Secret Library

The Poetry of Richard the Lionheart

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines the lyrics of a famous medieval English king

‘Richard the Lionheart’, or Coeur du Lion, has gone down in popular consciousness as one of England’s greatest and noblest kings. His statue stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London. He was viewed as the heroic warrior-king, riding off to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. In the early nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott gave his reputation a boost in the hugely popular novel Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825). He was played by Sean Connery (uncredited) at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the 1991 film which derived much of its perception of Robin Hood from Scott’s novel.

In reality, though, Richard thought little of England, thinking nothing of plundering the nation’s coffers to fund his foreign exploits, and, famously, spending just six months of his ten-year reign actually in the country over which he nominally reigned. The idea that Scott romantically portrayed in Ivanhoe – King Richard the Lionheart helping out his subjects in need, in disguise as the Black Knight – has, of course, no basis in historical fact.

Even in his lifetime, Richard the Lionheart was being immortalised in verse by Blondel, the minstrel who was his trusty companion. Except that Blondel, too, was a legend – or rather, his links with Richard are the stuff of legend rather than fact. Although a poet named Blondel de Nesle or Jean I of Nesle (c. 1155–1202) certainly existed, his connections with Richard the Lionheart are a later, thirteenth-century, fabrication.

But Richard didn’t need a poet to write for him. He was a poet in his own right. Even those who cannot abide Richard as a king often have kinder words to say about him as a poet, and his love of the arts of music and poetry is well-documented: it’s even said that, during the Crusades, Richard asked one of Saladin’s brothers to send him a musician to sing some examples of Arabic music (the Lionheart reportedly loved what he heard). One of his most celebrated poems, ‘Ja Nus Hons Pris’, is thought to have been composed by Richard while he was a prisoner in Germany, following his return from the Crusades in 1192. Richard was taken captive by the Duke of Austria, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, and was held for ransom.

Richard wrote in Occitan-French rather than English, which would not become the official language of the English royal court for another two centuries, shortly after the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. (However, it’s not true to say that these poets represent the beginning of Middle English poetry: The Owl and the Nightingale, a long verse-dialogue which I’ve written about here, may even have been composed during Richard’s reign.) ‘Ja Nus Hons Pris’, sometimes known as ‘Prison Song’, is a fine piece of poetry, composed in around 1193 in Occitan French. The English translation below was made in the early twentieth century by Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918). I thought the poem was worth sharing during this time when much of the world is on lockdown, because it is about writing poetry or making a song during a time of confinement.

No prisoner can tell his honest thought
Unless he speaks as one who suffers wrong;
But for his comfort as he may make a song.
My friends are many, but their gifts are naught.
Shame will be theirs, if, for my ransom, here
—I lie another year.

They know this well, my barons and my men,
Normandy, England, Gascony, Poitou,
That I had never follower so low
Whom I would leave in prison to my gain.
I say it not for a reproach to them,
—But prisoner I am!

The ancient proverb now I know for sure;
Death and a prison know nor kind nor tie,
Since for mere lack of gold they let me lie.
Much for myself I grieve; for them still more.
After my death they will have grievous wrong
—If I am a prisoner long.

What marvel that my heart is sad and sore
When my own lord torments my helpless lands!
Well do I know that, if he held his hands,
Remembering the common oath we swore,
I should not here imprisoned with my song,
—Remain a prisoner long.

They know this well who now are rich and strong
Young gentlemen of Anjou and Touraine,
That far from them, on hostile bonds I strain.
They loved me much, but have not loved me long.
Their plans will see no more fair lists arrayed
—While I lie here betrayed.

Companions whom I love, and still do love,
Geoffroi du Perche and Ansel de Caieux,
Tell them, my song, that they are friends untrue.
Never to them did I false-hearted prove;
But they do villainy if they war on me,
—While I lie here, unfree.

Countess sister! Your sovereign fame
May he preserve whose help I claim,
—Victim for whom am I!

I say not this of Chartres’ dame,
—Mother of Louis!

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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