The familiar modern image of the medieval knight—a creation of the Victorian romantic imagination, frequently appropriated by Hollywood—can be considered to be, at best, a distant and distorted shadow of its medieval literary ancestor, the knight of the chanson de geste. Knightly virtue, in the modern period, is believed to have consisted in raw physical courage, athleticism, good looks, and a swashbuckling demeanor, often combined with the idealization and adoration of women. The knights who figured in the chansons de geste, on the other hand, possessed virtues that have no place in modern literature and cinema: profound religious piety, devotion to holy relics, willingness to subordinate worldly interests to celestial ones, and a penchant for grand acts of public penance. This last trait was a peculiarly important one. Ecclesiastical reformers, especially from the tenth century onward, stressed the importance of serious penance to a European warrior class whose members—from petty barons to kings and emperors—always lived by the sword and often died by it.
Human affairs in the concrete are rarely as clear-cut as they are in literature, and it would be a mistake to assume that the virtues extolled by medieval poets and ecclesiastical reformers were lived out in a perfect way by the majority of medieval knights, lords, and kings. In fact, the medieval Church’s continuing preoccupation with limiting knightly violence—or at least directing it towards appropriate ends—indicates that the opposite is true. Nevertheless, the Church’s efforts to reform lay culture bore tangible fruit in the crusading movement, which combined the Augustinian notion of just war with the medieval ideals of pilgrimage, relic devotion, and knightly penance. By the late twelfth century, crusading had come to be seen as the consummate act of the chivalric warrior, involving massive, irrecoverable financial sacrifice and profound personal hardship, but rewarding the crusader with the remission of his sins and, ultimately, eternal life.
From a social and political point of view, the high-water mark of the crusading movement can be found in Europe’s response to the Muslim seizure of Jerusalem in 1187. By this point, crusading was fully mature both as a canonical institution and as a vehicle for lay piety. The First Crusaders of 1095-1099 had become legends, held up as exemplars of perfect virtue, fodder for epic and romance, while the 1147-1149 crusade of Louis VII and Conrad III (the “Second Crusade”) had, despite its failure, established the precedent of regal involvement in grand expeditions to the East. The crusade called in 1187 by Pope Gregory VIII—known to history as the Third Crusade—would bring together two of the most remarkable warrior kings of the age, men alike in youth and piety, but opposed in temperament and taste: Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip Augustus of France. They set out together from Vézelay in 1190, pledging their combined wealth, might, energy and tactical genius to the recovery of Jerusalem and the defeat of Saladin.
The relationship between the two men was a complicated one. On the one hand, the Angevin Kings of England now controlled far more land on the continent than their Capetian counterparts; the Angevins were Dukes of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony, as well as Counts of Anjou, Maine, and Nantes, and seigneurs of Brittany. By contrast, the personal demesne of the French kings—with its attendant revenue and manpower—was centered on the Ile-de-France, and pitifully small in comparison. On the other hand, however, Philip could claim Richard the Lionheart both as a nominal subordinate (a vassal who did homage for his continental lands), and as a debtor for his throne besides; Philip Augustus’ support had indeed been indispensable for the young Richard during the latter’s off-and-on war against his father, Henry II of England, which had continued intermittently from 1173 until Henry II’s death in 1188. The two men had thus known one another from youth, with Richard often being dependent on Philip Augustus’ charity, hospitality, and political support. By 1190, though, the tables had turned—Richard had come into his full Angevin inheritance, rendering him richer and more powerful by far than his erstwhile benefactor and nominal overlord. As if this were not enough to create tension in their personal relationship, Richard had effectively renounced his betrothal to Philip’s sister Alys, contracted in needier times; he now accepted his mother Eleanor’s advice to form a marriage alliance with the Spanish princess Beregaria of Navarre. Aside from his new advantage in land, wealth, and political power, Richard also towered over Philip in personal charisma, charm, and popularity. He appeared to his contemporaries to be the very incarnation of the knights of poetry: in the prime of young adulthood, handsome, strong, fearless, outgoing, and deeply devoted to the crusading cause. Philip, on the other hand, was neither a robust man nor a popular one among his vassals, and the harsh climes of Syria and Palestine would prove to be too much for him.
After journeying by different routes from Vézelay, the two kings sailed separately from their rendezvous point at Messina in 1191, with Philip arriving first in the East and Richard waiting in Sicily long enough to marry his Spanish bride. Philip found himself unable to provide the embattled remnant of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with effective military or political leadership. First, he unsuccessfully backed the upstart Conrad of Montferrat against King Guy of Jerusalem, who had been defeated catastrophically by Saladin in 1187 and subsequently ransomed from captivity. He then failed in his attempts to recapture the coastal city of Acre, all the while having to endure the buzz of hopeful anticipation that Richard’s imminent arrival was generating among the local lords. When Richard finally arrived, covered in laurels from his unplanned but nevertheless spectacular conquest of Cyprus, Acre fell in short order, cementing the Lionheart’s prestige and celebrity not only among his own men but also among the barons of the Latin East. It was all too much for Philip. Sick from the climate, and thoroughly sick of Richard, he went home, leaving the business of crusading to the King of England.
Richard’s leadership of the Third Crusade provoked admiration from Christian and Muslim alike. Saladin’s chroniclers commented in amazement on the Lionheart’s control of his men as he marched triumphantly down the Palestinian coast, wiping away virtually all of Saladin’s recent conquests. Near Arsuf, the king crushed Saladin in a pitched battle—the only one that the great Muslim leader dared risk against Richard. From a military point of view, the Third Crusade was a stirring success, reconstituting the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem as a viable power in the region. Jerusalem itself, however, was not something that Richard dared to seize; with keen strategic insight, he pointed out to his vassals that Jerusalem, being so far inland, would not be defensible even if it were captured, and that a more complete conquest of Saladin’s Ayyubid territory would be necessary if the Christians were ever to hold the Holy City securely. In the meantime, though, that project would have to wait, because Richard was receiving disturbing reports from home—Philip Augustus, the failed crusader, was taking full advantage of Richard’s absence to seize and garrison the latter’s continental holdings.
The outraged Richard made a truce with Saladin in 1192; the terms allowed Christian pilgrims to travel freely on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. He promised Saladin to return soon and resume the war, and began a journey home that would lead him to inconvenient captivity in Germany, war against his former friend Philip Augustus, and finally a premature death during a castle siege in 1199. Thus, from the point of view of medieval crusading culture, there is no doubt on the question of who among the two kings cuts a better figure: while Richard was everything that a crusading king ought to be, placing every resource of his kingdom at the disposal of the holy cause, Philip would neither crusade nor allow others to do so. His selfishness, insecurity, and ambition undermined not only his own participation in the Third Crusade but Richard’s as well. This refusal to fall in with the Church’s vision of a warrior’s duties would be repeated during the Albigensian crusade of the early thirteenth century, when a more mature Philip Augustus refused even to entertain the papal summons for royal involvement against the heretical lords of Languedoc.
In the end, though, it was as a king rather than as a crusader that Philip Augustus outshone Richard the Lionheart. Despite being an indifferent crusader, Philip had a clear vision of what was necessary for the firm establishment of Capetian sovereignty in France, and he pursued this end relentlessly, destroying the independence of fractious vassals, shattering Angevin ambitions with his conquest of Normandy in 1204 and his victory at Bouvines in 1214, and ultimately changing the royal office forever by the time of his death in 1223. What he had inherited in 1180 was really an ambiguous lordship as “King of the Franks,” little more than a primus inter pares in a land with thousands of independent nobles and ambitious barons, frequent private wars, and no political unity whatsoever. By the time of his death, he had forged France in the proper sense—indeed, it was with justice that he became the first king to claim the title “King of France.” Paradoxically, then, one can say that although Philip’s preoccupation was with creating a true kingdom for the Capetians, even at the expense of crusading, his political and military successes ultimately had an enormous impact on the crusading movement as well; without Philip Augustus’ accomplishments, the crusading career of his sainted grandson Louis IX would have been impossible. Moreover, even the most crusade-fevered among Philip’s contemporaries could not deny that a well-ordered kingdom, characterized by internal peace rather than constant strife among uncontrolled and rebellious nobles, was consonant with the most important objectives of medieval attempts to reform lay society. Thus, in many ways, the contrast between Richard and Philip is one that exposes the complexity of all contingent human affairs: the great crusader and the great king, neither of whom found it possible to be both.