Our stroll takes us to house number 1252 and one of those trials of the century before the term was actually invented. It took place over the course of six weeks in May and June in the refectory of Westminster Abbey. In the dock was Simon de Montfort, who four years before that had been appointed viceroy of Gascony by Henry III. This last continental possession of the Plantagenet dynasty was in danger of being lost if order wasn’t restored there. Simon brought the Gascons to heel, now they were accusing him of being a brute and Henry was inclined to believe them. We have two accounts of his trial before a panel of his peers. One commentator who wasn’t there says Simon responded to a lashing from the king by calling him a liar and threatening his life. Another who was there says Simon just took it stoically. In the end, all the peers were his friends or allies and they refused to convict him. Henry had no choice but to accept their verdict and send Simon back to Gascony, but not before calling him a warmonger and wishing him the reward he deserved. Simon swore he would not return until he had his accusers groveling at the king’s feet. In fact the moment he landed, the Gascons ambushed him and the war was on again. Henry had enough, fired him, and made plans to go there himself to de-Simonize the situation.
Robert Grosseteste was a very exacting Bishop of Lincoln. His monks and nuns never liked his visits because he went to great lengths to ensure they were living the holy life. He went overboard in this banner year, however, when he ordered the nuns to be fondled to see if they were really chaste. It is written he ‘caused their breasts to be squeezed’, so presumably the abbess did the fondling. No one thought to call this #medievaltoo. In December, Henry III took his court to York for the marriage of his 11-year-old daughter Margaret to 10-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland. As expected, there were so many drunken brawls that the actual wedding was performed in secret on the morning after Christmas, when the merrymakers were likely to be asleep or hung over. Any disappointment over missing the ceremony would have been made up for by the feast afterwards. On the menu 170 boar, 1,400 deer, 7,000 chickens and 25,000 gallons of wine. First come, first served.
In March of this year, Henry III and his wife Eleanor of Provence took the cross in an elaborate ceremony in the Great Hall at Westminster. No English king was less suited to wear armour in the searing heat than Henry, but he had a stampede to stop. All of his nobles were anxious to go east and share in the glory of the crusade under the French. They had captured Damietta in Egypt in one day, they would be in Jerusalem in no time. In fact, the army of Louis IX was just then being mauled on the banks of the Nile and would be captured wholesale within a month. One of the nobles who had sworn to go to Egypt was Simon de Montfort, but he still trying to stamp out a guerrilla war in Gascony. He got ruthless and cut the grapevines of the rebels or seized their land. He even seized a whole town and gave it to his barber in return for 2 cheeses and 10 pears. Meanwhile Henry was furious at one of his barons, Walter de Clifford, for making his messenger eat the letter he brought him, including the wax seal. That lunch cost Walter a fine of £665, about half a million in today’s cash.
Another intensive year in the reign of Henry III – and there’s 56 of them! – and the lucky house today gets to recall the year of his famous ‘I’m only one man’ speech. The occasion was all the highway robbery afflicting the land. No one was safe, not even the king’s wine merchants. The malefactors not only stole the royal wine, but laughed and got drunk off of it. ‘Here’s to his majesty!’ Henry went to Winchester, informed the officials there that law and order was something they should take an interest in, and summoned twelve men to start naming names. When they refused, he tossed them in the dungeon and summoned another twelve. They sang like it was a fresh spring morning. The robberies turned out to be part of a racket that went all the way up to the king’s household (hence the wine). One who sang in the hope of not getting hung was Walter Blowberme. He accused ten other people as accomplices, among them Hamo le Stare. Hamo insisted on trial by combat to prove his innocence. He lost to Walter and was hung, as seen in this drawing made by the roll clerk. Walter was allowed to abjure the realm, whereas of the other nine he ratted on, six also sang (turned ‘approver’ in the legalese) and three were outlawed.
The coat of paint needed on this house is indicative of the state of the money supply in England this year. It was decided to mint a new coinage, never popular because you always got back less pennies in the exchange. First, you had to pay the king’s traditional farm (or profit) of 6 pence on the pound, then the average loss sustained by your pennies due to wear and clipping. The assay revealed this loss to be about 10 pence on a pound of silver, a pound being worth about 240 pennies. Vendors therefore lost 16 pence on the pound. The job of minting the new coins was given to Henry III’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, mainly because he had the startup capital to get it going. His contract ran for seven years and his mints (17 in all) were soon stamping a daily output of around 150,000 coins. Another seven-year contract sealed this year named Simon de Montfort the viceroy for Gascony. Henry appointed him to keep him from going on crusade (run by and therefore to the glory of the French) and because he came from that region and so would know best how to stamp out their rebellion. Did he ever. Suffice it to say that whatever profit Henry made from the re-coinage was quickly swallowed up by Simon’s thorough and overzealous approach to handling people who didn’t listen very well.
Another innocuous house number but an otherwise eventful year. The Treaty of Woodstock brought peace to Wales for the next nine years, a long time all things considered. Henry III married two of his Lusignan siblings from France (children of his mother’s second marriage) into the English nobility. His brother William wed the Marshal heiress of Pembroke and his sister Alice the earl of Surrey. This wasn’t blind affection for family, rather Henry’s strategy to bind England’s ancestral, somewhat incestuous clans closer to the crown than to each other. The Montforts were none too happy about William’s marriage. As the wife of the oldest Marshal son, Eleanor de Montfort claimed some of the lands in Pembroke as part of her dower. It was a problem that would haunt them all, but for now Henry showed off William by knighting him as part of an elaborate ceremony to translate a vial of holy blood to Westminster Abbey. People were naturally skeptical how a resurrected Jesus could leave behind any blood. The bishop of Lincoln explained that it was the blood washed away from his wounds after the crucifixion. It was indeed holy blood, just the ‘superfluous’ variety.
Finally a house with a number on the mailbox. This year stands out for being a mostly quiet one at home. The biggest debate was about whether to help fund the pope in his campaign against Emperor Frederick II. The bishops were cowed into submission, which led Henry III to round on them for being a bunch of wimps in pontificals. The royal family attended the dedication of Beaulieu Abbey, founded four decades earlier by Henry’s father King John. When six-year-old Edward became seriously ill, his mother Eleanor of Provence insisted on caring for him within the confines of the abbey. The monks were scandalized to have a woman in their presence for the three weeks it took him to get better and the prior lost his job. The year before Eleanor de Montfort visited Waverley Abbey with her husband Simon and their two oldest boys. She donated a precious cloth for the altar, gave the monks money to buy some adjacent land, and equally important, she did not stay the night.
This year started off with the birth of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence’s second and youngest son Edmund. Endowments for younger sons were always a problem but that would prove an understatement in Edmund’s case. Henry’s campaign in Wales got underway, but supplies and auxiliaries from Ireland were slow coming in. It became a mess like all his campaigns there, so he left for another project he started that year, one more in tune to his abilities, the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey. He also continued rebuilding his relationship to the Montforts by giving them a lucrative wardship and pardoning more debts. But at the end of this year, the last of the Marshal sons died. They were obliged to pay Eleanor de Montfort her dower from her marriage to the oldest son William II. Now that obligation was divided up among the 18 heirs of the Marshal sisters. It would commence a squabble that, in its own way, helped launch the civil war later on.
Moving to the next house over, we find the Simon and Eleanor de Montfort fully restored to royal favour. Henry granted them their long-sought marriage portion (dowry), pardoned nearly £2,000 of their debts and gave them Kenilworth Castle. Henry had been shamed into acting after the Montforts enlisted the support of the queen’s mother, Beatrice of Provence. She was scandalized that Henry would make all kinds of gifts to her, his mother-in-law, but not to his own sister. ‘Now, now, young man, this won’t do at all.’ Henry also needed Simon’s support for some upcoming battles. First there was Scotland and King Alexander II again pressing his claim to the northern counties. Henry gathered up an army, marched to the border, unfurled his brand-new dragon standard, and like that they had a new peace treaty. Wales was also in tumult after Gruffydd ap Llywelyn fell to his death while trying to escape from the Tower of London. Henry couldn’t afford an army there as well, sent a contingent of household knights instead but they were ambushed and annihilated. That meant camping in Wales next year. Finally, he asked Parliament for a tax to offset his enormous debts. Their response was to present him a constitution that would put severe restraints on his authority. He said no way, didn’t get the tax, and that was the last heard of the ‘paper constitution’ as it became known, because it was only paper.
The next house is 1242 but it shows no number to this effect and the front yard looks kind of eerie. It’s just as well, because that year saw Henry III and six earls, including Simon de Montfort, nearly get bagged by the French in the rout of Taillebourg. They would probably prefer we move on to 1243. In this year Henry and his wife Eleanor of Provence returned from Gascony after an absence of 18 months. They had with them a new child, Beatrice, who would get to meet her older siblings Edward (4) and Margaret (3). They were staying at Windsor, where at one point they complained to their minders that the wine was terrible, probably a local iron-flavoured variety. When Henry learned of this, he told the constable to go down to the cellar and fetch them the best. There has been a lot of debate about what children this young were doing drinking wine. Perhaps it was diluted to soft drink form or else given to them for medicinal effects. Simon and Eleanor de Montfort also returned to England with their growing brood, now three boys, and she was pregnant again. It will be remembered how she gave up her vow of celibacy to marry Simon because she desired to be a mother. It will also be remembered how her mother Isabella of Angoulême had 14 children in all.
The next house being 1241, in this year Simon de Montfort went on crusade and took the family with him. He left them in Brindisi, Italy, where the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II lent them a palace (Eleanor de Montfort’s sister Isabella was married to Frederick). There was a truce in the Holy Land, so Simon spent his time there getting mixed up in the local politics. His cousin Philip was the head of one faction and it was through him that a petition was sent to Frederick, who was the nominal overlord for Jerusalem, to make Simon the governor of the place. Meanwhile Simon’s older brother Amaury was ransomed along with the other French knights captured at the battle of Gaza two years earlier. Amaury had had a rough time of it because he wouldn’t name names to the sultan. He was now free but broken, and died on the way home. Simon also left, the petition to Frederick having come to nothing, and found that he had left his wife pregnant before going to Jerusalem. They had a son, their third, and named him Amaury.
Just walking through a nearby neighborhood and saw this house number. So what happened in 1240? Simon de Montfort returned from France in April to raise funds for his projected crusade. He was welcomed by Henry III despite the fact that Henry nearly had him thrown in the Tower eight months earlier after Simon ran up enormous debts and named him, the king, as security for them. He also accused Simon of seducing his sister Eleanor and in this way forced his hand in allowing them to marry. The Montforts figured it was better to leave the country and did so in such haste that they had to leave their newborn son, named after the king, behind with his wet nurse. That was another reason for Simon to make the trip to England, to bring the infant boy to his mother. Queen Eleanor (of Provence) hoped to put that squabble behind them and gave Simon, while he was there, a pot and two cups made of silver, costing £14 for the set, about £10,000 today.
Today 1 October marks the birth of Henry III in 1207. Born in Winchester, he had just turned nine when his father King John died amidst a baronial revolt to put a French king on the throne. He was quickly knighted by the aged William Marshal and crowned in Gloucester. Four years later, after the French had been expelled, he got a proper coronation in London, making him the only English monarch to undergo anointing twice. That might explain his overly pious nature, which made going to mass and feeding the poor daily priorities for him. He loved spectacle and went all out for royal weddings. His achievements include making Magna Carta the bedrock of English law, the rise of parliament, and reconstruction of Westminster Abbey. His attempt to establish a cosmopolitan court and nobility met with fierce resistance, however, culminating in increasing intolerance towards foreigners and eventually in civil war with followers of Simon de Montfort. After their defeat, Henry concentrated on finishing the work at Westminster and sending his sons on crusade. He died in his bed on 16 November 1272 and was interred inside the abbey, undisturbed to this day.
Of the other Plantagenet kings, only his great-grandson Edward III died in his bed, not wracked by disease or an overtly bad conscience. These two ‘thirds’ make an interesting comparison. Both were boy kings, succeeded fathers deemed failures, both had French tiger mothers named Isabella, and each surpassed half a century on the throne. There it mostly ends. Henry was a man of peace, Edward of war. Henry wanted another man of peace, Englishman Edward the Confessor, to be the patron saint of the nation, while Edward III preferred the warlike, and foreign-born, St George for the honour. Henry didn’t shy away from war and showed he was actually good at it when he stormed Northampton in 1264. He lost the Battle of Lewes to de Montfort, but that owed to the impetuosity of his son Edward (I) and cowardice of his brother Richard of Cornwall. Henry himself is described at the front line taking blow after blow.
Edward III won great victories, but the gains were in rapid decline at his death and coastal raids by the French were in full swing. Just a month or so after he died, they captured the Isle of Wight and advanced as far inland as Lewes. By contrast, Henry pursued a foreign policy that has often been derided by historians for its cost and scale of ambition, but excepting Welsh incursions, it kept England safe from invasion for half a century.
The open question following the battle of Evesham was whether Simon de Montfort had been aspiring for the throne, if not for himself then for his son Henry, who was a grandson of King John. In all likelihood not, because there were five royals with a better claim, and that’s nothing to speak of the king himself, Henry III, who was still very much alive, in good health and in command of his faculties. Certainly the Montforts could never enjoy the purple cushions of the big chair while Henry’s heir Edward was still alive. Simon had resisted all pressure to release the young man, knowing he was going to kick some ass the first chance he got, so he organized a phony early release ceremony for him, which is to say Edward was going to have a squad of parole officers dogging his every move. And to make sure he didn’t head for his lands in Cheshire and hook up with his old gang, Simon included a land swap in the ceremony. Edward was to give him Cheshire in return for some property closer to London worth three times less. This act was formalized in the patent rolls on this day of 20 March in 1265, but what’s really interesting is it mentions Simon for the first time as the Steward of England. After nearly a year in power, he was looking for any title to legitimize his rule, which suggests he knew the throne was out of reach, at least for the time being. He had every right to call himself Steward because that hereditary office belonged to the Earls of Leicester. Of course, the traditional function was to hold a water basin for the king at banquets so his grace could dip his greasy fingers in it between courses. The first known time Simon exercised this honour was at Henry’s wedding in 1236. Now nearly three decades later, Simon was licking his own chops over how far he had come, but Edward, now free to mount a horse again, was biding his time.
Celebrating the life of Eleanor of Provence (1223-91) this International Women’s Day, the first woman in post-Conquest England to be named regent. On 3 July 1253, her husband Henry III declared in the patent rolls, “Mandate to all justices, sheriffs, constables and other bailiffs of England, Wales and Ireland to be intendant to Queen Eleanor during the king’s absence in Gascony, and if the lot of humanity befalls the king in Gascony, to deliver the castles, lands and bailiwicks in their keeping to the said queen for her to keep to the use of Edward the king’s son during his minority.” Eleanor was pregnant at the time, gave birth in November, and in January attended parliament as the first woman head of state to do so. Later in spring, she summoned another parliament, this one the first ever where local representatives were elected.