Hearts Through History Romance Writers

The True Story of Richard and John

by | November 2, 2012 | 18 comments

Here’s a bit of real history for you in honor of the release of the final book of my “Noble Hearts” Medieval romance trilogy, The Courageous 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.   

King Richard I

Richard was son #4.  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 in England.  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. 

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. 

King John

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 almost 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.  Bisexual at the very least.  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. 

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. 

For more information about the Noble Hearts trilogy, please visit my website: http://merryfarmer.net 

[All images in this post are public domain]


  1. Nancy

    Great post. I had heard this version before. As a child I believed the Robin Hood legend and Good King Richard– my brother’s name was Richard– as I grew older I wondered how he could govern a country when he was never there. Haven’t read many positive reports of John, though. It is hard to buck centuries of legend.
    Richard III is another who has been traduced because of a story. Once some lies get into circulation it is impossible to correct them.

    • Merry Farmer

      “Once some lies get into circulation it is impossible to correct them.”

      Tell me about it! And there are so many lies about history that people mistake for “common knowledge”. Don’t get me started on the belief that all people before about 1900 were ignorant and had poor hygeine! Ugh!

  2. Angelyn

    Yay for medieval history!! King John: I think it was an archbishop who complained of his second wife, Isabella of Angouleme: a beautiful maid of twelve who kept the king chained to her bed. The Norman experience: Angevin Henry Fitzempress learned at his mother’s knees of the perils of making a Frenchman king of the English.

  3. Angelyn

    A friend of mine really wanted to comment but had worries with Captcha–here’s her comment on Richard: Anyway, historians today do not believe Rich was gay., That was a 1948 notion suggested by a writer (not historian). Rich was notorius for adultery, which warrented a lecture from the Bishop of Lincoln . He was not really a bad king. He did try to conquer the Holy Land for Christianity.
    John lost the Angevin/Acquataine family land holdings in France, but is considered a good king of the English.

    • Merry Farmer

      I dunno, the research leans pretty heavily towards Richard being bisexual at the very least, and it’s not just research from the 50s. But homosexuality is such a hot-button issue right now that I don’t think it’s possible to look at it from an unbiased perspective. … Which makes me want to write a post about Historiography! =D

      • Angelyn

        Just some more input from folks who really want to comment here but have been blocked by CAPTCHA:

        on the subject of Richard being gay: John Gillingham’s Richard the Lionheart.� This book describes Richard as being a good king.
        True, he didn’t spend much time in England, but that wasn’t his center of the universe.� He was in France trying to keep his kingdom in order. �Gillingham spends much time on the homosexuality issue. There was never a mention of Richard’s homosexual lifestyle until 700 plus years after his death.
        And here’s this concerning well-known author Penman: Penman apoligizes for keeping this myth going. I think she used it for sensation bc at the time she published, it was known to be historically inaccurate, or at least to be a myth from the 1940s. For example, Phillipe and his supporters were using everything (true or not) they could, to discredit Richard in order to justify taking his lands while he was on a holy crusade. Why wouldn’t they use homosexuality , a charge to have stained his honor and imperiled his soul, to discredit him?
        Penman’s apology in her “Lionheart” is another perspective on the subject.
        I’m so glad you posted on this subject. It’s so fascinating!

        • Merry Farmer

          The source that I took my information about Richard’s sexuality from is a contemporary account written in 1187 by the English chronicler Rodger of Howden, who reports that Richard and Philip of France shared a bed when they were together. So it’s false to say that the first mentions of a homosexual lifestyle didn’t come until 700 years after his death. And it would make sense that Philip’s supporters wouldn’t bring this up as an attack on Richard because it was their king who Richard was allegedly involved in, so the accusation would have been counter-productive.

          Richard was a good warrior, but from the perspective of your average subject living in England, he mostly just cost them exorbident sums of money while local officials did all of the actual governing of the island.

          But again, this is why Historiography is so important. The facts and statements of the chroniclers are so distant and open to interpretation that it’s impossible to know the truth now, hundreds of years later. So we all use our bias and personal agendas (we all have them, no exceptions) to interpret evidence with spin to come to the conclusion we want to come to. Historians have been doing it since day one. That’s why the study of Historiography (the history of how History has been interpreted and which theories have held popularity at different times) is so awesome!

          The only people who know the truth about Richard are long dead, and the rest of us will believe what we want to believe based on our own interpretations of the facts.

          • Angelyn

            There’s a great academic discussion on the subject here: http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/pwh/hoveden1.asp

            In medieval times, sharing a bed was commonplace and meant nothing particularly sexual. Then there are chronicles that condemn folks for sodomy and they are absolutely explicit.

          • Merry Farmer

            I’ve heard the argument about it being common to share beds and that it doesn’t mean anything sexual, but why would two people so wealthy and with such position need to share a bed? I don’t find that to be a definitive argument. There are enough reknowned historians who side with the view that Richard probably had male relationships that I don’t think it can be discarded out-of-hand.

            Like I said, I think it comes down to how you interpret historical evidence based on your own agenda, which ultimately means it comes down to what you believe. But that’s what makes History so vibrant and alive for me!

            And I think scholars will be able to debate this one for another thousand years.

  4. Joy Smid

    Medieval people shared beds. It was an accepted means of bestowing honor and royal favor. Edward IV shared a bed with rebel Earl of Somerset to show reconcilation. Sexual mores in the middle ages can’t be compared to our beliefs in modern society. Sodomy was an act, not orientation.
    Hoveden can’t be used as evidence of homosexuallity.He had a son and asked for a woman on his death bed.

    • Merry Farmer

      Okay, but he was still a crappy king who bankrupted his country when he wasn’t ignoring it. LOTS of Historians agree on that one. 😉

    • Merry Farmer

      He also alienated all of his allies and slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women, and children at Acre for no other reason than it was easier than keeping them prisoner or letting them go.

  5. Joy Smid

    I believe if you read the research the story of the killing of women and children has no basis in fact. In Arab Historians of the Crusades the translations refer to the martyrdom of three thousand men in chains. Also, the translations state Saladin had sworn that all Franks taken prisoner would be killed…and let’s not forget Hattin. Despite the Acre massacre, the Sarencens viewed it as a military tactic. Richard formed friendships with the emirs and Manluks. Virtually every medieval ruler committed acts abhorrent to us. We can not judge people of another age by our standards of conduct today. By medieval standards, Richard was a successful king. One must remember when he returned from the Crusades , he found himself defending his domains for five years from Philippe Capet.

    • Merry Farmer

      You know, I STRONGLY disagree with you, and so do several prominent historians, Norman Cantor, Asa Briggs, Richard’s contemporaries, but I’ve been arguing about this topic all day and I just can’t bring myself to care anymore. Fine, have it your way. Keep Richard as your untouchable hero in spite of the evidence stacked against him. Let’s all just go on with our lives and stop arguing when there are mountains of evidence on both sides. If you want him to be your spotless hero then believe whatever you want and I’ll believe what I want.

    • Merry Farmer

      Fine. You’re right. I’m wrong. Happy now?

    • Angelyn

      I enjoyed reading that link: “(Richard) is more complex, more human, and much more interesting.”

  6. Lacey Falcone

    Merry – I always love your posts…they are so fascinating! As my research has been about Germany, I haven’t gotten into too many of the details about England (although, I would love to ‘get to know’ Eleanor of Aquitaine at some point). I did know that Richard the Lionhearted had only spent about 10 months total in England, but I didn’t know the rest (other than Robin Hood was total fabrication). Thanks for sharing!



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