle accounts, and the first written mention of it seems to have been in 1260 CE by the “Minstrel of Reims”, according to David Boyle in Blondel’s Song. This 13th-century account raises a number of red flags for historians, having been written so long after Richard’s death, and also being written by someone calling himself a minstrel (who better to pass on a story about a heroic minstrel?), but the image of the devoted servant and the captured king is as irresistible today as it was then.

There are some tantalizing truths that make the story one that’s endlessly fun to speculate about; for example, a real musician and poet named Blondel de Nesle lived around that time, and there are many beautiful songs that have been attributed to him. (You can listen to an adaptation of one of them here.) Like so many non-royals, though, his life was not well-recorded, so there is no concrete tie between him and Richard. Richard, being a son of Aquitaine’s troubadour traditions, was known to write his own songs, so it would not have been strange for him to have had a song of special significance. He even wrote a lonely song while imprisoned, which you can listen to here (English translation will appear on the screen during the course of the video). There is no evidence, however, of any joint compilations between Richard and Blondel de Nesle.

Whatever the truth is about Blondel and Richard, the story is a beautiful addition to the legends that swirl around every aspect of Richard’s reign as king. A statue commemorating this legendary relationship stands outside of the ruins of Dürnstein Castle, Austria, the place where the discovery of Richard by Blondel is said to have taken place. Like the songs left behind by both Richard and Blondel de Nesle, their statue and its surroundings are both simple and haunting, a fitting tribute to the legend.

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You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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