The Ordinance was barely a week old when the feudal host was called out to repel an invasion force being put together by Queen Eleanor and her ever faithful uncle Peter of Savoy in Flanders. ‘Let no one plead that the harvest is at hand,’ the summons rang out, for otherwise all would be lost to the ‘impious hands of men thirsting for your blood.’ It was perhaps no coincidence that the freed Marchers began an uprising in the west at the same time, doubtless hoping to keep the Montfortians occupied on two fronts. With the aid of Clare and the Welsh, Montfort was able to force the Marchers to terms and deal with yet a third threat, the papal legate. Appointed back in November, the future Clement IV finally saw his chance to get involved, but his attempt to enter England was thwarted on the grounds that he had no invitation from the king or community. When Simon suggested he put his skills to better use by preventing the invasion force from assembling, the legate wrote him a furious reply on 26 July 1264. He insisted he had tried to promote peace, but in any case ‘the heavens are stupefied’ by the ingratitude of the English. It was a papal legate, after all, who had saved England from an invasion almost half a century earlier and now they were treating him with less diplomatic finesse than what Tartars and pagans might normally expect. He didn’t add what everyone already knew, that the previous invasion had been by Louis’ father and the king he was trying to depose was Henry himself..
June 28 is remembered today as the centennial of Gavrilo Princip leaving a sandwich bar in Sarajevo and putting a bullet into the heir to the conjoined Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus triggering a war unsurpassed in carnage and grimness, even by European standards. What has gone practically unnoticed is that this day also marks a more glorious occasion, when 750 years ago the English parliament ratified what was to all effects a constitutional monarchy. An ordinance devolving power from the king to conciliar control was approved by the assembly and Henry III, no doubt under the threat of deposition, affixed his seal to it on this date. Simon de Montfort was clearly ready to take initiatives further when he summoned representatives from boroughs at the next parliament, but the events of 1265 cut the experiment short. While Edward revived the Montfortian precedents to some degree, it was mostly downhill after that, culminating in the murderous tyranny of the Tudors who, oddly enough, seem more popular than ever today in England.
The hostilities may have ceased after the victory at Lewes, but confusion and disarray were everywhere, much of it the result of marauding royalist troops. Montfort’s decree forbidding armed movement made little headway, not with so many scores to settle and opportunities abounding, so on 4 June 1264 he appointed keepers of the peace in the counties to reiterate the official proclamation of peace. Their job was to restore order while the sheriffs went about putting the counties on a normal footing again, including collecting the king’s revenue, which was not even a tenth of what it had been only two years previously. These new keepers were also charged with overseeing elections for parliament to be held before the end of the month. The urgency of the summons to this famous assembly suggests Montfort was eager to sort out the business of government before Louis acted, if at all, on the Mise of Lewes. Turning the Provisions of Oxford into a constitution was the best safeguard against the king of France committing a blunder as grievous as the one he had made at Amiens. How well these keepers succeeded in their task can be judged either by the success of that parliament or the subsequent accusation that some of them were involved in racketeering and the sheriffs were forced to move against them. In any case, their appointment was yet another of the precedents Edward would adopt when he became king.
Unlike many battles, which by their nature are terrible and destructive events, Lewes stands out for certain features that give it an almost mythical quality worth remembering on today’s 750th anniversary of the battle. The divided families, the exchange of letters, Edward’s vengeful blunder, the coach at the top of the hill, the windmill. They have been deservedly recounted in plenty of books and articles (and here), but for a change it might be worth noting what England was like three-quarters of a millennium before 1264. At that time the land was under constant pressure as Saxons from the continent continued to encroach on the native population. The first king named among the Anglo-Saxons was Ælle, who conquered what became Sussex after landing with three sons and three ships on the south coast. His men drove the Britons back into the wood later known as the Weald, where incidentally Simon and his men were encamped before Lewes. The information about Ælle is scanty, but 12th century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon put his death in 514. Since Lewes is almost smack in the middle of southern Sussex, Ælle could have drawn his last breath there 750 years before that fateful battle, but that’s like speculating whether the leader of the Britons he chased off was a king named Arthur.
On 6 May 1264 Montfort marched his army out of London to seek out the king. The move may have been as desperate as it was bold, but it completely changed the tide of the war. Henry had been planning to follow up his string of successes lately by securing the submission of the Cinque Ports and using their fleets against London. Word that his brother-in-law had seized the initiative and was coming after him put him on the defensive instead. Now, in addition to wearing his armour full-time, he mustered his troops in and around Lewes, where his other brother-in-law John de Warenne owned the castle and nearly everything around it. Simon owned a manor in Fletching, about ten miles from Lewes, and halted his men there to make one last attempt at negotiation. The signs that Henry was already a beaten man can be seen in his willingness to consider the proposals despite his numerical superiority. Richard and Edward, however, were in a fighting mood and scoffed at the offers of the Montfortian bishops of money and compromises over power-sharing. Perhaps against his better judgement, Henry sent word back that he officially defied the Montfortians, who responded by withdrawing their oath of fealty to him. Throughout all the armed conflict in 1263 and 1264, there had yet to be a single pitched battle between the opposing camps. Lewes would be the first such engagement for both sides.
Henry lost at Lewes and was on the losing side at Evesham, but he did have one victory when, on April 5-6, 1264, his forces stormed Northampton and captured the entire garrison, including eighty knights and barons. Even though he had a lot of help from a treacherous prior on the inside, his triumph put him in excellent position to make short work of the Montfortians. Instead he lingered in the north, exacting payments where he could and letting his men have their way in this technically hostile territory. So quick did Northampton fall that Simon had got only as far as St. Albans with a relief force when word of it reached him. He took it in stride, telling his men that it was the nature of warfare for the advantage to go sometimes to these, sometime to those. ‘Let them rejoice,’ he told Hugh Despenser. ‘Before the month of May is out they will be consumed by fear and confusion.’
Taking a detour from the 750th anniversary of Lewes and Montfort’s parliament, 14 March 1939 marks the 75th anniversary of a little-known firefight that occurred near the River Ostravice separating Silesia and Moravia. A troop of Wehrmacht soldiers crossed the bridge into Moravia with the intent of seizing the army base in Mistek, as was agreed by the capitulation of rump Czechoslovakia, recently abandoned by the West and Soviet Union, as part of Hitler’s demands for total occupation. The Czech soldiers were not aware that these plans were supposed to take place the next day and opened fire, killing as many as twenty of the invading force before word arrived from Prague that surrender was in order. Prague itself would not match this first act of resistance to Nazi aggression throughout Europe until 3 days before the war’s end.
Well, maybe not so quickly. Henry had ordered the royalist barons to assemble in Windsor, but it took him nine days to get there from Canterbury, and he didn’t make it to Oxford until 8 March 1264. The whole month was given over to peace talks, both in Oxford and in nearby Brackley. At one point the bishops were prepared to offer Henry everything except the aliens, but the king was dismissive. By the end of the month he was ready to march on Northampton and didn’t need to make concessions. It was the Montfortians in London, however, who made the first move. The tolling of the great bell of St. Paul’s was the signal for armed bands to gather, under the direction of Hugh Despenser, and descend on royalist properties throughout the city. Particularly hard hit were Richard’s manor in Isleworth, where the crowd destroyed his lovingly-crafted fishpond, and his mansion in Westminster. Nothing aggrieved Richard so much as an assault on his personal worth and Simon was apparently counting on an inflamed Richard pressuring Henry into attacking London first. Henry for once played the coolheaded of the two brothers and remained focused on the Midlands, leaving Richard to take his revenge on any passers-by from London his men happened to get their hands on.
Henry spent more on Dover than any other castle during his reign. He must have therefore found it infuriating that the Montfortian castellan again refused him entry upon his return from France on 15 February 1264. It was only a minor setback, though. He quickly moved on to Oxford, where he ordered the feudal host to muster, officially for yet another march on Wales but Northampton was clearly the target. He also told the student population to be gone. Then as now, they were apt to riot during spring and he was worried his Scottish irregulars might join in. When he eventually bagged several of them in his haul of prisoners from Northampton, his first thought was to chop their heads offs. He was reminded, however, that many of them came from prominent families. Then as now, students from prominent families always got special protection.
On this date 750 years ago, Louis IX of France delivered his Mise of Amiens. He had been asked to re-establish peace between the barons and royalists and the result was war. He had already given some indication that he approved the Provisions of Oxford, now he quashed them outright. Whether this was because he was wearing his hairshirt at the time or the queen’s nagging finally got to him, he knew he was unleashing a hornet’s nest and tried to hide behind the papacy’s earlier nullification. He also insisted that Magna Carta was unaffected by his ruling, something he was forced to do because the Montfortians had craftily woven it into their argument. It became their loophole for disregarding their oath to abide by what had to be one of the most ill-considered awards in the history of arbitration.
Having missed his chance to bag his adversary along the Thames, Henry retreated to Windsor to draw up his letters requesting Louis to arbitrate. Simon had his ready on December 13, 1263, naming not a single member of the higher nobility among his supporters, and yet officially they were the barons. Henry’s list appeared three days later and showed to what extent the real barons had been cowed into submission. The Bigod brothers, the earls of Surrey and Hereford , all had been prominent reformers. Now they couldn’t care less what foolish thing Henry did at the instigation of the Savoyards, they just wanted peace. Henry did too, as always, but he no more sent his letters to Louis than he was conniving with Roger Mortimer to attack Montfort’s lands in the west to keep him from attending the arbitration. He knew it didn’t matter who Simon’s supporters were, the man was a host in himself and he was desperate to tie him up elsewhere.
On November 22nd, 1263, Pope Urban IV, who had issued bulls both in favour and against the Provisions, now came out firmly on Henry’s side by appointing a legate and singling Simon out as the ‘chief disturber of the realm’. Henry had already taken matters into his own hands when, in true fashion, he marked the November 1st truce by attempting to seize Dover. His plan was to secure it for the arrival of foreign mercenaries, but the castellan told him to get lost. The Provisions were a higher authority than the king, he told him. The rebuff worked to Henry’s advantage when London royalists informed him that Montfort was encamped in Southwark and they had barred the gates to the city. Quickly heading north, Henry and Edward hoped to capture the Montfortians in one fell swoop. Simon preferred to fight it out than surrender to ‘perjurers and apostates’. Who knows, maybe he declared his defiance on the ground sitting underneath the future Globe Theatres. In the end the people of London rose up and broke open the gates, leaving Henry no choice but to observe the truce.
Of all the defections to the king in the autumn of 1263, when the English turned tail according to a well-known quip at the time, only Henry of Almain’s has come down to us in the form of a personal interview with Simon. Henry had been one of the young idealists who joined Simon’s camp earlier that year, men pliable as wax, as chronicler Thomas Wykes contemptuously dismissed them. His only known action ended in failure when he got captured after taking off in pursuit of perennial favourite John Mansel. He showed he truly was made of wax by swapping sides again upon his release, allegedly after Edward promised him some prime real estate. Young Henry tried to tell Simon he was troubled by taking up arms against his family, which seems to suggest that he didn’t know what he was getting into when he joined the revolution. But he assured Simon, who was also family in a way, that he would never take up arms against him. That earned him another dose of contempt when Simon told him he was free to go, he had no use for pliable men like him. He could even take up arms against him, they made no difference in the world. Of course, Henry would do just that at Lewes, which only confirmed his treachery in the eyes of the Montfort sons.
How Henry loved the October 13th feast day of St. Edward! In 1255 he swallowed the yarn about the Jews of Lincoln murdering a little boy, sending 18 of them to the gallows, just so he could get back to London in time for this grand supper. Now in 1263 it was going to be a contentious affair as faces glared at one another in the tense atmosphere. Henry and Edward were demanding restitution for cronies like the archbishop of Canterbury (the former reformer) and the queen’s other relatives, while Simon insisted on the Council’s right, as per the Provisions that Henry and Edward swore who to uphold, to name the king’s ministers and household. Who gave the final toast that evening is unknown, but Edward no doubt cast a shifty look at his Marcher friends, freshly imbibed with his bribes, to let them know that the plan was on. They would use violence, which was not only work but play for them, to put an end to Montfort’s provisional government and maybe the man himself.
The October newsletter is out, addressing the events of 750 years ago and the parliament Edward and his cohorts disrupted, presumably because Simon’s March on London was akin to Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. The despoliation caused by the Marchers was hardly in the same league, but the disruption was part of Edward’s plan to escape to Windsor and regroup, what John Maddicott calls his ‘surefooted deviousness’.