14 May 1264: Montfort crushes Henry III’s hapless army at Lewes

The king suffers an early setback in the Second Barons’ War


In the long list of royal catastrophes, the battle of Lewes holds an especially ignominious place. Like his father, the ill-starred John, Henry III had spent decades feuding with his barons while attempting to raise money. In particular, he found himself pitted against the ruthless Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who was determined to uphold the principles of Magna Carta and secure more power for England’s magnates. Both sides had begun preparing for war in the early 1260s, but it was not until 14 May 1264 that their armies clashed in earnest. Montfort had cornered the royal army in the Sussex town of Lewes. The night before battle was joined, the barons’ leader slept not a wink, preferring instead to give his time “to divine offices and prayers and exhorting his men to make sincere confessions”.

Montfort need not have worried. When battle commenced the following day, the royal troops’ lack of discipline proved fatal. Though the king’s son, the future Edward I, led a stirring cavalry charge that broke his enemy’s left wing, he was unable to rally his men back to their positions. In the confusion, Montfort’s men crushed the rest of the king’s army. Henry himself – who was almost 50 years old – fought bravely, but to no avail. By evening, he and his son had retreated to Lewes Priory, and the following day they formally surrendered to Simon de Montfort. It was one of the most humiliating moments in Plantagenet history. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

14 May 1509

Louis XII of France crushes a Venetian mercenary army at the battle of Agnadello. Machiavelli will later discuss the battle in Il Principe (see 3 May) and comments that in one day the Venetians lost what it had taken them 800 years to conquer.

14 May 1610:Henry IV of France is assassinated

Schoolteacher plunges a knife into the controversial monarch

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Henry IV of France was no stranger to bloodshed. Having been raised as a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, he had only narrowly escaped death in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and had led the Huguenot armies against the previous king’s forces.

After succeeding to the French throne in 1589, he controversially converted to Catholicism in 1593, famously declaring that Paris was worth a Mass. But plenty of people hated him, from Huguenots who saw him as a traitor to Catholics who did not believe his conversion. By the spring of 1610, he had already survived at least a dozen assassination attempts.

On 14 May, Henry’s carriage was clattering through the streets of Paris when the wheels suddenly ground to a halt. There was some sort of traffic jam, and the king’s party was stuck between a wine merchant’s cart ahead and a cart full of hay behind. And it was then that François Ravaillac struck.

A former schoolteacher who claimed to have had holy visions, Ravaillac was a known Catholic fanatic. Three times he had failed to get an audience with the king. Now he seized his chance. Before anybody could react, he ran from the crowd, jumped onto the royal carriage and plunged his knife into Henry’s chest.

The king’s death horrified France. No less horrifying was what awaited his assassin. Although Ravaillac made no attempt to deny his crime (“I saw the blood on my knife and the place where I hit him”), the authorities tortured him anyway. “Before being drawn and quartered,” says one historian, “he was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then being torn by pincers.”

After his execution, watched by a huge crowd, onlookers queued for bits of his body. The Polish nobleman Jakub Sobieski, who was staying in Paris, even reported that one man, “quite dignified, and with a great beard, brought several particles of Ravaillac’s corpse and with great fury and anger fried them with eggs and ate them”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

14 May 1832

Birth in Sheffield, Yorkshire of notorious cat burglar Charles Peace. Between 1872 and 1878 he performed a series of daring burglaries but was eventually arrested and hanged for murder.

14 May 1847

HMS Driver arrives at Spithead – the first steamship to circumnavigate the world.

14 May 1948

David Ben Gurion reads the declaration of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv. The new nation is immediately attacked by its Arab neighbours.


14 May 1961

A Freedom Rider bus was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama. A second bus arrived in Birmingham where passengers were beaten up by Ku Klux Klan members, abetted by the local police. Throughout May 1961 black and white Freedom Riders rode sitting together in buses throughout the southern United States. Their aim was to draw attention to the flouting of a Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation on public transportation was illegal under the terms of the Interstate Commerce Act.

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