The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III

The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III

by John Paul Davis

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Henry III was the son and successor of Bad King John, reigning for 56 years from 1216 - the first child king in England for 200 years. England went on to prosper during his reign and his greatest monument is Westminster Abbey, which he made the seat of his government - indeed, Henry III was the first English King to call a parliament. Though often overlooked by historians, Henry III was a unique figure coming out of a chivalric yet Gothic era: a compulsive builder of daunting castles and epic sepulchres; a powerful, unyielding monarch who faced down the De Montfort rebellion and waged war with Wales and France - and, much more than his father, Henry was the king who really hammered out the terms of the Magna Carta with the barons. John Paul Davis, biographer of Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes for Peter Owen, brings all his forensic skills and insights to the grand story of the Gothic King in this, the only biography in print of one of our most remarkable monarchs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720615425
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

John Paul Davis is the author of Pity for the Guy and Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar.

Read an Excerpt

The Gothic King

A Biography of Henry III

By John Paul Davis

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2013 John Paul Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1543-2


Arise, Sir Henry

At the time of John's death the fate of the war remained uncertain. The arrival of Louis had aided the rebels greatly, and their position had been further enhanced by recent reinforcements from France. In the north of England the barons had augmented their control of the important counties, consolidated by the support of Alexander II of Scotland thanks to the submission of the three northern counties. In the south and east the barons were as dedicated to rebellion as the northerners. Cities as far apart as Winchester, London, Carlisle and Lincoln were all in the hands of the rebels, as were the Cinque Ports, the keys to the kingdom, apart from Dover. Across the border in Wales, Llewellyn ap Iorwerth was also in league with the opposition while continuing to enhance his position in his own country.

Yet despite the rebels' dominance the attitude of the general population to the war was not of overwhelming sympathy with the rebels. Sentimentally the Runnymede Charter may be regarded as the cornerstone of English law, but the idea that it brought about a significant change in the rights of the common man belongs more to myth than history. As the war continued, many people saw their livelihoods destroyed by acts of violence, and there were murmurings of dissent against the barons who were now being seen as aiding a French invasion rather than fighting for liberties.

King John was buried at Worcester Cathedral in a ceremony of necessity as much as reverence. Those who remained closest to the king oversaw the transfer of his body from Newark to Worcester and its interment in the Norman choir. Following the king's funeral, the legate, in counsel with John's key supporter, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, called a meeting that would go on to decide the future of the kingdom. With the King of England dead, it was time to carry out his will and crown a successor.

The heir to the throne was John's eldest son, Henricus of Winchester. Aged just nine years, Henry had enjoyed a relatively good relationship with his father and a peaceful upbringing away from the turbulence. Though he was young in years there were no question-marks over his right to reign, as there had been with his father. In 1209 John had demanded that an oath of fealty be taken to him by the people of England, while a similar instruction was made on his deathbed. No one in John's presence at Newark refused to take the oath granting the accession of Prince Henry.

At the time of his death John's wife and most of his children were in the south-west of England, almost certainly at Corfe Castle. On hearing of the legate's intention, Henry was taken to the castle at Devizes, then under the command of the Justiciar, while John's executors went on to the royal castle at Gloucester to prepare for the coronation. Under instruction from William Marshal, Henry was collected from Devizes by Thomas of Samford, along with those who had cared for him. A few days later Henry met Marshal on a plain outside Malmesbury. The young man was said to be of princely stock, possessing a fine figure, a kind and handsome face and a kingly manner. He was carried into the earl's presence by his governor, Ralph de St Sanson, and on greeting him said, 'I entrust myself to God and to you.' On hearing the prince's words, the Earl of Pembroke took him in hand and swore to do his duty to him. Whether overwhelmed by the occasion or still distraught from the death of his father, the soon-to-be king could not hold back tears.

The setting for the coronation was Gloucester, an ancient royal borough that was still under royalist control. In past years the city had become famous for the tradition in which the Norman kings visited once a year for a procession wearing the crown.

The day was 28 October, the vigil of Simon and Jude. Though some of the lords argued that the event should be delayed until the arrival of Ranulph, Earl of Chester, the greatest of the nobles, those in control decided there was not a moment to lose. A small number of bishops and barons gathered in St Peter's Abbey awaiting the prince's arrival. When the moment arrived, the prince was carried inside and taken before the main altar. He was dressed in royal robes, made to his size, and appeared in every way a child of destiny. The occasion was marked with tears among those in attendance, not of sorrow but of love for the innocent boy about to be crowned – and perhaps of hope for a better future.

In the absence of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London, the responsibility for crowning the king was handed to the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches – the only bishop to stand by John during the papal interdict. It is possible that Gualo was also involved in the event, though the sources are unclear. Unlike his predecessors, the king was crowned with a plain hoop of gold provided by his mother. The original crown was missing, perhaps lost on the way to Newark or located somewhere in the south, out of reach of the desperate royalists. Jocelin, Bishop of Bath, administered the coronation oath that Henry swore to uphold as his father had before him.

Henricus of Winchester was crowned King of England. He was the third Henry of England, named after his grandfather, Henry II. In the presence of the legate Henry swore fealty to Rome as his father had done three years earlier and undertook to make the annual payment of the 1,000-mark tithe. After reciting the usual oaths, the Earl of Pembroke was given the honour of knighting the king. Forty-three years before he had done the same to Henry the Younger, son of Henry II.

Once the event was over Henry was carried out of the abbey and taken to his chamber. Such was the occasion that many strove for the honour of carrying the young king. His assembly robes were replaced by lighter ones, more comfortable for the challenges the evening had in store.

No king of England came to the throne in more difficult circumstances than Henry III. No longer did the Plantagenet kings of England hold dominance over the Angevin territories, and, as a result of the ongoing war, no longer was the authority of the king enough to guarantee the allegiance of his subjects. Despite John's death more than half of England still sided with the rebels, while Louis maintained the allegiance of some two-thirds of the barons.

Though the situation looked grim, all was not lost. In William Marshal and Ranulph, Earl of Chester, the king had the support of the two most powerful earls in the kingdom. Also on his side was William Brewer, based mainly in Devon; Walter Lacy, the Lord of Ludlow; John of Monmouth, a lord of the South Welsh Marches, along with the other powerful marcher lords: the Mortimers, the Cantilupes, the Cliffords and the Braoses. The Midlands and the west remained staunchly royalist and counted support from the powerful Earls of Derby and Warwick and the majority of the barons of the West Midlands. To the south, the Justiciar Hubert de Burgh still occupied Dover Castle, while the royal castles at Oxford, Wallingford, Windsor, Scarborough, Durham, Nottingham, Lincoln, Bedford, Kenilworth, Peak, Knaresborough and Newark, given by John to his favourites, also remained in safe hands.

However, this was not the royalists' greatest strength. As a papal vassal Henry had the support of the papacy. Prior to Louis's invasion the Pope had declared any attempt to usurp John's throne illegal, while explicitly declaring Henry innocent of his father's offences. Support from the prelates was firmly with the king, and any who refused did so under threat of excommunication.

While some of the rebel barons are known to have viewed John's death as a sign to renew fealty to the king, his death did not end the war. On the evening of the coronation barely had discussions commenced when news reached the royalists that the Earl Marshal's castle at Goodrich, only eighteen miles away, was under attack from the Welsh. Wasting no time, Marshal dispatched a party of knights, sergeants and crossbowmen to relieve the castle. Goodrich was saved, but evidence of a new rising made forthcoming decisions even more urgent. Administration of the kingdom had lapsed in the recent war, particularly as the Justiciar was prevented from leaving Dover Castle. For those at Gloucester another matter of importance needed to be clarified. Henry III was the first king since the Norman invasion to ascend to the throne as a minor. Owing to his youth it was necessary that a regent be appointed until he reached the age of majority. The general view among those present was that William Marshal was the best candidate. Though Marshal received the immediate backing of the legate he protested that his age was against him. He suggested that the Earl of Chester was a more meritorious candidate, as well as more youthful.

The day after Henry III's coronation many of the king's leading supporters, including Ranulph, Earl of Chester, arrived in Gloucester and pledged allegiance to him. At the time of the earl's arrival discussion was taking place in the Great Hall. For the second time in two days criticisms were voiced that the coronation had taken place in the Earl of Chester's absence. On greeting the lords Ranulph was quick to voice his support for the legate and dismissed the argument.

Discussion returned to the subject of regency. Once again William Marshal demurred, again on the grounds of old age and the good character of the Earl of Chester. To this Chester replied with equal humility. He boldly announced his support for William Marshal, vowing to serve him as best he could.

After the discussion had continued for some time Gualo took Marshal, Ranulph, Peter des Roches and some of the other lords into a private room. For the first time the legate requested that William take on the responsibility, in exchange for the absolution of his sins. Eventually Marshal relented, stating, 'If at this price I am absolved of my sins, this office suits me, and I will take it, though it weighs heavily upon me.' As on previous days, the occasion produced visible emotion among the royalists.

Seldom in history have the achievements of a knight compared with those of William Marshal. Once described by his contemporary, Archbishop Langton, as 'the greatest knight in the world', Marshal's rise to regent marked the pinnacle of an exceptional career. Marshal's father, John, had been only a minor nobleman, whose allegiance alternated between Stephen and Matilda. According to a story told by his biographer, Stephen caught William while he was besieging his father's Newbury Castle in 1152; Stephen threatened to hang William in order to ensure that John honour his vow to surrender the castle. John used the opportunity to reinforce his garrison and informed the king that he was capable of producing even greater sons. Fortunately for the young William, Stephen could not bring himself to carry out the threat.

William's dramatic rise to prominence began at the age of twelve, when he started training as a knight at the household of William de Tancarville in Normandy. He was knighted around 1166 and the following year participated in his first tournament. As a competitor and jouster he had few equals. If his deathbed recollection is to be trusted, he conquered over 500 knights in tournament.

William was unique in the sense that he served four kings, five if his time in the household of Henry the Young is included. His valour in tournaments and battle is generally assumed to have had a profound effect on Henry the Young; William had also been a close guide in the prince's rebellion of 1173–4. Marshal was reconciled with Henry II and served him admirably during the last five years of his reign, before doing the same for Richard. His loyalty won him, among other things, the Earldom of Pembroke, and, despite enduring a turbulent relationship with John, he was one of the few noblemen who remained loyal to him throughout his reign.

Within two weeks of Henry III's coronation Gualo held a council at Bristol. Only four earls attended, among them the Earl of Aumale whose allegiance had recently been won. Of more importance was the attendance of eleven bishops, confirming the support of the Church, while the lay barons were represented by a large following from the Marches.

The day was St Martin's day, 11 November. William Marshal was officially confirmed as regent. Marshal assigned des Roches as the king's personal tutor, in addition to being made a councillor. The third key appointment was for Hubert de Burgh to continue as Justiciar. This was the first time he had joined up with them, having negotiated a truce with Louis, who continued to besiege him at Dover Castle. All three were experienced men of state, and each had formed a group of executors appointed by King John.

Among the business conducted at Bristol was the reissue of the Charter of Liberties, viewed by the royalist magnates as essential given John's inability to win the war. Unlike the Runnymede Charter, the Bristol one was backed by the legate and hence issued with the blessing of the papacy. The second charter was confirmed at Bristol on 12 November with some clauses from the Runnymede Charter omitted. In reality the charter at Bristol was more important than that of Runnymede could ever have been. Gone were the contentious clauses concerning constitutional reform, including the appointment of the twenty-five and the clauses regarding extraordinary taxation. Though time was of the essence, the new charter had been carefully revised and outlined a clear policy, with certain aspects to be reviewed at a later date.

Throughout England there seems little doubt that the end of King John's reign saw a dramatic change in the nature of the war. The merciless treatment of enemies, coupled with the widespread destruction of towns and villages, had largely come to an end. As usual, warfare died down in winter. From October on the conflict that occurred was mainly confined to castle warfare. Hoping to take advantage of the complications in the forming of the new government, Louis worked steadily at completing his conquest of the south-east. In November he acquired the Tower of London, and within a short period he conquered the castle at Hertford. A truce was mooted as Christmas approached, subject to the royalist surrender of Berkhamsted, but talk of peace was still some way off.

Reconciliation between royalists and rebels was also the key aim of the papacy. In early December Honorius demanded that the rebel barons swear fealty to Henry, once again insisting that Henry's coronation had established the beginning of his legitimate rule. On 3 December Honorius also wrote to Gualo, assigning him the task of watching over both the kingdom and the young children of John. Henry remained in Bristol for Christmas, celebrating with the legate and his new regent. The New Year began with councils in Oxford and Cambridge where the royalists and the barons respectively met. While Marshal and the legate took centre stage, Henry's early reign was largely sheltered. He continued his learning under the guidance of a tutor, one Philip of Albini, also warden of the Channel Islands, who was said to have performed his duty admirably.

While Marshal and his council attempted to restore order, Louis was making progress. He gained the castles at Berkhamsted, Colchester, Orford, Norwich and Cambridge in addition to the baronial castles at Pleshey and Hedingham, though his conquests were largely through negotiated surrender rather than out-and-out siege. Louis's drive consolidated his hold on much of the south-east, but he had still to achieve any progress in the West of England or the Midlands.

The end of 1216 culminated in a dramatic slowdown in the prince's progress. Not only was he running short of supplies; for the first time the barons were beginning to voice their discontent about his harsh taxation policy. Even more pressingly, many of the barons who had opposed John had done so because of his tendency to favour foreigners – a practice the French prince unsurprisingly shared. When the rebels gained occupation of Hertford, Robert Fitzwalter demanded the castle be returned to him. Louis flatly refused, stating that no Englishman who betrayed his natural land could be trusted with such responsibility.

Elsewhere the prince encountered other problems. Prior to the siege of Dover, his viceroy, Enguerrand de Coucy, already threatened with excommunication for inciting violence against John, had entered an alliance with Henry. Gualo placed Wales under interdict because of its connection with the rebel barons, in addition to issuing further excommunication orders against the rebels themselves. In England there was less threat of punishment. Instead, Marshal and the legate attempted to win support through diplomacy rather than conflict. Marshal promised that no inquiries would be made into past offences and that those who pledged fealty to Henry III would have their rights reinstated when the war was over. His approach was decisive and secured the allegiance of some of the barons, including several of those in control of the Cinque Ports. For Louis this was the worst possible outcome. For the first time in the war his position had gone from that of liberator to usurper.

The role of Gualo and the papacy was of vital importance during the first year of Henry's reign. While Honorius used his influence with the abbots of Cîteaux and Clairvaux to try to persuade the King of France to discourage Louis from proceeding with the war, the Pope also wrote personally to Henry, highlighting his hopes for the future and seeking his devotion to the Apostolic See. Honorius and Gualo were particularly active in January. On 17 January 1217 Honorius ordered that letters be sent to the Archbishops of Dublin and Bordeaux, urging fealty to the king, while letters were also written to the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester and the legate outlining the importance of the king's supervision. The legate's position was further strengthened with the granting of powers against all ecclesiastics currently swearing loyalty to Louis, following which Honorius used the opportunity to attempt to fill vacant sees with his own choices. Despite Henry's youth, the Pope also wrote to England on the subject of possible marriage with a princess whose position might benefit him.


Excerpted from The Gothic King by John Paul Davis. Copyright © 2013 John Paul Davis. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7

Prelude: From Rouen to Runnymede 15

1 Arise, Sir Henry 29

2 Winchester the Unready 45

3 The First King of England 59

4 Unwanted Visitors 75

5 The Rule of the 'Poitevin' 83

6 The Forgotten War 93

7 The Hohenstaufen Endeavour 99

8 The Rule of the Savoyards 107

9 The Devil and His Horsemen 117

10 Prelates, Poitou and the Birth of Parliament 127

11 Henry the Builder 143

12 The Pretender Kings 159

13 The Phoney King of Sicily 181

14 All Roads Lead to Oxford 195

15 The Slaying of the Dragon 213

16 The Long March to Evesham 219

17 The Seven-Year Harvest 229

18 In History and in Memory 241

Notes and References 263

Bibliography 297

Picture Credits 305

Index 306

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