A metaphorical ‘stone’s throw’ from where I live (possibly literally, if you used a small stone and a very large trebuchet) is the site of the Battle of Evesham (4th August 1265) where Simon de Montfort was defeated and met his end.
So what and Simon the who I hear you cry? Well this event could be seen as the conclusion of one of the pivotal episodes in the formation of modern western democracy, and the ending of the monarchs’ absolute power in this country.
As everyone knows, at the start of the 13th century the barons revolted against the famously unpopular and incompetent King John; due to his endless demands for money to fund futile and inept military campaigns to regain the sizable territories in France that his father had ruled and he & his brother Richard I had lost. (Inexplicably remembered as a hero, but in reality equally useless and whose pointless insult to a fellow crusader would bankrupt the entire country, which makes his statue standing outside parliament today rather appropriate.) These amounted to nearly half the country, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Pas de Calais, acquired through inheritance & marriage. In 1215 they forced him to sign the treaty known as Magna Carta, which curtailed the powers of the monarch and began the transition to the constitutional monarchy we have to this day.
Except that wasn’t the end of the matter, as Magna Carta was quickly annulled by the pope and neither side had honoured their commitments anyway. Which led to the First Baron’s War (1215-17) and an invasion by the French, albeit at the invitation of the Barons, which is rarely remembered even by historians so as to preserve the myth of 1066.
After King John’s timely, if somewhat ignominious, death from dysentery in 1216, John’s nine year old son ascended to the throne as Henry III and another peace treaty was signed. Before his death, John placed Henry under the guardianship of one of his knights William Marshal (a very interesting figure worthy of further reading, but little known). In 1225 needed to raise money quickly to send an army to retake Gascony from the invading French. A tax to raise the money was approved by a great council, but the barons demanded in return that Magna Carta was reissued. The king did so, this time declaring it was of his own “spontaneous and free will” and everyone lived happily ever after.
Until 1258, when the barons once again became unhappy with the way the king was raising funds (couldn’t pay his debts to the pope) and a faction in his court who had undue influence of him. To compound the problem the church also had their own grievances with the king, the Welsh were in open revolt & allied themselves with the Scots and the harvest failed.
Simon de Montfort and six other barons decided to take action and formed an alliance. With the backing of his co-conspirators, Roger Bigod marched into the king’s parliament mid-session and staged a coup d’Ã©tat. Fearing he was about to be imprisoned, Henry agreed to abandon personal rule and govern through a council made up of 12 clergy appointed by the king and 12 barons chosen among themselves. Under further pressure to reform this was soon changed under the Provisions of Oxford to a council of 15, all elected by the barons. (A very limited democracy of sorts.)
Peace at last? Yes, but only with France (achieved by accepting the new status quo and signing away all claim to lands he’d lost and accepting King Louis as feudal overlord of Gascony).
After returning from France the king attempted to reassert his power and while still publically supporting them, had secretly approached the Pope to request that he be absolved from the oath he made regarding the Provisions of Oxford. With the barons chaotically fighting amongst themselves (a popular pastime among revolutionaries to this day), and having reconciled with his son Edward who had sided with de Montfort, the king ceased his moment. In 1261 after announcing publically that the pope had absolved him from his oath, he and Edward launched a counter-coup against the barons. This time it was the king who had enlisted the help of a foreign army. The barons convened their own parliament without the king, but eventually backed down to avoid open civil war and Simon de Montfort left for exile in France.
Triumphant Henry tried to settle the matter once and for all by forcing the barons to sign the Treaty of Kingston, which included an arbitration procedure to settle future disputes between the king and the barons. But once again the peace was short lived.
Henry, at first conciliatory and willing to compromise, then began to target his political enemies. His position was soon weakened by the death of a key ally and defection of another to the radical barons. Then the pope did a U-turn (typical politician), reversing his previous ruling and reinstating Henry’s obligations to the Provisions of Oxford. So by 1263 the country was in civil war again and de Montfort was back, and this time he meant business.
De Montfort raised an army and marched on London, whose population rose up and joined the revolt. The king and queen were trapped in the Tower of London and were taken prisoner. De Montfort was now in charge and replaced the royal government and household with his own men, although he maintained a pretence that he was ruling in the king’s name. But as seems to be the lot of revolutionary heroes throughout history, on the verge of final victory his coalition once again descended into infighting and rapidly fragmented. Henry regained his freedom and chaos spread across the country.
Henry appealed to King Louis of France, who the Treaty of Kingston had appointed as the ultimate arbitrator on matters between Henry and the barons. Facing the imminent prospect of yet another civil war, de Montfort with reluctance eventually agreed to accept Louis as arbitrator. De Montfort’s representatives went to Paris and made a stong legal argument, but Henry had decided to go to Paris in person. In January 1264 King Louis announced his judgement - the Provisions of Oxford were annulled, the rebels condemned and the rights of kings upheld in full. (Not surprising, given that in addition to the obvious conflict of interest, Louis’ wife Margaret just happened to be the sister of Henry’s wife Eleanor.)
Henry quickly returned to England, where news of the unpopular French decision was fuelling violence and unrest. Leaving Eleanor in Paris to recruit another army of French mercenaries. In April Henry led his army into de Montfort’s territories in the Midlands, then returned south to secure the route to France. De Montfort pursued Henry and finally brought him to battle on the south coast at Lewes. Henry had the larger army, but was defeated and surrendered along with his son Edward (the future Edward I - Hammer of the Scots). Henry was forced to reinstate the Provisions of Oxford and pardon the rebel barons, leaving himself powerless and reduced to little more than a symbolic role. De Montfort had effectively become the first uncrowned king of England.
In January 1265 the first English Parliament met in the Palace of Westminster. But with the country still in disarray de Montfort was unable to consolidate his grip on power. Meanwhile Eleanor was still in France with her new army of mercenaries and backed by Louis was planning an invasion of England. And in May, Edward escaped captivity and raised another army in England.
Edward’s army pursued de Montfort through the Welsh Marches, where he was seeking help from Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the Prince of Wales (a title Edward I would later cease for himself and later award to his eldest son, a tradition which continues to this day). Then struck east towards de Montfort’s stronghold at Kenilworth Castle, before turning back to attack de Montfort again.
After losing the city of Gloucester, De Montfort now needed to await the arrival of his son Simon, who was bringing reinforcements up from London. They eventually reached Kenilworth, but were attacked by Edward and suffered heavy losses. Edward then advanced south down the Avon valley, using captured banners as a [I]ruse de guerre[/I], tricking de Montfort into thinking they were the reinforcements he was anxiously waiting for.
Outmanoeuvred by Edward, de Montfort was now trapped in Evesham facing an army twice his size. The town is in a loop of the river Avon with water on three sides. With the only bridge in Edwards hands and heavy traffic making the new A44 bypass too dangerous to cross for pedestrians, he was trapped facing an army twice his size.
To the north of the town is a steep eminence called Green Hill. This time, armed with his copy of ‘The Ladybird Book of Elementary Military Tactics for Boys’, Edward made sure he didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Battle of Lewes and ceased the high ground overlooking the 24h Tesco superstore and the railway station. As de Montfort left the town on the morning of 4th August 1265 there was a great thunderstorm.
Advancing through the thick mud of the M&S car park, de Montfort decided to concentrate his small force (somewhat diminished by the swift desertion of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s Welsh infantry) at the centre of the enemy line. They were soon enveloped by the flanks of the royalist army who, seeking to avenge their defeat at Lewes, massacred them rather than following the more profitable custom of capturing and ransoming the enemy. A chronicler described it as the “murder of Evesham, for battle it was none”.
What was left of de Montfort, after the royalists had hacked off their souvenirs, was buried under the altar in Evesham Abbey. When Henry found out he ordered them removed from consecrated ground, so they were reburied under a tree. The abbey was destroyed in the 16th century when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, so the modern memorial in Abbey Park was probably erected in any old likely looking spot. His true resting place is just as likely to be marked by some empty cider bottles and a used condoms, left behind by some randy teenagers with nothing better to do in a dead end town on a Sunday night.
[Edit: [I]Blimey! Has this really taken 4 hours to write? Is that a record? I started only 13 minutes after Kerry opened the thread. Next time, must do what Simon Schama does - just infer from self-evident wisdom.[/I] :p]