Medieval Monday – A King’s Ransom

To wrap up my series on important historical topics that are brought up in my new novel The Faithful Heart (available next weekend!), today I’ll be talking about the central theme of the book: The King’s Ransom.

We’ve all heard the expression “a king’s ransom” as a way to express something super expensive.  This term comes directly from our good friend King Richard the Lionheart and his exploits in the Third Crusade.  But what was Richard really up to down there in the Holy Land and how the heck did he end up costing England so much money?

First of all, the Third Crusade was actually Richard and John’s father, Henry II’s idea.  The Second Crusade, 1145-1149, had failed.  The Christian kingdoms set up in the Holy Land by the First Crusade, 1096-1099 had fallen and the European forces that had set out to retake them were unsuccessful.  So Henry II, Philip II of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa decided to put aside their differences and reclaim it.  Right.  Like England, France, and (more or less) Germany could ever put aside their differences.  But Henry died in 1189 and Frederic Barbarossa was drowned on his way to the Holy Land.  So it didn’t get off to the best of starts.

Richard took up his father’s cause when he came to the throne (as did Leopold V of Austria, Frederick Barbarossa’s successor).  Now, Richard was a great warrior, don’t get me wrong.  He had a reputation as a fierce and effective soldier.  When it came to defending and expanding England’s continental possessions he was the man.  But he hated England itself.  He saw it as nothing more than a way to finance his expeditions on the continent.  And while yes, he was technically born in Oxford, he spent the vast majority of his life on the continent and he didn’t speak English.  Yes, the king of England didn’t speak English.  But that didn’t stop him from taxing the living daylights out of the English people to pay for his war.

Richard and Philip met up in Marseille, France in July of 1190 and set off for the Holy Land.  They got as far as Sicily.  Chapter One of the huge soap opera that was the Third Crusade.  When they reached Sicily they discovered that the previous king, William, who happened to be married to Richard’s sister Joan, had died and been replaced by Tancred.  Tancred was holding Joan captive, so of course Richard had to take some time out to capture the city of Messina to release her.  Fortunately, he was successful.

Then Richard and Philip got into a massive fight over a girl.  See, for many years Richard had been betrothed to Philip’s half-sister Alys.  But while in Sicily Richard decided he would rather marry  Berengaria of Navarre.  This may have had something to do with the fact that Alys was very likely Richard’s dad, Henry II’s mistress and had very likely had a child by him.  Talk about awkward family get-togethers.  And this was all made extra dramatic by the fact that Richard was gay, but hey, that’s politics and marriage in the Middle Ages.  Philip threw a fit when Richard made the announcement and took his half of the crusading army and headed straight for the Holy Land in March of 1191.  Richard and his crew left in April.

But along the way there was a terrible storm.  Chapter Two of the soap opera.  The ships carrying Joan and Berengaria and a whole lot of treasure that was intended to finance the operation ran aground in Cyprus.  The leader of Cyprus, Isaac Dukas Komnenus, promptly scooped up the ladies and the treasure and locked them away.  Richard arrived in Cyprus and went to talk to Isaac about the situation.  Isaac was all, like, “Yeah, we’re cool, you can have your sister and fiancé and the money back”.  Well, he gave Joan and Berengaria back but not the money.  And then, after making an oath of hospitality to Richard, he stomped around yelling at him to get out of Cyprus.

Well, Richard was peeved.  No one offers him hospitality then takes his money and tells him to get off the island.  So, naturally, Richard rounded up his forces and conquered Cyprus.  And it only took him a couple of days.  Take that, Isaac!  Also while in Cyprus, Richard married Berengaria.

After that little episode they all continued on to the Holy Land itself.  Richard & Co. arrived near the port city of Acre on June 8, 1191.  Philip and Leopold had been busy trying to take the city without success.  When Richard arrived on the scene he began a siege of the city.  It was captured on July 12th.  Like I said, Richard was quite the warrior.

The problem at this point was that everyone was feeling grumpy and sick, thus beginning Chapter Three of the soap opera.  Philip and Richard were both suffering from scurvy.  To top it all off, Richard up and offended everyone by tearing down Leopold’s flag when they secured Acre to put up his own over all.  Disgruntled, both Philip and Leopold packed up their troops and went home.

Richard pushed on towards his goal of recapturing Jerusalem.  He was merciless about it too.  When Saladin, the great sultan in charge of the Muslim people occupying the Holy Land at the time, broke the terms of the Treaty of Acre, Richard had the Muslim garrison stationed near Acre slaughtered within sight of Saladin’s camp, including the women and children.  Saladin counterattacked at Arsuf while Richard was on the way to Jaffa, but Richard won the battle.  He went on to take Jaffa, from which he planned to attack Jerusalem.

And then nothing happened.  Well, by nothing I mean Richard didn’t attack and capture Jerusalem.  He signed a treaty with Saladin instead.  Among other things this treaty ensured that Christian pilgrims would be allowed to travel to Jerusalem unharmed.  Considering the job done, Richard packed up and started home on October 9th.

Of course, on the way home, in Vienna, Richard ran into his old comrade in arms, Leopold of Austria.  Sopa opera, Chapter Four.  Still pissed off over Acre and suspecting that Richard killed his cousin Conrad, Leopold arrested Richard.  He later turned Richard over to the new Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.  Henry was fine with returning Richard to England … provided England pay a ransom of 150,000 marks.

And thus the term “A King’s Ransom” was born.  Because 150,000 marks was 2-3 times the annual income of the crown in England.  So how did they raise the money?  By raising taxes, of course.  The nobles of England were all forced to pay a tax of 25% of their yearly income to the crown to ransom the king.  It was a huge economic burden.  But the ransom was paid and Richard was released on February 4, 1194.  And of all crazy things, he actually went to England!  For three whole months.  He showed up and laid some smack down on all of the people who had conspired against him while he was captive.  In other words, John.  But then he and John publically reconciled … and Richard went back to the continent.

Richard spent the rest of his life fighting against enemies that tried to take English possessions on the continent.  And where did he get the money for all those wars?  By taxing the people of England.  So while yes, I understand how the man could end up with the title of “Lionheart”, but frankly, he did England more harm than good.  He thoroughly bankrupted the kingdom.  Ironically enough, it was John who put the kingdom back in the black.  But because England itself faced no immediate hostilities internally or abroad during Richard’s reign he has gained the reputation of being a great man.

I tend to disagree.


4 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – A King’s Ransom

  1. I’m really starting to think I had terrible teachers. This simply was not covered in grade school or college. I’ve always been fascinated by this time in history. Looks like I need to start some research of my own. I want to know more!

    • Oh, I’ve got plenty more where that came from! 😉 The Middle Ages is packed full of amazing people and events but it gets overlooked all too often because it happened so long ago.

  2. So this Richard, Richard away at Crusades when Kevin Costner played Robin Hood, this Richard who couldn’t speak English and was gay… this is the guy who is played by Sean Connery and gives away Maid Marian at the end of the movie?


  3. Dear Merry, I just happened to read your article on Richard I. I am terribly sorry to have to say that the picture you draw of this king is quite beside the truth. Opinions about Richard are well into the 20th century not so good; your article reflects this opinion in general (the great historian Steven Runciman´s verdict on Richard was crushing!). History, however, never is that simple and recent research has led to change the view of Richard´s reign. Did he hate England? I don´t know and know of none reliable source stating this. He was born in Oxford, but spend almost his entire life in France, defending the territories of his father, Henry II, and of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. This was quite a job and it is aknowledged by his contemporaries that he did this very well: the fighting as well as the administrative part. When he succeeded his father (1189), he immediatly started preparing for the crusade (the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been crushed by Saladin in 1187!). When he was in Outremer, king Philipe Auguste of France, having returned prematurely, started to nibble at Richard´s French possessions in a very unsportive way (PA was actually excommunicated by the pope for that). Leopold V was Archduke of Austria (Henry VI was the “Kaiser”). And when Richard returned from captivity? He spent almost the rest of his short life fighting for his French possessions that Philipe Auguste (with the treacherous help of John!) had taken from him during his absence. Was Richard gay? There are no contemporary sources to prove that, only an, apparantly, misinterpreted sermon by a hermit. For a thorough study see: John Gillingham, Richard I, New Haven-London,1999; for humor (“whenever he returned to England he always set out again immediately for the Mediterraenean and was therefore known as Richard Gare de Lyon”), Sellar and Yeatman, 1066 and All That, London 1930.
    Well, it has grown into quite a contribution. I hope I have not annoyed you, however, as a romancier you have an audience and apart from bringing them good and absorbing stories, one should always strive to be well informed as to paint a true and just canvas for these exciting episodes from history. As you truly remarked: “The Middle Ages is packed with amazing people and incidents…” and you can blow life into their bleak souls and forgotten names.
    All the best,
    André van der Goes (giving right now a seminar at Dresden University on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Twelfth Century).

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