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The Barons' War

King Henry's heavy taxes to pay for his dynastic ambitions in Europe, plus bad weather and widespread famine, provoked civil unrest in England leading to civil war.

200 years after the Norman invasion the country's nobility had largely become anglicized and viewed France and Europe in general with suspicion.

French born Simon de Montfort was tolerated as a councillor of King Henry III, but things changed when he inherited through his mother, the title of Earl of Leicester and became a focal point for those nobles unhappy with the perceived misuse of power by the king. The situation worsened when he married the king's sister Eleanor without first seeking royal consent.

A feud developed between the two men culminating in de Montfort's arrest and trial for some supposed earlier maladministration when he was serving as the King's lieutenant in Gascony, the last remaining Plantagenet land in France.

Henry had imposed heavy taxes to fund his ambition to regain former estates in France and entered into an arrangement with Pope Innocent VI, to help financially in the overthrow of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Sicily. In return he was promised that his second son, Edmund would be granted the Title of King of Sicily and on the 14th May 1254 Edmund was duly installed. When Henry's money ran out however, Innocent withdrew the title and gave it to Charles of Anjou.

With yet more demands for taxes and a growing disregard for the terms of the Magna Carta, a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort forced the king to reassert the terms of the charter and surrender more royal power to the baronial council. These demands, known as the Provisions of Oxford, were made and agreed to and effectively ended the absolutist rule of the crown and gave power to a council of twenty four barons to deal with the everyday business of government and provided for the creation of a parliament in the form of a great council who would sit every three years and monitor the barons’ performance.

Although Henry had agreed to the demands, he was not happy and both the barons and the royalists became increasingly polarised. In 1261, Henry obtained a Papal Bull, a document issued by the Pope that exempted him from his oath, a move that infuriated the barons and precipitated civil war between them and the king.

By May 1264, the two sides were skirmishing and de Montfort's forces had gained considerable support in the south of the country. On the 13th, King Henry was encamped with his infantry at St Pancras Priory near Lewes in Sussex, while his eldest son Edward commanded the royal cavalry some 500 yards to the north at Lewes castle.

Montfort with a  force of some 5,000 men and knowing he was outnumbered by two to one, marched throughout the night and gained the high ground on the Sussex downs where he prepared for battle. His forces wore the symbol of the white cross as a sign of divine destiny and also to distinguish friend from foe.

The royalist army moved towards the enemy with Edward commanding the right, his uncle Robert of Cornwall on the left and King Henry in the centre. Edward's cavalry tore into Montfort's left flank, breaking the line and scattering the defenders who broke and fled. Had Edward then turned on Montfort's flank, the day would have been his, but impetuously he chased the retreating troops thus sacrificing the chance of overall victory by enabling Montfort's remaining force to overwhelm the royalist infantry.

Cornwall managed to escape and hid in a windmill; upon his discovery he was taunted with cries of "Come down, come down thee wicked miller". The king and his son were also captured and de Montfort found himself the de facto ruler of England.

On the 20th January 1265, true to his word, Montfort convened the first meeting of parliament in the Palace of Westminster, but came into conflict with the nobles by widening parliamentary representation and including delegates from each county and some major towns. This was the very first directly elected parliament in medieval Europe, but many of the barons felt that he had gone too far with his reforms and support began to slip away. Matters became worse when on the 28th May, Prince Edward escaped captivity aided by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Leicester who had deserted de Montfort and sided with the king.

The charismatic de Montfort made a further error when the Lords of the Welsh Marches rose in rebellion against him and he made a pact with Llewlyn ap Gruffyd, the self styled prince of Wales who agreed to help him in return for full recognition of his title plus a pledge that he could keep all military gains. This move further outraged the nobles, many of whom flocked to Prince Edward's banner.

Edward's forces laid siege to the town of Gloucester which fell on the 29th June 1266, Montfort's only hope now was to unite with the forces under his son Simon and destroy Edward's army. Simon and his troops were slow in leaving their base in London and by late July had only reached the baronial stronghold of Kenilworth. Edward marched quickly across country to intercept him, the royal troops falling on the unsuspecting rebels, many of whom were camped outside the castle walls, and inflicted great losses on them and then laid siege to the castle.

Edward then marched south and by August 4th, had managed to trap de Montfort's army in a loop of the River Avon near the town of Evesham, blocking off the only bridge and preventing de Montfort from receiving reinforcements from his son.

Realising he was trapped, de Montfort is alleged to have remarked, "May the Lord have mercy on our souls, as our bodies are theirs".

Edward deployed his force of some 10,000 men on a ridge called Green Hill, just north of Evesham and at around eight in the morning de Montfort rode his army of 5,000 out of the town to meet them. With them came the captured King Henry dressed in de Montfort's colours. As the two armies approached each other, de Montfort noticed that the royal troops wore the symbol of the Red Cross on their tunics, echoing the white crosses worn by de Montfort's troops at the Battle of Lewes, causing him to remark, "They have not learned that by themselves, but were taught it by me".

Being outnumbered two to one, the rebel's only hope was to concentrate their forces and try to drive a wedge through the enemy line, a tactic that did work initially work until the Welsh troops under de Montfort's command lost their taste for battle and deserted. The royalist army then tore into the rebel flanks and the battle became a massacre. So great was the royal anger that no ransom or surrender was accepted and was described as "An episode of baronial bloodletting unprecedented since the conquest". The fleeing rebels were pursued mercilessly back to the town and killed in the streets and even in the abbey. Simon de Montfort died fighting and his body was mutilated; his head, hands feet and testicles were cut off. His younger son Henry was also killed. King Henry was rescued from the slaughter by a Roger de Leybourne, a former rebel.

In September, the king convened a parliament in Winchester where all rebels were disinherited. The younger Simon continued the struggle, but support was fading away. The only opposition remained in the castle at Kenilworth and a siege began in late summer 1266.  By October the royalists had drawn up the so called Dictum of Kenilworth, allowing rebels to buy back their land at prices depending on their level of involvement in the rebellion. The Kenilworth defenders at first turned down the offer, but by the end of the year conditions were intolerable and the siege was ended and the terms agreed.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »