Thursday 8 September 2011

Putting the Record Straight on the Lionheart

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1157 of King Richard the Lionheart. Its common knowledge that he hardly spent any time in England. He owned more of France (part of what is known as the Angevin Empire of the English kings) than the French king did. So why would he spend his time in a little island country he is known to have hated?

Richard is often included in lists of gay kings. It must be said that Richard’s sexuality has confused historians for years. Even gay historians can’t agree. I know I’m going against most lgbt people’s opinions when I say that, to my mind, Richard the Lionheart was NOT gay or even bisexual.


It really started in 1948 – yes, as recently as that – when writer John Hervey claimed to have uncovered a “conspiracy of silence” about Richard. It was such a big “conspiracy” that it had been well known and documented for centuries and Hervey seems to be the only historian who didn’t know about it!

Hervey claimed Richard was gay because he was married but had no children (like thousands of other couples who aren’t gay), and that he spent the night in the same bed with King Philippe of France many times. Hervey failed to investigate the political and social conventions of the time.

In most cases, the only person rich enough to afford a bed was the king. Everyone else slept on straw mattresses on low benches or on the floor. Philippe couldn’t expect his ally Prince Richard to sleep on straw. Political allies in medieval times always had their beds on offer to each other. Practical reasons prevented most from taking the offers up, but Richard took up Philippe’s.

The Victorians idolised Richard, even inventing legends about him. But they were quite prudish, not, as you might have imagined, because of Queen Victoria herself, but because of the growing humanitarian and philanthropic enthusiasm that resulted from the Christian revival in the mid-19th century (particularly the Unitarians, Quakers, Methodists, etc.). It was they who began to think of “sleeping together” as meaning something else – something adults now always think of first when they hear those words. John Hervey, writing in 1948, was living in what was still essentially a Victorian England, so he had the same prudish ideas. Before the Victorians, men sharing beds was common and raised no eyebrows.

One (and only one) of Richard’s contemporary chroniclers wrote that “they loved each other so much that the king of England (Henry II, Richard’s father) was absolutely astonished at the vehement love between them and marvelled at what it could mean”. What it meant was that they were being what the Catholic church at the time expected them to be – examples of the highest form of love, brotherly love, the love for others as much as for your family. And the reason why Henry II was astonished?

King Henry II was losing control of England and his family. His wife opposed him, and his children were split between the two. Henry offended both his son Richard and King Philippe by marrying Richard’s fiancĂ© (Philippe’s sister) to younger brother Prince John – after fathering a son by her himself! Richard went to France to show publicly whose side he was on, and it wasn’t his father’s. Its not surprising King Henry was astonished – not because Richard was in bed with another man, but that he had been betrayed by his favourite son. Philippe also promised to provide an army to depose Henry. Henry felt rejected by his son’s betrayal and it destroyed his will to carry on and he died a year later.

That’s how much things have changed. Today’s politics isn’t about physical displays of allegiance but words, words, words. Politicians are seen shaking hands, but if the Victorians hadn’t demonised the sharing of a bed by two men we might see sights like David Cameron and Barak Obama sitting up in bed together giving a press conference!

This story illustrates well the caution needed when assigning a specific sexuality to a historical person. Attitudes change, and you need to look at what’s going on around them.

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