Post-classical history

The First Moves of the Civil War

SIMON DE MONTFORT had come back to make war, and all men knew it. All men knew that no peaceful agreement into which Henry might enter would be carried out. At the first opportunity he would run to the Pope for absolution of his vows, and thus the familiar performance of repudiation would be repeated. It was impossible to get the better of the King in this kind of contest because his very weaknesses made him a formidable opponent. It was like buffeting a straw man suspended at the end of a loose rope.

Late in May, Simon was at Oxford for a council of war with his chief supporters. He had selected the university city because it was strategically situated, having the Marcher country back of it. Perhaps he had it in mind also that the meeting place of the Mad Parliament would be a logical starting point for the armed struggle.

Many of the men who assembled at the Earl of Leicester’s call were, strangely enough, new to the cause. Some of the original members were present, but many of them had died and many had been won over to the royalist side by one inducement or another. There was a predominance of youth in the baronial ranks at Oxford, and the explanation of this can be found in the personality of Simon de Montfort. Young men found him irresistible. He was a magnetic figure, this Anglo-Norman peer who had won for himself the reputation of being the best soldier in Europe. He appealed to their sense of idealism because they knew him to be fervent in his faith and unswerving in his devotion to the cause. When the choice lay between this knight in shining armor and the weak King, the crabbed, complaining old incumbent of the throne who had been an almost comic figure for so long, they did not find it a hard decision to make. If Edward had been older and had behaved himself better during the years of his adolescence, he would have split their allegiance. As it was, they flocked to Oxford and clanked in full armor about St. Martin’s, clamoring for armed action.

The most sensational addition to the baronial ranks was Henry of Almaine, the oldest son of Richard of Cornwall. Henry was a thoroughly likable youth, brave, amiable, personable; but, as it developed, inclined to be fickle and certainly without any great force of character. He had accompanied his father to the crowning at Aachen and had shortly after been sent back because the Dutch and German subjects of the new King had objected to so many Englishmen in the imperial train. Young Henry was just old enough now to come into some properties of his own and to take an interest in politics. At first he was an ardent advocate of the cause of his uncle, the King, and refused positively to take the oath of obedience to the Provisions of Oxford. He even took sides with the Lusignans although he did not go to the length of following them to Winchester in their final gesture of defiance. Shortly afterward he became the close friend of Gilbert the Red and, perhaps because of this, he was drawn into the youthful circle which saw in Simon de Montfort the hope of England. He arrived in Oxford with shining-eyed enthusiasm, the most eager neophyte there. And no doubt a spark passed through the ranks when they saw him come riding in with the baronial cross on his shoulder.

The next recruit in point of rank was John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who had married Alice de Lusignan and was therefore the King’s brother-in-law. He was in his early thirties and had been a member of the inner royal circle, even being chosen for the great honor of knighthood at the hands of Alfonso at Las Huelgas. An ardent royalist in the early stages of the struggle, he also had come under the influence of the baronial leader, and now he was at Oxford with a long train of knights and men-at-arms.

Gilbert the Red had come back into the ranks. It was clear, perhaps, to the leader that this twenty-year-old peer was already showing some of the defects of character which had made his father such a difficult partner. He had a tendency to sudden enthusiasms and to equally sudden processes of cooling off. If Simon had studied him with prophetic eye he would have been slow to welcome this youth with his blazing pride and his tinderlike temper, seeing faintly in the future a field of battle where the sudden appearance on the other side of the three chevrons of the house of Clare would turn the tide. At the moment, however, the mercurial though brave young earl was a fiery adherent of the baronial leader and ready for any risk beside him.

One of the recruits was Roger de Leyburn, a Kent man of the second rank. This passionate knight was always in trouble but possessed such a capacity for making friends that the consequences of his folly passed him by. Ten years before he had killed one Arnold de Montigny in a tilting, and it had been discovered later that he had neglected to cover the point of his lance with the customary socket, a fact which sat ill on men’s stomachs when it was recalled that he had suffered a broken leg in an earlier jousting with the unfortunate Arnold. To cover up this unsavory episode he took the cross but did not go to the East, being given the appointment of steward to Prince Edward. There must have been unusual qualities in him which made other men like him, a devil-may-care gaiety, perhaps a hint of diablerie in his bold eye. He became at once a great favorite of Edward’s, the leader of his train of bachelor knights. Nothing he did, not even the summary hanging of some servants of the house of Gloucester over a dispute, seriously disturbed his place in the prince’s regard. He had, however, a predilection for the baronial side of the long struggle, and it was said that he had been instrumental in bringing his royal master and Simon de Montfort together. The King seems to have liked him in spite of this, but Queen Eleanor took a different view, regarding Leyburn with the cold eye of suspicion. She feared his influence over her son and may in addition have disliked the rakish side of the man. It was due to the Queen’s insistence that in 1260 a demand was made for an accounting of his stewardship, as a result of which he was stated to be short in his accounts to the extent of one thousand pounds.

Leyburn violently denied the justice of the verdict and removed all his goods from his various manors to prevent seizure. His properties were declared confiscated and, with characteristic boldness, he announced himself a rebel. When the return of Simon de Montfort brought the national issue to a head Leyburn was still at outs with the law and the leader of a group of youthful malcontents in the Marcher country. It was natural enough for him to throw his allegiance to Simon and to bring his companions with him. They were in force in Oxford and the most strident of all in support of the policy of armed action. Simon was to have little good of them, however. Their adherence hurt the cause in the eyes of many sober men who regarded them as outlaws. The Leyburn enthusiasm, moreover, which was real enough at the beginning, was not equal to the pressure which would be exerted later to make him change his coat.

The most loyal of the younger men was John de Vescy from Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, a grandson of Eustace de Vescy, who had played such a prominent part at Runnymede. It was not surprising to find him a zealous believer in the baronial cause and devoted fanatically to Simon de Montfort. John de Vescy remained true to his vows and fought through to the end of the struggle.

The decision of the council of war was to send a final demand to Henry. The Provisions were to be observed both in letter and spirit, and all who refused to abide by them were to be considered enemies of the realm and treated as such, the only exceptions being the King and the members of his immediate family.

Henry was not convinced that the barons meant to fight or that they could win if they did. He rejected the proposals.


The baronial forces were not large, but their commander had gained his reputation for generalship as much by the speed as the fury of his strokes. The suddenness with which he now went into action caught the royalists off guard.

Simon moved his forces out of Oxford and struck westward, his purpose being to secure command of the Severn River and his communications with the Marches. He met with no opposition, sentiment in the West being at this time against the King. Gloucester and Bristol opened their gates to him. While thus engaged he permitted his followers to exact tribute from the landowners who were known to be royalist in sentiment. The estates of Peter d’Aigueblanche, Bishop of Hereford, were plundered, and Peter himself was captured and imprisoned at Eardisely. The ill repute in which the bishop stood as a result of his part in the Sicilian transactions accounted, perhaps, for the severity with which he was treated. Others had their fields burned and their livestock seized to support the army on its eastern drive. This may have been a necessary war measure, but it was to prove a serious mistake in policy. The plundered landowners never forgave Simon de Montfort and remained his implacable enemies to the end.

Simon now proceeded to demonstrate the vigor of his generalship. He did not sit himself down to the siege of castles while waiting for more of the dissenting barons to rally around the banner of revolt as any other leader of the day would have done. He knew that in order to win he must win quickly. London must be made his permanent base; the Cinque Ports must be secured because they meant command of the sea. Satisfied with his lines of communication, he turned and marched for London with a speed which threw dismay into the advisers of the King. The approach of the baronial army convinced them that it would be wise to seek a peaceful settlement. The task of opening negotiations was delegated to the King of the Romans, who had returned to England. Richard took to horse and rode furiously to Wallingford, hoping to intercept Simon as he led his steel-clad knights past Oxford. He was too late. The barons had not paused at Oxford but were already streaming down the Thames Valley. Richard turned and rode to Reading, but again he was too late. The roads between Reading and London were already thick with the dust raised by the marching feet of the barons.

By another surprise move Simon did not continue on to London but swung south between Windsor and that city and drove straight for the heart of Kent. This seemed the height of rashness. Kent was strongly held by the enemy. But when the weary and dusty army reached Romney on July 9 it became clear that the Earl of Leicester had been right in his calculations. The men of Kent came out to welcome him, and the barons of the Cinque Forts rallied to his side. Simon’s main purpose had been accomplished. He had control of the Channel and the approaches to the kingdom in his pocket.

The royalist party realized their peril. Henry hastened in a panic to the shelter of the strong walls of the Tower of London and lent an assenting ear to the pacific counsels of the King of the Romans, who had arrived after the tumult of the passing of the barons died down. Those of the King’s party who had favored a bolder course now scented danger for themselves and hastened to get away. Boniface of Canterbury, who had faced the fury of London mobs once before and desired no more of that medicine, took ship on the Thames and got away to the Continent. John Mansel, not relishing the role of scapegoat which he knew would be his, followed the example of the archbishop and fled to France. London rose up in defiance of the King.

Henry was thankful for the strength of the Tower walls when he saw the narrow streets below him filled with angry mobs. As always, the rioters vented their first fury on the foreign residents of the city and the Jews, who were believed to have financed the long-continued obduracy of the King. Stephen Buckrell, the marshal of the city, was the leader of the demonstration, although its first violence was the work of a firebrand named John Fitzjohn. In one long night of horror many hundreds of the unfortunate Jews, including Kokben Abraham, the wealthiest of his race in the country, were slaughtered and their homes looted. Flames still rose from the Jewry when the sun came up over the estuary. The mobs, drunk on blood and the looted wines of the Gascon vintners, were not yet satisfied. They thronged the streets below the Tower and roared defiance of the anxious watchers on the ramparts.

Queen Eleanor chose this moment to think of escape. All night long, by the side of her spouse, she had watched the violence below and she feared that the rioters would now storm the Tower. Orders were given that the royal barge be prepared and manned for a race down the river to Windsor.

In another century the surface of the Thames would be crowded with large balingers and crayers with rounded bow and stern, but it is practically certain that the royal barge in this day would be of the galley type, which was, of course, much slower. It would have a large square mainsail of colored cloth or even silk, loose-footed and boomless, with a small cabin above the level of the rowers. Ordinarily the royal standard crackled sharply in the breeze at the prow, but discretion may have resulted in its removal for this precarious venture. Every pair of eyes in London, however, had rested many times on the royal conveyance as it plied up and down the river, the King’s minstrels strumming and tootling in the stern and the deck gay with rich costumes. It was recognized as soon as it put out from the Tower wharf.

Old London Bridge was three hundred yards long and, even though the center was lined with houses and shops, it provided plenty of room for spectators. The bridge was black with people when the barge headed out into the river and steered for one of the narrow arches through which the water roiled and churned. A loud chorus of vituperation arose as soon as it became certain that this was the Queen and her ladies seeking to escape. Hands reached for rotten eggs and vegetables, for dried mud and stones and loose pieces of paving with which to pelt the hated Queen-consort.

Eleanor was now in her forty-first year. As she had been in ill-health for some time, it may be assumed that the freshness of her early beauty had deserted her. She was still of fine presence, however, and in spite of the plainness of the attire she had donned, it was not hard for her jeering subjects to pick her out from the group surrounding her. Alderman and thief, merchant and beggar joined in a furious shout.

“Down with the witch! Drown the witch!”

Eleanor, the only queen in English history to be subjected to such a demonstration of hatred and contempt, had never learned to school her emotions or to hide resentment. Her face was livid with anger as she listened to the execrations of the people she disliked more than any on earth, “these clowns,” as her royal husband called them. But the hatred which caused her to register mental vows of retaliation was merged with fear. It was clear enough to everyone on the barge that to run the turgid water under the bridge would result in calamity. The order was given to turn about and put back to the Tower.

Later, escorted by royal troops, she ventured into the streets and ensconced herself in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s. If she encountered any opposition on the way it is not recorded.

Henry had no stomach for adversity. He had always yielded quickly under pressure, and the treatment accorded his Queen had made him thoroughly apprehensive. His supporters were scattering, and there was no longer any hope of succor from his brother-in-law of France. Under these circumstances he gave in. It was announced on July 16 that he had accepted the terms proposed by the popular party.

All through the years of his long reign Henry had been making his peace thus, after being caught in flagrant error and wrongheadedness. It had always been possible to wriggle out of tilings in due course, breaking his oaths and finding pretexts for non-observance of promises. The stern and sardonic man who rode in from Kent to take control of things was not likely, however, to condone any breaking of pledges. Had Henry finally committed himself to promises he would have to keep?

Under the shrewd and incisive direction of Simon de Montfort it took three days only to set up a provisional government. Hugh le Despenser became chief justiciar. Nicholas of Ely took the custody of the great seal from Walter de Merton, the King’s own appointee and familiar. New castellans were selected for the royal castle, even Prince Edmund, the stickit King of Sicily, being ordered to vacate Dover. The baronial army in the meantime marched into London, hard on the heels of the hastily retreating King and Queen.


The King had given in, but Prince Edward was in a far different mood. The first warlike move of the barons at Oxford had roused in the heir to the throne a mighty fighting spirit.

Having under his command a body of troops he had been using in the Welsh campaign, and lacking funds to hold them together, Edward went to the New Temple, where his mother’s jewels were being held as security for loans she had received. He presented himself with a bodyguard and declared that he wanted to be assured as to the safety of the Queen’s property. A request of this land being not at all unusual, the custodian took the prince back into the center of the great cluster of buildings which constituted the New Temple until they came to the vaults. Edward and the men with him then took possession of the keys and proceeded to help themselves. It is recorded that the prince not only went away with the jewelry but ten thousand pounds in money as well, most of which had been placed there on deposit by London merchants. With the funds thus secured the prince was organizing a force at Windsor when the unexpectedness of Simon de Montfort’s march into Kent brought royal resistance to an end. This, however, did not weaken the prince’s resolution to go on with the struggle.

The period of his youth had come to an abrupt ending; he was now a man and with a man’s work to do. He lacked at this time all sense of restraint, as witness his looting of the Temple. He never lost entirely, in fact, the conviction, so strong in him as a youth, that the end justifies the means. While the man he now recognized as the archenemy of his house proceeded to reweave the fabric of government, Edward set himself to the task of rebuilding the royal strength.

As shrewd in his untamed early manhood as Simon at the peak of his powers, Edward knew the weak spots in the baronial armor. He made the young men around Simon his special target. Roger de Leyburn was won back. That violent opportunist needed no more than a promise that the sins of the past would be forgiven to bring him into the royal camp. His influence being as strong as ever with the other members of the group, it was not long before Henry of Almaine and John de Warenne followed his example. The young Earl of Gloucester, being of stouter fiber and owing his opinions to no other man, withdrew temporarily from the heat of things, leaving himself in a position to jump in either direction. Lesser members followed the trend, however, and appeared at Windsor to make their peace.

Henry of Almaine was a youth of good principles, and he could not regard the changing of his coat as easily as some of the others. After deciding that his duty lay in the other camp he went to Simon and announced the fact.

“I can no longer fight against my father, against my uncle, against all my relatives,” he said. There was in his attitude a kind of desperation over the difficulties of his position. “That is why I must leave you, Sir Earl, but I shall never bear arms against you.”

The interview, a brief one, brings out a weakness in the leader of the popular cause. Simon was a little deficient in sense of humor. Instead of recognizing the mixed loyalties which had thrown Henry of Almaine into such a confused state of mind, he glowered at the embarrassed young man.

“I fear your lack of loyalty, Messer Henry,” he answered, “more than I fear your arms.”

The phrasing of this speech makes it clear that Simon was fully aware of the danger of his position. His following had been small enough when he had raised the standard of revolt, and now the defection of the younger wing was leaving him without sufficient strength to consolidate and hold what he had gained by his march into Kent. The desertion of one as inconsequential even as Henry of Almaine was not a matter to be treated with any lightness. It was a loss to a cause which in his eyes had become nothing short of sacred.


It was the Earl of Leicester’s realization of his waning strength which induced him to agree to Louis of France as arbitrator between Henry and his subjects.

Prince Edward had been stirred to a pitch of fighting fury possible only to unbridled youth. He was using every weapon on which he could lay his hands to defend the crown which one day would be his. The savagery of his methods became clear at the meeting of Parliament called on October 13 in the hope of arriving at a compromise. The obstructionist tactics of the prince and his young lieutenants made any discussion impossible, and the meeting broke up in confusion.

That night four citizens of London, all of the wealthier class brought word to Edward that Simon was staying at Southwark with a small following and that they could guarantee the closing of the city gates if an effort were made to capture him. The prince moved with haste to get his hands on the man he now hated, but, fortunately for the baronial cause, the efforts of the four wealthy citizens to seal the gates of the city aroused suspicion. Simon was the hero of the common people of London, and word was carried out to him that it would be safer to find lodgings inside the walls. When the mounted followers of the prince surrounded the house in Southwark, they found that the bird had flown.

It may be assumed that Simon agreed to arbitration because the situation was out of hand and he was not anxious to seek the solution in an immediate appeal to arms. There can be no doubt, however, that he believed the arbitration would be limited to a definition of method and not of principle. Before the brief meeting of Parliament had been broken up by Edward’s supporters the King had again asserted his intention of abiding by the Provisions. His affirmation seemed to remove the possibility that the French King’s inquiry would have any bearing on the validity of what had been done at Oxford. Whatever was in Simon’s mind, however, the fact remains that he signed his name to the invitation, agreeing to abide by the decision. Among those who signed with him were the bishops of Worcester and London, the chief justiciar, and Humphrey de Bohun.

Even had Louis shared the understanding of the barons as to the limited scope of his arbitration, his appointment would still have been a mistake from the standpoint of the popular cause. Louis had a deep sense of justice, but he was, after all, a king. It was unthinkable to him that subjects could tell a king how he was to rule and what servants he might employ in carrying out his will. So closed was his mind on these points that it took him a very short time to arrive at his conclusions. He had not been expected to render his verdict before Pentecost. Henry arrived early in January at Amiens, where the hearings were to be held, but Simon de Montfort did not put in an appearance. It had been the intention of the latter to present the baronial case, but on his way he was thrown from his horse and his leg was broken. The hole in the road near Catesby which caused this accident may have changed the course of history. Simon was a powerful advocate, and it is possible he could have given Louis a clearer view of the rancorous conditions which had existed so long in England. He might, at any rate, have established in the mind of the French monarch an acceptance of the limited scope of the inquiry. If the nature of the Mise of Amiens had been different, it is probable that further fighting could have been avoided.

Louis did not allow the absence of the baronial leader to delay his decision. On January 23 he gave out his findings, which were in Henry’s favor on every point. The Provisions of Oxford, which Henry had sworn to observe on so many occasions, were declared null and void. The King of England might rule as his judgment dictated and he might appoint his own ministers and officers, employing aliens as he saw fit. Two provisions were added which put some degree of restraint on the King’s hands: the award did not apply to the liberties of the realm as established “by royal charter, privilege, franchise, statute or praiseworthy custom,” which was meant to apply to the Great Charter only, and there must be no punishment of individuals.

England was stunned by the nature of the Mise of Amiens, as the decision of the French King was called. Simon de Montfort proclaimed at once that Louis had disregarded the established limitations and that, moreover, a decision recognizing the Great Charter could not at the same time rule out the Provisions of Oxford. He had no intention of accepting the rulings. “Though all should forsake me,” cried Simon, “I will stand firm with my sons in the just cause to which my faith is pledged! Nor will I fear to risk the fortune of war.”

He had no reason to fear that he would stand alone on this ground. The diplomatic defeat of the barons proved to be the means of uniting them again. Sentiment throughout the country stiffened. The city of London would have none of the award. The barons of the Cinque Ports were up in arms about it; the rank and file of the baronial party fiercely proclaimed their unwillingness to abide by one-sided findings to which they had not committed themselves.

The attitude of the Vatican proved a further stimulant to opposition. A new pope had succeeded Alexander two years before under the name of Urban IV. He was a Frenchman, Jacques Pantaléon, the son of a shoemaker. Urban was Gallic in his thinking and he agreed with the findings of the French King. The Mise of Amiens was given papal confirmation on March 16. Urban then made a tactical error, however, in appointing another Frenchman as papal legate to England, Cardinal Guy Fulcodi of Sabrina, with full power to declare a crusade against all who opposed the restoration of Henry to his former powers. Guy Fulcodi was an able man, a jurist who had worked closely with Louis in national matters before taking holy orders. He was a forward thinker in some respects, but he had an unshakable belief in the absolute power of kings. This made him incapable of understanding the attitude of Englishmen who had taken up arms against their monarch, even though he must have had some inkling of the almost imbecilic weakness of Henry’s rule. The papal intervention acted as a bellows in blowing the coals of national discontent into flames.

Henry came back to England in a complacent frame of mind, announcing somewhat smugly that he would “receive into his peace” all who were ready to swear their acceptance of the award. To his huge dismay he found the country echoing with preparations for war.

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