Richard, King of England, had been in Palestine, fighting the wars of the Crusades. When he was there he heard that his brother John was trying to take his kingdom from him. Accordingly, Richard thought it was time for him to return to England, and forthwith set out for home.
He had many enemies in Europe, who would be glad indeed to take him prisoner. This made his journey dangerous and necessitated great caution on his part. When his ship was wrecked off the coast of Italy, he put on the dress of a pilgrim, and started across Europe on foot. With him were a few faithful friends.
At one place he sent a servant to ask leave to pass through the country, as he was a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. Having no money he offered a costly ring in payment of protection.
The lord looked at the ring and said, "This is too costly a ring to belong to a pilgrim. Tell your master to come in person, that I may discover who he is that travels with the jewels of a king, but in the garb of a pilgrim."
Richard did not call upon the lord, but escaped, leaving some of his companions in prison. There were with him now only a knight and a boy. These three journeyed on into Austria. When the party reached Vienna the boy was sent into a shop to buy food. Seeing the boy had plenty of money, the shopkeepers were curious to know the name of his master.
"I shall not tell you the name of my master. Sell me food and let me go," said the boy indignantly. But this did not satisfy the merchants, and taking him before a magistrate they made him confess that his master was a royal personage traveling in disguise. Whereupon soldiers were sent to surround the house where Richard was, and soon the king was a prisoner in the hands of Leopold, Duke of Austria, one of his bitterest enemies.
Leopold was glad to sell so dangerous a prisoner to some one else, for he needed money more than he desired war with England. Accordingly he sold the king to the German emperor for a large sum of money. Richard was then sent to a castle on the Rhine river, and his subjects in England waited in vain for his coming home. For the time being no one knew what had become of the kingly pilgrim.
When he reached the place where he was to be imprisoned, he was thrown into a cell, so strongly built that no one could possibly escape from it. It was lighted by a window, or rather opening, much too small for anyone to get through. Here the king was kept prisoner for a long while, sleeping on a rude pallet of straw, and eating such food as his jailer chose to bring him.
But Richard was of a dauntless spirit, and of a very powerful body. He had already endured much hardship and was capable of enduring much more. Besides that, he was cheerful and always hopeful. He amused himself by singing and playing the harp, though he knew that at any time his captors might consign him to a cruel death.
The king had in England a faithful adherent of his former years. This was Blondel, a singer, or minstrel, whose business it was to amuse his master by singing and playing on the harp, of which Richard himself was very fond, and in which he had become very proficient.
When Blondel heard that his master had disappeared, he took his harp, saying, "I shall wander over Europe and sing at every prison door. If my master hears me he will answer." Accordingly, the minstrel set out on his journeys, accompanied by a few faithful knights and followers.
The party wandered all over Germany. They inquired at every castle and at every prison, and in all towns, "Have you any news of Richard of England, whom men call the Lion-Heart?" But everywhere the answer was the same. No one knew anything of the lost king.
Already the party had searched along the Danube and the Rhine. One day they came to the tower called Trifels. A strange feeling came over Blondel. "I have a belief that my master is confined in yonder tower," said he to his companions. "Let us rest here in these woods while I spy out the land."
His companions concealed themselves, while Blondel went forward toward the castle, on which was the tower. On the way he met a maiden with whom he fell into conversation. He asked her many questions about the castle and if there were any prisoners there.
"Oh, indeed there are, but I have never seen them, nor do I know their names! Every castle has its dungeons and its prisoners, but only the men see them," said she.
When the girl was leaving him, Blondel took his harp from his shoulders, and resting by the roadside, he began to sing a song, while he played an accompaniment on his harp. As he played, the girl's eyes brightened. "Ah, I know that song!" she exclaimed. "It is the song that a poor captive in the north tower sings. I can hear it every day while I pasture my sheep in the neighborhood."
Blondel begged her to tell him more, but she sprang away and disappeared in the direction of the castle. Full of hope, the minstrel went back to his friends and told them what had happened, confident that he had at last found the prison place of his master and king.
When it grew dark Blondel crept carefully up to the walls of the tower and began to sing the old songs that Richard loved, and to play his harp in the old way that the king knew so well. In fact, it is said that Blondel sang a song that the king himself had composed and set to music.
When the song ceased, Blondel listened for a reply. You can imagine his joy when from the window of the tower there came a continuation of the song. "My master! My master!" cried out the happy minstrel. "I have found you at last."
One story has it that Blondel and his friends hastened back to England and told everybody where Richard was imprisoned, and that a large sum of money was raised to pay for the king's ransom.
Another story has it that the day after Blondel had discovered the whereabouts of his master he applied to the castle for entrance, and soon was admitted to sing and play before the governor. He kept his eyes and ears open, but could learn nothing about his captive king. After several days he ventured to resort to cunning to obtain his purpose.
He soon discovered that the girl he had met outside the castle was named Mathilda, and that she was the daughter of the warden who kept all the keys.
"I shall make love to the beautiful Mathilda," said he to himself, "for I have heard that love can open all doors." Thereupon he sang to the maiden his sweetest songs with the result that not only did Mathilda fall in love with Blondel, but the minstrel himself succumbed to the charms of the lovely young girl.
At last he told her who he was, and said, "The knight in the tower, who sings the songs, is my master. He is Richard, King of England, and I would have you aid me in securing his release. Then we shall all fly to England, where he can again be king and you shall become my bride."
Mathilda agreed, and together they laid their plans. On a dark, stormy night the girl secured the keys to the room in the tower and opened the doors for the king to come out. She handed him a helmet and a sword and bade him follow her to the courtyard of the castle. "Now strike yonder sentinels, or silence them, while I unbar the gates," said she to the king.
Richard was now armed, and with a few strokes of his sword the sentinels were beyond doing him any harm. The gates were flung open, and Richard's friends, who had waited patiently outside, rushed in and overpowered the garrison that had now surrounded the king.
It was short work for the king and his knights to cut their way through the soldiers. Blondel seized Mathilda and bore her safely outside. Soon the entire party were beyond reach of the soldiers and were safely hidden in the depths of the forests. When day dawned they mounted horses which had been made ready, and were soon beyond pursuit.
After many wanderings, they reached England, where Richard mounted his throne, and where Blondel and Mathilda were happily married.