This series has eleven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The King’s Empty Treasury.
With the loss of Normandy under King John, the barons of Norman descent in England had become patriotic Englishmen. They forced their monarch to sign the Magna Charta and thus laid the foundation of English constitutional liberty.
John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his son Henry of Winchester, a minor in his eleventh year. The celebrated Hubert de Burgh, chief justiciar, soon became regent, and reigned comparatively without control, even after the young King attained his majority. But in 1232 Henry, being in need of money, imprisoned the regent and compelled him to forfeit the greater part of his estate.
After De Burgh’s fall, King Henry III became his own master, and was responsible for the measures of government, the wars with foreign powers, the disputes with the Pope and with the barons, during which the evolution of the English parliament made important progress, chiefly through the efforts of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.
One of the most important episodes of that evolution was the “Mad Parliament” — derisively so called by the royal partisans — at which the Provisions of Oxford, long considered the rash innovations of an ambitious oligarchy, were promulgated. Of this Mad Parliament it has been said, “It would have been well for England if all parliaments had been equally sane.”
As to the opinion, repeatedly emphasized in the following account, that De Montfort was false and ambitious, it is well to remind the reader that other historians have looked upon Earl Simon as a disinterested patriot of the highest type.
This selection is from The History of England, From the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of Henry VIII by John Lingard published in 1819. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
John Lingard was a Catholic priest who wrote in the early nineteenth century. His much-admired book had a side-effect beyond just advancing the profession of history: it did much to bring Catholicism to respectability in Britain.
It was Henry’s misfortune to have inherited the antipathy of his father to the charter of Runnymede, and to consider his barons as enemies leagued in a conspiracy to deprive him of the legitimate prerogatives of the crown. He watched with jealousy all their proceedings, refused their advice, and confided in the fidelity of foreigners more than in the affection of his own subjects. Such conduct naturally alienated the minds of the nobles, who boldly asserted that the great offices of state were their right, and entered into associations for the support of their pretensions. Had the King possessed the immense revenues of his predecessors he might perhaps have set their enmity at defiance; but during the wars between Stephen and Maud, and afterward between John and his barons, the royal demesnes had been considerably diminished; and the occasional extravagance of Henry, joined to his impolitic generosity to his favorites, repeatedly compelled him to throw himself on the voluntary benevolence of the nation. Year after year the King petitioned for a subsidy, and each petition was met with a contemptuous refusal. If the barons at last relented, it was always on conditions most painful to his feelings. They obliged him to acknowledge his former misconduct, to confirm anew the two charters, and to promise the immediate dismissal of the foreigners.  But Henry looked only to the present moment: no sooner were his coffers replenished than he forgot his promises and laughed at their credulity. Distress again forced him to solicit relief, and to offer the same conditions. Unwilling to be duped a second time, the barons required his oath. He swore, and then violated his oath with as much indifference as he had violated his promise. His next applications were treated with scorn; but he softened their opposition by offering to submit to excommunication if he should fail to observe his engagements. In the great hall of Westminster, the King, barons, and prelates assembled; the sentence was pronounced by the bishops with the usual solemnity; and Henry, placing his hand on his breast, added, “So help me God, I will observe these charters, as I am a Christian, a knight, and a king crowned and anointed.” The aid was granted, and the King reverted to his former habits.
It was not, however, that he was by inclination a vicious man. He had received strong religious impressions; though fond of parade, he cautiously avoided every scandalous excess; and his charity to the poor and attention to the public worship were deservedly admired. But his judgment was weak. He had never emancipated his mind from the tutelage in which it had been held in his youth, and easily suffered himself to be persuaded by his favorites that his promises were not to be kept, because they had been compulsory and extorted from him in opposition to the just claims of his crown.
On the fall of Hubert de Burgh the King had given his confidence to his former tutor, Peter the Poitevin, Bishop of Winchester. That the removal of the minister would be followed by the dismissal of the other officers of government, and that the favorite would employ the opportunity to raise and enrich his relatives and friends, is not improbable; but it is difficult to believe, on the unsupported assertion of a censorious chronicler, that Peter could be such an enemy to his own interest as to prevail on the King to expel all Englishmen from his court, and confide to Poitevins and Bretons the guard of his person, the receipt of his revenue, the administration of justice, the custody of all the royal castles, the wardship of all the young nobility, and the marriages of the principal heiresses. But the ascendency of the foreigners, however great it might be, was not of very long duration. The barons refused to obey the royal summons to come to the council: The Earl Marshal unfurled the standard of rebellion in Wales, and the clergy joined with the laity in censuring the measures of government. Edmund, the new archbishop of Canterbury, attended by several other prelates, waited on Henry. He reminded the King that his father, by pursuing similar counsels, had nearly forfeited the crown; assured him that the English would never submit to be trampled upon by strangers in their own country; and declared that he should conceive it his duty to excommunicate every individual, whoever he might be, that should oppose the reform of the government and the welfare of the nation. Henry was alarmed, and promised to give him an answer in a few weeks. A parliament of the barons was called, and Edmund renewed his remonstrance. The Poitevins were instantly dismissed, the insurgents restored to favor, and ministers appointed who possessed the confidence of the nation.
At the age of twenty-nine the King had married Eleanor, the daughter of Raymond, Count of Provence. The ceremony of her coronation, the offices of the barons, the order of the banquet, and the rejoicings of the people are minutely described by the historian, who, in the warmth of his admiration, declares that the whole world could not produce a more glorious and ravishing spectacle. Eleanor had been accompanied to England by her uncle William, Bishop-elect of Valence, who soon became the King’s favorite, was admitted into the council, and assumed the ascendency in the administration. The barons took the first opportunity to remonstrate; but Henry mollified their anger by adding three of their number to the council, and, that he might be the more secure from their machinations, obtained from the Pope a legate to reside near his person. This was the cardinal Otho, who employed his influence to reconcile Henry with the most discontented of the barons. By his advice, William returned to the Continent. He died in Italy, but the King, mindful of his interests, had previously procured his election to the see of Winchester, vacant by the death of Peter des Roches.
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