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Richard Coer de Lion

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Richard Coer de Lion (RCL) survives in seven manuscripts. Karl Brunner identifies two major versions of the text: a romance (the A-version), and a metrical chronicle (the B-version). Given its completeness, the quantity of scholarship focused upon it, and the fact that the medieval section of Crusades Project focuses on romances, this entry will center around the A-version located in MS Gonville and Caius College. It is important to bear in mind, however, that only two of the seven manuscripts include the majority of romance materials such as the demon mother and demon steed episodes, the lion-heart eating, and the second instance of cannibalism. As I have argued elsewhere, while these are significant episodes in the more romance-based A-versions, their absence from the five extant B versions suggests that their popularity might have been limited (Norako 192).


The romance opens with the narrator observing that many stories have been written in English about Alexander, Charlemagne, Arthur, and others, but none have been written about Richard I. The narrator claims that his version of Richard’s story was originally French, but that he has chosen to compose it in English so that "lewede menne" might understand it.

The story of Richard’s birth follows this introduction—an episode unique to the A-versions of RCL. Under pressure from his advisors, Henry II agrees to find a wife, and he sends his messengers abroad in search of one.  While at sea, they encounter Corbaryng, King of Antioch, and his daughter Cassodorien. Corbaryng, they discover, had a vision telling him to seek out King Henry, and the messengers quickly bring the father and daughter to England. Henry and Cassodorien marry and eventually have three children: Richard, John, and a daughter, Topyas. Curiously, Cassodorien always insists on leaving church prior to the Elevation of the Host. She is eventually forced to witness it, and promptly flies through the roof of the church, carrying her daughter with her, never to be seen again.  Henry II names Richard as his successor, and Richard becomes king at the age of fifteen upon his father’s death.

The young king holds a tournament at Salisbury in order to identify his best fighters.  Richard appears in three different attires and fights in the lists as an unknown. On the first day, he rides in all black, with a raven and a bell on his helm, which—as the narrator relates—signify the destructiveness of war and Holy Church, respectively. He appears a second time in red attire, with a running hound on his shield representing the heathens he wishes to destroy in the Holy Land. His third and final disguise is all-white attire with a red cross as his charge, signifying his status as a crusader-conqueror. Out of all of the knights, Sir Thomas Multon and Sir Fulk Doyly impress Richard the most because they are unafraid of him; in some versions (including that found in the Caius manuscript) they even unseat and defeat the disguised Richard.  Richard reveals himself and his intentions to them: he competed in disguise in order to discover his best fighters and seek out their aid in his quest to retake the Holy Land.  United, the three set out on a covert mission to the Holy Land.  Disguised as palmers, they visit all of the cities that they will later attempt to conquer while on crusade.

On their return journey, they offend a minstrel, who spitefully reveals their identity to the King of Almayn.  All three Englishmen are imprisoned. While detained, the king’s son Ardour challenges Richard to a punching exchange and Richard kills him with a single blow. Richard also attracts the attention of Margery, the king’s daughter, and she has him freed every night and sent up to her chamber.  The King of Almayn eventually discovers their affair; already furious over the death of his son, he decides to kill Richard by placing a lion in his cell, thereby circumventing the rules of royal confinement that would prevent him from killing Richard directly. Warned by Margery of these plans, Richard asks her for silk scarves. He wraps his hands in the scarves and fights the lion in his cell.  He eventually kills the beast by reaching a handkerchief-protected arm down its throat and ripping out its heart. He promptly exits his cell, carries the the heart into the great hall and, in front of the entire court, rubs it in the table salt and eats it raw. Stunned, terrified, and also somewhat impressed, the King decides to ransom Richard.

Richard returns to England and stays there for a year. In the meantime, the Latin Christian Kingdoms of the east begin to deteriorate because of the onslaughts of Saladin and his forces.  In response to the pope’s call for aid, the king of France, the duke of Austria, and the emperor of Almayne take up the cross. Richard decides to take the cross as well. He assembles and equips two hundred ships with supplies, thirteen of which are set aside to transport hives of bees. The ships journey ahead to Marseilles and are told to wait for him there while he travels by land through Almayn in order to meet with King Modard (the king who had previously imprisoned him).

Before leaving England, Richard commands Sir Thomas of Multon and Sir Fulk Doyly to each lead a third of his army; the final third he will lead himself. Leaving England in the hands of justices and the Bishop of York, Richard makes his way toward Modard’s court. Modard initially tries to impede Richard’s progress, but eventually the two are reconciled. Modard returns the ransom money and offers to join the crusade. Richard says that he is too old to make such a journey, but accepts two magical rings and also a large number of soldiers from the old king.  Richard eventually makes his way to Marseilles and reunites with his naval fleet.

Upon arriving in Messina, Richard meets King Phillip of France who immediately attempts to undermine the former’s campaign. Tensions boil over when some of Phillip’s men kill some of the Englishmen. Richard responds by capturing Messina, forcing Phillip to surrender. The two kings are reconciled, and Phillip journeys onwards to Acre in advance of Richard.  A storm wrecks some of his ships on Cyprus, however, and the Cypriot king captures those who survive. Richard and the English come to the rescue, and the emperor eventually has to beg for mercy. When he attempts to betray Richard again, he is promptly taken captive and forced to travel with Richard to the Levant.

Richard leaves the Earl of Leicester in control of Cyprus and continues on to Acre, where the fleet finds the harbor entry blocked by a massive chain. Undeterred, Richard destroys it with his axe, which terrifies the Saracens. The sight of Richard’s fleet overjoys the King of France and the rest of the Christian army.  The archbishop of Pisa meets with the English king and tells him about the fate of the Christians in Acre prior to his arrival. Thousands have been killed during the course of the seven-year siege, and Richard immediately sets to work on his plans to reconquer the city. 

In the midst of the siege of Acre, Richard falls ill and asks for pork, which cannot be found. One of Richard’s knights, however, suggests that the cook boil up Saracen flesh and serve it instead. The cook obliges, and Richard recovers his health almost immediately, enjoying great victories in battle shortly thereafter.  Pleased by his renewed vigor, Richard demands to see the head of the beast that he had eaten the day before, and the terrified cook brings him the Saracen’s head. Rather than being angry, Richard laughs and observes that his men will never go hungry as long as there are Saracens to kill.  Acre eventually surrenders (a victory secured, in part, by Richard’s decision to hurl the aforementioned beehives into the city in order to torment the Saracens). Saracen envoys from Saladin arrive at Richard’s encampment shortly thereafter to ransom prisoners. Richard serves them the boiled heads of various Saracen prisoners, even going so far as to provide nametags to make it easier to identify them.  The Saracens return to the sultan with Richard’s warning that he and his men plan to stay in the Levant until they have eaten every Saracen man, woman, and child.

Saladin proposes another offer: if Richard will acknowledge Appolyn as his deity and reject Christ, then Saladin will hand over Syria, Egypt, and all the lands in between. Richard refuses the offer and demands that the True Cross be returned to the Christians. Richard eventually slaughters sixty thousand Saracen prisoners when Saladin’s men admit that they do not know what has become of the cross.

Richard divides his army into thirds once again, placing Thomas, Fulk, and himself as leaders of each contingency.  He gives orders to them and to Phillip (who is treated as a subordinate to Richard) to conquer cities and to take no ransom unless the people in question are willing to convert. If they are unwilling, then the crusaders are ordered to kill them. Thomas and Fulk carry out Richard’s commands to the letter.  Thomas conquers Castle Orglyous and Fulk defeats a large army of Saracens in order to conquer Ebedy; both show no mercy and place Richard’s banners upon the cities’ walls after their successful battles. Richard, in turn, takes Sudan Turry and slaughters its inhabitants. By contrast, Phillip takes both Taburette and Archane, places his own banners atop the walls, and accepts ransom from the cities’ inhabitants, who revolt immediately after Phillip takes his leave of them. Richard and his men are thus forced to journey back to these cities and reconquer them; all of the inhabitants are slaughtered.

After these cities are reclaimed, Saladin attacks Richard and his army as they journey toward Caiphas. The Saracens eventually flee, however, due to Richard’s successful countermeasures. Richard and his men then head toward Palestine and await provisions. Saladin capitalizes on the inactivity of the crusaders and destroys numerous cities. He challenges Richard to individual combat, only to flee mid-battle out of fear (Richard manages to wound him while in pursuit). Shortly thereafter, Richard and Phillip jointly lay siege to Nineveh, where three Saracen commanders challenge them to a fight. The three Englishmen promptly kill the Saracens and, as a result, those within the city surrender and ask to covert to Christianity.

Richard and Phillip follow Saladin to Babylon and lay siege to the city. Phillip, however, accepts money from the Saracens and stops his army from continuing the siege. Saladin then challenges Richard to a tourney match and sends a gift to Richard: a young, black horse. The steed is, however, a disguised demon. Saladin’s necromancer, in fact, conjured up this spirit and one other, and made them take the form of a mare and its colt. The plan is for Richard to ride the colt into battle.  Saladin will ride the mare, and when the colt hears the mare’s call, it will run to her, allowing Saladin to kill Richard. An angel visits Richard to warn him of these plans and tell him how to control the demon horse. Following the angel’s instructions, Richard lashes a forty-foot lance to the saddle and plugs his horse’s ears with wax.  The armies meet on the day of the kings’ contest and both leaders swear that if Richard defeats Saladin, then all of the sultan’s lands will be his; if Saladin wins, the Christians will leave the Levant. Richard defeats Saladin by knocking him off his horse and then continues into the Saracen host, knocking down Saracens at every turn. The English swiftly capture the town, and Saladin flees into the woods.

Richard and Phillip make their way toward Jerusalem, and begin to argue over who will claim Jerusalem once it is conquered. Phillip eventually grows angry and leaves for France, and Richard returns to Jaffa to secure and fortify it before heading to Chaloyn (Ascalon), where he asks all of the lords in his army to assist in rebuilding the city walls. Everyone agrees except the duke of Austria who is, in turn, removed from the crusader army.  Once the walls are repaired, Richard and his army conquer Albary, Daroun, and Gaza. Richard promises not to harm the inhabitants of Gaza, and, upon entering the city gates, asks for the peoples’ lord. They state that they will agree to convert if Richard can destroy the statue in the city’s center square. Richard decapitates the statue and leaves the city in the care of the former Christian governor.

Journeying onwards, Richard conquers Leffunyde and Gybelyn before hearing that his brother John has betrayed him and is seeking to make himself king. Richard initially refuses to believe the news, but is forced to make preparations to return once he hears that Phillip has invaded Normandy and that John is about to crown himself king. Just as Richard is about to leave for England, however, Saladin lays siege to Jaffa.  His French nephew, Henry, is unable to defeat Saladin, and so Richard is forced to engage. A difficult battle ensues, with significant losses on both sides. Richard eventually sends the following proposal to Saladin: either allow him to fight twenty-five of Saladin’s men in order to determine possession of the Holy Land, or agree to a three-year truce during which time Richard will return to England, secure his title and his lands, and then return. Saladin agrees to the truce, which also allows the Christians to journey to the Holy Land as pilgrims.  The poem ends with a brief mentioning of Richard’s death.


While many Middle English romances contain references to crusading and stories of fictional cruce signati, this romance is unique in its focus (enthusiastically fictive as it may be) on a historical English crusader.  Richard, however, makes for an unusual English hero during the time of this romance’s popularity (i.e. during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries).  As a prince and as a king, he spent only a few months of his life in England and spoke French instead of the English vernacular.  The Richard Coer de Lion (RCL) tradition, however, repurposes his narrative and transforms him into an exclusively English monarch; here, he wields an Anglo-Saxon battle-axe and displays a brand of martial fervor, boldness, and ingenuity clearly lacking in his French and German counterparts. The Saracens, including their leader Saladin, quail in fear of him and his fellow Englishmen specifically because of their Englishness (Akbari 203).

By constructing Richard in this fashion, RCL—particularly the A-version—presents a hypernationalistic fantasy of crusader conquest, one in which the English establish themselves as a culture superior not only to the Saracens but to rival European powers. This reinvention of Richard makes sense in light of the ongoing Hundred Years War and both Edwardian and Lancastrian drives to distance English literary culture from French (Ambrisco 512-15). What results is a romance with "two end points of a journey. . .[;] the journey from England to the Holy Land spurs the journey from the Holy Land to England (to marshal the crusade), which in turn spurs the subsequent journey of crusade from England to the Holy land" (202). This romance constructs a world in which only the English are capable of expanding the borders of Christendom and of reclaiming the Holy Land.

The romance, unlike many accounted for in this project, roots itself distinctly in crusader history, recounting the campaigns of Richard and the armies of the Third Crusade. Nevertheless, the romance deliberately warps history in order to respond to current cultural concerns and investments. As Geraldine Heng observes:

. . . romance reprocesses history, making historical elements appear and disappear in romance narrative. . . . In answer to the debacle of Hattin, where, in 1187, Saladin won a resounding victory over the combined Christian forces of the East, decimating the largest army every assembled by Latin colonies of the Levant, the romance plays up Richard's historically smaller victory at Arsuf (lines 5151-52, 5169-70) . . . . To displace Saladin’s historic recapture of Jerusalem — and inevitability that followed from Hattin—the romance offers up Richard's purely fictive conquest of 'Babylon' (RCL, ll. 5824)—presumably, Cairo, symbolizing the Egyptian heart of Saladin’s empire, and the territorial base from which Saladin's military and political campaigns originally began.  Loss, failure, and absence in history thus engenders success, victory, and presence in romance: a recipe for cultural fantasy's relationship to history . . .  (Heng 77-78)

The accretion of non-historical and romance elements include the replacement of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Cassodorien, the tournament at Salisbury, Richard’s covert pilgrimage to the Levant, the details and the chronological positioning of his imprisonment in Germany, Richard’s cannibalism, his fictive capture of the city of Babylon (presumably Cairo), and the omission of Saladin’s victories over Richard, to name but a few.  As I have argued elsewhere, these elements operate out of a series of erasures and iterations that both stabilize and rank the cultures involved in the action of the romance (Norako 138-166). Any aspect of Richard’s French heritage, for instance, is excised from the romance in order to present him as exclusively English; his French mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is replaced by Cassodorien of Antioch in the A-version, and Richard systematically rejects both the culture and actions of the French crusaders because they consistently prove duplicitous, cowardly, and ineffectual. To be English, as Akbari observes, is to "display certain behaviors different from those of other nations," and the performance of English identity in the romance relies upon behaviors that authorize their conquests, however brutal they might be (Akbari 203).

The fact that the romance uses a crusader campaign (one that takes place far away from England) in order to forge an English identity has caused some scholars to question the effectiveness of this enterprise in a romance context. Alan Ambrisco, for instance, argues that
. . . the text’s emphasis on nation building seems to be at odds with both its hero’s history and its very plot. . . . Within this religious context, the movement towards English nationalism takes place apart from the very nation it wishes to build.  That is, the English nation, like its king, is an absentee construct: the English identity forged and honed in RCL is an identity that is constructed away from England, indeed, within a religious community that supposedly subsumes ethnic distinctions under the greater rubric of Christian crusaders.  If an English identity is to be constructed in the poem, it must be constructed in the face of its others, both Saracen and French. (517-18)
But while certain limitations exist as a result of this distanced project of identity formation, the writers clearly deploy a series of signifiers and formulaic behaviors (the most obvious being the frequently used adjective "English" and its variants and a distinctly English brutality) to identify the English as distinct from the other European cultures that accompany them.  Richard and his Englishman’s identities are not created abroad so much as they are transported and performed abroad.

Furthermore, the absence of the English from England becomes less of a textual problem if we consider the significance of the Holy Land in late medieval Christian culture. The recovery of the Holy Land was still upheld during the later Middle Ages as the loftiest goal that Christians could hope to achieve.  As such, crusading endeavors continued to be called for well into the fifteenth century, and an array of "recovery treatises" circulated during this time, calling for an end to internecine conflict in order to enable a multi-national crusade against the Turks that would eradicate the Ottomans as a threat and guarantee the reclaiming of the Holy Land (Norako "Sir Isumbras").  Despite these frequent entreaties and calls for crusade, the task of confronting the Ottoman typically fell to Eastern Europeans while the English and the French battled each other.  Pleas from writers such as Philippe de Mézières—who hoped for cooperative French and English efforts against the Turks—generally went unanswered.

RCL, however, offers a repurposed crusade from the past, which—with its French and German erased—champions the English.  The romance positions England as the most effective and superior of Christian kingdoms, one best equipped—through the ferocity of its warriors—to successfully reconquer the Holy Land. The blame for Richard’s inability to reconquer Jerusalem and, by extension, the blame for England’s inability to return to its crusading endeavors, falls squarely on the shoulders of the French in this romance.  In this way, RCL responds as much to the circumstances of the Hundred Years War as it does to the concerns over and desires for crusading ventures in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
Manuscripts and Early Printed Editions:
  • Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College 175/96 (A-version, c. 1450)
  • Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck) (B-version, c. 1330)
  • London, British Library, Additional 31042 (A-version, c. 1450)
  • London, British Library, Egerton 2862 (B-version, c. 1400)
  • London, British Library, Harley 4690 (B-version, c. 1500)
  • London, College of Arms MS Arundel 58 (B-version, c. 1440-50)
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 228 (B-version, c. 1500)
  • Wynkyn de Worde (A-version c. 1509)


Critical Editions:

Bazant, James Walter. Richard Coer de Lion: An Edition Based on Gonville & Caius MS 175/96. MA Thesis, University of Calgary, 1996.

Bruner, Karl. Der mittelenglische Versroman über Richard Löwenherz. Leipzig: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1913.

Select Bibliography:

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. "The Hunger for National Identity in Richard Coer de Lion." In Reading Medieval Culture: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Hanning, edited by Robert M. Stein and Sandra Pierson Prior. Notre-Dame: University of Notre-Dame Press, 2005. Pp. 67-83.

Ambrisco, Alan. "Cannibalism and Cultural Encounters in Richard Coeur de Lion," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29, no. 3 [1999]: 499-528.

Anderson, Carolyn. "Constructing Royal Character: King Richard in Richard Coer de Lyon." Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest 6 (1999): 85-108.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Finlayson, John. "'Richard Coer de Lion': Romance, History, or Something in Between?" Studies in Philology 87 (1990): 156-80.

Nelson, Janet, ed. Richard Coeur de Lion in History and Myth. London: King’s College, 1992.

Norako, Leila. "The Crusading Imaginary of Late Medieval England." Ph.D. diss, University of Rochester, 2012.

-----. "Sir Isumbras and the Fantasy of Crusade." Forthcoming, Chaucer Review, 2012

Shutters, Lynn. "Lion Hearts, Saracen Heads, Dog Tails: The Body of the Conqueror in Richard Coer de Lion." In Masculinities and Femininities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Ed. Frederick Kiefer. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. 75-100.

Yeager, Suzanne M. Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008