Tag Archives: Lewes

The speech that might have been

Henry V - pious and murderous
Henry V – pious and murderous

The speech Simon reportedly addressed to the troops before Lewes is full of religious hyperbole, with little indication of the oratory skills he was renowned for. He might have used his favourite expression ‘by the arm of St. James’, though unlikely to the extent that Shakespeare’s Henry V invokes St. Crispin before Agincourt. What is certain is that his march out of London to give battle to the king was an incredible act of courage, even if he did have few other options, and such a speech would have to reflect his supreme confidence. Henry V may tell his men that the lion’s share of honour awaits those who survive. Simon simply tells his to take heart, because the day is already won. 

‘My lords and men. The king has rejected our offer for peace. He refuses to recognize our fidelity and has spurned us as enemies. And so I say unto you that since there never was a good king who denied his subjects their rights, we hereby renounce our homage to him and offer our fidelity instead to the majesty that is England.

‘Many if not all of you have never been in battle before. Your faith has beckoned you here and that alone shall become the security of this great land. At midnight, we shall commence our ascent to the high ground above Lewes. As Moses before us, so too shall we climb the mountain. And when dawn breaks behind the backs of our enemies, the first glow of light in the heavens shall be a testament, an affirmation of our oath and will in all things. It shall avow that which we know is already true, that the day ahead of us has already been won, for honour and justice are on our side.’

From Simon de Montfort, a play in four acts

Victory for the common enterprise

14 May 1264
Lewes battlefield
The Battle of Lewes

For all the savagery of the civil war, the strategy was about chipping away at the enemy’s strength. Neither army had faced the other in the field, none of the men had ever fought in a real battle. Now on 14 May 1264, with Henry lodged in the priory and Edward in the castle, their men billeted all about the town, Simon marched his men up to the high ground above Lewes. The lone sentinel on guard was found asleep and dispatched. By the time a pre-dawn foraging party raised the alarm, Simon’s army was in position above the city. He had several thousand foot soldiers and 500 cavalry, the royalists probably three times that number. Henry, Richard and Edward quickly held a council of war while their men mustered in front of the city walls, though it’s doubtful if all of them got into action in time. Commanding Henry’s right wing, Edward started things off just after dawn with a ferocious charge led by knights on horseback, the points of their lances bearing down hard on Simon’s left. After smashing through the cavalry contingent, his men, led by the vicious likes of Roger Mortimer and William de Valence, began mowing down the reformist soldiers, many of them London levies and street urchins armed with no more than a sling. It was reported that Edward took special delight in this slaughter, knowing they were Londoners and so perhaps had insulted his mother from London Bridge. He and sixty knights chased them for four miles, causing many of them to drown in the river Ouse, before circling back toward the high ground to take his uncle by surprise in the rear. They spied a coach there flying Simon’s banner, obviously the vehicle he had been using to get around in with his broken leg. After killing the guard detail, they called on the leader of the populist cause to come outside. They found four men inside instead, Londoners taken prisoner by Simon after they had tried to betray him. Whether Edward’s men understood this or not, they slew the lot of them and set fire to the coach. From their position, they had the same commanding view of the battlefield below that Simon had had. Directly in the center would have been Richard’s division opposite Gloucester; on the right the king against the Montfort sons. Only all the action was now within the town walls, for the rebels had long since broken through the two royalist divisions and were scattering their forces. Using the advantage of the terrain, and Edward’s blunder, Simon’s army had charged down the slope against the king’s men, who were trudging their way uphill under a hail of stones and arrows. Montfort threw in his reserve division and the added pressure was too much for Henry’s army on the field. Richard was the first to take flight, finding refuge in a nearby windmill. He was taunted to come out, and the figure that emerged, covered in sweat and grime but still wearing his crown, became the object of endless ridicule. Henry fought with more bravery. Two horses were killed under him and he was much beaten about with sword and mace before his attendants got him to safety behind the walls of the priory. They were able to beat off every reformist assault with flaming arrows that ended up setting the whole town afire. Edward’s response to the disaster he helped create was to fight his way inside the priory to join his father; Bigod, Warenne, and Henry’s brothers William and Guy fled for their lives.

The road to Lewes

Lewes battlefield
Lewes battlefield

As usual, the initial fighting broke out in the west. Henry de Montfort scored an early triumph by bottling up Edward in Gloucester, but then unwisely accepted his cousin’s call for a truce. He had no sooner withdrawn his forces when Edward sacked the town and slipped away, causing Simon to bitterly reproach his son. The king meanwhile began gathering a large army at Oxford, where one of his first acts was to expel the student population. His intention, he explained, was to protect them from the savagery of his Scottish allies, but in fact he was clearly miffed by their true sympathies. Henry’s growing strength allowed him to brush aside a last-ditch offer by his opponents to respect Louis’ ruling on every point except the alien officials. The advantage was all his after he seized the Montfortian stronghold of Northampton, which was betrayed by local clergymen. The loss was devastating. Among the eighty barons and knights made prisoner were the younger Simon and many leading members of the movement. Montfort refused to despair. “War is such that the advantage first goes to these, then to those,” he declared and followed up by predicting that the enemy would be consumed by fear and confusion before May was out. London, however, was gripped by panic as word spread it was about to be betrayed like Northampton, resulting in the plunder and massacre of the Jews. As royalist forces burned and butchered their way through local hamlets, Simon attempted to draw them south by laying siege to their garrison in Rochester, whose inhabitants were subjected to a similar bloodletting. With barely London left to the reformist party, Simon gambled everything on seeking out and giving battle to the king. The two sides squared off in Sussex, with the royalists encamped in and around the village of Lewes and the Montfortians eight miles away in Fletching. Simon sent his bishop friends to Henry to reiterate his offer of peace if the king would observe only the provision prohibiting alien officials, sweetening it now to include 30,000 marks in compensation. Henry was inclined to accept, but Richard, aggrieved that his property had been ransacked, was against it, as was Edward. The one-time idealist and reformer declared that peace was only possible if his uncle and the others came to them with halters around their necks.

Unmindful of his own honour

January 1264
Louis in all his glory
Louis in all his glory

A truce was to be observed during the course of arbitration. Henry being Henry, he ordered Roger Mortimer, an exceedingly violent man even for a marcher baron, to attack Simon’s manors in the hope of preventing his adversary from attending the proceedings in person. He knew the reformist side hinged on Montfort’s powers of persuasion and his friendship with Louis. In the end, all it took was a hole in the ground. While heading south for Dover, Montfort suffered a broken leg when his horse stumbled and fell. Forced to stay behind, he was no doubt confident the king of France would still rule close to his original affirmation of the Provisions. Louis, however, stunned everyone by completely nullifying them in his Mise of Amiens issued on 23 January 1264. Acting “unmindful of his own honour,” in the words of one chronicler, he declared that Henry had the right to appoint any official he saw fit, whether native-born or not. He tried to evade responsibility by insisting that the pope had nullified the Provisions first, then hedged by assuring the people of England that Magna Carta was in no way affected by his ruling. Sworn to abide by the award, Simon and his associates justified their continuing resistance by arguing that the Provisions were founded on the principles of Magna Carta. Louis’ betrayal, which was variously attributed to bribes, nagging or some concerted action with the papacy, rankled deeply. “Though all may forswear me, I will stand firm with my sons in the just cause to which my faith is pledged,” Simon proclaimed, adding gloomily that of all the lands he had been to, never had he met with more treachery than in England. But he did get some help when Gilbert de Clare finally decided to join forces with him and London remained firmly committed to the reformist cause. Civil war was now inevitable.