Almost everyone is familiar with King Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart. He is perhaps best known in popular culture not for what he did during his reign, but rather his palpable absence throughout the Robin Hood tales. While Richard was off on Crusade and later in captivity, Robin Hood must fight against the evil Prince John who is ruling England in his brother’s stead.
In truth Richard spent little more than six months in England during his reign. He became famous throughout Europe for his role in the Third Crusade, most notably for his victory at Acre, the island fortress that everyone had believed was invincible.
Richard’s military prowess made him enemies, however, and on his journey home from the Crusade he found himself captured by Leopold V of Austria, whom he had slighted during their venture in the Holy Land. Leopold turned Richard over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI who held him for ransom.
Blondel de Nesle and the Captive King
According to legend, there was one man who engaged in the search for the captive King. While all of Europe was wondering what had happened to the Crusader hero, Blondel, a traveling minstrel who had served under Richard in the Crusade, took it upon himself to find his master.
Blondel scoured the countryside, moving from castle to castle, singing a song known only to the two of them. Finally Blondel reached Durnstein castle, where Richard was being held. Blondel sang loudly the tune and Richard responded with the proper refrain, allowing Blondel to know that it was truly the captive king. The minstrel then brought this information back to England and action was set in motion to get Richard released.
The Truth of Blondel de Nesle
It is not until the 1260s that Blondel’s role in the rescue of King Richard first appears in the work Récits D’un Ménestrel De Reims. Where exactly this legend comes from is unknown, but it is highly unlikely that it has any truth to it, especially since Richard’s location in Durnstein was hardly a secret throughout England.
The story of the hero troubadour remained fairly uncommon until the late 18th century, when it became the basis of a number of popular works covering the story of Richard Lionheart. Although Blondel’s role in the story of Richard was often given great importance throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, he is often little more than a footnote today.
In 1942 scholar Holgar Dyggve identified the legendary Blondel with a real-life figure, Jean II of Nesle. Jean II was known as Blondel because he possessed long blond hair. This dating is somewhat problematic, however, because Jean II did not take part in the Third Crusade but did fight in the Fourth Crusade as well as the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.
In 1994 another scholar, Yvan LePage amended the theory. The Blondel of legend does not actually refer to Jean II but rather his father, Jean I. Jean I ruled as lord of Nesle from 1180 until his death in 1202. Putting Blondel as Jean I rather than Jean II places him better with the Third Crusade and thus better explains his connection with the legend of Richard Lionheart.