A Legend Of A King Along The Danube
In Europe I am like a kid in a candy store. I do love history and here it comes at you from every direction. Some time ago we were on a boat west of Vienna cruising the Danube and glided past the ruins of Durnstein Castle.
In European legends there are a number of romantic tales that reference historic events and are notable because of spinoff stories that remain in literature and legend to this day. Few are as significant to English history as the tales of Richard the Lionheart in the twelfth century.
Already a popular ruler, Richard answered the call of the Pope to free the Holy Land and make it available to Christian pilgrams. Richard marched off to the third crusade with a number of his trusted knights and soldiers.
Leaving England in the hands of his younger brother John, things didn’t go well at home. John set his sights on becoming the new sovereign of England and systematically replaced lords and knights with men loyal to him. As legend indicates he greatly increased taxes claiming they were needed to support the crusades while putting them to his own use. There are also historical indications that he attempted to later block the use of ransom to free his older brother.
One particular legend, that actually does not appear in literature for over two hundred years after the time of Richard the Lionheart, is that of Robin Hood. This legend grew out of a number of popular ballads regarding a highborn group of men that became outlaws in resistance to the rule of Prince John and in support of King Richard.
While many of these legends have little historical basis there was a historical crusader king known as Richard the Lionheart with a younger brother Prince John, and Richard was imprisoned for a ransom in Austria.
At the end of the third crusade Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land in October 1192. The Third Crusade had been only a partial success and, after three years of fighting the Saracens, the Christian warriors were depleted by disease, desertion and death in battle. Richard was one of the leaders of the Christian forces and negotiated a three-year truce with the great Muslim general Saladin, where the Christians were to keep a thin strip of land on the Mediterranean coast and several fortified strongholds, and Christian pilgrims were to be given safe passage to visit Holy sights in Jerusalem unmolested by Muslim forces.
This agreement allowed King Richard to make plans to return to England, something that he badly needed to do. King Philip Augustus of France had been taking his holdings in Normandy, and his younger brother, Prince John had been steadily increasing his power in England, illegally taking and garrisoning castles with his own men and constantly undermining the authority of the officials put in place by King Richard to govern the country in his absence. King Richard stated he intended to return to the Holy Land, once he had settled matters in Europe and removed the threat to his throne from his brother, but events were to conspire against him.
King Richard I, the Lion heart had made many enemies during the Crusade. The French King Philip, once a close friend, now had designs on advancing his power by diminishing Richard’s authority and Duke Leopold of Austria, the leader of the German contingent of the crusaders had become a serious rival if not a sworn enemy. He had alienated Henry VI, the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, by supporting King Tancred of Sicily against him. The Austrian Holy Roman Emperor controlled most of Germany, Hungary, Austria and much of the Italian peninsula, much of Portugal and Spain not in Muslim hands. Richard knew that he would have a problem getting home via land.
The whole story of Richard’s return is not entirely clear; the facts are fragmentary, and sometimes seem contradictory, but most scholars agree that Richard decided to attempt a clandestine eastern land route homeward. After sending his wife Berengaria by ship to Rome where she would be protected by the Pope, he took to the Adriatic and sailed north. The weather was bad, and after a couple of attempts Richard landed on the northern Adriatic coast at Aquileia, near Trieste in north-eastern Italy although some scholars suggest that this landing wasn’t planned and that he was shipwrecked there after bad weather. Either way that’s where the King found himself, on or about the 10th of December 1192, ashore, with only a small contingent, and hundreds of miles to cross thru hostile territory.
Legend says Richard traveled as a Templar knight, and headed north into the heart of Europe, making for safe territory controlled by his brother-in-law Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. After an icy, grueling journey on poor roads, the King was apprehended by men loyal to Duke Leopold of Austria. He is said to have given himself away by his demeanor at an inn. It was on Christmas day, the weather was awful and the King was apparently sheltering in the road house on the west side of Vienna. Some stories suggest it was his companions’ practice of calling him ‘Sire’ that somehow gave away his royal identity.
On 25 December 1192, Leopold captured King Richard at Vienna while he passed through Europe on his way home from the crusade, and 35,000 kilograms of silver were paid for Richard’s release. Leopold used this to build new city walls for Vienna, but Pope Celestine III excommunicated him for taking a fellow crusader prisoner.
Duke Leopold must have been delighted to have his great enemy the King of England in his clutches, and he promptly locked up Richard in Durnstein Castle, a stronghold on the Danube fifty miles to the west of Vienna. He also informed Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, of his windfall, and a letter still exists from Henry VI to Philip Augustus of France, which has the Holy Roman Emperor gloating about the capture of this royal pilgrim. Seizing King Richard was technically an illegal act, as Pope Celestine III had decreed that knights who took part in the Crusade were not to be molested as they travelled to and from the Holy Land.
Still the negotiations for Richard’s release took the best part of a year, and after strenuous diplomatic efforts by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, a ransom that included 23 tons of silver, twice the domestic product of England at the time, was agreed to. 12 tons went to Louis VI of France for facilitating the transfer and 11 tons to Leopold with Richard being released in early February 1194. Both Emperor Henry and Duke Leopold were later excommunicated by the Pope himself for Richard’s detention.
Another legend that came out of this historical event is the story of Blondel. This story relates to King Richard’s imprisonment in Europe, and his loyal friend Blondel, which was a nickname for anyone with blond hair at that time. The legend says that Blondel searched across Europe for his king and friend, playing his lute outside the walls of castles all over Germany in an attempt to find his lord. While singing a song under the walls of Durnstein Castle, a song he had written with King Richard during the Crusade, Blondel was rewarded by a familiar voice singing the second verse from a small cell in a tower high above him. The loyal trouvère had found his King.
Although this legend has many highly improbable elements, there really was a Blondel, a famous trouvère from Nestle in France who lived at the time of the Lion Heart and, if he didn’t actually seek his King by playing music under castle walls in Austria, at least he has been immortalized with some twenty-five written songs preserved in French museums and libraries.
If you’re a hiker the old ruins of Durnstein castle overlook the entire town and occupy the highest rocky elevation overlooking the Danube River and the Wachau Valley. The view is spectacular, providing an impressive view after a steep hike. The castle ruins are free to visit. It is a major uphill hike so be sure to wear good hiking shoes and plan on 30 minutes each way starting at the Abbey sitting on the river in the town of Durnstein.
From the river the entrance to the hiking trail up to Durnstein Castle is perhaps a ten-minute walk. Head off to the right from the Abby and the trail begins at the stone archway of the old town wall. In town check with locals to point you to the trail entrance. The trail is well marked and signs along the way provide interesting information telling about Richard the Lionheart and the stories of the capture and ransom.
Partly based on notes by Angus Donald, July 2011