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. By his contrivance Prince Edward escaped; whose address and energy speedily raised once more a powerful royalist army. Seldom has a general been placed in a more difficult position. His own father was in De. Montfort’s hands—the feeling of the more enlightened of the people, those resident in the chief towns, were in favour of the “traitors” (a designation easily applied when no other as serviceable can be)—above all, the bravest of England’s chivalry were the men who had to be overthrown. Through all Edward’s subsequent career, so brilliant in a military sense, there is no event that does more credit to his skill than the strategy by which he succeeded in placing himself between two bodies of the enemy, preventing them from joining each other, or simultaneously attacking him; and then confronting the chief adversary thus shorn of a considerable portion of his strength. There appeared, it seems,

In that black night before this sad and dismal day

Two apparitious strange, as dread heaven would bewray

The horrors to ensne: Oh most amazing sight!

Two armies in the air discerned were to fight,

Which came so near to earth, that in the morn they found

The prints of horses’ feet remaining on the ground;

Which came but as a show, the time to entertain

Till the angry armies joined to act the bloody scene.

Such, according to the Warwickshire poet Drayton, and the old chroniclers, were the dire portents by which the great battle of Evesham was preceded. The scene of this sanguinary encounter has been thus described in “William Shakspere: a Biography,” from personal observation:—

“About two miles and a half from Evesham is an elevated point near the village of Twyford, where the Alcester Road is crossed by another track. The Avon is not more than a mile distant on either hand, for, flowing from Offenhain to Evesham (Fig. 819), a distance of about three miles, it encircles that town, returning in nearly a parallel direction, about the same distance, to Charlbury. The great road, therefore, passing Alcester to Evesham, continues, after it passes Twyford, through a narrow tongue of land bounded by the Avon, having considerable variety of elevation. Immediately below Twyford is a hollow now called Battlewell, crossing which the road ascends to the elevated platform of Greenhill.” It has been remarked by a careful observer that the Battlewell could not have been in the scene of action, though so near it. It is now a mere puddle at the bottom of an orchard. The declivity there was on the right wing of Prince Edward’s army, and the troops may have used the well for filling their canteens previous to the action, but no part of the fight could have actually oceurred on that spot, unless we suppose that Edward’s van and centre had both given way, and they had fallen back on their reserve. But we have nothing to bear this out. Edward, early in the day on the 4th of August, 1265, appeared on the heights above Evesham; and it seems most probable that he was never driven from that vantage-ground so far as the hollow of Battlewell. And now, having seen the place of this great strife of armies, we will glance at these armies themselves on the morning of the eventful day. The young soldier at the head of the royalists, recently escaped from the custody of the veteran whom he is now to oppose, was the prince, burning to revenge his defeat and captivity, and to release his father the king. The great object of his manœuvres was to prevent a junction of the forces under Simon de Montfort and his eldest son. In order to effect this it was necessary to keep the old earl on the right bank of the Severn, with which view he destroyed all the bridges and boats on that river, and secured the fords. But the earl himself was not to be out-manœuvred by his clever young adversary—he managed to cross, and encamped at first near Worcester, hoping hourly that his son would join him. But Simon the younger, though he does not appear to have been deficient in patriotism or courage, was no match for a genius in war like Edward. He was surprised near Kenilworth by night, lost his horses and his treasure, and most of his knights, and was compelled to take refuge, almost naked, in the castle there, which was the principal residence of the De Montfort family. This, though as yet he knew it not, was a death-blow to the earl, who, still hoping and expecting with impatience to meet his son, marched on to Evesham. There he waited, but waited in vain. The day before the fatal 4th, no shadow of the truth clouding the confidence he felt in his son, he had solemn masses performed in the Abbey Church, and expressed himself well assured that his son would join him presently, and that Heaven would uphold his cause against a perjured prince. “The next morning he sent his barber Nicholas to the top of the abbey tower to look for the succour that was coming over the hills from Kenilworth. The barber came down with eager gladness, for he saw, a few miles off, the banner of young Simon de Montfort in advance of a mighty host. And again the earl sent the barber to the top of the abbey tower, when the man hastily descended in fear and horror, for the banner of young De Montfort was no more to De seen, but, coming nearer and nearer, were seen the standards of Prince Edward, and of Mortimer, and of Gloucester.” (‘William Shakspere.’)


Figure 819
819.—Bridge at Evesham.

The devotion of the leaders of the popular party to the cause they had espoused, and to each other, now received a noble and touching proof. “While escape was still possible, a generous rivalry led each leader to persuade others to adopt that mode of safety which he rejected for himself. Hugh le Despenser and Ralph Basset, when urged to fly, refused to survive De Montfort, and the great leader himself, when his son Henry affectionately offered to bear the brunt of the battle alone, while his father should preserve his life by flight, steadily answered, “Far from me be the thought of such a course, my dear son! I have grown old in war, and my life hastens to an end; the noble parentage of my blood has been always notoriously eminent in this one point, never to fly or wish to fly from battle. Nay, my son, do you rather retire from the fearful contest, lest you perish in the flower of your youth; you are now about to succeed (so may God grant) to me, and our illustrious race, in the glories of war.’ ” (‘The Barons’ War,’ by W. H. Blaauw, Esq., M.A., 1844.)

The danger attending the junction of such powerful personages, the grief and disappointment at the evident discomfiture of his son —fifteen of whose standards were presently raised in exulting mockery in front of the Royalist forces on the Evesham heights, and apprehension for that son’s fate, must have altogether sorely tried the earl, who had the further bitterness of reflecting that Gloucester and his powerful father had been with him at the head of the barons, and had deserted him merely out of jealousy of his superior popularity. His greatest friend and counsellor was now armed to crush him. TUnder all these painful feelings, and seeing not only on the heights before him, but also on either side and in his rear, the heads of columns gradually blocking up every road, he exclaimed at once in despair and admiration, “They have learned from me the art of war.” And then, instantly comprehending all that must follow, he is said to have exclaimed, according to one writer, “God have our souls all, our days are all done;” and according to another writer, “Our souls God have, for our bodies be theirs.” But, as we have seen, had retreat been allowed him, he was not the man to avail himself of it. Having marshalled his men in the best manner, he spent a short time in prayer, and took the sacrament, as was his wont, before going into battle. Having failed in an attempt to force the road to Kenilworth, he marched out of Evesham at noon to meet the prince on the summit of the hill, having in the midst of his troops the old King Henry, his prisoner, encased in armour which concealed his features, and mounted on a war-horse. As the battle grew more and more desperate, the earl made his last stand in a solid circle on the summit of the hill, and several times repulsed the charges of his foes, whose numbers, as compared with his own, were overwhelming. Gradually the royalists closed around him, attacking at all points. There was but little room, so the slaughter was confined to a small space, and it is fearful to picture to one’s self the slow but sure progress of the work of death during that long summer afternoon and evening. Every man, valiant as a lion, resolved neither to give nor take quarter. In one of the charges the imbecile Henry was dismounted and in danger of being slain; but he cried out “Hold your hand! I am Harry of Winchester,” which reaching the ears of the prince, he fought his way to his rescue, and succeeded in carrying him out of the mêlée. At length the barons’ forces, wearied by the nature of the ground, which compelled them to be the assailants, and worn out by the determined resistance of the royalists, wavered in their attacks. At the going down of the sun, which they were never more to see setting in that western sky, Leicester himself, with his son Henry, and a handful of friends and retainers, were struggling on foot against a host of foes, who were animated by the exhilarating consciousness that the victory was theirs. And now the scene began to close; the earl’s horse was killed under him, but De Montfort rose unlrurt from the fall, and fought bravely on foot. Hope, however, there was none. It is said, that feeling for the brave youth who fought by his side, his son Henry, and for the few bravest and best of his friends that were left of all his followers, he stooped his great heart to ask the royalists if they gave quarter. “We have no quarter for traitors,” was the merciless answer, on which the doomed veteran again exclaimed, “God have mercy upon our souls, our bodies must perish!” and rushed amid his foes with resolute despair. But Mr. Blaauw describes him as answering to those who summoned him to surrender, “Never will I sur- render to dogs and perjurers, but to God alone.” At last he saw his gallant son Henry fall, his noble adherents were then cut to pieces, and, finally, the veteran chief himself dropped, his sword still in his hand. The prophecy was verified which had been uttered twelve years before by the dying lips of the far-seeing Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosteste, whose views of the national abuses were as strong as De Montfort’s, and who was one of the most popular reforming spirits of that age, though at his death matters were not so desperate as they grew afterwards. “Oh, my dear son!” cried the venerable old man, laying his hands on the head of De Montfort’s son Henry, “you and your father will die on one day, and by the same kind of death, but in the cause of truth and justice.” This con­temporaneous testimony to the worth of the cause which De Mont­fort upheld to the last gasp is worth something, for all writers con­cur in praising Grosteste’s clear and vigorous discernment and high rectitude. He was the last man to apply the words truth and justice to treasonable or selfish cabals.

The remnant of the defeated army was pursued to Offenham, a miie and a half from Evesham, where the slaughter was very great, the bridge having been, probably, cut away by the Prince’s troops to prevent their retreat. The reservoir now called Battlewell is supposed to have been so choked with dead bodies, as to bave re­mained long useless to the neighbouring peasantry, but this seems questionable. The bloody contest lasted from two in the afternoon till nine at night. No prisoners were taken; of one hundred and eighty barons and knights of De Montfort’s party, there was not one knowingly left alive; although some ten or twelve of the knights, who were afterwards found to breathe when the dead were examined, were permitted to live if they could. A more savage, inhuman carnage never disgraced England; or one that inflicted more widely diffused and permanent sentiments of distress and horror. These sentiments have found undying record in a ballad written at the time in the Anglo-Norman French, which has been thus translated by Mr. George Ellis:—

In song my grief shall find relief;

Sad is my verse and rude;

I sing in tears our gentle peers

Who fell for England’s good.

Our peace they sought, for us they fought,

For us they dared to die;

Aud where they sleep, a mangled heap,

Their wounds for vengeance cry.

On Evesham’s plain is Montfort slain,

Well skill’d he was to guide;

Where streams his gore shall all deplore:

Fair England’s flower and pride.

Ere Tuesday’s sun its course had run

Our noblest chiefs had bled:

While rush’d to fight each gallant knight,

Their dastard vassals fled;

Still undismay’d, with trenchant blade

They hew’d their desperate way:

Not strength or skill to Edward’s will,

But numbers give the day.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

Yet by the blow that laid thee low,

Brave earl, one palm is given;

Not less at thine than Becket’s shrine

Shall rise our vows to Heaven!

Our chureh and laws, your common cause:

’Twas his the church to save;

Our rights restored, thou, generous lord,

Shalt triumph in thy grave.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

Despenser true, the good Sir Hugh,

Our justice and our friend,

Borne down with wrong, amidst the throng

Has met his wretched end.

Sir Henry’s fate need I relate,

Or Leicester’s gallant son,

Or many a score of barons more,

By Gloucester’s hate undone?

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

Each righteous lord, who brav’d the sword,

And for our safety died,

With conscience pure shall aye endure

The martyr’d saint beside.

That martyr’d saint was never faint

To ease the poor man’s care;

With gracious will he shall fulfil

Our just and earnest prayer.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

On Montfort’s breast a haircloth vest!

His pious soul proclaim’d;

With ruffian hand the ruthless band

That sacred emblem stain’d:

And to assuage their impious rage,

His lifeless corse defaced,

Whose powerful arm long saved from harm

The realm his virtues graced.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

Now all draw near, companions dear,

To Jesus let us pray

That Montfort’s heir his grace may share,

And learn to Heaven the way.

No priest I name; none, none I blame,

Nor aught of ill surmise:

Yet for the love of Christ above

I pray, be churchmen wise.

On Evesham’’s plain, &c.

No good, I ween, of late is seen

By earl or baron done;

Nor knight or squire to fame aspire,

Or dare disgrace to shun.

Faith, truth, are fled, and in their stead

Do vice and meanness rule;

E’en on the throne may soon be shown

A flatterer or a fool.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

Brave martyr’d chief! no more our grief

For thee or thine shall flow;

Among the blest in Heaven ye rest

From all your toils below.

But for the few, the gallant crew,

Who here in bonds remain,*

Christ condescend their woes to end,

And break the tyrant’s chain.

On Evesham’s plain, &c.

* The few knights above mentioned who were found still alive among the bodies of the slain.

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