The Plantagenets: Henry III (1216-1272)

Henry III, son of King John, was one of the longest reigning monarchs in English history (he ruled for 56 years as king). He was a cultured and pious man who was unfortunately cursed with a certain degree of arrogance and pig-headedness, likely stemming from his Plantagenet bloodline. Matthew Paris, the 13th century Benedictine monk and author of the monumental Chronica Majora (1258-1259) describes Henry as an imprudent and impotent king who rarely listened to the advice of counsel. Henry was a stocky fellow, not too tall, and he had a droopy eyelid.

Henry III as depicted by Matthew Paris

Henry III was only 9 years old when he became King of England. He was the first king since the Norman Conquest to succeed while still a minor. He came to power amidst years of mismanagement by his father, John, in what is now known as the “First Barons’ War.” After years of losing the vast territories of Anjou, Aquitaine, and Normandy in France, as well as levying heavy taxes on his subjects, King John returned home with neither riches nor his regained lands. As a consequence, the English barons revolted. They forced John to the bargaining table and the famous outcome was Magna Carta, but the rebellion continued until John’s death. Following John’s death, many of the barons invited Prince Louis of France to claim the throne of England, but public opinion quickly turned toward the tradition of primogeniture -so it was to be the young prince, Henry, who was left in the care of William, Earl of Marshal -a veteran warrior who was widely respected among the gentry. In no small way, William helped to secure Henry’s succession.

Since London was occupied by the rebels, Henry’s coronation ceremony took place in the abbey church at Gloucester on October 28, 1216. It was a simple affair, devoid of the crown jewels and absent the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who was busy appealing his Papal suspension in Rome which was the result of his support for Magna Carta.

Under William’s tutelage, England returned to normalcy. Magna Carta was reinstated in November 1216 (albeit without a few controversial clauses), Prince Louis of France was defeated in 1217, and further French encroachment in England ended with a decisive English naval victory off the coast of Sandwich in August 1217. William of Marshal had done his duty and sadly he passed away in 1219, but he was succeeded by Hubert de Burgh, a capable man who was resented by Henry and eventually stripped of his title only to be replaced by Peter des Roches (an unpopular figure among the barons). With Henry’s kingship now secured, Henry was crowned again in 1220 with all the pomp and ceremony afforded an English king.

It was around this time that the first friars came to England. The Dominicans came first and then the Franciscans several years later. They significantly affected the culture of England at the time by establishing themselves in major towns and earning the favor of leading merchants. They preached publicly in the marketplaces unlike the Benedictine monks who were cloistered away in their abbeys. However over 100 years later, as we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the status of the friars had significantly declined.

Henry III was a great patron of the arts, having reconstructed Westminster Abbey as a magnificent French courtly structure (causing some controversy with the barons who saw the abbey as suspiciously un-English). Much of the edifice of Westminster Abbey we see today is a result of Henry III’s efforts. At the heart of the building was an homage to the royal saint, Edward the Confessor. The whole project nearly bankrupted Henry, as the crown found it nearly impossible to levy taxes after those difficult years of King John, and once again civil war seemed just around the corner. The barons resented Henry’s relationship with Peter des Roches along with the apparent ‘Frenchification’ of Henry’s court. In 1234, the barons and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Rich (a renowned Oxford scholar), publicly denounced Henry at Westminster. Tensions between the barons, clergy, and crown were at a boiling point. However, violence managed to be mostly tabled, in spite of King Henry III’s dreams of rebuilding his father’s lost kingdom in France. In 1236, Henry married Eleanor of Provence bringing him certain lands in Southern France. Together, they had several children: Edward (who succeeded Henry III as King), Margaret (future Queen of Scots), Beatrice, Edmund “Crouchback,” and Katherine.

In the later years of his reign Henry made several foolhardy ventures abroad forcing him into debt with the Papacy, including a plot to instill his son, Edmund, as King of Sicily. Henry III was widely disrespected in his day for his many weaknesses. No one offers a better glimpse into the gossip of Henry III’s court than Matthew Paris (mentioned above), the Benedictine monk and scholar who initially began writing a history of St. Albans Abbey which eventually turned into a general history of England, including contemporary issues facing the court of King Henry III (such as the rumor that Henry III had become impotent). Paris was an English patriot who later became good friends with the King and met with him frequently, but who distrusted the Papacy and other forms of foreign influence on the English crown. He liked Henry the man, but not Henry III the monarch.

The public and the barons agreed with Matthew Paris. The King’s many debts and obligations to foreigners rather than citizens forced the gentry to find a new leader: Simon de Montfort. De Montfort was a crusader and a frenchman who was brought to England by Henry III and offered an earldom. Simon and the barons brought Henry to heel with the convening of a Parliament (“Parlement”) as provided for in Magna Carta. Accusations were leveled against the King and the historian Matthew Paris tells us that Henry admitted his faults and performed acts of penance at the altar of Saint Edward the Confessor in Westminster, but it was too little too late. The Parliament of nobles and bishops met again at Oxford and drew up a revolutionary new Republican Monarchy-styled charter. It was modeled upon the newly emerging republican city-states in Italy, particularly those in Venice and Florence. The new document was called the “Provisions of Oxford” (1258). It established elevated rights for the barons and semi-annual meetings of Parliament, a body of 15 elected leaders to express the baronial and religious concerns to the King.

Humiliated, Henry III initially retreated behind a veil of piety while traveling throughout the countryside, however he soon marshaled his forces in 1264 and rode out into battle against the baronial armies led by Simon de Montfort. Needless to say, de Montfort’s troops easily overpowered Henry and the King retreated into the nearby Lewes Priory with his chosen son, Edward. De Montfort’s soldiers shot flaming arrows onto the roof of the priory, forcing the King to surrender. He was now a puppet leader at the mercy of the barons, and as collateral they took Henry’s son, Edward, as hostage. Henry III was now reduced to a figurehead, while Simon de Montfort traveled throughout the land encouraging more rank-and-file knights to join in the Parliamentary revolution.

Of Simon de Montfort, Winston Churchill writes: “The enthusiasm of the revolution -for it was nothing less- had not been satisfied by a baronial victory. Ideas were afoot which would not readily be put to sleep. It is the merit of Simon de Montfort that he did not rest content with a victory by the barons over the Crown” (115).

However, before Simon de Montfort’s revolution was complete, Henry III’s son Edward escaped from captivity and raised an army. Edward defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham. Simon de Montfort was killed in battle and in the 1960s a monument was erected to him at Evesham Abbey. Even in the 13th century, an age devoid of contemporary democratic sentiments, de Montfort was considered a hero. Devotees of the new idea of a Parliamentary Republic honored de Montfort as a martyr (not unlike Thomas Becket) but royalists were furious with him. They gruesomely dismembered his corpse at his burial site -an act which would not soon be forgotten.

Simon de Montfort’s memorial at Evesham Abbey

The civil war lingered on until 1267 when the monarchy was restored, and the magnificence of Westminster Abbey was finally consecrated in 1267. It was the greatest achievement of Henry III’s reign, however in the 1270s when the old king fell ill, the newly re-engaged monarchy would ultimately be left to his son, Lord Edward (the future King Edward I “Longshanks”) to govern the rebellious barons and the unruly bishops.

Winston Churchill writes of Henry: “More than half a century before at the age of nine, he had succeeded to the troubled inheritance of his father in the midst of civil war. At times it seemed as if he would also die in the midst of civil war. At last however the storms were over: he could turn back to the things of beauty that so interested him far more than political struggles. The new Abbey of Westminster, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, was now dedicated; its consecration had long been the dearest object of King Henry III’s life. And here in the last weeks of 1272 he was buried” (119).

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris (13th century).

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