TheSong of Lewes is arguably the first great masterpiece of political literature in England and yet its composition in Latin has prevented it from wider renown today. The choice of language reflects the anonymous author’s intention to spread the word about the miraculous victory of Simon de Montfort over the forces of King Henry III and his son the Lord Edward. The friar who composed it wanted all of Europe to rejoice in the victory, and for that he needed the lingua franca at the time. And rejoice he does.
‘The faith and fidelity of Simon alone is become the security of the peace of all England; the rebels he humbles, he raises those lying in despair; the realm he reconciles, repressing the proud; he squeezes out the red juice by fighting, for truth compelled him to fight.’
Thank God, he continues, because what is to become of England when Edward ascends the throne?
‘Treachery or falsehood whereby he is advanced he calls prudence; the way whereby he arrives, crooked though it be, is regarded as straight; wrong gives him pleasure and is called right; whatever he likes he says is lawful, and he thinks that he is above law, as though he were greater than the King.’
On May 2nd in 1264 Henry’s favorite cook named Thomas was killed by an unseen archer while riding out ahead of the royal column. In his fury the king, after taking counsel with his brother Richard, ordered over 300 archers who had already surrendered to be executed by beheading in a village called Flimwell. Beyond the atrocity itself, Henry could have used these men at the upcoming battle of Lewes, where he was reported to have had no archers to stem the Montfortian tide rolling down the hill above the town.
The archers lurking about in the woods during these troubled times inevitably gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood. The famed outlaw would not appear in print for another century, but there is evidence he might have been a common fugitive named Robert Hood who ran afoul of the law before the reform period began. His execution at the hands of the sheriff doubtlessly began to take on a life of its own with every new extortion and injustice meted out by Henry’s oppressive sheriffs.
With UK elections less than two weeks away, it should be noted that on 25 April, in 1263, Simon de Montfort returned from self-imposed exile in France to lead what was in essence England’s first political party. Their makeup was like a blueprint for political parties to this day. A charismatic and determined leader, able lieutenants, spiritual guides, idealists and preachers in the field, even disaffected members of the royal family. The platform of the founding meeting in Oxford was to force Henry III to submit to reform once and for all. Within three months, the king capitulated and the Montfortians marched into London with next to no bloodshed. Of course, every party has its disreputable likes, and here they were the Marcher lords, Edward’s former friends who were mainly out for revenge and personal gain. Their goal was to get rid of all foreigners (namely the queen’s family and Edward’s new friends) and launched a violent campaign against Italian clergy, French merchants and the Jews. Montfort himself was a foreigner, so it was no surprise that, after a chastened Edward agreed to take them back (for a price naturally), the Marchers threw Montfort over and his government, the first one in England led by a premier, collapsed.
With the war being lost after the loss of Northampton, Montfort knew he needed to draw the king’s forces south if he hoped to regain the initiative. Now that Gilbert de Clare was finally on board, he worked out a plan for Clare to strike the royalist stronghold of Rochester from the south while he advanced on it from the west. This way he could also remove the rowdy elements from London that had been close to sacking the city from within. On Good Friday, 18 April 1264, Simon breached the city’s defenses by use of a fireboat alight with pitch, coal and fatty pork, a tactic he may have learned of on the continent. His irregulars swarmed in and took the place apart much the way Henry and Edward’s men were doing in the Midlands at that point. They ransacked the church of St. Andrew, stole its treasure, and stabled their horses inside. The siege of the castle commenced, with a break for Easter Sunday, but the Montfortians were unable to take the great Keep manned by Warenne and Leybourne. By April 26 Simon had to call of the siege when Henry and Edward arrived in the southern theatre to relieve the city. Far from a defeat, Montfort had achieved his objective: he now had Henry where he could strike at him.
The ease with which Northampton fell generated rumors that traitors were at work, and in London, as in any city in any age, the Jews made convenient scapegoats. On the night of 9-10 April, they were savagely set upon by a horde that massacred as many as 500 of their community in the vicinity of Guildhall. The Dunstable annalist claims they were planning to betray the city with keys they had secretly made to the gates, and failing that, set it on fire, and because of that, Simon ordered their destruction. This has led historians like Marc Morris to make the baseless charge that Montfort encouraged his supporters to kill the Jews. Baseless because the monk of Dunstable, writing from afar, had no evidence against the Jews, unlike the treachery of the Christian oligarchs, whereas local chronicler Arnold Fitz-Thedmar, who was generally unfriendly to the Montfortians, says it was Hugh Despenser and Mayor Fitz-Thomas, stalwart allies of Simon, who saved the survivors by giving them shelter in the Tower. While Montfort’s exact whereabouts at this time cannot be determined, it’s ludicrous to think he would have unleashed a fearful massacre within his lone bastion of support at that time, or have risked alienating the bishops with such an atrocity. However much this singular tragedy of the civil war owed to sadistic depravity, robbery or anti-Semitism, Henry’s idiotic taxation of the Jews was one of the causes of the unrest throughout the land, and they, as usual, paid the price.
It couldn’t be put off any longer. On 1 April 1265 Simon and his retinue left Odiham, destination Northampton, meant to be the venue for the tournament canceled in Dunstable in February. The idea was to placate Gilbert de Clare, the earl of Gloucester, but this perennially unhappy young man and partner in government had already retreated to the marches to work out a plan to bring down the man he referred to as the ‘alien’. This called for royalist forces from abroad to land at Pembroke, which Clare was holding, and for his brother Thomas to continue to insinuate his trust and loyalty at court. All this would culminate in the disaster at Evesham four months down the line.
And so on this date 750 years ago, in front of Odiham castle, Simon and Eleanor saw each other for the last time. They couldn’t have known it then, but there’s no reason to suggest they might not have reflected at some point on their lives together up to that point, ever since that January day in 1238 when Henry married them in secret at Westminster. He was 29 then, the promising younger son of a French noble family, probably beardless with a full mane of hair like his father and standing tall in the saddle; she 23, the beautiful widow of William Marshal II, a semi-nun but longing to be a mother. They were two headstrong, high-spirited individuals who were supreme organizers, full of phenomenal energy, and who, importantly, were not afraid to speak their minds or stand up to authority. How could Henry refuse them.
It was on 19 March 1265 that Simon arrived at Odiham for what would be the last time the Montfort family was all together. Also visiting were his nephews Edward and Henry of Almain, having arrived two days earlier under an armed escort led by Henry de Montfort. Their aunt and hostess Eleanor de Montfort sought to ease tensions by serving up plenty of food, including pike, the most expensive of the freshwater fish. Her daily household expenses increased more than five times to keep the entourage of several hundred people fed, to just over £5, impressive indeed, but still less than the £8 for the royal household. Here’s what that money bought: Nearly 1,000 loaves of bread, 74 gallons of wine, 240 gallons of beer, a variety of fish, including 1,700 herrings, 36 pounds of almonds, and hay for 334 horses.
On this day 750 years ago the mayor of London, Thomas Fitz-Thomas, led the aldermen of that city to St. Paul’s to renew fealty to the king. Nothing untoward there, for a new political era had dawned, but then Fitz-Thomas did something that, in the words of the chronicler, was “wondrous and unheard of in that age”: he qualified his oath to Henry. “My lord, so long as unto us you will be a good lord and King, we will be faithful and duteous unto you.” Be a good king and you shall be king. Otherwise… Fitz-Thomas paid dearly after Evesham for his choice words. Despite giving him a safe conduct to parley the surrender of London, Edward had him imprisoned for the next three years.
On this day 750 years ago, Parliament concluded in Westminster Hall with a ceremony handing the Lord Edward over to his father’s household. This involved reading the declarations of king and heir to abide by the constitutional framework in place, with nine bishops on hand to excommunicate anybody who acted otherwise. As one historian wrote, Simon de Montfort “must have seemed irresistible on that great day.” Of course, it also marked the apex of his career, as the two principals had been coerced into the arrangement and oaths meant nothing to them in any case.
Marking this International Women’s Day with a salute to Eleanor de Montfort, whose vital role in her husband’s government can be seen in her political networking. On 8 March 1265 she was at Odiham and welcoming Robert de Brus as a guest very much against his will. He had been captured at Lewes and was waiting for his son, the father of Edward’s future nemesis Robert the Bruce, to ransom him. He was accompanied to Odiham by Thomas of Astley, who later fell at Evesham.
Today the virtual book tour comes to the blogspot of John Paul Davis, the author of The Gothic King (Henry III) whose other works include Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar. In keeping with the Templar theme, the guest article looks at the chronicle “The Templar of Tyre” and how the events in England in the 1260s were viewed from afar.
The virtual tour for With All For All kicks off today at Medievalists.net with me explaining why a book on Simon de Montfort, how it was a written, and what background more or less qualifies me to undertake this project.
On this date, 16 February 1265, Simon had to move to avert a crisis over a tournament proposed between his sons Henry, Simon and Guy and the Clare brothers, Gilbert and Thomas, to be held at Dunstable on the grounds seen below as they look today. Parliament was in session at the time, and such a mock battle between these rival groups could easily spill over into nearby London. So furious was Simon with his sons that he warned them he would lock them away in a place where they would have the benefit of neither sun nor moon if they tried a stunt like that again. Gilbert was even more furious because of all the money he had spent organizing the tournament and lashed out at Simon for presuming to run the realm with the highhandedness of a “foreigner”. He left to sulk in Gloucester and begin collusion with Simon’s enemies to bring about his fall.
On this day in 1265, Henry III and his son Lord Edward stood in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey, which near the floor bears the appropriate inscription ‘As the rose is the flower of flowers’, and swore to abide by all the charters of good government, namely Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford as embodied in the current constitution. It was a momentous step, the first time the king is promising to rule in accordance with established laws and institutions without getting anything in return, and he was passing on the precedent directly to the heir to the throne. Of course, both were more or less captive at the time and neither had shown any inclination in the past to show that their word was worth much. In those days you could swear to god all you wanted so long as as the pope was in your pocket.