Simon de Montfort
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The Fair of Lincoln
On John's death the small group of loyalist barons and bishops was prompt to proclaim his young son Henry king. At its head was the stout old Earl Marshal, William of Pembroke, who accepted the office of Protector; supported by Ranulf of Chester, as well as by the Justiciar Hubert de Burgh and the legate Gualo, who represented the new Pope Honorius III. The great Charter was reissued by the new government, but with a significant suspension of the clauses which forbade taxation except by consent of the Great Council.
The rebels were at pause; uneasy and dissatisfied with the Dauphin and his French companions, but unwilling to submit to the loyalists. Hostilities were suspended till the early summer of the next year, by which time there had been appreciable accessions to the king's party. The run-away fight known as the "Fair of Lincoln" turned the scale; and this was followed in August by the "victory of Hubert de Burgh in the Straits of Dover over a considerable fleet bringing French reinforcements for the Dauphin.
Louis saw that the struggle had become hopeless, and came to terms in September, An almost complete amnesty was granted to the rebels, the exception being in the severity displayed by the papal legate Gualo towards the clergy who had opposed the Crown in defiance of the papal commands - a severity which accentuated the disposition of the English clergy, to resent the exercise in England of control by Rome, The Earl Marshal lived only eighteen months longer, ruling during that time with firmness and moderation.
Peter des Roches
On his death the control passed to Hubert de Burgh and the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, a Poitevin like lohn's queen and her kinsfolk, who placed himself at the head of the foreign element which John - forced to depend on mercenaries - had brought into the country. Gualo's successor Pandulph sought to enforce a papal supremacy, but retired in face of the combination of Hubert and Peter; while Stephen Langton persuaded the Pope to give up imposing foreign legates on the country.
The barons were leaderless, and for a time there was a struggle for power between the foreign party inspired by the bishop and the patriots represented by the justiciar, from which Hubert de Burgh emerged triumphant.
But in 1227 Henry III came of age and assumed the government. For five years Hubert remained his chief minister, bearing the burden of the young king's follies and doing his best to counteract or minimise their bad effects; while Peter des Roches intrigued to undermine his position.
In 1232 the intriguer in his turn achieved success; charges of maladministration and peculation were brought against Hubert which could not indeed be proved, but were not easy to disprove, and he was deprived of office and of most of his estates; though some of his strongest political adversaries interposed in his favour, and popular sentiment was all on the side of the stout old patriot.
Hubert de Burgh had striven honestly and loyally to restore what the misdeeds of John had destroyed - a strong central government on national lines. Not only were the Commons of England English, but the baronage of England had become at length definitely English also in the course of the last three generations.
The barons were resolved that the government of England should be English, not foreign, but they were by no means clearly bent on keeping it strong and centralised. For some twenty-five years after the fall of the last great justiciar it is impossible to discover anywhere acknowledged leaders, or a definite positive policy in the opposition to the Crown, or a definite plan for remedying the persistent misrule, mismanagement, and extravagance.
King John was a brutal and debauched tyrant, clever enough to have been a distinguished statesman and general had he not been the slave of his own passions and vices, which were ignoble without qualification. Henry was neither cruel nor debauched, and if he had recognised his own intellectual limitations and allowed himself to be guided by sensible and patriotic advisers, he would have been an eminently respectable monarch.
Unfortunately, although he was pious and a gentleman, he was obstinately determined to go his own way, which was invariably unwise; and like many other obstinate but shortsighted persons, he was generally .managed by crafty intriguers who took advantage of his weaknesses to gain their own ends.
But there was nothing so fatal as his persistent mistrust of all Englishmen, which led him habitually to repose his confidence in foreign advisers, and to place the administration in the hands of men who, whatever their merits, were detested as spoil-hunting aliens and were wholly un-EngIish in their sympathies. In the first stage the alien domination was that of the Poitevins, the allies or proteges of Peter des Roches.
But Henry's marriage in 1236 to Eleanor of Provence, whose mother was of the house of Savoy, brought an incursion of the young queen's Savoyard uncles and Provencal kinsmen, who had been disappointed of expected profits when Eleanor's sister married the king of France, Louis IX; and a few years later there was a fresh influx of Poitevins, sons and kinsfolk of Henry's mother, who had married again.
To these alien swarms had to be added members of the French nobility who by descent or marriage discovered claims to territories in England. When Simon de Montfort, the great Earl of Leicester, first appeared on the scene, he was a conspicuous member of this last group, though as time passed he identified himself with the country of his adoption and made himself the whole-hearted champion of English liberties.
And while Henry's jealousy of the English baronage provided power, place and profit for the foreigners, his pious submission to the papacy made him ready to accede to every demand of the Holy See, to pour the revenues of the National Church into the Roman Treasury, and to fill ecclesiastical vacancies with the nominees of the Pope.
The influence of Peter des Roches was first challenged by Richard Marshal, the son of the Protector, perhaps the one man who was fitted to head a patriotic opposition. But the Earl was done to death by a treacherous stratagem while in Ireland, and although the baronage and the clergy, headed by the new Archbishop, Edmund Rich, succeeded in forcing the Bishop of Manchester into retirement, there was no one strong enough to dominate the king, who kept the management of matters in his own incompetent hands.
A series of magnificent marriages, including that of the king's sister to the German Emperor Frederick II, as well as the king's own nuptials, involved a tremendous expenditure, which was bitterly grudged while it could hardly be resisted.
Matters were not improved when Henry made an unpopular military expedition to Poitou, of which only a remnant was left to the Angevins. Year after year saw repeated protests against taxation and extravagance on the part of the Great Council, a body which still for practical purposes usually consisted of the greater barons and ecclesiastics.
At last in 1244 the opposition began to formulate something like a scheme for controlling the king. Their leaders on this occasion were the king's brother Richard of Cornwall and Simon de Montfort, who a few years earlier had been allowed to marry a sister of the king. They urged, though without success, that three great officers of state, the justiciar, the chancellor, and the treasurer, should be elected, and a permanent council appointed with some power of control.
But the attempt collapsed. Montfort was for some years employed abroad mainly in establishing the king's authority in Gascony; while the position of Richard of Cornwall prevented him from acting energetically in antagonism to the king. Edmund Rich of Canterbury, a saint but not a strong statesman, was succeeded by one of the queen's uncles, Boniface of Savoy, who showed considerable independence, and was apparently willing to act as a good Englishman, but was inevitably under suspicion as a member of the Savoyard family.
Practically the papacy and the Crown combined to lay the country under ever-increasing impositions, which neither the baronage nor the national clergy were strong enough to resist effectively.
The climax, however, was reached when the king accepted from the Pope Innocent IV. the nomination of his second son Edmund to be King of Sicily, which the papacy was determined to take out of the hands of the Hohenstauffen. In accepting the kingdom, Henry in effect pledged himself to extract from England money for Innocent and his successor Alexander IV to carry through the papal quarrel with the Hohenstauffen, which had nothing whatever to do with England.
The Mad Parliament
The immense demands involved upon the national purse strained the endurance of baronage and clergy to the breaking point. The opposition closed up its ranks; although in 1257, a portion of Henry's demands were conceded, the Great Council known as the Mad Parliament, which assembled in 1258, insisted uncompromisingly on the redress of grievances.
The grievances and the proposed remedy were formulated in the Provisions of Oxford. The facts of portentous extravagance, illegal exactions, endless mismanagement, military incapacity, and subservience to the papacy were patent. Henry's expeditions in France had ended, not in the recovery, but in the complete loss of Poitou.
Llewelyn, the Prince-of North Wales, had succeeded practically for the first time in uniting nearly the whole of Wales in defiance of England, and the attempts to bring him to subjection had failed ignominiously. All these troubles the barons attributed in the main to the king's employment of aliens in nearly all positions of trust. Repeated confirmations of the modified Charter went lor nothing when there were nd means of compelling the king to carry out his pledges.
So the Provisions demanded a clean sweep of the aliens and of incompetent and corrupt officials. But they went much further, and insisted on the appointment of a quite novel species of oligarchy, which, on the one hand, was to take the place of the Great Council, and on the other was to exercise complete control over the administration.
The arrangements were extravagantly complicated; but the practical outcome was that there was to be a supreme council of fifteen, two committees of twenty-four, and another committee of twelve, with various functions to discharge, all the committees being made up so that one group of the greater barons were members of each, and government was to be permanently vested in the hands of a few families.
But the oligarchy was united in nothing but the determination to remove the control of the government from the king's hands. The system could in no case have been shaped into a working constitution. Montfort would probably have entirely repudiated the idea that he was seeking his own personal aggrandisement; his honest aim was the establishment of a strong and just government.
But also he would probably never have regarded any government as strong and just in which he was not practically the dictator. There were others who wanted a strong and just government, but would not have Montfort as dictator. And there were others who were actuated by merely personal ambition, and wanted to dominate the government for their own personal ends.
Within four years the oligarchs were hopelessly at odds among themselves, and half of them, in order to overthrow Montfort, had gone over to the side of the king, who in his turn obtained from the Pope a dispensation from his repeated oaths to observe the Provisions.
At last there was a general agreement to refer the whole question to the arbitration of the French king, Louis IX., one of the noblest characters of the century. Louis gave his award, known as the Mise of Amiens, in January 1264, entirely on the side of Henry.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.