By God’s word, if all abandoned the king, do you know what I would do? I would carry him on my shoulders step by step, from island to island, from country to country, and I would not fail him not even if it meant begging my bread’.
William Marshal, guardian and protector of the young king Henry III, from the History of William the Marshal, 1226
parents – John I and Isabella of Angoulême
date and place of birth – 1 October 1207 at Winchester Castle, Hampshire
wife – Eleanor of Provence
date of marriage – 14 January 1236
children – Edward, Margaret, Beatrice, Edmund, Richard, John, William, Henry
years of reign – 1216-1272
date of coronation – 28 October 1216 at Gloucester Cathedral
date and place of death – 16 November 1272 at Westminster Palace, London
(Henry III is the only English king not crowned at Westminster Abbey; however, he did rebuild and rededicate the cathedral.)
Henry III was son and heir of the unfortunate King John. His father’s favorite, John had nevertheless lacked Henry II’s formidable skills as ruler of England; the independent and arrogant barons who were once frightened of his father showed no such fear of John. And his continental peers were likewise dismissive of his authority – Philip of France stole his lands, and the pope excommunicated him. He was an unhappy king.And he left his son an unhappy kingdom. Young Henry, named for his formidable grandfather, was barely nine years old when he was crowned at Gloucester Cathedral. The English nobles were uneasy at the prospect of minority rule; a child king was never welcome in any European capital. And they were loathe to forget the vagaries of John’s rule, and their resentment and hostility was naturally directed at his heir. Young Henry was in an untenable position, especially since the French were eager to encourage hostility and – at the time of John’s death – actually occupied London and the south-east. These sections of England, arguably the most important to royal control, were held by Louis, son of the French king. He had actually been invited to rule England by the disaffected barons, though it should be noted that not every baron was eager to trade an English child-king for an ambitious French prince. English nationalism and distrust of France was not as passionate as it would become later (after all, the Plantagenets were intimately linked to France), but it was still present.
Of course, the vilification of King John was a bit strident, even in the early thirteenth century. He had been an autocratic and arrogant king, and hapless in most of his policies, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as subsequent tales would insist. And when he died, even the barons who had supported Louis’s arrival, were robbed of their main cause of complaint. William Marshal, the loyal knight who was appointed young Henry’s guardian and was regent of England, was devoted to the boy and his cause (hence the quote listed above.) Together with the justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, he defeated the rebellious barons and bribed Louis into leaving England (apparently his love of England left something to be desired.)
William Marshal was regent of England for roughly three years, before his death in 1319. But in that time, he was a loyal and effective regent; since King John had lost the crown jewels during his Lincoln campaign, Marshal had Henry crowned with his mother’s bracelet, or torque. He was forced as well to have the boy crowned at Gloucester Cathedral, where they had fled during the civil war, but the ceremony – though hasty and rather shabby – was an important step in recognizing Henry as king, for investing him with his quasi-divine authority. Marshal was perhaps the most respected man in England, devoted to chivalric ideals, and he gathered support for the young king – enough support so that his own death in 1219 did not shatter the newly-established peace and order of the kingdom. Hubert de Burgh, the justiciar, then became regent.
On 17 May 1220, de Burgh had Henry crowned again, this time in Westminster Abbey, and it was a grand ceremony. But the king was just twelve, and tradition demanded that he could not dismiss his regency until the age of nineteen. Since de Burgh was a conscientious and able soldier, and devoted to the king, his regency was largely successful. He had served both King Richard and King John in military campaigns, and was able to thwart an attempt by some barons to kidnap the king in 1223. And though Aquitaine was lost to the French in 1224, de Burgh managed to recapture Gascony (the southern part) the next year. But he had a rival for the king’s trust, one who ably played upon the adolescent Henry’s desire for power of his own. This man was Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester. Historians have since argued that both de Burgh and des Roches were power-hungry, and ineffectual politicians. However, I would assign those descriptions to des Roches alone; de Burgh was a devoted servant who seemed only to have the best interests of the crown at heart, while des Roches was determined to spread Poitevin influence throughout England (he was from Poitiers.)
Henry assumed complete control of his kingdom in 1227, though de Burgh remained chief justiciar until 1232. But des Roches’s influence was strong, and soon enough Henry and de Burgh had a public quarrel. The young king was determined to assert his influence upon the Plantagenet holdings in France, to make his mark upon European politics. For such grand designs, he needed quite a bit of money – and the earlier fighting in France had depleted the royal treasury. Henry, undoubtedly encouraged by de Burgh’s enemies, accused the justiciar of stealing from the treasury; it was an absurd charge, but Henry imprisoned the justiciar nonetheless. It was a terrible way to treat a man who had served him so faithfully, from the very beginning of his shaky, uncertain reign. But Henry did it nonetheless, and the immediate effect of de Burgh’s downfall was the rise of des Roches. Des Roches and his friend, Stephen Segrave, began to dominate Henry’s government – but they were far more arrogant and disruptive than de Burgh. For example, des Roches was from Poitiers, which was no longer under English control, but as Henry’s chief minister he appointed fellow Poitevins to the most important offices of state.
The notoriously recalcitrant English barons were outraged as the spoils of state were divided amongst foreigners. Edmund Rich, the influential archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Marshal (son of William Marshal, Henry’s first regent) led the barons in revolt in 1234. Richard had been declared a traitor by des Roches because of his opposition to the Poitevins. Henry listened to their demands to expel the Poitevins and reestablish English authority. He expelled the Poitevins and dismissed des Roches and Segrave, assuming full control of his government. He had learned that he couldn’t completely ignore the concerns of his barons, but it was hardly Henry’s fault that he had – after all, they had driven the country to civil war under his father, they had attempted to end his rule before it began, they had attempted to kidnap him – in short, they were always causing trouble. But Henry may have dismissed his foreign advisors, but he wasn’t about to share his authority with English advisors either. Taking full control of the government, he soon completed negotiations for his marriage to Eleanor, daughter of Raymond Berenger, count of Provence; they were wed on 14 January 1236 at Canterbury Cathedral. Soon afterwards, Eleanor’s sister Margaret was wed to Louis IX of France. Henry III was soon susceptible to French influences, and the foreigners soon began to fill his court (though it wasn’t just Poitevins this time.)
More importantly for Henry’s legacy was the effect of French literature and architecture on English culture. Henry restored and expanded Westminster Abbey for Eleanor’s coronation in 1236, and he embarked upon an ambitious plan of building and restoring churches and castles throughout England. He was greatly influenced by the Gothic style so popular in France, and some of the most beautiful historical buildings in England date from this period.
But his emphasis upon English culture ignored the simmering hostilities of the barons – they grew to dislike Eleanor’s relatives and courtiers as much as they had disliked the Poitevins. And this was partly Henry’s fault – he was not a great soldier, but he was an able negotiator and with the 1237 Treaty of York he established the present-day boundary between England and Scotland; and the 1247 Treaty of Woodstock established the boundary between Wales and England. These treaties meant a rapid decline in border skirmishes – and those skirmishes had traditionally occupied the time, money, and ambitions of the marcher lords and northern barons. With the skirmishes settled, they had a lot of time and energy on their hands – and so they turned from warfare to politics. (Henry should have undoubtedly let them continue to fight it out at the borders – his reign would have been much more peaceful.)
The barons were likewise infuriated by heavy taxation; they might have tolerated it if Henry had led successful military campaigns, but they weren’t especially pleased to be financing the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. When Henry increased taxation again in 1250 (this time he announced he was going on a Crusade), the barons were a bit miffed when the Crusade turned into an attempt to help the pope expel King Manfred from the throne of Sicily, and place Henry’s young son Edmund upon the throne.
The entire ‘crusade’ was doomed, and wasted quite a bit of money. The barons had begun to view Henry as they had his father – an inept, autocratic king with no respect for their positions. At the council of Westminster in 1258, they first voiced opposition, led by Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk and marshal of England. Then the Mad Parliament (or so it was aptly termed) followed at Oxford. At Oxford Henry was forced to allow the barons to choose half of his council; before, the king had absolute discretion to choose his advisors.
The barons were soon led by Henry’s brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. He was depressingly similar in character to the king and during his governorship of Gascony, there had been countless uprisings. De Montfort and his supporters were given further reason to be angry in 1259; Henry went to France concluded the Treaty of Paris which renounced his rights to Normandy, Maine, and Anjou (though he kept Gascony.) These were the great Plantagenet holdings which were the source of great pride – and had cost countless lives and money. When the king returned in 1260, however, he was newly determined to thwart the barons and promptly declared the measures at the 1258 Oxford parliament to be invalid. Once again, England was prepared to slide into civil war.
The French king Louis IX acted as a mediator of sorts, but he agreed with the king (and pope) that Henry did not have to accept the provisions from Oxford. Fighting ensued; the first victory was Henry’s at Northampton in April 1264, but Simon de Montfort won the battle of Lewes a few weeks later – and captured the king. Henry was forced to call a parliament and assent to the barons’ demands. But Henry’s eldest son, Edward (who would become one of England’s greatest kings) escaped from de Montfort’s custody and in July 1265, he raised an army; de Montfort and the rebellious barons were soundly defeated at the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265. (Edward was twenty-six at the time.) Henry was freed from the barons, and upon reassuming power, he renounced all the acts they had forced him to pass and punished some of the worst offenders by seizing lands and money.
But, encouraged by his son, he also made some conciliatory moves to help settle the past. In 1267 he passed the Treaty of Marlborough which granted some baronial privileges, and he also recognized Llewellyn as prince of Wales under the Treaty of Montgomery.
Henry was now an old man, and was content to let his son Edward, intelligent, passionate, and committed, dominate his government. It was the perfect apprenticeship for Edward, and he became a great king in spite of – or perhaps because of – his grandfather and father’s hardships. Henry began to suffer some form of senility, though he continued to supervise the expansion of Westminster Abbey and other artistic projects. But the death of his favorite brother in 1272 destroyed him, and he died seven months later, on 16 November 1272 at the palace of Westminster. His beloved wife Eleanor, who bore him nine children, outlived him by twelve years. He had essentially ruled for fifty-six years, though many of those years were wasted in strife and struggle (much of it needless.)
He is not a popular king, and few people know anything about his reign other than the name ‘Simon de Montfort‘ – but Henry was not a completely bad king.
Like his father, he struggled with difficult nobles and was not particularly gifted at politics. And though his desire to negotiate peace rather than wage war infuriated the English barons, it granted some measure of stability to English politics – stability squandered by the resulting civil war.
Henry’s greatest legacy was his dedication to English culture; at the end of his long reign, the glory of English Gothic architecture and the beginning of a national literature existed largely because of his unflagging support.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry III" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/henry-iii/, January 12, 2022