King Henry III was the son of King John. He was nine when he came to the throne in 1216, sixty-five when he died in 1272, a reign of fifty-six years, the longest of any monarch before George III.
Yet the reign remains comparatively little known. This is a pity. Henry’s reign had a profound impact on the political, religious and economic life of the country. We can also get closer to Henry’s character than to that of any other medieval king.
The implantation of Magna Carta into political life
The definitive Magna Carta was not King John’s of 1215 but the new version Henry III issued in 1225. It is chapters from the 1225 Charter that are still on the statute book of the United Kingdom today.
The Charter in Henry’s reign was far from just a vague symbol of good government, as is sometimes supposed. With its detail closely studied, it changed the whole nature of kingship. Magna Carta marked a watershed between lawless and lawful rule.
The first appearance of parliament’s power
Henry not only faced the restrictions of Magna Carta. He was also the first king confronted by the power of parliament. The first assembly called parliament met in 1237. In the next twenty years, the great lever, the source of all parliament’s power down the ages, namely control over taxation, appears again and again in action.
Here Magna Carta played a part. Stopping up other sources of revenue, it made general taxation paid by everyone in the kingdom all the more necessary, while at the same time insisting it could only be imposed with general consent. That soon came to mean the consent of parliament.
A king who liked a comfortable life
Henry’s letters give a unique insight into his life and character. They were written for him by the chancery and recorded on a great series of rolls. Ending with the place and date of their issue, they reveal where Henry was on nearly every day of his reign.
Whereas King John dashed around his dominions, rarely spending more than two or three days at any one place, Henry remained at his favourite palaces and palace castles, all in the south, for weeks at a time, sometimes months.
Henry strove to make his homes more comfortable, issuing orders for tiled floors, wainscotting, windows that opened and shut, and lavatories with deep drops to take away the smell.
He also filled his homes with visual images speaking both to his religiosity and regality. Paintings thus depicted his patron saint Edward the Confessor, his coat of arms with its three leopards, and kings sitting enthroned dressed in cloth of gold.
There was fun at Henry’s court. When he visited the Roman baths at Bath, he ordered his jester to be throne in. We know this as Henry gave him a new suit of clothes to replace those ruined by the ducking.
Henry’s letters show his favourite fish was lamprey. He and his queen found all other fish ‘insipid’. There are many online recipes involving lampreys. I am not attracted by them.
Henry’s peace: his greatest achievement
Internal peace was linked to an absence of foreign war. Henry was a ‘rex pacificus, a pacific king’. His campaigns in Wales were last resorts. His settlements with the king of France and king of Scotland led to long years of peace. He was very different from his son, Edward I, ‘the hammer of the Scots’ and his great-grandson, Edward III, who launched the 100 Years War.
‘We have not ceased to study and labour for the peace and tranquility of each and everyone’, Henry wrote in one of his letters. Henry was indeed praised for the peace he brought to the kingdom. It created the conditions for the preaching of the friars, the pastoral work of bishops, and the building of numerous churches, thus transforming the spiritual life of the country.
Henry’s peace also facilitated a transformation in the economy with a new network of markets and fairs and an explosion in the money supply. This is why silver pennies of Henry III, from the recoinage of 1247, are so readily available today on e-bay.
The design of the new pennies showed Henry’s concern with the outward show of his kingship. The king’s head and crown were better designed and the inscription now identified Henry as Henry ‘the third’.
‘A most Christian king’
Henry was widely regarded as a ‘rex Christianissimus, a most Christian king’. He attended numerous masses and (in the 1240s) fed 500 paupers every day. On special occasions, the numbers fed ran into many thousands. Here Henry was doing what all kings had done, if on a new scale and with a new intensity. But other aspects of Henry’s piety were entirely new.
Henry was the first king to adopt Edward the Confessor as his patron saint. The Confessor, the last king of the true Anglo-Saxon line, had died in 1066 and been made a saint in 1161. Devotion to the Confessor became central to Henry’s life.
Henry was also the first king committed to the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, something applauded then, abhorrent now. In 1255 he sanctioned the libelous belief that Jews captured and crucified Christian boys in insulting parody of the crucifixion of Christ. The way was being prepared for the eventual expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.
A Revival of Queenship
In 1236, when Henry married Eleanor of Provence, no queen of England had played a part in English politics since Eleanor of Aquitaine in the previous century. Eleanor of Provence changed all that.
Eleanor was twelve when Henry married her but proved a far stronger character. Given space by her indulgent husband and strengthened by the birth of two sons, she vigorously promoted the interests of her uncles from Savoy and quarreled bitterly with another group of foreigners in England, Henry’s half-brothers from Poitou.
The revolution of 1258: Henry is stripped of power
In 1258 Henry was removed from power and a baronial council took over the government of the country. This was a revolution far more radical than Magna Carta in 1215 which had placed restrictions on the king but left him in control of government.
How had a king admired both for his peace and piety been brought so low? The answer lies in two disastrous characteristics, much commented on by contemporaries: Henry’s ‘simplicity’ and his open handed generosity. The ever flowing favours Henry bestowed on his foreign relatives created factional quarrels at court he lacked the skill to control.
They also placed him at odds with the widespread feeling that England should be for the English. This was a crucial period in the development of English national feeling.
Added to this, Henry’s naivety was laid bare in a totally impractical scheme to place his second son on the throne of Sicily. Henry was not altogether helped by his piety. The clearness of conscience it brought meant he failed to see the need to reform the realm. Here he was very different from the contemporary king of France, Louis IX (Saint Louis) who felt reform was necessary to save his soul.
Civil war 1263-67
Henry’s peace ended in 1263 with the outbreak of civil war. In May 1264 Henry was captured by Simon de Montfort at the battle of Lewes.
Thereafter Montfort ruled the country until his defeat and death at the battle of Evesham in August 1265. Even then it was more than two years before peace returned to England.
In winning through, Henry owed a great deal to his son, the future Edward I. But he also owed a lot to his reputation as a good and pious man, whatever his failings as a ruler.
There was never an attempt to depose Henry as there was King John. In 1272 Henry died with the realm at peace. He was buried in Westminster Abbey beside the shrine of Edward the Confessor.
Henry’s greatest legacy: Westminster Abbey
Having adopted the Confessor as his patron saint, Henry had to prove his devotion. How otherwise could he expect, the Confessor to intercede with God on his behalf.
With characteristic generosity, Henry thought big. The Confessor lay in the great church he himself had built at Westminster (it is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry). But it was now ruinous and out of date. So Henry thought nothing would please the Confessor more than to pull it down and build a wonderful new church in its place.
Henry succeeded perfectly. His new church, the heart of the Abbey as it exists today, in its height, its windows, and principal entrance were stunningly different from anything seen before in England. And if the great French cathedrals, from which these features came, reached even higher, Henry’s church was far more magnificent.
The chronicler, Thomas Wykes, who attended the consecration of Henry’s Abbey in 1269, said it exceeded in splendour all other church in the world. It is Henry’s enduring legacy.
David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London, ‘Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207-1258‘ was published by Yale University Press May 2020.