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  • James Houser

August 4, 1265 - The rise of Edward I, the Second Barons' War and the Battle of Evesham

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 4, 1265. Welcome to Medieval England, where when there isn’t a foreign war, the nobles start their own just to keep busy. The Barons of England are rebelling against the weak King Henry III, but they’ve failed to reckon with 26-year-old Prince Edward. Edward will become famous as the conqueror of Wales and the nemesis of William Wallace. Consider this the origin story for Edward I – Hammer of the Scots.

In the 1200s, King John of England had lost almost all the lands his father Henry II and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine had left to him in France. John’s power broken, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which gave the barons and nobles of England extraordinary power and privilege over the King. The Magna Carta would later be the basis for English Parliamentary rule and modern English law – but for now, it was just a warrant for the nobles of England to override anything the King wanted to do. It would take a strong King to corral the English nobles in the troubled times after John’s death.

Henry III, John’s son who assumed the throne of England in 1216 at nine years old, grew up to be a weak and vacillating man. His reign – which was SO LONG, it literally lasted for 56 years – was therefore one of turmoil and rebellion. He had to deal with multiple uprisings, rebellions and riots, but usually had to settle them through the Church rather than by defeating them. The upshot of all this was that under Henry III, the English throne was the weakest it had been since the Norman Conquest.

Enter Simon de Montfort. After the fall of the English territories in France, Simon had lost control of his family’s estates. He had been part of a powerful French military clan, and his father was a famous crusader, but that wasn’t enough. After a decade of trying to reclaim his father’s estates, Simon came to England to ask for the goodwill of Henry III. At first Simon was very close with Henry as one of his inner councilors, and in 1239 was given the title Earl of Leicester. Henry even named Simon as the godfather to his son, Prince Edward.

The problem was that Simon was a loose cannon. Ambitious, talented, and determined, he began to wear out his welcome in England. He married Henry’s sister Eleanor without the King’s knowledge or permission – a huge faux pas in medieval times – and angered many of the English nobility with his rough and rabble-rousing ways. He went on multiple failed crusades, sympathized with rebellious barons, and used Henry as a cosigner on debts without the King’s permission. All this caused Henry III to fall out with his former favorite, and soon the two men began to clash.

Simon found fertile soil for his upcoming rebellion. Many of the English nobility were upset with Henry’s mismanagement of England; the land was stricken by famine, the Barons felt like the Magna Carta was not being followed, and Henry favored foreign advisors and relatives of his Italian wife instead of good solid Englishmen for the crown. But Simon was not just seeking support from the Barons – he sought support from the people. And that meant populist agitation.

Simon hated Jews. Medieval antisemitism was depressingly common, but USUALLY it extended to putting them in a ghetto, making them wear a special badge, and denying them normal human rights – which is all bad enough, but it’s medieval times and the alternative was worse. Simon was the alternative. As Earl of Leicester he had massacred and driven the Jews from his lands, and medieval peasants being medieval peasants, this made him very popular among the people. He was able to paint the Jews as tools of foreign advisors, much like the King’s own unpopular advisors, and whipped up antisemitism as a means to gain power. So yeah, Kings are bad, but don’t feel TOO much sympathy for this guy.

By 1256, Simon had emerged as the head of the King’s political opposition, but Henry managed to divide the Barons against him and had Simon sent into exile. This was the breaking point: now Simon de Montfort saw his chance and decided to take it. In 1263, the Barons were finally ready to raise a revolt, and invited Simon back to England to lead a war against the King. They weren’t going to overthrow him, that wasn’t how these rebellions worked; instead, they would just take control of him and use him as a puppet. The Pope in Rome would never condone the removal of an anointed King, and this religious authority was all-encompassing to medieval Europe. You couldn’t just go around killing kings.

Part of Montfort’s rallying cry was the cancellation of debts – that is, debts owed to Jews. These “cancellations” turned into mass pogroms, with Simon’s sons Henry and Simon Jr. leading the mobs that brutalized Jews in Worcester, Winchester and London. As many as 500 Jews died in the attack in London, and the debt records were symbolically destroyed. Henry was nearly paralyzed with indecision, but his son, Prince Edward, took command of the situation and won many of the Barons back. They were able to expel Montfort from London, and both sides began to raise armies. The civil war was on.

It’s worth talking about Prince Edward here for a bit. Edward was everything his father was not: imposing, competent, strong-willed and tall enough that he became known as “Longshanks.” His shock of blonde hair was easily spotted rising above other Englishmen in a crowd. The young Prince was rebellious against his father in his teenage years – even siding with his godfather Simon de Montfort in several arguments and disputes – but by 1264 father and son had reconciled. Edward wasn’t just going to help his father. As it turned out, he was going to save his father’s crown.

In spring 1264, the two armies marched out for the contest that became known as the Second Barons’ War. Edward led his father’s armies out to recapture Gloucester and Northampton, beating Simon’s son Simon Jr. in the process. By May, though, the King and Simon were heading for a confrontation near the small town of Lewes in southern England, and Edward led his forces down to join his father. The royal army was twice the size of the rebel force, so it should have been an easy victory.

Simon de Montfort approached King Henry with the offer of a truce, but this was rejected. On May 14, 1264, the two armies clashed in what became known as the Battle of Lewes. At the start of the fight, Edward led a surprise cavalry charge against part of Simon’s army, causing it to break and run. However, Prince Edward led his men in pursuit of the beaten foe, leaving King Henry to confront Simon alone. Henry’s men had to attack uphill into the face of Simon’s spear wall and crossbow barrage. The Royal army suffered heavily, and soon Simon was overwhelming the King despite his lack of numbers. Though Henry tried to fight on, his lines broke, he himself fell captive, and soon the whole Royal army was running.

Edward had hurried back with his cavalry once he realized his mistake, but it was too late, and soon he was a prisoner as well. Simon led his army into London in triumph, with the King and the Crown Prince as (very well treated) prisoners. By all appearances, he and his noble backers had won the Second Barons’ War.

Montfort used his victory to set up a new government for England. Henry III would retain the title and crown of the Kingdom, but it was Simon de Montfort who truly ruled. Every decision the King made had to pass through his royal council, conveniently led by Simon. Simon also called a new Parliament, made up radically of townsfolk and commoners in addition to the usual nobles and knights. This was the first time commoners had any say in the rule of England, but the cynical Montfort had no plans to introduce democracy. Instead, he used the threat of the mob and his rabble-rousing antisemitism to solidify his rule. Montfort began to amass a huge personal fortune, and as he stoked further popular passions to enhance his power, his original supporters – the Barons – grew concerned.

See, the Barons just wanted their old feudal rights expanded. They didn’t want a, well, a REVOLUTION. This was getting out of hand. More and more, the English nobility turned back to the crown, especially the rough-and-tumble Welsh marcher lords. Simon’s support soon began to ebb away. It wasn’t to King Henry that the fractious nobles looked, though – but to his son. Which was lucky for them, because Edward was planning something big.

In late May 1265, Edward – still a prisoner – was nevertheless allowed to go riding in the company of a troop of guards. This had been going on for several months, so at first nothing seemed amiss. Edward rode his horse to exhaustion as a means of exercising it; when his horse was exhausted, he borrowed one of the guards’. This seemed reasonable. The cycle went on all day until every horse was exhausted except the one Edward was currently riding on. All of a sudden, the 26-year-old Prince suddenly spurred off to the woodline. As his guards fell behind, he called to them – not joking – “My lords! I bid you good day!” And he was gone.

It was a perfectly planned escape. Edward had arranged for his friends to be lying in wait, and together they raced to meet with the Welsh marcher lords. Edward agreed to uphold English law, get rid of the hated foreigners and respect the nobles’ rights. In return, they would give him an army and support him in his vengeance against his godfather – Simon de Montfort. As the lords of the realm began rallying to Prince Edward, Simon began to gather his own troops, but Edward’s charisma and hatred for Simon soon allowed him to gather men faster.

The following months proved Prince Edward to be one of the medieval world’s greatest military geniuses. In June, he launched a lightning campaign, burning every bridge across the Severn River to cut Montfort off from his supplies and drive him into Wales. In the weeks that followed, Edward and his godfather played cat-and-mouse through the Welsh hills. Simon had the reluctant Henry III in his custody, yanked around with shackles as their army tried to escape the daunting Prince and raise enough men to make a fight.

The endgame took place in the opening days of August. Montfort’s son, Simon Jr., had raised a large army and was coming to save his Pa. Already their approach had forced Edward to pull back. Caught between the two enemy forces, Edward decided to divide and conquer. The campaign of August 1265 showed daring, initiative, and ruthlessness – shades of Napoleon or Robert E. Lee.

On August 1, Edward learned that Simon Jr. had arrived at his father’s castle in Kenilworth; since they were still a decent distance from the enemy, the rebel army had camped outside the walls. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Marching day and night with only a cavalry force, Edward covered 35 miles in a night and fell upon the sleeping army at dawn. Though Simon escaped into the castle itself, the army was surprised and wiped out, with almost all its knights being captured. By now, though, Montfort was on the march and headed to rendezvous with his son’s troops. As he crossed the Severn River, he held onto hope. If he could slip past Edward, he could unite their two armies and maybe repeat his victory at Lewes.

It was not to be. As Montfort’s army reached the town of Evesham on August 4, 1265, they saw a row of banners approaching them from the distance. At first Simon was pleased, figuring they were his son’s troops – but they were not. It was Edward, with the Royalist army, here to liberate his father and win back the power of the English Kings. They had silently shadowed Montfort’s army the entire night without being detected, then advanced that morning with banners captured at Kenilworth. Now the game of cat-and-mouse that had been played for two months was over, Simon was trapped in a loop of the River Avon, and the end was at hand.

As Edward lined up his army at the top of the hill (this time, unlike at Lewes, HE had the high ground), Simon stared in anger. The old sorcerer had been out-generaled by his own apprentice, and he knew it. “How skillfully they advance,” he growled, “the Prince learned that from ME!” Montfort could have escaped, but that was not his style. Instead, he rallied his forces one final time and led them up the hill into the teeth of his godson’s army.

So began, and basically ended, the Battle of Evesham. Edward pitched into Simon’s army with ferocity; thanks to his quick maneuvers and deceptions, he outnumbered his foe, and it was a repeat of Lewes, but with the roles reversed. The wide Royal army quickly absorbed and enveloped Simon’s smaller force. Edward had given the order “no quarter” for the battle – unusually for medieval times, no prisoners were to be taken. Montfort’s knights were dragged from their horse and slaughtered. Edward had appointed a special death squad of Welshmen to hunt down and kill Montfort, and soon the great rebel was run through the neck with a lance. Others fell on Montfort’s body, hacking off his hands, feet and head, and finally his balls were cut off and shoved in his mouth.

One prisoner WAS taken. Henry III himself only narrowly avoided being killed, but was soon embraced by his son, who had saved his crown and his life. Even as the streets of Evesham and the fields on the Avon ran thick with blood, the current and future kings of England had secured their places in power. “The murder of Evesham,” one chronicler wrote, “for battle it was none.”

Though Simon’s sons had to be hunted down and defeated until 1267, Edward’s victory over Simon de Montfort and the Barons’ Rebellion marked the beginning of a rise in royalist power. For the next four centuries, the King would reign supreme in England with almost no real challenges, and the line descended from Edward would produce great warrior-princes like Edward III, the Black Prince, and Henry V.

Edward’s subsequent reign from 1272 to 1307 would see England become Europe’s greatest military power. He led crusades against the Egyptians, warred with France, and conquered all of Wales for the Crown. In pop culture, though, he is best known for his conquest and occupation of Scotland starting in 1296. As awesome as the story of young Prince Edward is, the Scots might view it as the rise of their greatest villain – the invader of their country, the man who defeated and executed William Wallace, and their greatest nemesis.

Edward I, “Hammer of the Scots,” was forged in the trial and victory of the Second Barons’ War, and his brilliant triumph at Evesham.

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