Post-classical history



The Aesthete – Henry III

A thriftless, shiftless king

Frederick Maitland1

An aesthete at bay

On 14 May 1264, after two warhorses had been killed under him, and reeling from sword and mace blows, Henry III staggered down from the battle on the Downs above Lewes to take refuge in the Black Monks’ priory. Simon de Montfort’s men surrounded it, shooting flaming arrows that set fire to the roof of its great church (bigger than Chichester Cathedral) until the king sent out an envoy to ask for terms. He then agreed to everything for which the rebels had asked, becoming a crowned figurehead; his son Edward was hostage for his behaviour.

Usually remembered only for his struggle with Simon, Henry is one of our most interesting kings, an aesthete (if the term can be used of a medieval man) who built on the grand scale, and even if it was no thanks to him he left the parliamentary system. Prouder than any previous post-Conquest ruler of being heir to the Anglo-Saxon kings, he was the most English monarch since 1066.

The boy king

Since the enemy occupied London and Winchester, the nine-year-old Henry was crowned at Gloucester, with a plain gold circlet. But by then, ten days after John’s death, Louis seemed more like a French conqueror than Magna Carta’s saviour, and many who had opposed John saw no reason why a small boy should lose his inheritance to a foreigner. His father’s will won papal support by urging compensation for the Church and help for the Holy Land.

On his deathbed the late king had begged his supporters to make William Marshal regent. ‘For God’s sake, beg the Marshal to forgive me’, John had told them. ‘I know he is truer than any other man and I beseech you to make him my son’s guardian and see he takes care of him – my son can never keep these lands without the Marshal’s help.’2 Reluctantly (he was nearly seventy) and only after a great deal of persuasion, William accepted, saying he felt as though he was sailing on a bottomless sea with no prospect of landfall, but, if need be, would find refuge in Ireland and take the boy there on his shoulders. His council included Hubert de Burgh, holding out at Dover, and Peter des Roches, who became the king’s tutor.

On hearing John was dead, Louis thought he had won. But the rebels were angered by his giving English estates to Frenchmen and by atrocities committed by his troops, whom the chroniclers call refuse and scum. William Marshal reissued Magna Carta with a new Charter of the Forest, demolishing the rebels’ platform, and during Louis’s absence in France in Lent 1217 the barons began to desert him. In May, while Louis was besieging Dover, William’s troops stormed Lincoln, killing or capturing half his army. Then a fleet bringing reinforcements from France was destroyed off Sandwich.

When King Philip, Louis’s father, heard William Marshal was in command, he said that his son had lost. In September Louis agreed to stop helping the English rebels and to give back the Channel Islands, the regency council paying him over £7,000 to go home. Rebel barons went unpunished. By the time William Marshal died in 1219, the old hero had restored some sort of law and order, and in 1221 Henry was crowned for a second time, at Westminster with the crown of St Edward. Yet the monarchy was still very weak and there was no guarantee Louis might not invade again. The Crown was heavily in debt, while the magnates had little respect for its authority.

The chief justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, governed England for more than a decade. A man on the make from the petty gentry who was turning himself into a magnate by acquiring castles and estates, he grew increasingly unpopular. Nevertheless, aided by Archbishop Langton and lawyers such as Henry de Bracton, he ensured the monarchy’s survival. In a full-scale campaign, he put an end to the Earl of Albemarle’s seizure of other men’s castles, while he checked the ravages of Falkes de Breauté (a Norman who had been King John’s favourite commander) by storming his stronghold at Bedford and hanging eighty of his men. For lack of money Hubert was unable to relieve La Rochelle when Louis VIII besieged it, and in consequence by autumn 1224 Gascony alone remained from the Angevin empire. Even so, Hubert stayed in power after Henry came of age in 1227, becoming Earl of Kent.

The man

Stockily built and 5 ft 6 in tall, Henry III had long, thick, yellow hair cut just below the ear, a beard and a moustache, with a drooping eyelid that hid half his left eye. We know exactly what he looked like from the effigy on his tomb in Westminster Abbey; its fine, handsome features are based on his death mask. He was quiet voiced with a stammer, gentle in manner except when angry. His sharp intelligence was unbalanced by too much imagination and sensitivity, by bouts of ill health and nervous attacks. He had a naïve streak which, combined with a sardonic sense of humour, could give unintentional offence. Not a strong character, he fell under the spell of foreign favourites, who were disliked by everyone else.

‘Accomplished, refined, liberal, magnificent; rash rather than brave, impulsive and ambitious, pious and, in an ordinary sense, virtuous, he was utterly devoid of all elements of greatness’, wrote Stubbs. ‘Unlike his father, who was incapable of receiving any impression, Henry was so susceptible of impressions that none of them could last long; John’s heart was of millstone, Henry’s of wax.’3

Yet he had unusual gifts. His lasting memorial is Westminster Abbey if his palace next door and apartments at the Tower have gone. Clarendon, too, went long ago, but excavation gives us some idea of how he rebuilt the woodland palace in the new Gothic style until it covered more than 8 acres. Using stone from Caen, his masons erected halls and chambers lit by stained glass – its earliest domestic use in England – and warmed by fireplaces, with walls, ceilings and wainscots painted in bright colours. There were gilded stone carvings over the fireplaces and doorways, and tiled pavements with lions and griffins. Henry’s bedroom had frescoes of the four Evangelists, while there was a carving of the twelve months over the hearth in the queen’s. The two chapels, one for the king, the other for the queen, were especially magnificent. There was a ‘great garden’, together with herb gardens, covered alleys bordered by flower beds, and stabling for 120 horses. He also made extensive additions at Winchester, Marlborough and Windsor, turning them into palaces as well as castles.

Henry resembled his father in his sudden (if rarer and milder) rages, on one occasion throwing a jester into the Thames for an unfortunate joke. Yet he was good natured, constantly giving presents to his household and alms to the poor: 5,000 paupers were fed in Westminster Hall on Edward the Confessor’s day, while in his palaces were frescoes of the parable of Dives and Lazarus with the motto ‘He who does not give what he cherishes shall not obtain his desire’. Henry grew devoted to his wife and family – and did not take mistresses. ‘The “simplicity” so often mentioned by Matthew Paris and others was a kind of innocence which remained with him throughout his life and explains a curiously attractive quality.’4

Born at Winchester, the ancient capital and brought up in England, Henry was obsessed with his Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Choosing the Confessor for his patron saint, he named his eldest son after him and his second after the East Anglian martyr king, St Edmund. Genuinely devout, he made many pilgrimages to the Marian shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, and endowed over thirty friaries. When Louis said that he often heard a sermon instead of going to Mass, Henry replied that he preferred to see a friend rather than hear someone talk about him.

Still an Angevin

At the same time, Henry III saw himself as an Angevin, mistakenly believing that Prince Louis had promised to persuade Philip II to return the lost Plantagenet lands, and that the old Marshal had missed a real chance of recovering them by failing to capture Louis in 1216–17. Unfortunately, the Capetians now ruled all France, while the Lusignan family who controlled Poitou were their loyal subjects.

Henry’s obsession with the lost lands was fostered by his tutor from Touraine, Peter des Roches. Peter hoped to set him against Hubert de Burgh, whose policy was peace at all costs – with the barons, with Scots, Welsh and French. When in 1229 Hubert told the king not to invade across the Channel, Henry was so angry that he half drew his sword and called him a traitor. Ignoring Hubert’s warnings, in 1230 he led an expedition to Brittany, where he was welcomed by its count, Peter of Dreux, a dissatisfied Capetian. ‘The king stayed in the city of Nantes for most of the time, doing nothing but spend money’ was what Roger of Wendover heard. ‘Since Hubert, the king’s justiciar, did not want them to wage war, his earls and barons entertained each other over and over again in a true English way, eating and drinking as if keeping Christmas.’5 In despair, Henry led a meaningless promenade militaire down to Bordeaux, before returning to England.

Trouble with the Church partially – but only partially – explains what happened next. John’s reliance on Innocent III had enabled papal officials to establish themselves in England, where they appropriated benefices whose revenues went to clergy in Italy, depriving landowners of the right to appoint relatives or friends. In 1231 a group of gentry began kidnapping and robbing Roman tax collectors, who in any case were disliked as foreigners.

When the king came home after recovering nothing more than the island of Oleron, Peter des Roches told him his failure was Hubert’s fault. Henry thus dismissed Hubert in 1232, on the pretext of allowing the Roman tax collectors to be persecuted. (He was also accused of poisoning the Earl of Pembroke.) The new justiciar was Stephen de Segrave, a ‘yielding man’. Real power lay with the new treasurer Peter de Rivaux, behind whom lurked his uncle Peter des Roches. Hubert had always tried to keep on good terms with the barons, even if they disliked him. Now, however, too much efficiency and disregard for custom, together with the fact that the two Peters were not only foreigners but brought in others, angered the baronage.

The treasurer turned the Wardrobe (which previously dealt only with the king’s personal expenses) into a department that oversaw treasury, exchequer and taxation, and appointed sheriffs. More controversially, Poitevin, Flemish and Breton troops were imported from France to garrison royal castles, on Peter des Roches’s advice. ‘Poor and greedy’, says the chronicler, ‘these men did their hardest to cow the native English and the nobles, whom they called traitors and betrayers of their king. Naïvely, he believed their lies, putting them in charge of the shires and the young nobility of both sexes, who were degraded by ignoble marriages . . . wherever he went he was surrounded by foreigners.’6 One reason why Poitevins were so disliked was that instead of Norman French they spoke an incomprehensible, partly Occitan, dialect.

Peter des Roches was playing a deep game. He wanted the magnates to rise in revolt so that he could crush them and build the monarchy envisaged by King John. Just as he hoped, several rebelled, led by the old marshal’s son Richard, Earl of Pembroke. However, contrary to Peter’s expectations, his Poitevins failed to win the ensuing war, even though Earl Richard was killed in Ireland. Henry was so alarmed that he went to pray at Walsingham. Finally, the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, denounced Peter des Roches and his nephew for giving the king bad advice that was endangering the kingdom. Unless Henry got rid of them, he would excommunicate the king. In April 1234 Henry dismissed his ministers and expelled the Poitevin troops.

The personal rule of Henry III, 1234–58

For the next quarter of a century, Henry governed by himself. The reforms of Hubert de Burgh and Peter de Rivaux stayed, the king keeping control of central government and the sheriffs. Even Peter de Rivaux was reinstated, in a different capacity. But there was no attempt to challenge the magnates’ liberties – Henry wanted peace and stability no less than Hubert de Burgh. In 1237, and again in 1253, he reissued Magna Carta.7

In January 1236 the twenty-eight-year-old king married Eleanor, one of the daughters of Raymond Berenguer IV, Count of Provence, and his wife Beatrice of Savoy (a beauty whom Matthew Paris compared to Homer’s Niobe). His choice was dictated by foreign policy – her sister had married Louis IX – but the match turned out to be one of the happiest in English royal history. A brunette, Eleanor was intelligent and well educated, writing verse that has not survived, perhaps taught by her father who was a considerable Provencal poet.

Only twelve, if ‘very fair to behold’, she must have been terrified when at Westminster, five days after her wedding to a man she had never seen, ‘with unheard of and incomparable solemnity Eleanor wore the crown and was crowned queen’.8 She grew into a handsome, strong-minded woman who overruled her husband more than once, although she shared his tastes and was a patron of the arts in her own right.9 Her only weakness was a love of luxury. The couple were devoted to each other and to their children. When in 1246 it looked as if their seven-year-old, eldest son Edward was dying, she stayed by the boy’s bedside for three weeks. They had another son, Edmund, who also grew to adulthood, together with two daughters, one of whom died aged three, to her parents’ deep distress.

The queen brought her uncles to England, William, Bishop elect of Valence, and his brother Peter of Savoy, to both of whom Henry took a liking. Although the magnates loathed William, the king tried to bully the Winchester monks into electing him as their bishop, but failed; and he left England – to be poisoned in Italy. More tactful, if so formidable that fellow Savoyards called him ‘Little Charlemagne’, Peter stayed on. In 1241 the king made him Earl of Richmond, the same year that he secured the election of a third uncle, Boniface, an arrogant man whom Matthew Paris says was more distinguished for birth than brains, as Archbishop of Canterbury. These were only the most notable of the Provencals and Savoyards brought in by the queen, many of whom she married to heiresses. The English hated them no less than they did the Poitevins.

A few years earlier Henry had given the earldom of Leicester to his protégé Simon de Montfort, whose Anglo-Norman family had been deprived of it by John. In 1238 Simon secretly married the king’s sister, the widowed Countess of Pembroke – according to Henry, Simon had seduced her. As the king was still childless, there were implications for the succession. His hottempered brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall became so angry that he threatened to revolt, supported by the Londoners and the bishops, the latter protesting that the lady had taken a vow of perpetual chastity. Richard calmed down on being paid the huge sum of 16,000 marks – nearly £12,000 – for his crusading expenses. The next year, Henry fell out with Simon, who also went on Crusade.

In 1235 Matthew Paris followed Roger of Wendover as chronicler at St Albans Abbey, which he remained until his death in 1259. He wrote so readably that great men sent to St Albans to borrow his books, and in 1236 the king ordered Matthew to write Edward the Confessor’s life, Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, summoning him to court. Despite having little respect for Henry, whom he met many times, Matthew’s account of the reign is invaluable.10

The end of the Angevin Empire

In February 1242 Henry summoned the magnates to London, to raise funds for another French campaign. ‘Everybody knew that the count of La Marche, who was pestering the king to come over at once with all the cash he could bring, did not think much of English soldiers and had no respect for the fighting qualities and courage of our kingdom’s knighthood’, Matthew tells us. ‘He regarded the king as a fool and was only interested in laying hands on his money.’11 When Henry told his magnates he had accepted the count’s invitation, they told him his plan was unworkable; that previously he had made their lives a misery by extracting huge sums which he squandered, and that they refused to be robbed again. Pleading, Henry found enough money for his expedition, which sailed in May.

The opportunity he thought he saw in Poitou was provided by his termagant mother Isabella. In 1220 she had married Hugh of Lusignan, Count of La Marche, the son of her former betrothed, despite his being affianced to her daughter – ‘one of the most extraordinary marriages in history’.12 In 1241, while visiting the court of Louis IX, Isabella was insulted by being told to stand when Louis’s mother and other great ladies were seated. Furious, she persuaded the Poitevin barons to rebel, bullying her husband into leading them. They were joined by Count Raymond of Toulouse and various Pyrenean lords, troubadours singing songs that accused the English king of failing to free the people south of the Loire.

Louis invaded Poitou a month before the English landed, capturing castles and cowing its barons. When Henry confronted the French army at Taillebourg in July, he realized he was heavily outnumbered and reproached Hugh of Lusignan for not bringing the Poitevin knights he had promised in his letters. ‘I promised no such thing’, replied the count. ‘Blame it on your mother, my wife. By the throne of God, she’s got us into this mess without my knowing anything about it.’13 Barely escaping capture, Henry fled, never drawing rein until he reached Saintes and finally taking refuge at Bordeaux – ‘since we could no longer linger among these perfidious Poitevins who have no shame’.14 He stayed there until the following autumn and, as the English magnates had expected, ‘spent his treasure to no purpose’.

Taillebourg ended the Angevin dream of reconquest. It was a disaster mainly thanks to Isabella, who fled to Fontevrault where she stayed until her death, lucky not to be lynched: French and Poitevins gathered outside the abbey walls, yelling that she was a wicked Jezebel. King Louis fastened his grip on Poitou, Count Hugh losing his independence. Henry returned to England a beaten man, as his father had done thirty years before.

Foreign favourites

On his return, even more southern Frenchmen surrounded the king, partly because of his brother Richard’s marriage to the queen’s sister, Sanchia of Provence (‘Cynthia’ in English), who brought a fresh influx of her fellow countrymen. At the same time, after Louis IX’s conquest of Poitou, Henry’s Lusignan half-brothers fled to England, where William became Earl of Pembroke and Aymer Bishop elect of Winchester, while Guy was given so much money that he needed packhorses to carry it. (Matthew Paris jeered that as a result Henry was reduced to ‘robbing or begging in order to eat’.) What caused deep offence was the Lusignans’ arrogance and that of their agents.15 But the king protected them, so they appeared to be above the law.

Henry wanted his wife to share his fascination with the Confessor, one reason why he commissioned Matthew Paris’s biography which was dedicated to her. Spending tens of millions in today’s money, he rebuilt Edward’s church at Westminster Abbey in an English version of the new Gothic style, reburying him in a tomb adorned with mosaics of marble, glass and gold by Cosmati craftsmen from Rome, surrounded by a Cosmati pavement, the only example of such work outside Italy. (Their wonderful pavement in front of the High Altar was restored in 2012.) Painted in green, carmine or indigo, the entire building was designed as an extended shrine.

Learning from Matthew Paris’s book that Edward had worn the plainest clothes, Henry began to dress simply. There was a statue of Edward in every palace chapel, while a likeness of him was painted on the throne and scenes from his life painted in the royal bedchambers. The cult had a political as well as a spiritual function, proclaiming Henry’s right to represent the pre-Conquest kings of England. Even before work began at Westminster, he built a great hall at Winchester, where many of the old kings lay buried.

Foreign affairs

In 1252, ‘unwilling to recall that he had twice presented Gascony by charter to Earl Richard, he [Henry] gave it to his eldest son Edward, mainly because of the queen’s insistence’, Matthew Paris tells us sardonically. ‘When he heard, Earl Richard was enraged and left court.’16 After a surprisingly successful campaign pacifying Gascony, which had been in revolt after Simon de Montfort’s harsh viceroyalty, in 1254 Henry and Eleanor visited Louis IX at Paris. The visit turned into a family party as the two queens were sisters, and Louis was transformed into a firm friend. Henry was so thrilled by the new Sainte-Chapelle (built to house a relic of the True Cross) that Parisians joked he wanted to take it home with him in a cart.

Henry’s piety was unruffled by papal tax gatherers syphoning off 5 per cent of the English Church’s income. In 1240 the rectors of Berkshire, ‘each and every one’, complained in a collective letter to Pope Gregory IX that they had no obligation to finance his war on the Emperor – Frederick II might be excommunicated but he was not a heretic. They were expressing resentment that was felt all over England.

But the king did not want to upset Rome. After Frederick died, Henry reached an agreement with Alexander IV in 1255 by which the pope absolved him from his oath to go on Crusade, and recognized his younger son Edmund as King of Sicily in place of the late Emperor’s bastard son Manfred. In return, Henry paid over £90,000, with gold that he had been hoarding for his Crusade. Alexander wrote eloquently of ‘the royal family of England, whom we regard with special affection’, and how Edmund would be ‘received [in Sicily] like the morning star’.17

Two years later, Richard of Cornwall was crowned King of the Romans at Aachen – Holy Roman Emperor elect. He paid huge sums for the privilege, his brother telling him that such an honour exalted the whole English nation. Henry was so euphoric that he issued a beautiful gold coin worth 20 silver pence, showing the King of England on his own throne with crown, orb and sceptre. Because the gold content was undervalued, it quickly disappeared from circulation, but the six surviving examples are a monument to Henry’s flamboyant heyday.

There remained the small problem of replacing the warlike King Manfred with ten-year-old Edmund. (When Richard of Cornwall had been offered Sicily before Henry accepted it for Edmund, he told Pope Alexander’s nuncio, ‘You might as well try and sell me the moon as a bargain, saying, “Go up there and grab it.”’18) Optimistically, the pope invaded Manfred’s territory and, after his troops were defeated, sent Henry a bill in 1257 for nearly £100,000 – although the king had already paid huge sums. Fearful of being excommunicated if he did not settle it, Henry summoned the magnates to a ‘parliament’ (which meant a discussion) at Westminster Abbey, parading Edmund in Apulian dress and explaining his predicament. The bishops offered just over £52,000 if the lower clergy would agree, but the barons refused outright.

The barons’ war 1258–65

Henry was thought to have squandered 950,000 marks (over £600,000) in a decade. For years he had been extorting loans from Londoners and Jews, besides extracting every sort of fine and feudal due, and shortly before the pope presented his bill the barons had declined to pay another ‘aid’ on the grounds that they were not summoned in the way laid down by Magna Carta. Not only was the king’s credit exhausted, but he had antagonized the barons by favouring the Lusignans, whose arrogance infuriated them; when Simon de Montfort came back to England and had a spectacular row with William of Valence, they applauded him. The parliament met at Westminster early in April 1258 to discuss the Sicilian business, which gave them a chance to take action.19

On 30 April Simon de Montfort, with the Earls of Norfolk and Gloucester and others, entered Westminster Hall in armour, surrounding Henry. ‘What’s this, my lords?’ gasped the king. ‘Am I your prisoner?’ ‘No, my lord,’ answered Roger Bigod. ‘But make those wretched, unbearable Poitevins, and all the other foreigners, get out of your sight and ours.’20 Henry and his heir the Lord Edward were forced to swear on the Gospels that they would introduce a new system of government. A committee of twenty-four, twelve chosen by the king and twelve by the magnates, was to discuss reforms. Somewhat tactlessly, among his twelve members Henry nominated all four Lusignan half-brothers.

What Henry’s supporters called the ‘Mad Parliament of Oxford’ met in June 1258. The magnates ordered the knights on their estates to accompany them, armed, on the pretext of preparing for a campaign in Wales. ‘They were frightened civil war would break out if there was any disagreement, and that the king and his Poitevin brethren might bring in foreign troops’, Matthew tells us. ‘So they put a guard on all the sea ports.’21 It was the first time that knights had attended a parliament in such numbers and, from the magnates’ point of view, it gave them ideas above their station. Moreover, these minor landowners had a lot to worry about as it was a rainy summer, which meant a bad harvest and famine.

A ‘petition of the barons of England’ was presented. As a result, a new council of fifteen was elected by four of the twenty-four, to appoint all great officials, sheriffs and royal castellans, while it was agreed that parliament should meet three times a year to monitor government. A justiciar was appointed for the first time since 1234, with the chancellor and the treasurer under the council’s control. The petition was strongly supported by the knights, as it included their grievances about sheriffs who pocketed illegal fines and ‘powerful people of the realm’ who bought bonds from Jewish bankers and then foreclosed. Everybody knew that the noble bond sharks included ‘Poitevins’.22

Reluctantly, the king swore to observe the ‘Provisions of Oxford’. Among them was an act resuming all the lands he had granted to his Poitevin half-brothers. ‘They and their henchmen take the opportunity to behave insolently, aggressively and haughtily to Englishmen, robbing them of their goods and treating them with utter contempt’ says the act.23 By the end of June the Lusignans had been chased out of England.

In October another parliament at Westminster redefined the office of sheriff and its duties, nineteen knights becoming sheriffs of their counties. Proclamations were then issued by the council of fifteen, which promised to redress wrongs and were read aloud in every shire court, in Latin, French and English – the first royal documents in the native language since the Conquest. They stated the king’s wish that swift justice should be done throughout his realm for poor as well as rich, and made the sheriffs salaried servants of the Crown.

Stubbs writes of Henry’s ‘feminine quality of irresolute pertinacity which it would be a mockery to call elasticity’,24 but now he showed real political sense. Realizing that his brother-in-law Louis IX might be persuaded to intervene, in November 1259 he went to Paris where he agreed to abandon the lost lands, Louis acknowledging his lordship of Gascony as a French vassal; in future, each English king was to pay homage for the duchy on succeeding to his throne. Henry stayed in France for months, forging a close bond with the French royal family – he was a pallbearer at the funeral of Louis’s eldest son – while postponing a new parliament and letting the reformers quarrel with each other.

Simon de Montfort

Unexpectedly, Simon de Montfort, who had fallen out with Gloucester and gone abroad, returned to England in January 1260 and insisted on a parliament being held in the king’s absence. It met the next month, confirming the Provisions. The council decided that Henry must be under surveillance between parliaments and, besides appointing sheriffs and castellans who were sympathetic to their ideas, set up a committee to oversee his finances. The king complained angrily that they were taking all his powers away.

Simon was an alarming opponent, a gigantic personality, austere, pious, with unusual histrionic gifts and a brilliant brain – the friend of intellectuals such as the mathematician Bishop Grosseteste and the Franciscan don Adam Marsh, who was his confessor. In 1241 he had so impressed the barons of the Holy Land that they petitioned their absentee king, the emperor Frederick, to appoint him bailli (regent) of the kingdom of Jerusalem, while as Lieutenant of Gascony he had been dreaded by its unruly nobles. He despised Henry, saying he should be locked up in the same way as a famously inept French monarch of long ago, Charles the Simple. ‘I’m horribly frightened of thunder and lightning but, by God’s head, I’m more frightened of you than all the thunder and lightning in the world’, the king once told him.25 What inspired Simon to support the ‘commune of England’ was what he had seen in Palestine, where barons shared power with their king.

The situation deteriorated. Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, attacked the Marcher lords, while it was rumoured that the Lusignans were invading the West Country and the Lord Edward would seize the throne. Both rumours were false, but the baronial council put London on a defence footing. Henry returned in April 1260, his mercenaries occupying the Tower, and was reconciled with Edward after keeping him at a distance for some days – worried lest affection might blind his judgement. (He said that if he saw his son he could not resist embracing him.) He hoped to have Simon tried as a traitor at a parliament held in July, but Louis intervened on the earl’s behalf. Once again, Simon left England.

The king’s absence in France had widened the rift between magnates and knights, and Henry began to regain control. In April a bull arrived from Pope Alexander IV, absolving him from his oath to obey the Provisions, while another bull threatening to excommunicate anyone who tried to reduce his authority was read at Paul’s Cross. Henry replaced the justiciar and the chancellor, installed royalist castellans and ordered a general eyre (an investigation by judges) to examine the reforms. He even allowed the Lusignan William de Valence to return.

There was a violent reaction by the knights, which Simon returned to lead. In August Henry issued a proclamation, complaining that he had been slandered and defending his right to replace officials. In September, when three knights from each shire were summoned to an assembly at Windsor, he told them he wanted peace, and in November he outwitted the earl by promising reforms. Neither side made progress during 1262, despite Simon reappearing at the autumn parliament and Henry being forced to confirm the Provisions shortly after Christmas. In spring 1263 he refused to confirm them again, so at Whitsun Simon once more returned to England. He led an armed rising that ended in stalemate after the Lord Edward reoccupied Windsor Castle. Richard of Cornwall – the ‘King of Germany’ – negotiated a truce.

A wish for reform remained strong, however, especially among clerics – who warmly supported Simon. So did the Londoners, who in July stoned the queen’s barge as she was being rowed up the Thames from the Tower to Windsor: the mayor had to rescue her. When Simon was trapped by royal troops in Southwark in December 1263 and feared for his life, he was saved by Londoners who let him into the City. After months of sporadic civil war, in desperation both sides asked King Louis to arbitrate, swearing to accept his decision. In January 1264 at the ‘Mise’ (Trial) of Amiens, Louis found in favour of his brother-in-law, who was present, annulling the Provisions of Oxford while stipulating that he must not take revenge. Simon and a number of barons refused to accept the verdict, however, and when Henry held an assembly at Oxford in March they demanded the Provisions, then rose in revolt.

Since both the King of France and the pope had decided against them, their cause had lost its legitimacy. Supported by the upper nobility, Henry secured the Midlands, capturing Northampton in April. He then marched south, where he was joined by a contingent from the Cinque Ports. En route, during an ambush, the king’s favourite cook was killed by an arrow, and in a rare moment of savagery Henry had 300 captured archers beheaded in his presence.

On 14 May 1264, at Offham Hill near Lewes in Sussex, Simon de Montfort’s 600 men-at-arms and 4,400 foot soldiers, who had occupied the summit during the night, routed twice as many royal troops. The king had been so confident that he displayed the banner of the ‘Dragon’, ordering his men to give no quarter. However, the Lord Edward weakened his father’s front by an undisciplined charge against the Londoners on the right. According to William Rishanger, he ‘thirsted for their blood because of the way they had insulted his mother, and chased them for four miles’.26 Beaten back after trying to attack uphill, the rest of the royal army disintegrated, fleeing down to Lewes. Simon killed or captured nearly 3,000, mainly foot soldiers. His prisoners included the king, Edward and Richard of Cornwall.

In June a parliament established a council of nine, chosen by three electors (the Bishop of Chichester, the new Earl of Gloucester and Simon) to direct the king, who could no longer appoint officers of state or household officers without their approval. These measures were confirmed by Simon’s Great Parliament at the start of 1265, which was broader based than any previous assembly, with two knights elected by the shire court of every county and two burgesses from every city or borough. Threatened with deposition, Henry agreed to everything demanded by the ‘Steward of England’, as Simon styled himself.

Simon’s defeat

Few barons had attended the parliament, as Simon was jeopardizing their interests by relying on knights and burgesses. They also knew that Henry III was a puppet, a prisoner of the earl. The North and the West never acknowledged Simon’s government, while Queen Eleanor was raising troops in France and the Marcher lords were his enemies. His position improved at the end of 1264 when he forced the Marchers to accept his authority, but just after Easter 1265 his most powerful ally, the Earl of Gloucester, quarrelled with him – arguing that, as a foreigner, Simon had no right to rule England. In response, Simon marched westward, to seize Gloucester’s castles in Glamorgan and obtain reinforcements from Llewelyn. He brought the Lord Edward with him.

At the end of May 1265 Edward made a dramatic escape from Hereford, using an exceptionally fast horse to outdistance the gaolers who had taken him out for exercise, and reached the Mortimers. Joined by Gloucester’s men, he rode south with the Marchers to confront Simon in a complex campaign of manoeuvres and skirmishes. Surprising and destroying a large body of troops under Simon’s son at Kenilworth, Edward then trapped Simon himself with his army (unwillingly accompanied by King Henry) on 4 August, encircling them in a bend of the River Avon near Evesham.

‘God have mercy on our souls because our bodies are theirs’, groaned Earl Simon. During a thunderstorm Edward’s troops killed or captured over 3,000 of the earl’s men after they failed to break out. Simon was among the dead. His followers had wanted the king to die with them. Without a surcoat, his face hidden by a close-fitting helmet, he was unrecognizable, and after being wounded in the neck only just saved his life by shouting, ‘I am Henry, the old king of England – for the love of God, don’t hit me!’27 The earl’s body was castrated by one of the victors, Sir William Maltravers, who chopped off Simon’s head and limbs and nailed his genitalia to his face. The so-called ‘baronial party’ died with him.

Simon de Montfort had been a hero to many. The poor blessed him for making the law more accessible; the knights were grateful for their summons to parliament and rescue from overbearing magnates. ‘A mighty man, prudent, far seeing’, commented William Rishanger (Matthew Paris’s successor at St Albans), saying how often the earl was in church, how he always asked monks and friars to pray for him, how he was a close friend of the holy Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. ‘Once he swore [to observe the Provisions of Oxford] Simon stood firm as a strong pillar, and neither bribes nor flattery could make him join other barons in betraying his oath to reform the kingdom.’ It is odd to find so warm a tribute from the pedestrian Rishanger.28 This flattering view persisted: the Victorians regarded Simon as founder of the House of Commons.

In contrast, the Osney canon Thomas Wykes saw him as a criminal who plundered the realm and despised fellow barons as ‘fickle and unstable – he never stopped calling them unreliable wretches’.29 To him, they were nonentities, wax in his terrible hands. What makes Wykes plausible is his objectivity. He was as horrified by Henry letting London Jews be massacred in 1263 as he was by Simon taking a share of their stolen goods. Even the earl’s admirer Stubbs writes that ‘If Simon had lived longer the prospect of a throne might have opened before him, and he might have become a destroyer rather than a saviour.’30

In a parliament at Winchester in September, Henry confiscated 254 estates, which shows how many knights fought against him. Some held out in Kenilworth Castle, so in October 1266 he issued the Dictum of Kenilworth, allowing rebels to buy back their lands for a few years’ rent. (It also threatened to excommunicate anyone who venerated Simon as a saint.) The Kenilworth garrison surrendered in December, but even then a small band went on holding out on the Isle of Ely. When the Earl of Gloucester occupied London in April 1267, demanding fairer treatment of the ‘dispossessed’, he was joined by a few irreconcilables. But Gloucester submitted in June, the Ely men in July.

Henry’s triumph

At a parliament held at Marlborough in November, forgetting the humiliations of nearly a decade (and what amounted to an attempt to murder him at Evesham), the king granted the demands of the Mad Parliament nine years before, redressing the knights’ grievances. There were no reprisals, a magnanimity for which he seldom receives credit. The dispossessed recovered their estates, while after paying fines the Londoners were regranted their privileges. Peace was made with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, recognized as Prince of Wales.

Henry’s victory had been inevitable as the barons did not want to be ruled by knights. By 1268 his regime was so secure that the Lord Edward felt confident enough to take a vow to go on Crusade. During the two years before he sailed, he was the last of the strong personalities who dominated Henry – no King of England ever enjoyed a happier relationship with his heir. In October 1269 at Westminster Abbey, with Prince Edmund and Richard of Cornwall, father and son carried on their shoulders the relics of Edward the Confessor to his new shrine in the apse behind the altar, although the new abbey church was only partially built. It was the realization of Henry’s dream.

He died at Westminster in November 1272 after the longest reign England had ever known. As an Angevin he left instructions for his heart to be interred at Fontevrault, but as heir of the pre-Conquest kings he was buried at Westminster Abbey in coronation robes and wrapped in cloth of gold, interred in the tomb he had designed near the shrine of his ‘friend’ the Confessor. The funeral displayed all the elegant pomp that was his lasting gift to the English monarchy.


There was no Angevin demon in Henry III. Modern historians have a soft spot for him, a recent biographer discerning ‘a lack of foresight and a basic goodness of heart’.31 The best verdict is still Maurice Powicke’s. ‘When all is said and done, Henry remains a decent man . . . The simplicity which could by turns amuse and madden those who had to do with him maintained him in the end. He got through all his troubles and left England more prosperous, more united, more peaceful, more beautiful than it was when he was a child.’32

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