The Conquest


Figure 814
814.—Henry III From his Tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Figure 815
815.—Great Seal of Henry III.

The circumstances attending the coro­nation of Henry III. (Figs. 814, 815) in his boyhood, might have taught him in his mature years a very different mode of rule from that he adopted, and which led to events almost without parallel for importance in our history: the establishment of something like an equal system of justice, and the rise of the Commons of England, are but two of the great events of the period of which we are now about to treat; both, strange but cheering to say, brought about by the endeavours of Henry III. and his minis­ters to govern unjustly and arbitrarily, but both, alas! purchased at the sacrifice of much of the best and purest blood of the nation, in all ranks of society. When John died, his son Henry was but in his tenth year. And what a state of confusion surrounded the helpless boy—Louis the French Dauphin in the land with an army of French troops, and supported by the chief English barons, who had invited him over as their last refuge against John’s tyranny. But a great and good man was then living—Pembroke, soon after­wards declared the Protector; who, collecting together at Glou­cester the different branches of the royal family, as well as a host of the principal men of both political parties, suddenly appeared among them, and placing the young Henry, with all due honour and cere­mony, before the assembled prelates and nobles, said “Albeit the father of this prince, whom here you see before you, for his evil demeanours hath worthily undergone our persecution, yet this young child, as he is in years tender, so is he pure and innocent from those of his father’s doings,” and so called upon them to ap­point him their king and governor, and drive the French from the land. The assembly received the speech with cordial greeting, and the coronation ceremony was immediately hurried on. The crown had been lost in the Wash, so a plain circlet of gold was used. Pembroke was appointed the royal guardian, and the governor of the kingdom. That appointment saved Henry his throne, and the people of England their nationality. Pembroke, who fully appre­ciated the motives of the disappointed barons, caused the Magna Charta to be revised and confirmed, with the view of satisfying them, and his character testified to all men that the act was done in geod faith. The result was soon perceptible in the breaking up of the moral strength of the dangerous and unnatural confederacy. Then came the battle, or “Fair,” of Lincoln, in 1217, in which the French and English allies were completely overthrown; and when Pem­broke, hurrying from the ancient city with its bloody streets the same evening to Stow, was able to assure the trembling boy-king for the first time that he was really lord of England. Pembroke dealt firmly but generously with the allies, and before long Louis had returned to La belle France, and the barons of England were once more united in support of their own monarch. Englishmen could again look on one another without rage or humiliation, again feel what the poet has so nobly expressed:

This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,

But when it first did help to wound itself.

Now these her princes are come home again,

Come the three corners of the world in arms

And we shall shock them: Nought shall make us rue,

If England to itself do rest but true.

Shakespeare, King John, Act 5, Scene 7; the idea is that as long as England is not divided, it cannot be conquored.


Here was matter for reflection for the longest life; a storehouse of facts from whence King Henry might have drawn without diffi­culty the practical philosophy of restraining his many expensive, and despotic, and nationally degrading inclinations. Unfortunately, he, like so many of his royal brethren, had learnt nothing by mis­fortune. That his father failed and suffered in his contest with the people, seemed only a reason why the son should risk similar results. The period of Henry’s marriage with Eleanor, daughter of the Count of Provence, seems to mark with tolerable accuracy the period of the commencement of the struggle between him and his subjects. His minister, the Poictevin bishop, Des Roches, had given him a double course of practical instruction as to how he should rule, although the people and the barors so little appreci­ated their share in the example, that they compelled Henry, in 1234, to dismiss him, with a whole host of his countrymen, not only from power, but from the island. Henry comforted himself on his marriage by taking Gascons and Provençals into his favour, since they would not let him have Poictevins; and upon them he lavished all possible wealth and honours. The barons remonstrated, and the king, wanting money, promised to behave better. When he next asked for funds, he was told of broken promises, and an oath was exacted. That broken too, the barons became more and more annoying and disrespectful; charged Henry with extravagance, and at last said in the most unmistakable English, they would trust him no longer, and therefore, if he wanted them to give him money, he must allow them to add to the gift a few public officers of their choice, such as the chief Justiciary, Chancellor, and so on. The king thought he would much rather stretch his prerogative a little over those especially subject to it, in matters of fine, benevolence, and purveyance; rob the Jews; and beg from everybody else; and admirably he did all these things. Even this hardly sufficed, so in 1248 he again met his barons in parliament, to see what they would do for him, but soon left them in disgust; they would pro­vide nothing but lectures upon his past conduct, and advice as to his future; except, indeed, on their own conditions. Some new ma­nœuvres were then tried, which really do great honour to Henry’s ingenuity, whatever they may prove as to his baseness and capidity. The Holy Land had long been a fruitful theme, so a new expedition was talked of, and money obtained from the pious. Then the king began to “invite himself sometimes to this man, and sometimes to that, but nowhere contenting himself with his diet and hospitage, unless both he, his queen, and son Edward, yea, and chief favou­rites in court, were presented with great and costfy‘ gifts, which they took not as of courtesy, but as of due.” (Speed.) Of course under such circumstances Henry could retrench his own househeld, which he did with a free hand. There was no harm, too, in selling the crown plate and jewels, when fresh ones were so attainable. “But who will buy them?” said he to his advisers. “The citizens of London,” was the matter-of-course reply. Indeed, appears to have thought the king to himself, I must look after these wealthy Lon­doners; and he did so in good earnest. Among his other freaks, he established a new fair at Westminster, to last for fifteen days, during the whole of which time he shut up all the citizens’ shops; we need not add that he made a very profitable fair of it for himself. That there were men in England who neither could nor would endure such government was to be expected; but one’s admiration is especially warmed to find there were English women who could tell the king plain truthsin plain words. The young widowed Countess of Arundel having failed to obtain what she alleged to be hers in equity, thus ad­dressed him before his court: “O, my lord king, why do you turn away from justice? We cannot now obtain that which is right in your court. You are placed as a mean between God and us, but you neither govern us nor yourself, neither dread you to vex the church diversely, as is not only felt in present, but hath been heretofore. Moreover, you doubt not manifoldly to afflict the nobles of the kingdom.” Henry listened with a scornful and angry look, and then cried out in a loud voice, “O, my lady countess, what? have the lords of England, because you have tongue at will, made a charter, and hired you to be their orator and advocate?” But the lady had as much wit and presence of mind as courage, and answered, “Not so, my lord; for they have made to me no charter. But that charter which your father made, and yourself confirmed, swearing to keep the same inviolably and constantly, and often extorting money upon the promise that the liberties therein con­tained should be faithfully observed, you have not kept, but, without regard to conscicnce or honour, broken. Therefore are you found to be a manifest violator of your faith and oath. For where are the liberties of England, so often fairly engrossed in writing? so often granted? so often bought? I, therefore, though a woman, and all the natural loyal people of the land, appeal against vou to the tribunal of the fearful judge,” &c. The king was over­:awed, but of course remained unchanged; and the lady, as Matthew Paris tells us, lost her charges, hopes, and travail. When women thus speak, men must begin to act. A confederacy was soon formed, and the barons “determined to come strong to Oxford at Saint Barnabas day.” According to their agreement they appeared in an imposing body before the king, “exquisitely armed, and appointed, that so the king and his aliens should be enforced, if they would not willingly assent.” Of course their demand was the old demand—the Charter; but there was a new and very important addendum, that the country should be ruled, according to its pro­visions, by twenty-four men, to be then and there chosen by the assembly. There was no help for it. William de Valence, indeed, blustered and refused to give up any castle which had been given to him, when he was quietly told the barons would certainly have either his castle or his head. The Poictevins then present, seeing things look so serious, made no more scruple about what they should do, but decamped as fast as they could from Oxford, nor rested till the Channel was between them and the Britons. The leader of the confederated barons was the king’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, a Frenchman by the father’s side, but in every other respect one of the truest of Englishmen. Before events had shown Henry the lofty and commanding spirit that his oppressions had raised, he had a kind of prescience of the fact, which is some­what remarkable. Being one day, in the month of June, in his barge on the Thames, there came on so heavy a storm of rain, thunder, and lightning, that Henry impatiently caused himself to be set down at the nearest mansion, which happened to be Durham House, where the IEarl of Leicester then was. De Montfort came forth to meet him, and seeing the king’s alarm, observed, “Sir, why are you afraid? the tempest is now past.” Henry, looking at the speaker with a troubled and lowering aspect, replied, “I fear thunder and lightning above measure; but, by the head of God, I do more fear thee than all the thunder and lightning of the world.” The quiet dignity of the earl’s reply was admirable:—“My liege, it is inju­rious and incredible that you should stand in fear of me, who have always been loyal both to you and your realm, whereas you ought to fear your enemies, such as destroy the realm and abuse you with bad counsels.”

The war, towards which all things had been long tending, at last broke out. In 1264 there met at Lewes two great armies, the one headed by the king, and his son Prince Edward, who had till recently supported the barons, the other by De Montfort, whose soldiers were directed to wear white crosses on their breasts and backs, to show they fought for justice. The result was a complete triumph for the popular party; the king was taken prisoner in the battle, and the prince yielded himself also to cap­tivity the day after, as a hostage of peace. De Montfort’s power was now supreme over England, and though there appears not the smallest proof that he ill-used it, some among his brother nobles grew jealous, especially the Earl of Gloucester.

[end of transcription for now, but more has been scanned]