Lionheart by Stewart Binns

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Lionheart by Stewart Binns

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A good solid rendition of the Lionheart story that increased my knowledge immensely but didn't excite the way I'd have hoped.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781405913607

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Richard the First. Richard the Lionheart.

Even those of us who didn't pay attention much in history lessons, those of us who are pretty dodgy on which King came when, will be familiar with some of them and be able to put them more or less in their time context. We know William the Conqueror, we know Henry the Eighth…

… and, up to a point, we know about the Lionheart.

He was the King who went on a crusade, and got kidnapped on the way back.

He was the one they were collecting all the taxes to raise a ransom for, when bad Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were hounding the poor, who only had Robin Hood and his merry men to ease their woes.

Sadly, most of us probably know all we know about Richard I from those Robin of Loxley fairy tales. Like all 'lies to children' the stories are based on kernels of truth. Setting Robin aside, there is a great deal of truth in the tales of Prince John's inequities and the support he had from Nottingham. But what of Richard? My recollection was poor. I knew he was held somewhere waiting for the proverbial King's ransom to be paid, but as it turns out, I had totally the wrong idea about where he was held: not in the Holy Land as I had assumed, but much closer to home in the Holy Roman Empire.

Enter Stewart Binns, then, not just to put me right on that score, but to take me further back, to meet the young Richard, to put him in his proper context and understand a little of how he came to be the man he is reported to have been – and along the way get a little bit of an insight into the unfortunate John as well.

Richard was one of eight off-spring of Henry Plantagenet (Henry II) and his remarkable wife Eleanor. A charming example of filial love they were not. Fighting as often amongst themselves as against their enemies, they became known as the Devil's brood. It would seem that Henry's own reign might have been more successful if he'd been more adept at controlling his sons. The daughters were not so much of a trouble – they dutifully got married off, though the old king's judgement wasn't always perfect there either.

The siblings wander in and out of the story, but we're focussed entirely on Richard. We meet him as the young Duke of Aquitaine, trying to hold part of the mighty Plantagenet empire together against all-comers, when he's not welcoming all-female-comers to his bed. He has a formidable reputation as a warrior (back in the day when emperors personally led their armies on the field) but he was still a headstrong and wayward youth, who maybe believed a bit too much of his publicity.

Still, second in line to the throne of England, and doing a decent enough job at quashing the local trouble-makers he sees no reason to reform.

A certain Earl Harold had other ideas. He selected a wise monk and another mighty warrior, both of whom with better claim to be English than the undeniably Norman Duke Richard, and trained and schooled them in what they needed to act as his guide and guard and counsel.

Father Alun is the monk. The soldier is Ranulf of Lancaster. The latter is our story-teller, looking back from his old age, on the adventures of his youth. Through his eyes we learn of the state of the empire and the nature of the Duke, as he and Father Alun slowly mould him into a better leader, a better tactician, a reasonable diplomat, and ultimately a better man.

With them we get into and out of minor skirmishes within the Empire. We visit Hildegard of Bingen who had, for the time, a somewhat scientific take on religion and the kind of wisdom that even a self-important young prince would find hard to ignore.

With them we watch the familial battles and assaults on the Empire that see Richard eventually ascend to the throne, the tensions in the Holy Land that spark off the Third Crusade, its battles and political manoeuvrings, and the ultimate settlement.

Then Richard heads home… and we're back on the familiar territory with Prince John now acting as regent in defiance of the mighty dowager Queen Eleanor in England but both doing their best to raise a ransom that was never intended to be achievable.

As a history book, for those who prefer their history with the emphasis on story Lionheart does what its academic author undoubtedly set out to do. It tells the story. Of course it is fictionalised, but stays true to the many known real people and events. It is heavy on place and time. The dates are shoe-horned in so that we can keep track of what happened when. The political developments and reasons for them, are explained with the patience of a schoolmaster, rather than the irritation of a soldier that one might expect from our narrator.

That's both the strength of the book and its weakness.

Binns keeps the story moving, and with the accepted poetic licence of a fictionalised account in creating meetings and dialogue and the drudgery of daily life, he sticks to the facts.

It's an entirely believable account of what really happened.

And yet. And yet… it isn't anywhere near as EXCITING as it should be. This is Richard the Lionheart. This is the warrior king who went on crusade and fought Saladin and very nearly won back Jerusalem. This is the Lionheart who argued his way out of a courtroom if not quite out of the jail. This is one of the best-loved, nearly-remembered heroes of our glorious mythological past.

It should be gripping. It should have us fearing for him, weeping for him, ranting and railing with him, chafing in his prison cell, holding our breath on the battlefield, and it doesn't do any of that.

The minor characters skirt around the action like the unnamed extras in a Shakespeare play. I couldn't hold the passage of time in any real sense despite the littering of dates. I didn't even get a real sense of Richard the man, nor of Ranulf or Father Alun. Enough to know who they were and pretty-much how they thought, but nowhere near enough to weep at a death or flinch at an amputation.

So on balance it's more of a history book than the adventure yarn it should have been. I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to whether that is because Binns can't write like that, or whether it's just because the historian in him, won't let the writer loose.

4 stars for what it taught me of the history, but only 3 for failing to ignite any passion to care about it. 3½ on balance.

A word to the publishers: the glossary probably sits well at the back of the book, but if the maps and genealogies were at the front I'd have found them before I finished it and they would actually have been some help. I spent the whole book bemoaning the lack of a map!

For an alternative account of the Crusade the book of that name Crusade by Elizabeth Laird comes highly recommended,

Buy Lionheart by Stewart Binns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lionheart by Stewart Binns at

Buy Lionheart by Stewart Binns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lionheart by Stewart Binns at


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