“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Interlude)

In terms of page count I’m about three fifths of the way through Michael Prestwich’s “Plantagenet England 1225-1360” and in terms of subject matter I’ve just finished one of the two sections that the book is divided into. So this seemed a good place to take a small pause and think about what I’ve spent the last several months reading.

This section of the book was “Politics and Wars” and contains exactly what it says it will – the politics and governance of England, plus the various internal and external wars. Prestwich hasn’t divided it up by the reigns of the kings, instead he’s drawn boundaries based on whether the country or regime could be thought of as in crisis/unrest or in recovery/good times. To some degree that does match with the change in monarch – the character & popularity of the King has an effect on how incipient crises are handled and whether they develop or smooth out. Edward I and Edward III both appear to’ve been charismatic and astute enough to sooth ruffled feathers when need be or to put down pending rebellion if that were necessary. Henry III and Edward II on the other hand were too keen to reward their closest friends or family, and didn’t pay enough attention to making sure everyone else liked them too.

1216 Henry III takes throne
1225 Period of unrest begins
1227 Henry III reaches majority
1265 Simon de Montfort dies
1266 Period of recovery begins
1272 Edward I takes throne
1294 Period of crisis begins
1307 Edward II takes throne
1311 Period of Crisis gets worse
1312 Piers Gaveston dies
1327 Edward II deposed, Edward III crowned (but Isabella and Mortimer rule)
1330 Period of recovery begins Edward III reaches his majority

The links in that table go to my posts about those chapters of the book. The other three subjects in this part were Anglo-Welsh relations (including the conquest of Wales), Anglo-Scottish relations (including a couple of attempted conquests of Scotland, and Bannockburn) and Anglo-French relations (including the initial phases of the Hundred Years War, which is an attempted conquest of France) – the external wars of the era. So there’s a fair bit of politcs and of wars to cover in this era!

One of the narratives that Prestwich doesn’t really dwell on is that this is a transitional era for the English monarchy. Before this, from William the Conquer to King John (and particularly from Henry II onwards), the English King also has large landholdings in France. And in some ways although the title of King of England was the most prestigious one the men in question were more concerned with their French lands and would’ve thought of themselves as part of French culture (as I understand it). King John loses almost all these French lands, and pretty nearly loses England too. And his successors turn away from France – putting more effort into rebuilding control of England and then trying to consolidate the whole of the island under their rule (with varying degrees of success). At the end of the period Edward III is looking back to France and this book ends with him holding large amounts of territory in France – but the centre of gravity has shifted. This is no longer a French nobleman who is on the English throne, instead it’s the English King who has conquered part of France (with an eye to conquering it all).

The two themes that Prestwich is highlighting are the development of the army during this period, and the increasing formalisation and growth of Parliament. As I said in my writeup of the last chapter I’m probably least interested in the nitty gritty details of army organisation. However I think the main point is that at the beginning of the period the army is organised on a primarily feudal basis, and by the time of the Hundred Years War most of the army is recruited and paid on a contractual basis. And there’s been a shift from a more patchwork assemblage of independent groups to a cohesive fighting force with a reasonable proportion of trained soldiers. Also towards the end of the period the leaders of the army are beginning to have a chance to learn from previous wars – some of the same men are in charge in Edward III’s Scottish campaigns as are in charge in the French wars.

In terms of the development of Parliament the main narrative is an increasing formalisation and codification of the relative powers of King and people (where people = nobility, but down to the level of Knights and representatives of counties not just the true elite). Magna Carta was signed in King John’s reign, just before the scope of this book, and it’s re-issued and re-iterated several times during this 135 year period normally at a point when the King has had to be forced into backing down on something. At the beginning of the period the people who have to agree to taxation are mostly the top elite, and larger parliaments are rarer. By the end of the period there’s a sense that even the Commons (not the peasants, but people like Knights in shires) must be asked before they are taxed – and Parliament is beginning to consist of the same larger cross-section of society every time. And because of the way taxation works at this period this means that this cross-section of society get some say in the political direction of the country. When the King requests a tax Parliament normally asks for some concession from him in return – and often during the reigns of Henry III and Edward II this was where disputes would start to topple over into crises.

The monarch at this time is interestingly balanced between being separate from his nobles and being first amongst equals. He’s anointed by God and this does still make him sacrosanct (not the case even a little after this period) – look at the way Edward II is deposed in favour of his legitimate heir. Or how after Simon de Montfort won a civil war he didn’t put himself in Henry III’s place, instead he set up an elaborate council to “help” Henry III rule. So the King is the King even when you think he’s screwing up, but if you’re one of the elite you feel entitled to input on the major decisions and to an opinion about whether or not the King is doing a good job. Hence the civil wars which were about getting the King to do the job properly in the interests of the realm and not just himself. This wasn’t an untouchable “I am the state” type ruler.

On other subjects – Prestwich has chosen to address the role and activities of the Church in each chapter as it becomes relevant. I can see why that choice makes sense, but it’s left me with no clear idea if there is a unifying story to the Church’s relations with the Crown during this period. Perhaps because I’ve read it too spread out, or perhaps there isn’t a cohesive narrative there. Notable by its almost complete lack of mention is the Black Death – I think because the political ramifications of the large drop in population only really start to show up outside the scope of this book. And there will be more discussion of the impact of the Black Death on society in the second half of the book.

The next part of the book will cover the social history of the era, starting with the elite – the great lords and ladies.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 9)

The last two chapters of Part II (Politics and Wars) of this book are about the relationship between England and France during the period the book covers, focusing on the Hundred Years War which starts during Edward III’s reign. I’m lumping these two chapters together because the second one is specifically about the English army of the time, which is a subject that I acknowledge is important but am not that interested in personally.

England and France

Prestwich opens the chapter by noting that although with hindsight we see the Hundred Years War (kicking off in 1337) as a coherent thing that’s different in kind to preceding wars, this wasn’t the case at the time. Before King John (so before the scope of this book) the English Kings had control over vast lands in what is now France but after John’s loss of most of this to France all that was left on the continent for the English King was Gascony and even that was disputed by the French. Prestwich lays out how this duchy wasn’t worth much to the English crown in a monetary sense and it wasn’t terribly culturally similar to England. So its worth was mostly as a point of principle and as a base for re-expanding English control to their “ancestral lands”. There had been various campaigns in France in the early years of Henry III’s reign, with not much success. Then in 1259 the unstable domestic situation – which was building up to civil war (which was talked about in the first chapter of this part of the book) prompted the English to negotiate for a more lasting peace with the French. In return for being allowed to control Gascony Henry III gave up his claims to the rest of the lands, plus agreed to do homage for Gascony. Prestwich notes that given how arrogant Henry III was, this clearly wasn’t seen as humiliating for him at the time otherwise he wouldn’t’ve agreed to it even if it was sensible.

In hindsight, this treaty of 1259 can be seen as setting up the tensions that would result in the Hundred Years War. But in the medium term it was a stunning success and relations between England and France remained good for over 30 years after this treaty. In 1286 Edward I even did homage to the new French King as he was bound to do by the treaty terms. So far, so friendly. But tensions started rising not long after. Edward I reorganised the government of Gascony in a way that meant he was taking a more active role in it. And this was happening against a backdrop of the French crown being eager to assert their own royal rights wherever possible (for internal political reasons, I think, so again the fact it was Gascony was almost irrelevant).

War broke out in 1294 sparked by rivalries between sailors from English ports (in Gascony) and Breton sailors. Originally the English tried to keep a friendly relationship with France. Edward I’s brother Edmund and the Queen of France (and her mother-in-law) actually negotiated a treaty that Edward considered binding. It had a complicated series of events to follow, but after Edward did his part the French did not follow through with theirs so Edward felt duped. But Prestwich says it’s more likely that the French Queen just didn’t have as much authority and influence as she thought she did – so she was acting in good faith but wasn’t actually able to make a binding treaty.

Unlike Henry III, Edward I had an actual plan for his war with France. The main goal was to keep Gascony, but it was easier to actually campaign in Normandy. And Edward also masterminded a grand alliance pulling in various other European courts on his side – Flanders, Germany, Brabant, Holland, Guelders. But even having a plan didn’t guarantee success and the English were lucky that the French King was both cautious and fooled into thinking their army was larger than it really was. A truce was agreed in 1297, but peace treaty negotiations dragged on until 1303. In the end what was agreed was that everything should revert to the pre-war situation and friendly relations should be cemented by marriages between Edward I and the French King’s sister, and the future Edward II and the French King’s daughter.

However, you can’t realistically pretend that a war didn’t happen and tensions remained between the two countries. The legal status of Gascony meant that technically nobles there could appeal against the English King’s judgements to the French King, and they were encouraged to do so. Edward II also kept putting off the whole “paying homage” thing. So in 1324 war broke out again – a war that the English didn’t really want and the French weren’t terribly enthusiastic about. Peace was negotiated by Isabella, Edward II’s wife and sister of the current French King, mostly because she had personal reasons for wanting peace. Again the treaty was a restoration of the prior status quo, and Isabella’s son, the future Edward III, came to do homage on his father’s behalf for Gascony. And again this was more part of Isabella’s personal political manoeuvring than done on behalf of her husband – this is the jumping off point for the invasion of England by Isabella and Mortimer that results in the removal of Edward II from the throne.

For the first 10 years of Edward III’s reign there is an uneasy peace, and in 1329 when the first Valois King of France takes the throne Edward did homage to him for Gascony. Relations break down gradually over the early to mid 1330s. As well as the issue of Gascony the interference of France in Anglo-Scottish relations and of England in Franco-Flemish relations was important. There was also a failed crusade that Philip VI of France was going to lead – the Pope cancelled it because peace in Europe could not be guaranteed. Philip thought this was Edward’s fault. There was also the question of who was the rightful King of France. By French succession laws descent via the female line was invalid, so Edward III had no claim to France. By English succession laws he had a better claim (as the past King’s nephew) than Philip VI did. However by doing homage for Gascony he’d tacitly abandoned his claim. In 1337 he changed his mind and in 1340 he altered his coat of arms to include the French coat of arms. When writing to Continental rulers he started to call himself “Edward by grace of God King of France and England and lord of Ireland” (when referring to himself in English correspondence he put England first…). Prestwich suggests that this isn’t necessarily all because Edward wants the French throne – it’s more about getting the Flemish onside, if they can claim to be supporting the legitimate King of France then their position is much stronger than it is if they are rebelling. It’s also about asking for more than you necessarily want in the hopes when you negotiate it’s only down to your true position.

The first phase of the Hundred Years War runs from 1337 to 1340. This was fought much like Edward I’s war in the 1290s, expensively and with the help of allies. The English are a bit more successful however, in particular winning a naval battle at Sluys that did a lot to secure the English coast from French raids. The treaty of Esplechin in September 1340 was the end of this phase, with both sides promising a 9 month truce in all arenas including Scotland and Gascony.

The next phase of the war runs from 1341 through to 1355. War restarted using a succession crisis in Brittany as an excuse with the French and English backing different candidates. This was important as it gained Edward III more allies in French territory and access to more landing sites on the French coast. In 1346 Edward III himself undertook an extraordinarily successful campaign starting near Barfleur in Normandy and marching via Caen to the Seine (indeed nearly to Paris itself) and then north to the Somme eventually meeting the French in battle at Crécy. Pitched battles were actually rare, although Edward did have some reason to court them as winning a battle would be regarded as proof that God was on his side. The success of this campaign was very important, but wasn’t followed up – in part because of the crisis of the Black Death in 1348. However the English definitely had the upperhand in the bits & pieces of fighting that followed over the next several years even if there weren’t many more set piece victories.

In 1353 there was some attempt to negotiate a peace but both sides felt they still had more to gain if they kept on fighting, so nothing was worked out. The next phase of the war started in 1355, and Prestwich titles this “The Black Prince’s War” – Edward III’s son & heir lead the most succesful campaigns of this five year period, mostly raiding expeditions through southern France from Gascony. The major victory of this period was in 1357 at Poitiers when the French King was captured. For 2 years after this there were attempts to negotiate peace and ransom of the French King which didn’t really go anywhere. A final campaign by Edward III in 1359-60 ended this phase of the war. The English desire to continue was damaged by a disasterous storm that devasted the campaigning army, which meant they entered negotiations in a more concessionary mood than previously. Peace was negotiated in May 1360 at Brétigny – Edward III got Gascony, Poitou and several surrounding areas in full sovereignty in return for giving up his claim to the throne of France.

1360 is the end of the scope of this book, so to finish up the chapter Prestwich just notes that the peace lasted only 9 years. And mostly foundered on the actual implementation of the treaty.

The Armies of Edward III’s French War

The most surprising thing about this first section of the Hundred Years War both from a contemporary perspective and with hindsight is how competent the English army was, even compared to the start of Edward III’s reign. In part this is down to experience – the Scottish wars during the 1330s meant that there were men who knew how to command, knew how to organise logistics etc. And also had learnt lessons about which tactics had worked and which hadn’t.

Prestwich goes into a lot of detail about recruitment for the war. It was a worry for the crown initially, so the offered pay was higher than in previous wars. The bureaucracy was simplified too with explicit contracts between crown and commanders that set out how many men they were to bring of what sorts in return for how much in fees. Pay wasn’t the only motivator – the chance of capturing a noble Frenchman who you could then ransom was another form of motivation. And general looting, pillaging and “living off the land” was encouraged on these campaigns. This last also reduced the burden on the English domestically as there wasn’t as great a need to supply the army with food etc as there had been on the Welsh & Scottish campaigns.

When considering the tactics used by the English Prestwich starts off by discussing contemporary explanations for the successes achieved. The English mostly put it down to divine approval, which Prestwich notes is marginally more believable than the French thinking that their failure is down to wearing short-cut clothes … There isn’t much if any written evidence of English introspection about their tactics, but clearly it must have happened as lessons learnt in the Scottish wars are successfully implemented (often by the same commanders) in the French campaigns. However experienced troops and high morale were perhaps as important as the specific tactics used.

Chivalry was important in the 14th Century, and this may account for much of the enthusiasm for the French wars of Edward III. It’s not clear if Edward III was deliberately encouraging the culture of chivalry for this sort of purpose, or if he actually just liked it himself. Prestwich also notes that our association of the 14th Century with a golden age of chivalry is partly just because of what texts etc have survived. For instance the Order of the Garter was founded in 1348 and survives to this day, but it was one of several such things and it’s not clear how notable it actually was at the time. And as always the reality doesn’t live up to the ideals – wars of this era weren’t notably more chivalric in practice than any other era. Looting, pillaging and so on still happened, brutality still happened, and the practice of high ransoms for nobles doesn’t seem to square with the honour & glory rhetoric either.

Prestwich devotes the last two pages of this chapter to the economic effects of the war between 1337 and 1360. There is no clear consensus on whether the war was profitable or detrimental to the English economy. Prestwich concludes that the costs of the war were high in terms of the increased taxation needed to pay for it, and were probably not entirely counterbalanced by income from plundering and ransom high though that was.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 4)


In this chapter Prestwich takes a digression from his chronological trot through the Plantagenet era to look at the situation in Wales during this period. It’s very much Wales from the perspective of its interactions with England, and fits in here because Edward I conquered Wales.

He begins by setting the scene in terms of the political situation in Wales during Henry III & Edward I’s reigns in England. A key difference between the two cultures is that in England inheritance is by primogeniture, but in Wales it is not that clear cut. Which means that when there were multiple heirs (as there were in Gwynedd in 1246, for instance) the territory might be shared out between the heirs, or they might fight amongst themselves for who got the inheritance. Obviously England isn’t immune to civil war or inheritance disputes – but in Wales the tendency is for lands to fragment and be reunited only to fragment again. The early 13th Century had seen Llywelyn ap Iowerth reunite Gwynedd into a strong principality, only for it to fragment again after his heir’s death. His great-grandsons fought amongst themselves, and eventually Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was effectively in charge – with one of his brothers imprisoned, one paid off and one still free and at times plotting against him.

Another important facet of Welsh politics at the time is the Marcher Lords. These are the descendents of Norman nobility who hold lands along the border between England and Wales. I’ve always thought of them as a part of England, but this chapter made it clear that’s far too simple a picture. From the perspective of the English crown the Marcher Lords were their vassals, albeit with greater traditional liberties than other English nobles. From the perspective of the Welsh the Marcher Lords were also seen as part of the English invaders, but nonetheless there was a degree of integration between the Marcher Lords and the Welsh. More in the south than in Gwynedd to the north, but even there Llywelyn ap Iowerth married his daughters into Marcher families. However from the perspective of the Marcher Lords themselves they weren’t as firmly English as all that. Prestwich says that they saw themselves as potentially independent – that at the moment their interests aligned with the English crown (useful backup against the Welsh…) but this wouldn’t necessarily always be the case.

Prestwich says that conquest wouldn’t’ve felt inevitable to the people of the 13th Century. It would’ve seemed more plausible that the Welsh and the Marcher Lords would continue to integrate, and the sense of Wales & the Welsh as a separate entity would attenuate over time. But what actually happened was a growing sense of Welsh nationhood, which lead to a desire for recognition as independent. There were often skirmishes between the Welsh and the Marcher Lords, and whenever the English crown was having difficulties (see the bulk of Henry III’s reign) the Welsh would take advantage of it. So from the English perspective it became ever more important to get the matter of English power over Wales settled.

During Henry III’s reign raids by the Welsh on the Marches were met with shows of power by the English. A substantial English army would move some way into Wales, and a castle would be built (or planned) where they had pushed forward to. These gains stopped well short of full conquest, but they did give the English the upper hand. In 1247 the Welsh princes (including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd) acknowledged Henry III’s dominance, and submitted to the jurisdiction of the English crown. This wasn’t a long lasting situation, though – as Henry’s political difficulties increased the Welsh situation also deteriorated. He had left Edward in charge, but this appears to’ve been a mistake. And Llywelyn ap Gruffudd took full advantage of the civil war that developed after 1258, starting to call himself Prince of Wales in this year. But the English civil war also caused Llywelyn difficulties – the uncertainties of the English political situation meant he couldn’t come to a final settlement with them. A settlement was arrived at in 1267, with Llywelyn acknowledge as Prince of Wales by the English, but owing fealty to Henry III – so pseudo-independent.

After Edward succeeded to the English throne Llywelyn should’ve come to pay homage to him – but he failed to do so. This provided a formal reason for the outbreak of war, but Prestwich says that Llywelyn’s marriage to Simon de Montfort’s daughter was also a factor. The prospect of a Welsh prince who was also a de Montfort was unthinkable to Edward. The first Welsh war of his reign followed the pattern of his father’s campaigns – march an army in as a show of force, build a castle. But Edward miscalculated – the show of force wasn’t impressive enough. And the subsequent political situation was mismanaged, to a degree that united the Welsh, even Llywelyn and his brothers. The rhetoric of the dispute was focussed on the law – the Welsh wanted their own traditional Welsh laws, not the ones harshly imposed by Edward I.

The last conflict started in 1282, kicked off by one of Llywelyn’s brothers. Prestwich suggests that Llywelyn would’ve preferred not to start anything at this point, but the choice he now had was to fight with the English against his brother (unthinkable) or fight alongside his brother. Neither side was interested in compromise. Edward wanted the Welsh to submit to his authority unconditionally, and Llywelyn wanted to be recognised as an independent Prince of Wales. The turning point of the war came in late 1282 when Llywelyn was lured out of Snowdonia, perhaps by false suggestions of an alliance with the Mortimers (or by betrayal by some of his own men). His force met the English in battle at the river Irfon, and Llywelyn was killed. His brother Dafydd, now Prince of Wales as Llyweln had no male children, continued the war but Edward pushed on and it was all over but the mopping up. In June 1283 Dafydd was captured and the conquest was over.

There were still rebellions after this, and in particular the rebellion of 1294-5 required significant effort by the English to put down. But what was notable after this was that not all the Welsh were against the English crown. The country didn’t fully integrate into England, and the Welsh retained their own culture. The law codes of the two countries remained different in some respects, but criminal law was brought into line with England and the shire system of England was extended into Wales.

Prestwich also looks at what happened to the English army during these campaigns. One of the reasons for Edward’s success was that he brought a lot of resources to bear on the problem. He recruited sufficient men – not just via the feudal system, but also paid soldiers. And he provisioned and armed them properly, allowing him to keep the army in the field for longer. But Prestwich is keen not to overstate the innovations that Edward brought to the army – he says that the changes were quantitative rather than qualitative, and there’s no particular indication of novel tactics or organisation. Rather it’s that Edward’s logistics were what made the difference – his army was well fed, and supported, even when deep in Welsh territory.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 3)

After the turbulence of the bulk of Henry III’s reign up to the death of Simon de Montfort & the conclusion of the civil war in 1266, the next 30 years were a period of both stability & recovery. The transition between the reigns of Henry III and Edward I was smooth, even tho Edward wasn’t in the country when his father died. And even tho the royal side had won the war, many of the reforms that de Montfort and his associates had been calling for were instituted.

Orientation Dates:

  • The Mamluks took power in Cairo in 1250 ruling for the next 3 centuries (post)
  • Kublai Khan ruled the Mongol Empire (in practice mostly Mongolia & China) 1260-1294 (post)
  • Edward I on Crusade 1270-1274
  • Marco Polo (if he existed) travelled from Venice to China 1271-1295
  • Henry III dies 1272
  • Edward II born 1284

Reconstruction and Reform, 1266-1294

The start of this period was a bit shaky – initially the Crown was keen to press its advantage from having won the war – but things quickly settled down. Early legislation (in 1267) actually incorporated a lot of the reforms of 1259 (which weren’t originally proposed by the Crown). Once the situation was calmer Henry III’s big project was the translation of Edward the Confessor’s remains into the new church he was building at Westminster – this was achieved with much ceremony in 1269. Edward I wasn’t really involved with domestic politics at this time – his project was his crusade, and there were a series of parliaments called by Henry III between 1268 & 1270 to negotiate for taxes to pay for this. Prestwich doesn’t discuss Edward’s crusade (this is a history of England after all), just mentions that Edward was out of the country for four years between 1270 & 1274. The regime clearly put thought into ensuring an orderly transition of power in case Henry III died during this time (as indeed he did). Several castles were transferred into the hands of men loyal to Edward before he left the country, and his chancellor (Robert Burnell) was left behind to look after Edward’s lands. After Henry’s death it seems that these key figures held the country together and governed in Edward’s name. Burnell was to be chancellor from then until he died in 1292.

Edward’s regime was a reforming one. His goals weren’t entirely the same as de Monfort & his associates in the 1250s, he was also aiming to recover & maintain royal rights. And to run his estates & his country efficiently and cost-effectively. It was a regime that ran on information – many inquiries were held over the next 25 years, and the results fed into legislation designed to address grievances discovered etc. At the time the traditional source of income for the King was the land that he held – and reforms were attempted to the management of these estates. These failed, and taxation became a more important part of the funding of the Crown. Rather than direct taxes, which needed to be negotiated, customs duties became an important source of income. And an important way to pay back the Italian bankers that Edward’s regime borrowed money from – rather than pay them in actual money instead they were granted the customs duties on particular commodities, which gave them a stake in the wider English economy. Also on the subject of finance – the currency was in a poor state & was recoined using a new technique (measured silver droplets rather than punched out of a flat sheet) starting from 1279, with the old coins forbidden.

This increasing important of taxation meant that Parliament continued to be important, even tho it had been used to their advantage by the barons in the civil war. A key development of Edward’s reign was that petitions could be presented to the King at a parliament – a formal route for people to complain about royal officials, and to raise grievances. Who was summoned to each parliament wasn’t yet formalised, let alone being a hereditary right, with not even every Baron at every parliament.

Another source of funding for Edward’s regime, and a way to gain political credit with the Barons, were the Jews. First legislation was passed that aimed to stop them lending money at interest (and conveniently meant that debts already owed no longer earnt interest), and they were “encouraged” to move into other trades. They were also increasingly restricted in where they could live, had to wear a distinctive badge & had the status of the king’s serfs. Later in 1290 they were expelled from the country entirely. Prestwich takes pains to point out that there’s no evidence that Edward was himself anti-Semitic (beyond the background level common to European society at the time) – in contrast to his mother, and to Simon de Montfort, both of whom have left evidence of anti-Semitic feelings. But the Jews had been taxed into the ground already, and the political capital to be gained by expelling them was worth a lot more to Edward than the Jews themselves were. In particular Prestwich thinks that the expulsion itself may’ve been the unwritten quid pro quo for a particularly generous grant of taxation by Parliament in that year. I don’t imagine it made any difference to the Jews that Edward was just being pragmatic.

Edward’s Queens were covered in about a paragraph in this chapter (which is, after all, about the politics rather than the personal) – his first wife, Eleanor of Castille, died in 1290 and he subsequently married Margaret of France. Edward’s mother also died in 1291, as did a couple of Edward’s senior courtiers (including the man who’d been his chancellor since 1272). The period of stability & political peace was drawing to an end. Prestwich notes that Edward had had an easier job than Henry III in terms of patronage – Henry III had all those half-brothers & in-laws he needed to keep sweet, Edward had only a few in-laws and close associates to provide for. But he also managed to do so in ways that prevented general dissatisfaction.

Tangents to follow up on: The life of Eleanor of Castille, also of Edward I himself.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 2)

After the introductory chapters the first half of the book proper is a chronological look at the politics & wars of the time period. This chapter covers 40 years of Henry III’s reign, from when he started to exert his own authority in 1225 through to the final end of the rebellion against him with the death of Simon de Montfort in battle in 1265.

Orientation Dates:

  • Henry III reigns 1216-1272.
  • Saint Louis IX (builder of Sainte-Chapelle) ruled France 1226-1270.
  • Genghis Khan died in 1227.
  • Edward I born 1239.

Politics Under Henry III

The thread that ties this chapter together is that the politics of the day was very much grounded in the personalities of the players. The interactions between & the fallings out of the aristocracy shaped the government of the country. And Henry III was not a strong enough king to pull it all together – Prestwich describes Henry III as a man who could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. He had strong ideas about the authority & power that king should command, but when faced with opposition he tended to back off. He successively fell under the influence of different groups at court – often foreign relatives of himself or his wife – which didn’t help relations with other factions, particularly English ones. So his reign was a turbulent time politically speaking, even before the conflict with de Montfort.

He’d become king at the age of 9 (in 1216) while England was in the middle of a civil war, with the eldest son of the King of France (Louis, son of Philip II) in control of the south-east of the country. His initial regents(? Prestwich doesn’t use the term, so perhaps that’s an anachronism on my part) got the country back under control and over the rest of Henry III’s minority Plantagenet authority was restored. But factionalism was still rife. The next twenty or so years after Henry started to exert authority on his own behalf (in 1227) were characterised by a stumbling from crisis to crisis, with the king failing to prevent the bickering & factional infighting. At times it veered close to civil war but mostly the situation pulled back from the brink before armies met (with an exception being the Welsh Marches in 1234, where battles were fought).

Finance & taxation began to become an issue. At this time to raise a tax the king had to have the consent of the aristocracy. During this period Parliament came to prominence as the way to gain this consent, and it’s in Henry’s reign that the term “parliament” was first used. The king had to persuade them that he was going to spend the money in a useful & profitable fashion for the country. Parliament could and did say no to requests for taxes, or could agree only after imposing conditions on the king (for instance to re-affirm the Magna Carta). In 1244 Henry III tried to negotiate a tax, but failed to come to an agreement with Parliament. He wasn’t to succeed in any further requests either, so had to resort to other ways to raise money. These included increasing the amounts that sheriffs paid for their counties, and tax on Jews (this could be done without an agreement) – these sorts of measures weren’t sustainable in the long term.

Foreigners at court were a perennial complaint, but became a more significant issue from the 1240s onwards. Prestwich notes that most of the information here comes from a single chronicler who was rather xenophobic, but there are indications it was a wider spread issue than just one man’s prejudices. One group of foreigners were Henry’s wife Eleanor of Provence’s relatives, the Savoyards – when he married her in 1236 she brought members of her family & various retainers to court. Henry was generous to them & gave them jobs, lands, marriages & so on. Some like Eleanor’s uncle William of Savoy were particularly useful to him & helped reform government of the country, but that didn’t help make them any more popular. Another group of foreigners to get patronage were the Poitevins, related to Henry via his mother’s second marriage – this included his four half-brothers. The numbers of foreigners in these groups were not small. There were approximately 170 men with Savoyard connections to get patronage from Henry, and about 100 Poitevins. Adding to the turbulent politics was the fact that the Savoyards & Poitevins saw each other as rivals.

The third “group” of foreigners is a single man – Simon de Montfort. Not part of either the Savoyard or Poitevins, he came from the Ile de France and his family had a claim via marriage to the earldom of Leicester which he came to England to claim in 1230. He soon charmed his way into the inner circle of the court, he even married the king’s sister in 1238 (clandestinely, and this sparked a political crisis with him & the king on the same side for now). Henry & Simon started to fall out over money as early as 1239, but reconciled. In the early 1250s Simon’s rule over Gascony (as Henry’s lieutenant) had started to attract protest over its harshness. He was even brought back to England and put on trial in 1252 (a case that Prestwich says he “did not lose”). Even after this he & Henry reconciled once more.

Prestwich takes a short digression at this point in the story of the period to discuss the Church & how it played into the political situation in the late 1250s. During approximately the same time that Henry had been on the throne of England there was a gathering enthusiasm for reform within the Church. The new emphasis was on pastoral care & included measures such as clerics only holding one benefice each and not behaving in unseemly ways. The various orders of friars start up in this period – the Dominicans and Franciscans both reach England in the 1220s. And this enthusiasm for reform spilled over into the secular politics of the day – that the king should be subject to the law, that he should choose his councillors wisely, that his officials had an obligation to act fairly.

And now we’re at the build up to the civil war that ended with Simon de Montfort’s death. By 1258 Henry’s government was seen as incompetent & the Parliament that met in Oxford that year took steps to Do Something About It. They set out a complex scheme for picking a fair council of 15 that would evenly represent both king & barons, and this council would be where the final authority rested rather than with the king. At first it worked, and investigations were set up into all areas of administration with an aim to reforming them to make the rule of the country more fair and just (notably this extended significantly down the social strata, including grievances to be righted that would favour ordinary freemen). But progress was too slow for many on the baronial side, and personalities were still important – Prestwich says that de Montfort was not good at collaboration, or compromise, which meant that rifts opened in the baronial ranks. The initiative started to move to the king’s side, and by 1261 he’d managed to regain control to the extent that he could dismiss the council & put his own men in positions of power. Some of the barons had come over to his side, and Henry started to try & patch up his private quarrels with Simon de Montfort in hopes of neutralising him (which didn’t work).

But finance was still a problem – Henry still could not gather taxes. He also failed again to establish any sort of stable regime. Simon de Montfort returned to England in 1263 determined to force the king to accept the reforms propsed in 1258. There was some violence in early 1263 that lead to a series of negotiations in the second half of the year, under the arbitration of the King of France. At first Louis favoured de Montfort – Louis approved the Provisions of Oxford that had been laid out in 1258 & demanded the restitution of property to those who’d suffered in the violence in 1263. The opposition of the future Edward I was a particular problem for this negotiated peace, and a further round of negotiations was required. Louis had now changed his mind – Prestwich says that Queen Eleanor’s influence was a major factor in this – and he was firmly on the royalist side. These negotiations got nowhere & proper civil war broke out in spring 1264.

The advantage at first lay with the king. Henry had summoned a traditional feudal army, ostensibly to fight the Welsh but everyone knew de Montfort & his supporters were the true target. De Montfort’s support was centred on the Midlands (which he ruled a lot of as the Earl of Leicester) and in towns (including London). Henry’s army won the first few battles, including a triumph at Northampton that included the capture of one of de Montfort’s sons. But de Montfort’s supporters felt themselves to be cursaders and went into battle wearing crosses, feeling that God was on their side. This moral zeal and a combination of poor tactics from Edward & good tactics from de Montfort lead to a decisive victory for the baronial cause at Lewes. Victory wasn’t total – they didn’t capture the king or his son, but they did pen them up in Lewes priory from where they negotiated a peace settlement that included Edward remaining in custody as a hostage.

Simon de Montfort was now in charge of the government of the country, and although the king was still king he had no say in anything that happened. The council that was set up was a lot less complex than the previous experiment in 1258, and this let de Montfort exert a great deal of control over who was on it & the decisions it made. Prestwich says that actual reform was thin on the ground, de Montfort spent more time pursuing his personal gain. Despite this he had widespread support. Unfortunately where he started losing support was in the upper echelons of society & that was crucial. The escape of Edward from custody in May 1265, and his subsequent joining of forces with barons who were disaffected with de Montfort lead to the outbreak of further civil war. This time the baronial cause didn’t feel so much that God was on their side – and the royalist cause wore crosses too. Edward & his allies were the winners of the battles, and on 4 August 1265 Simon de Montfort was slain on the field of battle. Some resistance to the royalists rumbled on for another year or so, but the back was broken of the rebellion.

Prestwich rounds off the chapter by concluding that even though the royalist cause were the winners the attempts to reform the government of England were not ignored. The civil war had been short but bitter, and the government of the country needed rebuilt afterwards. There was no longer any talk of restricting the king’s authority, but the reforms were not all tossed out. The next chapter of the book will cover the next 30 years, including the rebuilding process.

A thought I had while reading this was to wonder if there’s ever been a successful English king who took the throne as a minor. The ones that spring to my mind are Henry III (not terribly competent, as discussed here), Richard II (overly autocratic once he came to power, subsequently deposed), Henry VI (turned out to be very incompetent and had mental health issues, deposed twice during Wars of the Roses). Edward VI died too young to know how he’d’ve turned out if he’d reached his majority. Have I forgotten someone?

Another thought is that it’s interesting that Henry III was never deposed, nor even in danger of it. He might’ve had his authority restricted to the point where he wasn’t really ruling any more, but de Montfort didn’t set himself up as king or try & put anyone else on the throne. Particularly interesting in light of Edward II being deposed, as that’s only two generations later.

Tangents to follow up on: The obvious ones really – biography of Simon de Montfort & of Henry III.