Henry III (1207 – 1272)
His reign of 56 years was a time of extraordinary achievements in the arts, education and politics, much of it due to his vision to take the dull projection of power he inherited from his Norman predecessors and replace it with a more humane and open-hearted monarchy. He was the first king to rule under Magna Carta and so underwent some tough lessons to find the right balance between liberties, laws, and the crown. By time he died in 1272, England had evolved into a parliamentary state with the monarch at the head of it. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, which remains his most enduring achievement today.
Eleanor of Provence (1223 – 1291)
It was fitting that a poem should bring together an artistically-inclined king with this child from the land of troubadours, so says an 18th tradition. With her sister married to the king of France, a court official tried to snare Henry for Eleanor by showing Richard a poem she had written, knowing the married Richard would surely send it along to his still single brother. Eleanor’s father, the count of Provence, was so poor that he often looked in on his subjects as the only means of eating well. Henry, who had to pay through the nose for his sister Isabella’s dowry, was content to accept capons for her dowry. Their marriage was solid through the good times and bad, helped by the fact that Henry never strayed.
Simon de Montfort (1208? – 1265)
He was described as “tall in body and handsome in face.” He was also said to have a pleasant and agreeable way of speaking, which helps explain why some of the greatest men of his age were drawn to him. A descendant of two aristocratic families of northern France (and of William the Conqueror), Simon was probably born at the family seat of Montfort-l’Amaury in today’s Île-de-France between Paris and Normandy. The third son of parents renowned for their fanaticism, he spent his youth in the south of France, a witness to his father’s use of fire and sword in the Albigensian Crusade.
Eleanor of Leicester (1215 – 1275)
An infant when her father John died, Eleanor was a widow before she was twenty. Under the influence of a pious governess, she became a nun, but had retained all her beauty and willfulness when she met a dark, ambitious newcomer at court. Simon’s later pangs of conscience suggest their passion had got the better of them before they were married. Together they brought seven children into the world, as loving and loyal a family as Henry had with his Eleanor. Often chastised for extravagant living, she left for exile in France after her husband’s defeat, taking with her the roll of her household accounts, which would later provide a valuable look into medieval home management.
Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253)
The bishop of Lincoln, Grosseteste was a learned clergyman at home in science, mathematics and Aristotle. His Rules and other writings, where he stressed the importance of official conduct, left their mark on the reforms of 1258. His zeal to reform the church as well led him to complain to Pope Innocent IV that all the ebb and flow of money and nepotism were undermining the spiritual needs of the flock. Enraged at being lectured to, the pope wanted Henry to lock up the defiant troublemaker. He was eventually dissuaded by his cardinals, who reminded Innocent that not only was the old bishop right, but he was a better man of the cloth than any of them.
Louis IX (1214 – 1270)
Better known today by the places named after him, Saint Louis became the ninth in the series after inheriting the throne of France from his equally septic father. His desire for justice and fairness were renowned throughout Europe, yet he embarked on two disastrous crusades, the last of which claimed him and most of his family, and his devoutness inflicted untold misery on Jews and heretics alike. Louis’ own reforms, while distinctly religious in nature, had great influence across the Channel. He was called in to arbitrate between Henry and the rebellious barons but came out so solidly behind his brother-in-law that his award all but guaranteed civil war in England.
Richard of Cornwall (1209 – 1272)
Born two years after Henry, Richard had an infinitely cooler and more practical approach to the world. He was dubbed the richest man in Europe at a time when his brother was close to hocking the crown jewels to stay afloat. By constantly lending money to Henry, he was able to gain leverage for himself but rarely for the good of public policy. Married three times, with mistresses to boot, his crowning achievement was his election as King of the Romans. Despite some fleeting sympathy for the Monfortians, he stood by his brother at the battle of Lewes. His capture and humiliation there led to the composition of the first known “protest” song written in English.
Edward I (1239 – 1307)
Edward’s birth was a cause for great joy. The queen had at last given the country an heir, named after the great Confessor no less. Then, it was rumoured, Henry spoiled the occasion by demanding expensive gifts from his subjects, as if for a job well done. Enthusiasm for the young prince began to wear thin when he proved to be a reckless youth with no more respect for the law than his father had. He sparred with his parents in the run-up to the reform period, coming for a time under the influence of his uncle Simon. Shrewd, devious, with unlimited energy, Edward cost the royalists the battle of Lewes but made up for it by escaping and forcing the final showdown with de Montfort at Evesham.
Frederick II (1194 – 1250)
More Sicilian than German, Frederick’s independence and free-thinking irked the papacy to no end. He protected Jews and Muslims, patronized the arts and sciences, and the literature of his court in Palermo heavily influenced the development of modern Italian. While contemporaries called him stupor mundi (the wonder of the world), Pope Gregory IX called him the Antichrist for failing to fall into line. For all his greatness, Frederick did not leave a good physical impression on one witness who saw him in Jerusalem: the emperor was bald, covered with red hair, and had he been a slave, would have fetched pittance at the market.
Alfonso X (1221 – 1284)
This king of Castile earned the nickname el Sabio, or the Wise, because he was a poet, astrologer, and lawgiver, the ruler who promoted Castilian over Latin and had the great books of Arabic and Jewish learning translated for vernacular use. He was also something of a troublemaker. Alfonso invaded Portugal, fomented the civil unrest in Gascony that Simon had to deal with, and nearly ruined his economy in an attempt to outbid Richard of Cornwall for the title King of the Romans. His nobility finally had enough and forced him to end his days in close confinement with the great music and literature he helped to foster.