By Danièle Cybulskie
Often, we criticize modern movies for their unrealistic depictions of the past, in which the “true facts” of history are sacrificed to make what people will think is a better story. As much as purists point fingers in defense of the Middle Ages, the truth is that people in the Middle Ages were guilty of exactly the same thing. A sometimes hilarious, sometimes revolting example of this is the late medieval romance version of Richard the Lionheart’s story: Richard Coeur de Lion.
The real Richard’s story is well-known and adventurous enough in its own right. The fourth son of volatile and powerful parents Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard fought against his father until he succeeded him, then led one of history’s most famous crusades, then got himself imprisoned by a royal rival (Leopold of Austria) and own his scheming brother, John, before dying of an infected crossbow bolt wound to the shoulder in 1199. As historical figures go, Richard’s life had everything a storyteller could want. And yet, it wasn’t epic enough.
The author of Richard Coeur de Lion had evidently read a lot of romance, and it’s difficult to say how much he knew about the real Richard’s life when he began to pen his own version, but Richard Coeur de Lion gets fantastic right from the gate. Richard’s father is, indeed, Henry II of England, but instead of his mother being one of the most powerful women in Europe, she is a typical romance figure: a mysterious princess on a boat.
On the advice of his counsellors, Henry sends ships far and wide to find the fairest of them all to be his queen. In the middle of the ocean, where the winds die down, his envoys come across a brilliantly white ship made with precious metals and stones on which the otherworldly King of Antioch and his beautiful daughter Cassodorien have been sailing towards England following a vision. Henry immediately marries Cassodorien and they have three children (not ten): Richard, John, and their sister, Topaz. Henry and Cassodorien are married happily for fifteen years, but then there is trouble in paradise. A meddling earl mentions to Henry that his queen never stays to see the priest “consecrate the Host”. Henry allows Cassodorien to be restrained in church, and when the moment comes, she grabs Topaz and John and flies out through the roof. Poor John falls and breaks his leg, but neither Cassodorien nor Topaz are ever seen again. Shortly afterwards, the bewildered king dies, leaving the fifteen (not thirty-two)-year-old Richard on the throne.
Richard, of course, behaves brilliantly, winning tournaments in disguise, and gallivanting around with his buddies, until one day he is captured while disguised again, this time as a pilgrim. (This little nugget is actually true: Richard was disguised as a pilgrim when he was captured, but that was on his way back from the Holy Land.) Richard is then locked up by a none-too-bright king.
The prince of this land has heard of Richard, and immediately heads to his prison cell, asking to trade blows with him. The prince strikes Richard on the ear, which angers Richard to the point at which he unchivalrously uses trickery when his turn comes. When the prince returns the next day to be struck, Richard has coated his hand with wax in order to deliver a much harder blow. In fact, Richard breaks the prince’s cheekbone in half, killing him. This angers his captor, but the dull-witted king delays killing Richard; something which he will soon regret.
As with many medieval romances, the death of a loved one is not enough to lessen the unquenchable lust of the princess (Margery), who soon asks Richard to be brought in disguise to her chamber. Richard “amuse[s] himself with her as he wishe[s] / Until the seventh day”, when he is finally spotted by a knight, who “discreetly” tells her father. The king doesn’t know how to kill another anointed king, so he gets some advice: leave Richard in a room with a lion that hasn’t eaten for three days. The lion will eat him, and the king technically won’t have executed Richard, himself. This foolproof plan is immediately set in motion.
Although Margery overhears the plot and warns Richard, he declines to escape because it would be against the law. Instead, he spends the night in Margery’s arms, then wraps his arms in her handkerchiefs for protection and waits for the lion to be brought to his cell.
When the lion is locked in with Richard, things get epic:
King Richard thought to himself at that time
What was best to do, and started towards [the lion].
He thrust his arm in at [the lion’s] throat, and
Ripped out the heart with his hand, and
Lungs, and liver, and all he found….
He took the heart, still warm,
And brought it into the hall,
Before the King and all his men.
The King sat at dinner on the dais,
With dukes and earls, proud in the company.
The saltcellar stood on the table.
Richard pressed out all the blood,
And wet the heart in the salt –
The King and all his men looked on –
Without bread he ate the heart.
The king, openmouthed at this spectacle of another king, dripping blood – and (as I see it) making unbroken eye contact as he dips a warm heart in the communal salt and then eats it – somehow keeps it together enough to say this “devil … may be called, rightly, / The christened king of most renown, / Strong Richard Coeur de Lion!”
Better story? Maybe. True? Not in the slightest. And the story stays unbelievable for thousands more lines, throwing in stomach-churning racism and cannibalism for good measure. It just goes to show that no matter how epic real history might be, someone will always try to improve it.
For the rest of Richard Coeur de Lion, check out Katherine H. Terrell’s translation (from which all these quotes are taken), which features not only the text itself, but appendices on crusader cannibalism which are absolutely fascinating in their own right.
You can buy this book from Broadview Press or Amazon.com
Top Image: Richard the Lionheart depicted in a 13th century genealogical roll – British Library Royal 14 B VI Membrane 6