On this day, the 20th of January 1265, a national assembly convened in Westminster like none other before it. Only thirty years earlier, when the word parliament came into use to describe these great councils of state, Henry III invited the leading barons and clergymen to meet in order to ask them for money. His refusal to give them anything in return led to reform, war, and the transformation of Parliament into an institution of government beyond his control. The king unintentionally contributed to this process in 1254 when he first invited the knights of the shires, his way, so he thought, of getting around the obstinate magnates. The knights were there again for this occasion, and joining them for the first time were the burgesses, the representatives of the towns. These two classes, together with the clergy, wholly outnumbered the barons, maybe by as many as ten to one, and it was to these middling clerics, lords and merchants that Simon de Montfort, the de facto prime minister, addressed the agenda. But the nobility was far from finished, and their intrigues, and a new understanding with the perennially insecure and dissatisfied earl of Gloucester, would make this groundbreaking assembly the last of its kind for some time to come.
On 7 January 1238 Henry III gave his youngest sister Eleanor in marriage to Simon de Montfort. Rarely has a royal wedding created a firestorm as this one did, and rightly so. The twenty-three-year old Eleanor had taken a vow of celibacy after her first husband William Marshal II died nearly seven years earlier. If she was going to break that vow to marry anyone, it should be to create a useful foreign alliance, as what happened to her two older sisters (both of whom died early, lonely deaths). Instead Henry gives her to a thirty-year-old foreign upstart at court, a man who had already been rebuffed by two other highly-stationed if much older widows. Simon was clearly looking to marry well, while Eleanor, it was reported, desired to be a mother. Henry would later accuse Montfort of seducing his sister and so had forced his hand. Indeed, the ceremony was performed in secret, in the king’s private chapel, because he knew he would catch hell once the match became known, and that’s exactly what he got. It was seen as the most blatant example yet of the king squandering the wealth of the realm on aliens. A lot of money was needed to smooth things over, but the fury never really went away and nothing is more telling of Henry’s nature than his holding a grudge against people who cause him problems.
The year, not the website, for things really start to heat up in 1265 as Simon tries to consolidate his position, culminating in his downfall by the end of summer. It will be an eventful year, with my biography of Simon set for release in February. For now, leaving you here with the warmest of wishes for the New Year and this picturesque view of Kenilworth in wintertime.
‘Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine. Since after the grave occurrences of disturbance which have long prevailed in our kingdom, our dearest firstborn son Edward has been given as a hostage for securing and confirming peace in our realm…’ So begins the writ summoning Parliament to meet the following month to treat, inter alia, on the matter of releasing Edward. ‘In this, as you love us and our honour, and your own and the common tranquility of the kingdom, in nowise omit. Witness the king, at Worcester, the 14th of December.’ The summons went out to 120 churchmen, 18 barons, and 5 earls. In addition, the sheriffs were commanded to have two knights from each shire in attendance at the assembly in London. Finally, in the act that was to seal Montfort’s fame in the centuries to come, the cities of York and Lincoln, as well as other towns of England, were invited to send ‘two of the discrete, loyal, and honest citizens and burgesses’ of their communities. This inclusion of the burgesses, men without spiritual or knightly rank, has been traditionally viewed as the inception of the modern parliamentary state in England. The occasion would not be marked by any groundbreaking ceremony, however. The country was still reeling in the aftermath of the civil war and projected invasion and the dwindling representation among the barons suggests most of them remained hostile or aloof. Indeed, the writ was issued from Worcester, where the court had gone to deal with the Marchers again. How much of this innovation can be seen as inspired or imposed in light of the circumstances is a matter of conjecture, but it was a monumental step forward in the history of western democracy and it occurred on this day 750 years ago.
Nestled in the lore attached to Edward between Lewes and his escape from captivity one year later is a rescue attempt launched by his mother the queen from her base in France. In November 1264 she had somehow convinced a group of his household knights, holed up in Bristol, to ride out to Wallingford 80 miles away and free him and Henry of Almain from their castle arrest. These knights managed to carry their assault into the inner court before the wardens warned them to desist, else they would deliver Edward, using a mangonel, by airmail. He was even produced on the ramparts to inform them that his captors meant business. The attack was broken off and it would be another six months before Edward got his chance to ride off into legend.
To get an idea what the Middle English of that period looked like, here is an excerpt from Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle that describes this event.
Ilithered with a mangenel, hom with hom to lede,
Sir Edward vpe wal withinne com al so & sede,
& bed hom wende home aze, other he was ded iwis,
This other wende thus hom, tho hii hurde this.
Tho Sir Simon de Mountfort hurde of this dede,
He let the king of Alemaine & Sir Edward lede,
The proposal the bishops brought back with them to England called for yet more talks and for each side to offer surety in case no agreement was reached. The Montfortians were asked to hand over Dover castle and Edward in return for Edmund and a castle on the continent, as poorly a conceived trade as could be imagined. The bishops were nevertheless ordered to publish letters of interdict and excommunication if he was again snubbed. The garrison at Dover took care of that problem when they searched the bishops and found the letters. It’s not known what kind of gesture they used to rip them up and toss them into the sea, but the response received by the legate and royalists was singularly dismissive. On 11 October 1264 a lone English knight rowed up to the shoreline and dropped a chest into the water containing a formal rejection and the new constitution embodied in the Peace of Canterbury. England had a new government and that was all there was to it. However much the legate now shook with fury, the death of Pope Urban IV in early October left him without a job anyway. He would return to Rome to become the new pope, Clement IV, and in that capacity make sure all the world knew that he considered Montfort and his family to be pestilence.
Further peace initiatives came and went until finally, on 24 September 1264, an envoy of Montfortians left for Boulogne to face the legate in person. Their party included three bishops, and Archbishop Guido wanted to hear it directly from them whether they supported this radical attempt to impose conciliar rule on the king. Even standing in front of the corpulent form of their superior did not sway them from this matter of principle, although the bishop of Winchester, the newest of the three to the cause, broke down sometime during the course of negotiations. This probably accounts for why only he was allowed to go back to England to consult on the concessions made to the legate during their talks. He was naturally equipped with letters of interdict if the Montfortians rejected his latest proposals. They got around this by sending yet another party, this one led by Henry of Almain, now released from custody after the bishops put up a bond to secure his return, with several amendments. For unknown reasons, they were attacked by a mob after arriving in Boulogne, leaving nine of their number dead and Almain losing all his documents. What he was able to report from memory apparently didn’t satisfy the legate, who took the other two bishops back to the conference table for one last attempt at peace.
Nobody was more anxious for the invasion force to disperse than Henry. In his letters to Louis, he indicated he was as much a hostage as Edward to the good faith of the peace process. Were foreign troops to land on English soil, the whole realm would suspect he was in on it, doubly so since Louis was using the money he owed Henry to subsidize the force gathering in Flanders under Queen Eleanor’s direction. After an interview with Henry’s emissary, Louis agreed to host a peace conference in Boulogne on 8 August. The situation in the marches and the roguish earl of Derby kept the Montfortians from arriving, but whether these events were known across the Channel, the papal legate had enough. He firmly demanded they either welcome him by 1 September or face excommunication. And just to clarify where he stood on the issue of kingship, they were also to forswear the Provisions and subsequent enactments that were causing all the trouble. The legate added for good measure that the Mise of Lewes was a dead letter as far as the French were concerned. This cursory attitude was probably behind the drafting on 15 August 1264 of the ‘Peace of Canterbury’, where the court had gathered. The Peace was an affirmation of the Ordinance, which itself affirmed the Provisions, only it included the caveat that the reform government might well outlast Henry’s reign. This suggestion that even future monarchs would be subject to restraints against absolutism was too much for Louis. His famously arrogant response to these democratic rumblings was to prefer the harness of a plough rather than that of his subjects.
The Ordinance was barely a week old when the feudal host was called out to repel an invasion force being put together by Queen Eleanor and her ever faithful uncle Peter of Savoy in Flanders. ‘Let no one plead that the harvest is at hand,’ the summons rang out, for otherwise all would be lost to the ‘impious hands of men thirsting for your blood.’ It was perhaps no coincidence that the freed Marchers began an uprising in the west at the same time, doubtless hoping to keep the Montfortians occupied on two fronts. With the aid of Clare and the Welsh, Montfort was able to force the Marchers to terms and deal with yet a third threat, the papal legate. Appointed back in November, the future Clement IV finally saw his chance to get involved, but his attempt to enter England was thwarted on the grounds that he had no invitation from the king or community. When Simon suggested he put his skills to better use by preventing the invasion force from assembling, the legate wrote him a furious reply on 26 July 1264. He insisted he had tried to promote peace, but in any case ‘the heavens are stupefied’ by the ingratitude of the English. It was a papal legate, after all, who had saved England from an invasion almost half a century earlier and now they were treating him with less diplomatic finesse than what Tartars and pagans might normally expect. He didn’t add what everyone already knew, that the previous invasion had been by Louis’ father and the king he was trying to depose was Henry himself.
June 28 is remembered today as the centennial of Gavrilo Princip leaving a sandwich bar in Sarajevo and putting a bullet into the heir to the conjoined Austro-Hungarian Empire, thus triggering a war unsurpassed in carnage and grimness, even by European standards. What has gone practically unnoticed is that this day also marks a more glorious occasion, when 750 years ago the English parliament ratified what was to all effects a constitutional monarchy. An ordinance devolving power from the king to conciliar control was approved by the assembly and Henry III, no doubt under the threat of deposition, affixed his seal to it on this date. Simon de Montfort was clearly ready to take initiatives further when he summoned representatives from boroughs at the next parliament, but the events of 1265 cut the experiment short. While Edward revived the Montfortian precedents to some degree, it was mostly downhill after that, culminating in the murderous tyranny of the Tudors who, oddly enough, seem more popular than ever today in England.
The hostilities may have ceased after the victory at Lewes, but confusion and disarray were everywhere, much of it the result of marauding royalist troops. Montfort’s decree forbidding armed movement made little headway, not with so many scores to settle and opportunities abounding, so on 4 June 1264 he appointed keepers of the peace in the counties to reiterate the official proclamation of peace. Their job was to restore order while the sheriffs went about putting the counties on a normal footing again, including collecting the king’s revenue, which was not even a tenth of what it had been only two years previously. These new keepers were also charged with overseeing elections for parliament to be held before the end of the month. The urgency of the summons to this famous assembly suggests Montfort was eager to sort out the business of government before Louis acted, if at all, on the Mise of Lewes. Turning the Provisions of Oxford into a constitution was the best safeguard against the king of France committing a blunder as grievous as the one he had made at Amiens. How well these keepers succeeded in their task can be judged either by the success of that parliament or the subsequent accusation that some of them were involved in racketeering and the sheriffs were forced to move against them. In any case, their appointment was yet another of the precedents Edward would adopt when he became king.
Unlike many battles, which by their nature are terrible and destructive events, Lewes stands out for certain features that give it an almost mythical quality worth remembering on today’s 750th anniversary of the battle. The divided families, the exchange of letters, Edward’s vengeful blunder, the coach at the top of the hill, the windmill. They have been deservedly recounted in plenty of books and articles (and here), but for a change it might be worth noting what England was like three-quarters of a millennium before 1264. At that time the land was under constant pressure as Saxons from the continent continued to encroach on the native population. The first king named among the Anglo-Saxons was Ælle, who conquered what became Sussex after landing with three sons and three ships on the south coast. His men drove the Britons back into the wood later known as the Weald, where incidentally Simon and his men were encamped before Lewes. The information about Ælle is scanty, but 12th century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon put his death in 514. Since Lewes is almost smack in the middle of southern Sussex, Ælle could have drawn his last breath there 750 years before that fateful battle, but that’s like speculating whether the leader of the Britons he chased off was a king named Arthur.
On 6 May 1264 Montfort marched his army out of London to seek out the king. The move may have been as desperate as it was bold, but it completely changed the tide of the war. Henry had been planning to follow up his string of successes lately by securing the submission of the Cinque Ports and using their fleets against London. Word that his brother-in-law had seized the initiative and was coming after him put him on the defensive instead. Now, in addition to wearing his armour full-time, he mustered his troops in and around Lewes, where his other brother-in-law John de Warenne owned the castle and nearly everything around it. Simon owned a manor in Fletching, about ten miles from Lewes, and halted his men there to make one last attempt at negotiation. The signs that Henry was already a beaten man can be seen in his willingness to consider the proposals despite his numerical superiority. Richard and Edward, however, were in a fighting mood and scoffed at the offers of the Montfortian bishops of money and compromises over power-sharing. Perhaps against his better judgement, Henry sent word back that he officially defied the Montfortians, who responded by withdrawing their oath of fealty to him. Throughout all the armed conflict in 1263 and 1264, there had yet to be a single pitched battle between the opposing camps. Lewes would be the first such engagement for both sides.
Henry lost at Lewes and was on the losing side at Evesham, but he did have one victory when, on April 5-6, 1264, his forces stormed Northampton and captured the entire garrison, including eighty knights and barons. Even though he had a lot of help from a treacherous prior on the inside, his triumph put him in excellent position to make short work of the Montfortians. Instead he lingered in the north, exacting payments where he could and letting his men have their way in this technically hostile territory. So quick did Northampton fall that Simon had got only as far as St. Albans with a relief force when word of it reached him. He took it in stride, telling his men that it was the nature of warfare for the advantage to go sometimes to these, sometime to those. ‘Let them rejoice,’ he told Hugh Despenser. ‘Before the month of May is out they will be consumed by fear and confusion.’
Taking a detour from the 750th anniversary of Lewes and Montfort’s parliament, 14 March 1939 marks the 75th anniversary of a little-known firefight that occurred near the River Ostravice separating Silesia and Moravia. A troop of Wehrmacht soldiers crossed the bridge into Moravia with the intent of seizing the army base in Mistek, as was agreed by the capitulation of rump Czechoslovakia, recently abandoned by the West and Soviet Union, as part of Hitler’s demands for total occupation. The Czech soldiers were not aware that these plans were supposed to take place the next day and opened fire, killing as many as twenty of the invading force before word arrived from Prague that surrender was in order. Prague itself would not match this first act of resistance to Nazi aggression throughout Europe until 3 days before the war’s end.