Review: Lionheart – Living History in England 1190AD

As part of an effort to assemble my various scribblings in one place, this is a review I originally posted to RPG.net in August 2003.

Edwin King’s Lionheart: Living History in England 1190AD (Columbia Games Inc, 1987) is neither history book nor roleplaying game supplement, but a strange and satisfying combination between the two. Despite its title, it covers the whole of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales), not just England.

In his introduction, King writes: “The philosophy of Lionheart is to provide an organized, accessible view of 1190 England.” It succeeds admirably in this aim.

The books begins with a 9-page overview of English history from the Roman invasions (43AD) to 1190. The bulk of this history (7 pages) concerns the period between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the accession of Richard the Lionheart in 1189. Potted histories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales occupy the next 7 1/2 pages, and are followed by a 2 1/2 page summary of the events of the years between 1190 and the Lionheart’s death in 1199. The histories are succinct and accurate, illustrated with maps, but perhaps a little dry. They also focus exclusively on political history, which is not unreasonable, given that the historians of the 12th century (with the notable exception of Gerald of Wales) tended to do likewise.

The bulk of the book (83 pages) is taken up by an A-to-Z cyclopaedia, of which more later.

The colour map of the British Isles, by Eric Hotz, follows the style of Columbia’s HarnWorld regional maps, though it lacks a hex grid. Those familiar with this style of map will know what to expect: it is, in its own right, a rather beautiful work of art. The map shows the location of major towns, castles, religious houses, and major rivers and roads, together with “sites of interest”, which inlcudes such sites as Stonehenge, the Cerne Abbas Giant (a prehistoric chalk figure), Gaping Gill (a limestone sink-hole once thought to have been the route to Hell), and various stone circles and hillforts. Invariably these sites are thought to have mystical properties of one kind or another.

There are a couple of errors on the map. Most notably Towcester is wrongly put on the River Trent next to Nottingham, when it should lie on Watling Street near Northampton. Nevertheless, it is an impressive work.

The reason for the digression about the map is because the cyclopaedia has at least a paragraph on every site located on the map — an extremely useful factor for those who have never heard of Trethevy Quoit or similar obscure sites.

Other entries expand on social issues of the day, brief biographies of influential individuals of the 1190s, expansions on historical entries from the opening pages and so on. For instance, the royal forests and the English counties of 1190 are mapped, the earls of the day are listed and so on. It is possible to find this information out for yourself, but you’ll need time and access to a good library to do so.

The book ends with a detailed, if somewhat dated, three-page bibliography of sources, a key to the colour map, and a half-page guide to pronouncing Cymraeg (Welsh) and Erse (Irish Gaelic). Curiously Norman French (the language of the nobility), Scots Gaelic, Norse (spoken in Cumbria, the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands in this period) and English pronunciations are ignored.

Why should I make this point about English pronunciations? Well, they can be tricky for a North American readership, and this is a North American publication. How many would realise, for instance, that the aforementioned Towcester is pronounced “Toaster”, that Alnwick is “Annick”, that Belvoir Castle is “Beaver Castle”, Gloucester is “Glosster” and so on? Perhaps most irritatingly for Britons forced to suffer Kevin Costner’s accent, is that there is no clue that Nottingham is not pronounced “nodding-HAM” but “NOT-ing-um”.

These are, admittedly, modern pronunciations (back in Domesday, Nottingham was written Snotingaham, and how that was pronounced is anybody’s guess). But then, the “sites of interest” listed on the map and in the cyclopaedia are those that interest modern seekers after strangeness, rather than the medieval folklorists. There is no mention, for instance, of Gervase of Tilbury’s shepherd who descended into the Devil’s Arse (a cave now known as Peak Cavern) to find a new world, or of Ralph of Coggeshall’s strange sky-sailors, or Gerald of Wales’ priest Elidyr, who grow up among the fair folk.

But these are minor quibbles. Rather than pick holes in what this book does not include, be impressed by the sheer amount of information it manages to cram into its 112 pages. If entries are brief and dry, it is because they have to be to fit everything in.

As a historical resource, Lionheart’s use is questionable. As a sourcebook for historical roleplaying it is superb. According to King’s introduction, there was a roleplaying system attached to an earlier version of the book, but all roleplaying statistics were withdrawn for the final version. Some might consider this a pity, but what remains is pure, systemless background.

It’s interesting to contrast Lionheart, which stresses historical accuracy at the expense of atmosphere, with the other great roleplaying sourcebook for 1190s England, Graham Staplehurst’s Robin Hood (ICE, 1987, now OOP), which takes the opposite approach and stresses mood and atmosphere over historical accuracy — but does so in such a skilful manner that it takes a considerable amount of historical knowledge to determine what is historical fact and what is completely made up (for those who have Staplehurst’s work, an example: the borders of Sherwood in Robin Hood, and its division into “leets” are completely fictitious; but to find the real borders and organisation of the forest, you’ll need the Sherwood Forest Book (ed. HE Boulton, Thoroton Society of Nottingham, 1965) and a working knowledge of medieval Latin).

If you’re looking to run a historical campaign in 1190s England, Lionheart is an invaluable resource. If you prefer a pseudo-medieval fantasy in the style of Goldcrest ‘s superb Robin of Sherwood TV series, with fact and fiction carefully interwoven, Robin Hood is the one to have.

Personally, I’d recommend having both…

Roleplayers who know Columbia’s past production are likely to wonder how Lionheart would blend in with HârnWorld. Very well, is the honest answer. Lionheart is basically medieval Britain presented in HârnWorld style. It would be easy to run a Lionheart campaign with the HârnMaster rules with minimal adaptation (replacing Harnic sunsigns with Terran ones and developing Christianity in game terms are the obvious variations). But because Lionheart is systemless, it would make just as a good a resource for Chivalry & Sorcery, GURPS, Ars Magica, FUDGE or any other rules system.

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