The house of houses

It’s the 14th of February, the year 1265, and something big is about to go down in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. Parliament has already been in session for more than three weeks, long for parliaments of that era, and the agenda is dominated by one issue: what to do with the lord Edward, heir to the throne. It will be remembered how a disaffected group of barons and clergy under Simon de Montfort defeated forces loyal to King Henry III in the spring of 1264. They established a constitutional monarchy, with Edward and other male members of the royal family held hostage for the king’s good behavior. A complicated scheme of government has now been worked out for Edward’s release, and Montfort decides to have it proclaimed in the chapter house. This will be a bitter pill for Henry to swallow. It’s not just that he has to accept their plan or risk the imprisonment or banishment of Edward and his other son Edmund (father of the House of Lancaster), but the chapter house was his pet project, envisaged as the home for future parliaments, where the business of the realm would be discussed under his beneficent lordship. Such was its beauty that he inscribed it with the motto, ‘As the rose is the flower of flowers, so is this building the house of houses’. Now, that house belonged to Simon de Montfort and his party.

A saint otherwise

On this day of 12 February in 1266, Walter de Cantilupe, the bishop of Worchester, died a broken man. He had been a mentor to Simon de Montfort and headed the coterie of bishops that legitimized his regime. There was nothing in Cantilupe’s background to suggest he would one day be the spiritual guide to opposition to Henry III. Born around 1200, Walter came from a family steeped in royal service. His father and brother, both former stewards in the king’s household, were among the “evil councillors” cited for their loyalty to King John. Walter benefited from the connection and held thirteen benefices when he was elected bishop in 1236. His faith was strong – he owned a hair shirt – but he remained a passionate defender of pluralism and was a politician at heart. It was at this time that he and other clerics turned to Magna Carta for protection against the king. Since Henry wasn’t about to give them more privileges than they already had, they looked to Simon de Montfort and supported his victory over Henry at the battle of Lewes. Cantilupe and eight other bishops gave sanction to the new Montfortian constitution proclaimed in Westminster Hall on 11 March 1265. The king was forced to give his consent, but took names during the ceremony. After Montfort’s defeat and death at Evesham in August of that year, Henry sued to have the bishops suspended from office, but Cantilupe died before his turn came. His nephew Thomas de Cantilupe was another prominent Montfortian, but was rehabilitated, became the bishop of Hereford and was canonized after his death in 1282. This effigy found during reconstruction of Worcester Cathedral in the 19th century is said to belong to Walter.

The Wheel of Fortune

On this date of 02 February in 1239, Henry III invested Simon de Montfort with the title of Earl of Leicester at a ceremony in the Great Hall of Winchester. This was nine years after Simon stepped ashore in England for the first time. He had come in 1230 specifically to ask for the earldom, which had been inherited by his English grandmother Amicia, the widow of French noble Simon de Montfort (II). Their son was another Simon de Montfort (III), who directed the Albigensian Crusade until his death in 1218. (No, he did not give the infamous order “Kill them all, God will know his own.” Likely nobody did.). By then the earldom was in the custody of this Simon’s cousin, Ranulf, the earl of Chester. The oldest son of Simon III was Amaury. He had no chance to claim the earldom of Leicester because he was a leading noble of France. But his younger brother Simon (IV) thought he might give it a go. He got Ranulf to relinquish custody (for £200), Amaury to relinquish his claim (for £500), and he impressed Henry as man who could get things done. Simon was allowed to take possession of Leicester, but Henry was very particular about his earls and would sometimes make rightful claimants wait years before belting them. Simon’s claim was tenuous at best and there were lots of grumblings at court about “damn foreigners”. Everything changed when Henry’s widowed sister Eleanor and Simon got married in 1238. Henry recognized that Montfort needed a title more befitting the husband of a princess, and so made him the Earl of Leicester at last. But there was still all that money Simon owed to acquire the earldom, with interest on it accumulating every day. In secret, he named the king, now his brother-in-law, as security for it. In August 1239, just six months after the investiture, Henry found out about it, flew into a rage, and ordered Simon to take his sorry ass back to France. Thus ends part one of their story.

The Round Table at Winchester, perhaps patterned on Henry’s Wheel of Fortune

Merton and the unicorn

In 1258 Henry III and his barons set out to reform the realm under a constitution known as the Provisions of Oxford. Five years later their partnership was in ruins and each side turned to King Louis IX of France to settle the issue of these Provisions once and for all. Making the case for Henry was his chancellor Walter Merton. The barons, he declared, had usurped the king’s authority and wreaked havoc throughout the land. Merton had been brief and to the point, and for his efforts was granted the privilege of taking ‘one or two deer’ from any forest in England for the rest of his life. Speaking for the barons was Thomas Cantilupe, future saint and bishop of Hereford. His argument was six times longer and read like an indictment of the king. He did this, this and this, all in violation of Magna Carta. On this day of 23 January in 1264, Louis delivered his ruling. Without saying why, he quashed the Provisions of Oxford. Null, void and no law. Simon de Montfort and his followers had sworn to abide by his award, now they set out to settle the issue by war and defeated the royalists at the battle of Lewes. The Provisions again became the law of the land, Henry was a captive of his own government and Merton was out of a job. He took the time off to found a college in Oxford, reputedly the oldest one there and the one that bears his name today. Since he later became the bishop of Rochester, this relief above the gatehouse entrance of the college shows him dressed as one, although what John the Baptist and the unicorn are doing there is anyone’s guess.

Clerical War, not Barons’ War

More evidence that the ‘Second Barons’ War’ was in fact a ‘Clerical War’ comes in the writs for parliament to meet on this day of 20 January in 1265. Only 23 barons were summoned, practically all of them Montfortians, but the clergy had five times more representation, 120 ecclesiastics, 12 of them bishops. History tends to remember this parliament because it was the first time on record that the towns were also invited to attend, conferring credit on Simon de Montfort, then the de facto ruler, for being the founder of the House of Commons. But the clergy was still the dominant voice, because they saw in Montfort their dream of an English state where the Church was truly free of interfering monarchs like Henry III. Montfort needed their support, much as he now needed the towns and counties, to break the baronial opposition determined to bring him down. For more about how Simon de Montfort himself saw parliament as the future of national government, see this article I wrote for the History Vault.

Simon de Montfort and all this Parliament business

Sex and money

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.

From irate legate to forgiving pope

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.

Clement IV with little indication of his nickname ‘the fat’

Before there was King Lear

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.


Born on this day in 1207

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.’

Miracle of Battlewell

The miracles of Simon de Montfort, as recorded in the chronicle of William Rishanger, has this interesting entry:
‘The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses.’
This is about Maud de Lacy (rather her horse), who was the dowager countess of Gloucester. She was Gilbert de Clare’s mother, he who had betrayed Simon de Montfort. Maud was the daughter of John de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, one of Simon’s closest collaborators on the council before his death in 1240. Maud had been married to Richard de Clare in 1238, around the time Simon married Henry III’s sister Eleanor, widow of William Marshal II, much to the indignation of the clergy and baronage (Eleanor had taken a vow of perpetual widowhood). Eleanor’s other brother Richard of Cornwall was the most indignant because Richard de Clare was his stepson and he had not been consulted on either marriage. At the death of Richard de Clare in 1262, Gilbert tried to rush through his belting as the new Earl of Gloucester by going to France where Henry was just then in a legal suit against Simon de Montfort. The king told him to get lost, because he rightly suspected that Richard de Clare had used the recent reforms to usurp royal rights and he wanted them back. This pissed off ginger-hair Gilbert because he knew he was in for a fight with his mother about her one-third share of Gloucester coming to her as her dower. Ironically, it wasn’t until Montfort came to power in 1263 that Gilbert actually got his earldom.
But back to Maud: she seems to have been quite a character. When Henry asked Queen Margaret of France to speed her sister Eleanor of Provence (Henry’s queen) homeward after Evesham, Margaret said she would do so because she was worried that Henry, in his loneliness, might get it into his head to marry Maud. Now that would’ve really pissed off Gilbert.

When the legate becomes the pope

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.

Clement IV with little indication of his nickname ‘the fat’

Lewes, 15 May 1264

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.

                                                                                 Ruins of Lewes Priory

Lewes, 14 May 1264

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.

Lewes, 13 May 1264

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.

                            The South Downs, where Montfort’s troops appeared on the slope

Lewes, 12 May 1264

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.