The king’s privations

1258 - 1259
Louis washing the feet
Louis washing the feet

At this point all eyes turned to Rome and Paris. The pope had threatened to excommunicate Henry if he didn’t settle the accounts for Sicily, but it was merely a ploy to get the barons to come out and rescue their monarch from the privations of hell. Henry was similarly rebuffed when he sent his clerks around to individual churches to ask them to stand surety for loans to the king. No longer the master of his own government, nor held in much esteem it would seem, the king could only watch helplessly as the deadline passed. In December 1258 Alexander informed Henry that he couldn’t wait forever and would now seek another candidate for the throne of Sicily. As for Henry’s privations, he magnanimously declared that they had been suspended “with our accustomed kindness.” Holding on to Sicily had been one of the reasons for Henry to achieve a lasting peace with France. He still pressed forward, because he genuinely liked his brother-in-law Louis and felt that by freely giving him Normandy he could extract both security for his other holdings and money to pay for mercenaries to seize back his kingdom. Of course he no longer had much love for his other brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, but saw no reason why he shouldn’t continue as the lead negotiator…until he realized just how wily he and his sister Eleanor could be. Henry was still thousands of marks in arrears to the couple, and while he had made some effort to meet his obligations, they were never a priority as were his debts and gifts to other members of the family. Nor had the king shown any interest in making advantageous matches for the Montfort sons, five in all, as he had done for other members of the nobility. When a clause appeared in the treaty calling for Henry, Richard and Eleanor, the surviving children of John, to renounce all claims to Normandy, Eleanor refused until her brother paid up. Henry was livid, suspecting that Simon had convinced the one king to demand the renunciation simply so he could extort the other. Louis worked out a compromise, but over a year would pass before the treaty was ratified. Henry would never forgive Simon or his sister for their obstructive behavior.

The new faith

1258
Three estates
The three estates

Henry’s years of misrule were seemingly at an end. The provisions adopted at Oxford were akin to an unwritten constitution that put the king in a straightjacket. No more flagrant favoritism, no more arbitrary taxation, no more foreign fiascos. For knights, tenants and townsfolk, the office of justiciar was revived to root out corrupt sheriffs and bailiffs. The provision indicated by later chroniclers as the root cause of the war was number Five, which decreed that anyone who attempted to subvert the Provisions be declared an enemy of the people. To this end, Henry was asked to swear an oath to abide by them and did so with no resistance. He had, after all, sworn to uphold Magna Carta many times and got away with every violation. After initially refusing, Edward also took the oath, as did his cousin Henry of Almaine, who had vainly sought to avoid it by saying he needed his father Richard’s permission first. The magnates themselves were leery about their own oaths. The earl of Gloucester for one had only wanted something done about the Lusignans. Reform of the realm might well endanger his position as a leading peer. Simon too supposedly wavered. A deeply introspective man, partly as the result of his friendship with Oxford scholar Adam Marsh and other Franciscans, he was troubled by the debts he had incurred, the oppressive demands he made on his tenants in order to meet them, and by Eleanor breaking her vow of celibacy to marry him. Accepting the Provisions might atone for these transgressions, but more importantly, failing to defend them would be mortifying to a man brought up in the aura of crusading virtue. His oath to this new faith, as it were, would have to be total, demanding for starters that his body and soul undergo rigors worthy of a religious conversion. Henceforth he would awake at midnight for prayer, eat frugally, dress only in plain garments, even in the company of the nobility, and abstain from sexual relations.

More than all the thunder and lightning in the world

1258
English parliament 3
English parliament

Roger Bigod assured Henry he was not. They asked only for the removal of the aliens and establishment of a council of 24 to guide the king in reforming the government. Henry was allowed to name half the members of the council and true to form he included two of his brothers in the list. The next parliament convened on 11 June in Oxford, with the barons again arriving armed to the hilt. Ostensibly this was a war parliament in preparation for moving against the Welsh, but the barons suspected the king and Lusignans might try to ambush them with foreign mercenaries. Dubbed by later royalists as the “mad” parliament, the barons submitted a petition to the king that called for sweeping changes in the way the monarchy operated in England. A permanent council of fifteen would henceforth advise the king in all matters of appointment, policy and patronage; parliament would meet three times a year at fixed dates, not at the king’s pleasure; and the crown would resume control over all its castles currently in the hands of aliens, which was more or less all of them. As an alien, Simon de Montfort willingly offered up his two castles, but his archenemy William de Valence refused. “Thy castle or thy head, William,” Simon warned him. Parliament broke up during the noonday lunch when the brothers stole away for the coast. Not taking any chances, the barons took off in pursuit and caught up with them at Aymer’s residence in Winchester. Riding with the baronial party, Henry and Edward managed to cut a deal for their safe conduct out of the country. At this stage the king could no more control the course of events than he could the weather. The next month the royal barge was caught in a storm on the Thames. Fearing thunder and lightning as he did, Henry ordered the boat docked at the nearest abode, which happened to be the Montfort summer residence. Simon went out to greet his majesty with all due respect, but Henry shuddered at him in terror. “Never fear, my lord, the storm has passed,” Simon reassured him. “True, but I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world!”

The third hour of the third day

1258
Earls Procession to Parliam
Procession to Parliament

Henry urged Richard to accept the crown of Germany to avoid the appearance of weakness in the face of honor. Privately, he was happy to be rid of his brother. As the leading magnate, Richard had never been afraid to clash with Henry and told him flat out that since he had failed to consult the barons before agreeing to finance the papal war in Sicily, he could pay for it himself. Henry, now resigned to the loss of Normandy forever, had nothing to gain from Richard’s rigged election except removing him as an obstacle in the endgame for Sicily. And so the king had high hopes when he summoned parliament to meet in April 1258 to ask for money, an ‘aid’, to fulfill his agreement with the pope. If the barons refused, he warned him, their king would be excommunicated, a horrible penalty for the realm as a whole. How far the pope was willing to carry out his threat, and whether Henry actually believed it could happen, is a matter of conjecture. For the barons who assembled in Westminster, Sicily wasn’t the problem they had come to discuss. They had had enough of the king’s half-brothers and were determined to force a showdown with them. Aymer, who Henry had nominated as Bishop of Winchester despite his ignorance of everything English or Christian, had ordered his men to attack a party attached to one of the leading barons. Henry not only refused any redress for the victims but then allowed his other brother William to openly accuse Simon and the earl of Gloucester of conspiring with the Welsh. Together with the general complaint that Henry had bestowed too much money and patronage on these brutes and ingrates, seven of the aggrieved magnates formed a confederation for the purpose of ousting the Lusignans from the country. On 28 April the king submitted his request for an aid and got his answer on ‘the third hour of the third day’ when the barons arrived at parliament fully armed. Henry was aghast. ‘What is this, my lords, am I your prisoner?’

Another king in the family

1257
Richard and Sanchia
Richard and Sanchia

Earlier in that disastrous year Richard left for Aachen to be crowned King of the Romans, which was a nice way of saying the Germans. The title had been held by two other noblemen following Frederick’s death in 1250 and both had come to untimely ends. But Richard freely spent 30,000 marks to dispense bribes for the honor and his wife Sanchia yearned to gain an equal footing with her two older sisters, Queen Margaret and Queen Eleanor. Under the pretense of humility, Richard declared that ambition had nothing to do with his election, that he was only interested in the welfare of the people, and may he be consumed by hellfire if he was lying. The German delegates that brought him the news were every bit the liar Richard was. They told the Englishman he had been elected unanimously because the French were too warlike, the Italians too greedy, and the Germans too quarrelsome. In fact, three of the seven electors had thrown in their lot with a Spaniard, none other than Alfonso, who was still sniping that Henry had yet to make good on his pledge to join him on a crusade to North Africa. Louis supported Alfonso’s candidacy because he suspected Henry would try to use Richard’s position on the Rhine to force his claims for Normandy. But Henry, at the urging of his wife, was more desperate these days to retain Gascony for Edward and a future Sicily for Edmund. Neither was possible without a permanent peace with France. With his high standing across the Channel, it was natural that Simon de Montfort should take the lead in negotiating what would become the Treaty of Paris. . . and using it to his and Eleanor’s advantage.

The lord Edward

1257
Edward I
Edward I

The Lusignans were despised for their arrogance and lawlessness, not least by Queen Eleanor. She saw these ill-bred in-laws among other things as competition for Henry’s patronage, despite the fact that her own relatives had been fed well at the royal trough. But when the two French factions came to blows, Henry stood by his brothers, even temporarily depriving Eleanor of her queen’s gold as a warning against her meddling. Once she got her income back, much of it had to be diverted to free her Uncle Thomas, just as a large part of Henry’s resources were being used to prop up his Sicilian scheme. That left a meager parental allowance for Edward, now a long-legged prince with his own affinity for lawless behavior. Since returning from the continent, he and his retinue had been running roughshod over the countryside, pillaging and plundering whatever they pleased. Bereft of money from his parents, Edward found that his uncles, the Lusignans, were doing nicely buying up Jewish bonds on the cheap and threw in his lot with them. Eleanor fretted over her eldest son, the heir to the throne, consorting with these disreputable thugs, but Henry refused to be budged from his allegiance to them. They offered him the thing he valued most, unconditional loyalty, especially at a time when even the weather and Welsh had turned against him.

Giving William a taste of his own medicine

1257
Medieval dentistry
Medieval dentistry

Simon was one of the commissioners appointed to deal with Alexander in Rome, but the mission, for reasons unknown, never took place. He had spent most of the years of the Sicilian fiasco tending to private affairs, including a growing family. He and Eleanor had seven children in all. After first-born Henry came another Simon, then another Amaury, another Guy, a daughter who died in infancy, another Richard and finally another Eleanor. The need to provide for such a large brood kept the doting parents constantly on the king’s back to make good the money owed them. Henry did make an effort, if only because he recognized the importance of Montfort’s skills as a negotiator, particularly in France, where he was held in high regard. Much of that money was tied to Eleanor’s claims to her first husband’s estate, which shouldn’t have been a problem after Henry married their half-brother William of Valence into the Marshal clan. But William was greedy, nasty and effeminate like the rest of Isabella and Hugh’s children and chose to default rather than pay up. Their quarrels escalated until William openly accused Simon in parliament of being the son of a traitor. ‘I’m no traitor, William,’ he countered. ‘Your father and mine were not cut from the same cloth.’ When William repeated the charge, Simon drew his sword and rushed at him in full view of the assembled magnates. Henry threw himself in front of his brother to save him but the stage had been set. Montfort’s willingness to stand up to the hated Lusignans would single him out as a leader of the burgeoning reform movement.

Introducing Crouchback

1257
Edmund
Edmund

The rout of papal forces continued, as did Rustand’s exactions. The clergy was left isolated until the king made an appeal to the barons for aid. He was flatly refused, again with Richard in the lead, because he had entered into the Sicilian Business without consulting them. Henry misleadingly informed the pope that his nobles and prelates were only waiting for a papal victory (which would never come) before committing the funds. Alexander decided to send an archbishop to address the magnates, and Henry, indulging in his love for drama and ritual, dressed up his son Edmund, nicknamed Crouchback, in costume and presented him as the next King of Sicily. The archbishop then proceeded to reveal the full terms of the agreement, including the 185,000 marks the Vatican had spent fighting on behalf of little Crouchback. Taking pity on the king, the clergy agreed to provide a third of the money, which Henry took churlishly, and a mission was named to placate Alexander. The pope was willing to give him an extension, but either Henry executed the full terms of the agreement or face excommunication. The pope’s only concession was to recall Rustand, who left England one very rich churchman.

Fool’s gold

1257
Goldpenny
Henry’s penny

For his part, Henry started collecting gold, which he would need to finance an army in Sicily. Frederick had introduced a magnificent gold coin there in 1231, and Henry, with ever a keen eye for the finer things, was determined to do him one better. His English subjects were now instructed to pay their fines in gold leaf or dust; the same went for exemptions from knighthood or poaching in royal forests. In 1257, ten years after Richard successfully managed the minting of silver coinage in England, Henry issued an exquisitely designed gold penny depicting him in all his regal splendor. Of course it failed, primarily because the king had fooled himself into believing all this gold he was collecting suggested a mother lode somewhere. In fact, he had it all, and there was too little other gold in circulation to give it the proper weight. Of the nearly 50,000 coins minted, only 8 survive today, indicating they were melted down as quickly as they could be recovered. It didn’t matter as far as Sicily was concerned, for by that time the venture was ruined and the pope was making Henry the target of his frustration…and extortion.

The poor and needy come second

1255
Manfred
Manfred

The deal called for the crown of Sicily to go to Henry’s ten-year-old son Edmund in return for money and soldiers to defeat Frederick’s successor. Already 300,000 marks in debt because of Gascony, Henry allowed the bishop of Hereford, another of Eleanor’s numerous French relatives, to obtain loans from Italian merchants using security he had acquired underhandedly from his brother prelates. Innocent was hastened to his grave by Manfred’s rapid victories, but the new pope, Alexander IV, was just as determined to carry on the fight. He urged Henry to keep his end of the bargain and sent a man named Rustand to help out. As the king was washing his hands of the Jews of Lincoln, the papal nuncio unleashed an army of tax collectors on parishes throughout the country. Dismissing all pleas about the church providing for the poor and needy, Rustand told an assembly of bishops that the church belonged first and foremost to the pope. Yes, came the reply, to be protected, not used as a cash cow. Furious, Rustand ordered every man to speak for himself, so that the king might know where he stood.

Red hats and torture

Innocent IV
Innocent IV

The former Sinibaldo Fieschi, Innocent IV despised Frederick II and Robert Grosseteste in equal measure. He is remembered for introducing the red hat for cardinals to wear and torture for all prelates to use in their Inquisitions. He was on his deathbed when word reached him about Manfred’s victory over his army. Looking at those surrounding him – relatives and church officers, freeloaders the lot of them – he snapped, “What are you crying for? Haven’t I made you all rich?”

Bankrolling the papal army

1254
Sicily
Sicily

The other piece of business the king concluded while in Gascony had to do with Sicily. Considered a rich prize at the time, the island was up for grabs following the death of Henry’s other brother-in-law Frederick in 1250. As the emperor of the Germans and King of the Romans, Frederick II had been at war with a succession of popes for possession of southern Italy and Sicily. Henry had originally bargained on an alliance with Frederick as a way of forcing Louis to give back Normandy. He married his younger sister Isabella to the twice-widowed older man, promising him 30,000 marks to boot, but nothing came of this strategy except another Henry (born to Isabella, who later died in childbirth). Frederick’s older sons Conrad and Manfred, also from previous alliances, were ready to carry on the fight with Pope Innocent IV, who by that time was desperate for anyone to rid him of these infernal Germans. Henry looked like an easy target. His desire for Normandy was common knowledge and Sicily had once been a Norman possession. Still, he was uneasy about waging war on his nephew and namesake. Then both the younger man and Conrad died in 1254, and Henry took the papal bait.

Blood money

1255
Lincoln-Cathedral-West
Lincoln-Cathedral-West

Six months earlier Henry had sold the custody of the Jews to Richard so that he might “disembowel those whom the king had skinned.” The situation did not bode well for the Jewish community when Henry arrived in Lincoln. He no longer had a financial interest in protecting them and the boy’s mother was still in control of public opinion. The king ordered his steward to investigate, a learned man renowned for his understanding of the law. But John of Lexington was also the brother of Henry of Lexington, the bishop, and his investigation involved little more than extracting a confession from Jopin, whose life was guaranteed in return. Henry took issue with the deal and declared that the wretch deserved to be executed many times over. Only one sufficed, as the unfortunate man was dragged behind a horse to a waiting gallows. Nearly a hundred other Jewish men were arrested and sent to the Tower, where 18 were hanged for refusing to submit to trial by an all-Christian jury. The others took their chances and were also condemned, but were later freed, or ransomed, after the intervention of Richard and the Minorite Order.

Jew’s Court

Jew's Court
Jew’s Court

Known as Jew’s Court, this house in Lincoln was long considered the scene of the crime. In 1910, the owner had a well dug in the basement and charged visitors to come and see where the body of little Hugh was found.

A boy named Hugh

1255
Blood libel
Blood libel

On 31 July a fatherless boy named Hugh disappeared in the city of Lincoln. Told he was last seen playing with some Jewish boys, his mother insisted he had been kidnapped and crucified as part of a macabre ritual mocking Christianity. While such stories were widespread at that time, the authorities never gave them much credence. Even the papacy had come forward to denounce them. As the bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste had never been a friend of the Jews, but he was equally intolerant of injustice and superstition. He was in his grave now, where miracles were supposedly being worked, and the new bishop of Lincoln, Henry of Lexington, saw an opportunity when the boy was found, a month later, supposedly in a well owned by a Jewish man named Jopin. The canons of the cathedral had the body whisked away for burial next to the exalted Grosseteste, thereby doubling the recent fame of the diocese. Meanwhile the mother had taken her case to the king, who was in the north attending to reports that his daughter Margaret, the teenage queen of Scotland, was being mistreated by her handlers. Upon hearing the appeal of the mother, Henry decided that if the accusation was true, the Jews deserved to die. If not, she did. Unbowed, she begged him to come to Lincoln and see for himself.