Henry III (1207-1272), king of England from 1216. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
When it comes to naming the great kings of England, it’s usually the warriors who come to mind. There’s Richard I and his nickname “Lionheart”, Edward III and his Order of the Garter, and Henry V and his victory at Agincourt. For 544 years (until George III overtook his record in 1816), Henry III (1207–1272) was the longest-serving English monarch and yet he has never been associated with greatness. Indeed, most historians tend to consider him weak and inept. They feel that, in all those decades of his rule, the nation prospered in spite of him, not because of him.
In a new biography Henry III: The Great King England Never Knew It Had, Darren Baker sees Henry as a great king of England, if not the greatest. Here, he offers 10 facts to support his case…
1. He issued and confirmed the Magna Carta we know today
Magna Carta as we know it dates back 800 years to November 1217. That’s when the original document was revised to help reconcile the nation following the civil war that put Henry on the throne. Because he succeeded as a 9-year-old boy, Henry grew up with Magna Carta as a natural part of his rule. He had, moreover, the right temperament to ensure its ultimate success. Had he been a different sort of person, one inclined to bullying, debauchery and megalomania, Magna Carta could have ended up gutted or in the dustbin. Unlike his father King John, Henry put his seal to the charter willingly in 1225 (unchanged since 1217) and confirmed it three times. By the end of his reign, it was enshrined as the bedrock of English values.
A 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, a document that gave certain rights to people living in England. (Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
2. He established our first parliament
Parliament came into existence during Henry’s reign. Because Magna Carta prevented any monarch from acting on a whim, he needed the counsel and consent of his barons, knights and clerics on matters of law and taxation. In 1236, the name parliament was first used to describe these assemblies of state. One of the more significant innovations in its evolution occurred in 1254 when, for the first time, the counties were ordered to elect representatives and send them to Westminster for an emergency session. In the later part of Henry’s reign, parliament became the battleground to see who had ultimate authority in the realm: the king and crown, or the baronial and clerical faction headed by Henry’s own brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The king eventually came out on top, but the stage was set for parliament to begin slowly ebbing away at royal power.
3. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey
Any mark of greatness generally requires tangible evidence and here, none of the warrior kings can compete with Henry III. Indeed, his greatest achievement may well be the centrepiece of English pride and heritage. In 1245, he started rebuilding Westminster Abbey into the form we know it today. Progress was slow because Henry was always short of funds, but he kept at it until the glorious parts of it had been completed by his death in 1272. These include the Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar. In the intricately swirling shapes and patterns of this floor – surely one of the wonders of the medieval world – Henry sought to represent the universe at its creation and demise. This naturally meant he needed an age for the universe, but the number he came up with – 19,683 years – is more a testament to his famous wit and humour than to science or astronomy.
The Cosmati pavement, a mosaic made from small pieces of semi-precious stone, marble, glass and metal, lies in front of the high altar at Westminster Abbey. The pavement was commissioned by Henry III to be a centrepiece of the abbey when it was rebuilt in the 13th century. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
4. He empowered his queen
The queens of Henry’s Norman predecessors had been politically marginalised for the most part. When they did stir, it was usually against the highhandedness of their husbands, and the reaction they faced could be harsh. For all her glamour, Eleanor of Aquitaine ended up spending half of her husband’s reign in prison. Henry’s mother Isabella of Angoulême went back to her homeland in France while he was still a boy because his regents would not let her share in any power as queen dowager.
Henry reversed this trend by empowering his own queen, Eleanor of Provence. He gave her patronage for financial independence and influence and respected her voice in governmental affairs. So complete was his confidence in her abilities that in 1253, he named her regent to rule the land while he was abroad. And she was heavily pregnant at the time.
Eleanor of Provence became queen of England when she married Henry III. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
5. He was a faithful husband and adoring father
Many an English king found it hard to be faithful to his queen. Henry I, II and King John had various mistresses and produced innumerable illegitimate issue, creating discord in the family and a need to provide for so many extra offspring. In contrast, Henry III is not known to have strayed once from his wife in their 36 years together and prior to their marriage, his only close personal attachments were to either nuns or his three sisters.
Queen Eleanor in turn worked tirelessly on her husband’s behalf at the lowest point of his reign, when Simon de Montfort had taken over the government, and she remained true to Henry’s memory in her widowhood. They had five children, each of whom they adored dearly, and the death of their youngest at the age of three left both parents distraught. Their love and affection not only ensured stability in the family, and therefore stability in the realm, but set a good example for the next generation. Henry’s sons and sons-in-law were also loving and faithful husbands.
The marriage banquet of Eleanor of Provence and Henry III. (Culture Club/Getty Images)
6. He made pageantry a part of the monarchy
Royalty as we know it did not exist in England before Henry III. Kings like his grandfather tended to dress down and eschew formality, not because they had the common touch, but rather they were greedy men who didn’t want to spend money. Henry’s first coronation had been a rushed affair because of the political situation, with spare solemnities and trappings and a makeshift crown for his head. After that, he went all out for state occasions. The coronation of his queen in 1236 was a dazzling affair. The royal pair was escorted by 360 horsemen, each carrying a gold or silver cup to use at the feast. Even chronicler Matthew Paris, who was well known for his gossip, was left speechless by the spectacle.
In 1247 Henry put on a similar display when he carried a crystal vial of Holy Blood from St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey, wearing only a pilgrim’s cloak and walking barefoot for the whole two miles, even over uneven patches of road. Paris was a witness to that event as well, and, spotted by the king in the crowd, was invited to dine with him the next day. It’s likely that wine was served, because under Henry III, the stuff flowed. On his deathbed, his last order to the chancery was to settle the money he owed his wine merchant, nearly £1m in today’s money.
7. His longevity ensured stability and contributed to great change
Succession was always an uncertain time in medieval monarchies and Henry’s accession to the throne in 1216 was the clearest example of it. In their effort to depose King John, rebel barons had sworn allegiance to the crown prince of France. Since the prince was going nowhere, they had no choice but to get on with the war. Had they succeeded, Henry would have been made to disappear and that would have been it for the Plantagenets.
While he owed his survival to the papacy and loyalists, Henry must have had some guardian angel all his life, because he later survived dysentery, plague, two battles, several military campaigns, and an assassination attempt. Again, he did better here than the warrior kings. The Lionheart was felled by gangrene, Henry V by dysentery, and Edward III had a slovenly decline, with the succession far from secure. The continuity of Henry III’s reign, which covered more than half a century, contributed to the great changes that took place during it, in administration, education, justice and the visual arts.
The tomb of Henry III at Westminster Abbey, commissioned by his son Edward I at the end of the 13th century. (Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
8. He valued peace
When asked what he had done for his people, Henry’s answer was always he had given them peace. Although that was true for the most part, he did launch military expeditions to the continent to recover lost English lordships, or keep what was left of them, but the costs in lives and money never came close to what the warrior kings inflicted on their subjects. Henry was never out to conquer and declined to do so when Wales was open to him in 1246.
He actively promoted Edward the Confessor, another king of peaceful endeavours, to become the patron saint of the nation. Alas, as England descended into war and political terror over the next few centuries, Englishman St Edward had to give way to another warrior, St George, famed for his dragon-slaying exploits among other things.
An illustration depicting the body of Edward the Confessor, king of England from 1042 to 1066. (Historical Picture Archive/Corbis via Getty Images)
Henry’s greatest victory over his opponents never occurred on the battlefield, rather in the Tower of London. In 1261, secure behind its walls, he used pressure and diplomacy to overturn the Provisions of Oxford, the reforms that gave his barons the upper hand in government. When he emerged from the Tower just before Christmas (his favourite time of the year, by the way), he had won back all power and did it without shedding any blood, an absolutely unheard of thing in medieval and early modern England.
9. He revived English fortunes abroad
If Henry seemed obsessed with recovering the continental lands lost by his father to the French, it was because there was plenty at stake. Firstly, there was the honour of the Plantagenets and how the French Capetian dynasty had treated them with contempt.
Secondly, there was the money, for Normandy alone generated as much royal income as all of England. That not only denied Henry the funds he needed for his many projects, but it allowed his rival Louis IX to undertake two very expensive crusades and lose them both. Needing closure, Henry eventually gave up his claims to the lost lands, but got compensation worth about £30m in today’s money and peace with France. The friendship that ensued between him and Louis, both of whom were married to sisters, was easily one of the great political achievements of the Middle Ages.
Lastly, Henry’s international diplomacy was beneficial for education, art, and trade. Under his rule, construction and craftsmanship flourished, Oxford and Cambridge grew to maturity (despite the usual spring riots), and the wine coming in and wool going out made England among the richest countries in Europe.
10. He believed in charity, humility, forgiveness
Like many people of that age, Henry III was very pious and believed it was his duty to make sure the poor were fed. He fed hundreds of them on a daily basis, thousands on special occasions. Poor weather in the late 1250s ruined successive harvests, leading to famine throughout the land. It’s no coincidence that the reform of the realm was launched at this very time, with the king’s willing participation. The starvation of his people could only mean there was something wrong with his rule and he had to fix it. Henry was the type of man to take it on the chin, to welcome a new spirit of cooperation. Admitting mistakes and forgiving transgressions were key elements of his majesty.
Darren Baker is also the author of With All For All: The Life of Simon de Montfort. He is currently working on The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort.