Post-classical history

The Death of Henry

THE surest method by which a king may enhance his place in the esteem of his subjects and on the pages of history is to reign a long time. If he sits on his throne for a relatively short period, his achievements and mistakes, his personal idiosyncrasies are limned sharply against the record of the years, and he goes down to posterity as The Great, The Good, The Unready, The Simple, The Cruel, or perchance no more than an almost forgotten name linking two years. But let his reign go on and on, let the years accumulate and his head become rimed with frost, let him totter toothlessly on the brink, and no matter how good or bad a ruler he may have been, people will begin to think of him with affection and call him the Old King; let him go on still longer with the business of living, and inevitably he will become the Good Old King. Age, if it acquires some tinge of pathos, is a great restorer of reputation. Those with the most reason for thinking badly of an ancient monarch have died or have been caught themselves in the mellowing process. Public memory is short and public taste sups avidly on sentiment. No manner of evidence from the past weighs against the spectacle of a stooped old pantaloon going about the affairs of state and subsisting on gruel. If he has been a good king, his merits are exalted; if a bad one, there is always a chuckle in his misdeeds and a certain pride because he has been a gay dog in his day.

Henry III reigned for fifty-six years. Before the end people were calling him the Old King, even perhaps the Good Old King. There is no evidence that he had changed much, except in appearance. He had become stouter, he shambled as he walked, his face had changed to the semblance of a campaign map, the defect of the drooping eyelid had become more marked. Son of the worst of kings and father of the best, this fatuous ruler continued to the end to exhibit the qualities which made his reign an interlude of folly and comedy leading inevitably to tragedy.

The closing years of the long reign, nevertheless, were peaceful. Men were too weary to continue the struggle. They had salvaged something out of the defeat of a cause and perhaps they sensed that things would be better when Edward stepped into his father’s shoes. They were ready to sit back and wait, and even to watch the proceedings of the busy old King with detachment.

Henry came, therefore, at one and the same time to the end of his days and the completion of his single great work. There had always been on the part of the Norman and Plantagenet kings a deep sense of reverence for Edward the Confessor. Good Queen Mold, Henry I’s wife, had set the example. Of Saxon blood herself, she made it a custom to go barefoot and in sackcloth to his tomb to pray. She placed there the hair of Mary Magdalene and in many ways fostered the traditions which clustered about the pious King’s memory. Her grandson, Henry II, secured the canonization of the Confessor, having the tomb opened for the ceremony and revealing the fact that the body had been most completely preserved, which was considered a miracle in itself, the delicate long features remaining as they had been in life, the frail white hands and the patriarchal beard unchanged in death. This respect for a memory had been deeply embedded in the mind of Henry III. He always celebrated the day of St. Edward in a fitting manner. With his nobles he would attend the vigil in white garments, remaining all night in the abbey church to watch and pray. It became an obsession with him that the edifice where the body of the Confessor lay must be converted into something of surpassing beauty.

When the work was started in 1243 the plan had been enlarged to provide for making the abbey into a place of royal sepulture. The rebuilding was from that time forward the major interest in the King’s life and, it must be added, the chief contributing factor to his financial delinquencies. Even while involved in his long struggle with the barons he was giving close attention to the work of the masons, the stone carvers, the carpenters. Orders were being sent off in all directions: to the Lord Mayor for one hundred barges to move gray stone to Westminster; to Edward, the treasurer, that one phase of the work must be finished by a certain time if it meant employing a thousand workmen on it; to Odo, the goldsmith, for vessels of wondrous design for the chrism. The work never stopped entirely, not even when dusty riders galloped into London with the news that Simon de Montfort had defeated the King and made him a prisoner at Lewes.

The general plan, which was carried out with discrimination and a real creative instinct, was to extend the church beyond the high altar and create an apsidal chancel, in the center of which the new tomb of the Confessor would be placed. This was elaborated on as the work progressed, a vast and well-lighted triforium being erected over the apsidal chapels. Estimates of the total cost vary from thirty thousand to five hundred thousand pounds. The Crown assumed this immense burden, except that wealthy individuals were expected to make donations, and some money was raised on the revenue from town fairs. It is on record that the widow of a London Jew gave more than two thousand pounds, and so it seems certain that considerable funds were obtained from private donors.

Henry was always at his happiest in supervising the work on this huge undertaking. He had a notable corps of chief aides, the first among them being an anonymous genius who is known only as Master Henry. When Master Henry dropped from sight in 1253 his place was taken by Master John of Gloucester, who seems to have been also a man of rare ability, being rewarded by his royal master with gifts of houses as well as incidental baskets of fine wine. The King did not confine himself to personal contact with his supervising heads. He was continually strolling about under the high piers and the dusty scaffolding with words of praise or criticism, often the latter, for the royal tongue remained sharp to the end; not wearing his crown, as shown in some ancient prints, but dressed certainly in foppish splendor. There would be pearls on the broad band of his hat, his tabard would be well padded and extravagantly tufted, his belt would be of solid gold links, his shoes of green leather (he had a passion for green) would have gilt leopards in the frets, his gloves would be jeweled. Looking like an oriental bird which had wandered by mistake into the haunt of a flock of sparrows, he called his greetings to Master Peter the Roman, who was responsible for the Italian note in the decorations, Master Robert of Beverley, Master Odo. Never was there anything but praise for Walter of Colchester, the magnificent artist who was responsible, among other things, for the lectern in the new chapter house. His tone in discussing affairs of state was invariably querulous and his temper was short, but on his daily strolls under the echoing arches and in the dusty workshops he could be jovial and carefree. “Ha, Master Odo, I like that, I like it much,” or “Come up, Master Robert, you must do better for me than this!”

The royal enthusiast was consulted about everything, from the use of Italian mosaics to the size of the flying buttresses and the relation of the vault to the clerestory windows. He would leave the chancery at any time to attend a discussion on the iron tie bars. It is a simple deduction that he would have been more successful as a builder than he proved to be as a king.

That the structure became a thing of magnificence, of glowing beauty, may be ascribed chiefly, therefore, to the good taste and discerning eye of the architect King, and equally to his willingness to divert every penny of royal income if necessary to the good of this overriding ambition. It is the one abiding contribution of the King to the splendid record of progress of the Magnificent Century.

The work reached a stage of completion which made it possible to hold the ceremony of translation on October 13, 1269. It was a great day for the stout and asthmatic King. For a quarter of a century he had labored and persevered. Much of his life had been spent in the shadow of debt that this work might go on. Wars had been fought and battles lost, but he had never faltered. And he had lived to see the completion of the great church which was to serve as his final resting place. He must have realized as he walked with some difficulty in the procession from St. Paul’s that the time was drawing near when his servants would gird his bones in and he would be laid in this elaborate grave he had provided for himself in the environs of the city against which he had always contended.

The members of the royal family, with the assistance, no doubt, of some strong baronial arms, carried the coffin of the Confessor back into the abbey and deposited it in the new tomb.


The King had three years to live after the ceremony of translation. The days were filled with lawsuits arising out of the restoration of confiscated lands and the bitter grumbling of royalist followers who were being forced to disgorge. They were acrimonious days for the contestants, quiet days for everyone else, and so no purpose would be served in going over the various stages of legislation made necessary by the tangled problems of restitution.

As Prince Edward had started off for the Crusades, taking his brother Edmund with him as well as the wife from whom separation was now unthinkable, his pockets comfortably lined by the huge sums granted him by the Church, the burden of government fell on the bent back of the King. Henry allowed himself as always to become immersed in detail. He passed a statute forbidding Jews to acquire the lands of their debtors. He decided to pay homage to the new King of France for his possessions in that country and borrowed a large sum from merchants of London to cover the expense of traveling; then changed his mind and did not go, using the money for other purposes. He protested bitterly against any lifting of the ban on the murderers of Henry of Almaine, even though Guy de Montfort, the chief offender, followed the Pope on foot, naked save for an undershirt and with a halter around his neck, begging to be forgiven. He wrote to Edward in Palestine on February 6, 1271, telling him that the royal physicians gave him no hope of recovery from the ailments which beset him and entreating his son and heir to finish with the Saracens and hurry home.

When a dispute between the people of Norwich and the church authorities reached a stage of bloodshed, the King felt called upon to travel there in an effort to settle matters. Having imposed heavy penalties on the townspeople, he began the return journey and was stricken suddenly at Bury St. Edmunds. It became apparent to everyone in the royal train that his end was drawing near. He moved with the greatest difficulty, his face was gray, his hands shook. Nevertheless, he was determined to reach London as soon as possible. He came to the Tower in dying condition.

It was perhaps to be expected that the people of London would be rioting over grievances at this very moment. The streets were filled with the contentious townsmen. Henry had never been able to get along with London, a lifelong rift for which he was himself responsible. There was to be no amelioration of this condition at the last: he was fated to die at Westminster with the rebellious tumult of the city sounding faintly in his ears.

He breathed his last on Wednesday, November 16, 1272, the weathercock King, the unsteady, unready, unreliable King, the generally unpopular and sometimes hated King, now at the finish the Old King, the Good Old King.

He had outlived almost everyone who had played parts in the saga of these eventful years. The actors had been a colorful lot, numbering among them some outright villains, many supposedly chivalrous knights with false hearts under their chain mail, a few amusing clowns, many curious and devious individuals. But the period had been noteworthy for the many great men it produced, for the eagles in the sky who beat their wings, sometimes with little effect, against the adverse winds. Two of the authentic eagles were alive: Edward, now the King, and Roger Bacon. The rest were gone: Stephen Langton, the sage leader of the reform movement, who had died in the surety that the Great Charter was forever safe from interfering hands; Simon de Montfort, the passionate crusader for the rights of common men, who had been less fortunate in his final moments but whose work would be carried on; the somewhat less notable eagles of this notable era, the Good Knight, Robert Grosseteste, Edmund Rich, even, with somewhat tarnished wings, Hubert de Burgh; gone to find loftier eyries, beyond a doubt, than the skies of England afforded.

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