By Allen D. Boyer
The long reign of Henry III, which stretched across seven decades of the English 13th Century, might be seen as a long, lazy idyll, suddenly overwhelmed at its end by agitation, rebellion, and savage civil war. David Carpenter’s new biography of Henry—its concluding volume issued as if to mark the end of lockdown, as its first volume appeared just as the pandemic opened—draws magisterially on a career’s worth of work on Henry. Carpenter navigates the still water of Henry’s reign with the skill of a harbor pilot, a writer who knows where this period was a golden age, and where its calm masked forces that nearly destroyed Henry and his dynasty.
Henry III was the first English king to operate under a written constitutional restraint. His father King John had been forced to approve Magna Carta, rejected it, and died in a war against the barons who had drafted it. Henry made better use of Magna Carta. Guided by two great statesmen, William the Marshal and Archbishop Stephen Langton, Henry won over his realm by re-issuing the Great Charter. Other advisors, steely justiciar Hubert de Burgh and royal guardian Peter des Roches, also served and guided the king, but taught him the regal bad habit of lightly flinging loose charges of treason.
Henry also made Parliament a vital element of English government. Between 1235 and 1257, he summoned 45 parliaments, not least because he was constantly short of money. That was the downside of respecting the law; Henry did not, as his father had done, confiscate lands at will, or extort money from landholders desperate “to appease the king’s anger and recover his benevolence.” Carpenter sums up:
“The contrast was partly because of Henry’s respect for the letter and the spirit of Magna Carta. It was also because of his indulgent, easily appeased personality. There was a truth in the remarks [that] Roger of Wendover puts into Henry’s mouth: ‘I prefer to be thought a king foolish and remiss than cruel and tyrannical.’ In that respect, Henry was the ideal king for the post-Magna Carta world.”
Not counting costs, Henry gave to charity and the church. His piety was magnificent: “Who could be unaware of his delight in divine service, his feeding of paupers . . . and his distribution of silks, chalices and jewels to churches and shrines?”
Under King John, the royal chancery and household had shown a new diligence in making and preserving records. On nearly every page, Carpenter draws on these documents—particularly the fine rolls for Henry’s reign, which record payments made to win concessions from the crown. What they disclose about Henry is disquieting. They reflect that Henry “manhandled his jesters” (Henry had the hapless Fortunato de Luka dunked in the Roman bath at Bath). There is something peculiar here: an immaturity, a strange playfulness that was not kingly. Men watched Henry carefully but did not take him seriously.
Henry knew to distrust the earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort. Montfort had jested that the English should lock up Henry as the French had locked up Charles the Simple. For a similar jibe at his intelligence, Henry had angrily ordered that a jester be hanged. He could not do that with Montfort. Montford was an able, cunning, ambitious nobleman, with an aristo’s arrogance and a crusader’s confidence. He was also Henry’s brother-in-law, the father of sons who had a plausible claim to the throne. But if Henry was alert to the danger that Simon posed, his fecklessness once more betrayed him. He took no decisive action.
The first volume of this biography, The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207-1258, supplied a narrative. The concluding volume, charged with moments and turning points, is a book of scenes.
It opens in early 1258, when a knot of noblemen, not carrying swords but wearing armor, confronted Henry and made him swear to relinquish power. After five uneven years (Henry continued to quarrel with Simon de Montfort, and faced friction with the Lord Edward, his son and heir-apparent), fighting began: riots in towns, raids on manors, brawls in churchyards. By the summer of 1264, there were armies in the field. Carpenter zeroes in to describe what Henry must have experienced at the battle of Lewes:
“For Henry himself the clash of arms must have been terrifying. He was 57 years old and not in the best of health. He had campaigned in Wales and France, he had witnessed the battle of Northampton, he had worn armor but he had never personally been in a fight. There is no evidence he had even attended tournaments. Had he ever before drawn a sword other than to admire its craftsmanship? . . . Now he had to wear a helmet in earnest, enduring its heat, claustrophobia, and limited vision. It was soon worse than that. For all his entourage could do to protect him, the fighting reached Henry himself. According to the chronicler of Lewes priory, he had two horses killed under him and was much beaten with swords and maces. The chronicler does not say that Henry did any beating back!”
Lewes was a royalist disaster. Henry became Montfort’s prisoner. Divine service was observed in the royal chapel, daily, with masses honoring England’s royal saint, King Edward the Confessor. On Maundy Thursday, at Westminster Abbey, the king gave “shoes to 150 paupers and presumably washed their feet in the great silver bowl kept in the wardrobe for that purpose.”
At this low point, Carpenter suggests, Henry’s highly visible piety and charity shielded him. Deposing and murdering a king with Henry’s saintly reputation was a step that not even Simon de Montfort was quite ready to take.
In June 1265, at Evesham, came the final battle of the civil war. Heavily outnumbered, outmaneuvered by the Lord Edward, Montfort understood that his hour had come. With sardonic panache, he armed for battle, then had Henry strapped into a second suit of armor and led out into the ranks beside him. They must have been the oldest men on the battlefield. Montfort died; Henry was recognized by his son’s knights just in time.
Henry styled himself rex pacificus. That was not entirely true, but during Henry’s long rule, the common law flourished, the English people had a chance to appreciate the beauty of holiness, and Simon de Montfort summoned the first parliament that included townsmen and knights as well as barons and churchmen. Carpenter offers a measured, eloquent assessment:
“Henry was warm-hearted, emotional, courteous, accessible, humorous, profligate, angry sometimes but easily appeased, ambitious sometimes but pacific and physically lazy, in defeat quiescent rather than defiant . . . a king with a high sense of regality’s outward show, but sometimes a low sense of its actual practice, a connoisseur of art and architecture, a lover of beautiful things and of the people closest to his heart, a king simplex in the sense of being pious and innocent but simplex too in being naive and foolish.”
Following seven years of turbulence, the final seven years of his reign gave Henry peace, allowing him to concentrate on his own lifelong ambition: honoring the Confessor with a sumptuous shrine in Westminster Abbey. Completed in Henry’s lifetime, the shrine and its surroundings proved a triumph of art and architecture. “Westminster Abbey breathes Henry’s spirit,” Carpenter concludes. “The coronation still takes place in the church Henry created.”
Allen D. Boyer (ΦBK, Vanderbilt University) is completing a history of the law of treason in England. Vanderbilt University is home to the Alpha of Tennessee chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.