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.
Modern historians tend to side with Henry in this affair, suggesting he had every reason to believe Alfonso was planning to invade. The king of Castile did in fact impose his terms on Henry, who in addition to providing a royal marriage, promised to join him in a war against the Moors. As with his crusading vow, Henry had no intention of fighting infidels anywhere. He was more concerned with installing Edward peacefully in Gascony before proceeding, with his wife and entourage, to Chartres for his first meeting ever with Louis, who was finally back from his miserable experience overseas. The occasion would be renowned for one of the most unique family reunions in history. Queen Eleanor, her sister Margaret, the queen of France, and their sister Sanchia, Richard’s wife, were joined by their youngest sister, Beatrice, who was the wife of Louis’ brother Charles of Anjou. Four sisters had married two sets of brothers, leading Louis to remark, perhaps innocently enough, that the children of each family would be more like brothers and sisters than cousins.
Before leaving, Henry appointed his wife Eleanor to rule in his stead with Richard serving as her adviser. Their immediate task was to replenish the treasury, drained by the affairs in the south, even if it meant nickel and diming. Eleanor contrived to have the citizens of London make back payment for the queen’s gold, her percentage of the arbitrary fines and import duties the king would levy on the city. Richard was rebuffed when he made an appeal to the Jewish community. The chief rabbi insisted they had no more money to give now that papal merchants had cornered the usury market. Fed up with the royal reaming, he asked permission for his people to leave the kingdom. And just where were they planning to go? Even Louis, that most saintly of monarchs, was openly hostile to them. Neither act of extortion added much to Henry’s coffers, so an Easter parliament was summoned to ask for funds. War with Castile was imminent, the regents announced, and the king needed money and manpower. Some enormous darts were even put on display to show the kinds of weapons he was up against. The magnates were dubious, not least because the queen was making plans at that very moment to travel with Edward to this so-called war zone. But it was de Montfort who exposed the subterfuge. Sent specifically by Henry to report on the king’s success in achieving peace in Gascony, Simon did exactly that, and parliament denied the royals their request.
It had been Henry’s intention to come to Gascony and show that it could be ruled with peace and understanding. When he arrived in 1253, he found he had a war on his hands and that some of his subjects, again led by the queen’s relations, had switched their allegiance to the king of neighboring Castile. He not only had to resort to the same harsh tactics employed by de Montfort but even asked his brother-in-law to come and lend his military expertise. Simon grudgingly went, motivated by loyalty and his spiritual adviser, Robert Grosseteste, who reminded him not to forget all the benefits he had received from Henry. The king’s treachery was not forgotten, however, and de Montfort made him pay dearly in compensation. In the end, Henry’s campaign proved to be his only successful adventure abroad. He won over the Gascons to his son’s overlordship and got Alfonso, the king of Castile, to give up rival claims to the region by having Edward marry his half-sister, the third Eleanor in this story.
Meanwhile Louis was having a worse time of it overseas. He had carefully prepared for his crusade, amassing a huge war chest and nearly two thousand ships to ferry an army to Egypt. He had decided to subdue Cairo first, where the real power in the region was wielded, before marching gloriously into Jerusalem. His march down the Nile River Valley was sheer agony for his men as disease, hunger and harassment took their toll. The Saracens pressed home their advantage and destroyed his army at Fariskur. Louis was captured and ransomed for half a million pounds, which took a whole two days to weigh out. Ashamed to go back, Louis spent the next four years in Palestine, most of that time as a pawn for the warring Muslim factions. Not that he could help either side much. Of the 2,800 knights who accompanied him to Egypt, less than 100 left with him. The disaster rocked France, where his mother Blanche of Castile had to contend with another crusade. A mad monk from Hungary known as “the Master” declared that the Virgin Mary had given him instructions, balled up in his fist, that called for him to lead an army to Palestine to free the king. Flocks of shepherds heeded the call, joined by riffraff of all sorts. At first Blanche thought they might just succeed and gave them her support. Then they started raiding French towns and villages and bullying the clergy until she was forced to order their destruction. A butcher put an axe in the head of the Master while Simon ordered another threatening mob to be gone from Bordeaux lest they be “cut to pieces.”
A humiliated and insulted Henry called his governor a “maker and lover of strife” and ordered him to observe a truce. “Go back to Gascony and reap its reward like your father before you.” Henry’s parting shot was the only comfort the Gascons could take home with them, knowing as they did that the elder Montfort was killed fighting nearby. Simon suspected that his demise was just what the king was hoping for; that way he could give his lands and title to one of his foreign relatives. Now burning for vengeance on his accusers, Simon returned with an army of mercenaries but found his enemies waiting for him with an even more determined force. He managed to avoid defeat and capture, but his intervention was for naught. Henry stripped him of military authority and told the Gascons they were no longer bound by loyalty to him. Disgusted by the king’s betrayal, Simon left for Paris, where he received an unexpected offer. Louis was still languishing in the Holy Land, which had consumed the best of his nobility, and the recent death of his mother had thrown the regency of the country into turmoil. Impressed with de Montfort’s resume, the council of peers offered him the post of regent until Louis made it back. He declined, saying he was a subject of England now and forever. The French were persistent, but so too was de Montfort, who would remain loyal to his adoptive country to the last.
Henry’s policy in Gascony was an absolute mess. The province was nominally Richard’s, but now, at the queen’s insistence, it was to be given to their teenage son Edward. Eleanor wanted it pacified, but not at the expense of her Gascon relatives, who were creating most of the trouble there. The king thought that by playing good cop to his lieutenant’s bad cop, he could win the affection of his subjects in the region. When Simon learned that his archenemy, the archbishop of Bordeaux, had left for England with a delegation to denounce him, he raced back across France to head them off. Although he arrived in good time, he found Henry in ill-humor and ready to believe the worst about him. Wanting to at least give the pretense of fairness, the king assembled a panel of the leading peers to render a verdict. Something of an unofficial transcript still survives from this trial, provided in the comments by our advocates.
Meanwhile the real warfare was in the east. The Mongols had swept through Poland and Hungary before turning south to ravage the Balkans. Their advance enabled the Muslims to regain control over Jerusalem, leading to calls for another crusade. Both Henry and Louis took up the cross, but only the king of France left. For Henry, Christian duty was more about ritual and forms. He preferred mass to sermons, taking oaths to actually abiding by them. Besides, there was trouble brewing in Gascony. With Louis gone, Henry saw his chance to consolidate control over the unruly local nobility without any interference from his brother-in-law. He asked his other brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, to go there and restore order. Simon was also committed to the crusade and so drove a hard bargain before he would accept his offer. What he wanted most of all from Henry was no interference. The king agreed but, as with all his other oaths, this one also went by the wayside. Henry recoiled from the stern measures de Montfort used to put down the factional fighting, perhaps seeing too much of his father, the Scourge, in him. In the only letter of Simon’s to survive, he explained to Henry that his task was to uphold the rights of the king and the common people against these ruffians. Henry must have been dumbfounded when he read this. What were these rights of the common people and what did they have to do with him?
Isabella and Hugh were later embroiled in another plot against Louis, involving poison and cooks who talk a lot under torture. The former queen of England ended her days practically walled up in a nunnery. Hugh died a few years later, better remembered for his stint as a troubadour than his inglorious attempt to check the growing power of the French monarchy. Of their large brood of children, Henry invited four of them to come to England to enjoy the bounty of the north. They were a most disagreeable lot, full of boasting and swaggering with a sense of entitlement. Among those none too pleased with their overbearing reach were the Savoyards, the queen’s relatives who had at least tried to make an effort to assimilate. Things finally came to a head when Henry’s half-brother Aymer, appointed Bishop of Winchester despite being illiterate and ignorant, decided to encroach on the authority of the queen’s uncle Boniface, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury despite being soldierly and intemperate. The two sides had it out in a flurry of violence and excommunications until Henry stepped in and organized a truce one morning over a sumptuous breakfast. While the rest of the country found the antics of these bickering Frenchmen good entertainment, they were hardly amused by the drain on national resources required to sustain them. It was Simon’s own conflict with the scheming Lusignans that would eventually single him out as a leader of the opposition to Henry’s circle.
There was nothing like a wedding to bring out the best in Henry and he used the occasion of the recently widowed Richard’s nuptials to welcome his sister and brother-in-law back into royal favor. The bride was the queen’s younger sister Sanchia. She had been betrothed to the same count who had tried to turn Henry against Simon, but his poverty and pettiness paled next to the immensely wealthy Richard. Like Queen Eleanor, she arrived with no dowry to speak of, and her mother would, in fact, hit Henry up for a loan while there. But she would also move him to make significant progress on his sister Eleanor’s dowry, thereby improving relations between him and Simon. None of this available money saved the Jews from footing the bill for the wedding and the subsequent feast thrown for thirty thousand hungry people. Each Jewish family was instructed to make a donation that didn’t include, it goes without saying, a corresponding invitation.
Henry’s expedition to recover Poitou was a spectacular failure. Caught off guard by Louis’ aggressiveness at the Charente River near Taillebourg, Henry retreated to Saintes, where the French were on the verge of encircling his small force when Richard, also back from the crusades, grabbed a staff and walked into the enemy camp. He was hoping the freedom he secured for many of the French nobles in the Holy Land would pay off. Louis could hardly deny him, not looking like a pilgrim, and gave the English a one-day truce. It was just enough time for Henry to save his army, but not his war chest and other valuables. He accused his stepfather of leading him into a trap, which Hugh vehemently denied before, soon enough, going over to the French side. He even took command of the French army that drove another rebel, another insignificant count, to seek safety with Henry in Bordeaux. This count, who was actually Isabella and Hugh’s son-in-law, had fought to defend Toulouse against Simon’s father a quarter of a century earlier and now used his proximity to Henry to denounce the younger de Montfort. Although Simon had been instrumental in helping the English army to escape, Henry was ready to lend an ear after his brother-in-law, disgusted with the military debacle, snarled at the king, “You should be locked up.” Henry would nurse the insult for years to come.
Like Henry, Louis IX (1214 – 1270) had been a boy king, crowned at the age of 12 after his father, another Louis, died of dysentery. His mother was Blanche of Castile, whose own mother was John’s cousin. It was through this tenuous royal connection that the rebellious barons of England invited the elder Louis, while still heir to the French throne, to take John’s place on the English throne. Prince Louis marched easily into London, but then John died suddenly (from eating, it was reported, too many eels) and the barons found themselves in a quandary: how to tell the humorless Louis his services were no longer required. He was eventually expelled with a large severance package and Henry became the rightful king with William Marshal as regent. Blanche became her son’s regent when he ascended the throne but insisted on having a say in his affairs even after he came of age. She was sitting next to him when Henry’s mother Isabella and Hugh Lusignan arrived to pay them homage. It was war after that.
This time the conflict was instigated by Henry’s mother, Isabella d’Angoulême. She was just a teenager when King John snatched her from her intended, Hugh Lusignan, the insignificant and very brown count of La Marche. After John’s death and the crowning of Henry, Isabella went back to the continent to oversee the marriage of her ten-year-old daughter to the same Hugh she left empty-handed twenty years earlier. When Hugh saw that Isabella had lost none of her beauty, he decided he preferred the mother to the daughter, who would have to settle for the King of Scotland. Isabella had born five children with John; she now proceeded to bear another nine with Hugh. But the former queen had lost none of her haughty spirit and seethed over her loss of status. One very public snub from her adversary, the equally haughty dowager queen of France, finally set her off. She assured both her husband and son that between them, they could wrest the province of Poitou back from the French. Henry was still keen on recapturing the glory days of his grandfather’s Angevin Empire, but the magnates refused to go along. He landed anyway in 1242 in the expectation of finding his stepfather at the head of an uprising. What he found instead was his brother-in-law, King Louis, ready to bag the lot of them.
Crusading was all the rage among the nobility of the 13th century. Simon returned to England alone in the spring of 1240 to raise money for his own expedition and found Henry cordial, even friendly, but otherwise offering no relief in his scramble for funds. Eleanor accompanied him as far as southern Italy, where her brother-in-law Emperor Frederick gave her the use of a stone palace next to the sea. By the time Simon reached the Holy Land, the crusade was all but over. The French force had already been defeated and Simon’s brother Amaury taken prisoner. Richard, who also preceded him there, used his personal wealth to free the French contingent swept up by the Saracens. Amaury died on his way home in 1241 but the survivors would remember Richard’s gesture the next time England and France came to blows. Simon took no part in any real action, but the local population saw something in his leadership qualities, or connections, to prevail upon Frederick to appoint him their governor. Nothing came of the matter and Simon returned to France, where Henry was again in dire straits over another ill-advised military excursion.
True to character, Henry’s break with Simon was abrupt and unseemly. He waited for the occasion of the queen’s churching – her offer of thanks for a safe childbirth – to lash out at the earl of Leicester, accusing him of owing another of his wife’s uncles a huge sum of money and offering him, the king, as security. Henry was so caught up in his anger that even charged his brother-in-law, in front of the assembled guests, with having seduced his sister, and that was the only reason why he consented to their secret wedding. Stunned and humiliated, Simon and Eleanor left forthwith, but Henry wasn’t through. He quickly had them turned out of their lodgings, then went a step further and ordered them locked up in the Tower of London. Fortunately the cooler head of Richard intervened and the unhappy couple was allowed to leave the country and settle in France.