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.
Marking this International Women’s Day with a salute to Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III who may rightly be credited with establishing the rise of queenship in post-conquest England. Sure, we know all about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but she never achieved a consistent role in her husband’s affairs the way this Eleanor did. Her influence has been falsely attributed to the presence of her relatives at court, an almost perverse need to want to see her as a pawn and Henry as weak, hardly a power couple in the fashion of Henry II and that other Eleanor. But a formidable team they were, and when matched against that other formidable team, Simon and Eleanor de Montfort, the result was a revolution that at one point had the London mob pelting her from the bridge. During her Montfortian exile, Queen Eleanor was just a wave of the hand away from being the first woman to launch an invasion of England.
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.