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’.