The first thing people noticed about Henry, perhaps the only thing they noticed, was his droopy left eyelid. He was blond, of medium height for the times and pleasant looking, but otherwise unremarkable. Nobody ever claimed that he was clever. Later on, exasperated chroniclers denounced him as ‘simple-minded’, ‘senseless’ and ‘useless’ – simplex, insipiens, inutilis. After his dismal performance at the battle of Saintes in 1242, his bitterest enemy, Simon de Montfort, said to his face: ‘It would be a good thing if you were taken and shut away, as was done to Charles the Simple. There are houses with iron bars at Windsor that would be good for imprisoning you securely.’
Henry was also affectionate by nature and incurably weepy. He broke down in tears whenever he was saying goodbye to his (far tougher) wife, Eleanor, and his son, the future Edward I. After his blood row with Edward in 1260, he at first refused to see him, because ‘if he appears before me, I could not stop myself kissing him.’ Unlike his tight-fisted father, King John, Henry was generous to a fault, showering all around him with precious rings, brooches, luxurious robes, huge consignments of firewood and deer from his forests. The gifts he received from others he regifted, also on a heroic scale. When he ran out of cash to pay for his foreign wars, this was, unlike with other kings, partly because of his reckless generosity. He was always in the giving vein.
Above all, he was unwarlike. He had no time for blood sports, except hawking, never went hunting, never attended a tournament so far as we know (by contrast, his great-grandson Edward III hosted thirty tournaments in twelve years). His instinct was always to make peace. Again and again, he fumbled his way to a sort of treaty, or at least mutual understanding, when his courtiers were yelping for all-out combat: peace with his brother-in-law Louis IX under the Treaty of Paris, peace with Llywelyn in Wales, with another brother-in-law, Alexander II in Scotland. The only man with whom he never came to a lasting understanding was Montfort (yet another brother-in-law).
In short, nothing could be less like the conventional idea of a pugnacious Plantagenet than the fair nine-year-old child who came to the throne in 1216, already weeping, in circumstances that would have taxed a Churchill or a Napoleon. Henry laboured all through his long reign under a doubly damnable inheritance, at least from the point of view of someone who never stopped wanting to be an absolute monarch. At Runnymede the year before, the barons had established, despite the defiance of King John, that any future king would have to rule in accordance with the provisions of the Great Charter, which was reaffirmed again and again during Henry’s 56 years on the throne. At the same time, by deposing John and inviting Prince Louis of France, soon to be Louis VIII, to assume the English throne, they were insisting that the king’s rule was conditional on good behaviour and the Great Council had the right to depose an unjust monarch. This menacing proviso too lurked in the background throughout Henry’s reign, surfacing for example in the warning from the mayor of London, the redoubtable Thomas fitzThomas, at St Paul’s in 1265: ‘As long as you wish to be a good king and lord to us, we will be faithful and devoted to you.’
After this unpromising start – a civil war in which the barons only narrowly opted in the end for the child Henry rather than Louis – the reign of Henry III was to be the longest of any English king before the Glorious Revolution. Yet he remains curiously absent from popular memory, and from the academic curriculum. David Carpenter, long-time professor of medieval history at King’s College London, remembers that his tutor at Oxford jumped straight from John to Edward I and left out Henry III altogether. During his long labours on this massive two-volume biography, Carpenter has often been asked ‘Oh, which one is that?’ Darren Baker’s recent vigorous defence of Henry is subtitled The Great King England Never Knew It Had (History Press, £15.99). Carpenter’s equally vigorous, vivid and even-handed Life is more than 1400 pages long, by coincidence the same length as the contemporary chronicle by Matthew Paris, the monk of St Albans. Any biographer is spoiled for choice among the sources: Robert of Gloucester, Roger of Wendover, Thomas Wykes of Osney, Alderman fitzThedmar of London – all of them salty and unrestrained in their comments, whether on the uselessness of Henry as a war leader or the brutality of Simon de Montfort’s massacre of the London Jews.
At first sight, it may seem unbalanced that Carpenter should cover 42 years of Henry’s reign in his first volume and only the last 14 years in his second. He explains this reasonably enough, on the grounds that the years after 1258 ‘are the more packed with incident, indeed politically they are among the most dramatic and traumatic periods in English history’, as his subtitle suggests. Whether this division simply turned out that way as Carpenter went along, or whether it is a deliberate strategy, I think it’s a kind of masterstroke. By contrast, Maurice Powicke in The 13th Century devotes little more than a hundred of his eight hundred pages to those first four decades.
Yet the whole period covering Henry’s minority and his emergence into personal rule is fascinating in its own right and deserves the close-focus treatment that Carpenter gives it. For these years are an extraordinary saga of unhappening. Again and again, Henry plans to cross over to France to recover the lands in Normandy and Anjou that his father lost, but every time the expedition is aborted, usually for lack of funds – in 1223, 1226, 1227 and 1229. In 1230, Henry does get as far as Nantes, where he dallies, according to Roger of Wendover, drinking, womanising and consuming treasure (the womanising unlikely in the case of Henry himself, who was chaste by nature and devoted to his wife, Eleanor of Provence). As the army marched on through Poitou to secure Gascony, it was ravaged by sickness and the whole thing was judged an abject failure. In 1242, Henry charged ahead on a fresh expedition without consulting anyone much. He cleaned out the Exchequer, but even so had far less cash than John had got together for his disastrous expedition in 1214 and a far smaller army than Louis, who for all his saintly reputation was a brutal ‘roi de guerre’. While the Battle of Saintes was a drawn game, both sides claiming victory, Montfort was not the only English observer who thought Henry’s personal performance had been pathetic.
Throughout these first four decades, Henry’s lack of cash was crippling. Again and again, he beseeches Parliament to grant him a tax. Again and again, Parliament refuses – in 1242, in 1245, in 1248, in 1252, in 1255. Whether the money is destined for a French expedition, or for his fantasy project to place his younger son, Edmund, on the throne of Sicily, or for the crusade which he plans to lead alongside his brother-in-law Louis (but which, unlike Louis and his own son Edward, he never does), every time Parliament says No. You sense in the English public an immunity to the crusading bug, even among the clergy. But in the course of these testy exchanges, Parliament develops an increasing sense of its own importance. It is in their meeting at Westminster in January 1237 that the Great Council is first referred to as ‘a Parliament’. It was this Parliament too that set the seal on Magna Carta and the supporting Charter of the Forests. Carpenter’s two volumes should be read in conjunction with his magisterial edition of Magna Carta for Penguin Classics.
In return, Parliament granted the king the last great tax he was to receive for thirty years. It was Henry’s doing that Parliaments increasingly met at his preferred residence of Westminster. With the rise of the Exchequer as a single collection point for the king’s income, we see the beginnings of central administration, monitored by an adjacent Parliament. By comparison, the incurably itinerant King John, even when not campaigning overseas, was rarely to be found at Westminster.
At the same time, Parliament becomes increasingly English. With the loss of Normandy and Anjou, many of the French barons had left England to hang on to their native estates. Increasingly, too, Parliament formalised its stipulations in constitutional documents, which they insisted should have lasting force, notably the Statute of Merton of 1234 and what historians have come to call the Paper Constitution of 1244, because it existed only on paper and Henry never consented to it. The crucial feature was that Henry’s chief ministers – the justiciar, the chancellor, the treasurer – should in future be chosen by Parliament, and not the king. Magna Carta had left the monarch free to appoint his own advisers and to spend his money as he wished. Now Parliament was to take over these essential powers. Henry refused point blank, and passionately. It would be a violation of his Coronation Oath to give away the powers he had received from God (George III used a somewhat similar argument to obstruct Catholic Emancipation, invoking the Coronation Oath he had taken to uphold the Church of England).
The standoff continued throughout the period of Henry’s personal rule, from 1234 to 1258. The Crown stays poor, Henry takes the Cross but stays home, Edmund never has a hope of becoming king of Sicily. It sounds a dismal period, but there is another way of looking at it. England remained more or less at peace with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and eventually Henry signed his great peace treaty with Louis, which was to endure for decades. England also remained a low-tax country by comparison with earlier and later reigns. I can’t help being reminded of the personal rule of Charles I, a period execrated as ‘the eleven-year tyranny’ by Whig historians, but extolled, not entirely without reason, by Clarendon as a period in which ‘the like peace and universal tranquillity for ten years was never enjoyed by any nation.’
Under Henry’s personal rule, new fairs and markets opened all over the country. The population went on expanding rapidly – Carpenter quotes estimates of two million in 1100 and six million in 1300. So did the common law and the recourse to the courts by all sorts of people, down to individual peasants. The old idea of a stagnant Middle Ages is out of favour. Historians now agree that England was a rapidly commercialising society, in which the bonds of feudalism were slackening, though they disagree about how fast. Sheep were cropping the downs across southern England, and their wool was feeding the Flemish cloth trade. Old mining industries and new ones were booming too: Cornish tin, lead in the Peak District, silver in Durham and Devon. Bell pits for new coal finds were being dug all over the country.
The profits and the products of these enterprises helped to make the 13th century a great age of church-building, the heyday of the Early English style – not only Salisbury, Wells and Lincoln cathedrals but innumerable glorious parish churches. The soaring steeples of the East Midlands and the graceful towers of Somerset first hit the skyline. Most glorious of all was Westminster Abbey, which was Henry’s personal pride and joy. Throughout his reign he fussed over every detail of the triforium and the Cosmati pavements, and above all the shrine of Edward the Confessor. Carpenter describes the intricate stages of the construction of the abbey’s interior with almost as much enthusiasm as Henry himself, and with the intimate knowledge of one whose father was dean there and sent him to Westminster School.
Henry’s fiercest critics could not deny his piety – the time he spent on pilgrimages, his devotion to the cult of the Confessor, the fortunes he spent on wax candles. He never stopped feeding thousands of paupers and washing the feet of lepers, which St Louis didn’t care to do. At times, Volume One seems little more than a recital of the masses he attended and the latest eye-popping wax bill. Yet this intense religiosity, however alien to us today, was at the heart of his reign and meant that, despite his many foolish acts, he never quite lost the affection of his subjects.
There was an equally intense competition in piety between Henry and Louis: Henry loved to hear masses; Louis loved sermons. On his visit to France to see Louis in 1262, Henry would first hear mass at his lodgings in the monastery of St Germain des Prés, then stop at every church on the way to hear a mass at each, making him so late for the meeting that there was no time for business. After a couple of days of this, Louis had the churches on the route closed until Henry had passed by. The next day, Henry turned up on time, declaring that he could not possibly attend the talks because all the churches were closed, which must mean that Paris was under a papal interdict. Louis confessed his ruse, and asked Henry why he insisted on hearing so many masses, to which Henry riposted: ‘Why do you delight in so many sermons?’ ‘It seems to me delightful and healthy to hear often about my Creator,’ Louis answered. ‘And to me it appears even more delightful and healthy to see Him frequently than to hear about Him.’ Can anyone ever have taken transubstantiation more seriously? Simplex indeed.
Carpenter quotes, without actually endorsing, the judgment of Maurice Powicke that in the 13th century, more than at any other time in the medieval period, ‘England was able to cope with herself … I mean that the tempo is more even, that the measure of agreement was greater … that the response to fresh influences or new tasks was clearer, and, if I may use the word, happier.’ It’s a rather opaque verdict, but I think I see what he means, though only because Carpenter has given us such a rich description of the times.
As with the personal rule of Charles I, however, the money to support the Crown even at a low level had to come from somewhere. Deprived of revenue approved by Parliament, Charles resorted to a gross expansion of ship money, which did not require parliamentary approval, at least not in its original application to coastal towns, but created a hell of a row when he expanded it to cover inland areas. Henry, for his part, came to rely on other non-parliamentary revenues, notably the fines imposed by justices on circuit, and the extortions of the sheriffs, many of whom were now demanding double the old sums they raised in their counties. Soon, the Song of the Sheriffs was being sung far and wide:
Who can tell truly
How cruel sheriffs are?
Of their hardness to poor people
No tale can go too far.
It was an additional grievance that sheriffs, instead of being ‘prudent and knowledgeable knights of the counties, as was old custom, were men coming from far away and utter strangers in the counties’. The grasping sheriff of Nottingham in the 14th-century Robin Hood legend was not a purely fictional creation. In Articles 50 and 51 of Magna Carta, the barons promise to remove from the kingdom Philip Marc, the sheriff of Nottingham, and his kinsmen, along with all other alien knights ‘who have come with horses and arms to the harm of the kingdom’.
This slotted into the longstanding resentment against Henry’s fondness for his foreign relatives. Henry seems to have been weirdly impervious to this critique. It’s not as if these favourites whom he showered with offices and estates were all childhood playmates. He appointed his wife’s uncle William of Valence as his chief councillor as soon as William set foot in England. He chose another of her uncles, Boniface of Savoy, to be archbishop of Canterbury, though he had never met him. Altogether, 170 ‘Savoyards’ joined the gravy train to England. These incomers didn’t go on to develop much affection for their adopted country. Peter of Savoy bequeathed the huge estates he had acquired to his relatives back in Savoy and his palace on the Strand (where the Savoy Hotel now stands) to the prior of the hospice on the Grand St Bernard Pass. Matthew Paris lamented that ‘the English nobility was being given away to unknown immigrants,’ and that Boniface was an illiterate bruiser as well as a foreigner, ‘more suited to warlike than to spiritual affairs’. Paris also claimed that Boniface strode into St Bartholomew’s Priory wearing armour under his vestments and threw punches at the aged prior. The last straw was the arrival of the greedy clan of Lusignans, Henry’s half-brothers by his mother, Isabella of Angoulême, who had left England after the death of King John and whom Henry hadn’t seen for 25 years.
Everyone could see that Henry felt more at ease with these foreign-born nobles. Fatherless from the age of nine and effectively motherless thereafter, he clung to those who might be instinctively loyal to him. At the same time, his desperate scrapes led him to rely on the smooth diplomacy of successive papal legates and the interventions of the pope himself. What the barons thought of this is shown by their frisking the bishops at Dover who were arriving with the papal anathemas and chucking the documents into the sea.
The damage all this did to Henry’s popularity was severe, and the baron who latched on to the anti-alien cause with the sharpest venom was Simon de Montfort. It didn’t escape attention that he was foreign-born himself, but as mesmerising incomers often do, he somehow established himself as an honorary Englishman. And there was no more mesmerising figure on the European scene. Honoured for the role of his father, Simon Senior, in the Albigensian Crusade, Montfort was already famous by the time he strode onto the English stage. The barons and knights of Jerusalem had asked Emperor Frederick to make him their regent until Frederick himself arrived. In 1253, Paris tells us, with Louis IX away on crusade, the French magnates wanted to make him steward of the kingdom. As earl of Leicester, he was already titular steward of England. As we have already seen, his tongue was blistering. His daring and strategic sense made him a formidable opponent both on the battlefield and in the council chamber.
Henry was scared stiff of him. ‘I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world,’ he said to him a few months after the great showdown of April 1258, which began the first English revolution. This must indeed have been a terrifying scene. The barons led by Montfort and Hugh Bigod marched into Westminster Hall in full armour, though they had the decency to leave their swords outside. Henry instantly appreciated the severity of his plight. ‘What is this, my lords, am I, poor wretch, your prisoner?’ In theory, he wasn’t, or not yet, but over the years of tumult that followed, Henry and Edward were frogmarched around the country in Montfort’s entourage, and made to sign on the dotted line when required. What was not in doubt was that the king was to be stripped of effective power, and a baronial council took over the government of the country. Under the Provisions of Westminster, read out in the hall in October the following year, all the Crown’s revenue was now to be paid into the Exchequer and to be controlled by the council-appointed chancellor and treasurer. The admirable Bigod, the new justiciar, toured the country, dealing out justice to high and low alike, appointing other judges to cover every county. Importantly, the Ordinances of the Magnates of February 1259 made it clear that the magnates themselves could be had up and punished for maltreating their tenantry – and they were.
Under Montfort’s guidance, the new regime took on a visibly nationalist intensity. At the Oxford Parliament of June 1258, all present had to take ‘the oath of the community of England’. The public seemed to accept all this quite calmly, and the chroniclers loved it. But then the barons began to fall out among themselves, or rather Montfort fell out with everybody – with the great Kentish magnate Richard de Clare, then with Peter of Savoy, and then with Bigod. In a remarkable turn of events, by the end of 1261, the simplex Henry had recovered power. Montfort had already been removed from the council, and Henry now determined to stage a show trial, recounting all his tormentor’s illegal manoeuvres. Montfort’s reply had a unique political force: all his apparently rebellious acts had been to support ‘the common enterprise’ and its ‘common provisions’. By contrast, Henry’s bringing in foreign troops to restore him to power ‘harmed and dishonoured both king and the land in common, for it seemed the king put his trust more in foreigners than in men of his own land’. And when Montfort in turn regained control, he added into the mix a statute barring aliens from office, and stipulating that the realm was henceforth to be governed by native-born men.
Montfort is remembered today for his crucial role in the Parliament of 1265, which for the first time summoned knights and burgesses to represent their counties and towns, thus setting a clear path towards a constitutional democracy. But he deserves also to be remembered for his skill in entrenching a nationalist narrative into English politics. This had a malign aspect. In the middle of the struggle for constitutional government against the anathemas of the pope and Louis IX, he masterminded the massacre of nearly all London’s Jews in April 1264, some five hundred of them, including women and children. The London pogrom was even worse than the more notorious massacre in York in 1190. Henry committed injustices against the Jews too, but he was more interested in converting them to Christianity. Contemporary opinion was horrified by Montfort’s actions. The reality was that he was a nasty piece of work, and anyone who had dealings with him soon came to regret it.
A month after the massacre, Montfort triumphed at the battle of Lewes, and Henry and Edward really were his prisoners. He showed his grasp of propaganda by sending the latest text of the provisions to every county, saying that they were to be observed ‘for the benefit of the whole community of England’ and to be read aloud in every court each month. As he celebrated Christmas that year in his vast castle at Kenilworth, with his epoch-making Parliament set for the spring of 1265, he seemed to be on top of the world. There was even talk, Carpenter suggests, of ‘King Simon’.
In fact, his regime this time lasted less than six months. He fell out with the barons he had not already estranged, and he underestimated the young Prince Edward, who made a daring escape from his jailors and led his troops with a bravura that showed England what the nation had been missing for the past half-century. At the decisive ‘murder of Evesham, for it was no battle’, knights as well as foot soldiers perished in droves, including Montfort, who was dismembered after death, his testicles being hung either side of his nose and then stuffed into his mouth. His head was then sent to Maud de Mortimer, the wife of Roger, the great lord of the Marches, ‘who right sorely abused it’. Maud was one of the many impressive women who held the fort when their husbands were dead or off campaigning or crusading, the most formidable being the two Eleanors, Montfort’s wife and Henry’s.
Nobody could have been more viciously reviled after Henry’s final restoration. And yet there developed an amazing Montfort cult, which saw his severed limbs floating all over the country to perform extraordinary miracles. Few such miracles were attributed to Henry after he died peacefully in his bed. Nor did his project of making the peace-loving Edward the Confessor the patron saint of England get off the ground, despite the marvellous shrine he had built for him in the abbey. On the contrary, throughout the reign of the first three Edwards, the mythical warrior saint George bulked ever larger as the nation’s beau idéal, despite being undoubtedly an alien, whatever else he was or wasn’t. St George was officially adopted on the regalia of the Garter when the order was founded by Edward III.
The England that was to develop after Henry’s death seems rather more in the mould of Simon de Montfort: a parliamentary state, yes, but therefore one that could be more highly taxed and would be better able to wage war tous azimuts, as de Gaulle thought a proper nation should be ready to do. Wars did indeed follow, against Wales and Scotland, later inevitably against Ireland too, not to mention the small matter of the Hundred Years’ War with France. Under the first Edwards, we see the beginnings of an England that Maurice Keen describes as ‘more English, more insular and more individual, with a consciousness of its own individuality that had not been there before’. Eventually it becomes plausible for Parliament to declare, in words drafted by Thomas Cromwell on behalf of Henry VIII, and still being redeployed by Brexiteers today, that ‘this realm of England is an empire.’
But the England of Henry III’s heyday, when the wars never quite happened, and the taxes never got collected, and the churches soared and the streets were filled with pilgrims and merchants and jesters (Henry loved crude jokes almost as much as he loved washing lepers’ feet) – that England was never seen again.
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