Other Names: Henry of Winchester
Reign: October 18th 1216 - November 16th 1272
Born: October 1st 1207
Died: November 16th 1272
Father: John of England
Mother: Isabella of Angoulême
Spouse: Eleanor of Provence
Edward I of England
Margaret, Queen of Scots
Beatrice, Countess of Richmond
Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster
Royal House: Plantagenet
Henry III's reign of 56 years is the longest of any pre-union English monarch. Despite his impressive longevity, however, Henry is a largely forgotten King who is perceived to have achieved little of merit. A cultured and pious man, Henry's lasting achievement was the rebuilding of Edward the Confessor's abbey church at Westminster, a programme of work that gave the building much of its present form. When it came to the business of government however, Henry was infamous for his adherence to the notion of absolute kingship and his attempts to defy Magna Carta. His poor judgement would lead to another round of baronial resistance to royal authority, the creation of the first English Parliament and greater legal limitations on the powers of the crown.
The Boy King
An unassuming figure with a narrow forehead and a droopy eyelid, Henry III came to the throne at the age of nine. England was in the middle of a power struggle between Henry's father, King John, and the barons who were backing the claim of Prince Louis of France. The death of John led to an immediate end of the fighting as the barons were willing to support the young Henry, whom they could easily control.
With London in the hands of the rebels and Archbishop Langton of Canterbury away in Rome appealing against his suspension for supporting Magna Carta (which the papacy had annulled at John's request), Henry was crowned by the Bishop of Winchester in a simple ceremony at Gloucester on October 28th 1216. The crown and jewels had to be improvised as the originals had earlier been lost to the sea along with much of the royal treasure when John attempted to cross the Wash whist misjudging the tides.
After Henry's coronation the country soon returned to stability and Prince Louis' support melted away. The reissuing of Magna Carta in November was enough to draw most of the barons back into swearing allegiance to the English regime. Louis was dealt a major blow when he was defeated at Lincoln by Henry's regent, the respected knight William the Marshal. Louis attempted to bring in reinforcements from France but the French fleet was defeated of Sandwich in what would be the first of many English naval victories. Interestingly, the English used an early example of chemical weaponry in that encounter, lobbing pots of powdered quicklime onto the decks of the French ships and blinding their crews with the burning dust.
In 1217 the Treaty of Kingston ensured the withdrawal of Prince Louis from England. A year later he would drop his claim on England altogether. At the Pope's insistence, Henry was given a full and elaborate second coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1220. Soon King Alexander II of Scots would be bowing at the boy's feet to pay homage. Alexander was repaid for his kindness with marriage to Henry's sister, Joan.
The rest of Henry's minority was peaceful, with William the Marshal running the country in accordance with Magna Carta. When William died in 1219 the role of chief minister was taken over Hubert de Burgh. In 1232, at the age of 25, Henry finally dismissed de Burgh and assumed personal control of the kingdom.
Like his father, Henry believed strongly in the concept of unlimited kingly power. Henry took this a step further by believing that absolute monarchical authority was divinely sanctioned by God. His beliefs were most likely a reaction to the humiliating way the barons had treated his father. Unfortunately his sense of pride was not matched by his sense of reason. Henry failed to realise that John had been the architect of his own downfall and that lessons ought to have been learned from it. Instead Henry arrogantly pursued his vision of absolute kingship without regard for the legal limitations on his authority such as Magna Carta, which he regarded as trifling constitutional nonsense.
Predictably, it did not take long for the familiar grumblings of the barons to reappear. Henry's heavy-handedness and flagrant disregard for Magna Carta was alienating his subjects and his choice of favourites was allowing them to indulge in the traditional staple of Medieval and Early Modern English life, distrust and suspicion of foreigners. Lucrative government jobs were going to Henry's French relatives as well as those of his wife, Eleanor of Provence, whom the King had married in 1236. The 13th Century chronicler Matthew Paris wrote:
"At this time the King daily, and not just slowly, lost the affection of his natural subjects. For like his father he openly attracted to his side whatever foreigners he could, and enriched them, introducing aliens and scorning and despoiling Englishmen."
Not content with emulating the unpopular rule of his father at home, Henry was also keen to emulate his efforts to recapture the lands of the former Angevin Empire, albeit more successfully of course. Unfortunately Henry had just as bad a time in France as John did, if not worse, and campaigns in 1230, 1242 and 1253 met with little success. By 1259 Henry was forced to finally renounce the English claims on Normandy and Anjou for good and paid homage to the French King for England's last continental possession, Gascony.
|15th Century painting depicting Henry III landing in Aquitaine.|
In 1254 the Pope granted Henry the Kingdom of Sicily for his son Edmund CrouchbackMagna Carta.
In July 1258 a sudden thunderstorm in London forced Henry to take refuge in the Bishop of Durham's riverside palace. Whilst sheltering there he happened to bump into his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. De Montfort was emerging as the leading figure in the faction of discontented barons and Henry seemed only too aware of this. Upon meeting him, the King is supposed to have said:
"I fear thunder and lightning beyond measure; but, by God's head, I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world."
The First Parliament
It was the barons' response to Henry's taxation without representation that resulted in the creation of the lawmaking body that would become known as Parliament. In 1258 a committee of barons drew up the Provisions of Oxford which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy. The provisions set out a system of rule established through a Council of Fifteen, acting with the King and his ministers, who were now required to be Englishmen. It was also written that the newly-created "Parliament" (originating from the French word parle, meaning "to speak"), consisting only of nobility at this stage, was to meet three times a year and monitor the Council's performance.
The Provisions of Oxford reduced Henry to the role of a severely limited figurehead monarch and he did not like that one bit. Nonetheless he bowed to pressure from the barons and made the required oaths to uphold the new provisions. Unfortunately the tensions still remained and the nobility gradually became more and more polarised between those backing the King and those backing the rebel baron Simon de Montfort. When Henry obtained a papal bull relieving him of his oath to uphold the Provisions of Oxford in 1262. The two sides began preparing for all-out conflict.
Simon de Montfort and the Second Barons' War
Hostilities between the two factions broke out in 1264. The rebel barons under de Montfort, having already secured much of southern England before the start of the conflict, scored a crushing victory over Henry's army at the Battle of Lewes on May 14th. The King was captured as was his eldest son, Edward Longshanks and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall. With Henry and the heir to the throne under his control, de Montfort was now effectively in charge of the Kingdom.
|Simon de Montfort and Henry III|
Henry now had even less power than he'd had under the Provisions of Oxford. Although he was now King in name only, de Montfort had no intention of replacing him, preferring instead to keep him as a puppet in order to give the barons' regime greater legitimacy. 1265 turned out to be another landmark year for English politics as de Montfort summoned a Parliament which, for the first time, consisted of not only of nobles but also of knights, clergy and elected (in some cases) representatives from both the counties and the boroughs. The Parliament of 1265 would be instrumental in laying the foundations for what would become the House of Lords and House of Commons.
That year, however, also turned out to be the year of the great Simon de Montfort's undoing. In May 1265 Prince Edward escaped from captivity and was soon joined by de Montfort's former ally Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Edward, as the Welsh and the Scots would later testify, was a somewhat more able military commander than his father and soon the royalist cause was resumed under his leadership. In August, Edward decisively defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, with de Montfort himself being killed and his remains horribly mutilated. Henry III's authority as King was restored but in 1267, for the sake of political stability, he put his seal to the Statute of Marlbrough, which reaffirmed Magna Carta and some of the Provisions of Oxford.
Last Years: Westminster Abbey
Having learned his lesson and with England returning to stability, Henry withdrew from politics after signing the Statute of Marlborough and spent his final years indulging his religious side, completing the building project which had been ongoing for much of his reign.
Henry was a keen follower of the cult of St Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England who had been canonised in 1161. It was through his admiration for the Saxon saint that Henry established Westminster as the fixed centre of power in England. Henry employed French architects from Rhiems to redesign and rebuild the old Westminster Abbey, the Confessor's crowning glory, in the more fashionable Gothic style. Work began in 1245 and was completed in 1269. Much of the church that stands today dates from this period. The centrepiece for the new Westminster Abbey was the magnificent new shrine into which Edward the Confessor's remains were reinterred in 1269.
Henry did not live long after the completion of the work. He finally died on November 16th 1272, aged 65, and was succeeded by his warrior son Edward Longshanks. Emulating his favorite saint to the last, the body of Henry III was dressed in a simple robe and interred in Edward the Confessor's modest old tomb until his own grand sarcophagus could be made ready.