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.

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