The Barons' War
Confusingly, two separate conflicts are sometimes given the name "The Barons' War". The first was the conflict that erupted in 1215-1217 between King John and his chief nobles. That conflict is chiefly remembered for its culmination in a meeting at Runnymede where John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a document which guaranteed certain traditional rights and privileges to his subjects. (See the Magna Carta text here.) The second conflict we call the Barons' War broke out in 1264 and ended in 1267. It is that conflict we deal with here.
Simplistically put, the Barons' War was fought over money and power; the major nobles of England thought that King Henry III had too much of the latter and was exercising it poorly. Henry needed more money for his wars against Wales and France, and to support a papal crusade. Then his brother Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, made a bid for the throne of Sicily, and Henry demanded still more money from his subjects to support Edmund's cause. This stirred his barons to action.
"In this corner, the challenger ..."
The acknowledged leader of the barons' cause was the extraordinary Simon de Montfort (1208-1265), Earl of Leicester. De Montfort was a man ahead of his time, a man with a vision that might today be labelled socialist. He believed that the king should be answerable to the country, and that men of property should be allowed a voice in the government of the realm rather than bow to the authority of a monarch.
As laudable as those beliefs may seem to us today, in the 13th century they placed de Montfort well outside the comfort zone of even his fellow barons. And de Montfort had the unfortunate habit of polarizing people, so that those who might have been expected to follow him in his conflict with the king were instead induced to support the royal cause simply to stop de Montfort from gaining the upper hand. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
"And in this corner, the champion ..."
Henry III. Oh, dear, what can we say about this monarch that will not sound too censorious? Well, not much. Henry was one of the least effective of England's medieval monarchs. He was constantly in need of money, which in itself was not unique among English kings. The trouble was that Henry wanted money for causes that the English nobility did not see as benefiting their interests.
The campaign to put Prince Edmund on the throne of Sicily was one such cause. It was a move that held no benefit to the realm of England, only to Edmund and Henry, and the nobles did not see why they should grant money to support a campaign that would offer themselves no benefit. Henry, by contrast, thought it was the duty of his subjects to support him in this or any other purpose he might envision.
In his defence, Henry did make efforts throughout his reign to overhaul the system of local government, though even then he stepped on too many noble toes, for the nobility had a vested interest in maintaining their own authority over the shires.
The conflict came to a head in 1258 when the so-called 'Mad Parliament' drew up a list of grievances called the Provisions of Oxford. These provisions called for sweeping changes in the organization of government, and proposed a system of councils to 'advise' the king in the execution of policy. Henry III had no choice but to sign the provisions, but it is doubtful whether he ever had any intention of honouring his promises.
The following year, 1259, the barons forced Henry to agree to hold hearings in every county, in which abuses by county sheriffs and other royal officials were investigated. As a result of these hearings a new document was drawn up, proposing radical reforms of common law which would offer greater protection to the rights of free men. This document, the Provisions of Westminster, formed the basis of English common law for the next several centuries. Once again, Henry signed the provisions under duress.
Henry then appealed to Pope Alexander IV for dispensation to repudiate both provisions. This the pope duly granted, and in 1262 Henry renounced his oaths to abide by the terms of the provisions. The rebels could not let this pass, and under pressure from the barons, Henry agreed to let King Louis IX of France mediate the dispute. Louis' judgment was issued at Amiens in January 1264, and was known as the Mise of Amiens. In the Mise, Louis sided entirely with Henry. Predictably, de Montfort repudiated the Mise of Amiens immediately, and armed conflict broke out.
We've mentioned de Montfort's unfortunate habit of alienating those of his fellow barons who might otherwise be tempted to support him. Many of those barons went over to the king's side, while de Montfort drew much of his support from the Commons and the towns, who saw him as a champion of their burgeoning rights.
THE COURSE OF THE CONFLICT
There were two major battles during the course of the Barons' War. The first was the Battle of Lewes in 1264. This ended in a decisive victory for de Montfort, and Henry and Prince Edward were captured.
With the king in his power, Simon de Montfort moved to summon what can truly be called England's first 'real' Parliament. He called to Westminster a Great Council, which included elected burgesses from selected boroughs. Though far from a modern democratic assembly, it was at least a first step towards representative government that included local representation.
This was not the first occasion upon which burgesses were called to Westminster, but on previous occasions they served merely a consultative role. For the first time these elected representatives exercised a legislative role, deciding and enacting policy.
But the royal faction did not give up without a fight. Prince Edward escaped from custody and joined royal supporters in the Welsh marches. De Montfort marched to join forces with his son at Kenilworth, in Warwickshire, to form a joint army which would outnumber Edward's men. Edward struck first and overwhelmed the younger de Montfort.
When the Earl of Leicester reached Evesham, instead of meeting his son's army, he was met by Prince Edward at the head of a superior force. In the ensuing Battle of Evesham, the rebel army was annihilated, and de Montfort was killed.
The rebel leader was dead, but not the rebel cause. Even those barons who had fought against Simon de Montfort had no intention of allowing Henry III to resume his autocratic ways. In truth, though, the king was a spent force, and the real ruler of the land was Prince Edward, later Edward I. And Edward was his own man, and wise enough to see that the way forward was not to try to roll back the clock to the days before the Provisions of Oxford, but to take reform forward in a way that consolidated the reforms of Simon de Montfort under a strong royal presence.
Within a few years of the Battle of Evesham, many of the reforms introduced by de Montfort had been ratified and entrenched in law. Edward created out of the aftermath of the Baron's War an England with a strong, and by the standards of the time, a just and responsible system of central government. It could be argued that though Simon de Montfort lost the war, and his life, his ideas and principles won were victorious.