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Monday, 11 January 2016

The imprisonment of King Richard I



On 21st December 1192 King Richard I of England was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria, after which he was held prisoner for 14 months.

Richard was on his way home from the Holy Land where he had taken part in the Third Crusade. While there he had made the mistake of antagonising Leopold during the siege of Acre. When the city fell, Richard had refused to share the spoils with his fellow crusader and had made matters worse by throwing the Duke’s standard off the ramparts and into the mud.

Richard was clearly not the wisest of men because, when he was shipwrecked near Venice, he decided to set off inland northwards into Duke Leopold’s territory, rather than westwards through northern Italy and towards France.

Richard did at least take the precaution of disguising himself as a merchant, but he then made another mistake by not hurrying past Vienna (Leopold’s capital). Instead, he stopped for three days in a town not far from Vienna and took a room at an inn. While there he sent a manservant off to buy food, giving him a purse full of gold coins. Not surprisingly this attracted attention in the local market, as did the glove bearing the royal insignia which the manservant had tucked inside his belt. When the Duke’s men followed the manservant back to the inn they had little trouble in finding and arresting King Richard.

Richard was imprisoned in the Duke’s castle at Durnstein, and Leopold demanded a ransom of 150,000 silver marks for his release. This was truly a “king’s ransom”, as it amounted to 34 tons in weight and would have been worth many millions of pounds in today’s value.

Back in England, the government was in the hands of Richard’s younger brother John, who now had the task of raising the ransom money. This proved to be extremely difficult and involved John having to demand fresh taxes from everyone who had any money. It is little wonder that this made John highly unpopular and was a major reason why he was opposed by the barons who accused him of despotism.

Richard’s imprisonment gave rise to the legend of Blondel, the king’s troubadour, touring the castles of Europe and singing Richard’s favourite song under the windows until eventually he found the right one and Richard sang the refrain. It does seem a little unlikely given the impracticalities that such a venture would entail. There was also the little matter of what was supposed to happen when contact was made – a single troubadour was never going to be able to spring a king out of jail! Apart from anything else, in reality Richard’s whereabouts were not a secret.

Eventually the ransom was paid and Richard was released, having paid a heavy price for his previous greed and stupidity. Unfortunately the kingdom to which he returned, and in which he had spent hardly any time since he became king, was rendered virtually bankrupt as a result.

Whether England got a good deal for the sacrifices made on Richard’s behalf is a moot point. He had spent very little time in the country, which he seemed to regard mainly as a source of funds for his overseas adventures and the defence of his lands on the French side of the English Channel. His reign of ten years was to end when he died from injuries received in another military campaign in France. All in all, despite Richard’s reputation for bravery (hence his nickname “Lion Heart”) he does appear to have been lacking both in brainpower and in loyalty to the people over whom he reigned.


© John Welford