Henry III. reigned for fifty-six years, from 1216 to 1272. He was not lawless and cruel, like his father; on the contrary, he was religious, and a good husband and father. Yet he was not a good King, and the discontent of his subjects at last broke out again in civil war.
Until Henry came of age, the country was well governed, under the guidance of men of noble birth and high character, who had been trained by Henry II. But when Henry III. took the government into his own hands, confusion followed, especially in money matters.
The young King loved to make a great display of riches, to provide great feasts and entertainments, and give magnificent gifts to French favorites. This not only wasted revenues, but aroused the ill-will of his English subjects, who were very jealous of foreigners. Henry III. also permitted the Pope's agents to raise large sums of money in England to send to Rome, in spite of the loud complaints of the people and the English clergy. A war which Henry waged with France, for the recovery of the territories lost by his father, only succeeded in increasing his debts. Finally, Henry allowed himself to be drawn into a great struggle between the Emperor and the Pope, which so increased his debts that he was forced to appeal to parliament for new taxes. This gave the barons their opportunity to interfere with his misgovernment.
King and Soldiers Met by a Messenger
The leader of the barons at this time was Simon de Montfort, a stern and warlike knight, of French birth, who had become Earl of Leicester, in England. Though Simon had married the King's sister, he was not always in favor with Henry; on the other hand, the English barons at first regarded him with distrust, because he was of foreign birth. When Henry sent him to govern Gascony, or Aquitaine, his rule was severe and violent, and many complaints reached the king from the rebellious lords whom Simon had compelled to obey. Henry was always ready to blame Simon, who therefore gave up his task at last, and returned to England, where he soon became the leader of those who wished to end the King's misgovernment.
Banner of Simon de Montfort
With Simon de Montfort at their head, the barons compelled the king to promise reforms. In 1285 they provided a council of fifteen barons to take entire charge of the government,—not to remove the King, but to see that he ruled rightly. For some time the King observed this agreement; but, after five years, he declared he would no longer be bound by it.
Then, at last, the barons understood that nothing but force would compel Henry to rule justly.
"Though all men quit me," said Simon de Montfort, "I, with my four sons, will remain and fight for the good cause which I have sworn to defend, for the honor of Holy Church, and the welfare of the kingdom."
On the other side, the King's chief aid was his twenty-five year old son, Edward. He was friendly to Simon, and wished to see reforms in the government, but he could not stand with the barons against his father.
An important battle was fought at Lewes, in the southern part of England. Partly because of Simon's wise plans and partly because of Prince Edward's rashness, the battle was won by the barons, and the king and prince were forced to surrender.
Fight Between Knights, in the Time of Henry III
With Henry in his hands, Simon de Montfort for a time exercised the power of the King. He ruled wisely and secured the favor of the people. But the fortunes of his party soon changed, through the escape of the Prince from captivity.
One day, while riding with his captors, Prince Edward suggested that they race their horses, to see which was the fastest. This was done, until the horses were all tired out. Then the Prince suddenly mounted a fresh horse, which he had close at hand, and easily escaped from their pursuit.
By this time, many of the nobles were dissatisfied with Earl Simon's harshness; and Edward soon gathered a large army about him, to rescue and restore the King. The battle was fought in 1265, at Evesham, in the west of England. Prince Edward showed much skill in forcing Simon to fight in an unfavorable position. When the Earl saw Edward's army approaching, in great numbers and excellent order, he said:
"They come on skilfully, yet it is from me that they have learned this order of battle. God have mercy on our souls, for our bodies are Prince Edward's!"
Simon and his barons fought bravely, but they were overpowered. The Earl himself held out, dealing terrible blows, until he was slain by an attack from behind. The people lamented his fall, and a song is preserved, which they made soon after his death:
"In song my grief shall find relief,
Sad is my verse and rude;
I sing in tears our gentle peers
Who fell for England's good.
"Our peace they sought, for us they fought,
For us they dared to die;
And where they sleep a mangled heap
Their wounds for vengeance cry.
"On Evesham's plain in Montfort slain,
Well skilled our war to guide;
Where streams his gore, shall all deplore
Fair England's flower and pride."
Above all his other deeds, the great Earl is remembered for a change which he made in the Great Council, or Parliament. In calling a meeting in 1265, after the battle of Lewes, he summoned not only the barons and rulers in the church (who had always attended), but also two knights from each shire, together with two men from each of those cities and "boroughs" (or towns) which could be depended upon to support his reforms. Thus was taken an important step, for we shall see that in the next reign the practice of including the representatives of the towns becomes firmly fixed in the parliamentary system.
Men have always honored the memory of Simon de Montfort; for, though he was stern and haughty, he was just and true, and an enemy to all misgovernment. Perhaps, as some say, he was becoming too ambitious; but, even so, his defeat would have been a calamity for England, had there not been a wise Prince, of the royal house, ready to take up the government, and to continue the reforms which Earl Simon had begun.