Patricia Bernstein

Richard the Lionhearted Wasn't Gay

Richard the Lionhearted

Historians didn’t begin speculating that Richard the Lionhearted was gay until the 20th century. In his book The Plantagenets, John Hooper Harvey claimed that earlier historians had engaged in a “conspiracy of silence.” According to Harvey, they were determined to hide the fact that Richard, the great emblem of all chivalric virtues, was a homosexual. However, this same historian in the same book also gave credit to the medieval myth of Jewish ritual murders and praised King Edward I for expelling the Jews from England in 1290! So how reliable is his analysis of the Middle Ages overall

Some kings of England were well-known to be gay. James I, for instance, was known to have gay favorites. Edward II ruined his own reign over his infatuation with, first, Piers Gaveston, and, second, Hugh Despenser the Younger. So why the obsession with a king who was not clearly known to be gay?


Richard’s modern-day biographer John Gillingham effectively dismantles the notion that Richard was a homosexual. The evidence in the chronicles of the time, Gillingham concludes, seem to indicate just the opposite, that Richard was an incessant and predatory womanizer.

Much of the claim that Richard was gay rests on a misunderstanding of a passage from one of the chroniclers. To modern readers who know little of the Middle Ages, this passage seems to describe a passionate affair between 30-year old Richard and 22-year old Philip II, king of France, in 1187:

Philip so honored him that every day they ate at the same table, shared the same dish and at night the bed did not separate them. Between the two of them there grew up so great an affection that King Henry was much alarmed and, afraid of what the future might hold in store, he decided to postpone his return to England until he knew what lay behind this sudden friendship.

Political Maneuver

What is being described here, explains Gillinghan, is a political maneuver, not an amorous one. Men often slept together in those days. When they kissed, it was the kiss of peace—a sign of political rapprochement. Richard had already rebelled against his father Henry II once. Now he was making a big show of this new friendship with Philip  to defy and disturb Henry. Apparently he succeeded.

In their later lives, King Richard and King Philip loathed each other. Philip’s departure from the Holy Land with his forces after the fall of Acre, was one of the main reasons Richard never made it to Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. He didn’t have enough soldiers left to guard the crusaders’ supply lines from the coast to Jerusalem.  Nor were his remaining forces enough to attack the walls of Jerusalem while also protecting the besiegers from Saladin’s assaults on his forces from the rear. While Richard remained in “Outremer,” Philip was busy trying to steal Richard’s lands back in France.

Richard I. Cœur de Lion (Lionheart, Löwenherz)

Blackened Name

In point of fact, Richard’s name was blackened as a sadistic and predatory womanizer by some of the people who rebelled against his rule in the duchy of Aquitaine. According to their complaints:

He carried off his subjects’ wives, daughters and kinswomen by force and made them his concubines; when he had sated his own lust on them he handed them down for his soldiers to enjoy.

Richard seemed to have such a great need to have a woman always in his bed that one chronicler reported he even demanded a woman be brought to him for his pleasure when he was dying of a festering arrow wound in 1199!

It is true that Richard spent very little time with his wife Berengaria, even though most kings at the time were intensely concerned with producing a legitimate heir. But, on the other hand, he began fighting a crusade immediately after their marriage and then was taken prisoner on his way home to England. By the time he was freed, he knew that both King Philip in France and his brother John in England were busy trying to steal his lands and possessions and hastened to restore his control in both places.

Acknowledged Son

Richard did have one acknowledged illegitimate son named Philip of Cognac, whose mother is unknown. “Philip the Bastard” is a character in Shakespeare’s play The Life and Death of King John. Richard married Philip to his ward Amelia, heiress of Cognac in southwestern France.

Richard underwent two episodes of intense penance, one before he arrived at Outremer, and the second after the Crusade, in which he was rebuked for the sins of Sodom, but these were never precisely specified. The famously good Bishop Hugh of Lincoln criticized him to his face for unfaithfulness to his wife, but again this was probably just part of his compulsive womanizing.

In sum, Richard may have been guilty of the sin of lust, as acknowledged in his own time, along with avarice and excessive pride. But it is most likely that his lust was directed at women, not at men.

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