The year 1204 was a significant turning point for England. Just five years into the reign of King John, the signs were already in place that his father’s great empire was fragmenting.
Under Henry II, the Angevin Empire had been the most expansive of its type in 12th-century Europe. What had begun with the joining of the two great dynasties of Geoffrey of Anjou and his wife, Empress Matilda, reached its zenith with the marriage of their son, Henry II, to the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Military generals and soothsayers alike highly doubted that the empire, which ran from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees, was destined to remain together. Further to Philip II’s superior military capabilities and geographical proximity to the ancestral lands, the Suffolk monk Ralph of Coggeshall recorded that a prophecy of Merlin had been satisfied with Normandy’s loss. As history would later recall, the sword had indeed been removed from the sceptre.
Never again would an English monarch rule over the Norman motherland.
For John’s magnates, the loss of the ancestral lands proved just the first major setback of a reign rich in complications. Ongoing failures on the continent combined with often hostile relations with his clerics and barons ultimately brought about an appetite for reform. When defeat at Bouvines in 1214 forced John to accept a five-year truce, the road to Runnymede was short and swift. Failure to honour the terms of Magna Carta doomed England to its third post-Norman civil war.
For John’s young heir, Henry of Winchester, the repercussions would be long and frustrating. On taking the throne in October 1216 in the middle of a war he had played no role in starting, the omens were bad. While the storm that surrounded John’s final night at Newark – in which many said the devil came for his soul – soon died down, the broader chaos showed fewer signs of abating.
More than two-thirds of England was by then controlled by the baronial rebels, led by their leader Prince Louis (later Louis VIII) of France. Similarly, more than half of the baronage had sided with Louis. To keep his throne, the young king needed a miracle.
That miracle came in the form of an unlikely trio. Famed as the greatest tournament competitor in the world and the servant of four kings, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, was the ideal candidate to take on the mantle of regent. In league with Guala, the papal legate, tutorship was entrusted to Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, while Hubert de Burgh remained justiciar.
Under Marshal’s guidance, the direction of the war gradually turned in the royalists’ favour. Aided by Hubert’s stout defence of Dover Castle, victories in the Fair of Lincoln and Battle of Sandwich ended Louis’ hopes of becoming king.
For the young Henry III, success in war was a significant obstacle to have overcome, albeit at a cost. His father’s rejection of the reforms agreed at Runnymede, which had led to the conflict, had required great compromise to bring matters to a conclusion. Among the first acts agreed at a gathering in Bristol within three weeks of the king’s coronation was the implementation of a watered-down version of the original charter. Promises were also made that further discussion would take place at the end of the war. Such things would be realised with the charter’s third incarnation in 1217, alongside its sister document, the Charter of the Forest.
King Henry III
Ten years passed before the young king experienced the restrictions personally, by which time English kingship had already changed for good. Admirable though progress on an administrative footing had been, as usual in England, resentment of the power brokers caused dissent. When the king, aged 21, confirmed his intention to break free of the shackles of youth, the peace his advisors had fought so hard to cement threatened to break.
The first sign that the king threatened to repeat his father’s mistakes came with a planned invasion of the lost ancestral lands in 1229. Truces with Philip II of France had remained in place throughout his life. However, such things were threatened when his heir, now Louis VIII, took up his sword.
French success in Poitou and Gascony, though partially thwarted in 1225 by a counter manoeuvre led by the king’s uncle, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, and younger brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, remained a distinct possibility. After a lack of preparation and previously arranged truces forced Henry to wait until 1230, the eventual endeavour proved expensive and rudderless. Within a year of returning to England, renewed hostilities with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth left control of the Welsh marches increasingly vulnerable.
As news from the marches and the continent went from bad to worse, the return of two influential figures from long absences signalled further problems. Joining the recently empowered Richard Marshal, now 3rd Earl of Pembroke and head of the baronage after the death of his childless brother, Peter des Roches’s triumphant return from the Sixth Crusade spelt trouble for the justiciar Hubert de Burgh. Blamed by Henry for recent setbacks, the king sacked Hubert in June 1232 and installed des Roches as chief advisor.
As the next two years would show, five years of unleashed frustrations by a young man, who up until that time had been king in all but name, would culminate in disaster. As des Roches’s enrichment of foreign lackeys and unqualified politicians to the detriment of those loyal to the previous regime continued unabated, voices of dissent increased.
After the king deprived Gilbert Basset, a close ally of Richard Marshal, of a manor in Wiltshire, Marshal took up his grievances personally. When des Roches arrogantly dismissed the value of Basset’s award by royal grant, England faced its greatest constitutional crisis since Magna Carta.
The scene was set for civil war. Once Marshal failed to attend three royal councils during the summer of 1233 due to fears of capture, des Roches struck hard. Confiscation of the rebels’ lands was mirrored with widespread carnage unleashed on the lands of des Roches and his cronies.
After a shackled Hubert was wrested to safety, Marshal’s opportunistic taking of Monmouth Castle, ambushing the royal train, and the razing of Shrewsbury left Henry little choice but to open negotiations. Warned by the new Archbishop of Canterbury that his mistakes would not go unpunished, Henry sacked des Roches and vowed to rule as his chief minister.
For England and Wales, the strange conflict recalled by the chroniclers as the ‘Marshal War’ was confined to ignominy. Yet sadly, there would be no happy ending. A pre-existing des Roches’s plot ensured Marshal’s death in Ireland. As the Annals of Waverley sorely lamented, ‘England weep for thy Marshal . . . because on thy behalf, England sought to love’.
Though the sons of the great regent would not live beyond 1245, as history would recall, the period between 1234 and 1258 proved prosperous. As the 20th-century historian Sir Maurice Powicke rightly commented, Henry had learned a great lesson in kingship.
John Paul Davis is the international bestselling author of eleven thriller novels and six works of nonfiction. King John, Henry III and England’s Lost Civil War was published in July 2021 by Pen & Sword.