On 7 January 1238 Henry III set off a firestorm by marrying his sister Eleanor to faithful councilor Simon de Montfort in the chapel next to his private quarters at Westminster, the fabled Painted Chamber. Eleanor had been married to William Marshal II in 1224, when she was nine years old, but he suddenly died in 1231. Three years later she took a vow of chastity before the archbishop of Canterbury Edmund of Abingdon, both out of piety and as a means of ending the insurrection caused by William’s brother Richard. His gripes were many, including owing Eleanor her dower as William’s widow. Richard was killed in Ireland as peace was finally within reach under Edmund’s stern hand and his brother Gilbert was worried about that dower too, that Eleanor could take it with her to a second marriage. So she became nun, sort of. Simon meanwhile had been rebuffed in his search for a wealthy widow on the continent, no doubt at Henry’s instigation so he could shore up his alliances on the continent against Louis IX of France. Eleanor chafed under her widowhood and Simon deserved a reward, so Henry blessed them with marriage, in secret of course because everyone would disapprove, certainly Edmund. But that was the point. Edmund had humiliated Henry in the peace process by implicating him in the “murder” of Richard Marshal and Henry never forgot. It was part of a string of disappointments inflicted on the archbishop meant to show him who was king.
England drifted towards civil war in late 1263 as Henry III reclaimed more of the machinery of government from Simon de Montfort. While London still remained firmly for Montfort, they insisted he keep his rowdy soldiers across the river in Southwark. The city oligarchs, who had been pushed to the side by all this democracy stuff, saw their chance and had the gates to the city secretly locked. On 11 December they sent a messenger to Henry with his army at Croydon telling him he could bag the lot of the Montfortians if he moved fast. With Edward also on the move from Merton, Simon was trapped, but he answered their calls to surrender with ‘never to perjurers and apostates’. In a classic moment of deliverance, the people of London broke down the chains, swarmed across the bridge and led Simon and his men inside. So they ended up quartering the rebel rousers after all.
On 28 October 1265, nearly three months after her husband and son fell at Evesham, Eleanor de Montfort handed over Dover, the key to the kingdom, to her nephew Edward (I) and left England forever. She practically crossed sails with her sister-in-law Queen Eleanor, who landed the next day at Dover after more than two years abroad. The youngest of King John’s children, Eleanor died not quite ten years later at a convent outside of Paris, going back to the same spiritual roots that led her to take the veil following the death of her first husband William Marshal II. Edward, mindful of his shameful actions at Evesham, was very considerate towards his aunt, even lending her money on one occasion. His mother also retired to a convent, but the most he would do when she died in 1291 was promise the nuns £100 if they prayed for her soul every day. Edward’s word being what it was, he didn’t pay a penny.
Two months after Evesham, 4 October 1265, the mayor of London, Thomas Fitz-Thomas, knew there was no putting it off any longer and led a party of forty leading citizens to Henry III at Windsor. They were given safe-conduct passes by the king, but his inability to keep his word meant they could end up in irons, and that’s exactly what happened. All were eventually released except Fitz-Thomas, who bore the brunt of Henry’s wrath thanks to his impertinence when he told him earlier that year, “Lord, as long as you will be a good king to us, we will be your faithful and devoted men.” Of all the nerve, qualifying his oath like that! Even though Fitz-Thomas had rescued the queen during her painful encounter with the mob at London Bridge, he was imprisoned for three years, and still fined £500 to get out. He wasn’t forgotten by his people, however. During the next mayoral election, they demanded his reinstatement, creating so much alarm that Henry’s henchman for London, Roger Leybourne, had twenty of them taken away and that’s the last we hear of them. Two years, when London was occupied during Gilbert de Clare’s insurrection, this same Leybourne got it into his head to burn the city to the ground by tossing chickens over the wall with fire lines tied to their feet.
The battle of Evesham, which was fought under a dark, rainless cloud 750 years ago this day, truly changed everything. It put an end to England’s fledgling constitutional monarchy and wiped out the Montfortian leadership that had imposed it upon the king. The years of strife and uncertainty ushered in by the reforming Provisions of Oxford of 1258 culminated in a slaughter of the nobility on this field not seen since the Norman Conquest. In its own time Evesham was lamented not as a battle of any sort, only murder, and the particularly gruesome mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body when it was over makes recalling it with any fanfare a rather dubious prospect. But the English are nothing if not inured to harsh experience, so the festivities will go on.
The basic facts are these: in May 1265 Montfort led his caretaker court to Gloucester to try and appease his disaffected partner in the new government Gilbert de Clare, not realizing that Clare had already put a plan of betrayal in motion. It called for the landing of royalist exiles, making allies of the Marcher insurgents, and organizing the escape of the king’s son Edward. Within a month they had Montfort, with Henry III still at his side, on the run. Their last hope was to cross the River Avon at the vale of Evesham and link up with reinforcements coming in from the north, but Edward cut them off at Greenhill. Montfort led a desperate charge to break through, but outnumbered and exhausted, they were beaten back, hemmed in, and massacred.
That date of 4 August 1265 started off with Montfort anxious to get his troops moving, but Henry insisted on having breakfast and attending Mass at the Evesham abbey church. Montfort had always been deferential to Henry’s personal needs and agreed to a halt despite knowing that Edward was shadowing their movements. This raises the question of why Montfort simply didn’t leave the king behind and continue on their way.
The easiest answer is Henry was his surety. If he lost the king and his son, it would be only a matter of time before they reclaimed the government under their terms, much the way they did in 1263 after Montfort first swept into power. Only this time there would be no arbitration, rather retribution. Setting the king loose would also deprive them of their feudal advantage. Whoever marched into battle against the king was the rebel, so in this case Edward and Clare. Simon, however, was keen not to advertise Henry’s presence, lest Edward’s men snatched him in the course of the battle, and had him accoutered without any emblem distinguishing his royal rank.
It was said at the time that he did this because he knew they were doomed and wished the king to die with them. A higher explanation might be that this was the Simon de Montfort imbued with the idea of justice for all that heralded in the reform movement. His army consisted mostly of peasants and freeholders, men trying to eke out a living in that difficult age, who saw hope for a better life under the Provisions. They would have known about them because, unlike Magna Carta, they were written and proclaimed in English, the first instance of a political initiative aimed directly at the people. If they had to put their lives on the line for better government, it was only fair the king should do the same.
An equally intriguing question is what if any last words passed between Simon and Henry on that fateful morning. Their history went back three and a half decades when Simon, born and raised in France, stepped ashore and brazenly asked Henry to grant his tenuous claim to the earldom of Leicester. Each man was pious, shrewd, and very conscious of his place in the world, and they became great friends until court politics and family squabbles drove a gulf between them. They had always meant the other well, but all the troubles had now made them seem more like an old married couple whose relationship had soured for good. As they rode off together to meet Edward’s army, they probably had nothing more to say to each other.
Late research has revealed that before the battle Edward assembled a hit squad to find Montfort and kill him. Legend credits Roger Mortimer with delivering the actual death blow for no other reason than the two men were feuding (about what has never been made clear) and he got Simon’s head from among the spoils. On the other hand, a contemporary source says he was felled by an unnamed knight who later met a ridiculous end by drowning at the court of Edward’s sister in Scotland.
No doubt Simon got special attention one way or another, but we can safely assume that Edward did in fact order his men to kill whoever they got their hands on. That was no incentive for medieval warriors who counted on collecting ransoms from the prisoners they took, but he had a greater prize, their land and property. Admirers of the chivalric Edward who loved tournaments and King Arthur will find this disreputable action disturbing and may hope that it was thrust upon him by the likes of Clare and Mortimer. Remembering the earlier reforming spirit in Edward, when he joined his uncle Simon in the showdown with Henry over control of Parliament in 1260, an argument can be made that his order mirrored Simon’s opinion about justice for all, namely that knights would have to take the same chances as ordinary foot soldiers. Hm, wishful thinking.
However it came to pass, the slaughter was horrific, with Simon, his son Henry, and top lieutenants Hugh Despenser and Peter de Montfort among those cut down. Just like at Lewes, Edward got into the killing and carried it all the way into the church. He was sadly mistaken if he hoped to find his father alive in there. In all probability, Henry had been behind Montfort with a bodyguard of young knights consisting of Simon’s son Guy and the younger Peter de Montfort. The fact that all three were wounded suggests that they were each a stroke or two away from death when Henry cried out in the din of battle that he was the king. His attackers verified that was indeed the case and, unsure about the identity of the knights with him, chose to play it safe and take them prisoner. The survival of Guy de Montfort would go on to haunt Edward for many a day.
In a contemporary source, Henry is made to look like a cowering fool as Edward’s men move in on him. ‘Don’t hit me,’ he supposedly keeps crying out, ‘I’m Henry your king, I’m too old to fight.’ This seems to reflect the need to want to see the king in such a pathetic state, as the mere shadow of his former self. That would pave the way for the Edward of later legend, the great warrior who saved his father from the clutches of that other great warrior Simon de Montfort. The problem is it doesn’t square with the description of Henry at Lewes the previous year, when he had two horses killed from under him and had to be forced off the field by his attendants. It was his brother Richard who did the cowering then, in a nearby windmill, this after Edward cost them the battle by going off on a murderous joyride after it began. Henry’s surliness in the final surrender, moreover, plus the appearance of the Provisions in the peace treaty as a negotiable item, is hardly indicative of a weak king resigned to the outcome.
The act of disinheritance that followed Evesham may have been the lure that enabled Edward to build up a large army in so short a time span, but the decision was ultimately Henry’s and he may have decided to go that course whatever his son might think. Certainly his actions in the run-up to Lewes show rebellion had hardened him, made him determined not to put up with it anymore as he had done on no less than four occasions (1227, 33, 38, 58). When the perennially grumpy Clare occupied London after a spat with Edward, it took the intervention of the papal legate to save him from the king’s wrath.
The last major question about the events at Evesham goes to the climax itself, the mutilation of Montfort’s body. It’s the one feature that anyone coming into contact with the battle for the first time is guaranteed to take away from it. Even if it was the hit squad’s work, it seems unlikely that Edward had anything to do with it. His later reign demonstrated that he was quite capable of committing such atrocities, but he had to know that his uncle King Louis of France, for one, would be aghast at the disgraceful treatment of a man who had once been his good friend. He was astute enough to know, moreover, that it would leave him with a blood feud with the Montfort family, whose political reach stretched from France to the Holy Land. That would explain his later attempts to make amends, at least with money. Alas, there was no buying his way out of this one and Guy de Montfort exacted a brutal revenge that destroyed any hope of reconciliation between the families.
The other consequence to be expected from chopping up Montfort on the field was making a martyr out of him. It was the last thing Henry needed for clamping down on the disinherited rebels, and he was forced to outlaw any talk about miracles to be had at Battlewell, the spring that supposedly arose on the spot where his adversary fell. He was probably justified in being angry at Simon for all he had put him through, though. After all, he was the lone magnate who refused to be cowed into accepting an emasculated form of the Provisions. Had Simon fell in line with the others, there wouldn’t have been any war or the nightmare of Evesham. It’s possible the evolution of government begun by Magna Carta in 1215 would have stayed the same course without Simon’s almost fanatical need to impose the Provisions that he swore an oath to uphold at that solemn ceremony in Oxford in 1258. Just like Henry and Edward.
As Simon de Montfort’s army approached in July 1263, Queen Eleanor (of Provence) had no intention of capitulating like her husband, Henry III. She knew that would spell the end of the good life for her foreign friends and relations, the hated Savoyards. From the Tower she could see that all of London was up in arms against the royal family, not least because the heir to the throne, Edward (I), and his alien mercenaries had robbed them of their deposits at the New Temple. Eleanor decided she preferred her son’s way of doing business to her husband’s and had her barge readied on 13 July so she could join his gang at Windsor. Word of her flight brought throngs to London Bridge, where they shouted “whore” at her and pelted her with all kinds of rubbish. She was forced to turn back, but Henry refused to let her dock at Tower Wharf. Serves her right, he was probably thinking. In the end, the Montfortian mayor brought in an escort and had her safely conducted to St. Paul’s. He was denied the same decency after Evesham, however. Edward invited him to discuss the surrender of London under safe conduct, only to throw him in jail and left him there for three years. Edward’s robbery was forgiven, London was slapped with a £14,000 fine, and Eleanor got half that money, plus custody of the bridge. As might be expected, she used the rents and tolls from the bridge for her personal benefit without providing any upkeep or repairs, hence she could well be the “my fair lady” of the nursery rhyme.
On 28 June 1264 an ordinance was sealed by Parliament following the victory of the Montfortian party at Lewes six weeks earlier. It ordained that the king shall dispose of all the business of the realm, whether dispensing patronage or naming Crown officials, with the advice and consent of a council of nine. These nine would be chosen by three electors confirmed by the king, all elaborated by a system of checks and balances. Officially Henry III gave his “consent, will and precept” to this form of government, which for all intents and purposes changed England into a constitutional monarchy. Read the article here.
June 22 was the date set “at the latest” for the great Parliament of 1264 to meet and discuss a form of peace (forma pacis) for the realm. The summons was part of the appointment of 27 custodians charged with overseeing the election of four “prudent” knights to represent the counties at the assembly. That was the easy part, for the main concern following the victory at Lewes was maintaining any form of peace. The custodians were ordered to arrest anyone involved in plunder, arson, assaults, and other outrages. They were to act faithfully and diligently in this business so that “we shall not be forced by any negligence on your part to deal severely with you and yours. Witness the king at St. Paul’s, London, on 4 June.”
On 14 June 1261 Henry III was at Winchester, the city of his birth, to proclaim that Pope Alexander IV had absolved him and his family of their oaths to preserve and protect the Provisions of Oxford, the reforming legislation meant to put the kingdom on a sounder footing. He had commissioned the painting of a Wheel of Fortune in the Great Hall of Winchester, perhaps in keeping with his firm belief in charity, and doubtless he felt that his fortunes, which had sunk so low when the Provisions were enacted three years earlier, were definitely on the rebound. Indeed, while this bit of royal duplicity reunited the barons in a show of strength that summer, by autumn the king had succeeded in gutting the reform movement. All the magnates had been subdued except one, Simon de Montfort, who left for exile in France. Henry knew Simon was as much a threat abroad as he was at home and was determined to deal with him there, but in two years’ time the wheel had swung around and Montfort was marching on London.
The Song of Lewes is arguably the first great masterpiece of political literature in England and yet its composition in Latin has prevented it from wider renown today. The choice of language reflects the anonymous author’s intention to spread the word about the miraculous victory of Simon de Montfort over the forces of King Henry III and his son the Lord Edward. The friar who composed it wanted all of Europe to rejoice in the victory, and for that he needed the lingua franca at the time. And rejoice he does.
‘The faith and fidelity of Simon alone is become the security of the peace of all England; the rebels he humbles, he raises those lying in despair; the realm he reconciles, repressing the proud; he squeezes out the red juice by fighting, for truth compelled him to fight.’
Thank God, he continues, because what is to become of England when Edward ascends the throne?
‘Treachery or falsehood whereby he is advanced he calls prudence; the way whereby he arrives, crooked though it be, is regarded as straight; wrong gives him pleasure and is called right; whatever he likes he says is lawful, and he thinks that he is above law, as though he were greater than the King.’
On May 2nd in 1264 Henry’s favorite cook named Thomas was killed by an unseen archer while riding out ahead of the royal column. In his fury the king, after taking counsel with his brother Richard, ordered over 300 archers who had already surrendered to be executed by beheading in a village called Flimwell. Beyond the atrocity itself, Henry could have used these men at the upcoming battle of Lewes, where he was reported to have had no archers to stem the Montfortian tide rolling down the hill above the town.
The archers lurking about in the woods during these troubled times inevitably gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood. The famed outlaw would not appear in print for another century, but there is evidence he might have been a common fugitive named Robert Hood who ran afoul of the law before the reform period began. His execution at the hands of the sheriff doubtlessly began to take on a life of its own with every new extortion and injustice meted out by Henry’s oppressive sheriffs.
With UK elections less than two weeks away, it should be noted that on 25 April, in 1263, Simon de Montfort returned from self-imposed exile in France to lead what was in essence England’s first political party. Their makeup was like a blueprint for political parties to this day. A charismatic and determined leader, able lieutenants, spiritual guides, idealists and preachers in the field, even disaffected members of the royal family. The platform of the founding meeting in Oxford was to force Henry III to submit to reform once and for all. Within three months, the king capitulated and the Montfortians marched into London with next to no bloodshed. Of course, every party has its disreputable likes, and here they were the Marcher lords, Edward’s former friends who were mainly out for revenge and personal gain. Their goal was to get rid of all foreigners (namely the queen’s family and Edward’s new friends) and launched a violent campaign against Italian clergy, French merchants and the Jews. Montfort himself was a foreigner, so it was no surprise that, after a chastened Edward agreed to take them back (for a price naturally), the Marchers threw Montfort over and his government, the first one in England led by a premier, collapsed.
With the war being lost after the loss of Northampton, Montfort knew he needed to draw the king’s forces south if he hoped to regain the initiative. Now that Gilbert de Clare was finally on board, he worked out a plan for Clare to strike the royalist stronghold of Rochester from the south while he advanced on it from the west. This way he could also remove the rowdy elements from London that had been close to sacking the city from within. On Good Friday, 18 April 1264, Simon breached the city’s defenses by use of a fireboat alight with pitch, coal and fatty pork, a tactic he may have learned of on the continent. His irregulars swarmed in and took the place apart much the way Henry and Edward’s men were doing in the Midlands at that point. They ransacked the church of St. Andrew, stole its treasure, and stabled their horses inside. The siege of the castle commenced, with a break for Easter Sunday, but the Montfortians were unable to take the great Keep manned by Warenne and Leybourne. By April 26 Simon had to call of the siege when Henry and Edward arrived in the southern theatre to relieve the city. Far from a defeat, Montfort had achieved his objective: he now had Henry where he could strike at him.
The ease with which Northampton fell generated rumors that traitors were at work, and in London, as in any city in any age, the Jews made convenient scapegoats. On the night of 9-10 April, they were savagely set upon by a horde that massacred as many as 500 of their community in the vicinity of Guildhall. The Dunstable annalist claims they were planning to betray the city with keys they had secretly made to the gates, and failing that, set it on fire, and because of that, Simon ordered their destruction. This has led historians like Marc Morris to make the baseless charge that Montfort encouraged his supporters to kill the Jews. Baseless because the monk of Dunstable, writing from afar, had no evidence against the Jews, unlike the treachery of the Christian oligarchs, whereas local chronicler Arnold Fitz-Thedmar, who was generally unfriendly to the Montfortians, says it was Hugh Despenser and Mayor Fitz-Thomas, stalwart allies of Simon, who saved the survivors by giving them shelter in the Tower. While Montfort’s exact whereabouts at this time cannot be determined, it’s ludicrous to think he would have unleashed a fearful massacre within his lone bastion of support at that time, or have risked alienating the bishops with such an atrocity. However much this singular tragedy of the civil war owed to sadistic depravity, robbery or anti-Semitism, Henry’s idiotic taxation of the Jews was one of the causes of the unrest throughout the land, and they, as usual, paid the price.
It couldn’t be put off any longer. On 1 April 1265 Simon and his retinue left Odiham, destination Northampton, meant to be the venue for the tournament canceled in Dunstable in February. The idea was to placate Gilbert de Clare, the earl of Gloucester, but this perennially unhappy young man and partner in government had already retreated to the marches to work out a plan to bring down the man he referred to as the ‘alien’. This called for royalist forces from abroad to land at Pembroke, which Clare was holding, and for his brother Thomas to continue to insinuate his trust and loyalty at court. All this would culminate in the disaster at Evesham four months down the line.
And so on this date 750 years ago, in front of Odiham castle, Simon and Eleanor saw each other for the last time. They couldn’t have known it then, but there’s no reason to suggest they might not have reflected at some point on their lives together up to that point, ever since that January day in 1238 when Henry married them in secret at Westminster. He was 29 then, the promising younger son of a French noble family, probably beardless with a full mane of hair like his father and standing tall in the saddle; she 23, the beautiful widow of William Marshal II, a semi-nun but longing to be a mother. They were two headstrong, high-spirited individuals who were supreme organizers, full of phenomenal energy, and who, importantly, were not afraid to speak their minds or stand up to authority. How could Henry refuse them.