Duke of Austria (1177-1194) and Styria (1192-1194) and participant in the Third Crusade (1189-1192); notorious for his imprisonment of his fellow crusader Richard I the Lion- heart, king of England.
Leopold was the son of Henry II of Babenberg, duke of Austria, and Theodora Komnene, succeeding his father as duke on 24 February 1177. In 1182 Leopold made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and he gifted a relic of the True Cross to the Cistercian monastery of Heiligenkreuz. In 1186 he laid the foundations for a vast increase in Babenberg power when he secured recognition as heir to the childless Ottokar IV, duke of Styria, in the Treaty of Georgenberg (Ger. Georgenberger Handfeste), which was confirmed a year later by Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor.
During the Third Crusade Leopold did not join the emperor’s army, but traveled independently to the Holy Land with a large number of Austrian knights, arriving at Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in the spring of 1191. There he came to be regarded as the leader of the much depleted German crusader contingent, which had been left leaderless after the deaths of the emperor and his son Frederick V, duke of Swabia. However, Leopold and the other German leaders found themselves increasingly sidelined in the direction of the crusade by the two Western kings, Richard I of England and Philip II of France. After the capture of Acre from Saladin’s forces (12 July 1191), Richard cast down Leopold’s banner from the battlements of the city as a sign that he and Philip were unwilling to concede Leopold any share in the spoils. Shortly afterward Leopold returned to Austria.
Leopold took possession of the duchy of Styria after the death of Ottokar IV (8 May 1192). Later that year he was given the opportunity to exact revenge on Richard, when the English king, returning from crusade with only a few companions, was recognized and arrested by one of Leopold’s men at the village of Erdberg (now in Vienna, Austria) in December. Clearly opportunism and revenge played their part in the duke’s actions. An additional factor, however, was the enmity toward Richard of Emperor Henry VI, who had ordered his vassals to apprehend the English king if the opportunity presented itself. Richard was imprisoned in the castle of Dürnstein on the Danube while Leopold negotiated with the emperor. The duke handed over his prisoner to Henry VI on 23 March 1193, in exchange for half the expected ransom of 100,000 marks. A renegotiation of the ransom terms brought more favorable terms, including a further payment and the prospect of the marriage of Richard’s niece Eleanor to one of Leopold’s sons.
Despite its financial benefits, Leopold’s detention of Richard, a returning crusader whose person should have been inviolable, brought him considerable opprobrium, and in 1194 he was excommunicated by Pope Celestine III. At the end of that year Leopold suffered a crushed leg after falling from his horse and died, still excommunicate, after a botched amputation of his gangrenous foot (31 December 1194). The duke’s horrendous death was widely regarded as divine retribution for his imprisonment of the English crusader king. He was succeeded by his two sons Frederick I (in Austria) and Leopold VI (in Styria).