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Henry III of England

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Henry III of England, as depicted in Cassell's History of England, Century Edition, published circa 1902

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Henry III (October 1 1207November 16 1272) is one of the least-known British monarchs, considering the great length of his reign. He was also the first child monarch in English royal history.

He was born in 1207, the son of King John of England and Isabella of Angouleme. According to Nicholas Trevet, Henry was a thickset man of medium height, with a narrow forehead and a drooping left eyelid (inherited by his son, Edward I).

Following Johns death in 1216, Henry, aged nine, was hastily crowned in Gloucester, as the barons who had been supporting the invasion of Prince Louis of France in order to ensure John's deposition quickly saw the young prince as a safer option. Henry's regents immediately declared their intention to rule by Magna Carta which they did during Henrys minority. Magna Carta was reissued in 1217 as a sign of goodwill to the barons. The country was ruled by regents until 1227.

When Henry reached maturity, however, he was keen to restore royal authority, looking towards the autocratic model of the French monarchy. Henry married Eleanor of Provence and he promoted many of his French relatives to power and wealth. For instance, one Poitevin, Peter des Riveaux, held the offices of treasurer of the household, keeper of the king's wardrobe, keeper of the privy seal, and the sheriffdoms of twenty-one English counties simultaneously. Henry's tendency to govern for long periods with no publicly appointed ministers who could be held accountable for their actions and decisions did not make matters any easier. Many English barons came to see his method of governing as foreign.

Henry himself, on the other hand, was much taken with the cult of the Anglo-Saxon saint king Edward the Confessor who had been canonized in 1161. Told that St Edward dressed austerely, Henry took to doing the same and wearing only the simplest of robes. He had a mural of the saint painted in his bedchamber for inspiration before and after sleep, and, of course, he named his eldest son after him. Henry designated Westminster, where St Edward had founded the abbey, as the fixed seat of power in England and Westminster Hall duly became the greatest ceremonial space of the kingdom, where the council of nobles also met. Henry appointed French architects from Rheims for the renovation of Westminster Abbey in Gothic style, and work began at great expense in 1245. The centrepiece of Henry's renovated Westminster Abbey was to be a shrine to the confessor king, Edward.

Henry was extremely pious, and his journeys were often delayed by his insistance on hearing Mass several times a day. He took so long to arrive on a visit to the French court that his brother-in-law, King Louis IX of France, banned priests from Henry's route. On one occasion, as related by Roger of Wendover, when King Henry met with papal prelates, he said, "If [the prelates] knew how much I, in my reverence of God, am afraid of them and how unwilling I am to offend them, they would trample on me as on an old and worn-out shoe."

Henry's advancement of foreign favorites, notably his wife's Savoyard uncles and his own Lusignan half-siblings, was unpopular among his subjects and barons. He was also extravagant and avaricious; when his first child, Prince Edward was born, Henry demanded the Londoners bring him rich gifts to celebrate, and even sent back gifts that did not please him. Matthew Paris reports that some said, "God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us."

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Henry III's lands in Aquitaine. (Bibliothque Nationale, MS fr. 2829, folio 18)

Henry's reign came to be marked by civil strife, as the English barons led by de Montfort demanded more say in the running of the kingdom. French-born Simon de Montfort had originally been one of the foreign upstarts so loathed by many as Henry's foreign councillors; after he married Henrys sister Eleanor without consulting Henry, a feud developed between the two. Their relationship reached a crisis in the 1250s when de Montfort was put on trial for actions he took as lieutenant of Gascony, the last remaining Plantagenet land across the English Channel.

Henry also became embroiled in funding a war in Sicily on behalf of the Pope in return for a title for his second son Edmund, a state of affairs which made many barons fearful that Henry was following in the footsteps of his father and needed to be kept in check, just as King John had. De Montfort became leader of those who wanted to reassert Magna Carta and force the king to surrender more power to the baronial council. In 1258 seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of fifteen barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a three yearly meeting of parliament to monitor their performance.

Henry was forced to take part in the swearing of a collective oath to the Provisions of Oxford. In the following years, those supporting de Montfort and those supporting the king grew more and more polarised; Henry obtained a papal bull in 1261 exempting him from his oath and both sides began to raise armies, the Royalists under Edward Longshanks, Henry's eldest son. Civil War (known as the Second Barons' War) followed.

The charismatic de Montfort and his forces had captured most of southeastern England by 1263 and at the Battle of Lewes on May 14, 1264, Henry was defeated and taken prisoner by de Montfort's army. While Henry was reduced to a figurehead king, de Montfort broadened representation to include each county of England and many important towns i.e. to groups beyond the nobility. Henry and Edward continued under house arrest. The short period which followed was the closest England was to come to complete abolition of the monarchy until the Commonwealth period of 1649-1660, and many of the barons who had initially supported de Montfort began to suspect that he had gone too far with his reforming zeal.

But only fifteen months later Edward Longshanks had escaped captivity to lead the royalists into battle again, and turned the tables on de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Following this victory savage retribution was exacted on the rebels.

Henry's shrine to Edward the Confessor was finally finished in 1269 and the saint's relics were installed. He died in 1272 and his body was lain temporarily in the tomb of the Confessor while his own sarcophagus was constructed in Westminster Abbey.

Henry was succeeded by his son, Edward I of England.

In the Divine Comedy Dante sees Henry ("the king of simple life") sitting outside the gates of Purgatory with other contemporary European rulers.

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Statue of Henry III

Marriage and children

Married on January 14, 1236, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England to Eleanor of Provence, with at least five children born:

  1. Edward I (1239-1307)
  2. Margaret (1240-1275), married King Alexander III of Scotland
  3. Beatrice (1242-1275), married to John II, Duke of Brittany
  4. Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296)
  5. Katharine (1253-1257)

Note: there is reason to doubt the existence of several attributed children of Henry and Eleanor. Richard, John, and Henry are known only from a 14th century additions made to a manuscript of Flores historiarum, and are nowhere contemporaneously recorded. William is an error for the nephew of Henry's half-brother, William de Valence. Another daughter, Matilda, is found only in the Hayles abbey chronicle, alongside such other fictitious children as a son named William for King John, and a bastard son named John for King Edward I. Matilda's existence is doubtful, at best. For further details, see Margaret Howell's The Children of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (1992).

Sources


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