Despite having read over four dozen books so far for this project, Ralph Turner and Richard Heiser’s study of Richard I’s reign is the first co-authored work that I have encountered for it. Their collaboration reflects their shared expertise and personal ties. A specialist in the Angevin era and its administration in particular, Turner taught for several decades at Florida State University, where Heiser went for his graduate education in medieval history. Given the latter’s dissertation on lover government officials in Richard’s bureaucracy, the complimentary knowledge of the two made them an understandable fit for a study of Richard’s reign.
And that is indeed the focus of their book. While their attention is indeed on Richard’s time on the throne, their focus is on not on his personal activities but on the administration of his wide-ranging empire. Richard’s time prior to becoming king receives only modest attention, and then primarily on his seventeen-year “apprenticeship” as count of Poitou. Though there are chapters as well on his historical reputation, his preparations for the Crusade, and his campaigns on the continent, the vast majority talk about the operations of the Angevin empire over which Richard ruled, much of it in absentia.
It is this latter fact which makes Turner and Heiser’s book so interesting. So many of the biographies of the earlier kings stressed the personal nature of their rule, their need to be on scene in order to best realize their authority. This was a major factor in their peripatetic lives as monarchs, and often contributes to the difficulties in writing biographies of them, as such travels were not beneficial to the accumulation of records. Richard led a similarly itinerant existence, but unlike every one of his predecessors that I have read about to this point, most of that travel took place outside his realm. This increased his reliance on his administration to do the work for him, which adds considerably to the value of Turner and Heiser’s work.
Because of this, I found the book such valuable reading, albeit a little dry in its presentation of its details. It is a highly useful study how Richard maintained his authority even as he spent several years abroad and out of touch with the details of administration that occupied so many of his predecessors. Yet to judge it as a biography is to demand of it something that it is not, nor is it something that its authors make any pretense of having written. Those wanting the coverage of Richard’s life and his activities during his reign will want to look elsewhere, though after having consumed a work like Gillingham’s they might find it a worthwhile, if somewhat more advanced, compliment.
John Gillingham has written a diverse range of books on medieval England, yet if there is one subject which he has made his own, it’s Richard Cœur de Lion. In addition to his work on the Angevin empire over which he ruled, Gillingham has written three biographies of Richard, as well as a collection of essays focused on the king. His contribution to Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series was the first of these, a deft overview of Richard’s activities that emphasizes his participation in the Third Crusade.
It’s a choice that likely reflects the target audience for the series of a popular readership, one that is underscored by an extensive use of photographs illustrating the locations and events described in the text. Yet for all his academic qualifications, Gillingham never talks down to his audience, providing instead a clearly-written text that offers a straightforward explanation of his subject’s activities. Beginning with an opening chapter that skillfully summarizes both 12th century England and Richard’s life prior to his accession to the throne, he moves on swiftly to his preparations to join the Crusades. Richard seems almost monomaniacally focused in these pages on his involvement, determined to get there as fast as circumstances will allow.
The three years that Richard spends on journeying to the Holy Lands and campaigning there takes up half of Gillingham’s book. These chapters provide a dramatic recounting of his activities, focusing on his activities as both a general and a statesman. Gillingham’s portrayal of Richard is positive to the point of glowing, as he explains how he managed both the complex diplomatic environment of the Mediterranean and the relationships with his prickly and ambitious allies. Gillingham regards Richard as the outstanding military commander among the crusaders, and explains clearly why the king made the judgments he did on his campaign and how his achievements were the most that were possible given the circumstances that he faced.
Because of Gillingham’s focus, the events of the final six years of Richard’s are condensed into just two chapters. This reflects at least in part the lack of information available about him, as Richard’s captivity in Germany does not seem to have generated many records for Gillingham to use. But the choice seems more questionable when it comes to covering Richard’s arguably more significant clash with Philip Augustus, given both the span of years involved and the significance of the war to the history of the two realms. While the events are efficiently described, the contrast with the level of detail provided for Richard’s Crusades escapades is striking. Though I’m reserving any final judgment in this respect until I’ve seen the coverage of this period in the other biographies of Richard that I plan to read (including Gillingham’s contribution to the English Monarchs series), it does seem an unwarranted and distorting choice.
This is perhaps the greatest flaw in what s otherwise a highly enjoyable book. Gillingham goes far in this book in demonstrating why Richard enjoys the standing he possesses today in the popular imagination. While the imbalanced coverage of his reign makes it difficult to imagine that this will be the final “one book” on which I will settle, as an introduction to a monarch I knew little it does a fine job of giving me the basics while whetting my interest for reading further. In that respect Gillingham does an admirable job in a way that many authors would envy.
Among English monarchs, there are a few whose reputation and personas have broken out of confinement to the historical memory and entered into the popular imagination. One of those in that select group is Richard I, who activities in his peripatetic decade on the throne earned himself the sobriquet “Cœur de Lion,” or Lionheart. Undoubtedly his years spent participating in the Third Crusade helped in that respect, as his time spent trying to recapture the Holy Lands for Christianity earned him good press in the West for centuries, even if the campaign ended in frustration.
That good press has ensured that there are no shortage of books from which to choose about Richard’s life. For the first time since my review of books about William the Conqueror, I needed to limit my coverage of the biographies written about him to a manageable selection of eight books. As with William, I decided to start with the volume on Richard in Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. The first of three biographies of Richard that John Gillingham wrote, it will be the oldest of the selections for Richard that I’m going to read for this project and one that, if that biography of William Rufus that I’ve already read is representative of his work, should provide a good introduction to the monarch and his times.
Next on my list is Ralph Turner and Richard Heiser’s The Reign of Richard Lionheart, Ruler of the Angevin Empire, 1189–1199. Though the title suggests that the book is less a biography than a focused study of his time on the throne, the focus on Richard’s governance rather than his generalship (one that seems a prominent part of many of the biographies about him that I’ve encountered) marked it out as an interesting book. If the title of David Miller’s Richard the Lionheart: The Mighty Crusader is any indication, I’m going to return to that focus once I’ve read it.
After that I plan on reading Jean Flori’s Richard the Lionheart: Knight and King. As a biography by a French scholar of the medieval era, I’m curious to see what it holds in terms of perspectives different from those in the ones written on my list by his English counterparts. Once I finish it I will move on to two relatively short studies of Richard: Antony Bridge’s 1989 book Richard the Lionheart and Thomas Asbridge’s 2019 biography of Richard for the Penguin Monarchs series. Assessing the latter in light of the other books I will have read to this point should provide an interesting basis for judging how well he addresses the considerable scholarship that Richard has generated over the years.
Asbridge’s book is one of the two most recent Richard biographies on my list, the other being W. B. Bartlett’s Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England. As a prolific author of books on the era, I’ve skirted around some of his works but this will be the first one of his that I’ve read. Finally, I will end my examination of Richard biographies with John Gillingham’s volume on him for the venerable English Monarchs series. It seems appropriate to use him to bookend my examination of Richard biographies, and it will be interesting to see if he addresses any aspects of Richard’s reign that aren’t covered in the other books I’m reading.