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King Henry III and Simon De Montfort: The accidental forefathers of Parliament in English Legal Systems

by Josh Firmin 2 years ago in history
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How King Henry III's reign set the foundation for parliament and justice as we know it today.

Memorial Statue of Simon De Montfort in Leicester

Imagine this:

Your name is King Henry III. The year is 1216 and, at the age of nine years old, you have just been coronated as King of England. You are the fourth successive king directly from the House of Plantagenet which would one day become the greatest, and bloodiest, dynasty to ever rule England.

Your father, King John, left you a realm to reign over which was fraught with trouble. You are coronated during the first Baron's War at which time more than half of your kingdom is occupied by rebels (comprised mostly major landowners with the backing of then King Louis VIII of France) protesting your father's refusal to accept Magna Carta (which we'll get into a little later) and - thanks to your father's incompetence as a leader in war - most of your family's continental possessions are now in the hands of the French.

In 1217, less than a year after your coronation, you agree to a peace treaty to end the Baron's war and re-issue a version of Magna Carta that your father agreed to in 1215. The treaty cost you money and land, it cost you men but, perhaps most importantly, it cost you authority.

So, what is Magna Carta and how does it affect you? Great question. Magna Carta is a charter of protections, drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and agreed to by your father, which ensures the ongoing protection of church rights and most notably ensures access to swift justice and a fair trial. Further, it restricts the manner in which you are able to deal with your subjects, finance, lands and army without approval from the Barons (Dukes) which form your Court. Essentially, you require their 'say-so' in order to exercise the iron-fisted rule your Great Great Great Grandfather Henry II once did as the first Plantagenet King of England.

Now, whilst these provisions only apply to 'free men' (essentially just you and your Barons), the principles around swift and fair justice would soon form the foundation for legal systems all across the world from England, to the United States and even all the way down in Australia.

But that isn't so important to you right now. What is important is that Magna Carta restricts you from, for example, raising taxes in order to fund military campaigns to get the French land your father lost back. And you don't like having your authority curbed. You are, after all, God's chosen King. So Magna Carta becomes a tool for you to use in order to ensure peace through the tumult of civil unrest. For example, you would encourage rebel Barons to stop fighting against you in return for lands and your re-issuing of Magna Carta. Or, in exchange for your Council agreeing to a forty-thousand pound tax increase to fund your exploits in Gascony in 1225, you agree to - yep you guessed it - reissue Magna Carta.

All your re-issuing of Magna Carta does is re-confirm to your Barons that that they are the ones in control, not you. But if you can find a way to get what you want in which all you have to do in return is re-issue Magna Carta, well then, that doesn't seem so bad does it? So for a short while that becomes somewhat common practice.

But, in any case, you don't have the power you desire and you think it is time that you take control of what is yours to reign over. So, unlike Monarchs which have come before you, and after you, you decide to lead personally rather than through senior Barons in your court. For example, you demoted the role of Justiciar and flat out did not even appoint a Chancellor. Further, the decisions you make are yours. You don't want the wrong people telling you what you could and could not do in order to regain control of your lands. But, with that said, you could use some powerful allies. Some battle-hardened and proven men to help reinforce your authority.

Enter: Simon De Montfort

De Montfort was a French nobleman, crusader and a man who had a legitimate claim to the title and lands associated with the office of 'Earl of Leicester' which King John had refused to allow De Montfort's family to reclaim after he lost Normandy to the French in 1204. In 1229 De Montfort pleaded, and came to an agreement, with you to reclaim his inheritance in exchange for giving up his lands in France. Although his Earldom was not yet recognised, whether he knew it or not, De Montfort was now well on his way to establishing a strong foothold in your court.

See, in De Montfort, you saw a strong, religious, battle-hardened leader who could take control of your army and lead in the battlefields with the vigour you lacked. And in you, De Montfort saw a powerful ally who could help him regain not only the lands and money which he thought he was entitled to, but also the power and prestige associated with the Earldom his family had been stripped of. Before long, De Montfort becomes one of, if not the, closest allies in your Court. You even married your sister off to De Montfort in 1238 instead of finding a marriage which might secure a foreign political alliance.

Now, fast forward to 1258. Things have fallen apart between you and Simon. First, it appears Simon became slightly too comfortable with the relationship he had with you. In 1239 you had to punish him for making you guarantor on an exorbitant loan without your approval. But, you went a little too far. After you married your sister off to De Montfort a year earlier, you now accuse him of 'seducing' your sister and threaten to lock him up in the Tower of London. Obviously things were a little tense because, a couple of years later in 1241 after you were handily beaten in Poitou, France at the hands of Louis IX's army (despite a successful campaign led by De Montfort who is still your best fighter), De Montfort tells you that you should be "locked up like Charles the Simple". Over the next 17 odd years Simon would spend most of his time in France - a significant portion of which was to carry on your business in Gascony. But in 1258 you face crippling debt from funding all your unsuccessful military campaigns in France, your Baron's have less faith in you than ever and it is becoming clear that your new-found half-brothers - the Lusignans - are affecting your decision making.

The pressure for reform was about to reach the tipping point. When the next Parliament meets in June 1258 your old friend Simon De Montfort - still one of the most powerful Baron's in the country thanks to his alliance with you in earlier years resulting in the reclaim of his title of 'Earl of Leicester' - appears at the helm of an opposition against your lone-ranger ruling style alongside the Earl of Gloucester. The subsequent events - which we don't need to explore fully here - would lead to this parliament attaining the infamous nickname "The Mad Parliament" and would result in the birth of one of the most important documents for 'representative and responsible government' in history: The Provisions of Oxford.

The Provisions of Oxford were a set of binding rules which over twenty Barons (which included De Montfort and Henry III) swore to uphold under oath. The substance of the provisions - which would one day form the foundation for modern Western parliamentary systems - was to establish a 15-Member council to oversee the King's business, require the convening of the Council at least three times every year without exception, and provide Council the authority to appoint ministers and custody of royal castles. Of course, you - Henry III - have no choice but to agree to these terms. You needed money to fund his desperate attempts to claw some land back in France, your once-most powerful allies have turned on you creating chaos in your Court, and to make matters that much worse local harvests were failing. So, like the other Baron's by your side, you swore under oath to uphold the Provisions of Oxford.

In Medieval England, swearing under oath is no small thing. In an era and place where Religion, and God, are held in a higher regard than anything else, for a King who is supposed to be God's representative on earth to turn their back on a religious oath would be sacreligious and, simply, wild.

And yet you do it anyway.

During the late 1250's and the early 1260's you publicly supported the Provisions of Oxford (mostly because you had no choice) but behind closed doors you secretly resented the fact that De Montfort and the Barons were able to meet and make decisions that were yours to make. There were a number of occasions in which the power to rule was shifted between you, De Montfort, your son Edward and a council of Barons and even King Louis IX of France at one stage. But, again, that is a story for another time. The point is that in 1261 you declared that you were no longer to be bound by the Provisions of Oxford. With the strength of the support you had mustered, you were able to regain control of many of the Baronial lands in your kingdom and move back into power as rightful King.

However your time as King was now in serious jeopardy.

After you sezied control in 1261 alliances were made between the Barons and in 1263/1264 you fought a series of wars - which are now known as the second Baron's War - and ultimately you were taken hostage by Simon De Montfort's army at the Battle of Lews. Thankfully your now almost adult son is a more capable fighter than you and at the Battle of Evesham your son's army kills Simon De Montfort, your once best friend, and rescues you from your captors.

The rebellion against you is now without a leader. The man responsible for the birth of a parliament which curbed your authority was dead. Simon De Montfort, the man who you married to your sister, had been slain by your son.

The legacy which you and your relationship with De Montfort would leave on the world cannot be underestimated.

What some might see as an ever-lasting quarrel between two close friends became the foundation for a parliamentary system which would change kingship and governance forever. Simon De Montfort died as a martyr for the principle of responsible government. By no means was he perfect, but your battle with him was legendary. And the Provisions of Oxford which resulted from that battle, and your subsequent struggle against them, will never be forgotten.

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About the author

Josh Firmin

I'm an entrepreneur, law student and a thinker. This is where I combine all those wonderful phenomena into a creative outlet for myself.

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