Henry III

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HENRY III (1207-1272), King of England (1216-1272), was only nine when he succeeded his father King John. This was at a time of crisis, with a French army controlling much of the south of a kingdom already wracked by the civil war between his father and the barons. He was fortunate that the barons saw fit not to transfer their grievances from the father to the son; and that the regency of England was in the hands of the remarkable old warrior and diplomat, William Marshal, who, with papal help, came to terms with the French and secured the kingdom.

He was crowned in Gloucester on the death of his father and again at Westminster in 1220. He did not, however, rid himself of a council of advisers and begin his personal rule until 1234. Two years later he married Eleanor of Provence, who was to bear him two sons, and four daughters, and cause much resentment at the overbearing and grasping ways of her retinue.

Henry was a man unsuited to the duties of thirteenth century kingship and the realities of the post-Magna Carta age. He was the most cultured of monarchs, spending great sums on art and aggrandisement, and the restoration of Westminster Abbey, including the establishment of the royal necropolis, which, whilst of interest to the modern tourist, was considered of less worth in an England in some financial strife. He found it impossible to understand that he, as king, did not have the same powers as his forebears did before Magna Carta.

He attempted unsuccessfully to regain Poitou lost by his father; managed to retain Gascony, but was finally forced to accept the King of France as his liege lord in that country and agree to forego all claims to other French lands that had once been the Angevin birthright.

Henry, by the late 1250s, was an unpopular ruler in the eyes of the magnates of the realm, and in 1258 a group of them led by Simon de Montfort, forced him to accept the Provisions of Oxford, which curtailed his power to the extent that a council of fifteen was appointed by Parliament to control all expenditure, and he had to agree to the holding of regular future parliaments.

It became apparent that the power in the kingdom was leaning too much towards de Montfort, and in 1261 Henry had enough baronial support to break free of his restraints. He obtained papal absolution enabling denial of the Provisions. In 1263 many of the barons revolted and de Montfort retook Government. The French king’s decision in 1264 to accept the right of Henry to ignore the Provisions brought renewed fighting and Henry was captured at the Battle of Lewes and forced to recall Parliament. (These Parliaments – 1258, 1264, 1265 - together form an important step in the long path from Magna Carta to modern parliamentary democracy. For the first time, commoners were included in deliberations and the vote. The Parliament of 1265 can be considered as the first meeting of the House of Commons.)

The attitude of de Montford again irritated many of the barons. He fell out with the powerful Earl of Gloucester. The earl joined Henry’s son, the future Edward I, in the Welsh Marches. Together they raised an army, and at the battle of Evesham (4 August 1265) de Montford was killed, and Henry returned to power. The reforms of the three great Parliaments were annulled.

Henry died in 1272 and was succeeded by Edward.

Henry’s reign had staggered from one crisis to another, and on the surface it seems that little was achieved; that all the strife and hope had been for nought. But the England at the succession of Edward was a different place to the war-riven land of 1216. Whilst those in high position bickered and fought for power, the farmer and artisan and merchant - even the still-bound serf - were getting on with their lives and starting to become aware of a thing called England. Whilst the nobles still spoke their French, and followed the ways of the French court, there was not the gulf between them and the great mass of the people that had existed before. The English language was at last being written. The universities at Oxford and Cambridge shed much of their "Frenchness" and became great in their own right. The great Dominican, Roger Bacon, and his Franciscan teacher, Robert Grosseteste, who wrote seminal works in theology and science, flourished at this time. The earliest extant lyric poem in the English language, "Sumer is icumen in" was written about the middle of the century and is the only known six-part music written before the 15th century.) The capital, London, was now recognised at home and abroad as the great city it was. The three Parliaments may not have achieved their goal, but the seed had been planted, and there was now a perception that the common man might actually gain something.

The historian Arthur Bryant titled his chapter on the state of England at the end of Henry’s reign: “Merry England”. Much of the history of England now turns to the lives of the commoners instead of being solely the story of the high and noble.

References: Arthur Bryant: “Makers of the Realm”| “The Plantagenet Encyclopedia”.

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