We have thought it proper to inform you of what happened to Richard, king of England, the enemy of our empire and disturber of your kingdom…he is now in our power. We know this news will bring you great happiness.’ With these words, addressed in a letter to Philip II Augustus, Capetian king of France, the riddle of Richard the Lionheart’s whereabouts had been resolved. Now, with the king of England locked in the firm grasp of Henry VI, the Holy Roman emperor, and the campaign season of 1193 approaching, Philip had a clear chance to regain his family’s honor and begin the destruction of its longtime nemesis, the Angevin empire.
Almost a year before, on December 27, Philip Augustus had arrived in Paris a bitter man. He had recently returned from the Third Crusade, his health damaged and his pride badly mauled. Richard had outshone and outspent Philip at each step — at Messina in Sicily as the crusading forces waited for departure to the Holy Land, and then at the Siege of Acre. There was a raft of other arguments and bickering, both petty and major. But one insult had been greater than all the others combined — in late March 1191, while in Sicily, Richard had rejected his long-term betrothal to Philip’s sister Alice and announced his decision to marry Berengaria of Navarre. Twisting the knife further, Richard claimed that Alice had been his father’s mistress and had borne him an illegitimate son.
To keep the crusade on the road and assure that he would not be held responsible for its failure, Philip had to swallow his pride and accept a 10,000-mark payoff. Part of Alice’s dowry was the Norman borderlands of the Vexin and the great fortress of Gisors. Philip agreed that this territory was to remain in Richard’s hands and that it would be handed on to his male descendants should he have any. Those vitally strategic lands would revert to Philip’s control if Richard died without a legitimate heir. If Philip died without an heir, the territory would be considered part of Normandy.
For Philip it was the worst of humiliations. The English kings paid homage to the kings of France for their continental lands, and now Richard, the vassal, had freely slandered the Capetian name and had forced Philip to give up territory that by right should have returned to his control. The power of the French kings was seemingly at a low ebb, and it would take all Philip’s skill, intelligence and cunning to reverse his position.
Crossing the Line
In tackling Richard’s power base, Philip was treading a fine line. Richard was still on crusade, and the rules were very clear: A Crusader’s lands were protected by the church, and they could not be attacked while he was still away. That, of course, did not stop Philip from making the necessary moves to retrieve Alice’s dowry lands and more if possible.
On January 20, 1192, Philip met Richard’s seneschal of Normandy, William of FitzRalph, at a conference between Gisors and Trie. There, Philip produced fake documents that he claimed were drawn up with Richard in Messina, outlining the deal struck in March 1191. Richard had supposedly agreed that Alice’s dowry lands in the Norman Vexin were to be handed over to Philip. Suspecting it was a ruse, FitzRalph and the Norman barons rejected the French king’s demands.
In hindsight, Philip’s efforts seem to be the spadework for building up a casus belli rather than a determined effort to start a drive into Angevin lands, which he was certainly not ready to do. Besides, he had bigger fish to fry. Many nobles who owed direct homage to Philip had died in the Holy Land, and many had left the French king territory — particularly Count Philip of Flanders, who had bequeathed the prosperous Artois region. If Philip were to fight a major war with the Angevin empire, he would need to secure those territories and their resources.
During 1192 Philip wooed over the men who would form a bloc against Richard’s supporters. Key figures among them were Count John, the Lionheart’s brother, Count Ademar of Angoulème, Count Baldwin VIII of Flanders and Count Raymond of Toulouse.
Philip had also built up pressure on the local lords of the Vexin, men who governed territories on the boundaries between the French and English kings’ lands and who were obligated to both. But now, with Richard locked up — possibly indefinitely, as had happened to Robert of Normandy, brother of England’s Henry I — many realized they would soon have no choice but to turn to the French king. As historian John Gillingham has noted, If they did not leap on the bandwagon they were liable to be run down.
The Great War Begins
The year 1193 began with Count John arriving in Paris, where he paid homage for Richard’s lands, including, it was said, for England. John then returned to England claiming that Richard was dead and that the crown should pass to him. That last point was easily dismissed, since Richard’s ministers and his mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, had already learned Richard was alive and in captivity by order of Henry VI in Germany.
With Richard technically back from crusade, Philip struck into the Vexin. The pattern that the war would take was one of mercenary bodies and armies of varying size (none exceptionally large by modern standards) fighting sieges and at times skirmishes. At that time, battle was considered a risky business: Pillage, destruction and fast movement creating maximum disorder through the enemy’s lands was the preferred means of warfare. The Chanson des Lorrains vividly records how an army on the march conducted war at that time: Out in front are the scouts and incendiaries…the incendiaries set the villages on fire and the foragers visit and sack them. The terrified inhabitants are either burned or led away with their hands tied to be held for ransom.
Philip’s first target was the imposing castle of Gisors, described by some as the key to the region. Gisors’ castellan was Gilbert de Vascoeuil, who owned land in both the king of England’s and the king of France’s territories. Rather than defend that mighty fortress, Gilbert meekly surrendered. English chroniclers pointed to foul play, and the complete ease with which Philip won this strategically vital castle suggests that such may indeed have been the case.
Moving on from Gisors, Philip stormed into Normandy, reaching as far as Dieppe. In payment for his treachery, John was given Evreux. Philip’s army, joined by a large contingent of men led by Count Baldwin of Flanders, then laid siege to the ducal capital of Normandy, Rouen. There, he was halted at the last moment by Earl Robert of Leicester, who injected much-needed vigor and organization into the city’s defense. At one point Philip, believing success was within his grasp, offered the defenders a chance to surrender. They replied that, on his own, the French king could enter Rouen any time he liked. It was a none-too-subtle trap, of course, and more likely a calculated insult. Enraged that he had been thwarted from taking the jewel of Normandy, Philip moved on to seek easier pickings.
At Mantes on July 9, Philip came to terms with Richard’s ministers — the French king could keep his gains and would be given some extra territories if he halted operations then and there. If Richard wanted those possessions back, he would have to pay 20,000 marks and pay homage to Philip.
Improbable as it was that Richard would stoop that low, he could not respond in any way while he was still in captivity, where Philip and John, wanting time to consolidate their gains and to prepare for the next campaign, preferred he remain. They tried desperately to bribe Henry VI with hefty promises of cash to detain Richard longer, or even hand him over to them. But while Henry was no friend of Richard, the latter had impressed many at the German court with his eloquence and reputation. During his captivity Richard had built strong relations with many lords, princes and ruling clergymen in the Lower Rhineland, and this powerful faction was a key influence on Henry’s rejection of Philip and John’s advances.
The Lion Uncaged
On February 4, 1194, Richard was released after Angevin wealth paid off the ransom demand, settled at 100,000 marks, to be followed by another payment of 50,000 marks that would secure the release of additional hostages. Richard was also forced to pay Henry homage for England, although that embarrassing arrangement was downplayed in Angevin circles.
Instead of racing back to his own lands, Richard went to Cologne to cement his German diplomatic ties — in the future they would become an important weight with which to pressure Philip. By March 13, Richard was back in England, where he swiftly reasserted his authority over the kingdom.
Richard began a resale of English lands, titles and positions that had been put on the market before he went on crusade. He would need a large amount of disposable cash for the coming war with Philip, and he’d need it quickly. But Richard did not, as many historians have claimed, simply sell to the highest bidder. He was careful to grant the positions to trusted and efficient men. The English king knew that stable finances and steady supplies are the fuel of successful campaigning.
Richard met William of Scotland on April 4, and the two kings remained in each other’s company until William went north on April 22. Days before, on April 17, Richard was crowned for a second time, at Winchester, to underline his rightful position as monarch. By May 12, Richard had set sail for Normandy with a large fleet estimated at 300 ships. In the space of a few extraordinary months the Lionheart had returned to his kingdom, stamped it again with his authority and organized an army to take with him to war against Philip. This would have been impossible to do if England had been the impoverished and disordered kingdom that some historians have depicted.
Philip had not been idle during Richard’s return. He had consolidated the territories he had taken, and now controlled much of Normandy east of the Seine River. He was in striking distance of Rouen. In Touraine and Berry, Philip’s allies had made considerable gains, and in Aquitaine the counts of Angoulème and Perigueux, the viscount of Brosse and Geoffrey de Rancon were all in open revolt against Richard’s authority. A desperate Count John was also making promises to Philip for the latter’s continuing support now that Richard was on the loose.
The French king opened his 1194 campaign by besieging the strong castle of Verneuil. The garrison had withstood a siege in 1193, and as a second besieging force approached, its confident defenders defiantly drew a rather unflattering caricature of Philip on the gates. By then, Philip was aware that Richard was preparing to return to France and that it was important he take Verneuil before the war proper began.
Once Richard arrived at Barfleur, he was soon on the move toward Verneuil. On the way, John arrived and groveled for forgiveness. Richard, who viewed his brother’s treacherous efforts as contemptible, told him, Don’t be afraid, you are a child. To prove his worth, the 28-year-old John then went with men to Evreux, pretending still to support Philip. Once inside, he had the French garrison rounded up and massacred.
In the meantime, Richard’s forces neared Verneuil. Philip had struck camp, moving off toward Evreux, which he would retake and then sack. He had left the bulk of his forces to continue the siege, but without their king they made a general withdrawal the next day. On May 30, Richard entered the town unopposed. He was reportedly so grateful for the defenders’ lack of resistance that he lined them up and kissed each one in thanks. (Historian Jim Bradbury would later ponder whether they appreciated their reward.)
While Philip centered his energies on the north without making much headway, Richard focused on the south, taking a series of fortresses, including Loches in Touraine. Following those successes, he turned his attention to restoring order to Aquitaine.
By now, Philip was concerned enough to gather and march his army south to relieve pressure on his allies there and to unstitch Richard’s recent victories. By early July, Richard, aware that Philip’s forces were nearing, confidently decided to commit his forces to a set-piece battle in the Vêndome, across the road that Philip would have to travel on his way into the Loire Valley.
Philip sent Richard word that he would do battle, but in reality he had ordered a retreat back the way his army had come. Richard pursued, and on July 4 caught up with the French rear guard at Fréteval. Philip’s army was put to flight after a sharp skirmish, and the French king only narrowly avoided capture. As it was, Philip’s baggage train fell into Angevin hands. It contained the royal archives, including a list of those willing to aid him against Richard within the Angevin camp. But although he was forced to leave Richard to his own devices in the south, Philip was far from finished.
Ups and Downs
Philip rushed back to Normandy and, in a reversal of his recent defeat, pounced on the forces of Count John and William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel, and seized their baggage train. Despite that last-minute success, the pace of campaigning at such a fast and furious rate was stretching Philip’s resources to the extreme. The same could be said for Richard, who was now sending out peace feelers, a move that culminated in the temporary Truce of Tillières. There was also the prospect of a more permanent peace, to be sealed with Richard’s niece’s marrying Philip’s son Louis, with the Vexin, the castellanies of Ivry, Pacy and Vernon, and 20,000 marks as a dowry. That last point was put aside until more detailed talks could be arranged.
Major conflict resumed in 1195, when Philip besieged Vaudreuil and then received a visit from Richard for further discussion. Etiquette at the time demanded that Philip halt the siege and deal with Richard, but the French king was keen to knock out Vaudreuil as a defensible position and urged his sappers to continue undermining its fortifications. It was therefore most embarrassing for Philip that one of the mighty walls collapsed prematurely while face-to-face negotiations were underway. Along with a good number of oaths, Richard swore he would have his revenge and stormed off.
Philip retired to attack northeastern Normandy. That campaign culminated in a memorable raid on Dieppe, in which Philip’s forces employed a substance like Greek fire to burn the English ships in the harbor. Richard tried to attack the French rear guard, but this time was driven off.
Following his Normandy successes, Philip aimed his efforts southward in the Berry region. Richard’s top mercenary commander, Mercadier, had captured Issoudun, and Philip wanted it back. The French king took the town and was besieging the castle when Richard and his vanguard stormed through French lines and made their way in to reinforce the garrison. Philip may have thought he now had Richard trapped, but the English king had given specific instructions before making his daring break-in to have his main forces close in and cut Philip’s supply lines. The French king realized his predicament at the last moment and was forced to agree to terms for a new truce at the start of 1196.
The warfare in 1196 and 1197 was short and sharp, but lower key. At first things did not seem to be going the Lionheart’s way. He had to attend to problems in Brittany, while at about that time his nephew and designated heir, Arthur of Brittany, was smuggled into Philip’s hands. This was a major blow — should Richard fail to sire a son, the Angevin empire would now be inherited by John.
Philip then won the Siege of Aumale, which Richard had tried unsuccessfully to relieve. Later, at the Siege of Gaillon, Richard was wounded by a crossbow bolt, putting him out of action for more than a month. Richard did have some diplomatic success in October 1196; he ended a 40-year war with Toulouse by marrying his sister Joan off to Count Raymond of Toulouse.
Richard was also building a majestic and powerful castle at Les Andelys-sur-Seine. Calling it Château Gaillard, Richard took two years and the then-immense sum of 11,500 pounds sterling to erect the castle, but he was so happy with the results that he confidently declared he could defend it even if its walls were made of butter. Les Andelys was not, however, a defensive bastion but an offensive one. It would become the base camp for Richard’s campaign to retake the lands that he had lost in Normandy.
Richard was keen to knock out one of Philip’s key allies, the count of Flanders, now Baldwin IX, and he managed this through a trade embargo. Flanders, one of Europe’s workshops, had far too many mouths to feed for the amount of land available; it had always imported grain from England to overcome the danger of starvation. The principal economy of the region, weaving, also relied heavily on English wool.
With English grain and wool slashed from the Flemish economy, Baldwin was under a great deal of pressure to come over to the Angevin side. As well as a stick — the embargo — Richard also offered a carrot: the promise of full payment in arrears of Baldwin’s English pension and the gift of 5,000 marks. In 1197 the count of Flanders switched his allegiance to Richard.
Richard had a major success on an unexpected front in 1198 when the Holy Roman emperor, Henry VI, died, leaving a 3-year-old heir. In his place the German electors of the empire settled on Otto of Brunswick — Richard’s nephew. With the empire and the coalition of Rhineland supporters backing him, Richard was in a good position to not only pressure Philip but also grab the pope’s attention. In addition, Richard had obtained support from the count of Boulogne and many other Norman lords who were again switching sides, hoping to back the likeliest winner.
Philip launched his campaign of 1198 with an extensive attack on the Vexin, reportedly sacking and burning 18 settlements. He was pushed back, however, and with Baldwin launching an attack into the Artois, Philip’s attention was distracted from fighting Richard.
On September 27, Richard’s forces struck into the Vexin, taking Courcelles-Chaussy and Boury before returning to Dangu. Philip, back in the region, mistakenly believed that Courcelles-Chaussy was still holding out and rode with 300 knights and sergeants to its relief. Mercadier and a local knight witnessed the French leaving and reported to Richard. Characteristically, the English king called for an immediate attack. Once again the French army was surprised and started to flee toward the nearest place of refuge — Gisors. Bunched together, the French knights and Philip attempted to cross the Epte River on a bridge that promptly collapsed under their weight. According to Anglo-Norman chroniclers, the French king drank of the river before being pulled out. About 18 of his knights drowned, but the bulk of his men made it to Gisors, a position far too strong for Richard to consider storming or besieging with the forces at his disposal.
Philip soon regrouped his army and raided Normandy anew, again targeting Evreux. Richard countered Philip’s offensive with a counterattack in the Vexin, while Mercadier led a raid on Abbeville.
By the fall of 1198, Richard had regained almost all that had been lost in 1193, and his power base and alliances seemed stronger than ever. To strive for a more permanent peace, Philip offered Richard the return of all the territories he had taken except Gisors. Richard refused to contemplate a separate peace without Count Baldwin being included, so a truce was arranged and a date set for further talks.
In mid-January 1199, a boat approached the bank of the Seine River. Standing proudly on the deck was Richard the Lionheart, while waiting on the riverbank was Philip. Two of Europe’s most powerful men spent their last meeting together shouting terms to one another, and although they could not conclude a permanent truce, they did agree to further mediation. Those further discussions yielded a five-year halt in hostilities.
With peace secured, Richard was able to refocus his efforts on bringing internal order to the south of the Angevin empire. One permanent thorn in his side had been the counts of Angoulème and Limoges.
It is part of Richard’s mythology that in March 1199 he attacked Achard, the lord of Chalus (vassal of the count of Limoges), because of buried treasure. The accepted account says that Achard’s men had discovered hidden loot, Roman perhaps, and had delivered it to their master. Protocol dictated that Achard send some of the wealth to the count of Limoges as well as to Richard, his supreme overlord. Achard left Richard out of the cut. When Richard found out that a vast hoard of wealth had been discovered and he had been deprived of his share, he launched an invasion. His death at Chalus — a small castle defended by no more than 40 men — was viewed by French chroniclers with glee. They saw the hunt for treasure and his death as proof that God was displeased with his avarice and lust for power.
Anglo-Norman chroniclers also blamed Richard’s lust for gold. His death while hunting treasure was described as divine justice. But the crux of their accounts was the moral dimension: Richard pardoned his killer and then asked for forgiveness from God for his own sins. The Lionheart’s behavior just before death was underlined as the paradigm of Christian behavior and the action of a legendary Crusader king. Mercadier, his loyal mercenary, had no such chivalrous proclivities. After Richard died, Mercadier had the hapless crossbowman who had struck Richard flayed to death and the rest of Chalus’ defenders hanged.
Fact has become irrevocably mixed with fiction. Bernard of Itier, a monk in the Benedictine abbey of St. Martial in Limoges, recorded that Richard’s objective was to destroy the count of Limoges’ castles and towns, and did not mention treasure. On March 26, Richard had gone out virtually unarmed to view the progress of the sappers’ work. Various names of the defender who wounded the king have been given, but Bernard of Itier stated that Pierre Basile, after parrying a number of besiegers’ arrows with a gigantic frying pan, fired his crossbow at Richard. The English king was so impressed that he applauded the man’s courage before ducking — but he did so too late, and the crossbow bolt lodged between his neck and shoulder.
Riding confidently back to his tent, Richard sought medical attention. A surgeon who tried to extricate the bolt botched the job and was described as a butcher by the chronicler Roger of Howden. Gangrene set in, and Richard was much too experienced a campaigner to believe he might recover. He may well have forgiven the man who shot him, but he certainly called for the Queen Mother, Eleanor, to come to his bedside. On April 6, 1199, he died in the arms of his mother, who mourned him, saying, I have lost the staff of my age, the light of my eyes.
Had Richard the Lionheart lived, war with Philip would have probably resumed sooner rather than later. The English king would probably have worked his way like a steamroller onto Philip’s lands and forced a settlement in his own favor. That, however, remains speculation. If anyone could turn the tide of war against Richard it was Philip, the man who had managed until 1198 to keep the war mainly inside the English king’s territories.
When Philip faced Richard’s successor, the story was a different matter — King John was simply not up to the job of defeating this wily and experienced campaigner. Indeed, John failed so abysmally (even discounting bad luck) that by the time Philip died in 1223, the French king had achieved his longed-for goal: He had shattered the Angevin empire that Richard had fought like a lion to maintain. By outlasting the Lionheart, Philip II went down in French annals as Philip Augustus, while Richard’s hapless successor earned the sobriquet of John Lackland.
This article was written by Simon Rees and originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!