Post-classical history

Henry III of England (1209-1272)

King of England (1216-1272), who twice took the cross, but never actually went on crusade.

The eldest son of King John, Henry came to the throne at the age of nine and did not assume full control of government until 1225. His reign was dominated by two themes: first, the implementation of Magna Carta, the treaty forced upon John by his barons (1215); second, Henry’s attempt to recover his inheritance in France: Normandy, Anjou, and Maine, which had been seized by King Philip II Augustus of France in 1204, and Poitou which was conquered by Louis VIII in 1224. Henry III eventually surrendered his claims to Normandy and Poitou, in the Treaty of Paris (1259). A series of military failures, combined with competition for patronage between the English aristocracy and the king’s Lusignan and Savoyard relatives culminated in the reform program of the Provisions of Oxford (1258) and civil war between the king’s supporters and the barons, the latter under the leadership of Simon of Montfort (the Barons’ War, 1263-1265).

Henry took the cross in 1216, which gained him protection and papal support against those backing the bid of Prince Louis of France (the future Louis VIII) for the English throne. However, the political situation faced by his minority government did not permit Henry’s absence from the kingdom. He took the cross again in 1250 to provide reinforcements for the crusade of Louis IX of France to the East, but did not set an immediate date for his departure.

Plans for Henry’s second crusade soon ran into difficulties. Henry refused to set sail or to allow his subjects to join Louis’s campaign until the question of his claims to Normandy and Poitou had been settled. Furthermore Henry had frequently clashed with Alfonso X, king of Castile, over the possession of Gascony. In 1254, Alfonso surrendered his claims in exchange for Henry’s promise that he would join Alfonso on a crusade to North Africa (rather than Palestine). This could not be done without papal authorization, which Henry failed to receive because of his entanglement in the affairs of Sicily: in early 1254, Henry had accepted the throne of Sicily on behalf of his son Edmund. The kingdom had yet to be wrested from its lord, Conrad IV of Germany, and securing the financial and military means necessary preoccupied Henry for the next decade or so. This involvement not only limited the amount of troops available for a crusade, but also led to increasing dependence on the papal court. Successive popes refused Henry’s request that his crusading vow be commuted from a campaign to the Holy Land to one in North Africa (thus making it difficult for Henry to meet his obligations toward Alfonso), but suggested that it could be fulfilled by a campaign in Sicily. These difficulties not only led to a worsening of Henry’s relations with Alfonso; they also weakened his ability to make demands of Louis IX of France and brought him into increasing conflict with his barons.

The king’s subjects had not taken kindly to his crusading plans. In fact, one chronicler described the king’s vow as a little more than a means of extorting money from his barons and clergy. Henry’s refusal to allow English crusaders to join Louis’s campaign did little to restore confidence, and many contemporaries viewed the “Sicilian Business” as an expensive aberration. They were unwilling to join the king voluntarily, and few took up the papacy’s offer to fulfil their vows by fighting in Sicily. The use of crusading taxes to fund the Sicilian scheme further alienated the king from both secular lords and clergy. These tensions culminated in the baronial movement that in 1258 led to demands for a reform of the king’s government. When these demands led to the outbreak of civil war in England (1263-1265), Henry III’s crusading plans were doomed. Although the rebellion was ultimately defeated, and Henry’s status as a crusader was never revoked, he lacked the military and financial means to embark on crusade.

Henry’s experience, abortive as it was, is helpful in understanding key themes in thirteenth-century crusading. It illustrates both the geographical range of crusading and the political uses and challenges of the crusading movement. Last but not least, it highlights the conflict between official concepts of a crusade as directed against all enemies of the faith and the continuing primacy commonly given to those campaigns aimed directly at recovering or defending the Holy Land.

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