Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Dead King Watch: Henry III - The Quiet Man



Henry III of England reigned for quite some time until his death about 733 years ago on 16th November 1272. In fact he is one of the longest reigning monarchs - coming to throne age only 9 in 1216 and then ruling until his death - though today he remains comparatively forgotten about.

In part he is generally forgotten about in the list of Kings because he was eminently forgettable as an individual. Rather like Iain Duncan Smith (a former Tory leader, for those who have already forgotten), Henry was 'a quiet man' - with much to be quiet about. Like most kings, 'he was extravagant and avaricious; when his first child, Prince Edward was born, Henry demanded the Londoners bring him rich gifts to celebrate, and even sent back gifts that did not please him. Matthew Paris reports that some said, "God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us."'

He was also really rather incompetent, as monarchs go. After Magna Carta in 1215, the power of the barons could no longer really be ignored by Kings, but once Henry had grown to maturity he wanted to run England in the French style (his wife was French) with absolute power (and favours for his mates). This unsurprisingly pissed off quite a few English barons who allied themselves around the apparently quite dashing Simon de Montfort. When Henry tried to raise money from the people to fund a little war to capture Sicily, of all places, matters reached a head. 'In 1258 seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of fifteen barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a three yearly meeting of parliament to monitor their performance.' This really was the birth of Parliament in Britain - though it was still very far from Parliamentary democracy - unless you count 15 rather rich landlords as 'the rule of the people'.

You would think Henry would now just learn his lesson - sit back and quietly get on with living his life of luxury like a good king. He had an interest in architecture - York Minster as we know it was built in his reign as were ecclesiastical edifices at Wells and Lincoln - perhaps he could have got stuck into that. However, as Prince Charles could tell you, architecture and talking to trees does not a man make - and so Henry went and started...a Civil War.

This admittedly was a rather extreme option - and it nearly got him killed - but sometimes a man has got to do what a man has got to do. Basically Henry bought off some of the barons and forced the rebel barons around de Montfort to try and raise an army among the other classes of English society to defend themselves. Unfortunately this is where things started to go rather wrong for Henry - as in 1264 Simon de Montfort defeated Henry's army at Lewes with the help of citizens of London. King Henry and his two sons were captured by the rebels. Leslie Morton in A People's History of England tells us what happened next:

'After Lewes, the desertions from the baronial ranks went on, and the movement began as a result to assume a really popular character. It included the town merchants, the lesser landowners, those of the clergy who were opposed to the growing power of the Papacy and the students of Oxford, who, drawn from the middle and lower middle classes, were throughout the Middle Ages strongly radical in temper. It was under these circumstances that de Montfort summoned to his Parliament of 1265 representatives of the burgesses of the chartered towns as well as two knights from each shire.'

This is really quite remarkable when you think about it - a split in the ruling class and the formation of an alliance with the new urban middle class - the successful overthrow of the King - and a new Parliamentary power forms.
Plus students in Oxford were radical as early as 1265!

As Morton continues, 'de Montfort's Parliament, though called together in accordance with strictly legal forms, has nevertheless been correctly described as a revolutionary party assembly. It contained only five earls and seventeen barons, and the burgesses were clearly intended as a makeweight against the barons who had deserted.'

All this reads almost like the great dress rehearsal for the English Civil War almost four hundred years later - no wonder our rulers keep fairly quiet about Henry III! Henry had lost his monarchical power to a (French born) bloke called Simon...its all rather embarrassing isn't it...

Unfortunately, Republicanism in England was not to be a thirteenth century phenonomenon. Henry's eldest son, Edward - you remember, the one that the poor in London had to give gifts to - decided not to repay his new captors with kindness and instead planned to escape. He challenged his captors to a horse race, and having the best stead managed not only to win but to ride off into the sunset into the bargain. Edward raised an army, returned before Simon could muster reinforcements, and began to massacre the rebel army.

Simon de Montfort had one last trick up his sleeve however. He dressed Henry III up as an ordinary soldier and put him at the front of the army - which meant he was very nearly killed by Edward's forces - only just succeeding in identifying himself in time. For this act, Edward was not feeling particularly merciful to Simon de Montfort after winning back control - and Simon was killed. Order was restored and Henry was back on the throne. After the excitement of 1265, Henry was more respectful towards the Barons and, when convenient to himself, would call Parliaments more regularly. However, while they were no longer a purely feudal institution, they were hardly democratic and were just there to help the King collect taxes.

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