The Strand, that major London thoroughfare running parallel to the Thames, got its name from the Old English word for shore. That’s because the river in those days was just a stone’s throw away from it and remained so until the construction of the Victoria Embankment in the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, the area between the Strand and Thames was the site of several stately homes occupied by churchmen and nobles engaged in London on business. That business included the growing emergence of parliament, which was being convened ever more frequently in Westminster.
One such home belonged to the bishop of Durham. He and other high officials needed their residences near Westminster because parliaments under Henry III, whose long reign spanned the years 1216 – 1272, tended to drag on. The king liked to talk, or rather he liked to get his way, and he was loathed to adjourn until that happened. The bishop’s home was on the south side of the Strand and had walled gardens along the river’s edge. In July 1258 the waterfront of this home became the scene of one of those little vignettes of history that tend to get lost in the big picture but which nevertheless provide much of its charm and allure.
At that time Henry had been on the throne for more than forty years and had gotten himself into one jam too many. Desperate for help, he turned to his barons. ‘Finally,’ they must have muttered. They had been asking for a role in his government for at least twenty years and yet he consistently ignored them. He certainly needed some good advice now. His latest piece of lunacy involved buying the throne of Sicily from the pope for his ten-year-old son Edmund. It didn’t matter that a German named Manfred had already staked his claim to the island, or that Henry was broke. A deal was a deal, said the pope, and since the king all but pledged England as security, he had better fork over. At wit’s end, he pleaded with his barons to find him an escape clause.
With that opening, they decided that Henry’s problem was more than just Sicily. His household and court needed a thorough cleaning and so the barons did what they had been wanting to do for a long time. They sent his four obnoxious half-brothers packing back to France. The brothers were the children of Henry’s mother Isabella and her second husband Hugh Lusignan and had made a nuisance of themselves with their violent and lawless ways. Their expulsion was a major blow to Henry, because he valued family above all else. The barons who engineered their removal were obviously jealous of all the land and money he had given them and now they were using his hour of need to get rid of them.
One baron in particular Henry had his eye on. It was that other French fellow, Simon de Montfort, whom Henry had made earl of Leicester years earlier on the basis of a shadowy family claim. In those days Montfort had proved himself useful and so Henry did him the extra favour of marrying him to his widowed sister. That was before he found out this Simon was not only a deadbeat but had had the gall to use him as security for his debts. Well, he gave him a piece of his mind and ran him out of the country. Their relationship had been up and down ever since and now Simon was taking the lead against the Lusignans. That figures. He had recently gotten into a scrape with one of them in parliament and would have chopped his head off had Henry not interfered.
It wasn’t just his barons, either. Nobody despised his brothers more than his wife, the queen. She thought they were a bad influence on their son Edward, which they were, plus they were consuming what little patronage Henry had left. She had a right to be concerned, because all that patronage used to go to her side of the family. From France herself, she had imported a group of uncles and retainers from the province of Savoy, and she always made sure Henry gave these Savoyards first pickings at the royal trough. One uncle with the decidedly un-English name of Boniface she even had him name archbishop of Canterbury.
When Henry later brought his brothers to England, he made one of them, with the decidedly un-English name of Aymer, the bishop of Winchester. Soon Aymer and Boniface got into a turf war and the country was forced to witness the spectacle of these Frenchmen, under the guise of high churchmen, slugging it out for their share of the English spoils. The barons were fed up with all these aliens freeloading at their expense and wanted them out. The Savoyards had happily joined the conspiracy against the Lusignans and were rewarded by being allowed to remain in the country. For now.
With his wife and barons behind the expulsion of his brothers, Henry was feeling rather lonely in July of 1258. He decided to cheer himself up by taking his meal outdoors, on the Thames, where he would find a respite from the heat and all his troubles. And then, wouldn’t you know it, even the weather turned against him. A storm appeared, and that was doubly bad because Henry was afraid of thunder and lightning. It was a strange quality given that he had always fancied himself to be a conquering hero. He didn’t care, he ordered his attendants to put in at the nearest landing and be quick about it.
They came ashore at the gardens belonging to Walter of Kirkham, the bishop of Durham. Walter wasn’t in residence then, which was just as well because he too had turned against the king. Unbeknownst to Henry, however, the bishop had lent his digs to another out-of-towner who was hard at work on all the new reforms that, if all went well, would give England its first constitutional monarchy. It was him again, Simon de Montfort, and when he learned that the king had unexpectedly arrived, he went out to greet him with all due respect.
Although the storm had passed, Henry was still trembling when he left the boat. Simon assured him there was nothing to be afraid of, but Henry recoiled and cried out, ‘The thunder and lightning I fear beyond measure, but by the head of God, I fear thee more than all the thunder and lightning in the world!’ Simon didn’t take it amiss, only reiterated how incredible it was for the king to be afraid of someone who was his friend, who was ever faithful to him and to England. ‘It is your enemies and false flatterers,’ he warned him, ‘that you ought to fear.’
Henry was having none of it. True, the Lusignans and Savoyards flattered him, but at least they never threatened him the way Simon did once. That happened after Henry called him a traitor, always a dangerous thing to do to a warrior of Montfort’s prestige. Also making their relations worse at the time was all the money Henry owed his sister, Simon’s wife. He had squandered it on the alien members of the family and now she was hounding him for it, giving him no peace of mind. Thunder and lightning be damned, it was the Montforts he feared.
Had Henry endured the storm a little longer, he could have made the next landfall, which belonged to the Savoy Palace. As the name suggests, it was owned by a Savoyard. This was Peter, the smoothest and most acquisitive of the queen’s uncles. When Simon came to England, he had a legitimate if tenuous claim to the earldom of Leicester. Peter’s only claim was being an uncle, but somehow he worked magic on the king, who didn’t hesitate to load him down with gifts, money and land. A complete alien who never worked a day in his life, Peter was the lord of his own palace on the Thames, as well as numerous other properties in England thanks to Henry’s generosity. Even though he had conspired against the Lusignans, the king knew it was his wife’s doing and forgave him. In any case, he certainly preferred to have his tea with this smoothie instead of with his fierce, relentless brother-in-law.
The upshot of the story is Simon eventually had Peter and the other Savoyards proscribed as well. They went into exile, where they made common cause with the Lusignans against Montfort’s determination to rid the government of alien control. He and Henry would tussle throughout the early 1260s until Montfort captured the king in battle and turned England into that constitutional monarchy, with Simon, technically an alien himself but fully integrated, as the first prime minister. A little over a year later, Edward rallied the royalists, defeated and killed Montfort in battle, and Peter and Boniface and all the surviving brothers were invited to return and take up where they left off, living off the fat of the king’s bounty.
Today nothing remains of those stately homes and palaces from the 13th century. The most famous of them was Peter’s Savoy, which was of unusual opulence when John of Gaunt lived there in the late 14th century. It was gutted and destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The Savoy Hotel stands on the premises at present.
Durham House Street is the site of the home used by Simon when Henry came a-calling. Like the Savoy, it achieved enough opulence for the ill-starred Lady Jane Grey to get married there. Today the street, wedged between one hulking building along the Strand and another just to the south of it, shows no trace of its glory days. But somewhere between it and Victoria Embankment Gardens is the spot where the king encountered his great adversary in the aftermath of the storm. A simple marker or plaque recalling that event and scores of others like it would do wonders for visitors and tourists trapped between the stone behemoths of London, oblivious to all the history surrounding them, and sadly convinced they must follow the big clock to go in search of it.
J.A. Giles. Matthew Paris’s English History Vol. III, 1854.
J.R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1994.
David Carpenter, The Reign of Henry III. London: The Hambledon Press, 1996.
Margaret Howell, Eleanor of Provence. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2001.
John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of Westminster, 1807.