Coronation of Richard the Lionheart

King Richard I of England

On the 3rd of September 1189, King Richard I of England known as the Lionheart was crowned as King of England at Westminster Abbey.  At the age of 32, he was still relatively young, vigorous, and ready to lead the Angevin empire to her new heights.  Tall with reddish-blonde hair, he was described as a very handsome and strong man.   The lavish and a bit extravagant ceremony that elevated him to his impressive monarchial title – King of England – was so remarkable that Richard I’s coronation is the first coronation for which a contemporary account exists.

A large procession that consisted of bishops, abbots, barons, knights, and important nobles of the realm entered Westminster Abbey.  Crowds of people gathered in the streets of London to catch a glimpse of Richard, the eldest surviving son and heir of the recently deceased King Henry II and his formidable mother – Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Richard was also Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and Count of Poitou, among many other titles.  He had been invested as Duke of Normandy over a month before his coronation on the 20th of July 1189.

Having spent most of his adult life and part of his childhood in Aquitaine, the Lionheart was quite a stranger to Englishmen, most of whom had never visited the Angevin continental territories.  Yet, he was preparing to ascend his father’s throne and already had grand plans for the future, which were nevertheless not connected with England.  Richard intended to conquer the Holy Land and to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, or the heathens as they were called back then.

Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had 5 sons.  Their first son had died in infancy.  The second son, Henry, had been crowned as a junior king in 1170 at the age of 15.  Meanwhile, Richard, the 3rd son, had been selected to rule his mother’s beloved Aquitaine and neighboring Poitou, himself being Eleanor’s favorite son.  In 1172, the 15-year-old Richard had been made both Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou.  Henry and Eleanor’s 4th son, Geoffrey, had become Duke of Brittany in 1181 at the age of 23, through his marriage to Constance of Brittany.  There seemed to be nothing left for the youngest son, John, who was labelled derisively ‘John Lackland’.

Palace of Poitiers, the seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine in the 10th through 12th centuries

However, fate interfered: two unexpected deaths had thrown Henry II’s plans for succession into doubt.  Henry the Young King had passed away in 1183, having been followed by Geoffrey’s sudden demise in 1186.  Out of 5 sons, only 2 of them remained:  Richard and John.  At the time, Henry II had decided to give Aquitaine to John, his favorite male offspring.  Richard, having ruled Aquitaine for over a decade by the time, had been unwilling to relinquish his control over it.  Aquitaine was second only to Normandy in wealth and importance, and, remarkably, Richard was more a descendant of his Poitevin ancestors in character and spirit than an Englishman.  Henry was not fond of Richard, and his dislike had been strengthened by Richard’s refusal to surrender Aquitaine.  Their disagreements had set in motion years of conflict between father and son.

King Philippe II of France known as Augustus

In the summer of 1189, Richard had joined forces with King Philippe II of France, who would later earn the nickname ‘Augustus’ for tremendously expanding the French royal demesne and dismantling the Angevin empire.  Nonetheless, at the time of their alliance, the Lionheart could not predict what would follow his demise in 1199.  Richard had been fighting to retain Aquitaine while also insisting to be named his father’s successor.  Richard and Philippe had defeated Henry’s troops at Ballans, located 30-40 miles north-west of Angoulême in modern France, on the 4th of July 1189.  Soon King Henry had fallen gravely ill, wishing to die peacefully in Anjou rather than fight another campaign.  The parties had met to settle their disputes, and Henry, who had been barely able sit on his horse, had consented to recognize Richard as his heir, to let Philippe’s sister – Alix, Countess of Blois – marry Richard, and to pay Philippe a substantial compensation.

Henry II had passed away on the 6th of July 1189 at the age of 56, at Chinon.  After Henry’s burial, Richard had marched on Rouen, where on Saint Margaret’s Day, he had been girded with the sword of the Dukedom of Normandy in a lavish ceremony by Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen, in the presence of many Norman bishops, earls, counts, and barons.  Richard had been absolved for the rebellion against his father.  He had been officially proclaimed King of England, pending his formal coronation.  Among Richard’s first actions had been the order to release his mother, Eleanor, who had been held prisoner by King Henry since the Revolt of 1173-1174, arranged by her and her several sons.  Then Richard had left for England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and Queen of England

Exhilarated with her son’s ascension and her regained freedom, Eleanor of Aquitaine had channeled her energy into planning and organizing her beloved son’s coronation.  The result was the opulent coronation that Roger of Howden (a 12th-century English chronicler) chronicled in great detail.  It was the sort of celebration that Henry II would not have enjoyed; however, there is little doubt that it was exactly the grand event which pleased both Richard and Eleanor.  For the first time in 102 years (since William the Conqueror’s death in 1087), a son was crowned King of England after the death of his father, not in his lifetime.  For the people of England, this peaceful transition of power was both new and welcome, for everyone remembered the years of the Anarchy that had ravaged and devastated the country between 1135 and 1153 when Empress Mathilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, had fought for the throne of England with King Stephen.

Thanks to Howden, there are detailed descriptions of the formal ceremonies during Richard’s coronation, as well as the names of those who performed various roles in the event.  After the long procession through London, in the abbey the audience included all the great barons and lords of England who observed their new liege lord with undisguised interest, nobody with more joy than that of Eleanor, now Dowager Queen of England.  Watching Richard being crowned must have felt like the crowning moment of her whole life.  As the procession progressed, the most influential nobles solemnly bore golden swords, spurs, candles, cups, and a royal scepter with the cross.  Solemnly, Richard approached the altar and knelt, surrounded by abbots and bishops, and the holy relics of saints and the Bible were placed before him, according to custom.

According to Roger of Howden, the Lionheart then took several oaths:

“…. [Richard] swore that he would all the days of his life observe peace, honor, and reverence towards God, the Holy Church, and its ordinances.  He also swore that he would exercise true justice and equity towards the people committed to his charge.  He also swore that he would abrogate bad laws and unjust customs, if any such had been introduced into his kingdom, and would enact good laws, and observe the same without fraud or evil intent.”

The anointing of Richard I during his coronation

The focus of the ceremony was Richard’s anointing as a monarch chosen by the Lord to rule.   Then Richard’s clothes were removed, save his shirt and breeches.  His shirt had been modified cleverly beforehand in order to bare his right shoulder and the front of his chest.   He put on sandals embroidered with gold, and Baldwin of Exeter, Archbishop of Canterbury, poured holy oil upon his head, his chest, and his right arm.

Following his anointing, Richard was aided to change into consecrated linen and royal robes.  He was given the symbolical sword of rule, and then the spurs were placed upon his feet.  Richard took the crown from the altar and handed it to the archbishop, who then crowned him, while two earls held it above his head because it was heavy.  Afterwards, the new monarch mounted a dais and settled himself into a throne, then Mass was celebrated.

Howden described what happened next:

“The mass having been concluded, and all things solemnly performed, the two bishops before-named, one on the right hand the other on the left, led him back from the church to his chamber, crowned, and carrying a sceptre in his right hand and the rod of royalty in his left, the procession going in the same order as before. Then the procession returned to the choir, and our lord the king put off his royal crown and robes of royalty, and put on a crown and robes that were lighter; and, thus crowned, went to dine; on which the archbishops and bishops took their seats with him at the table, each according to his rank and dignity. The earls and barons also served in the king’s palace, according to their several dignities; while the citizens of London served in the cellars, and the citizens of Winchester in the kitchen.” 

On the same day, when some Jewish leaders brought gifts for the king, Richard’s courtiers stripped and flogged them, then expelling hem from court.  A blood-curdling gossip spread across the city that the monarch had commanded to have all Jews murdered, which resulted in the panic among Jewish population and the harsh aggression towards them of non-Jewish Londoners.  A number of Jewish homes were destroyed by arsons, and many Jews were compelled to convert into Christianity.  Some Jews rushed to the Tower of London for sanctuary, and many fled the city.  Unfortunately, there were also many Jews killed by the violent Londoners, among them Jacob of Orléans who was a notable Jewish scholar.  Richard’s reaction was interesting: he commanded to have those guilty of arsons arrested, but not for the sake of justice towards the Jews.

Richard Cœur de Lion, Carlo Marochetti’s 1856 statue of Richard I outside the Palace of Westminster, London

Howden characterized the King of England’s actions following the horror:

“The citizens of London, on hearing of this, attacked the Jews in the city and burned their houses; but by the kindness of their Christian friends, some few made their escape.  On the day after the coronation, the king sent his servants, and caused those offenders to be arrested who had set fire to the city; not for the sake of the Jews, but on account of the houses and property of the Christians which they had burnt and plundered, and he ordered some of them to be hanged.” 

However, the Archbishop of Canterbury famously remarked:

“If the King is not a God’s man, he had better be the devil’s”. 

Richard did not stay in England for long following his coronation.  He was all too eager to proceed to his much-desired Crusade and sail to Outremer.  He had already taken the cross as ruler of Poitou in 1187.  A king more at home in Poitiers than in London, Richard viewed England as an excellent source of revenue collected by the royal treasury and less than as a power base.  To raise funds necessary to fund his upcoming Crusade, Richard sold many offices, lands, and other privileges to those interested in them.  Henry II’s treasury that had recently been full became empty, and taxes were raised in England on Richard’s orders.  Soon Richard set off for the continent.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville


* Some historians list the date of the coronation as September 13, 1189.  The chronicler, Roger de Hoveden, wrote the following about the coronation of Richard I:

“[Richard] was consecrated and crowned king of England, at Westminster, in London, on the third day before the nones of September, being the Lord’s Day …”

The “nones” is the fifth day of the month.  Therefore, the third day before nones is the third of the month.  The Lord’s Day is Sunday, of course.  During this time, the Julian calendar was in use.  Using a calendar calculator for the Julian calendar date of September 3, 1189, we find that this day was a Sunday.  September 13, 1189, was a Wednesday.

Thus, we took the 3rd of September 3rd as the date of Richard’s coronation.


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