Henry III was the son of King John, one of the most controversial and misunderstood monarchs in British history. During King John's reign England's nobility had tried to defend their position in the face of increasing professionalisation of government. They faced the worrying situation of competent people being selected on merit, no matter who they were or where they came from. King John's biographer W.L. Warren says that John was on the look out for able men "without regard to status or nationality" (King John P144). The landed aristocracy, and the Church, were deeply suspicious of this innovation. The result of these fears was the Magna Carta signed in a meadow called Runnymede near Windsor in 1215. We now see the Magna Carta as a founding moment for modern government where citizens have power in the face of government. In reality it was a document designed to save aristocratic and Church power in the face of moves to more modern forms of administration.
The year following the Magna Carta's signing, King John died at Newark whilst fighting a civil war against England's nobles. His nine year old son Henry was crowned king as Henry III on 28th October 1216. The coronation took place at Gloucester Cathedral, since Westminster was in the hands of rebel nobles. England was in turmoil. As well as facing civil war, Prince Louis of France had managed to land a sizeable French army in Kent and was engaged in what would eventually turn out to be an unsuccessful siege of Dover Castle. It is fortunate that the French did not pursue their invasion with more vigour, since England's nobles were more interested in their own internal battles than fighting invasions. These internal battles became more intense following the death in 1219 of William Marshall, England's most powerful noble, who had always been a moderating and unifying influence.
The professionalism of England's government had begun evolving through the reigns of Henry II and his son Richard the Lionheart largely because both kings were in England so little. Henry II was often on campaign in his wider dominions on the continent. Richard spent most of the first part of his reign on crusade, and the second part abroad fighting with Philip, King of France. England's government, as W.L. Warren points out, had not much choice but to learn to run itself. Henry III was not physically absent like his grandfather and uncle, but being a young boy he could play no real role in government. For ten years 1217 - 1227 Henry and England were under the direction of Hubert de Burgh and his rival Peter des Roches. English administration was once again obliged to look after itself. In this way government continued to evolve as an independent profession. Even after Henry gained authority as king, usually dated from 1236, he did not have a major role to play in the developing government machine. Robert Stacey comments on this in his book Politics, Policy and Finance Under Henry III: "It would be pleasant to report that the king understood and encouraged the policies his council had adopted in his name. In a general way he probably did, but the evidence we have for his personal rule all points the other way" (P77). So the king did not really run the council. Administration continued on its independent course, largely free of the king, and it has to be said the nobles. Changes in the council in 1239 - 1240 moved it further away from aristocratic control. Between 1240 and 1245 only three of the king's stewards were considered of baronial rank. Obviously the nobles did not like this and tried to fight back. One of the main ways in which they did this was by having the Magna Carta re confirmed.
The Magna Carta, the supposed foundation of a new world was still being used to try and save the old one. Stacey suggests that whenever the Magna Carta was re issued or re confirmed during the reign of Henry III, it was done when either aristocracy, or the Church felt their authority threatened. The old systems of authority were under unprecedented pressure. Henry's council became almost a pre-parliament. This council threatened traditional authority in all its forms, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, and royal. The crisis when it came was a complicated affair. While the nobility rebelled against the king, their real enemy was the council, this upstart body which annoyingly tended to rely more on merit than inherited or religious authority. In 1258 an armed group of barons arrived at Westminster Hall. They politely left their swords at the entrance, but their aim was clear. The Earl of Norfolk claimed that this wasn't so much a rebellion as a liberation of the king from the evil council of foreigners. It was true that some of Henry's councillors were French and generally resented, but "foreigners" was to an extent another word for people who were not aristocrats. Faced with the nobles in Westminster the king had to submit. The Earl of Norfolk was not fighting for some kind of dream of democracy. He was fighting for his traditional rights as an aristocratic. On 11th June 1258, the council met at Oxford and agreed measures, known as the Provisions of Oxford, which effectively abolished absolute monarchy. Muscling themselves onto the council, the nobles made sure that power was transferred from the king to a committee elected by the aristocracy and the Church. At the Battle of Lewes in 1264, an army commanded by the aristocratic leader Simon de Montfort defeated an army led by Henry and his son Prince Edward. This victory seemed to consolidate the rebel position. Prince Edward was even held prisoner for a time at Kenilworth Castle, where de Montfort had set up his headquarters. Henry III's supporters were forced to take refuge in Pevensey Castle.
The Vale of Evesham
This seemed a victory for a new kind of government, but don't forget that the nobles and the Church gave themselves power to elect the council. The events of June 1258 were as much an attempt to maintain the status quo as they were a step into the future. Nobody was planning a new democracy, just the opposite in fact. This is illustrated by what happened when Simon de Montfort tried to introduce the radical idea that grievances could be pursued not just against the king, but also against ruling nobles themselves. This was not a popular idea. The nobles did not want democracy and an extension of a citizens' rights in the face of ruling power. Rather than strengthening a new professional government, the Provisions of Oxford allowed the nobles back in, and put together a lot of self-interested men all jockeying for position. The nobles' self interested motives are demonstrated in the way they inevitably started fighting amongst themselves. Divisions in the baronial council, combined with the escape of Henry's son Edward from captivity, led to final defeat for the rebels at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Henry gave thanks by completing the shrine of his hero Edward the Confessor in his rebuilt Westminster Abbey.
History evolves in such strange ways. The king was trying to maintain his own position by limiting aristocratic power. The nobles were trying to look after their own interests by attempting to control the council and reaffirm laws that protected their privileges. And amongst all this confusion many historians describe progress. The Magna Carta becomes a law of the land apparently, as if this was progress on what came before. Looking back we instinctively want people to be in control of events. We pick out moments such as the signing of the Magna Carta, or the Provisions of Oxford, as moments when forward looking people made a step into the future. But it wasn't really like this. Nobody was looking forward. Simon de Montfort did seem to have a moment of forward looking idealism, in the idea that it should be possible to pursue grievances against the ruling nobles as well as the king. Naturally the nobles hated this idea, and rather than leading the way forward, de Montfort was abandoned by many of his allies and torn apart on the battlefield at Evesham. But even this man probably shouldn't be thought of as some kind of martyr who was ahead of his time. John Harvey suggests that de Montfort rebelled against Henry because the king looked into allegations that he had embezzled money whilst working as administrator of the small English continental holding of Gascony. De Montfort's behaviour would itself probably not have been able to bear too much scrutiny, and in part his rebellion might have been in response to the king's investigation of his affairs. People were not directing history, passing revolutionary laws and marching bravely on to a new order. This era which some have identified as confirming the progress of the revolutionary Magna Carta, also constituted a backward step. While King John with his "free thinking and curiously modern outlook" (Harvey P88) had encouraged merit, and fought the status quo, his son's world saw a strengthening of the old blind acceptance of authority.
The contradictions of the time are also apparent in Henry III's lavish buildings, into which he poured so much money and time. Throughout his long reign Henry was always interested in creating large and impressive symbols of national authority. A fortune was spent on Windsor Castle, building much of the western wall and the round towers overlooking Thames Street. But it was at Westminster Abbey that we see his definitive effort. This huge symbolic building is a search for security and identity, Henry's personal identity, and the identity of England itself. This was a country newly formed. It was only at the end of John's reign that England ended its time as part of a wider European empire which had endured since the Norman Conquest. Henry III idolised Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo Saxon to rule England as an independent country before William the Conqueror defeated Harold in 1066. For a country looking for identity it made sense to celebrate the last king who ruled England as an independent kingdom. Westminster Abbey was the Confessor's church, hence Henry III's enthusiasm for remodelling the building. And yet the styling of Westminster Abbey did not recall old Anglo Saxon England. In fact the Anglo Saxon building was rebuilt in the latest and most fashionable French style. This is well illustrated by the great round window over the main door, so reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. Work started on rebuilding Westminster Abbey in 1245 and continued through difficult years in the 1250s. Henry faced rebellion in Wales, and amongst his barons. But he survived to continue daily supervision of work on his contradictory symbol. It was perhaps the consolation of his old age. Henry died aged sixty five on 16th of November 1272, and joined Edward the Confessor in the abbey, a symbolic centre of the nation, recalling an old world in a new church. Westminster Abbey suggests not so much steady progress as a strange eternal circling. It would be here that kings would begin and end their reigns, being crowned and also being buried.