OCTOBER 8, 2015 BY
By Danièle Cybulskie
Love him or hate him, one thing you can say about England’s Richard the Lionheart is that there are some great stories about him. However complex our modern portrait, Richard’s image in the medieval mind (as well as in later periods) gave birth to legends that encompass heroism, chivalry, and romance. One of these stories involves his capture in Austria, and his discovery by his devoted minstrel Blondel.
Although Richard had been determined to stay in the Holy Land and defeat Saladin, his French rival Philip Augustus was beginning to stir, creating alliances that would help him to take over the absent English king’s holdings in what is now modern-day France. Philip was a real threat, not least of all because of his burgeoning friendship with Richard’s own greedy little brother, Prince John. Though it was late in the year and the Mediterranean was becoming treacherous, Richard had to risk making it back to English soil to get his kingdom back under control, and to prepare for Philip’s inevitable attack. Unfortunately, Richard was shipwrecked in hostile country (between Venice and Aquileia, according to contemporary chronicler Roger of Howden), and although he made a grueling trek of somewhere around 500 kilometres to reach safety, he was captured on December 21, 1192 by Duke Leopold of Austria just outside of Vienna. (For a great article on contemporary sources, click here.) This was bad news, since Richard had recently highly embarrassed Leopold by casting down his banner at Acre – Leopold was not feeling friendly towards his former ally. Leopold handed Richard over to the (likewise unfriendly) Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VI), who held him captive for over a year while the English raised the £100,000 necessary to free him. It was literally a king’s ransom.
It didn’t take long for Henry VI to begin to gloat, but there was a short interval in which everyone friendly to Richard who knew where he might be had been captured. Out of this moment sprang the legend of the minstrel, Blondel, who wandered Europe, singing for his master. Legend has it that Blondel discovered Richard by either hearing him sing in his tower cell, or from singing upwards from a garden and hearing the second verse come down from above. Either way, there was a special song that reunited the two men and allowed Blondel to reveal to Richard’s allies where he was being held.
There is no record of Blondel’s discovery of Richard in chronicle accounts, and the first written mention of it seems to have been in 1260 CE by the “Minstrel of Reims”, according to David Boyle in Blondel’s Song. This 13th-century account raises a number of red flags for historians, having been written so long after Richard’s death, and also being written by someone calling himself a minstrel (who better to pass on a story about a heroic minstrel?), but the image of the devoted servant and the captured king is as irresistible today as it was then.
There are some tantalizing truths that make the story one that’s endlessly fun to speculate about; for example, a real musician and poet named Blondel de Nesle lived around that time, and there are many beautiful songs that have been attributed to him. (You can listen to an adaptation of one of them here.) Like so many non-royals, though, his life was not well-recorded, so there is no concrete tie between him and Richard. Richard, being a son of Aquitaine’s troubadour traditions, was known to write his own songs, so it would not have been strange for him to have had a song of special significance. He even wrote a lonely song while imprisoned, which you can listen to here (English translation will appear on the screen during the course of the video). There is no evidence, however, of any joint compilations between Richard and Blondel de Nesle.
Whatever the truth is about Blondel and Richard, the story is a beautiful addition to the legends that swirl around every aspect of Richard’s reign as king. A statue commemorating this legendary relationship stands outside of the ruins of Dürnstein Castle, Austria, the place where the discovery of Richard by Blondel is said to have taken place. Like the songs left behind by both Richard and Blondel de Nesle, their statue and its surroundings are both simple and haunting, a fitting tribute to the legend.
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The name ‘Blondel de Nesle’ is attached to twenty-four or twenty-five courtly songs. He was identified in 1942, by Holger Dyggve, as Jean II of Nesle (near Amiens), who was nicknamed ‘Blondel’ for his long blond hair. He married at the time of his father’s death in 1202, and that same year, went on the Fourth Crusade; he later fought in the Albigensian Crusade. However, in 1994, Yvan Lepage suggested that the poet may have been Jean I, father of Jean II, who was Lord of Nesle from 1180 to 1202; this Jean took part in the Third Crusade, which may explain the subsequent legend linking him with King Richard I of England.
If the works are correctly identified and dated, he was a significant influence on his European contemporaries, who made much use of his melodies. (The melody of “L’amours dont sui espris” is used in Carmina Burana, for the song “Procurans Odium”). His works are fairly conventional, and several have been recorded in modern times.
By 1260, Blondel’s name had become attached to a legend in the highly fictionalised Récits d’un Ménestrel de Reims; this claimed that, after King Richard of England was arrested and held for ransom in 1192, he was found by the minstrel Blondel, whom he saw from his window, and to whom he sang a verse of a song they both knew. Later versions of the story related that Blondel went from castle to castle, singing a particular song that only he and Richard knew, and that the imprisoned Richard replied with the second verse – thus identifying where he was imprisoned. Then, Blondel either aided the king’s escape or reported his position back to his friends. Blondel finally found Richard at Dürnstein; in fact, there was no mystery about Richard’s location which was widely publicized by his ransomers.
‘Blondel’ is a common surname on the Channel Island of Guernsey. It is recorded that King Richard granted a fief on the island to a vassal named Blondel, but it remains uncertain as to whether this has any connection with the legend, or whether the legend has any connection with the known trouvère.
The legend of Blondel did not achieve great popularity in the Middle Ages, but was taken up in the late eighteenth century. It was the basis of André Ernest Modeste Grétry‘s operaRichard Coeur-de-lion (1784). In 1822, Eleanor Anne Porden used the legend in her epic poem Cœur De Lion: in her version, Blondel is really Richard’s wife, Berengaria of Navarre, in disguise.
A poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl titled Blondel’s Lied was set to music by Robert Schumann.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the legend became a key component in the mythology surrounding Richard. Some later twentieth century novelists, such as Norah Lofts in The Lute Player (1951), placed a homosexual interpretation on his supposed relationship with the king.
The English acoustic band of the early 1970s, Amazing Blondel, was named after Blondel.
The legend inspired Blondel, a 1983 musical by Stephen Oliver and Tim Rice. The play, a comedic rock opera, is set during the period of the Third Crusade. Blondel is portrayed as a frustrated artist, seeking fame as a composer and performer, even as he searches for his imprisoned monarch. Rice collaborated with director Patrick Wilde to revive the show at the Pleasance Theatre in London in 2006.
References in popular culture
- Blondel is also the protagonist of the novel “A Search for the King” by Gore Vidal.
- In John Jakes‘ 1977 novel “King’s Crusader“, Blondel is on a quest to find his friend and master, Richard the Lion-Hearted. Set in the time of the Third Crusade.
- Paris, Louis (ed.), La Chronique De Rains (Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims), 1837, available at Gallica.
- Boyle, David, Blondel’s Song, 2005, ISBN 0-670-91486-X (an attempt to prove the legend)
- Dyggve, Holger Petersen, Trouvères Et Protecteurs Des Trouvères Dans Les Cours Seigneuriales De France, 1942.
- Gillingham, John, Richard Coeur De Lion: Kingship, Chivalry And War In The Twelfth Century, 1994, ISBN 1-85285-084-1
- Lepage, Yvan G., Blondel De Nesle. L’Œuvre Lyrique, 1994.
- Nelson, Janet L. (ed.) Richard Coeur De Lion An History And Myth, 1992, ISBN 0-9513085-6-4
- Rosenberg, Samuel N. & Tischler, Hans (ed.), Chanter M’Estuet: Songs Of The Trouvères, 1981, ISBN 0-571-10042-2
- In 1862 Prosper Tarbé published an edition including 34 songs attributed to Blondel.
- Récits d’un Ménestrel de Reims. Edition Natalis de Wailly. Paris 1876
“Blondel“. The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
Ja nun hons pris by Richard the Lionheart. Early medieval piece lamenting that Richard has been left in prison and not ransomed by his friends. Richard was King of England from 1189-1199 and fought in the Crusades.
Lumina Vocal Ensemble, Musical Director Anna Pope. Singers Penny Dally and Kenneth Pope. Recorded live by Rod Capon, 2004 in ‘Pilgrimage’ concert, Crafers Church of the Epiphany, South Australia. Art by Dover Publications. Film by Anna Pope.
From Lumina’s CDs ‘Mediaeval Magic’ and ‘England vs France’.
L’Amour Dont Sui Espris by Blondel de Nesle (ca 1155-1202)
(from Paris, BN fr. 846 p. 79) arranged for Renaissance lute by David van Ooijen
Blondels Song: The Capture Imprisonment And Ransom Of Richard The Lionheart Paperback – International Edition, May 30, 2006, by