While I have posted here several poems from a notable head of state from the 20th century, Leopold Senghor, post-independence President of Senegal, I know of almost no other examples. So today I am going back a bit over 900 years to King Richard 1 of England, Richard the Lionheart or Richard Coeur de Lion, the Crusader King. He spent several years campaigning in the Middle East in what would today be Syria and Lebanon, I guess, and unfortunately when he came to return, shifting alliances and allegiances meant he could no longer be assured of safe passage through the Meditteranean, So instead he attempted to travel by land, incognito and in disguise. He was recognized and captured near Vienna and then imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor for over two years, waiting for the royal tax collectors to extract the enormous sum demanded for his release. Richard wrote this poem about his captivity expressing his frustration at his situation.
The language is fairly standard French of the time, which would have been his first language. I don’t think it should present much difficulty if read carefully, but just in case, I think the link below the poem also has a translation into English. However, this is not quite a faithful translation, as it distorts the meaning of the original in several places, so take care with this.
Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa raison
Adroitement, se dolantement non;
Mais par effort puet il faire chançon.
Mout ai amis, mais povre sont li don;
Honte i avront se por ma reançon
— Sui ça deus yvers pris.
Ce sevent bien mi home et mi baron–
Ynglois, Normant, Poitevin et Gascon–
Que je n’ai nul si povre compaignon
Que je lessaisse por avoir en prison;
Je nou di mie por nule retraçon,
—Mais encor sui [je] pris.
Or sai je bien de voir certeinnement
Que morz ne pris n’a ami ne parent,
Quant on me faut por or ne por argent.
Mout m’est de moi, mes plus m’est de ma gent,
Qu’aprés ma mort avront reprochement
—Se longuement sui pris.
N’est pas mervoille se j’ai le cuer dolant,
Quant mes sires met ma terre en torment.
S’il li membrast de nostre soirement
Quo nos feïsmes andui communement,
Je sai de voir que ja trop longuement
—Ne seroie ça pris.
Ce sevent bien Angevin et Torain–
Cil bacheler qui or sont riche et sain–
Qu’encombrez sui loing d’aus en autre main.
Forment m’amoient, mais or ne m’ainment grain.
De beles armes sont ore vuit li plain,
—Por ce que je sui pris
Mes compaignons que j’amoie et que j’ain–
Ces de Cahen et ces de Percherain–
Di lor, chançon, qu’il ne sunt pas certain,
C’onques vers aus ne oi faus cuer ne vain;
S’il me guerroient, il feront que vilain
—Tant con je serai pris.
Contesse suer, vostre pris soverain
Vos saut et gart cil a cui je m’en clain
—Et por cui je sui pris.
Je ne di mie a cele de Chartain,
—La mere Loës.
Each stanza explores a different aspect in turn of his captivity and its implications, but the unity of the poem is held together by the last line of each stanza except the short eighth verse – all end with the notion that he is captive, with “pris” the last word of the last line in each case. This is indeed a poem about captivity.
The first stanza gives the poet’s excuses for his poor talent as a poet – although he has many friends he has few talents – a disclaimer which is not at all justified by what follows, as the poem is rather good. But the poem soon gets to the crux of the matter – his friends will be ashamed if they can’t raise his ransom, and the King has already been a captive more than two winters. The second stanza turns the tables, saying he would never leave an of his men, however poor they were, languishing in prison – and yet he is still captive. The poem goes on to say in the thirds stanza that they will all regret it if he dies a prisoner (which apparently his brother the future King John would have been quite happy to have happen) for want of raising enough gold – and this is likely if he remains a prisoner too long. The fourth stanza may be a reference to John, as it refers to the deprivations and hardships borne by his people in his absence as a prisoner, and will continue if he remains captive for too long. The next stanza addresses his subjects in Anjou and Touraine, in Plantagenet France, that they used to love him but now no longer seem to do so, as they are leaving their arms idle and doing nothing to secure his release from captivity. The sixth stanza reproaches some of his subjects for taking up arms against him in his absence, an act of villainy since Richard always loved them, but now they are taking advantage of his captivity.
The seventh stanza addresses the King’s sister and hopes she is preserved in good health so she can help him as long as he is a prisoner. The final two lines of the poem, the eighth stanza are the only ones who don’t mention his captivity but they seem to be a dig at the mother of King Louis of France, saying he expects no help from her.
King Richard was eventually ransomed and was able to return, at great cost to his subjects in England and France. He only spent a few months in England and was then killed campaigning in his French lands while besieging a fairly insignificant castle.
This works as a poem and certainly bears witness to King Richard’s culture and humanity, but it also has great historical interest into an era in which Kingship could expose the holder to hardship and danger just as much as ordinary citizens.
The Poetry Dude