Post-classical history

The Battle of Evesham

ATIRED MAN led a hungry army across the Severn on August 3. Simon de Montfort had arrived at the river the night before, accompanied by King Henry and a badly equipped force of not more than four thousand men, including the few hundred Welsh archers whose services had been contributed by Llewelyn. It had been necessary to keep custody of the King’s person for two reasons: to have the royal signature on communications and manifestoes, and to make sure that Henry did not slip away to join the prince. The pretense of royal authority must be kept up. Henry, most unhappy about it, must still play his part in the masquerade.

It took the whole day to accomplish the long-desired passage of the river, there being few boats available. The crossing was made at Kempsey, which was four miles south of Edward’s base at Worcester, so it is certain that Simon de Montfort knew of the withdrawal of the royal army. He was apprehensive as well as tired, realizing that the disappearance of the prince with his army of ten thousand men meant he had marched eastward to deal with the reinforcements under young Simon. It is certain he did not know of the terrible mistake his son had made and of the disaster which had overtaken him in consequence. Otherwise he would have taken care not to march into the jaws of a victorious enemy but would have slipped away on the road to London, where alone he would have a chance to augment his meager forces. He was hoping, it is clear, to get to his son’s assistance before the prince could deliver his attack. Not daring to take the direct route to Kenilworth, which would bring him dangerously close to the royal lines, he marched instead for Evesham, which lay in a loop of the Avon, a distance of fifteen miles away.

The tired man had acted with more expedition than Edward had anticipated. When the prince arrived in the vicinity of his Worcester base late in the day on August 3, confident that Simon the younger would play no further part in the campaign and prepared to deal next with Simon the elder, he discovered to his surprise and dismay that the old earl had already crossed the river and disappeared with his ragtag army. Where was he heading, for Kenilworth or London? Then the prince’s busy spies brought him a welcome piece of information. Earl Simon was now crossing the Avon at Pershore, which meant he was headed for Evesham. From there he still had a choice of routes; but Edward, knowing the valiant heart of his veteran opponent, had no doubt that the earl’s intention was to get to his son’s aid.

There was still time to prevent a junction of the two wings of the baronial army. Trumpets sounded in the royal camp where weary men were settling down to enjoy a rest after three days of marching and fighting. They fell into line again, grumbling furiously, and began in the falling dusk to move eastward over the rough roads and wooded country between Droitwich and the Vale of Evesham.

Military experts disagree as to the roads they took and at what stage the army was divided into three parts; two flying wings being constituted and confided to the command of Gilbert of Gloucester and Roger de Mortimer. The fact remains that at some hour of the night, while his equally weary foes were slowly filing into the Vale of Evesham, that lovely and fertile strip of country, Edward found himself astride the road to Alcester and so between the two baronial armies. A little later the prince extended his line as far east as Offenham, after fording the eastern side of the loop at what came to be called later Dead Man’s Ait.

A council of war was held at some time during the night with the two young leaders of the supporting wings in attendance. It was held at a spot still known as Council Green, and in some accounts Roger de Mortimer is given credit for the plan of battle then adopted. This is not an acceptable version in view of the subsequent records of Edward and his lieutenant from the Marches. Edward’s conduct of the campaign thus far had been marked by flawless strategy and great speed of execution. It is not reasonable that at the final moment he would find it necessary to lean on the advice of a man of inferior capacity. Mortimer was opinionated and talkative, and it is probable that his tongue clacked a great deal during the discussion, leading to the suggestion that he was guiding the tactical decisions for the next day. It is certain that Gilbert of Gloucester had little to say. He was not a soldier of experience, and it is possible he was listening to another sound while the voices about him were raised in debate, a faint but disturbing noise which might have seemed to him like the jingle of thirty pieces of silver.

THE BATTLE OF EVESHAM

The plan decided upon was simple, sound, and effective. Gloucester was to take his wing down the west arm of the Avon to prevent a retreat toward the Severn. Mortimer was detailed to cross the east arm of the loop and not only block the one bridge across the river but get himself astride the London road, a minor role. Edward, with the bulk of the army, would drive straight against the baronial forces in the town.

The trap had closed.

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Before daylight the mounted scouts of Simon de Montfort detected the approach of armed forces north of the town where Green Hill dominates the sky line. Edward, who was neglecting no possible advantage, had resorted to the stratagem of sending the banners captured at Kenilworth ahead of him. The scouts, in consequence, got the impression at first that this was young Simon and his men marching to join them. If this report was carried back to the leader (there is every reason to doubt it), the truth soon became apparent. It was growing light now, and a barber of the town, who had stationed himself in the bell tower of Evesham Abbey, detected the imposture and cried out in great alarm that the enemy was on them.

It may be taken for granted that Simon would not have remained in such a vulnerable position if his men had not been worn out by the hardships through which they had been passing and if he had been free of the importuning of the King. Henry wearied easily in the saddle and he had slept all night, arising in the morning to demand time for prayers and the celebration of mass. It would have been wiser if the harried earl had decided in this desperate juncture to jettison his dangerous captive. The presence of Henry, and his acquiescence in measures, had been necessary as long as the ruling of the realm alone was in question. As soon as civil war broke out again, he had become no more than a prisoner. Perhaps Simon indulged instead in a line of reasoning which would not have seemed strange to any man of that violent day. All this hatred and dissension in England, this fighting and bloodshed and destruction, had been caused by the obstinate determination of one incompetent man to rule the land as he saw fit. With a bloody battle impending, should the author of it all be removed safely to the rear where he would have no share in the tumult and fury? Should he be made comfortable while thousands paid the price in death of his never-ending obduracy?

Whatever the reasoning which governed the decision, the King was hastily accoutered for battle. Chain mail was buckled over his pourpoint jack, steel cuisses were fitted on his broad thighs. Allowed no distinguishing crest and no banner to identify him, he was put into the saddle, knowing the odds and realizing the probability that he would die under the blows of those who were fighting to free him. If this situation had been deliberately contrived, it was a strange revenge which Simon was visiting on the King.

So they rode out together, King and subject, crowned autocrat and leader of the popular cause, with the memories of nearly twenty years of trouble and fighting and hatred between them. The curtain had risen on the last scene of the long duel.

Simon had no illusions about his own fate. His position was a desperate one. Ahead of him, covering the fifteen-hundred-yard gap which divided the arms of the Avon, lay the army of Edward, twice the size of his own. His scouts had already reported the presence of Mortimer on the southeastern side of the river, which blocked any possibility of retreat. It was an evidence of Simon’s greatness that his first impression was one of admiration for the troop dispositions of the prince.

“By the arm of St. James,” he cried, “they come on well!” With a sense of soldierly pride he added, “It was from me he learned it.”

Then the hopelessness of their position caused him to say to those about him, including his sons Henry and Guy, “May God have mercy on our souls, for our bodies are theirs!” It did not enter his head to hoist a white flag or to throw himself on the mercy of the King. Henry might have welcomed this way out of the dangerous dilemma in which he was placed. Edward would have refused any offer from the barons to lay down their arms, however, unless they came to him with halters around their necks. It is certain that Simon de Montfort preferred death to humiliation.

The old leader had reason to believe that his son Simon had reached Alcester, which was about ten miles away at the junction of the Alne and the Arrow rivers, and this dictated the course he elected to follow. He decided to form his men into a wedge and drive up the hill into the center of the encircling forces of the prince. If Edward had thinned his line in spreading out to cover the whole gap, the desperate gamble of a frontal attack might conceivably be successful. The armed knights were directed to lead the drive, with the English foot soldiers following and the Welsh archers bringing up the rear. The order for the charge was given.

At this moment the convulsion of nature which medieval writers demand for historic occasions came about in actual truth. A black cloud appeared in the sky above the elevation where the royal army stood, a grim and evil cloud which seemed at once to form a part of the menace facing the trapped barons. It did not move with the slow stateliness of casual clouds but as though in a mad hurry to blot out the light of the sun. The advance rack raced like cavalry scouts, tossing in the wind. The cloud brought anger and thunder but little rain, which added to its effect because it seemed unreal and contrary to nature. Men could see little of the faces of their neighbors, and back in Evesham Abbey the monks who, through sheer force of routine, paraded two by two into choir loft and stall to chant their perfunctory plain song while history was being hammered out in a din of steel a few hundred yards from the calm walls, could not read the words spread before them. It was believed later that the Lord had sent this black pall over the earth to hide the grim tragedy being enacted on the slopes of Green Hill.

The first shock of the baronial wedge carried them well into the royal line. But the line did not break; it bent, and, as often happens when column meets line, the wings closed in on each side. The earl and his followers found themselves hemmed in, the impetus of their attack expended and wasted. It was well for Simon de Montfort that the most furious action centered where he spearheaded the baronial effort. He had no time to think of anything but keeping the protection of his shield with its silver fork-tailed lion between him and the blows of hostile battle-axes while he flailed about him with his heavy sword. He no longer had time to think that he himself must die, although the probability of that had come to him with his first glimpse of tossing plumes above Green Hill. He could not pause—and this was mercy indeed—to realize that here was the end of everything, that the cause of liberty was dying with him, that Henry’s maddening persistency had won after all; there was time only for parry and thrust, for the deadly give-and-take, the air about him filled with hostile spear and mace.

It is certain that he did not know Henry was spared all share in the carnage. Someone on the royal side heard and identified the King’s high-pitched and beseeching cry of “I am Harry of Winchester, your King; do not kill me!” A gauntleted hand—some say that of Edward himself, but this is too contrived for belief—seized the bridle of his horse and he was hurriedly guided out of danger. For the rest of the time that the battle raged he was well beyond the possibility of hurt, his helmet removed to give him freedom to breathe, his eyes avid as he watched the decision of Lewes being wiped out in a river of blood.

“Such was the murder of Evesham, for battle it was not,” wrote Robert of Gloucester in his story of the event. Of the hundred and sixty knights who accompanied Simon on the field, only twelve survived. Hugh Despenser and Ralph Basset fell by his side. His son Guy was badly wounded and captured. Then Henry, his first-born, was cut down before his eyes.

“It is time for me to die!” said the earl in great anguish of spirit.

He made a final and desperate effort to cut his way through the circle of his foes. It failed and he was beaten down and slain, with a cry of “God’s grace!” on his lips.

The war had engendered so much hatred that the death of the great leader of the barons did not satisfy the thirst for revenge which his foes felt. The body of the dead earl was hacked to pieces as it lay on the ground. Roger de Mortimer, who had crossed the river to join in the fighting, is supposed to have been the leader in this vandalism. The head was cut off, then the legs and arms were removed with savage blows. Even the trunk was mutilated.

Simon the younger, who might in full truth be called Simon the Tardy, arrived within sight of the field as the final stages of the battle were enacted. He had spent the night at Alcester, had dined there the previous evening, and had breakfasted before setting out. If he had not stopped at Alcester at all, he could have reached his father’s side before the gap was closed by the fiercely energetic Edward. The full enormity of his mistake was borne home to him when he reached a point back of the hills where he could see, under the inky pall of the clouds, the ground strewn with corpses and could hear the delirious shouts of triumph rising from the followers of the prince. His horrified senses recoiled from one trophy of the victory, the bloody head of his father carried high above the press on the point of a royalist lance.

“Feebly have I gone!” he cried out in his remorse and grief.

There was nothing he could do now, so he gave orders to his men to turn about and begin the long march back to Kenilworth.

Silence fell slowly over the field of Evesham. The black cover rolled away and the sun came out. But there was no real sunshine in any part of England that day. The cause of liberty had been defeated with the great earl. Harry of Winchester rode back into Evesham with a loud blast of trumpets, the undisputed master of the realm, his mind filled with plans for the use of the power which had been restored to the fribblery of his hands.

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It might be said that Edward the great King was born at the battle of Evesham. He had achieved the victory by a display of remarkable military skill and the exercise of a truly magnificent will to win. His reactions after the battle were the proof of an awakening greatness in him. As soon as the battle fever subsided in his veins he began to feel compassion for the foes he had destroyed with such thoroughness. He stood beside the body of Henry de Montfort, who had been his first playfellow, and wept with grief. He then gave orders that what was left of the mutilated body of the baronial leader should be collected and buried at Evesham Abbey. As hostile as ever to his dead foe, he was too generous to condone the barbarities of his vengeful followers. He even went to the abbey and watched gravely as the shattered bones of Simon were laid away.

SIMON DE MONTFORT MONUMENT AT EVESHAM

From that moment on he was the leader of the party which stood for moderation and leniency. William the Marshal, the Good Knight, had seen the need for quick national recovery after the defeat of the French forces of invasion in the first year of Henry’s reign and had not been exacting in the terms he imposed. Edward now saw things in the same light and opposed those who hurried to fill the only too willing ears of the King with counsels of vengeance. In all that happened after the final collapse of the baronial cause the prince was to show himself of statesmanlike stature and perception.

He had not succeeded in recovering all of the body of the dead leader. The head of Simon de Montfort was carried to Wigmore Castle, where it was raised that night in the Great Hall, still on the point of the lance. Here it seemed to watch, with the stern disapproval the earl would have shown if he were alive, the revelry going on below. Perhaps the men, drunk with victory and strong wine, felt this. They began to gibe at the grim trophy, bowing and scraping before it and calling Simon “king.” The head disappeared soon after, tossed out into the courtyard, it was believed, to be trampled under horses’ feet and pecked to pieces by preying birds.

One other fragment of the body was missed also, a foot. This was in the possession of John de Vescy, one of the most loyal of Simon’s men, who had been wounded in the battle and made a prisoner. He took it with him when he was given his release later and kept it at his castle of Alnwick, encased in a silver shoe. When the castle was confiscated as part of De Vescy’s punishment for bearing arms against the King, this relic of the great man was removed to Alnwick Abbey, where it was kept a long time in great secrecy and veneration.

When miracles were reported at the spot where Simon de Montfort had fallen they were reported doubtless to Rome, but at the Vatican “that pestilent man” was held still in violent disesteem. No efforts were made to attest the truth of the rumors. Throughout England their truth was generally accepted and the name of the dead leader was coupled with that of Thomas à Becket. People came in great numbers to bow their heads at the pool where he had died, watching its waters turn blood-red, confident that their physical disabilities would be cured.

The memory of the stern leader, the brave upholder of the rights of man, was kept green for many generations.

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