Authentic history

The annals of Tewkesbury reports that on this St Michael’s Day in 1258, Salisbury Cathedral was consecrated in the presence of King Henry III, Queen Eleanor, and their two sons Edward and Edmund. It had now been three months since Henry agreed to reform the realm with a baronial council acting under his lordship. In return, the barons would work to secure a tax for his long-cherished project to put his younger son Edmund on the throne of Sicily.
 
According to Tewkesbury, that’s not the way it happened. Instead, the barons marched on Henry at Westminster Palace and ordered him point-blank to hand over the government to them. He and Edward were then forced to swear to follow their commands and thus they became nobodies under the watchful eye of a baronial regime.
 
It was looking back on the events of that fateful summer that led Tewkesbury to devise this fanciful account. While parliament met at Oxford in June of 1258 to draft the provisions of reform, a secret cabal of barons, working closely with the queen, plotted to oust their common enemies, the king’s four Lusignan half-brothers. The move against the Lusignans did not occur until the end of that parliament, but Tewkesbury worked it back to the previous parliament in April, presumably to add some spice to the drama that had just unfolded.
 
The general silliness of the piece can be seen in other details, such as Henry asking for a tax based on one third of the entire value of England, but that was no deterrent to Victorian historians who promoted the Tewkesbury version as authentic. They were aggrieved that the glory of England’s long constitutional history had been swept aside by the French Revolution. To regain the edge, they took Simon de Montfort as their hero and worked his ‘martyrdom’ at Evesham in 1265 back to the beginnings of the reform period seven years earlier. In other words, it had been a revolution from the start.
 
If we believe this, then the four royals at the consecration of Salisbury Cathedral on this day must have been a gloomy lot, shorn of power in a coup of their own making. Or we can dismiss the ‘misinformation’ of Tewkesbury and instead follow the ‘science’ of the clerks who documented these events on a day-to-day basis. In that case, the royals no doubt enjoyed a spiritually uplifting experience from being in that marvellous cathedral amidst their loyal subjects.
 
It’s certainly not the first or last time medieval chronicles got it wrong. In March of 1263, one of them ran an obituary for the ailing King Henry. It was a very moving tribute to him, but it was also nine years too early. And the culprit? The annals of Tewksbury.

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