Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Thirteenth-Century Civil War

Steve Muhlberger

We left political history at the death of King John.

John had been fighting a baronial revolt and a French invasion. You'll recall that John's death was a key factor in ending that war. Barons who could not trust John were willing to support the government of his young son, Henry III. Henry's regents, who included William the Marshal, showed leniency to those who made peace with the king, and indicated their good faith by reissuing Magna Carta not once but twice.

In this way the arrogant and erratic government of John was replaced by what can be called a reforming administration. It was led, at least initially, by the Marshal and by Hubert de Burgh, an experienced bureaucrat who served as justiciar. They were trusted and moderate men. Their government had the active support of the pope, who took seriously his position as overlord of England.

The result was a reasonably stable government that avoided the excesses of John's reign. Royal government without the king worked quite well. There was no active monarch to stir up controversy.

Eventually, however, Henry III grew up and took control of his realm. In 1227, he got the pope to agree that he was of full age. Very quickly friction arose between him and Hubert de Burgh, who had been running the country since William the Marshal had died eight years before. Hubert got in Henry's way. Where Henry was determined to reconquer the lost Plantagenet lands in France, Hubert was constantly holding him back. In this Hubert represented the English baronage.

Henry found his own supporters to oppose the English establishment. His mother, after John's death, had gone back to Poitou and married the man she had jilted in 1202, Hugh de Lusignan. Her second family were among Henry's closest allies. Also some of his father's Poitevin servants were still around. The most important was Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, an old government hack who had been a trusted counselor of both Richard Lionheart and John. With Peter des Roches came his son or nephew, Peter des Rivaux. These two men were royal absolutists at heart, and they encouraged Henry in his desire to be his own master.

In 1232, Henry deposed Hubert de Burgh.  There was a trial in which Hubert was accused of all kinds of crimes, some of which he may have committed. Hubert had his enemies, so his fall in itself did not alarm the barons. What did upset them was Henry's next move. Peter des Rivaux was put in charge of both the Exchequer, the Chamber (the king's record office) and made sheriff in twenty-one counties simultaneously. This was not government in the spirit of Magna Carta -- it was a return to rule by will instead of judgement.  Just as bad, the barons, and foreigners made the important decisions.

The barons, under the leadership of Richard Marshal, William's heir, insisted that Hubert de Burgh should get a proper trial as specified in Magna Carta. Eventually Richard Marshal went to war against the king. When that failed, Richard crossed to his Irish estates, where he was murdered, probably at royal behest. Richard's murder shocked the English barons, and the two Peters were temporarily dismissed. But Henry had won the confrontation. He had control of his government, and he kept it for the next twenty-five years.

Henry III was heir to Angevin efforts to impose royal authority on the countryside. Methods that had been suspect innovations in his ancestors' time were now routine.  On the basis of such practical power, Henry was able to revive theoretical claims for the king's absolute power. Henry III, in his wealth an power, thought of himself as God's vicar, as had Charlemagne and Alfred. In the view of Henry and his officials, who shared and implemented his power, all men were equally humble before the king, who had a divine power to judge them and order them around.

Anyone can say such things, but making others believe them is another matter. Henry had mixed success. His power seemed very great to his contemporaries, and he very often got his way. Although his attitude irritated many of his subjects, his claims were not all hot air.

Second, Henry was not alone in building up the image of the monarch as an imperial ruler. In Germany and Italy at the same time, the emperor Frederick II made similar claims, and worked energetically for decades to make himself in truth a universal ruler. He failed because he came into conflict with the pope, the other would-be universal ruler. Another king of the same time, Louis IX, St. Louis, was much more successful. Louis was the most powerful French king in at least 300 years.  With this growth of practical power came an ideology of absolutism, divine right. Along with Louis' famous piety only enhanced his determination to do things his way. He, after all, was directly responsible to God.

Henry, like these other rich and powerful monarchs, was a man of ambitious projects.

Henry had several goals, none of which he eventually attained. Henry's first project was to recover the French territories lost by his father. He pursued this directly until he suffered a humiliating defeat in Poitou in 1242. Then he changed his angle of attack. Henry had married into the ruling family of Provence, and he hoped to use his family connections in Provence and nearby Savoy to become a power in southern Europe. Italy, Germany and Southern France were in turmoil in the mid-thirteenth century, and Henry hoped to take advantage of this. He especially wanted to weaken Louis of France. Henry had not given up on Poitou, Anjou and Normandy.

After 1250, both Henry and his brother, Richard earl of Cornwall, found greater goals. In that year, Frederick II died. The pope was anxious to destroy Frederick's family and give Frederick's kingdoms, Germany and Sicily, to someone else. Richard of Cornwall used his extensive personal wealth to get himself elected king of Germany, and set about trying to establish himself there. Henry entered into negotiations with the pope to buy Sicily for his second son Edmund.

It was this Sicilian deal, concluded in 1255, that proved to be Henry's Achilles heel. The pope, who was overlord of Sicily, wanted Henry to pay well for his son's kingdom. The pope had been fighting Frederick II for a long time and had big debts. So the price of a crown was set at 135,000 marks, almost as much as Richard Lionheart's ransom, to be paid in 18 months. If it wasn't paid in full, the king would be liable to excommunication.

The payment to the pope was to be raised through taxing the clergy in England; as big as that payment was, it was just the beginning. The pope did not actually control Sicily; an illegitimate son of Frederick II was in possession, and a war would be necessary to get rid of him.

This Sicilian business was very unpopular in England.  The barons stood on their rights as defined in Magna Carta and refused to contribute taxes. Henry soon realized that he would not be able to raise the 135,000 marks. At the same time as Henry's foreign policy was going awry, things were bad at home. In 1256 and 1257 there were crop failures in England, and famine resulted. This, just as Henry was raising all the money he could through taxation. Also, there was trouble on the Welsh border, from Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, who called himself Prince of Wales. Henry had nothing effective about Wales.

In early 1258, the pope, still unpaid, threatened to excommunicate Henry. Henry was desperate, and was forced to do something he had been avoiding for a long time: he decided to consult with his chief barons, in hopes they would bail him out.

The barons were in no mood to help Henry. For years now, he had been doing pretty much what he wanted; worse, he had offended against the barons' dignity. They believed that they were the king's partners in government, his natural advisors, his chief men.  Henry had ignored this special relationship, and ran his government with the help of obscure, often foreign advisors, who were specialists in administration. He also favored his Lusignan half-brothers and sisters and his relatives from Provence and Savoy. So the barons, in this moment of royal weakness, were ready to press for a return to what they considered good government.

Behind  this move was a small but powerful group of 5 earls and two great barons. All were men of diplomatic and military experience, most had holdings on the militarized and now-threatened Welsh border. The most determined reformer among them was, strangely enough, a Frenchman and the king's brother-in-law, a man who had a European-wide reputation. He was Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who eventually became the symbol of the baronial cause.

Simon de Montfort was the son of another famous Simon de Montfort who had been the military leader of the Albigensian Crusade, the papacy's campaign against heresy in the South of France. The elder Simon had been a brilliant general, and for a few years he had been ruler of a vast principality.

The younger Simon shared many traits with his father. He was pious, he was arrogant, he was a good war leader.  He had cooperated with Robert Grosseteste in expelling the Jews from Leicester. In other circumstances he would have been an excellent king by divine right.

Simon had settled in England after making good his hereditary claim to Leicester. At first he had been on very good terms with Henry -- Henry allowed him to marry his sister Eleanor. Simon was also governor of Gascony for a while. But he had been so tough on the independent Gascons that they had got him tried for abuse of office. Simon was acquitted, but permanently embittered against Henry.

In April of 1258, Simon de Montfort and his six confederates to support each other against all others but the king and his heir. The oath was meant to cement an alliance, or commune, so that they could take decisive action to reform the realm. Around this core, other barons and even knights gathered. By the time Henry and his barons met at Westminster on April 30, the king was facing a commune that took in the most important men in England.

This group, armored but not armed, demanded that the king should dismiss his Poitevin supporters and join their commune. Henry and his eldest son Edward had little choice but to swear the oath, and thus join with them in a program of reform.

This time the barons wanted more than a one-shot guarantee of good government like Magna Carta. They had in mind a whole new system of government.

First, there was an attempt to halt and remedy abuses by royal officials in the local communities of England. New sheriffs, substantial local men, were to be appointed. Also, in each shire, a panel of four local knights was to hear complaints against royal officers.

Second, the barons set up a new central government to prevent future abuses. A council of 15 members was set up to advise the king, and the king was required to follow their advice. The chief officers of the realm, the justiciar, the treasurer, and the chancellor, swore to obey the council.

Third, the barons established that there should be three parliaments -- the word meant discussion, and did not imply an institution -- per year, at which the 15 councilors, 12 major barons, and the king should treat the business of the realm. It was probably intended that these 28 people were a minimum, not a maximum, for attendance at these discussions. The intent was not to narrow the political process but to widen it.

Implied in the reform agenda, but not spelled out, was the reduction of Henry's adventures overseas. The Sicilian involvement was dropped, and negotiations for peace with France were begun.

Triumphantly the barons had these decisions, called the Provisions of Oxford (1258), publicly proclaimed in English, so as to reach all the free men of the country and thus build support. The barons were surprised, then, to find that their program did not satisfy the lesser people. Knights, burgesses, and other small but reasonably important types were still feeling hard pressed. Partly it was the continuing famine; but mainly it was the incompleteness of reform. Smaller people, you see, were often more concerned with the abuses of baronial powers and baronial officers than they were with the king's government.

The unrest was enough to bring forth, in the fall of 1259, the Provisions of Westminster, aimed at restricting the power of lords over their tenants. Free tenants wanted, and got, limits set on the power of their superiors to collect money and require attendance at feudal courts. Added on to these measures were new restrictions on royal officers, so that they could not push around the lesser free folk. The non-baronial free men, invoked by reformers both in 1215 and in 1258, were making their presence felt on the national scene.

These measures were an  astonishing victory for the idea that the political community had some rights, some say in how the realm was governed. But could they be turned into a permanent form of government? Would these barons have more luck controlling the king than their predecessors had had in 1215?

The simple answer is no.

Henry never really believed in this revolution.  He saw the realm as his hereditary estate, which he could run as freely as any other free man ran his. Remember this was the era of high farming, when every landlord in England was trying to gain maximum advantage from his holdings, customary restraints notwithstanding. From the very beginning he tried to wiggle free.

He  got the pope to absolve him from his oath to the commune of barons, and his oath to uphold the Provisions of Oxford. He exploited divisions between the barons. When war with the barons seemed imminent, he got his former enemy, King Louis of France, to act as an arbiter between him and his domestic enemies. This was called the Mise of Amiens.  Louis was famous for his justice, but he also was a king, and in the end, he came down on the side of unrestrained royal power.

Louis' decision left the reformers in disarray. The only alternative to submission now was war. Some barons would not take that step. But a determined group under Simon de Montfort decided to fight -- and they won. In May of 1264, there was a battle at Lewes in Sussex, where the king's forces were scattered and Henry and his son Edward were taken into custody.

The results of Lewes were, in fact, rather paradoxical. Many of the lesser folk were heartened by the apparent victory for constitutional government, or perhaps, more accurately, the communal ideal. But constitutional government was itself a casualty. Many barons no longer supported Simon.  To avoid losing power, Simon had to act as a dictator in the king's name. While he controlled the king, he could issue orders in the manner of a shogun.

Simon tried to rebuild constitutional government on a new basis. He was the first to hold parliaments -- formal discussions of national business -- in which representatives of the knightly class and of the burgesses took part. This middle class group was right behind him. When Queen Eleanor threatened to invade England, Simon was able to call up a middle class and peasant militia to defend the country. Most of the bishops supported him too, because they believed in restraints on royal power. But without support of the earls and great barons, Simon was in a precarious position.

The royal position was clear-cut and easily understood. The kingdom belonged to the king, as a person, not as an impersonal, institutional crown. He should be able to do with it what he liked; he had the same freedom as any free man to run his own property. Other "free men" felt that their powers and rights were not dissimilar to his.  And his power was traditional.  He was the king, and people knew, without thinking, that they owed him obedience. Any time the king got loose, he could take command of his bureaucracy, call on his vassals, and invoke the customary oaths that people had sworn to him.

The case for constitutional government, of institutional restraints on the king's will, was new, not entirely thought out, and had only the support of the dissatisfied and the enthusiasts. The reluctance of many high-ranking laymen to join Simon in the last stage of the struggle was motivated partly by personal factors. Simon could be very hard to deal with. But also lords who treasured their position, their freedom of action, and their hereditary privileges could easily fall into sympathy with the king. Besides, it was quite obvious that Simon de Montfort was an upstart and a traitor to his liege lord.

In early 1265,  Edward, Henry's heir, was allowed to escape from custody. Edward was already a grown man of military talent. He was able to assemble an army, and in August of that year, defeat Simon de Montfort at Evesham in Warwickshire. His body was hacked to bits, and his remaining followers hunted down.

What is the significance of this conflict?

On the most obvious level, it was a royal victory. Henry III regained everything he had lost. He was able to spend his declining years finishing his reconstruction of Westminster Abbey as a great shrine to divinely sanctioned royal power, which of course it still is today. Edward, his heir, was confidently able to go crusading in the holy land without fear of trouble in England.  Simon de Montfort was secretly honored by some as a political saint, but the royal idea was stronger than ever.

Yet the communal cause was not utterly lost. The experiment led by de Montfort kept the ideas behind Magna Carta alive when they could have so easily been forgotten.

There were practical results as well. The widening of the political community that had taken place in the communal period turned out to be permanent. The knights and burgesses, long a source of tax revenue and manpower for royal commissions, were now recognized as having a collective national role. Under Edward I their presence in parliament would become almost normal. And as we shall see, even as powerful and popular a king as Edward I would have to bow on occasion to institutional restraints on his freedom of action.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.