“Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa reson" - How Richard Lionheart, returning from the Third Crusade, was captured and imprisoned in Austria

20 December 1192, King Richard Lionheart, returning from the Third Crusade, was captured and imprisoned by his enemy Leopold of Austria in a pub near Vienna.

“Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa reson / Adroitement, s'ensi com dolans non; / Mes par confort puet il fere chançon. / Moult ai d'amis, mes povre sont li don; / Honte en avront, se por ma reançon / Sui ces deus yvers pris.“ (King Richard I, “Ja nus hons pris“, “No man who's jailed can tell his purpose well / adroitly, as if he could feel no pain; / but to console him, he can write a song. / I've many friends, but all their gifts are poor; / they'd be ashamed to know for ransom now / two winters I've been jailed.“)

An image from a contemporary chronicle (1196), showing Richard, on horseback and in disguise to the left, apprehended by two of Leopold’s men-at-arms.

Richard had a rare talent to antagonise the powerful of the world. His crusade endeavour had brought his kingdom already to the brink of bankruptcy – the so-called Saladin tithe, a tax levied in England originally by Richard’s father Henry II to finance his crusade was enforced by his son who managed to collect 100.000 silver marks, at least twice of the gross domestic product of the realm in the late 1180s and furthermore selling nearly everything that was not nailed down – from estates and privileges to the duty of allegiance of the King of Scotland and when Richard finally set forth for the Holy Land in the summer of 1190, he started to snub Christendom’s princes with a vengeance. In September of the same year his fleet arrived in Sicily and Richard and his crusaders sacked Messina after quarrels with the locals and allying with Tancred of Lecce against the Holy Roman Emperor and his kingdom there, continuing to Cyprus, Richard simply conquered the place from a Byzantine renegade and sold the island to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, thus snubbing the Byzantine Emperor and, after his arrival in the Outremer and after the capture of Acre, he had the banners of Leopold of Austria, thrown in the mud because Richard felt, with reason, that Leopold had contributed next to nothing to the seizure of the town and the mighty duke developed a special hatred for Richard.

Philip James de Loutherbourg: "Richard I in Palestine" (around 1800)

The brilliant victories Richard won in the Holy Land, giving him his famous cognomen Cœur de Lion, Lionheart, did not make him exactly popular with the other jealous Christian rulers on top of it and when he decided to return to Western Europe to fight with Philip II of France over his continental possessions, the king was in a bit of a dilemma which route to take back home. Late in the year of 1192, he decided to travel more or less incognito via the Adriatic Sea and take the land route through Leopold’s Austrian domains of all the places, to reach his brother-in-law Henry the Lion’s Bavarian lands. Maybe he felt safe since a crusader who returned home was protected by canonical law, but the Cœur de Lion decided to take no further risks – legend has it that after a pirate attack on his ship ending with a confraternisation of the king and the pirate chief who put him on land near Venice with a small party disguised as merchants on November 15th. Richard arrived in Leopold’s Carinthia in December and attracted attention with his rather kingly behaviour everywhere he decided to stop by and paying with Saracen coins on top of it. Finally, in a pub in a suburb of Leopold’s capital Vienna, Richard was taken prisoner by the Duke’s men.

Blondel de Nesle singing at Caste Dürnstein

A famous legend tells how the troubadour Blondel travelled through the German and Austrian counties and sang songs under castle walls that he and the king had composed together and finally, at Dürnstein, 40 miles west of Vienna, a voice answered him from a tower and Richard surfaced after he had vanished into thin air. Duke Leopold did indeed not trumpet his success, but silently informed his liege lord, Emperor Henry VI, and both princes rubbed their hands with glee. After the word was out about what had happened to Richard, the pope promptly excommunicated Leopold for taking the crusader king and threatened the emperor as well. Henry VI began to negotiate, with Philip of France and Richard’s brother John who was about to usurp the Angevin throne and the Lionheart’s mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine and finally the ransom was agreed upon. Another 100.000 silver marks, the same amount as the infamous Saladin tithe four years earlier, along with various political concessions. Richard was finally released from his last prison at Castle Trifels near Speyer on February 4th 1194 after Prince John and Philip of France tried to bribe the emperor with 80.000 marks to keep Richard at least until the end of the year. With the threat of excommunication hanging over him, Henry VI refused and Richard returned home to England for a few months to raise the means to continue his war against Philip in Normandy. The latter wrote to his conspirator John: “Look to yourself; the devil is loose”.

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Richard’s poem “Ja nus hons pris“ can be found in a bilingual version here: