The Sword and the Cross

AW-Holger og Jesus 5b


When an old friend heard that I had finally finished reading the four volumes of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples, which had patiently waited on various shelves at various addresses in various countries for decades after their purchase by a teenage immigrant to America, he asked me: “What was the most enlightening and surprising thing you learned from Winston?”

Surprisingly, a specific scene from the heart of the first volume—The Birth of Britain—immediately came to mind.

In the middle of The Birth of Britain there is a chapter entitled “Cœur de Lion.” Cœur de lion means lion heart in French. The chapter recounts the reign of King Richard I of England (1189-1199), better remembered as Richard Cœur de Lion. Indeed, Richard was French, from the same part of France William the Conqueror had come from, Normandy. To make origins even more complicated, Normandy was that part of France the Vikings had heavily settled a couple of centuries earlier after tiring of their plundring forays there. So in a way you could say Richard was an old Viking turned French become English king.

We are in 1199 and King Richard is once again facing difficulties in raising revenue for his endless wars. He’s in luck this time, though. A gold treasure has been found on the lands of one of his vassals. As lord paramount, Richard claims the treasure. His vassal resists. Richard lays siege to the vassal’s small, weak castle. On the third day Richard rides daringly along the wall. A bolt from a crossbow strikes deep in his left shoulder by the neck. The arrow-head is removed but the wound worsens. Gangrene sets in and Richard’s days are numbered. Richard orders the archer who shot the fatal bolt to be brought before him. Richard pardons him, makes him a gift of money, and asks for the boy to be sent away to live on. Having long resisted confession, Richard now receives the office of the Church with sincere and exemplary piety. He dies shortly thereafter.

Churchill laconically ends the chapter with the phrase: “The archer was flayed alive.”

The way Churchill writes the chapter’s final paragraphs, you might think that Richard had pardoned the archer whilst at the same time giving orders to his mercenary captain for the archer to be punished with death. This was apparently not the case. After the king died, it seems the captain decided on his own initiative to have the archer not only flayed alive, but hanged to boot!

Now, does it make any difference whether Richard did or did not give the order for the archer to be executed?

In one sense, it doesn’t. King Richard had throughout his life practiced the cruelty and violence common to medieval times. Even if the king did not explicitly give his captain the order to execute the archer, the captain carried out an act in keeping with the way the king had waged war and treated his enemies. Had not the archer, when questioned, told the king that he, the king, was responsible for the death of his father as well as that of his brother?

But in another sense, it makes a big difference. If it is true that King Richard, after questioning and listening to the archer, did truly forgive him, did give him money, and did set him free, then this constituted a contribution—however small—to civilization, to a world beyond the throwing of stones, to a world where there is time to speak out and be listened to.

The chapter on Richard Cœur de Lion comes after the one on the founding of English Common Law by Henry II and before the one on the Magna Carta by which even kings were subject to institutional checks and balances.

All this to remind us that civilization is never guarantied; it is a constant work in progress and cannot be placed above the shortcomings of humans without dooming itself from the inside. It would be mad arrogance after the cruelties of the past century to imagine that civilization is home free today compared to medieval times.

In the ultimate hours of his life, King Richard appealed to God and to the Church for a modicum of civilizing influence. In parallel, before and after him, forces were at work to permit more such influence through changes in civil society.

Enlightenment takes a surprisingly long time.

* The drawing of Holger Danske sitting arms folded over his sword, his back to a standing Jesus Christ was made by Anders Werdelin (his site is here).


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