Greeks v Franco-Germans, medieval edition

The other day I was writing about the age-old culture gap between Greeks and Franks. Here, from 1215 and All That: a very, very short history of Magna Carta and King John, on how Latin Europe’s crusaders weren’t entirely welcome in the Greek world.

The Third Crusade came about after the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem had been re-conquered by the Muslims. The rulers of England, France and Germany pledged their support and to encourage recruits emperors and kings promised rich rewards on Earth while the Pope said anyone who died on Crusade would enter Heaven in a state of grace, with a soul unstained by any previous wrongdoing. There were other pressures, of course – men who didn’t take up the cross were given distaff and wool in the street, the equivalent of handing them a white feather in the First World War or perhaps shouting ‘paedo’ at them today.

The Crusades were a sort of gap year of the time, except instead of building a well or teaching primary school kids in the Third World, you got to kill some Arabs; that’s if you didn’t die in agony from dysentery, or get beheaded by some bearded maniac.

The logistics involved were immense. Richard had 60,000 horseshoes made before setting off, as well as having 14,000 pigs turned into cured ham. Soon before bringing Jerusalem back to God, an appropriate omen went his way when reconstruction work at Glastonbury Abbey led to the discovery of two bodies, which just happened to be those of Arthur and Guinevere, the sixth-century, non-existent king and queen of Britain. Incredible. And alongside them was a sword, which Richard assumed to be Excalibur and took with him; he then swapped it with the dim-witted king of Sicily for four ships and 15 galleys. (Such deals were quite common. Hoping to conquer Hungary, one German emperor exchanged a chunk of Switzerland for a piece of the ‘True Cross’, of which there was said to be enough bits going around to construct a medium-sized boat. Still, when the war came about, his successor did beat Hungary, so who are we to say it wasn’t a wise investment?)

Long before he even reached the Levant, Richard managed to get into trouble. His army first landed in Sicily, ruled by King Tancred, a dwarfish man rather cruelly said to resemble a monkey with a crown placed on its head. Although Tancred was from Sicily’s Norman ruling class, the island was largely Orthodox Greek, who lived alongside Jews and Muslim Arabs in relative harmony by the standards of the day. The Normans had first arrived on the island in the 11th century as tourists on their way back from Palestine but ended up conquering it, as they tended to do; but they were fairly tolerant as rulers.

Then several thousand highly armed, drunk crusaders rowed into view.

Alongside Richard for the jaunt was Philip II of France, his ally/rival/enemy, who had grown from being a weedy adolescent into a devious adult. Philip was described by one contemporary as ‘one-eyed, red-faced, unkempt, charmless, a timid young man fearful of assassins and hard-mouthed horses’. Despite Philip’s cunning schemes, in a predictable, cartoonish way the Lionheart always beat him in battle.

In Sicily, Richard and Philip got into an argument with Tancred, who was alarmed at the sight of this travelling army turning up on his island, and a fight soon broke out between the locals and tourists. With two groups of men sharing the same space, and with alcohol involved, the argument could have started over anything, although the chronicler Ambroise said at the time that the crusaders were ‘anxious to make friends with the women of Sicily’, which is never going to go down too well.

The thing got out of control and Richard ended up sacking the city of Messina – and this was supposed to just be an overnight stay as guests.

It illustrated his incredible fighting skills: he took Messina quicker than it would take for a priest to say Mass, so Ambroise said. But his diplomatic talents weren’t quite of the same quality. After Richard conquered the town he began building a castle, which he sensitively called ‘Castle Kill the Greeks’. To everyone’s horror, Richard then decided they would winter in Sicily, and to make matters worse for the poor Sicilians, it was reported that the German Emperor Heinrich VI and his army were now on their way. (To Greeks and Arabs, Catholics from north-west Europe were generically called ‘Franks’, and in the Ottoman Empire western Europe was referred to as Frangistan. Today, in Hindi, Europeans are still called ‘Firang’, while in the Vietnam War the locals called the Americans the ‘Farang’.)

Richard then fell out with Philip, and the cause was a woman, or Richard’s lack of interest in one. In recent years there has been a fashion for suggesting that Richard was gay, a case first made in 1947, but there’s no real evidence, and certainly no one mentioned it at the time. The main argument seems to be that he was very close to his mother, as well as his wet nurse, Hodierna, who is (as far as anyone knows) the only wet nurse to have a parish named after her, Knoyle Hodierne in Wiltshire.

Another supposed pointer is that Philip and Richard regularly shared a bed when they were allies against Henry, although medieval historians say there is no sexual significance to this and that men would regularly bunk up together. And while on another occasion a hermit rebuked Richard for his sins, shouting ‘Remember the destruction of Sodom’, at the time that would have referred to any extramarital sex. (When Richard became ill he began to believe the hermit was right, although the Lionheart swallowed any old rubbish that hermits told him. Joachim of Fiore, the wild hermit of Calabria, predicted that a third age was nigh, and the Muslim leader Saladin was the sixth of the seven great enemies of the Church, the last being the antichrist, who would get the job of pope before revealing himself. Richard, who didn’t like Pope Clement III, thought it all made sense and was waiting in vain for the pontiff to eventually reveal his true identity.) However the best evidence there is that Richard wasn’t gay was that he is known to have committed multiple rapes as ruler of Aquitaine. He also sired at least one bastard, which is admittedly tame by his father’s standards.

In Sicily he argued with Philip over the latter’s sister, Alice, who Richard had been engaged to for 20 years. Richard now rather offended the French king by saying that her morals were too questionable for a marriage, which could have been more tactfully put, but she was rumoured to have had a child by Richard’s father, so we can see his reluctance; it would have been slightly on the weird side.

Philip and Richard also fell out over flags, a subject that seems somewhat childish eight centuries later but was hugely important; Philip was furious that Richard had flown his flag over Messina and demanded that his also be put up there.

As if things weren’t bad enough, Eleanor of Aquitaine then arrived in town with Berengaria, a Spanish princess she intended her son to marry; despite being 70, mumsy had ridden all the way to Madrid to find a wife for her son. Either she was a calculating politician or one of those mothers totally deluded about her son’s sexual orientation. Though they did eventually marry, Berengaria became the only English queen to never actually visit England and the union was never consummated. Apart from that, the marriage went splendidly.

Luckily, Richard escaped the island just as his mother turned up, long after Philip, outraged, had sailed ahead to Palestine.

At this point the famous Templars, the medieval religious-military-banking group founded in 1129 to defend pilgrims in the Holy Land, turn up in the story. Having fled Sicily, Philip was then captured by Isaac, the tyrant of Cyprus, and Richard, in what he later described as a ‘fit of pique’, invaded it (again, a Christian country), freed the king of France and conquered the island; he then sold it to the Templars, who despite their monastic origins, had grown incredibly rich through patronage and support across western Christendom, and sort of ended up inventing banking. In fact this would be their undoing when the crusades all started going wrong, and they were destroyed by Philip IV of France in 1312, although they continue to exist in the minds of conspiracy-theory-loving imbeciles.)

The tyrant of Cyprus was a strange one; he had bluffed his way into the job, having arrived on the island with forged documents supposedly from the ruler of Constantinople stating that he was the new governor, and by the time anyone found out he had installed himself as dictator. Isaac surrendered to Richard on condition he was not put in irons, and the Lionheart agreed, having special silver chains made for him. Richard then, in an act of petty spite, made the Greeks shave off their beards to conform with Western ways.

It was already turning out to be some trip. But what with the battles, the risk of some disgusting disease, and the dangers of long-distance travel, the Crusades were hugely risky adventures. In 1191, at Acre, Richard and Philip both got trench mouth, an infection every bit as horrible as it sounds, which caused their nails and hair to fall out.

However there were plus points for the lads on tour, if you were interested in violence and the ladies. At Acre, the local women cosied up to the Crusader men; that is, people think that’s what the Arab Imad ad-Din was getting at when he said ‘They made themselves targets for men’s darts, offered themselves to the lance’s blows, made javelins rise towards shields… They interwove leg with leg, caught lizard after lizard in their holes, guided pens to inkwells, torrents to the valley bottom, swords to scabbards, firewood to stoves.’ Had Imad been born in a different time and place, he could have made quite a living writing erotic fiction.

In October 1191, at Jaffa, Richard almost got caught when some Turks ambushed his party. One of his knights, William de Preaux, pretended to be the king, giving him time to escape as the Infidel took the knight away. The Turks greatly admired de Preaux for this, and Richard’s last act before returning home was to pay his ransom.

But though the fate of the holiest of cities was at stake, throughout these campaigns Richard and Philip were constantly bickering, even quarrelling via messengers while both were seriously ill.

Richard had by now also fallen out with Duke Leopold of Austria, over the issue of flags once again. It happened after the fall of Acre, on July 12, 1191, when Leopold put his standard up to try to bask in the glory and Richard’s soldiers tore it down. The Austrian swore his revenge.


  1. […] was the Third Crusade in the 12th century, a military adventure in the Middle East. Okay, so it ended disastrously, and ended up costing the English treasury about four year’s worth of taxes, but let’s hope […]

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