Medieval Monday – The True Story of Richard and John

Here’s a bit of real history for you in honor of the release of the first book of my Medieval romance trilogy, The Loyal Heart.  The underlying history of the trilogy surrounds the years from 1191 – 1194 when King Richard I was fighting the Crusades and then getting his butt captured and held for ransom while his brother, Prince John, schemed his little schemes back home in England.  Sound familiar?  Sound like one of the most classic tales of all time?  Think you already know what happened in this chapter of history?

Chances are you have it dead wrong.  Why?  Because the Robin Hood story is one of the most grievously falsified accounts of what things were actually like in all of the annals of popular history.

Here’s how things really went down….

Henry II was one of the most powerful and effective kings in English history.  He ruled from 1154 – 1189 and he made England into a strong, wealthy, powerful kingdom that encompassed most of the British Isles and a huge chunk of France.  Like many Medieval lords, he had a plethora of sons.  Five, to be exact.  And keeping with the common trend of Medieval monarchs, his sons were always trying to overthrow him.

Henry II, Rock Star King

Richard was son #3.  He was also a total mama’s-boy.  He lived in his mother’s duchy of Aquitaine and didn’t speak English.  But that was just fine since he was never going to be King of England anyhow.  His older brother Henry was already pre-crowned king, as was the practice back then.  John was the youngest son.  When he was born his mom pretty much packed him up and shipped him out to be raised in foster care.  However, John was his father’s favorite.  When all the rest of Henry’s sons kicked up a fuss and tried to overthrow him John either stayed out of things or stuck by his father’s side.  And then the unthinkable happened.  Three of Henry II’s older sons died young, leaving only Richard and John left.

A couple of the sources I’ve read over the years suggest that Henry really just wanted John to be king.  He thought he was the better man for the job.  The fact that he spoke English and lived in England while Richard lived in Aquitaine and only spoke French helped.  Henry gifted John with all sorts of land and estates and territories and responsibilities in England.  One of those parcels of land that was given to John directly was Derby, where my novel takes place.  So to answer the questions you might ask as you read through it and think “wait, would John have had authority to do that?”, the answer is YES, yes he would.  You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

Henry II's Family Tree. That's John way over on the right as the youngest.

As history would have it, when Henry II died, Richard became king.  But Richard was still in Aquitaine.  Furthermore, he had more interest in raising an army and marching off to fight in the Holy Land than he did to go to London to assume his throne.  In fact, he tried to sell London to pay for his crusade.  There were no buyers.  But he did sell various lands, offices, appointments, titles, and Scotland.  (Well, he allowed the Scottish king to pay him a huge chunk of change to be released from his duties of fealty)  He also tried to bribe John into leaving the country, living in England’s French territories, while he was away because he knew that given half a chance John would march in and take over.

Richard I, Not So Awesome After All

And that’s exactly what John ended up doing.  Richard left a handful of advisors in England to manage things in his absence.  Half of them died and the other half spent all their time bickering with each other.  So to keep things from going you-know-where in a handbag, the Queen Mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, convinced Richard to let John go back to England and sort things out.  Which he did.  And he did it well.

Not to give too much away, but in “Act Three” of my novel certain characters are involved in a plot to assassinate Richard on his return to England.  If you’re tempted to think “wait a second, that seems a little far-fetched”, then think again.  John was deeply involved in figuring out ways to get rid of his no-good, absent, expensive brother so that he could legitimately take charge of England.  That is to say, so he could take charge of the parts of England that he wasn’t already responsible for managing as the lord who owned them.  And yes, there were all sorts of spies and nefarious characters within the royal household who were more than happy to get the job done.

But then the unexpected happened.  On his way back from the Crusade Richard was captured in Venice.  He ended up in the hands of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor.  Henry III was more than happy to ransom Richard back to England … for 150,000 marks.  And if that figure doesn’t make you blink, consider this: 150,000 marks was twice the gross national product of England for a year.  Well, being mama’s-boy, Queen Eleanor demanded that the people of England, from the tip-top to the dregs at the bottom, pay 25% of their income to the ransom.  And yes, folks, that’s where the term “a king’s ransom” comes from.

Well, in 1194 Good King Richard returned to England.  For 3 months.  He whined and complained about the weather (in French) the whole time.  And he raised taxes to pay for another war in Normandy.  So when you read any version of the Robin Hood story and hear about taxes being raised and people being squeezed dry, it wasn’t John who was responsible, it was Richard.

Richard didn’t have any children.  It’s because he was gay.  And while that doesn’t bother me too much, I’ve also heard reports that he was a pedophile.  But I can’t find any sources to confirm that.  But he was most definitely gay.  So when he died in 1199 after spending ten years as king of England (ten months total of which he spend on English soil) John became king.

King John of England, Magnificent Monarch

Guess what?  John was a great king.  He was powerful, a good administrator, and a forward-thinker.  True, he lost a lot of the English possessions in France.  But he also founded the English navy.  And we all know what the English navy turned into.  He also put the English treasury back in the black.  And he was responsible for the Magna Carta, which is widely regarded as the foundation of modern democracy, including the U.S. Constitution.  Now I hear those of you who know something about history balking and arguing that the Magna Carta was put into place because the English barons wanted some form of protection against the excesses of the crown.  True, but the barons had been unruly and out of control for a long time due to Richard’s absence and the chaos it caused.  They needed reining in but they didn’t like it.  The fact that John could navigate his way around a bunch of rebellious vassals and still maintain his power was pretty special.  John was a good king.

However, in the words of A. A. Milne which I memorized when I was a small child, “King John was not a good man/ he had his little ways/ and sometimes no one spoke to him/ for days and days and days.”  Okay, I can be a King John apologist about a lot of things, but even I will admit that from all reports it looks like personality-wise John was a douche.  Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.  But I’ll confess that I did make him into a nice-ish guy in my novel.  Eh, historic license.

So there you have it, folks.  You have been re-educated.  Robin Hood was fighting on the wrong side.  The truth of this chapter of history is what inspired me to write The Noble Hearts trilogy.  Yes, I borrow elements from that legend, but I would like to think that I show them for what they really were.  John’s supporters in England were not only just doing their job, they were supporting stability and peace.  Those who were loyal to Richard were loyal to a fairy tale.  But you’ll just have to pick up a copy of my book and read for yourself to see.



10 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – The True Story of Richard and John

    • *LOL* That’s so true! And as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction. Have you ever seen the documentary series “Monarchy”? It basically traces the British Monarchy from right after the Romans left until the present. Fascinating.

  1. I prefer the story where Richard is an awesome lion and Robin Hood is a sexy fox. “He throws an angry tantrum if he cannot have his way/ He calls for mum and sucks his thumb and doesn’t want to play” (Best movie ever, hands down)

    Despite my somewhat less than trustworthy sources for history, I really enjoyed this post. I’m not one to seek out the truth behind legends most of the time, but I love these little mini lessons. I feel like I learn a lot more interesting stuff here than I ever did in history class. 🙂

    • You know, once upon a time, many years ago, I went to school to be a History teacher. It didn’t end up happening (long story) but there is still a part of me that would love to go back into a classroom and teach history the way it was meant to be taught. It’s so interesting! I majored in it twice! So it’s a crying shame that so many history classes are seen as boring. =P

  2. Loved this sooo much…I love learning what “really” happened during history as opposed to the fables that form…they make the fables so much more interesting.
    Your book, btw, sounds AWESOME. I would devour that in an instance. Loved this post, thanks for sharing.

  3. Yes, I prefer the foxy version myself, mostly because Roger Miller wrote the music and was Allan a Dale. LOL!

    Its always interesting to read the true stories after hearing the fairy tales for such a long time!

    • Robin Hood is still my favorite Disney film, partially for the music. I had an old vinyl record of the film when I was a very small kid, like 5, and I had memorized the entire thing. I loved Prince John even then. =D

  4. It’s funny that I read this today as I just re-watched Robin Hood with my husband the other day. Interesting to learn the real history behind the story. Your book sounds interesting as well.

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