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At the start of this blog, I discussed perhaps my favorite movie of all timeThe Lion in Winter (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey). But there was one facet of the movie that I didn’t discuss in that post, namely the claim that the movie makes that Richard the Lionhearted was homosexual. So I want to look at that today.

In the film, Richard (Anthony Hopkins) meets with Philip II (Timothy Dalton) and reminds him of a night that happened several years earlier, during which they had been physically affectionate (the film doesn’t specify exactly what they did, but the implication is that they had sex). Richard clearly feels something for Philip, and is distressed when Philip cruelly tells him that he submitted to Richard’s advances purely to gain a weapon to use against Richard and his father. He viciously describes how disgusted he felt when he pretended to be attracted to Richard. Richard is deeply distressed by the revelation. Later, Philip shocks King Henry (Peter O’Toole) by describing the encounter to him, and then taunts him “What is the royal policy on boys who do with boys?”


Richard and Philip

When The Lion in Winter came out, it was still a year before the Stonewall Riots ignited the Gay Liberation movement. Homosexuality was a taboo issue, and Philip’s revelation would have been as shocking then as an admission of incest might be today. Because homosexuals were stereotypically depicted as effeminate, the notion that the great medieval soldier Richard the Lionhearted might be homosexual was startling. But was author James Goldman just making this detail up, or is there something to this claim?

In 1948, historian John Harvey, in his book The Plantagenets, put forward the argument that Richard was homosexual. Among the evidence for this claim is the fact that Richard married rather late to Spanish princess Berengaria of Navarre, and never had children with her, and that according to the very well-informed medieval chronicler Roger of Hoveden, Richard had been rebuked by a hermit for not sleeping with his wife and for indulging in ‘the sin of Sodom’. He twice confessed and performed penance, possibly for sodomy. Since Harvey put forward the idea, a number of other authors have explored it, adding one or two pieces of evidence. In particular, it has been pointed out that Hoveden also says that they shared a bed chamber, or perhaps a bed. If you want to see the passages in question, you can read them here.

John Gillingham, perhaps the most expert scholar on Richard, has argued against this claim and asserted Richard’s heterosexuality. Richard had at least one illegitimate son, Philip of Cognac, and he is noted in some accounts as raping women. The fact that he never had children with his wife might be partly due to the fact that soon after he married her, he was  separated from her by events around the 3rd Crusade, and on his return home, he was captured in Germany and held prisoner for more than a year. This would obviously have reduced his opportunity to sleep with his wife in the early years of his marriage. He does not seem to have had much affection for her; after his return to England, he did not spend time with Berengaria until Pope Celestine III ordered him to be faithful to her. Thereafter he attended worship with her on a weekly basis. Thus he may simply not have liked her as a person, since this was a political marriage. And, of course, it is possible that she was barren.

Berengaria of Navarre

Berengaria of Navarre

Jean Flori, another expert on Richard, has come down in the middle, arguing that Richard was probably bi-sexual. (All of this assumes, of course, that medieval sexuality can be analyzed in terms of the modern notion of sexual orientation.)

The specific claim that Richard and Philip were lovers is based on a reference to them having once shared a bed or bed chamber (the Latin is ambiguous on this). While two adult men sleeping in the same bed would certainly be sexually suggestive nowadays, in the 12th century, this was a much less sexually-loaded practice. 12th century households had much less furniture than modern houses do, and the royal household carried its furniture with it as it traveled about from one estate to the next. Servants very commonly slept on the floor in their master’s bedroom. So even a king might not have spare beds in which to put up a royal guest, and inviting a visiting king to share one’s bed would have been much more about courtesy and hospitality than it would have been an opportunity to conduct a personal examination of the royal jewels. So even scholars who support the notion that Richard slept with men generally discount the claim that Richard and Philip were ever lovers.

However, at the time Goldman wrote his play, Harvey’s book was much closer to the cutting edge of scholarship than it is today, and his assertion that Richard and Philip had been lovers creates a good deal of interesting tension in the script. And certainly to audiences of the 60s, the revelation of the relationship would have seemed quite shocking, especially since Richard the Lion-hearted is one of the most celebrated warriors of the Middle Ages, whereas in America, the US military was still issuing dishonorable discharges for homosexual activity in 1967.

Want to Know More?

The Lion in Winter (1968) is available through Amazon. There’s also an, in my opinion, inferior 2004 remake starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, The Lion in WinterThe performances are all good, but they simply can’t compete with the originals.

John Gillingham’s study of Richard I focuses heavily on the myths that have developed around this king. As I noted, Gillingham disagrees with the notion that Richard was homosexual. I’m not sure I entirely buy his argument, but it deserves serious consideration.