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Accession of Henry III

Accession of Henry III., and the Difficulties of his Position - His Coronation - Regency of the Earl of Pembroke - The Departure of Louis from the kingdom.
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Henry III, or, as he was more generally designated, Henry of Winchester, was only ten years of age when the death of his father called him to the throne. It was almost an empty honour, the kingdom being in a most distracted state. London and the southern counties acknowledged the authority of his rival Louis, to whom the King of Scotland and the Welsh prince had taken the oath of fealty as vassals.

In this position there were only two parties on whom the youthful monarch could rely for any effectual support: the first consisted of the barons and foreign mercenaries who had remained faithful to the late king; the second was the papal see, which, since the degrading surrender of the crown by John, considered itself lord paramount of England, and in that capacity naturally exerted all its influence to secure the succession to the son of him who had bestowed upon it so rich a gift.

About ten days after the death of his father, Henry was conducted to the abbey church of Gloucester; and having taken the coronation oath, and sworn fealty to the reigning Pope, Honorius, was crowned by his legate Gualo and the Bishops of Winchester, Exeter, and Bath, who placed upon his head a simple circlet of gold, the regal crown having been lost with the rest of the royal treasures in the disastrous passage of the Wash.

Immediately after this ceremony a proclamation was issued, in which the boy king lamented the dissensions between his father and the barons, which he professed his willingness to forget, offered to his subjects a full amnesty for the past, and their liberties, as secured by the Great Charter, for the future. He also commanded the tenants of the crown to do homage to him for their possessions, and take the oath of allegiance. During a month the people were forbidden to appear in public without a white fillet round the head in honour of his coronation. The care of Henry's person was confided to the Earl of Pembroke, Earl Marshal of England, who was also named guardian of the kingdom.

Well did this illustrious nobleman merit the confidence reposed in him. It was owing to his loyalty and energy that the foreigners were driven from the kingdom.

The earl, in order that he might reconcile all orders in the state to the government of the new king, made him grant a fresh charter, which, though copied in most instances from the one extorted from John, contained several exceptions.

The privilege of elections granted to the clergy was not confirmed, nor the liberty of withdrawing from the kingdom without the consent of the crown.

In this omission we may perceive the germ of resistance to the supremacy of Rome. Even at a period when it was most necessary to conciliate its influence in favour of the young king, both the regent and the barons of the party were desirous of reserving the right of the crown to issue the conge d'elire to the monks and chapters, as some check upon the encroachments of the papacy.

But the greatest change was the omitting of the obligations to which John had subscribed, binding himself not to levy any aids or scutages, as they were termed, upon the nation without the consent of the great council: the article was even pronounced severe, and was expressly left to future deliberation.

When, at a later period of his reign, Henry was severely pressed for money, he never attempted by his mere will to exact any such imposts, though reduced to great necessity, and the supplies refused by the people. The barons would have opposed it. True, they were subservient enough where individual rights alone were trampled on; but when the interests of the whole body were affected, they offered a formidable opposition to the oppression of the crown.

This charter was confirmed by the king in the following year, and several additional articles added, to prevent the oppressions of the sheriffs. The forest laws were modified: those which had been enclosed since the reign of Henry II. were thrown open; offences against the game laws were declared no longer capital, but punished by fine and imprisonment.

These last ameliorations were made in a separate charter.

These charters were, during many generations, regarded by the nation as the palladium of their liberties; securing, as they did, the rights of all orders of men, they were zealously defended by all, and became the basis of a contract which limited the authority of the king, and ensured the conditional allegiance of the people. Though often violated, they were still appealed to; and as no precedent was supposed to invalidate them, they acquired, rather than lost, authority in the frequent attempts to set them aside which were made in after ages by royal and arbitrary power.

Whilst the Earl of Pembroke, by these wise proceedings, gave so much satisfaction to the nation in general, he made great personal efforts to recall the revolted barons to their allegiance by writing in the king's name to each.

In his letters he reminded them that whatever cause of offence John might have given them, his son, who had succeeded to the crown, inherited neither his principles nor resentments; that he was the lineal heir of their ancient kings; and pointed out how desperate was the expedient they had employed of calling in a foreign potentate - an expedient which, happily for them and the nation, had failed of success; that it was still in their power, by a speedy return to their duty, to restore the independence of the kingdom, and those liberties for which they had so zealously contended; adding that, as all their past offences were now buried in oblivion, they ought, on their part, to show equal magnanimity, and forget their complaints against their late sovereign, who, if he had been in any way blameable in his conduct, had left to his successor the salutary warning to avoid the paths which had led to such fatal and dangerous extremities.

The considerations so temperately yet strongly urged, enforced by the high character for honour and consistency which Pembroke had ever maintained, had great influence with the barons, many of whom began secretly to negotiate with him, whilst others returned openly to their allegiance.

The suspicion which Louis discovered of their fidelity forwarded this general inclining towards the king; and when at last he refused the government of the castle of Hertford to Robert Fitzwalter, one of his most faithful adherents, who claimed that fortress as his property, they plainly saw that the English nobility were to be systematically excluded from every position of trust, and that his own countrymen and foreigners engrossed all the confidence and affection of their new sovereign.

The excommunication, too, which the legate of the Pope had pronounced against all the adherents of Louis, was not without effect. Men were easily convinced of the impiety of a cause which it was their interest to abandon.

Louis, who, on the death of John, had deemed his triumph certain, found, on the contrary, that it had given an incurable wound to his cause. On his return from France, where he had been to recruit his forces, he discovered his party among the English barons considerably weakened. The Earls of Salisbury, Arundel, and Warrenne, together with William Mareschall, eldest son of the Earl of Pembroke, had returned to their natural allegiance, and the nobles who remained were only waiting an occasion to follow their example.

The regent felt himself so much strengthened by these accessions to the royal cause, that he resolved no longer to remain on the defensive, but at once proceeded to invest Mount Sorel; but on the approach of the Count de la Perche with the French army, he raised the siege, his forces not being sufficient to oppose him.

Elated with this success, the count marched to Lincoln, and being admitted within the walls, proceeded at once to attack the castle, which he soon reduced to great extremity. Fully sensible of the importance of relieving the place, the gallant Pembroke summoned all his forces from every quarter of the kingdom which owned the authority of Henry; and with such alacrity were his orders obeyed, that in a short time he marched upon Lincoln with an army superior in numbers to the trench, who, in their turn, shut themselves within the walls. The earl reinforced the garrison, which made a vigorous assault upon the besiegers, whilst, with his own army, he, at the same time, attacked the town, which the English entered, sword in hand, bear* iDg down all opposition. Lincoln was given up to pillage, the French being totally defeated.

It is singular that the only persons slain were the Count de la Perche and two of his officers, but many of the principal leaders and upwards of 400 knights were taken prisoners; and yet this battle, if it may be considered worthy of the name, decided the fate of the kingdom.

Louis heard of this event, so fatal to his ambitious projects, while engaged in the siege of Dover, which, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, still held out against him, and instantly retreated to London, the stronghold of his party. Shortly after his arrival, intelligence was brought him of a fresh disaster, which completely put an end to his hopes of the conquest of England.

His consort, Blanche of Castile, had levied powerful reinforcements in France, which she had embarked in eighty large vessels, besides galleys and smaller ships, under the command of a noted pirate named Eustace le Moine.

To meet this formidable danger, Hubert de Burgh, the justiciary, collected forty sail from the cinque ports, and set out to sea to meet the enemy. So inferior was his force that several knights refused to follow him, alleging as a reason, or rather an excuse for their cowardice, that they were unacquainted with naval warfare, and bound only to fight on land by the tenure of their lands. The gallant leader seems to have been perfectly aware of the danger he courted, since, according to Lingard, he privately received the sacrament, and nobly gave orders to the garrison of Dover Castle not to surrender on any terms to the enemy, in the event of his being defeated - not even to save his own life, should it be threatened.

It was on this occasion that Hubert executed one of those extraordinary feats which only true genius can conceive. On coming in sight of the French fleet, he commanded his own ships to sail past them, as if he intended to surprise Calais. The enemy saw him pass them with shouts of derision.

To their astonishment, however, the English fleet suddenly tacked, and, with the wind in their favour, bore down upon them in a line on their rear. The battle began with volleys of arrows, which, most probably, did little execution on either side. It was when they came in close contact that the superiority of the British sailors was shown. With chains and hooks they lashed their vessels to those of the enemy; then scattered clouds of quicklime in the air, which the wind carried in the eyes of the French, half blinding them, and rendered their ships unmanageable by cutting their rigging with their axes.

The struggle was not a long one. The French, unused to this desperate mode of fighting, made but a feeble resistance; and of their immense fleet fifteen vessels only escaped, the rest being either sunken or taken.

One hundred and fifteen knights, with their esquires, and upwards of 800 officers, were prisoners. Eustace le Moine, their leader, had concealed himself in the hold of his ship. When discovered he offered a large sum for his life; but Richard Fitzroy, one of John's illegitimate sons by a daughter of Earl Warrenne, rejected the proposal, and instantly struck off his head, which was afterwards stuck upon a pole and carried from town to town as a trophy of victory.

Hume, in his account of this great naval battle, assigns the command of the fleet to Philip d'Albiney; whilst Lingard, who is generally so accurate with respect to names and dates, distinctly states that Hubert de Burgh held that important post. It is more than probable that both the above-mentioned leaders were on board; in which case the supreme authority would have been in the hands of Hubert, as grand justiciary of the kingdom. In our own views, we incline to the last-named historian's account of the event.

After this signal triumph the barons who still adhered to the cause of Louis hastened to make their peace, in order to prevent the attainders which longer resistance might have brought upon them; and the French prince, seeing that his affairs were desperate, began to feel anxious for the safety of his person, and most desirous of withdrawing from a contest where everything wore a hostile aspect to him. He concluded a treaty with the Earl of Pembroke, by which he promised to quit the kingdom, merely stipulating an indemnity to the adherents who remained faithful to him, a restitution of their honours and fortunes, as well as the enjoyment of those liberties which had been granted in the late charter to the rest of the nation.

Thus, owing to the great prudence and loyalty of the regent, was ended a civil war which at one time threatened to subjugate England to a foreign yoke.

The precautions which the King of France, the father of Louis, took in the affair, are most remarkable. He asserted that the prince had accepted the invitation of the English barons without his advice, and contrary to his wishes; the forces sent to England were all levied in the name of Louis, and when he came over to France to solicit aid, his father publicly refused him the least assistance, and would not so much as receive him in his presence; and after the successes of Henry had placed the heir to his throne in a position of great danger, it was Blanche of Castile, his wife, and not the king his father, who raised the forces and equipped the fleet which Hubert de Burgh defeated.

These artifices were too transparent not to be seen through. But the politic monarch was better pleased that the truth should be veiled under a decent pretext than exposed to the gaze of the world. Neither the Pope nor the English nation were deceived by his professions of neutrality.

After the expulsion of the French, the prudence and equity of the protector's subsequent conduct contributed to cure entirely those wounds which had been made by intestine discord. He received the rebellious barons into favour; observed strictly the terms of peace which he had granted them; restored them to their possessions; and endeavoured, by an equal behaviour, to bury all past animosities in perpetual oblivion. The clergy alone, who had adhered to Louis, were sufferers in this revolution. As they had rebelled against their spiritual sovereign, by disregarding the interdict and excommunication, it was not in Pembroke's power to make any stipulations in their favour; and Gualo, the legate, prepared to take vengeance on them for their disobedience. Many of them were deposed, many suspended., some banished; and all who escaped punishment made atonement for their offence by paying large sums to the legate, who amassed an immense treasure by this expedient. The Earl of Pembroke did not long survive the pacification which had been chiefly owing to his wisdom and valour; and he was succeeded in the government by Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Hubert de Burgh, the justiciary. The counsels of the latter were chiefly followed; and had he possessed equal authority in the kingdom with Pembroke, he seemed to be every way worthy of filling the place of that virtuous nobleman. But the licentious and powerful barons, who had once broken the reins of subjection to their prince, and had obtained by violence an enlargement of their liberties and independence, could ill be restrained by laws under a minority; and the people, no less than the king, suffered from their outrages and disorders. They retained by force the royal castles,, which they had seized during the past convulsions, or which had been committed to their custody by the protector; they usurped the king's demesnes; they oppressed their vassals; they infested their weaker neighbours; they invited all disorderly people to enter in their retinue, and to live upon their lands; and they gave them protection in all their robberies and extortions.

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