“He was not a great king but he was respected as a most Christian one” | David Carpenter on Henry III
David Carpenter talks to David Musgrove about the second part of his biography of King Henry III, and the extraordinary revolution that removed him from power in 1258
This is the second volume of a two-part biography of Henry III, covering the period 1258 down to the king’s death in 1272. The year 1258 saw revolt against the king, so had Henry’s reign gone well up to this point?
King Henry III would have said that he had given long years of peace to England, linked to an absence of foreign war. He was a pacific king as well as a most Christian one. He had none of the cruelty and irreligion of his father, King John. He gave huge alms to the poor, attended multiple masses, and, most importantly, was rebuilding Westminster Abbey in honour of his patron saint, Edward the Confessor.
Henry had accepted Magna Carta, and his financial exactions (though still resented) were far lower than John’s as a result. His critics, though, saw him as a simple-minded, naive king who had plunged into ill-advised projects, including trying to place his second son on the throne of Sicily. In his open-handed way, Henry had also given gigantic rewards to his foreign relatives, thus creating tensions at court and divisions with his English subjects.
And Henry, politically unaware, had failed to reform local government. This meant his sheriffs and judges had become increasingly oppressive. Magnates, too, had been allowed to expand their local power. If there was peace, it seemed to be peace with injustice. So when we get to 1258, there was revolution in the court of Henry, with one group of courtiers turning on another, led by Henry’s half-brothers from Poitou.
You state that Henry is less central to volume two than to volume one. Who is the key figure in this story?
The central character is Henry III’s brother in-law Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, one of the most extraordinary people to have ever dignified and defiled – at the same time – English history. He is central to the seizure of power in 1258, in which a baronial council took over the government of the kingdom in a revolution far more radical than Magna Carta.
The sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 left King John in charge of central government. He could still appoint ministers and pursue what policies he liked. In 1258, a baronial council reduced Henry to a cipher and essentially then ruled the country. Simon de Montfort was integral to that.
- Read more | Simon de Montfort and the barons’ crusade: why rebel lords waged holy war against Henry III
Montfort became even more central after 1261, when Henry recovered power. At that point Montfort left England, only to return in 1263. Between his great victory at Lewes in May 1264 and his death at the battle of Evesham in August 1265, he was the real ruler of the country. He was the first magnate to seize power and govern the kingdom. He was also the first populist leader in English history because he had a wonderful political sense of the issues that would resonate with the public.
From the word go, Montfort was highly controversial. His enemies thought he was driven by a lust for power. He also had a series of material grievances, because although he had married the king’s sister, he constantly said he had not received the lands and endowment that ought to have gone with her. Montfort saw the revolution of 1258 as remedying his own grievances as well as those of everyone else.
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What made Simon de Montfort tick?
Montfort was driven by a strong sense of religiosity. One of the most remarkable things about this period, and a major theme of my book, was the intertwining of religion and politics. What drove Montfort – and in some ways, the whole reform of 1258 – was this deep feeling that the barons had to reform the realm in order to purify their own souls. They thought that to get salvation, they had to act justly themselves.
Montfort’s father had led the Albigensian Crusade (1209–18) in southern France, and Montfort, like his father, was seeking a righteous cause for which he might fight and, if necessary, die. Montfort had a political feel for the issues that would galvanise local communities. What he seized on when he came back to England in 1263 was ‘England for the English’.
- On the podcast | Simon de Montfort's medieval revolution
This is a very important period in the development of English national identity shaped, unfortunately, by hostility to foreigners. In 1263, he introduced the Statute against Aliens, which stated that no foreigner could ever hold office in England, and that all foreigners must depart, apart from those who were accepted by parliament.
Vitally, Montfort was also a great general. Unlike Henry III, he knew how to fight war and understood its brutal violence. That’s partly because he’d been the king’s lieutenant in Gascony in the 1250s, where he ravaged the lands and the crops of his enemies. He did that when he came back in 1263. In 1264, he won a battle at Lewes and, against all the odds, captured the king.
This is a very important period in the development of English national identity shaped, unfortunately, by hostility to foreigners
You needed huge self-confidence to fight a battle, so most people avoided them. Yet Montfort marched out of London early in May 1264 with no other aim than to bring the king’s army to battle. He did so by taking his army up onto the top of the Downs during the night, so that when the king woke in Lewes Priory he looked up and there was Montfort’s army above. They came crashing down to win the battle in which Henry, his brother and his son were all taken prisoner.
What about other key characters in the story?
One is Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Provence. She played a very important part in the politics of this period. She was far tougher than Henry. She supported the revolution of 1258 against her husband, because it got rid of the king’s Poitevin half-brothers, with whom her faction of foreigners from Savoy were at daggers drawn.
After supporting the revolution of 1258, she changed her mind and played a big part in Henry’s initial recovery of power in 1261. Antagonisms she created helped lay the ground for Montfort’s return to England and seizure of power in 1263. A year later, Eleanor was abroad after Henry’s capture at Lewes, and she gathered a large army in Flanders to invade England.
In the end, she ran out of money and no invasion took place. But it’s interesting what this tells us about the attitude to women in politics. Although they feared an invasion by foreigners, the medieval chroniclers commenting on these events are full of praise for the amazonian exploits of Eleanor in raising the army. That’s an indication of the scope that a woman might have to play a major part in politics.
The other great character in the book is Henry’s son, the future Edward I. From 1263 onwards, it’s Edward rather than his father calling the shots. And they are shots. Edward saw that he needed to defeat Montfort by war, not compromise.
In 1263, when Edward takes command, you suddenly feel this galvanic force driving on the king’s party and army. It’s totally different from the way Henry had acted in all his previous reign. The comparison between Henry’s lethargy and Edward’s aggressive energy is quite extraordinary.
How was the 1258 revolution against Henry effected?
It was done by violence. In the parliament of Westminster in April 1258, Henry was begging for a gigantic tax to pursue the Sicilian project. The barons said that they would give their reply on 30 April. On that day they marched in full armour into the Great Hall at Westminster. Henry came down from his chapel, and realised at once that this was unprecedented. Henry cried out: “What is this, my lords, am I wretched fellow, your prisoner?”.
Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, replied: “No, my Lord, but you must hand over the government of the country to us,” and the reforms went from there. The extraordinary thing about the reforms is that, in the end, it was not just a court revolution in which the king’s unpopular half-brothers from Poitou were expelled and the barons took over the government of the country. Instead, in wide-ranging changes to law and local government, the activities of baronial officials were made subject to reform, just as much as the officials of the king.
What is this, my lords, am I wretched fellow, your prisoner?
And that’s where religiosity comes in. Influenced by the teachings of churchmen and the example of King Louis IX of France, Montfort was far from alone in thinking that barons had a responsibility for the actions of their men and would be damned if those men acted unjustly.
What was the popular reaction to this revolution?
It’s remarkable in that here was an unprecedented revolution, demeaning the king, reducing him to a cipher, and yet everyone thought it was a good thing. The qualification is that many didn’t quite know what was happening; in some ways, it was a secret revolution. In the great proclamation explaining the council’s authority, the barons were less than explicit about it taking over the government of the country for a full 12 years, which was what Henry had been made to accept.
It could look as though the council had just a temporary brief to promulgate reforms with the king’s consent. Those who did appreciate what was going on, meanwhile, thought there was every reason for stripping the king of power, given his misrule. There’s no indication in 1258 that people believed this was an illegitimate revolution. Gradually a name for the reforms of 1258–59, ‘The Provisions of Oxford’, was introduced and they were hugely popular.
How did King Henry respond?
Henry recovered power in 1261, and that was due to a break-up of the baronial coalition. You could credit Montfort for the reforms of 1258, but you could also credit him with destroying them because he quarrelled with several of the other nobles. There was a very considerable feeling that Montfort was an extremist. There was also resistance to some of the local reforms.
The idea that these reforms should embrace the malpractices of the barons themselves was not popular with some of the great magnates. So the baronial coalition broke up and the queen changed her mind, because Montfort himself had clashed with her own party, and Peter of Savoy in particular.
The queen and Henry’s brother, Richard – Earl of Cornwall, and also king of Germany – masterminded the king’s recovery of power in 1261. The only baron who refused to accept this was Montfort. He left England at the end of 1261, saying: “I would rather die without land than depart from the truth and be perjured.”
Henry thought it was all over then. In 1262 he pressed on with rebuilding Westminster Abbey. He went to see his brother-in law, Louis IX in France. Unfortunately trouble was brewing at home, and for that, Henry was not entirely to blame. During the course of 1262, Edward, Henry’s son, had quarrelled with some of his leading baronial supporters, in part thanks to the influence of his mother.
A party of ex-Edwardians formed and they got together with Montfort, who came back to England in the spring of 1263. He placed himself at the head of a new movement designed to reimpose the Provisions of Oxford, linked now to the Statute against Aliens. There followed a struggle for power which culminated in Montfort’s victory next year at Lewes.
But Montfort doesn’t emerge victorious. So what happens?
After Lewes, Montfort appeared supreme. Henry was in captivity, as were his brother and his son. From May 1264 onwards, Montfort was the governor of the kingdom. His parliament of January 1265 was the first to which knights from the counties and burgesses from the towns were summoned. It was the first parliament with an embryo House of Commons. But within a few months, Montfort was dead.
He inspired huge devotion among people below him and enjoyed huge popularity in the wider political community, while at the same time antagonising equals and people who thought they were his superiors. They found his self-righteousness, his domineering ways, absolutely intolerable. The beginning of the end of the regime was when Montfort fell out with someone who very much thought he was his equal – the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare.
After Lewes, Montfort appeared supreme. Henry was in captivity, as were his brother and his son...
The earl felt that Montfort didn’t take him seriously enough. Montfort went to Hereford to see if he could reach a settlement with Clare. But at that moment, Henry’s son Edward escaped from captivity and joined up with Clare. A large group of magnates really had had enough and once Edward was free, once he was with Clare, the regime began to collapse. That ended with the battle of Evesham and Montfort’s death.
Did the battle of Evesham end the war?
Evesham is really a turning point in late medieval politics because the clement centuries now give place to the centuries of blood, as the famous historian Maitland said. Previously in battles, great nobles were rarely killed. At Evesham, it’s all different. About 30 of Montfort’s leading supporters were deliberately done to death on the battlefield. Their surrenders were not accepted.
The high point, or the low point, of this was that Montfort himself was not merely killed, but his body was horrifically mutilated. Not merely were his head and limbs severed in the manner of a traitor. His testicles were cut off, hung either side of his nose and then stuffed in his mouth.
Evesham didn’t end the war. It went on for another two years because Henry and Edward, in great unwisdom, decided to confiscate the estates of the Montfortians, while at the same time leaving them at large. That left a group of disinherited who continued the war until there was a settlement allowing them to recover their lands, although with financial penalties. By the end of Henry’s reign in 1272, the political community was coming together again.
What is Henry III’s legacy?
One aspect of Henry’s legacy should be mentioned at once. His persecution of the Jews prepared the way for their expulsion from England in 1290. But for Henry’s Christian subjects, his antisemitism only enhanced his reputation for piety. It was that reputation that helped him survive Montfort’s challenge.
Henry was never threatened with deposition, unlike his father King John. He owed much to Edward, and also to the status and institutional strengths of English monarchy. But he also owed much to himself. His reign shows that in order to succeed, or at least to survive, one did not have to be a warlike and masterful ruler. How could one depose this ‘Rex Christianissimus’, this ‘most Christian king’?
Whatever its defects, the long peace of Henry’s reign was also appreciated, especially when contrasted with Montfortian war. Of course, the good relations Henry established with France, Scotland, and ultimately with Wales, did not survive the reign of his son. But the post-Magna Carta parliamentary state, anticipated under Henry, and achieved by Edward I, formed the basis for England’s late medieval polity.
Henry has also one great achievement that stands to this day, and that’s Westminster Abbey. We owe to Henry the sumptuous church where centuries of royal coronations, including the 2023 crowning of King Charles III, have taken place.
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
David Carpenter is a leading historian of Britain in the central Middle Ages and professor of medieval history at Kings College London. His father was former dean of Westminster Abbey. His books include Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207–1258 (Yale University Press, May 2023), which fully covers the final consecration of Henry's abbey in 1269.
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