Henry had two coronations
Henry of Winchester, the eldest son of King John, came to the throne in 1216 at the age of nine, with half the kingdom in the hands of rebel barons seeking to make Prince Louis of France the new king of England.
Henry was at Devizes Castle when he became king on 19 October 1216. With London largely in Louis’s hands, those loyal to the new king decided a coronation was urgently required. On 28 October, 10 days after his father’s death, Henry was crowned at Gloucester Cathedral after being knighted by elder statesman William Marshal, considered by many to have been the greatest knight of the medieval period.
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Henry’s coronation robes were begged and borrowed from those who attended, cut down to fit him, and in place of a crown a small gold circlet that may have been borrowed from his mother was used, since earlier that year his father had lost his jewels in The Wash [a bay and estuary at the north-west corner of East Anglia on the east coast of England, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire]. The papal legate Guala oversaw proceedings, but allowed Peter des Roches, the warrior-Bishop of Winchester, to crown Henry.
On 17 May 1220, with the country secured by Marshal’s expulsion of the French and the peace he had made with the rebel barons, Henry underwent a second ceremony at Westminster Abbey which William of Coventry recorded was done “with such great peacefulness and splendour, that the oldest men amongst the nobles of England who were present asserted that they never remembered any of his predecessors being crowned amid such concord and tranquility”. It had taken these three years to secure peace, during which time Louis had been defeated at the battles of Lincoln and Sandwich [both 1217]. The Pope insisted on Henry’s second ceremony to correct any defect that might have been perceived in the hurried first, and because a coronation at Westminster Abbey was, by now, the correct way to install a new king.
Henry III was not the true ruler of England
In May 1213, Henry’s father had submitted the kingdom of England to the rule of the pope along with an annual tribute of 1,000 marks. When Henry was crowned in 1216, he acknowledged Pope Honorius III as his feudal lord. When the coronation ceremony was repeated in 1220, it was on the instruction of Honorius who felt that the first at Gloucester had not been entirely proper. The papacy effectively owned the kingdom of England and the lordship of Ireland and Henry was the pope’s liege man, making the pope equivalent to a king and Henry to a nobleman who owed service to the pope. This meant that the papal legate, the pope’s representative in a country, was ultimately responsible for the running of the country.
After Pandulf, the papal legate who represented the pope in England, was dismissed as legate in 1221 at the request of Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who resented a higher authority in the church than himself in the kingdom, the pope agreed not to send another legate to England. But Henry requested a legate in 1237 when he needed papal support against the barons, who threatened to rebel once more, and then again in 1265 when civil war had broken out. Ottobuono Fieschi (the legate sent in 1265), who would later become Pope Adrian V, served for three years and helped to heal the wounds of the Second Barons’ War, mediating between the two sides and bringing them together on terms that suited both Henry and the barons by restoring the king without being too punitive.
Successive popes expected a huge income from England, leading to complaints from the English clergy about papal exactions. From Henry’s perspective, having a feudal overlord – someone else who was in charge and could ultimately take the blame – always gave him a ‘get out of jail free-card’ when trouble arose, blurring responsibility for unpopular policies and making it difficult for the barons to bring the king to account.
Henry tried to move his father’s body
In 1216, King John had requested that his body be buried at Worcester Cathedral between the shrines of St Wulfstan and St Oswald. There is a possibility that he had intended to be buried at the monastery he had founded at Beaulieu, but the choice of Worcester was, in the end, forced upon him by circumstance, because when John died much of the north and the south-east was in rebel hands and Beaulieu could not be safely reached. Worcester was one of the few cathedrals still in royal hands and available for a royal funeral.
In 1228 Henry wrote to Pope Gregory IX to ask for permission to move his father’s remains from Worcester to Beaulieu Abbey. It is unclear whether Gregory refused or failed to reply, but John was not moved. Instead, Henry commissioned building work to repair Worcester Cathedral, which had been damaged by fire in 1202, incorporating his father’s tomb and giving King John the oldest-known effigy of a king in England, which is believed to be a true likeness. Above the tomb is a series of five carvings on the subject of kingship, with John at one end, Henry at the other and Edward the Confessor, King David and another king playing a harp in between.
This demonstrates that Henry’s father was on his mind, as was the idea of what made a good and bad king. Edward the Confessor was a saint-king who Henry obsessed about and wanted to emulate, but whose death had brought about the Norman Conquest. King David is a biblical example of a generally good king who makes mistakes and is a bad father. Was Henry concerned for his father’s lasting reputation, his own, or perhaps both?
Henry was a family man
Henry III married Eleanor of Provence in 1236, when he was 28 years old. Eleanor’s exact date of birth is unknown, but the chronicler Matthew Paris describes her as being 12 at the time of the wedding in January. Over the years that followed, the couple had five children and, in a sharp contrast to his father, there is no record of Henry keeping a mistress before or during his marriage. Furthermore, there is evidence that Henry doted on his wife and children. He and Eleanor travelled together whenever possible.
Particularly touching is Henry’s relationship with his eldest son, the future Edward I. Prince Edward, at the age of 15, is recorded as having wept when his father left on campaign to France in 1253. And Henry was heartbroken to hear his son later briefly sided with Simon de Montfort’s rebellion in 1260. Edward was on crusade when his father died in 1272, the news reaching him from Charles of Anjou as he returned. Charles told Edward of the deaths of his uncle Richard, Earl of Cornwall, his eldest son John and his father only to be shocked that Edward grieved more for his father than his son. Edward reportedly explained that he could have more sons, but a man only had one father. It was a powerful testament to the family unit Henry had constructed.
Henry had a sense of humour
In 1242, Henry was returning from France where he had sealed a peace with his brother-in-law King Louis IX. The Fine Rolls, which were Chancery records of money owed to the crown for the purchase of a concession, record that on the voyage back from France, King Henry III played a practical joke on one of the men in his party.
Peter the Poitevin had been in Henry’s service since at least 1229 and during the journey home a note was entered in the Fine Rolls recording that Peter owed Henry a list of debts, including “five dozen capons for a trespass onboard ship” and “34 tuns of wine”. The roll was left out for Peter to see and, as was intended, he was panicked by the sight of so many debts for so much offence caused.
Henry had the entries struck through as soon as Peter had seen them, ensuring that the debts weren’t later collected to Peter’s ruin, but the joke seems to have been kept up for some time, with concerned men asking Peter what he intended to do about the great debt he owed the king. It is a rare insight into the sense of humour of a medieval king.
Henry was a great Gothic builder
Henry expressed a lifelong interest in building. Much of what constitutes the Tower of London today is a result of Henry’s work: he added several towers and a curtain wall to expand the White Tower, beginning in 1238. He also built the almost impregnable fortifications at Kenilworth that proved hugely problematic for Henry when seized by rebels during the Second Barons’ War in 1265. Even after Simon de Montfort had been defeated, his son Simon the Younger and a garrison refused to surrender Kenilworth to the king. A long siege ultimately failed and a negotiated settlement, known as the Dictum of Kenilworth, was published in 1266, offering the rebels a route back to royal favour by the payment of fines.
But Henry would probably have considered Westminster Abbey to be his life’s great work. The project began in 1245, when Henry sent his architect Henry de Reynes to visit the French cities of Rheims, Chartres, Bourges and Amiens and Paris’s royal chapel Sainte-Chapelle to learn the Gothic technique that he so admired.
The Westminster Abbey that stood previously was erected by Edward the Confessor who began work to rebuild St Peter’s Abbey on the site in 1042. Edward was a hero of Henry’s, and he probably named his son after him. The foundations and crypt are still those of Edward the Confessor’s Abbey, but everything above ground today is the building begun by Henry III. The tomb of Edward the Confessor was moved to a new position of honour in 1269 at the very centre of the new abbey, and when Henry died in 1272 he was buried beside Edward’s shrine in the exact position the bones of his saint-king hero had lain for 200 years.
Henry kept an interesting menagerie at the Tower of London
As part of his building work to extend and improve the Tower of London, Henry added buildings to house the royal menagerie. Kings of England had kept exotic animals there before but Henry created a specially built home for them and collected some spectacular additions.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent Henry three leopards and King Louis IX of France sent Henry the first elephant ever to be seen in England – perhaps, even, seen north of the Alps. In 1252, Henry issued an order relating to the polar bear that he had been sent by King Haakon IV of Norway. The order required a muzzle and iron chain be given to the polar bear’s keeper in order to help him control it while it fished in the Thames outside the tower’s walls. The sight of the great white bear wading and fishing in the Thames became a novel attraction to the people of London, though it is questionable how much control his handler really had at the other end of the iron chain.
Henry III was frightened of thunderstorms, but more scared of his brother-in-law
The chronicler Matthew Paris recorded an ominous exchange between Henry III and his most infamous brother-in-law Simon de Montfort in 1258 that was a portent of the trouble to come between them. Henry had made good marriages for his sisters and daughters so that he could count the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the king of France Louis IX and the king of Scotland Alexander II as brothers-in-law and the next king of Scotland, Alexander III, and John II, Duke of Brittany, as sons-in-law.
Henry’s sister Eleanor, after being widowed on the death of William Marshal the Younger in 1231, took a vow of chastity only to marry Simon de Montfort, a Frenchman with a dubious claim to the earldom of Leicester who had come to England seeking his fortune, in 1238. According to reports, Simon had seduced Eleanor and when Henry found out he was outraged and forced them to marry.
In 1258, Matthew Paris noted that Henry was rowing down the Thames when a thunderstorm started. Putting in at the nearest dock, Henry found himself at the Bishop of Durham’s palace, Simon de Montfort’s residence. When Simon asked why Henry was still afraid when the storm was passing, the king replied, “I fear thunder and lightning greatly, but by God’s head I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world”.
Remember, Henry had been brought nothing but trouble by Simon’s time in charge of Gascony, where his heavy hand had drawn a stream of complaints to the king’s court. Simon reportedly replied “My lord, it is unjust and incredible that you should fear me your firm friend, who am ever faithful to you and yours, and to the kingdom of England; it is your enemies, your destroyers, and false flatterers that you ought to fear”. Yet Simon would later lead opposition to Henry into the Second Barons’ War, when de Montfort seized the king and took control of the kingdom for a year.
Henry III was immune to excommunication by anyone but the pope
One benefit that Henry enjoyed from his position as a feudal liegeman of the pope was that both he and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, could not be excommunicated unless on the express orders of the pope. Excommunication was meant to be the ultimate sanction of the church, effectively excluding the recipient from the community of the church. It was prescribed as the penalty for breaching the Great Charters, the joint name given to Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest [a separate set of rights aimed at improving the lot of those living within the king’s forest, which covered vast swathes of England at the time], but it had also become an over-used sanction that risked losing its sting.
For example, King John had spent years excommunicated, between 1209 and 1213 following a dispute with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. John had claimed the right to appoint his candidate while the Pope believed the prerogative was his. Yet, despite being excommunicated, John had enjoyed the income of the church by seizing church lands for himself in the wake of the dispute. Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II spent years in opposition to the Pope and in a state of excommunication, having had the sanction imposed four times between 1227 and 1250.
Nevertheless, to Henry, excommunication was a terrifying thought. He was deeply pious and therefore greatly feared excommunication, so the protection afforded to him [from his position as a feudal liegeman of the Pope] and his brother was invaluable, not least because he could breach the Charters with virtual impunity. The penalty for a breach of the terms of the Great Charters was excommunication, but in effect no one in England had the power to excommunicate Henry, giving him a free hand to break their terms at will.
The longest reign for 600 years is almost forgotten
King Henry III ruled England from 1216 until his death in 1272. His 56-year reign is longer than that of any other English monarch, be it Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Angevin, Plantagenet, Tudor or Stuart, and would remain a record until George III reached 56 years on the throne in 1816. In spite of this, Henry III is often overlooked. Traditionally viewed as a weak king whose untrustworthiness led to the Second Barons’ War from 1264 to 1265, the achievement of ruling for 56 years should suggest that there is more to Henry than this.
Henry inherited a kingdom in 1216 that belonged to the pope and vast swathes of which were controlled by the French prince Louis (later King Louis VIII). Yet, in 1272, Henry bequeathed his son Edward I a kingdom so stable that the new king could embark confidently on expansion and consolidation. To add to the context of this achievement, Simon de Montfort – a man erroneously believed for centuries to be the father of parliamentary democracy but a strong and charismatic leader – could hold onto power for just a year compared to Henry’s 56 years.
Henry’s reign is also largely the reason Magna Carta is remembered today, as the Great Charter became a bargain between king and barons that taxation would be granted for the upholding of liberties and correction of bad government. Throughout Henry’s reign the role of parliament grew as a body entitled to grant or withhold taxation based on the power of Magna Carta, and which could insist on alterations to unpopular policies in return for allowing the king to collect funds. It might not have been easy, but in the end Henry was able to pass a secure crown to his son, which is perhaps the greatest testament to his long and troubled reign.
Matthew Lewis is the author of Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta (Amberley Publishing, 2016).
This article was first published on History Extra in October 2016