Sunday, March 9, 2014

Montfort, Parliament and Democracy: Part I: The League against the King

In the year 1258 King Henry III of England confessed to his lords and high clergy that he had pledged the Sovereignty of England as insurance for a debt – and he couldn’t pay. Pope Alexander IV had offered Henry the Crown of Sicily for his son Edmund if Henry would merely pay the expenses of a mercenary army to displace the heirs of Sicily, the sons of the Emperor Frederic II. 

The lords of England had expected they were being summoned to war against the Welsh who were marauding in the western shires in an attempt to take back what they considered their own. By custom and the dictates of the Magna Carta the king could require either military service or an extra tax. But not both at the same time. The lords, assembled in Henry’s royal hall at Westminster, flatly refused to pay.

The consequences could be dire. Pope Alexander could excommunicate Henry – but a previous Pope had excommunicated the Emperor Frederic who merely put on his crown and asked his courtiers if he looked at all changed. More effectively, the Pope could offer the Crown of England to anyone who would finance the necessary war to take it – just as he was doing with the Crown of Sicily, and England was a prize far more worthwhile.

Still the lords and clergy refused to come up with the money. Henry postponed the next convening and used the intervening time to threaten the lord individually in ways he knew each to be most vulnerable.
Happening to meet after their extortion sessions with Henry, six lords pledged themselves to an alliance, a League to resist the king. Comparing the abuses inflicted upon them, they swore to defend each other -- within the bounds of their oath of loyalty to the Crown.

These six men were the young rather hot headed Richard de Clare the Earl of Gloucester, Roger Bigod the Marshall of England, John Fitzgeoffrey the Justiciar of Ireland for the Crown, Peter of Savoy the Earl of Richmond and the queen’s uncle, Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester and the king’s brother-in-law and principal military strategist (who was frequently in the king’s ill graces) and Peter de Montfort a knight and Montfort’s cousin.

Peter of Savoy may well be looked upon as the spy in the group for King Henry almost at once knew of the pledge. The danger of their position was immediately apparent to the members of the League. There was just enough time before the general reconvening with the king for them to go to their home shires and return with their knights in arms for self-protection.  It was a move that was of course illegal and easily interpreted as treason.

But when the lords of the League returned to London, hedged round with their knights in full arms, they found that the common people of London were very much on their side. King Henry and his servitors had abused his subjects, common and noble alike, and commoners and lords alike looked upon the League as their defenders. 

Being aware of the power of public opinion, the League earls deliberately paraded with their knights through the streets of London, accepting cheers as heroes. From King Henry’s point of view this was the leading edge of civil war.

Nevertheless, his meeting with the lords and clergy was convened on the appointed day. The assembly gathered, but the lords of the League were nowhere to be seen. Had they been arrested? The business of the meeting commenced in grim quiet.

Then the clattering of hooves and jangle of armor was heard outside and everyone looked to the hall’s door. The lords of the League entered. To be certain they had everyone’s attention they dropped their helmets with a resounding crash upon the floor before they walked forward.

The royal bailiffs were surely outnumbered and out-armed. King Henry on his throne upon the dais asked, “What is this? Am I your prisoner?” But the men of the League knelt at his feet. 

“No my lord,” said the Marshall Roger Bigod, “This is our pledge – swear to follow your English subjects’ counsels. It is the best remedy for your troubles you can have!”
“How will you see to it I follow your counsels?” Henry responded.

Seeing a clerk holding a Bible nearby, Richard de Clare took the Bible and held it to his king. “Swear, with your hand on Holy Gospel, that you and your heir Edward will uphold the provisions of the Magna Carta! And that you will cause a Council to be chosen, all of good English subjects elected by the barony! And that you will do nothing without their advice!”

And Roger Bigod added, “Swear you’ll cease finding ways to crush your people with your monstrous taxes!”

With his hand on the Bible, Henry further was made to agree to the appointing of a committee of arbitration, half chosen by him and half by the lords of England, to arbitrate grievances. A meeting was to convene for arbitration and the election of the council within forty days. The chosen day was June 11. 

This astonishing coercion of King Henry III was confirmed by the lords confronting him with the original Magna Carta of 1215 -- which included a clause that had been deleted from later reissues. The primary Magna Carta stated that all England can be raised in arms against the king, to hold his castles and lands from him until grievances are satisfied.  This clause 61, sworn to by Henry’s father King John, had committed England to civil war until John died.

The reading of the clause turned Henry’s meeting into chaos. The king agreed to the convening of the lords and clergy at Oxford on June 11, and all were dismissed with this victory for the League.

Henry was sworn to permit the lords and clergy to meet in his absence -- with effective permission to raise their forces for battle against the Welsh, if they produced the tax he needed to pay the Pope. In fact he had agreed to allow a fully armed and revolutionary convention at Oxford to meet on June 11, 1258. 

(This and future blog entries, tracing the establishment of England’s Parliament as an elected body with power over the king, describe history as recorded in the documents of the period and are not matter of fiction. Part II will be on The Provisions of Oxford.)

Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort The Angel with the Sword, which explores in novel form how these events may have come about in view of what records tell us of the personalities of the men and women involved.

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