Fragrant Elizabethan gardens, check. Rolling Warwickshire countryside, check. Dramatic medieval ruins basking in the sunshine, check. To a lover of history – and a few hours of unbridled tranquility – a visit to Kenilworth Castle on an unseasonably warm spring morning can seem like heaven. It wasn’t always like this though. Rewind the clock seven and a half centuries to 1266 and this place would have been a vision of hell.
Back then, the great Norman keep that dominates the landscape wouldn’t have been home to carefree day-trippers but hundreds of desperate rebels, holed up in what was one of the longest sieges in English history. These men’s six-month ordeal – assailed by King Henry III’s fearsome siege weapons and a diabolical combination of disease and hunger – marked the climax of one of the greatest storms to blow through medieval England: the Second Barons’ War.
The Second Barons’ War? It hardly enjoys the same notoriety as the Norman Conquest or the Wars of the Roses, does it? Yet, as Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia, explains, it involved “mutilation, intrigue, escapes, ambushes and bloodletting on a huge scale”. And some of its most dramatic incidents took place under the shadow of Kenilworth’s keep.
The Second Barons’ War was a set-to between royalist forces – led by King Henry III – and a group of baronial rebels, who were dominated by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort.
As its name suggests, it was in many ways a reprise of the First Barons’ War (1215–17), when major landowners – enraged by the refusal of Henry’s father, John, to implement Magna Carta – rebelled and threw their weight behind a French invasion of England.
The settlement at the end of the First Barons’ War was meant to resolve the differences between the monarchy and barons. That it didn’t, says Vincent, had much to do with Henry III’s autocratic style of rule. “Henry had a nasty habit of infuriating the most powerful men in England – by, for example, liberally handing out riches and favours to his friends in France.
“To compound the problem, he was terrible with money, wasting it on great displays of art at court, or in pursuing his dreams of reconquering his family’s lands in France. Then, in the 1250s, he got mixed up in crusades to north Africa and a hair-brained attempt to buy Sicily off the pope. The trouble is, of course, he couldn’t afford it.”
And he was soon to pay the price. For among the many men that the king had alienated through his profligacy and favouritism was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who had been granted Kenilworth Castle in the 1240s.
“De Montfort was a charismatic but complicated character,” says Vincent. “He was an anti-Semite, a religious fanatic. But he was a man of action who had earned a reputation as a brilliant warrior on crusade in the Holy Land.”
De Montfort’s brilliance – and his ego – set him up as a dangerous rival to Henry. A few years earlier, he had enraged the king by marrying Henry’s sister, Eleanor – just after she had taken a vow of celibacy. Then Henry had returned the favour by meddling in de Montfort’s attempts to administer the royal estates in Gascony. In short, there was little love lost between the two men – and so, in the late 1250s, with baronial disaffection with the king soaring, de Montfort made his move.
“The first direct threat to Henry’s power came in 1258 when a posse of armed barons turned up at Westminster Hall and demanded that the king reform the realm,” says Vincent. “At first, it seemed that the barons’ ploy had worked, for in 1259 Henry introduced a series of constitutional reforms, known as the Provisions of Westminster, that proposed setting up a committee of barons to rule England with the king, and to restrict his powers of patronage. The trouble is, in 1261, Henry repudiated the provisions.”
By doing so, the king made an armed confrontation all but inevitable. Simon de Montfort was soon raising a rebel army and, having canvassed the support of the people of London, met Henry’s forces in battle at Lewes, now East Sussex, in May 1264.
What happened next was remarkable. Not only did de Montfort’s rebels rout their royalist enemies, they took the king prisoner and captured his son, the future Edward I.
The owner of Kenilworth Castle was now the most powerful man in England, one with the authority to instigate one of the most significant political developments of the 13th century – the meeting of what is widely termed as the first English parliament. “This was a momentous turning point in English history,” says Vincent, “because de Montfort summoned not just representatives of the counties but also the boroughs. This was the first meeting of what we call the House of ‘Commons’, and the establishment of a franchise that lasted for centuries.”
Yet even as de Montfort was changing the course of political history, he was busy squandering the respect he’d earned from his spectacular victory at Lewes.
“Before you know it, he was doing exactly what Henry had done before him – enriching himself and his sons, seizing rivals’ resources and cheating landowners out of their inheritance,” says Vincent. It was a style of rule that would soon backfire.
Things started to turn sour for de Montfort on 28 May 1265, when Prince Edward escaped from captivity. Edward quickly retook Gloucester and Worcester for his father and, with both armies preparing for a showdown in the Worcestershire town of Evesham, landed a withering blow on baronial forces right outside the gates of Kenilworth Castle.
“Simon de Montfort’s son, also called Simon, was camped just outside Kenilworth with his troops, when they were ambushed and routed by a detachment led by Edward,” says Vincent. “This proved a serious blow to de Montfort, as the chroniclers tell us that on the following day, as he waited to do battle at Evesham, he was heartened by the sight
of his son’s banners approaching from over the horizon – before realising, to his horror, that these banners were, in fact, being carried by Edward.”
Edward’s skulduggery threw de Montfort’s army into confusion, and set the scene for the decisive day in the Second Barons’ War. The rebel army was massacred, King Henry (who had travelled to Evesham in de Montfort’s baggage train) freed, and de Montfort hacked down and mutilated. To add grim insult to injury, his killers cut off his testicles and dispatched various body parts to his enemies as proof of his demise.
It was an act of vicious ferocity, and a fate that the surviving rebels were all-too keen to avoid. So, as their lands were gradually gobbled up by opportunistic loyalists and Edward’s army circled for the kill, a few hundred of them eventually headed to the mighty fortress of Kenilworth for sanctuary.
Even today, Kenilworth’s massive Norman keep – constructed by Geoffrey de Clinton, lord chamberlain to Henry I, in the 1120s – dominates the surrounding landscape. Back in the 1260s, however, it didn’t just
look formidable, it was formidable. And it had recently been supplemented by a new stone outer bailey wall and two towers – all added by Henry’s father, John, between 1210 and 1216.
John had also dammed two nearby brooks, creating one of the largest artificial lake defences in England and surrounding the castle with water on three sides. In doing so, he had made his son’s task of eeking the rebels out all but impossible.
“Henry called for miners to undermine the castle but the water wouldn’t allow them to get close enough,” says Vincent. “He called up his greatest siege engines – including one that was called the Bear (presumably because it was enormous and rather scary) but still to no avail.”
Not for moving
If Henry needed any evidence that Kenilworth’s defenders were a determined bunch, it came when one of the king’s messengers returned from the castle – after a failed attempt at negotiation – with his hand chopped off.
But, where force of arms failed in dislodging the besieged rebels, it seems that hunger and disease succeeded. “By the time winter set in, conditions in the castle would have been pretty intolerable,” says Vincent. “Food was short, illness rife. Dirt would have been lying around, stinking and rotting.”
And so, in December 1266, after six long months, the rebels finally trooped out to meet their fates. “Yet, crucially,” says Vincent, “Henry didn’t string them up – as he’d done following a siege of Bedford in 1224. Instead, he let them go home, even giving them their lands back, as long as they used the annual income from those lands to pay off a ransom he had put on their heads.”
The Second Barons’ War was effectively over but its repercussions would be felt down the centuries. “It would change England for good,” says Vincent. “Through de Montfort’s first parliament, it did much to shape modern democracy. On a darker note, this was the first time since 1066 that a major political leader in England had been killed on the battlefield – so setting the scene for the slaying of the upper classes that became a feature of the late Middle Ages.”
As for Kenilworth Castle, it eventually passed into the hands of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – the famed admirer of Elizabeth I – but not before playing its part in the genesis of another bloody medieval conflict.
“After the Second Barons’ War, Henry III gave the castle to his son Edmund as part of the Duchy of Lancaster. And it was with the resources of this huge new power base that Henry Bolingbroke rebelled against Richard II and seized power as Henry IV in 1399. That provided the spark for the Wars of the Roses. Those sparks were first struck here, in Kenilworth, in 1266.”
Historical advisor: Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia. Words: Spencer Mizen
Second Barons’ War: five more places to explore
1) Westminster Hall (London)
Where the barons confronted Henry
Westminster Hall has witnessed its fair share of historic incidents since it was built in 1097, perhaps none more sensational than when, in 1258, leading barons stormed in and demanded that Henry III change the way he ran the country. They got their way – temporarily – but it wasn’t enough to prevent war.
2) Rochester Castle (Kent)
Where loyalist forces were besieged
Kenilworth Castle wasn’t the only fortification to be besieged in the Second Barons’ War. In 1264, Simon de Montfort’s army attempted to prise out loyalist forces – led by the royal constable Roger de Leybourne – holed up in Rochester. They failed but would soon exact revenge at Lewes.
3) Lewes Castle (East Sussex)
Where Henry prepared for battle
Henry III took shelter in Lewes Castle before engaging the rebel forces in what was arguably the most dismal day in his 56-year reign. De Montfort’s army took the king prisoner – and, for good measure, captured his son, Edward, and brother Richard too. You can also visit a monument to the battle of Lewes near the site where it is believed to have been fought.
4) Gloucester Cathedral (Gloucester)
Where Edward was held captive
Prince Edward was held prisoner in Gloucester Castle after the royalist army’s defeat at Lewes, before making a dramatic escape. The castle no longer exists but you can visit the tomb of his son, Edward II, at the city’s cathedral. The son’s murder was in many ways a consequence of the violence first unleashed by his father at Evesham.
5) Evesham (Worcestershire)
Where the rebels were massacred
Simon de Montfort’s dreams of cementing his position as the dominant force in England came to a decisive – and grotesque – end at the battle of Evesham, in a field just north of the market town. You can visit the scene of the rebel leader’s last stand, and then head to Evesham Abbey where de Montfort is buried.