How Did Richard the Lionheart Die? | History Hit

How Did Richard the Lionheart Die?

Merry-Joseph Blondel's painting of Richard I the Lionheart, King of England. 1841.
Image Credit: Palace of Versailles via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

King Richard I of England, remembered as ‘the Lionheart’, was a gifted military leader and tactician who found glory in the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. He is often criticised for a lack of attention to England, however, spending less than a year in the country in total during his 10-year reign, which began in 1189 and ended with his death in 1199. 

In March 1199, Richard was circling the castle of Châlus, which housed rebels hostile to Lionheart’s rule, when a crossbow bolt fired from the walls above struck his left shoulder. Though initially considered a minor wound, gangrene set in, and on 6 April Richard died.

But who fired the crossbow bolt, and why was Richard facing rebellions in the late 12th century?

Here’s the story of Richard the Lionheart’s death.

A crusader king

The third son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard rebelled regularly against his father from 1173 onwards, eventually pursuing his ill father through France until Henry died in July 1189 aged 56. Richard became king, hastily making plans to raise funds in order to leave for the Holy land on crusade. Clashing with his foe Saladin, Richard left with a reputation as a general, but also a brutal soldier.

Captured on the way home just before Christmas 1192, Richard was given into the custody of the Holy Roman Emperor. He was released in February 1194 after a vast ransom was raised, and delivered personally by his mother Eleanor, who was 70 years old by this point.

A manuscript image of Richard I's coronation, with Richard seated and bishops on either side performing the ceremony

A manuscript image of the coronation of Richard I in 1189.

Image Credit: Chetham MS Ms 6712 (A.6.89), fol.141r, Public Domain

Returning home

Richard and his mother travelled back through Cologne, Louvain, Brussels and Antwerp. From there, they crossed to England, landing at Sandwich. Richard went straight to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury to offer thanks for his deliverance, and then set about dealing with the opposition that had sprung up in his absence. His little brother John was famously at the centre of it, having become entangled with the French King Philip II Augustus. John and Philip had been trying to bribe the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard longer so they could snatch his lands. When he heard Richard was free, Philip famously sent John a message that was reported to warn, “look to yourself, the devil is loose.”

Richard spent time at Nottingham restoring order, including a visit to Sherwood Forest, a place he would become closely associated with as part of the Robin Hood story. On 24 April 1194, Richard and Eleanor sailed from Portsmouth to Barfleur in Normandy. Neither could have known it, but it was the last time either of them would see England. When they reached Lisieux, John appeared and threw himself at Richard’s mercy. Perhaps influenced by their mother, Richard forgave his little brother.

A statue of Richard I on horseback, sword aloft, outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster

A Victorian statue of Richard I outside Parliament, an institution he would not have recognised.

Image Credit: Photograph by Matt Lewis

Taking back his lands

Over the years that followed, Richard set about recovering lands Philip had taken during Richard’s absence. As a crusader, his lands ought to have been protected by the Pope, but Philip had found it too tempting, and the pope had done nothing to stop him. While Richard was a captive, Eleanor of Aquitaine wrote a stinging letter criticising the Pope’s failure to support a crusading king.

In March 1199, Richard was in the Limousin region of Aquitaine as part of his ongoing efforts to wrest control back from Philip. Aimar V, Count of Limoges was rebelling and Richard headed to the region to bring back order, settling down to lay siege to the count’s castle at Châlus.

A lucky shot

On 6 March 1199, Richard was taking a leisurely stroll around the outskirts of Châlus, inspecting the defences with his mercenary captain Mercadier. They were clearly quite relaxed and not expecting any trouble. Suddenly, the king was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt fired from the walls. The injury didn’t seem all that bad at first. Richard received some treatment and the siege continued.

Within days, it became clear that the wound was far more serious than at first thought. It became infected and quickly turned black, a clear signal that gangrene had taken hold. Gangrene is caused by a lack of blood supply to the skin, in this case probably created by an infection in the wound. Today, antibiotics can be used to treat gangrene, but surgery to remove the part of the body that is effectively dying from the lack of oxygen is still often necessary. With no modern medicine, and amputation impossible as the wound was not on an extremity, Richard knew death was coming.

The king’s deathbed

Realising he had little time left, Richard sent word, not to his wife, but to his mother at nearby Fontevraud Abbey. Eleanor, now 75 years old, rushed to her beloved son, the embodiment of her hopes for the future of Aquitaine. She held him as he died, childless.

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Before he slipped from life, Richard had ordered his men, who had taken the castle, to find the man who had shot him. The sources here become very confused, naming him variously as Pierre, John, Dudo or Betrand. Some, though not all sources, suggest he was little more than a boy, a youngster who had taken a pot shot with a crossbow from the walls and somehow slain the mighty King of England, silencing the Lionheart.

In a final act of clemency, Richard forgave the crossbowman and ordered his release. One chronicler recorded that despite the king’s dying instructions, Mercadier sought vengeance for his master’s death. He found the lad and had him flayed alive. A slow and painful form of torture or execution, flaying alive involved the victim’s skin being peeled from their body while they remain conscious. Once this had been completed, the lad, presumably still alive after the brutal experience, was hanged.

The Lionheart

Richard’s body was disembowelled, as was usual at the time to allow for the transport of his corpse. His entrails were buried at Châlus where he died. He asked that his heart – the Lionheart – be taken to Rouen Cathedral for burial opposite the tomb of his brother, Henry the Young King, on account of the incomparable fidelity which he had always experienced from the Normans.

The tomb of Richard I with his effigy on top

The tomb of Richard I at Fontevraud Abbey.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The king left instructions that his body should be laid to rest at the feet of his father, ‘whose destroyer he confessed himself to be’, at Fontevraud Abbey. It was a final act of contrition from a son who perhaps finally realised the problems his father had faced, and which he had made worse.

His tomb, complete with effigy, lies at his father’s feet in Fontevraud Abbey today. Beside Henry II is Eleanor of Aquitaine, who arranged for the three resting places, complete with lifelike effigies.

Richard was succeeded by his youngest brother, John. Generally considered one of the worst kings in British history, John lost the rest of the continental possession apart from Gascony, a reduced part of Aquitaine, that Richard had died fighting to preserve. John acquired many problems, but made each of them worse by his personality and policies.

Tags: Richard I

Matt Lewis