Henry III.—The Story of Simon de Montfort
KING HENRY III. married a French lady called Eleanor. She brought a great many friends and relatives from France with her. Soon all the best places at court were given to these French people, just as they had been in the time of Edward the Confessor and of William the Conqueror.
These strangers did very much as they liked. They set aside the Great Charter and, when the English barons complained, the French nobles sneered at them. "What are your English laws to us?" they said. "We are far greater and more important than you. Such laws are made for English boors. We will not keep them unless we choose."
This treatment was not to be borne, and at last the English rose in rebellion and forced the King to send away His French favourites.
It would take too long to tell of all the quarrelling and fighting there was in this reign. Henry broke the Great Charter over and over again. No fewer than ten times did he sign it and each time, as soon as he had got what he wanted, he broke the promises he had made. But in spite of this, the power of the people was growing stronger.
Henry spent a great deal of money, far more indeed than he ought to have done. But he could not wring gold from the people as William the Conqueror had been able to do. He had to ask the barons to give it to him, and they would not grant it until he promised something in return.
Henry did indeed wring money from the Jews. They were the richest and the most despised people in the country, and Henry, although he was not usually cruel, was very cruel to them. One Jew who refused to give Henry money was put into prison. Every morning his gaoler came and pulled out one of his teeth, till at last the poor man could bear the pain no longer and he gave the King what money he wanted.
The bishops and barons grew tired of broken promises and such unkingly acts, so, when next Henry asked for money, a great council was called, to which all the barons and bishops in England came.
There was a great deal of talking and it seemed as if nothing would come of it. But the barons told Henry very sternly that he had not acted as a king ought. He had constantly broken his promises and only if he now solemnly swore to the Charter would they give him money.
Then Henry answered, "It is true. I am sadly grieved that I have acted as I have done. I will try to do better." But when he tried to blame some of the bishops and barons, they sternly said, "Our lord King, we will not talk of what is now past, but of what is to come."
Then all the bishops and the archbishops, dressed in their splendid robes and carrying lighted candles in their hands, walked in solemn procession to the great royal hall at Westminster. There, in presence of the King and all the barons, they solemnly excommunicated every one who should in the future take away in any degree the freedom of England. The words they used were very grand and terrible. The King as he listened held his hand over his heart. His face was calm and cheerful and he looked as if he never had tried, and never would try, to take away his people's liberty.
When the solemn sentence was finished and the deep voice of the archbishop died away in silence, all the bishops and the archbishops threw down their lighted candles, crying, "May all those who take away our liberties perish, even as these lights perish."
The bells were then rung joyfully, the candles were again lighted, and King Henry, standing among his people, spoke,—"So help me God, all these promises will I faithfully keep, as I am a man, a Christian, a knight and a crowned and anointed king."
Thus once more the Great Charter was solemnly signed and sealed. But in spite of this ceremony, Henry did not keep his promises. He listened to evil friends, who told him that if he did, he would not be king, nor even lord in England, but the subject of his people.
Now there arose a great man called Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. For many years he had been the faithful friend of King Henry, whose sister he had married. Henry sometimes heaped favours upon him, sometimes quarrelled with him, just as he was pulled this way or that by his friends.
When Simon de Montfort first came to England the barons did not like him. "Here is another Frenchman," they said, "who comes to eat our bread and take away what belongs to us." But Simon soon showed that, if he was French in name, he was English at heart.
As Henry continually broke his promises, Simon took the side of the barons and the people, and Henry feared him as he feared no other man.
One day Henry went for a picnic on the Thames. He had rowed from his palace at Westminster some way down the river, when a thunderstorm came on, and he was obliged to take refuge in Simon's house, near which he was passing. As he arrived there the thunderstorm began to clear.
"There is nothing to fear now, my lord," said Simon, as he ran to meet the King.
"I fear the thunder and lightning," replied the king, "but I fear thee more than all the thunder and lightning in the world."
"My lord King," replied the earl sadly, "it is unjust that you should fear me who am your faithful friend. I have ever been true to you and yours and to the kingdom of England. Your flatterers are your enemies. Them you ought to fear."
Led by Simon, the barons forced Henry to hold a council at Oxford to draw up new laws for the better ruling of the kingdom. The wonderful thing about these laws was that they were written in English. Ever since the Conquest, the laws had been written in French or Latin, but at last English laws, for English people, were again written in their own language.
But Henry did not keep these new laws any better than he had kept the old ones. The patience of the people came to an end and there was war, the King's army fighting against Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and his followers. This was called the Barons' war, and it ended in a great battle at Lewes in which the King was defeated.
After this battle it was really Simon de Montfort who ruled the country. Henry was indeed still king in name, but both he and his son, Prince Edward, were Simon de Montfort's prisoners.
It was Simon de Montfort who laid the foundation of what is now our Parliament. Up to this time only bishops and barons had been allowed to come to the meetings of the council. Simon, however, now chose two knights from every shire or county, and two citizens from every city, and sent them also to the council to speak for the people and to tell of their wants. Now, too, the great council began to be called Parliament, which means "talking-place," for it is there that the people come to talk of all the affairs of the kingdom.
Unfortunately the barons could not long agree among themselves. Prince Edward escaped from Simon and joined the discontented barons, and there was another battle between the prince's men and Simon's men, in which Simon was killed.
The people had loved Simon, and now they sorrowed for his death, and called him a saint, and Sir Simon the Righteous. He is also called the Father of the English Parliament.
Although Prince Edward fought against Simon de Montfort, he had been his pupil, and had learned much from him, and he was growing into a wise prince. He now helped to make peace, and when peace again came to the land Prince Edward, like so many other princes and kings, joined a crusade and went to fight in the Holy Land.
In 1272 A.D., while his son was still in that far-off country, King Henry died, having reigned fifty-six years. His reign had not been a happy one for England, yet good came of it, for his very weakness made the people strong, and out of the troubles of his reign grew our freedom of speech and our power to make for ourselves the laws under which we have to live.