Monday, March 28, 2011

Richard I’s Death and Three Burials

This month we’ve been looking at major events that fell in March during the life of England’s Richard I (aka Coeur de Lion or Lionheart). Today we’ll look at his death--and three burials. Yes, three.

Ancient Greeks often wrote of hubris, a fatal flaw that contributed to the downfall of a powerful individual. Usually that fatal flaw was pride. Oedipus had it--excessive, overweening pride that led him to believe he could thwart The Gods. He found differently. Richard oozed pride and power which he combined with arrogance. That pride and arrogance might have contributed to the events of his death.

The facts: Richard and his army were in the midst of a siege at Chalus-Chabrol Castle, on break from the real war with Phillip of Spain due to an Easter truce. It was a mild evening that Friday, March 26, when he “made the rounds” outside the castle. Fighting, if any took place that day, had ceased, and he wore only a helmet for armor and carried a small triangular shield. A man on the battlement shot a crossbow at him. The king took the bolt high in the shoulder and died 12 days later.

The myth: Sources at the time give varied details with the facts. One said a treasure had been uncovered near Chalus, and Richard set out to claim it. When he was refused, he ordered a siege. Another writer indicates Richard was conducting military campaigns against other castles, as well (no mention of treasure was made in that account) and on his deathbed, order another castle be targeted.

One source (Coggeshall) says a lone crossbowman with just a frying pan as shield braved the wall to shoot at the king, and Richard stopped to applaud the man’s determination. Another source (Itier) said the shot came from one of only two knights left at the besieged castle. Whoever made the shot, Richard failed to take cover behind his shield in time, and the bolt struck him in the left shoulder. He refused to make a fuss, taking his time to return to the royal tent and send for assistance.

It seemed a minor injury, certainly not as serious as some he’d encountered. But the surgeon botched the job of cutting out the crossbow bolt, and the wound (coupled with the hack-job of treatment) developed gangrene. When his death became inevitable, Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was summoned.

Sources agree that once he realized he was dying, Richard behaved with rather loose morals. But he soon repented and confessed and received last rites. At one point, the bowman was summoned to the king’s side, and Richard pardoned him.

And in a major concession, Richard named his brother, John, as his successor. He had earlier said his late brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur, should succeed him. Arthur was but 16 at this time and after Richard’s death formed an unsuccessful alliance with King Phillip of France to take the English crown.

On April 6 or 7 (depending on source), Richard died. But his story was far from over. Nothing like a simple funeral for the Coeur de Lion. He had three. According to Gillingham, the king’s "brains and entrails were buried…at Charroux” abbey. His heart was buried at Rouen.

On April 11, Palm Sunday, the rest of his body, along with the full regalia he wore at crowing just ten years earlier, was interred at Fontrevauld. He lies at his father’s feet.

We might be touched at the king’s forgiveness of the man who shot him. (I’ll give you a moment to feel happy for the poor fellow.) In spite of the pardon, one reports says, after Richard’d death his top mercenary commander and friend, Mercadier, ordered the bowman flayed alive.

Ironic that one of the most famous of England’s kings isn’t buried in England. Spent only six months of his reign there. And never learned to speak the language.

Information adapted from John Gillingham’s, Richard I, New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1999.


  1. Incredible! Truth is certainly stranger than fiction, isn't it?

    Interesting post--eager to see what is in store on this site in the future.

    Certainly proves that conflict drives a story--wow! Three burials, flayed alive after being forgiven by the victim, and brains & entrails. Deliciously wicked!

    Great post!

  2. You can't make this stuff up, Barbara. The research is one of the reasons I write historical romance. Riveting!