Poetry Spotlight: “Ja Nus Hons Pris,” by Richard the Lionheart

Manuscript depiction of Richard I
Richard I, King of England, as depicted in a medieval manuscript

I highly recommend reading the poem before reading this post.

In 1192, Richard I (“the Lionheart”) was captured and imprisoned while returning to England from the Third Crusade. His confinement lasted for over a year, during which time he composed multiple letters to nobles and officials across Europe. Richard was also a poet and troubadour, and, not surprisingly, he wrote some of his letters in the form of poems. “Ja Nus Hons Pris” (“No Man in Prison”) is one such poem written by Richard to his half-sister Marie, Countess of Champagne. Composed in old French, it is a brilliant, layered piece in which Richard blends his reason and emotions.

Intricacy is the hallmark of this poem. There are eight well-developed stanzas with similar rhyme schemes, but there are also multiple sub-structures weaving throughout the piece. Each one of those sub-structures reveals a different aspect of Richard’s persona as prisoner, ranging from the intellectual to the purely emotional.

Perhaps the most overt of these sub-structures is Richard’s emotional arc. He begins his composition grieved that he remains imprisoned. In fact, grief is what enables him to express his thoughts: “No prisoner will ever speak his mind / fittingly unless he speaks in grief” (ll. 1-2). After the opening lines of the first stanza, grief temporarily vanishes and Richard hopes for consolation, yet by the beginning of the second stanza, hope of consolation gives way to his feelings of utter abandonment. Those feelings grow throughout the poem as each stanza mentions a person or group of people who have forsaken him: his vassals (ll. 7-8), his friends and family (ll. 13-14, 20; Marie seems to be excluded from his sadness about his family because she is a vassal of France and not England), and his noble companions (ll. 24-5, 30-1). However, at the end of the poem, consolation returns and replaces abandonment as he sees some value in his ability to write to Marie. Even though he has little reason to hope because Marie can’t do anything about his situation, his emotional recovery reflects both his indomitable will and his affection for his half-sister.

There’s also a current of anger in the poem’s rhetorical sub-structure, and it’s clear that Richard is exasperated with his vassals and relatives. In the second stanza, he mentions his “men and barons” (l. 7), whom he implies are his companions, and he remarks that he is not writing to reproach them. A few lines later, however, he expresses just the opposite: “A dead man or a prisoner [i.e. Richard] has no friend or family [i.e. the barons he just called companions]” (l. 14). Not only does he rebuke his so-called friends, he completely disowns them. This is the point where his attitude and rhetoric change; in the following stanzas, he assails the honor of all of his allies, including his brother John (the “my lord” of line 20) and his nobles (ll. 27, 32-4). Before his declaration of having no friends or family, the poem simply expresses his grief, but afterward it’s an argument against his companions’ concern for him. In his eyes, if they fail to secure his release they are feckless and undeserving of their status as his allies.

Richard further underscores his melancholy and argument with his repetitious sub-structure at the end of the first seven stanzas. Each not-so-subtly concludes with pris (usually translated as “prisoner”), which, aside from sounding beautiful when read aloud, reminds his reader of his lamentable status. It’s also a reminder of his repudiation of his vassals; with each passing stanza, he rebukes them, and at the end of each, his mention of his imprisonment emphasizes his sadness at their failure and unreliability.

Image of Richard I's effigy
Richard I’s burial effigy (Fontevraud Abbey)

When viewed in light of the existing sub-structures, the poem’s other compelling component is its rhyme structure (in the original Old French), which pulls together many of Richard’s expressed emotions. If read aloud, it sounds both sophisticated and sad, much like the personality of its writer. The metre, however, creates a feeling of uniformity and steadiness, like the passing of time. For all of Richard’s anger and sadness, there’s still a rhythmic sense of patience. As the metre passes steadily, he waits patiently—as a prisoner, there’s nothing else he can do. It’s a more subtle blend of emotions in the piece: a king grieved, displeased, and reluctantly resigned to wait until his subjects can secure his release.

Although not as popular as compositions by more modern poets, “Ja Nus Hons Pris” is a complex and meaningful piece that embodies elegant verse, historical value, and emotional insight. It provides a glimpse into the mind of an imprisoned king and skilled troubadour whose poetry has stood the test of time. The nearly nine hundred year gap that separates us from Richard’s work has failed to blunt the artistry in his verse as his words continue to echo through pages and ages.

Frederick Goldin’s translation (used for this post) can be found on Epistolae. Another translation is available through Silence de Cherbourg. Historically, this poem has also been set to music. For those interested in hearing it, I strongly recommend the rendition of the first two stanzas by the late musician and musical re-enactor Owain Phyfe.

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