Henry III in his own words: the medieval king as you’ve never seen him before

The inner workings of Henry III’s mind are laid bare in a unique collection of letters that have survived from the 13th century. David Carpenter, who has written a major new biography on Henry, presents seven insights that these documents give us into the king

A gilt-bronze effigy of Henry III in what is his greatest legacy, Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Alamy)

King Henry III of England, the son of King John, was a monarch in a new age. He was the first to confront the restrictions of Magna Carta, the power of parliament and a rising tide of English national feeling. He also began his reign bereft of Normandy and Anjou: the first held by his predecessors since 1066; the second since 1154.

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If Henry’s situation was different to that of his ancestors, so was his reaction. The depth of his piety, centring on his devotion to Saint Edward the Confessor, set him apart from all his predecessors. Fortunately, thanks to the richness of the source material, we know more about his daily conduct than that of any other medieval monarch.

Henry was nine in 1216 when he came to the throne; 65 on his death in 1272. That’s a reign of 56 years. In some ways, he was the ideal king for the Magna Carta age. He was warmhearted and accessible. His rule was totally unlike that of his hard-driving, spiky father. John’s conduct had provoked a barons’ rebellion in 1215 and the concession of Magna Carta. Henry’s brought years of peace, a blessing for which he was widely praised.

Building on the peace

Henry’s peace provided the framework for an explosion in the money supply and a new commercial network of markets and fairs. It facilitated the preaching of the friars, the pastoral work of bishops and the building of cathedrals. The whole of Salisbury Cathedral (other than the spire) is a work of Henry’s reign, as are important parts of Worcester, Lincoln, Ely and Hereford cathedrals.

Internal peace was linked to the absence of external war. His campaigns in Wales were last resorts, and he lived in peace with the king of Scotland. Indeed in 1237, he settled his quarrels with the Scots in a statesmanlike treaty. While Henry wished to recover his lost continental empire, he only mounted two brief (and totally unsuccessful) campaigns to do so. In 1259, he made peace with Louis IX of France.


Listen on the podcast: David Carpenter, author of a major new biography of Henry III, explains how we know more about his inner mind than any other English king of the period


Where John had been reviled for his impiety, Henry was revered as a ‘rex Christianissimus’, ‘a most Christian king’. He was famous for attending masses and giving alms to the poor. In the 1240s he was feeding 500 paupers daily at court. On 13 October 1260 (the feast day of Edward the Confessor), 5,016 paupers crammed into Westminster Hall.

It was in the 1230s, influenced by the monks of Westminster Abbey, where Edward the Confessor was buried, that Henry adopted the Confessor as his patron saint. From then on the cult was central to his being. He hoped the Confessor would both support him in this life, and secure his safe passage to the next. Henry’s devotion was something entirely new. Its visible sign today is Westminster Abbey, which Henry rebuilt in the Confessor’s honour.

The great north entrance to Westminster Abbey. This was heavily restored in the 19th century but it still conveys the grandeur of Henry’s design, stunningly different from anything else in England at the time. (Photo by Dreamstime)
The great north entrance to Westminster Abbey. This was heavily restored in the 19th century but it still conveys the grandeur of Henry’s design, stunningly different from anything else in England at the time. (Photo by Dreamstime)

Unfortunately, for all the respect for his piety, for all his investment in ‘soft power’, Henry’s rule became increasingly unpopular. The problem, as contemporaries saw it, lay in his naivety and incompetence. Henry was certainly ambitious but he found it hard to judge what was practical and what was not. His delight in giving was easily exploited by grasping ministers and flattering favourites.

The amount of patronage Henry gave to his foreign relatives placed him at odds with the Englishness of his subjects. His madcap scheme to place a son on the throne of Sicily infuriated churchmen (they had to stump up the money). In the end, a political revolution in 1258 stripped Henry of power and placed government in the hands of a baronial council responsible to parliament. Henry’s struggles to break free led to a civil war, his capture at the battle of Lewes in 1264, and more than a year in which England was effectively ruled by Simon de Montfort. Even after Montfort’s defeat and death in August 1265, at the battle of Evesham, it was two years before peace returned to England.

Henry owed much of his victory to his son, the future Edward I, but his reputation as a good and pious man was also important.

Henry died in 1272, his authority intact, his kingdom at peace. His new abbey at Westminster had been consecrated three years before and there he was buried close to the Confessor’s shrine.

How then do we know so much about Henry? The answer lies in his letters. These were written for him by the clerks of an office, travelling with the king, called the chancery. Few of the original letters survive but fortunately the chancery kept copies on parchment rolls (new ones were opened for each regnal year) and these survive in the National Archives at Kew. In 1250–51 alone, the rolls contain nearly 4,000 items of business.

If many letters are routine, others are personal to the king and probably dictated by him. They give a wonderful picture of his character and conduct, his mores and motivations. It is a picture lacking for Henry’s predecessors in the 12th century, for whom such rolls do not survive. It is equally lacking for his successors because the chancery ceased to travel with the king and its rolls no longer recorded his personal orders. As the seven examples on the following pages prove, the rolls offer us a unique insight into the mind of a medieval king…


1

The connoisseur

Statements in art and architecture were central to Henry’s kingship

So much of above the fireplace of the queen’s Henry’s personality stands out in his orders on the chancery rolls for the construction and embellish- ment of his homes. New halls, chapels and chambers are to be completed in time for his arrival, no expense spared, “even if a thou- sand workers have to labour night and day”.

Henry also had a discerning eye for detail. He was fully in tune with the new emphasis in the visual arts on the expression of emotion. The cherubims painted in the church of St Peter at the Tower of London were to look “cheerful and joyous”. The figure of winter painted looks and miserable portrayals of the body” was to be “justly likened to winter”.

Henry was always thinking of ways to enhance the outward show and dignity of his kingship. He wanted a new porch to be constructed at Westminster so that he could dismount from his horse “before a noble frontage”. He also wanted the leopards beneath his throne in Westminster Hall to be made of bronze rather than marble because he had been told they would be more “sumptuous”
that way.

Henry III marries Eleanor of Provence, as depicted by Matthew Paris, the great chronicler of Henry’s reign. The king was 16 years older than his queen but found that she was no push-over (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Henry III marries Eleanor of Provence, as depicted by Matthew Paris, the great chronicler of Henry’s reign. The king was
16 years older than his queen but found that she was no push-over (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
2

The doting husband

Henry discovered that his young wife was not as malleable as he thought

In 1236, Henry married Eleanor of Provence. She was 12 and he was 28. Henry was entranced by his new wife. As his letters show, he poured money into building chambers and chapels for her at his major residences. He also showered her with gifts. Her present for the Christmas of 1240 was a cup of gold, enamelled inside, with a foot on which to stand. It was worth more than £13, not far short of the annual income of a knight. Craftsmen were to work day and night “so that the queen can drink from it at the foresaid feast… and so that both king and queen can then be content”.

The strength of Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was shown in the robes, cut from the same cloth, they wore at great feasts. Covered passages connected their chambers, so that they could go to and fro with dry feet. In 1238, at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire, Henry escaped an assassination attempt because he was sleeping in the queen’s chamber not his own.

Given the difference in age, Eleanor was very much Henry’s to mould but she proved by far the stronger character. With her position secure – having produced two healthy sons – she vigorously promoted the interests of her uncles from Savoy and quarrelled bitterly with the second group of foreigners Henry established in England – his own half-brothers from Poitou. She played a greater part in politics than any queen since the Norman Conquest, Eleanor of Aquitaine excepted.

3

The prankster

The king loved playing practical jokes – often at his servants’ expense

It is often difficult to know when medieval kings were trying to be funny. Fortunately, in Henry’s case, an entry on a chancery roll states specifically that he wasplaying a joke. In a ship coming home from Gascony in 1243, Henry ordered to be entered on the roll a whole series of invented debts that his clerk, Peter the Poitevin, had supposedly incurred. The idea was for Peter to look at the roll and, to the king’s amusement, wonder what on Earth was going on. Henry, however, didn’t want the joke to go too far (he had no desire for the debts to become official), so he ordered the entry to be crossed out when Peter wasn’t looking.

Henry was almost certainly joking when he issued a pompous letters-patent giving another clerk full power to cut his fellows’ long and curly hair. If the clerk failed in his task, he was threatened with having his own locks cut by Henry himself.

Some of Henry’s humour was of a more slapstick variety. When he visited the Roman bath at Bath, he ordered his jester to be thrown in. We know this from the letter Henry issued giving the jester a new suit of clothes to replace the ones ruined by the ducking!

4

The home bird

Henry preferred a comfortable life over one lived at high speed

All the royal letters on the chancery rolls end with their place and date of issue. Given their frequency, we know where Henry was on most days of his reign.

King John had travelled around his dominions at breakneck speed, rarely spending more than two or three days at any one place. Henry was quite different. He craved the comfortable life. At his favourite castles and palaces in the south, he often stayed for weeks, sometimes months. Windsor, Guildford, Winchester, Marlborough, Clarendon and Woodstock (the furthest north) absorbed nearly 40 per cent of his time. Another 30 per cent was spent at Westminster, easily his top residence. This was only partly because Westminster was the seat of government, the home of the exchequer and the court of common pleas. Much more important for Henry was its proximity to Westminster Abbey and thus to the shrine of his patron saint.

5

The persecutor

There was a dark side to the warmhearted man of peace

An important aspect of Henry’s piety – applauded then, abhorrent now – was his treatment of the Jews. He was the first medieval king to attempt, on any significant scale, their conversion to Christianity. In 1232, in what is now London’s Chancery Lane, Henry established a house where converts could live, learn and worship as part of a community.

Henry’s letters show his commitment to the cause. He ordered the London house to admit Philip “who has been converted and baptised in our presence at Reading”. Having heard that a cleric, writing a book about conversion, needed a Jew to help with the work, he readily gave his permission. When there was dispute over whether the children of a convert wished to convert, too, Henry ordered them to be placed before their father so they could decide for them- selves whether or not “to remain in their error”. Conversions were thus supposed to be genuine but many Jews must have embraced Christianity to avoid persecution.

That persecution was partly financial, for Henry’s exac- tions destroyed the wealth of the Jewish community. But it was also religious. Henry was the first king to sanction the belief that, in a macabre parody of Christ’s crucifixion, they captured and crucified little Christian boys. When such a crime was thought to have been committed in Lincoln, the king descended on the town and, ultimately, 19 Jews were executed. Henry was laying the foundations for the Jewish community’s expulsion from England at the hands of his son, Edward I, in 1290.

6

The madcap diplomat

During Henrys reign, blind faith often won out over realpolitik

Nothing exemplified better Henry’s naivety than the Sicilian affair. The throne of Sicily was theoretically the pope’s to bestow, and in 1255 Pope Alexander conceded it to Edmund, Henry’s 10-year-old second son. For Henry the prize seemed great, for Sicily was a wealthy kingdom. Having lost his continental empire, the king could now establish his dynasty as a Mediterranean power.

But Sicily was falling under the control of Manfred, son of the late Emperor Frederick II, and a military campaign would be needed to oust him. Henry also had to find large sums of money for the pope in return for the offer of the kingdom. Parliament, as Henry acknowledged in a letter, thought the project “not merely difficult but nearly impossible”. But Henry pressed on anyway – and his reasons for doing so reveal his core beliefs. “We did not wish to abandon what we had begun, directing our eyes to the king of heaven and ruler of the constellations, who is able to command sea and wind, bring tranquillity where there is disturbance, and convert darkness into light.”

On the day he sealed the deal, Henry made a magnificent offering to the Confessor’s shrine, “for Edmund, son of the king, that God shall give a happy outcome to his Sicilian enterprise”.

But God did not. Parliament refused to give Henry the money needed to send an army to Sicily. Realising Henry’s powerlessness, the pope cancelled the whole deal. Edmund never became king of Sicily.

7

The devotee

Henry’s obsession with an Anglo-Saxon predecessor produced one of western Europe’s great churches

Henry’s aim in rebuilding Westminster Abbey was to win the favour of Edward the Confessor by creating a church of unique splendour. He also soughtsomewhere fit for the crowning of kings (the abbey had been the site of all coronations since 1066). The new church breathes Henry’s generous, expansive spirit. Its great internal height, the form of its windows, its rounded east end, its radiating chapels, and great north door were unlike anything seen before in England. If the new French cathedrals (from which key features of the design derived) reached still higher, Henry’s church, with its profusion of purbeck marble and its sculptured roses, was much more highly decorated.

Henry drove forward the work in a series of passionate orders preserved on the chancery rolls: he wanted to find 600–800 men at work on his next visit to the abbey, so that progress could be “greatly speeded up”. All the marble columns were to be raised before winter – and, to prevent workmen deserting for lack of pay, money was to be found from all possible sources.

The great abbey rising above their heads did not stop the barons march- ing into Westminster Hall in 1258 and bringing Henry’s personal rule to an end. But the chronicler Thomas Wykes, who attended the new church’s consecration in 1269, said it exceeded in beauty all other churches in the world. It is Henry’s enduring legacy.

David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. His latest book, Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207–1258, was published in May 2020 by Yale

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This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine