A Good Man, A Bad King

King Henry III died of a lingering illness on the evening of 16 November 1272, at the Palace of Westminster, his loving wife of more than three decades, Queen Eleanor of Provence, at his side. He had had been the crowned head of England for 56 years, and had been an ineffectual, weak monarch for most of that reign. His most notable historical achievement was siring King Edward I, who was the brutal, glorious ruler the kingdom needed.

Henry_III_effigy head

The three words to best describe Henry III are affable, devout, and lucky. Every time the king needed it, a hero stepped forth and saved his crown.

His father, King John Lackland and Softsword, died in 1216, leaving a nine-year-old boy-king on the throne during the First Barons’ War. The adult son and heir of Philip II of France, the future King Louis VIII, was actually on English soil at Westminster Abbey, declaring himself the real king of England and bolstering the rebel barons. Henry’s crown should have had the staying power of a butter sculpture in the Sudan. It was only through the extraordinary prowess of his guardian, William Marshal, and a big helping hand from Pope Honorius III, that Henry became king and held the throne.

While William Marshal defeated the king’s enemies in battle, Pope Honorious III defeated them in courts. King Alexander II of Scotland was occuping large swathes of northern England during the First Barons’ War and it was unlikely that even William Marshal could roust the Scots. Fortunately for King Henry, he had given homage to the Papacy, making himself “the Pope’s vassal and ward, [meaning] that the legate had complete authority to protect Henry and his kingdom.” The Pope promptly excommunicated King Alexander, thereby forcing him to retreat to Scotland in order to get the excommunication lifted. 

As king, Henry III spent most of his time trying to maintain a shred of his royal power and make peace with his formidable enemies. Not only was he lucky enough to always find good allies when he needed them, the woman he married, Eleanor of Provence, was “a hard-headed, firm politician. Historians Margaret Howell and David Carpenter describe her as being “more combative” and “far tougher and more determined” than her husband.” She gave Henry five children, four of whom would survive to adulthood.

Henry III and Eleanor of Provance

Henry III was crap at being a king, but he was an excellent husband and father. He adored his wife, remaining faithful to her and lavished her with gifts. He also trusted her, and listened to her advice, which was good because she was a hell of a lot better a political shrewdness than he was. In turn, Eleanor was dedicated to her beloved husband, and would defend him tooth and nail on both an international and domestic front.

The king was also a hands-on, loving father at a time when this was an extreme rarity. He kept all of his children with him at Windsor Castle when they were young, and he avoided long separations from them even when they were in their teens. While the queen was particularly attached to their eldest son, the king’s joy was in his little princesses and second son. His grief when his youngest daughter, Catherine, died at age three was remarked on by enemies and loyalists alike.

Royal 14. B. VI, membrane 7

The king was also a sincerely devout, pious man, albeit in a way that is hard for the modern Christian to grasp. For one thing, he was continually bribing the Almighty with gifts to he Church and the poor in order to get God to protect the the royal children. Infant and child mortality was ridiculously high in the Medieval period, so I don’t blame Henry for his desperate attempts to enlist aid against the Grim Reaper, but it seems odd that he thought God’s favors could be purchased. Nonetheless, this method did mean a lot of benefit for impoverished and disabled English folk, so there was something good to be said for it.

Another thing a modern Christian would find odd was Henry’s passion for Edward the Confessor, his patron saint for whom he named his first son. The thing is, Edward the Confessor just wasn’t all that saintly. His biggest claims to sainthood are that he didn’t consummate his marriage and he built Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, as a canonized king of England, Henry found him to be the perfect role model, and strove to emulate the saint in all things but marital whoopee.

Henry III holy relic

Most importantly, the king’s treatment of the Jews in his kingdom is hard to reconcile with modern ideas of piety. Although one can see why a fundamental believer like Henry would create and support the Domus Conversorum, an attempt to convert Jews to Christianity and thus ‘save’ them as he understood it, there is no gentle way of looking at his actions in 1239, when he imprisoned the Jews and basically stole their money. The crown’s demands for money would eventually destroy the Jewish community’s ability to serve as England’s loan industry, making the Jews even more venerable to persecution. Worse, in 1253 King Henry passed the Statute of Jewry, “which attempted to segregate Jews and enforce the wearing of Jewish badges.”

Sadly, this treatment of his Jewish subjects was probably thought to be ‘Godly’ by the devout king. Pope Honorius III, who had helped Henry so much during the king’s early reign, “had laid out strong anti-Jewish measures at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215” that he expected to be followed.  Wisely, William Marshal and the regency government ignored the Pope in favor of building a strong Jewish community to keep English commerce afloat and to serve as a sink for tax revenue. It was only after the more-devout-than-practical Henry became the prime governor of his kingdom that the Jews became a target for heavy persecution once more.

Henry’s faith and the context of his action do not excuse the anti-Semitism and persecution; they simply explain why he would have justified it to himself.

It should be noted, though, that Henry also did a lot to prove his deep convictions and genuine desire to fulfill his Christian duties. The king:

attended mass at least once a day … gave generously to religious causes, paid for the feeding of 500 paupers each day and helped orphans … and may have washed the feet of lepers … Henry was particularly supportive of the mendicant orders; his confessors were drawn from the Dominican Friars, and he built mendicant houses in Canterbury, Norwich, Oxford, Reading and York 

King Henry effectively lost his crown in 1263, when he was captured by the chief rebel baron, Simon de Montfort, who became king in everything but title. Henry was freed and allowed to flee to France, before trying to get power back in April of 1264 during the Second Barons’ War, when he was captured by de Montfort again. This time, his preserver was none other than his eldest son. Prince Edward the Longshanks had been initially captured with his father, but the fierce heir to the throne quickly escaped de Montfort and raised an army to free he king.

Longshanks, already a warrior to the soles of his feet, destroyed the rebel troops and killed De Montfort at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265. Edward and his father, who was more a figurehead than leader of the crown forces, spent the next two years quelling the insurrection, which finally ended in July 1267 when the rebels on the Isle of Ely surrendered. Afterwards, Edward became the Steward of England and the kingdom was ruled more by Eleanor and her son than by Henry III.

The prince, confident of his abilities to quash any rebellion that may arise, decided to go on Crusade. This was a manifestation of Edward’s own religious beliefs, and Henry was persuaded to let his son go even though the king was terrified his barons would rise up again. After Edward left, the worried king wrote to his son urging him to return, but Longshanks was determined to see the Holy Land and marched onward. The king died before his eldest son would turn back.

Henry was buried, as he requested, in front of Westminster Abbey’s high altar, where the body of Edward the Confessor had lain before Henry had built a new shrine for the saint. King Edward I later commissioned a much grander tomb for his father, and had Henry’s body moved into its current location in Westminster Abbey.

His loving queen, who would aid King Edward for several years, would not rest at his side, because had retired to Amesbury Priory and was buried there when she died in 1291.

Amiable and militaristically inept, King Henry III doesn’t stir much cultural interest but historians are beginning to take more note of him. Recent biographies take a more favorable view of the king, arguing that he was a better monarch than give credit for and that his very survival is a high mark of achievement. 

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