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Friday, December 18, 2009

WHY NOBILITY DIED


I offer you the poster child for why history has regulated noble blood to the dust bin: Richard Plantagenet, the biggest fool in Europe at a time when Europe was just overflowing with fools. To know Richard was to despise Richard. The better you knew him, the better you despised him. He was the kind of violent lunatic thug that only a mother could love, and she had moments of doubt. If he had been born in the twenty-first century Richard would have been confined in a mental institution as a child. But he was born in the Middle Ages, so they made him a King.

Physically, Richard was gorgeous. He spoke fluent French. He even wrote poetry in French. In fact he didn't speal English at all. He was tall and athletic, with red hair and soft grey eyes. He also had a passion for violence and poetry that was the romantic ideal in the 12th century. And most of the press in the English speaking world remains enamored of Richard even now -  but then he only spent 6 months in England in his entire life, so they never got to know him in person.

Richard was the favorite and eldest son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the smartest, most lovely, most duplicitous women of her age and clearly one of the worst mothers ever born. This woman should never have given birth to a living human child. Doctor Phill could have done an entire series of shows on her.

Richard was also the second son of Henry II, the smartest of the smart and violent Plantagenet Kings. Richard was like his father in every way, except he was more violent and less smart.

With the help of his mother, Richard finally cornered his sick and elderly father and took him prisoner. Richard then had the satisfaction of hearing his father call him “a bast-rd” from his death bed. And you thought you didn't get along with your old man. But it was the entitlement of nobility that raised Richard's simple neruoses to the level of a full blown psychosis.

Placing a crown on his head instantly converted Richard Plantagenet into Richard I, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Ireland and Cyprus, Count of Anjou and Nantes and Overlord of Brittany, also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lion Heart.

Richard celebrated his coronation in June of 1189 by having the local Jews, who had showed up bearing gifts for him, whipped and flogged. He followed this by a general massacre of all the Jews in London and in York. Baldwin d’Eu, the Archbishop of Canterbury, summed up Richard's theory of nobility this way, “If the King is not God’s man, he had better be the devil’s”. And Baldwin should know, being the son of a liaison between an Archdeacon and a nun.

The first thing the new King did, after cleaning up all those Jewish corpses, was to lay heavy taxes on everybody to pay for a Third Crusade, to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims, because they were so bad. To pay for that Richard announced “I would have sold London if I could have found a buyer." Of course Richard's loyal subjects in England never heard that particular royal comment.

In May of 1191 Richard’s army of 40,000 knights and 40,000 footmen arrived on the island of Cyprus, where Richard threw the local Christian ruler into a dungeon in chains, pillaged the island for even more money and slaughtered any Christian who objected. Being on crusade not only cleaned up Richard's past sins, it earned him a pass on any sins he might committ while on crusade; the Pope had said so.

After annexing Cyprus as his personal property, Richard then moved on to the Holy Land, where he joined the King of France and other European nobility in slaughtering Muslims, Christians and Jews without discrimination as to race, religion, age or sex. During the siege of Acre, Richard fell ill and had servants carry him about the fortifications in a sedan chair while he took pot shots at the defenders with a crossbow.When Acre fell, (and while its citizens were being slaghtered) Richard’s banner and that of Phillip of France were planted on the cities’ walls. But so was the banner of Leopold V, of Austria, who figured he was entitled as the sole representative on this crusade of the Holy Roman Emperor, who had died enroute.

Richard however, disagreed and had Leopold’s banner torn down. Well, Leopold already had a problem with Richard because Leopold was related through his mother to the ruler of Cyprus, whom Richard had overthrown and imprisoned. And the instant his banner fell to the gutters of Acre, Leopold pulled his entire army out of the Crusade and sailed for home.

Within a month Phillip of France had also gotten fed up with Richard's ego and he sailed for home, leaving the Lion Heart with only about a third of his army left, and burdened with more than 3,000 Muslim prisoners captured at Acre. The Muslum leader, Saladin, wasn't willing to pay the ransom Richard was demanding, so Richard had all the prisoners executed.That little faux paux ensured that Saladin, who had been trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the Christians, would continue the war just to make Richard bleed as much as possible. At the same time Richard’s overbearing rule even at a distance had produced a rebellion back on Cyprus, which eventually forced him to sell his island conquest to a cousin.

Richard's arrogance and ignorance also led to the election of an anti-Richard crusader, Conrad de Montforrat, as the new King of Jerusalem. That made Conrad the leader of the Christian army, which made him Richard’s boss. And Richard did not like bosses. Richard's participation in the crusades came to a bloody end on April 28, 1192, when Conrad was stabbed to death on the streets of Tyre by two Muslim assassins. So low had Richard’s reputation fallen that everyone assumed (and still assumes, I must add) that Richard had financed the murder. It was all based on flimsey evidence, but with Richard it was always the wise choice to believe the worst. His ego had finally run out his string.

In September 1192 Saladin finally decided to provide Richard with enough of a fig leaf to cover his escape. Salidin agreed to allow Christians to visit Jeruselum at anytime of year, something he had secretly negotiated with Conrad de Montforrat, before Conrad had been murdered. Richard could now claim he had secured the religious freedom of the Holy Land, even if nobody outside of Richard's sycophants believed that he was responsible for it.

Richard had gone on Crusade with a full war chest, 80,000 men and strong allies in France and the Holy Roman Empire. That money was now gone and most of the army was dead. Richard was leaving the holy land with just a handful of personal bodyguards and with every political power broker in Europe gunning for him. He had to sneak back home. And he didn't make it.

Just before Christmas 1192, at an inn outside of Vienna, his old enemy Leopold V caught up with him. Richard was arrested while dressed as a lowly pilgrim. And it is interesting to note that there was not even a rumor that "the Lion Heart" so much as slapped the men who captured him.

Richard was hustled off to Durnsetin castle, high above the Rhine River. And once he was safely under lock and key Leopold set the price for his release at 65,000 pounds of silver. Who, the nobility of Europe must have wondered, would pay three times the annual income of the English crown to free the most pompous, most arrogant and most violent English King there was?

His mommy, that’s who; Eleanor of Aquitaine laid out her personal fortune, and put the squeeze on English churches, English nobility, English merchants and peasants from the white cliffs of Dover, to the mountains of Scotland. Of course, at the same time, Richard’s own younger brother, John, together with Phillip the king of France, were offering 80,000 pounds of silver if Leopold would just hold on to Richard for another year. I guess you could say that Eleanor won this contest, in that, in February of 1194, King Phillip sent brother John the following terse note, “Look to yourself. The devil is loose.”

And so he was. Richard might have wanted to pay back the entire continent for his bad treatment, but his huge ransom and his own boorishness and love of destruction had bankrupted him. He could no longer afford to make war on his neighbors. For the last five years of his life Richard the Lion Heart had to be content with butchering his own subjects, slaughtering them with all the zeal and blood lust he had once displayed on the international stage.

And then in the spring of 1199 Richard heard a rumor that a cache of Roman gold had been discovered in the Limousin region of the Aquitaine, a region so wealthy (before Richard) that luxury autos of a later age would later be named for it. There was no gold, and everybody told him so. But Richard the Lion Heart, Richard the Dunder-Head, Richard the Rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread, laid siege to the walled city of Charlus anyway and demanded payment of the non-existant gold. And it was during that pointless siege that a brave young defender named Bertrand de Gurdon pierced Richard’s shoulder with a crossbow bolt.

You know how you say to yourself about violent and dangerous lunatics, "I wonder why somebody doesn't just shoot him?" Well, somebody finally shot Richard. Gangrene set in and the arrogant jackass was finally dead on Tuesday April 6, 1199, dying in his mommy's arms. As a final insult they buried the "bas-ard" at his father's feet, in Rouen Cathedral at Fontefrault.

On his deathbed Richard had insisted that the young crossbowman Bertrand was to be pardoned and set free with 100 shillings, but of course he didn't mean it. In his whole life Richard never chose nobility over violence. And it didn’t happen here. Instead one of Richard’s captains had the sure-shot cross-bowman skinned alive and hanged. That man's horrible death was a fitting legacy for one of the most violent lunatics of the middle ages, a raving psychotic who was made a King, as the thinking at the time insisted, by the grace of God.

God must have been rolling over in her grave.

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