The barons’ crusade: why rebel lords waged holy war against Henry III

The nobleman Simon de Montfort saw himself as a righteous general leading his army into a holy war. As Sophie Thérèse Ambler recounts, not only did he fight infidels overseas but, in the 1260s, he also challenged the authority of the crown on home soil

Royal at arms: In a 14th-century manuscript, Henry III (left) is shown fighting his nobles during the Second Baron's War (1264–67). This was both a revolutionary war and, from the perceptive of Henry's foes, a religious conflict. (Image by Bridgeman)

As the darkness seeped away into the dawn, the army reached the crest of the hill and the men put down their packs. Each of them wore on his chest and shoulder an insignia: the cross. They were crucesignati, crusaders. Before they set out on their march through the early hours, a bishop had promised them remission of their sins if they fought hard in the hours to come. Now, as they readied for battle, they turned to listen to their leader. They were fighting today, he told them, for the honour of God, the saints and the church. May the Lord, he prayed, grant them the strength to do his work and overcome the wickedness of all enemies. Finally, he commended to God their bodies, and their souls. Then the men, in their thousands, sank to the ground. Laying their faces against the earth, they stretched out their arms, sending their own prayers for heavenly aid.

They went on to fight, and to win, that morning. Their battle, though, was not fought amid the arid mounts and plains of the Holy Land, but on a hillside in Sussex. Their enemy not the Muslim infidel, but the monarch of England. This was a new sort of holy war, for their objective was neither the taking of sacred ground nor the preservation of the Christian faith. It was a new way of ruling England, a way that had no effective place for kings. Their leader was Simon de Montfort – and his victory that day in May 1264 in the battle of Lewes would make him the most powerful man in the kingdom.

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