Pirates, shipwreck, and the capture of a king . . . December 1192

On this anniversary of the surrender of Richard the Lionheart to Duke Leopold of Austria on December 20 (or the 21st), I thought I would take a look at the events in the Fall of 1192 and other historical background leading up to that day.

The Third Crusade ended with a truce in September. King Richard set sail for home on October 9, 1192.

Enemies – old rivalries, hatred, and politics
To the west, the quickest route to Richard’s realms was via Sicily and Marseille – the route he had taken in 1190/1191 to the Holy Land. But word reached Richard that he’d not find safe harbor in Marseille. Raymond, Count of Toulouse, an old enemy he’d engaged with in border disputes in Aquitaine, planned to seize him there.

There were ports west of Marseille, but Toulouse had conspired with the king of Aragon and Catalonia, cutting Richard’s access to Provence and northern Spain. There were also rumors that Genoese ships had been hired to watch for and intercept Richard. Skirting the north African coast to sail west and through the Straits of Gilbralter into the Atlantic would be far too dangerous. Seafaring men of the 12th century knew the hazards of winter sailing, and the best among them rarely ventured into the Mediterranean after the 1st of November.

Richard weighed his options as he approached Sicily. With the sea routes to the west cut off, his buss, a large galley called the Franche Nef, turned back and sailed into the Adriatic Sea.

Pirates & Shipwreck?
The Lionheart abandoned his buss in Corfu and, dependent on which history you read, either: 1) had a run-in with pirates; or 2) hired two privateer galleys for 200 marks. With a small group of trusted companions and the 2 galleys,  Richard sailed north from Corfu battered by one storm after another. In early December, the galleys were driven ashore by storms somewhere between Aquileia and Venice.

Overland Routes
Richard’s potential overland routes presented as many hazards as the sea routes. Travel west meant traversing the Kingdom of Italy (ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI), the treacherous passages through the Alps, and the lands of King Philip of France. The northeast route would take the returning crusaders through lands subject to Henry VI, and Leopold, Duke of Austria.

King Philip was no doubt delighted by Toulouse’s actions. Philip – supposedly Richard’s ally in the Holy Land – had returned to France after the fall of Acre in July 1191. He had invaded Richard’s lands in Normandy and stirred rebellion amongst Richard’s barons while Richard marched towards Jerusalem. Richard had also jilted Philip’s sister Alys to marry Berengaria of Navarre in 1191.

Henry VI had no love for Richard. His wife Constance had a strong claim to the throne of Sicily following the death of Richard’s brother-in-law William II. But Richard had supported Tancred’s accession there. Henry had also fought against another of Richard’s brothers-in-law, Henry of Saxony. And he was an ally of Duke Leopold of Austria, whom Richard had insulted after the siege of Acre. Highly offended when Richard ordered the removal of his banners, which had been raised above the city walls, Leopold returned to Austria.

Three hundred miles of enemy territory. Could Richard and his 20 companions make for Bohemia, a country whose ruler was no friend of Henry VI? From there, Richard could go to Saxony where his brother-in-law Henry the Lion ruled. Safe passage to a port on the North Sea would be assured.

Recognizing the higher western range of Alps presented a formidable barrier in the winter, Richard and his companions traveled northeast through the territory of Meinhard II of Gorza, an ally of Henry VI and nephew of Conrad of Montferrat. Montferrat, also cousin to Leopold of Austria, had been a claimant to the throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem whom Richard did not support. Richard had been accused of arranging his murder in the Holy Land.

Traveling Incognito
Richard had disguised himself as a merchant, but acting the part did not come natural. His large retinue spent lavishly and attracted the attention of the locals. And Richard’s reputation and looks – 6’5″ with reddish-gold hair – set him apart from most men. To keep Henry VI and Leopold off his scent, Richard agreed that the majority of his party would stay behind in the town of Friesach.

In the Annals, Roger de Hoveden provides text of a letter to Philip of France wherein Henry VI describes the chase:

“A faithful subject of ours, the Count Maynard of Gortze, and the people of that district, hearing that he [Richard] was in their territory, and calling to mind the treason and treachery and accumulated mischief he had been guilty of in the Land of Promise, pursued him with the intention of making him prisoner. However, the king taking to flight, they captured eight knights of his retinue. Shortly after, the king proceeded to a borough…which is called Frisi, where Frederic de Botesowe took six of his knights…”

The plan had worked, and Richard was long gone with two companions, William de l’Etang and a German-speaking boy he had hired. At one point, they raced almost 150 miles in 3 days. Fifty miles from the safety of the Moravian border, Richard stopped in the Vienna suburb of Erdburg. Ill with fever and exhausted by his ordeals, he was unable to go any further until he rested.

Unfortunately, the German boy raised suspicions when he went out for food on three successive days. His manner and his dress, which included a fine pair of Richard’s gloves, were reported to Henry VI’s secret police. The boy was questioned. Whether he led soldiers to Richard or told them his location under torture is not clear. And the circumstances of Richard’s seizure are also disputed: he was either abed with fever or pretending to be a chef in the kitchen. A chef wearing a large signet ring would have been highly unusual (but it certainly makes for great fiction)!

The contemporary chronicles report that Richard refused to surrender to the soldiers who came for him, and insisted he would give himself up only to Duke Leopold. Leopold imprisoned Richard at Durnstein Castle. Though the Pope had declared safe passage for men who had taken the Cross, that did not deter Richard’s enemies. Philip of France, Henry VI, and Leopold of Austria – their hatred for the King of England must have been intense for them to risk excommunication. Leopold turned Richard over to Henry VI, and reports of machinations between Philip and Henry VI continued over the course of about 13 months. Philip conspired with Richard’s brother John, Count of Mortain, offering Henry more silver to keep Richard imprisoned while John secured his hold on England. Eventually, in February 1194, Richard was released for the ransom of 150,000 marks.

Note: the translation of the Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi notes December 20 as the date of Richard’s capture; other sources note the 21st.


De Hoveden, R. (1853).  The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn. (Original work published 1201?) Gillingham, J. (1978).

Richard the Lionheart. New York: Times Books. McLynn, F. (2006).

Lionheart and Lackland: King Richard, King John and the wars of conquest. London: Jonathan Cape.

Nicholson, H., & Stubbs, W., trans. (1997). Chronicle of the third crusade : A translation of the itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate.

Painting of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel in Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire by Dennis Lukowski as commissioned by the author for Men of the Cross, and used with the artist’s permission.


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