Two rising stars

In the late 1230s, there were two rising stars at the court of Henry III. The first was Simon de Montfort, who had come over from France to claim the earldom of Leicester. He became Henry’s leading councillor and was given the king’s sister Eleanor in marriage despite the outcry it caused. The other was John Mansel, a young English clerk at the exchequer who had caught Henry’s eye. The king took him under his wing and rewarded his skill and hard work with preferment.

Montfort and Mansel proved their worth as advisers, warriors and diplomats, but where Simon’s grasping and indiscreet nature alienated Henry over the next twenty years, Mansel’s star just kept rising, in part because he moved effortlessly among people and courts, and unlike Simon, he knew when to keep his mouth shut. His growing wealth from preferment coincided with Simon’s festering resentment over the land and money he and his wife failed to receive for her dower. Simon was a man forever vigilant, and this ‘injustice’ as he would call it did not escape his notice.

Both men worked together during the early stages of the reform movement of 1258, but when the goods still weren’t forthcoming, the Montforts held the peace treaty with France hostage until their claims were met. They got the land, but under dubious circumstances that Mansel called into question. That made him persona non grata to Simon, who put Mansel’s name at the top of the list of the people to arrest when he launched his armed uprising against the king in 1263.

Mansel suspected Simon was coming after him and fled to France. Hah, said Simon, you can’t escape me, and he dispatched his deputy steward to retrieve him. He forgot, however, that John Mansel was no fool. When the deputy arrived, Mansel had him arrested instead. Simon got some revenge, and money, by seizing his lands and giving them to his son. Mansel was still abroad when he died on this day of 20 January in 1265.

It was on that same day that Simon, having won the war, convened parliament that included representatives of the towns. Posterity likes to think of this as the beginnings of the house of commons, but in fact the assembly was dominated by Simon’s friends in the church. Since they wrote the history of the era, they made sure to blacken Mansel’s name. The Melrose chronicler for one reported that Mansel died in distress and poverty, adding that he had used one of his many benefices to feed his dogs.

Simon certainly took pleasure in giving Mansel’s richest benefice, the treasury of York, to his son Amaury. But within six months it was over. After Simon’s defeat and death at Evesham, Henry’s very first act was to cancel the grant to Amaury and give it to the son of a loyal supporter. Nobody missed the symbolism. Mansel had grown rich from his service to the king, not just because he worked hard and tirelessly, but because he was absolutely loyal and never once betrayed his trust. Henry’s barons, whose sense of entitlement was personified first and foremost in Simon de Montfort, never understood that message.

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