England’s first constitution

May - June 1264
King and Witan
King and Witan

The battle won, Simon quickly secured the surrender of Henry and Edward by agreeing to two important concessions. The first allowed the Provisions to be revisited and, if necessary, amended, a move designed to assuage the king’s wounded pride and coax him out of the priory. The second called for the release of the marcher barons, who Edward was counting on to continue the struggle while he remained in custody. Although there were still patches of royalist opposition, Montfort had no trouble mobilizing the countryside to repel an expectant invasion from the continent being organized by Queen Eleanor with money and connivance from Louis. The threat died away as the summer wore on and she was no longer able to support her army of mercenaries. A papal legate dispatched by Rome was similarly rebuffed when he attempted to gain entry into the kingdom. He had to settle for sending letters across the channel excommunicating everyone involved in Henry’s undoing. The letters were instantly seized and tossed into the sea. The legate tried to reinforce his spiritual boycott with an economic one by forbidding all exports to England. Simon brushed him off, declaring that the English could fend for themselves. He was, however, still open to the idea of the French arbitrating again on the Provisions, perhaps hoping Louis would act with more common sense this time around and confer legitimacy on the turn of events. And to ensure he understood there was no going back, Montfort summoned parliament to meet in Westminster for the purpose of setting up a provisional government until a permanent settlement could be reached. The result was an Ordinance enacted on 28 June 1264, which essentially made the Provisions constitutional in character. It created a council of nine to advise the king, with three of them forming an inner circle, and one of these always at his side. All business of the realm, all appointments, now went to committee. Whatever initiative Henry took, whatever foolhardy scheme came into his head or those of his relatives, henceforth required consent. Just as important was the consent given to Montfort’s plan of government by this ground-breaking parliament. Consisting of knights representing their local communities, the “people of the kingdom of England” gave its seal of approval to this new dawn in the age of English politics. Henry, naturally, was less enthusiastic but endorsed it, perhaps under the threat of deposition. The constitution was incorporated as part of the Peace of Canterbury and sent to the king of France for his approval. Louis was outraged. Better to be a farmer, this most humble of kings proclaimed, than to rule under such principles.

3 thoughts on “England’s first constitution

  1. The peace terms, known as the Mise of Lewes, were never published and subsequently lost to history, giving rise to the suggestion that Montfort never intended to take them seriously. His offer to renegotiate the Provisions, to give Henry some semblance of his dignity and authority back, was merely a ruse to get the king to come out alive. Simon was later accused of bad faith for ignoring the Mise once it had achieved this purpose, but he did allow the marchers to go free and this concession would be instrumental in his downfall.

  2. The papal legate, Frenchman Gui Faucoi, was nicknamed the Fat. His election as the new pope took four months as the cardinals decided what to do about Manfred. As Clement IV, he would throw his weight behind the energetic leadership of Louis’ brother Charles, who defeated and killed Manfred and wiped out the rest of the Hohenstaufens in Sicily for all time.

  3. White inadvertently became the colour of Montfort’s government as a result of the boycott. Woolen cloth, normally exported to Flanders to be dyed, was now worn plain as a symbol of national pride. As the custodian of Dover, it was Henry de Montfort’s task to seize any wool intended for export, earning him the derogatory title of “the wool merchant” from royalists.

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