Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Appearance and handling:
Amberley has been producing some nice looking books this year. Henry III son of Magna Carta is a manageable length to read and a nice looking book to have. It’s light to hold and can take some abuse… (FYI no I don’t abuse books to see how much punishment they can take). The hardback has a classy frontispiece, a big gold crown gleaming against a moody backdrop and the title neatly fitted beneath. Inside there is one picture section with many author photographs of the usual medieval type, castles, abbeys carvings etc, but also a few reenactment snaps of the Lewes anniversary event. The pictures are full colour.
Let no one say that words are powerless when they are protected by men of violence. It is often bandied about that Magna Carta is the most important document in English, history, it being the closest thing to a written constitution that the country ever got. But actually it’s importance lies in the new dynamic it brought to politics in England during the 13th century.
It might also be said that the man who originally signed Magna Carta was one of the worst Kings ever to sit on he throne of England. John, however had the charter forced upon him and he repealed it as soon as he could, but the damage was done. The sons of Henry II, the so called Devil’s brood, left increasingly troublesome inheritances to their successors. Richard I left a militarily secure but bankrupt kingdom to his brother John, who’s lack of military talent left a destabilised and even more bankrupt nation to his son, Henry III, who was also left the legacy of Magna Carta.
This charter would remain a millstone around the neck of the new King for his entire life. It was the sign under which he was born, he might as well have been swaddled by it, and then had it sewn into the canopy of his bed, the way it haunted his rule.
Henry came to the throne as a boy. He needed protection, for the Barons were still in open revolt, championed by Prince Louis of France, whose armies controlled most of the south east. The loyal Barons, who were the principle benefactors of the charter, repealed by John were thus given a great chance to exert influence over the new King.
Henry’s aged Guardian was the formidable William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, the forgotten knight of knight’s who has now been returned to his rightful place amongst the heroes of the English nation. This loyal and invincible man, a rock throughout the reigns of Henry, Richard and John had shaped England as much as any king, he having been one of the guiding forces of the Magna Carta. He played a important role in Henry’s early years. But it was a double edged sword. For Marshal looked to the best interests of England rather than the King alone. Not only did he defend his kingdom, and indeed win it back for Henry, but in order to quiet the rebel Barons and take away their motive to oppose the Royalists, he reissued Magna Carta in Henry’s name.
Matthew Lewis presents the life of Henry III as one obviously shaped by those who would control him and one that was never far away from the influence of the Magna Carta. The Barons thereafter would use the document as both shield and sword to keep the king in line. And which wise kings could manipulate vice versa. However as an adult Henry had inherited some of the traits of his father, and was unable to avoid some of the mistakes he had made. During his reign the Barons were able to squeeze more charters from the crown, the Provisions of Oxford and the Charter of the forest. (The forest thing is a big deal as any fan of Robin Hood will know). And from out of these years of to and fro, came a man who would define Henry’s reign still further. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leister.
Originally a royal favourite de Montfort filled the space left by Marshal amongst the baronial elite. Though without the former’s generally admirable traits. When tensions over royal power spilled into open war, Montfort, leading a triumvirate, crushed the royal army at Evesham, and ruled in the manner of a republic, only to realise that the though the King could not rule without the Barons and the charter, the nation could not function without the writ of the King. The next year, Henry’s capable son, Edward I, utterly destroyed the rebel Barons at Lewes and Montfort was among the dead. This however was not before the monarch had learned the hard way that the Barons and Magna Carta were not to be trifled with and a new form of kingship had to be adopted.
The author points out that de Montfort was not quite the reforming champion of democracy that legend would have us think. He accidentally championed non royal prerogative in his bid to keep power over the King. The legacy of the charter’s effect on the divine right of Kings would maybe never again loom so large, but it runs right the way down to when the people, (who had at first been lead by influential nobles with motives not unlike their 13th century predecessors,) in the guise of Oliver Cromwell, used it as leverage and cited it as cause to try King Charles I for treason.
However those who think that by these tumultuous events Henry’s reign was unsettled will also find that most reigns were unsettled in the medieval age, and the middle portion of Henry’s reign saw a great settlement as opposed to say that of his father’s reign. Henry was a great builder, he was also a fairly decent foreign diplomat, being quite chummy with the Scots and the French, nevertheless his greatest legacy has left in stone and paper. Without Henry Magna Carta might well have just ended up another forgotten royal decree. It is in large due to his long and, relatively settled time on the throne that his son, Edward I, was able to restore it to a platform from which the kingdom would grow. By the time of his grandson, Edward III, a golden age would dawn over England. Indeed The reign of Henry III was a watershed, marking perhaps the end of the beginning of the tortured Plantagenet genesis.
I take this to be a “life” rather than a biography of Henry III. But this is not so say that his personality escapes us. His long reign offers the author plenty to speculate about in regards to motive. And indeed there is topical meat for parallel seekers to dine out on. For Henry was beset by the type of faction and backbiting that tended to haunt long reigns. We see a great distrust of foreigners as a flashpoint for dissent, wether it be Roman prelates or palace Cliques of foreigners attached to the queen vying to control the King. Henry was one of those unfortunate rulers who was seemingly doomed to come under the influence of other people. From the relatively benign auspices of William Marshal and the Barons, to essentially becoming a ward of the church, and then falling under the spell of his wife’s hangers on before finally being captured by de Montfort and being used as a sort of puppet before being rescued by his son, who then proceeded to run the show, Henry was not always master of his own destiny.
In that sense he is rather similar to another later King Henry VI, whose regency brought about the cataclysmic series of dynastic civil wars now known as the Wars of the Roses. All in all a fascinating man to investigate in whose fairly anonymous shadow live some of the most famous names of English history. Matthew Lewis offers a broad, and thoughtful look at a man whose reign, while perhaps not being dazzling as others, was certainly pivotal in the life of England.