Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta

Recently I was asked to write a review of a new book on Henry III of England - 'Henry III; the Son of Magna Carta', written by Matthew Lewis and published by Amberley. Below is my review and a link to the book on Amazon.

Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta 

Matthew Lewis’ new biography of Henry III of England seeks to fill, as the author puts it, ‘a huge, gaping hole in our understanding of medieval England’. Henry, he contends, has been dismissed in the past as a boring king, much overshadowed by the domineering personalities of his reign - Simon de Montfort, Hubert de Burgh, William Marshal, Prince Edward etc. This book is an effort to draw Henry out of the shadows and realign him as a ‘father of nations’.

Lewis follows a similar approach to Marc Morris’ treatment of Edward I i.e. he starts at the beginning and ploughs straight through to the end. This strictly linear narrative makes for a more easily digestible read, especially for non-experts. Some context is provided by a short prologue describing the death of Henry II in 1189 and the reigns of Richard I and John. This section could have perhaps been a little longer, since Henry III’s life and reign was so dominated by problems inherited from his forebears. However, at just 253 pages to cover a reign lasting 56 years Lewis can’t afford to get bogged down. The reader is very quickly pitched into the turmoil of 1216, with King John newly dead - poisoned, possibly - and England lost to the chaos and disorder of civil war. Prince Louis, son of Philip Augustus, had invaded with the intention of making himself King of England. Many of the English barons had rallied to his cause, and the prospects of John’s heir, the nine-year old Henry, looked bleak. Lewis’ account of the war that followed, and the prominent role played by the aged William Marshall, is brisk and exciting. Happily, he also gives long overdue credit to one William of Cassingham, an obscure country esquire who organised crucial guerilla resistance in the Weald forest against the invading French.

Throughout Lewis keeps the spotlight on Henry in an effort to weigh up the king’s personality. This is no easy task. Henry’s conduct was often baffling, and like most of the Angevins his character defies any glib summary. He seems to have had a dry sense of humour, highlighted by two anecdotes quoted in the book. Once, on the return journey from a distastrous campaign in France, Henry was cheerful enough to play an extended practical joke on a servant. At another time, he was confronted by four clergymen who angrily demanded the king should cease to promote men above their natural station in life. Henry pretended to agree, and then casually remarked he had better strip all four men of their office, since they themselves had been raised from nothing. Apart from his wry humour, Henry was also a devoted family man, with demonstrably close relationships with his wife, brother and eldest son.

Balanced against these pleasant traits are Henry’s explosive temper - typical Angevin - and a marked lack of sensitivity and judgement. His shabby treatment of Hubert de Burgh and the sons of William Marshal suggest a streak of ingratitude, perhaps envy. The story of de Burgh’s downfall makes for unpleasant reading: he was effectively framed on nine exaggerated charges of corruption, then imprisoned and subjected to at least one savage punishment beating. He was later released and permitted to live out his days in quiet retirement, a happier fate than many former royal favourites, but his calculated destruction was not Henry’s finest hour. Nor does his hostility towards the younger Marshals, Gilbert and Richard, do him much credit. 

Lewis makes the point that Henry was trapped in a uniquely awkward situation. His father had sold England to the papacy, which made the Pope Henry’s feudal overlord. From the earliest days of the reign, Henry’s actions were constantly criticised and hamstrung by the meddling of successive popes, who regarded England as their treasure chest and the king their puppet. No other king had to submit to such outside interference. For instance, the firm action Henry took against Fawkes de Breauté, a foreign mercenary who had outstayed his welcome in England, was met with an angry rebuke from the Vatican. Throughout the reign England was plagued with a constant stream of greedy papal legates, who came to milk cash to fund new crusades. Their arrogant demands were met with outrage from English barons and prelates, while Henry was stuck haplessly in the middle, unable to mollify one party or the other. In other respects, Henry was often the architect of his own downfall. He repeatedly infuriated his barons by inviting a constant stream of foreigners to his court (many of them his Savoyard in-laws) and granting them rich manors and benefices. The king appeared to be incapable of appreciating the resentment this caused, even when the consequences threatened the peace of his realm. Lewis briefly mentions the revolt of Robert de Thweng, a Yorkshire knight, in the late 1220s, as an example of the popular unrest caused by Henry’s short-sightedness. Not enough is made of this, a serious revolt against the imposition of Italian clergymen into English church benefices, and an early example of aggressive English self-identity from a baron of Norman descent. Again, this may be down to lack of space.

The author is slightly less than fair in his judgement of Henry’s military capacity. Henry has traditionally been depicted as a poor soldier - his DNB entry claims he had no military talent whatsoever - and a limp contrast to his more able son, Edward I. In fact Henry’s military performance was as wildly erratic as the rest of his career. He performed spectacularly badly on the French campaign of 1240-1, where his defeat at Taillebourg recalled the worst personal failures of King John. At other times he did show ability. He was initially successful in Poitou in 1230, won a notable victory in Gascony in 1253, and up until the 1250s campaigned with reasonable effectiveness in Wales. At Northampton in 1264 he won a signal victory over the rebel barons under Simon de Montfort the Younger. Lewis gives the credit for this victory to Edward, which is inaccurate: R.F. Treharne’s detailed analysis of the battle clearly describes the King’s presence at Northampton, and the unfurling of the royal banner. At the Battle of Lewes Henry fought in the front rank of his army and had two horses killed under him, a remarkable - if unsuccessful - display of personal bravery for a man in his mid-50s, quite elderly for the time.

One of the best aspects of this book is Lewis’ account of Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester who led a serious rebellion against Henry in the 1260s. After his death Simon was regarded by many as a saint, and in recent years this image has been resurrected in certain popular novels. Lewis has no truck with Saint Simon, and instead portrays the Earl as an ambitious, austere and unusually bigoted man who deliberately whipped up violent anti-Semitism in London in order to bolster popular support. As a soldier he was certainly competent, but not the genius often portrayed: Lewis highlights Simon’s multiple failures in Gascony, where his brutality and insensitivity to Gascon concerns threatened to destroy English authority in the region. Henry’s rage and disappointment at Simon’s calamitous performance, eloquently recounted by Lewis, were for once understandable. The greedy and selfish behaviour of Simon’s sons - one, Henry, was nicknamed ‘the woolcarder’ after his illegal seizure of English wool reserves - is also neatly described.

Lewis certainly succeeds in demonstrating that Henry and his reign were far from boring. I’m less convinced that Henry deserves to be remembered as a ‘father of nations’, largely because the author’s meaning escaped me. Perhaps, as Lewis suggests, the king did act as a ‘bridge between chaos and union’, but Henry would not have perceived himself as any kind of bridge or national parent figure. For me his kingship recalls RR Davies’ summary of Edward I:

“As to his power and status within Britain we need not assume that his attitude was unchanging, cynical, or conspiratorial. Like most men of power he was the servant of circumstances and, when he could be, the master of opportunities.”

In the end, for all his failures and misjudgements, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Henry III. Lewis’ biography suggests to me no underrated nation-builder, but a moderately intelligent man of limited ability, utterly convinced of the divine superiority of his royal status. In other words, an ordinary man conditioned to believe he was a great one. Like his father and son, Henry was imbued with a grim determination to cling onto absolute power by any means possible. At times this determination was an asset, at others a curse. Despite being essentially inadequate for his role, Henry clung on like a limpet, year after year, decade after decade, until he finally died in an agony of bodily pain and pious self-reproach.

As I read through this book, the sheer grinding horror of being born into such a position, with no way out save death, gradually became apparent. To quote Oscar de Vill - a descendent of John de Eyvil, another of the baronial rebels who made Henry’s life a misery:

“I have sometimes wondered whether, in writing our history, we allow for the awful demands of top jobs…all day, every day, for years on end. Henry III has been heavily criticised, understandably, in that he did not shine in hard politics, or waging war. But he seems to have been a decent man, an idealist even, in a lonely job at a difficult time. It is sobering to think he had already been on the throne for thirty years at the time of the Provisions, six years before Simon de Montfort struck for power.”

Overall, in spite of a few quibbling reservations, I would highly recommend Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta. The book is a fine example of ‘popular history’ rather than dry academic analysis, and a useful and eloquently written general overview of a long, complex reign. Newcomers to Henry III and his times should glean much from it.