Henry III, by David Carpenter

James Sewry

The second volume of Carpenter's biography of Henry III covers 1258-1272.
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The second volume of David Carpenter’s magisterial two-part biography of King Henry III covers the latter fourteen years of his reign, 1258-1272. It opens with the revolutionary events of 1258, in fact more far-reaching than 1215’s Magna Carta, when a group of armed barons marched on Westminster Hall and forced the king to accept reform of the kingdom. These momentous events heralded what proved to be a topsy-turvy final quarter of the reign.

Henry III is not a well-known monarch. As Carpenter observes, he seems ‘almost a forgotten king’ who has left little mark on the public imagination. He defies easy categorisation, unlike, say, the martial Richard I or villainous John. It is not difficult to see how this relative obscurity flows naturally from Henry’s personality, for whilst not totally hopeless, he was often described by contemporary chroniclers as simplex, connoting naivety with a distinct lack of political nous. In a remarkable moment in 1260, with instability mounting at home, Henry had to be told by King Louis IX of France to return to England to do his job. Faced with similar circumstances in 1263, Henry, again in France, decided to go on pilgrimage to ‘remote parts of Burgundy’ instead of returning to England.

Indeed, as it was, the eventual victory of royalist forces in the civil war of 1263-5 against opposition led by Simon de Montfort, the charismatic Earl of Leicester, owed more to Henry’s son, the future Edward I, than it did to himself. Henry, a rex pacificus, was ill-suited to the horrifying ideal that was a medieval pitched battle. At the Battle of Lewes in 1263, where the royalists were defeated, Henry had two horses killed under him and was beaten by swords and maces. Two years later at the Battle of Evesham, Henry, de Montfort’s prisoner, was lucky to survive having been dressed in a suit of de Monfort’s armour. Fortunately recognised at the moment his helmet was pulled off, he was quickly taken to safety. The royalists prevailed – Simon de Montfort was killed and his body mutilated.

But Carpenter is careful not to run away with Henry’s obvious failings and offers fair and balanced treatment of his subject. So whilst Henry was fundamentally passive and often reacted to events rather than precipitated them, Carpenter emphasises that nobody doubted his piety and his credentials as a rex Christianissimus (most Christian king). And, dimly remembered though Henry might be, Carpenter is right to locate his greatest achievement in his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, which still hosts coronations some 750 years later.

Overall, the two volumes represent a culmination of Carpenter’s work and scholarship on Henry III and the thirteenth century, and will surely hold sway for many years to come. Immensely detailed, exhaustive (Carpenter admits he remains an ‘academic rather than a popular historian’), and sprinkled with humour, this book remains highly readable. In the preface, he passes the baton onto a new generation of Henrician scholars – we can only be grateful that he carried it for as long and as well as he did.

Henry III: Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Settlement, 1258-1272 by David Carpenter is out now and published by Yale University Press.

James Sewry is on the editorial board of The Historian, the members’ magazine of the Historical Association.