summer 1190 – Richard’s fleet

Not Richard’s fleet but a fabulous picture of Oxford & Cambridge rowers in the Middle Ages

Prior to his departure for the Holy Land, Richard the Lionheart gathered more than 100 ships, each one able to carry 40 knights, men-at-arms and their horses, and 40 foot soldiers. There were galleys, busses (aka cargo ships), and esneccas² of all shapes and sizes. The ships departed from ports in what we now call the English Channel while Richard went overland to meet King Philip of France in Vézelay.

The ships were to rendezvous with Richard in Marseille, and sail on to Messina, Sicily, where they’d spend the winter. They were late!³ Richard hired more ships and left without them. Apparently, by the time the crusaders departed Sicily the following spring, Richard commanded a fleet of more than 200 ships.

Interestingly, Richard gave orders for the conduct of the fleet:

“Whoever on board ship shall slay another is himself to be cast into the sea lashed to the dead man… If anyone cast any reproach or bad word against another or invoke God’s malison on him, let him for every offence pay an ounce of silver…”

Richard Coeur de Lion: a biography, by Philip Henderson

Thieves would be tarred, feathered and then left at the next port of call. Shipboard life can not have been pleasant in the 12th century. In Battle Scars, I manage to sneak in a bit of humor while Henry, Stephan, and their friends are on board the galleys headed to Messina – some 900 miles from Marseille – and later from Messina to Acre (1700 miles).

Roger of Hoveden, another chronicler of the Third Crusade, noted that it could take as few as 15 days to travel from Marseille to Acre, but galleys, such as those Richard used, had to sail close to shore to avoid sinking should a storm sweep in. Dependent on which source is consulted, Richard departed Marseille on August 7 or 16, and arrived in Messina, Sicily on September 23 or 20th, so 4-5 weeks rather than two.

And now – you guessed it – back to revising (in between vacation & conferencing in London).



¹ photo by medieval book historian Dr. Erik Kwakkel, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

² An esnecca, according to David Miller, was a descendant of the Viking longship.

³ Atlantic storms are partly to blame. In Richard the Lionheart, author David Miller also notes that 70+ ships arrived in Lisbon, where the crews’ behavior was so bad, over 700 sailors were arrested! (Rather hard to navigate a boat when your crew is sitting in jail!)

  1. Catherine Hedge Avatar

    Are Steven and Henry Skinny-dipping? Nice post! I hope you are having a raving good time!

    1. Char Avatar

      Ha ha! How’d you guess? Having a great time in London. My meetings end this afternoon & then we’re off to Leeds Castle, Canterbury & Dover tomorrow. 🙂

  2. nmissi Avatar

    This was a fascinating little article- I’d never read that about Richard before. Suppose it kept the troops in line, though…

    1. Char Avatar

      Glad you enjoyed it! Richard is quite the warrior king. His life (and times) are fascinating. He’s one of the most renowned of English kings, yet he didn’t even spend more than a year in England during his lifetime.

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