The Prince of Thieves: the great reformer of English laws was actually the ringleader of England’s first bank robbery

It was an eventful year in England to say the least. In 1963, the government had been rocked by a rising youth movement and political scandal when a group of men pulled off the great train robbery. They walked away with £2.6 million in loot, eventually earning them stiff sentences if only because of the audacity of their raid. But 700 years before that, another group of men pulled off what in all likelihood was the first bank robbery ever in England. Their ringleader was the heir to the throne and, as might be expected, they all got off scot free.

The New Temple – the vaults were closed when the prince paid a visit
The New Temple – the vaults were closed when the prince paid a visit

    The bank was the New Temple in London and in 1263 the royal family was hard up for money. Another rising youth movement and political scandal had forced King Henry III and Queen Eleanor to seek refuge in the Tower. The rebellious youths consisted of disaffected members of the nobility and the scandal was Henry’s repeated attempts to subvert the reforms he had personally sworn to uphold.
    In April 1263, these young nobles appealed to Simon de Montfort, Henry’s leading thorn-in-the-side, to return from France and force a showdown with the king. Montfort wasted no time raising an army and, before the season was out, he had penned in the royal family in London, leaving them with no money to pay their foreign mercenaries.
    Money had always been Henry’s problem. In a reign lasting 56 years, it’s quite possible that no other monarch in European history ran up as many bills. This most artistic of English rulers had a keen eye for pomp and detail and spent enormous sums on building projects like Westminster Abbey and extravagant occasions like his wedding to Eleanor. Plenty more went to pay for his inept military undertakings and foreign alliances. Lastly, he was also the most generous of kings and gladly showered royal kinsmen and favourites alike with all the bounty England had to offer.
    He used every tactic, high and low, to finance it all. The usual way was through the sheriffs and their collections of taxes, fines, levies, rents and exemptions. As Henry’s need for money accumulated, the sheriffs were under increasing pressure not to disappoint come time to settle accounts at the Exchequer. Abuses were the natural result, so when the reform period was launched in 1258, one of the main points of contention became the crown’s prerogative to appoint the sheriffs and other officials. 

English parliament – what does the king want now?
English parliament – what does the king want now?

   Henry’s generally misguided policies would, in fact, end up making him one of the fathers of English parliamentary rule, if inadvertently. The very word parliament had come into use during his reign, an official way to describe the meetings he held with his barons and clergy to discuss a particular piece of business. For Henry, that usually meant money.
   In 1254, he was in Gascony to quell unrest in that English duchy when, finding himself short of money, he wrote to his queen, then pregnant but still serving as his regent, and told her to summon parliament for the purpose of collecting an ‘aid’, which was a nice way of saying a special tax. Knowing his leading barons would refuse him, he had Eleanor include two knights elected by the localities in the summons. She would water down the opposition of the leading men of the country by appealing to the patriotic sensibility of the lesser men.
   In so doing, Henry and Eleanor had unwittingly created the first parliament that included elected representatives, and it did them no good. The knights came ready to discuss the abuses committed by their local sheriffs, and were not ready to part with a single farthing until that issue was addressed.

They demanded that the king institute a series of reforms and Henry, brought low by nothing going his way, agreed to let them run the realm for a while.
  One of their first acts was to gain control over the heir to the throne. The birth of the future Edward I in 1239 had been a cause for joy throughout the land, but Henry immediately ruined the glad tidings by demanding gifts of gold cups and plates from his subjects, the heavier the better.
   It was an omen of things to come, for by his teens Edward had become something of a hooligan, riding around the countryside with young men of similar ilk, taking whatever they wanted. In one notorious incident, he had a young boy maimed for life for no other reason than to prove he was above the law.
  When the lord Edward, as he was called, was called upon to swear to the Provisions of Oxford, as the reforming clauses were known, he refused with a contemptuous air that suggested, ‘You ain’t gonna reform me.’ Actually, his concern didn’t so much involve the Provisions at the time as it did the intentions of the barons to expel his uncles, the hated Lusignan clan.

  The Lusignans were four in all, half-brothers of the king who came to England in the late 1240s after their mother, who was Henry’s mother, died in disgrace in her native France. By all accounts they were an ill-bred lot who greedily exploited their family connection to the court. Henry lavished gifts and heiresses on them, allowed them to escape justice for their repeated trespasses. Edward the hooligan felt a natural affinity to these likeminded kinfolk, but more importantly they could offer him something his parents couldn’t: money.
  As Edward was approaching manhood, Henry and Eleanor decided it was time to confer land and honours on him. One of these, Chester, was in the backyard of the Welsh, and in the 1250s they had become bolder in their raids against the Marches. When Edward complained to his father that he had no money to beat back these Celtic tribesmen, Henry told him nobody did, but it shouldn’t matter. It was time for the young man to go out there and win his spurs like everybody else.
   His mother, who could always be counted on to baby him, was also just scraping by. She had recently begun making her name odious to the people of London with her stiff demands for queen-gold, her ten-percent cut of all fines that went to the crown. It goes without saying that the number of fines levied tended to reflect the finances of the royal household.
   But every penny she was just then raising was going to rescue one of her uncles from the mess he and her other uncles (one of them the Archbishop of Canterbury) had created as part of Henry’s Sicilian fiasco. So Edward turned to his own uncles, the Lusignans, for loans and a piece of their shady dealings in the Jewish bond market.
  These bonds were basically mortgages. Small landholders would use their property as surety for money they had borrowed from Jewish moneylenders. Since the Jews had no legal recourse to recover money or property, the unscrupulous Lusignans and others would, with court connivance, buy their bonds on the cheap as the first step towards seizing the land for themselves, either to collect the rentcharges or sell it at a wholesome profit. Edward, the king who would expel all the Jews from England in 1290, took his first course in business in this manner.
  With his uncles gone and the reform movement in full swing, Edward suddenly had a change of heart. He began gravitating towards yet another uncle, Simon de Montfort, in his struggle with the king. Simon had lately earned Henry’s double disfavour both by being one of the leading reformists and holding up the peace treaty with France. Under the treaty, Henry was expecting the French to give him a cash injection in return for giving up his claims on the continent, but Simon, one of the negotiators, had his own claims against the king, and this conflict resulted in the treaty being delayed well beyond Henry’s good humour.
   Edward was happy for it, as he considered it grossly unfair for his father to give away any claims that would eventually come to him. A far better warrior than Henry, Edward believed he could militarily succeed where his father had failed miserably. It’s also possible that he was starting to see wisdom in accountability, something which the Provisions of Oxford hoped to achieve on a grand scale. Only he had underestimated Henry, whose generally sweet nature was becoming frayed as the years and problems took their toll.

Simon de Montfort – the royal family’s worst nightmare
Simon de Montfort – the royal family’s worst nightmare

   When Henry returned from France in the spring of 1260, rumours were rife that his son was planning to seize the throne. Henry, as loving a family man as ever who sat on the English throne, decided to teach the young whippersnapper a lesson and refused all contact with him. The wait became unbearable for Edward and he caved. The lesson he took away from this youthful defiance was that his oaths and pledges meant nothing because he was superior to Montfort and the rest of the reforming lot. ‘You just wait till I’m king.’
   Edward may have embraced the deviousness and betrayal familiar to the royalist revival, but Henry and Eleanor were not quite through with their wayward son. They suspected that an equal share of the trouble was due to the other people around him and therefore decided to cut him off from them as well. With Uncle Simon out of the way, they now went after Edward’s retinue of young noblemen.
   They were pretty much hooligans like he was, and his chief henchman was found to have embezzled over £1000, a tidy sum in those days, while he was the steward of Edward’s household. He and the other bad influences were dismissed and stripped of their privileges. Furious, they waited for Edward to come crawling back to them for help in dealing with the Welsh. Instead, he imported a group of foreign mercenaries and installed them in the positions his retainers had previously held.
  Good opportunists, these young noblemen turned to Montfort, who had despaired of Henry’s duplicity and the unwillingness of the other leading barons to call him to account. They immediately flocked to his banner, publicly proclaiming the Provisions of Oxford but in reality only in it for plunder and partying. Not all them were as depraved, and a few were actually motivated by the high ideals of reform, but the hellraising and treachery of this uncouth faction, Edwardians to the man, would sink Simon’s first provisional government before it barely got started.
  And so as the summer of 1263 began, the royal family found themselves in dire straits. With the king and queen holed up in the Tower, Edward decided to take matters into his own hands. He had mercenaries, but no money to pay them and, like all mercenaries, they weren’t about to budge until the check cleared. Where he hit upon the idea to rob a bank, nobody knows, but on 29 June 1263, the lord Edward suddenly appeared at the New Temple with a band of men.

Knights Templars – better bankers than security guards
Knights Templars – better bankers than security guards

  The New Temple was a bank in the sense that bills of exchange could be issued or redeemed there. Together with other houses throughout Europe, it had been established by the Knights Templars to raise money for their crusading brethren in the Holy Land. With the rise of a wealthy English merchant class, their vaults, or treasury, made an ideal depository for the cash and valuables of people from outside the religious order.
   It also made a convenient pawn shop for those who were perennially short of cash but who had something valuable to offer. The king and queen, for example.
  The Templars at that time were holding Eleanor’s crown jewels, presumably for a loan they had advanced her. When her son showed up after banking hours on the pretext of wanting to inspect them, the custodian of the treasury thought nothing of it. He should have, given the recent troubles, but this was the heir to throne, the man who would one day become an anointed king and rule with divine justice throughout the land.

  Ideally, yes, but on this night Edward and his men were no sooner inside the vault than they revealed their weapons and tools. In classic bank robbery style, some of his men kept the Templars in submissive poses while the others went to work on the strong boxes with their hammers. The gang stuffed at least £1000 into their saddlebags, then got on their getaway horses and headed for the safety of Windsor Castle. It remains unclear whether Edward brandished a weapon or hammer during the heist, or if he ever did get around to inspecting his mother’s jewels.
   With its numerous guilds and merchants, Londoners were the most affected by the robbery and from that point forward the city would be firmly in Montfort’s camp. Riots broke out as word of the heist spread. Henry was frightened into submission and gave in to the reformists, but Eleanor chose escape and attempted to flee up the Thames for Windsor. A crowd of Londoners quickly caught sight of her royal barge and gathered on London Bridge to show their disdain for her and the rest of the royal family.
   As the barge neared, they began cursing her and pelting her crew with any manner of object in hand, even emptying their latrine buckets on them. Scared witless, the crew turned the craft around and headed back to Tower wharf. An armed detail led by the mayor of London would eventually see to the queen’s safety, but her hostility to London would never abate. Nor would Edward’s.

Edward I – England’s first great bank robber
Edward I – England’s first great bank robber

  With the money in hand, Edward went to work. He knew he could not defeat his uncle in either the field or the court of public opinion, so he did the next best thing: bribery. He contacted his old henchmen and, one by one, lured them away from Montfort. As the ranks of the reformist cause grew thinner, even some of the idealists were won over by Edward’s promises. When the inevitable battle took place in Lewes on 14 May 1264, the royalists had the clear upper hand.
    Simon won a resounding victory that day, in part due to Edward’s inability to forgive the Londoners, the very people he had robbed, for their insults to his mother on London Bridge. Leaving the battlefield to have his revenge on the London contingent, he left Henry at the mercy of Simon’s superior military skills. Both father and son would be captives of Montfort’s second provisional government until Edward, again through trickery, escaped, rallied his henchmen, and killed his uncle at Evesham in August 1265.
   At first, London tried to hold out against the royalist revival, but their leaders asked for terms and agreed to pay a whopping fine of 20,000 marks, ten percent of which naturally went to Eleanor. Even this didn’t prevent these leaders from being jailed and several citizens banned from the city forever.
  As for Edward, he was never made to answer for his crime. He would even be remembered one day as the king who reformed the legal system, the English Justinian, even though his only role was to let it go forward. One of his accomplices was later pardoned by Henry for his part, which later raised the unconvincing charge that Henry knew about it in advance. There was a similarly weak attempt to absolve Edward by suggesting that the boxes they broke into contained only royalist funds. Of course, if that were the case, he could have simply shown up during normal banking hours and asked for them. But then, those above the law usually keep their own hours.