On this day of 7 January in 1238 (780 years ago), one of the first sex scandals in English politics was about to play out. The setting was the end of the Christmas court held at Westminster, where Henry III enjoyed the company of his wife Eleanor of Provence and various female relatives. They included his sisters Joan (Queen of Scotland) and Eleanor (Countess of Pembroke), his niece Helen (Countess of Chester) and his cousin Eleanor of Brittany, the forlorn and confined sister of Arthur. As the court broke up, Henry led Eleanor and his most trusted courtier at that time, Simon de Montfort, into his private chapel. There Walter, the chaplain of nearby St Stephen’s, married the two of them, with the king giving the bride away. Supposedly none of the other ladies of the court had an inkling that it was coming. Had word of it got out beforehand, it would have created a scandal. Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity following the death of her first husband William Marshal II, and Simon was just a courtier, nothing else. He came from France, owed everything to Henry, so marrying a princess like Eleanor to him brought no benefit to the realm. Sure enough, when word of the marriage got out, there was a storm, with Henry and Eleanor’s brother Richard of Cornwall at the centre of it. But it was over in a month, in part due to the unexpected death of Joan. So Simon and Eleanor were comfortably married and their first child wasn’t born until 11 months later, thus muting any suggestion that theirs had been a crossbow wedding. And then like that it exploded. In August 1239 Henry learned that Simon had been naming him as surety for the loans he had borrowed. He went ballistic and accused his friend in front of the court of seducing his sister. He had let them marry only to avoid a scandal, which of course it was now. Humiliated, both Simon and Eleanor left for exile and didn’t return to court for another four years. As for any truth in the charge, it seems that the Montforts (their seals in the images) did have some pangs of conscience and vowed to go on crusade to do something about it. They ended up not going because Henry asked them for a favour instead, and that turned into the next huge disaster in their relationship.
As of 22 November 1263, crimes of all sorts were being committed in England. This was the report of the papal legate appointed by Urban IV to sort out the mess created by ‘the chief disturber of the realm’, Simon de Montfort. The pope had been informed of Montfort’s takeover of Henry III’s government and gave the legate, Guy Foulquois, wide ranging powers to evict him, but Montfort refused to allow him to enter. Guy’s legateship ended when Urban died, but he got a better job as the next pope. Now Clement IV, he appointed another legate to ‘pluck that pestilent man and all his offspring out of England’. One month later, Montfort was chopped up at Evesham. Clement could afford to be forgiving and accepted one of the offspring, third son Amaury, as a papal clerk. In September 1266, at Amaury’s request, Clement lifted the excommunication he pronounced against Simon two years earlier while standing on the shores of the English Channel, frustrated in his attempts to catch a boat over. He never saw England.
In May 1265 Simon de Montfort had been at the head of a parliamentary state for one year, with King Henry III a mere figurehead in it. The escape of Henry’s son Edward at the end of that month led to a royalist resurgence and decisive battle at Evesham on 4 August 1265. Here on Greenhill, north of the town, the sky darkened as Edward’s men unleashed a slaughter that claimed Montfort, most of his knights, and very nearly his own father. The butchery, thunderstorm and pathos of an aged king forced to fight against his will anticipate later Shakespearean tragedy.
Henry of Winchester, in nine years’ time to be the third king to bear the name Henry since the Norman Conquest. This excerpt from my new biography describes what kind of man he was: ‘He was witty, eloquent, and well informed, had a phenomenal memory and mischievous sense of humour, but he could also be temperamental, devious and prone to making hasty judgements. While he had a mystical side that drew him, not surprisingly, to the number three, he wasn’t as superstitious as some supposedly steelier kings. Some of the chances he took appear positively reckless, but also understandable given what he hoped to achieve, and more or less had to in order to revive the Plantagenet dynasty. He took pride in being the first king since the Norman Conquest to be born and raised in England, but he never longed to see more of it, or the rest of Britain and Ireland for that matter, the way he did for France. Although abandoned by his mother and manipulated by the ministers of his minority, piety and charity led him to forgive them and everybody else who betrayed his trust. The insecurity and loneliness of his youth made him needy and emotionally driven, something most men in his position would try to conceal, but not Henry. With him, everything was out there, in his speeches, letters, and documents. It might just as well be, for deep down he knew everything was part of a plan that would turn out well in the end.’
In the aftermath of Simon de Montfort’s victory at Lewes in May 1264, Cardinal Guy Foulquois tried to go to England to take up his office as papal legate. Simon and the coterie of bishops that supported his cause saw only trouble from it and denied him entry. The cardinal gave them a deadline of 1 September to admit him (that’s today) else he’d excommunicate the lot of them. As for that Peace of Canterbury they sent him, the legate had only one question: Were you out of your goddamn minds? They really expected him to approve a parliamentary state that subjected the king to a constitutional monarchy? When Guy informed Louis IX of this first ever form of government in Europe, the king of France was outraged and sneered that he would rather stare at the rumps of oxen in the field than rule like that (‘quod mallet post aratrum glebas frangere, quam huiusmodi principatum habere’). Peace talks dragged on until Guy was summoned back to Rome to elect a pope to succeed the one that had just died. And the winner is… Guy Foulquois. Now Clement IV, he told the new legate not to seek any ‘false peace’ until Montfort and all his progeny were ‘plucked out of the realm of England’. So angry was he with Simon that he told one Spanish prince that he could marry anyone he wanted as long it was no relation of that ‘pestilent man’. Perhaps later hearing what happened to Montfort’s corpse at Evesham softened his fury and a little over a year after the battle he lifted his excommunication of him.
Battles by nature are terrible things and 2,000 men fell that day, but Lewes has a certain mythical quality that makes it stand out. There’s the exchange of letters, Edward’s blunders, Simon’s coach, Richard’s windmill, and of course, the victory of the underdog. And yet Montfort’s position on 15 May 1264 is surprisingly precarious. He has won the battle, but the king’s men still hold the castle. His attempts to take it are thwarted and much of the town burns in the process. He knows he has to coax Henry into surrendering. Without his sanction, he stands no chance of becoming a legitimate ruler. He first tries threats. Come out or I’ll chop Richard’s head off and pitch it up on a lance. That gets nowhere, so he offers a peace treaty, the Mise of Lewes. The king agrees to observe the Provisions of Oxford under a caretaker government, but the Provisions are to go to arbitration after all. Henry has to give up Richard and Edward as hostages for his compliance, but he wins freedom for the captured loyalist barons. Finally, the formal act of surrender is made to the earl of Gloucester and not to Montfort. Henry walks out of the priory, presumably to salutes from Montfort and crew, and is taken to London for the beginning of the captive monarchy, while Richard and Edward are squirreled away in different castles. Not all is hopeless, however. The failure to commence arbitration and the hostility of the released barons, both arising from the terms Henry demanded, undermine Montfort’s rule until it collapses in a year’s time. But that’s another story.
Dawn in Lewes on 14 May 1264 breaks around four o’clock. A group of foragers out and about spots Montfort’s advancing troops and raises the alarm. Henry and Richard array their forces outside the priory and march out to the clearing in front of the city walls with the dragon standard before them. Edward, staying in the castle, is the last to get into formation. Altogether they have about 9,000 men, a quarter of them mounted, stretched out for half a mile. Montfort has a little more than half that amount, but holds back part of his men as a reserve division. It’s on the lowest, flattest part of the terrain that Edward, with the cream of the loyalist knights, starts things off with a charge that completely shatters Montfort’s left wing. All he has to do now is halt, reform his men, and drive headlong into his uncle’s exposed flank. It will soon be over after that.
But these lightly armed rebels scattering before his assault are civilian militia, Londoners, perhaps the same ruffians who abused his mother at London Bridge the year before. He can’t help but indulge in a killing spree, and so completely leaves the battlefield to hunt them down. Meanwhile, Henry and Richard’s divisions are making slow progress because of the steeper elevation and volley of stones pummelling them from slingers. Seeing Edward take off, Montfort orders his centre and right divisions to charge. They barrel into the royalist front lines with full impact. Richard’s men have barely absorbed it when Montfort throws in his reserve division. The royalist centre crumbles, and Richard, in the flight back to town, seeks shelter in a windmill. Montfort now throws everything against Henry’s division. The king takes blow after blow from sword and mace and loses two horses beneath him, but he’s able to fall back to the priory, where his household knights take up defensive positions. The fighting spills into the town. Montfort is preparing an assault on the castle when he’s alerted to a large group of horsemen approaching from the west.
It’s Edward and his knights. At the end of their pursuit of the Londoners, they noticed Montfort’s baggage train and standard at the top of the hill. Driving their horses up the slope, they killed the rearguard and surrounded the special coach Montfort had been using on account of his injured leg. They were hoping he was inside, but found several Londoners instead, supporters of the king deemed too dangerous to leave behind in the city. These loyalists tried to explain all that, but were slaughtered and the coach set alight. Only then did Edward redirect his attention to the battle below and saw what a horrible mistake he had made.
His attempt to rectify it is easily dispersed, but he and his closest comrades manage to fight their way into the priory. In doing so, he blunders for a second time that day. Henry’s trapped, but by no means beaten. He can hold out long enough for his son to regroup with reinforcements from nearby garrisons. Now they’re both stuck, and Richard, flushed out of the windmill, has been made a prisoner. The battle is over, but in order to make his victory at Lewes complete, Montfort needs the king to surrender, but Henry refuses.
The next day, 13 May 1264, Montfort moves his men closer to Lewes, near a bend in the River Ouse before it runs in a southerly direction east of the town. The terrain in front of him is marshy and will work to his advantage if he can provoke Henry into attacking him there. Since to attack the king himself constitutes rebellion and therefore the forfeiture of land and title, Montfort sends a letter to his ‘most excellent lord’, assuring him they are doing all this for his safety. They want to free him from the clutches of the evil advisers around him. Henry is having none of it. He writes back, ‘We do not care for your safety or your affection, but defy you as our enemies’. Richard and Edward are furious at being accused of giving the king false counsel. They send their own letter to Montfort and his cohorts, warning they will do everything in their power to ‘injure your persons and property’. Edward even boasts of ‘hanging or drawing’ the lot of them after it’s over. After receiving these letters, Montfort leads his men through the ritual of withdrawing their homage and fealty to the king. As night falls, they ascend the South Downs where, out of sight of the town, he knights the young nobles and addresses the troops. The men pray, are absolved by the bishops, and paint white crosses on their outer garments. Below in the priory, Henry earmarks money for the aid of the Holy Land, a sign that his unfulfilled crusader’s vow is bothering him. He’s a man with a phenomenal memory and knows that tomorrow is the 45th anniversary of the death of William Marshal, the man who knighted him when, as a fair-haired boy of nine, he was called to throne in the middle of another civil war.
Rising 400 feet west of Lewes is a hilly terrain known as the South Downs. The next day, 12 May 1264, a rebel scouting party appears on the ridge overlooking the town, but is quickly chased off by a royalist troop sent up after them. From that height, they spot Montfort’s army in a grassy plain to the north. No thought is given to an attack because two separate peace missions have arrived at the priory. The first is led by the bishop of Chichester, who offers arbitration on the reforming Provisions of Oxford. He’s followed by the bishops of Worchester and London, who sweeten the offer with £30,000 for damages. Henry is inclined to accept. Apart from staking his reputation on peaceful outcomes, he appreciates better than most what it means to square off against somebody like Simon de Montfort. Legends and superstitions he can handle, but his brother-in-law is a real-life curse that won’t go away, who emerges from every scrape unscathed and stronger than ever. Richard of Cornwall and Edward, however, insist that the king remain firm. The Provisions in any form, says Richard, represent a ‘depression of power’. Henry doesn’t need much persuading. The bishops have been for Montfort all along, just as their predecessors sympathised with Richard Marshal in the last insurgency that rocked the realm thirty years earlier. They are a troublesome breed and would do well to go back and tell their master it’s no deal.
Henry III has encamped his army in and around this town near the Sussex coast. Since going on the offensive five weeks earlier, he has conducted a masterful campaign against Simon de Montfort, literally bottling him up in London. But now Montfort has decided to gamble everything on taking the war to the king. Five days earlier he marched his men out of London in the direction of his manorial village of Fletching, not quite ten miles to the north. Hearing that the rebels were afoot, Henry abandoned his plans to force the surrender of the Cinque ports and instead concentrate his troops at Lewes, where leading loyalist John de Warenne, who earlier prevented Montfort from seizing Rochester, has a well-fortified castle. Warenne and Henry’s son Edward have made their headquarters there, while the king and his brother Richard of Cornwall prefer the convenience of the Cluniac priory (image) just south of the town. They will wait to see what Montfort, who was married to their sister Eleanor, chooses to do next.
Died on this day (before) of 13 April in 1275, Eleanor de Montfort, widow of Simon and sister of Henry III. She was the youngest of King John and Isabella’s children, married at age nine to William Marshal II, who was already in his thirties at the time. His unexpected death in 1231 left her a 16-year-old childless widow. She was entitled to one-third of his estate as her dower, but his brother and heir Richard Marshal made endless troubles for her. Wanting to keep Richard happy, Henry convinced Eleanor to take a settlement based on a much lower evaluation of the estate. It was a disastrous move, because Richard raised rebellion anyway and was killed in the process. To arrange peace between Henry and the Marshals, the archbishop of Canterbury convinced Eleanor to take a vow of chastity. That way, she wouldn’t show up one day with a new husband demanding that Gilbert Marshal, the new earl of Pembroke, pay up. Of course, that’s exactly what happened when the chaste widow suddenly married Simon. Henry arranged their marriage knowing it was going to leave a lot of people feeling peeved and aggrieved, namely Gilbert and the archbishop. What he didn’t count on was all the Marshal sons dying within a decade without male heirs. The whole question of Eleanor’s dower was tossed into his lap. When Henry went to make peace with France in 1259, Simon insinuated it into the negotiations, demanding arrears of nearly £25,000. Needless to say, the next rebellion was led by his brother-in-law. As for that dower, it wasn’t settled until 1286, 11 years after her death and 55 years after it began.
On 28 October 1216, exactly 800 years ago this day, the eldest son of King John and Isabella of Angouleme was crowned Henry III in Gloucester Cathedral. He had just turned nine years old, the country was wracked by civil war, and his throne and very life were at stake. After being knighted by William Marshal, he recited his coronation oath after Jocelin of Wells, the bishop of Bath, and was crowned by his tutor Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester, under the direction of Guala Bicchieri, the papal legate. The only prop available to serve as a crown was a gold chaplet worn by his mother. That out of the way, Marshal and Guala went about winning the war, in part by reissuing Magna Carta, and won the peace, albeit at a stiff price, the following year. Henry enjoyed a second, more lavish coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1220, the only monarch thus crowned two times, but by then Marshal was dead, Guala went back to Italy (to Vercelli, where he founded the Abbey of St. Andrew with a grant from Henry), and the men who replaced them served the young king well during his minority, but themselves better.
Born this day of 1 October in 1207 in Winchester, Henry III, who was nine at the death of his father King John at Newark. He was 175 miles away at Devizes Castle at the time, put there for safety because a group of barons had offered the Plantagenet crown to the Capetian heir of France. Henry was brought to Gloucester by William Marshal, who knighted him before an ad-hoc coronation was performed using a makeshift crown. No king of England ever came to the throne under more desperate circumstances and he went on to rule for 56 years of ups and downs, from rebuilding Westminster Abbey and turning the English monarchy into the theatrical showcase it is today to the civil wars led first by Marshal’s son Richard and later Simon de Montfort. For all the troubles that plagued his later years, he died in his bed at Westminster, not the usual thing for a Plantagenet king.
14 May 1264, the battle of Lewes and Simon de Montfort’s victory over Henry III, leading to conciliar control of the kingdom for the next fifteen months. The main battle raged where the houses stand today, between the ridge where Montfort assembled his forces and the town walls. The outcome was put down to divine intervention but even then everyone knew Edward had cost his father the battle by riding off after it began. Commanding the right wing of the royal army, his initial charge completely scattered Montfort’s left, composed mainly of lightly-armed, poorly-trained Londoners, and he and his knights hunted them down instead of regrouping. It was said that Montfort deliberately baited him, knowing he had it in for the Londoners, who had mistreated his mother, and would become intoxicated with slaughtering them. In all likelihood, Montfort put the Londoners there because it was the lowest part of the field. He wanted to use the high ground as the staging post for his crack troops to steamroll down the hill into Henry’s center. Seeing Edward abandon the battle, he threw in his reserves and that sent the center under Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall reeling and fleeing back into town, where Richard sought safety in a windmill. Henry was the only one of the three royalist commanders to distinguish himself that day. He continued to fight it out as his division was pushed back around the edge of the town into the mudflats, exchanging blows of the mace and losing two horses in close-quartered combat. He and his bodyguard eventually retreated inside Lewes priory, intending to hold out indefinitely. It might have worked. Edward finally returned with his squadron and was in a position to hit the Montfortians in the rear. Somehow or other they got the worst of it. Most of them fled but Edward ended up in captivity, to become a hostage for his father’s good behavior under the new government. When he escaped and raised an army to confront Montfort at Evesham in August 1265, he showed how much he had learned from his blunder and humiliation. He would wait till victory was certain before commencing the slaughter.