Henry III was born on October 1, 1207 to John of England. As king, John proved to be an incompetent ruler. Although his capable mother, Eleanor, advised him, John continuously made bad decisions. When he died in 1216, the king had lost the Angevin Empire that Henry II had built, and left England divided.
During John’s reign, King Philip II of France’s son, Louis, invaded England. The French prince hoped to overthrow John and claim the English throne as his own. Since John had alienated the English nobility, many barons supported Louis’ cause. However, upon Henry III’s accession, their support shifted in the young king’s favor. By 1217, Louis abandoned his claim and returned to France.
King of England
During the beginning of Henry III’s reign, a regency council formed to help him rule. On the king’s behalf, the council reinstated Magna Carta. The document restricted the monarchy’s power while guaranteeing rights. Initially signed by John, the former king had refused to honor Magna Carta. However, with a young king in charge, the council reinstated it. Magna Carta’s restrictions would trouble Henry throughout his reign.
In 1234, Henry III personally began to rule. During the 27-year-old king’s prolonged regency, his ministers had violated Magna Carta. In retaliation, barons began to rebel against the government. When faced with the crisis, Henry declared that he would consult with the barons in the future and enforce Magna Carta. Shaken by the ordeal, the king began looking for a role model to base his reign on.
Henry III had lost his father at an early age. As the king grew, he displayed an attachment to those he saw as father figures. Searching through English history, the king found a role model in the form of an Anglo-Saxon king: Edward the Confessor. Henry saw similarities between his life and his ancestors. The devoutly religious king also admired Edward’s religiosity. Having found his role model, Henry finally began acting as the English had long hoped for: a mature king.
Henry III sought to leave his mark on English history. During his father’s reign, the Angevin Empire, which had been mainly composed of Western France, had crumbled in 1216. Seeking to regain his family’s lost lands, Henry began focusing on organizing military campaigns. During his regency, the king twice attempted to reconquer Normandy and Poitou. However, Henry’s attempts in 1228 and 1229 both failed.
By 1230, Henry III had gained a negative reputation as king. He was viewed as being too idealistic, a religious zealot, and an incompetent ruler. Despite Henry’s failures in France, the king refused to give up. When the king asked for funds, his barons denied him. Restricted by both Magna Carta and the nobility, a frustrated Henry had to look elsewhere for support.
In January 1236, Henry III married Eleanor of Provence. Although the new queen didn’t bring any French land to the marriage, Eleanor did bring connections to other European monarchs and the papacy. She also brought along some of her relatives, which proved unpopular with the barons. Impressed by the Savoyards, Henry generously gave positions of power to the queen’s relatives.
Simon de Montfort
In 1230, a French knight named Simon de Montfort arrived in England. Seeking to regain his family’s lost earldom of Leicester, Simon met with Henry III in 1231. It would be a life-changing meeting for both men. Soon after, Henry and Simon became close friends. Recognizing his value as an ally, the king allowed Simon to marry his sister, Eleanor, in January 1238.
Simon’s marriage to Eleanor caused many issues. Since Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity, her marriage broke her holy oath. If she were to be married, then the princess should have been used to create an alliance with another European monarch. Simon was only a minor knight and held little importance beyond being Henry III’s favorite. Because of this, the barons felt enraged at not being consulted by the king.
Eventually, Henry III and Simon’s friendship soured. Unbeknownst to the king, Simon took out a large loan in Henry’s name. In August 1239, the furious king confronted Simon, which caused him to flee from England. Honoring his crusader’s oath, Simon went on crusade with Henry’s younger brother, Richard. While in Jerusalem, both men would achieve many victories.
In 1242, Simon de Montfort returned to England. Henry III had once again begun focusing on France. Denied taxes by the barons, the king needed all the money and military experience he could get. Simon had proven himself to be a capable general and skilled warrior during the crusade. As a result, Henry happily welcomed him back.
Failure in France
Henry III and Simon de Montfort would lead a military expedition to Poitou, France. Unfortunately for Henry, the campaign was a disaster. A small English army fought against a larger French force. Led by King Louis IX, the French army decimated the English. Although Simon fought valiantly, Henry proved to be a terrible general. Due to the expedition’s failure, Henry and Simon’s friendship permanently suffered.
In May 1247, Simon de Montfort traveled to Gascony. Under orders from Henry III, Simon had to reinforce royal authority over the duchy. Initially, Simon performed well as an administrator. However, he quickly made Gascon enemies. In response, Simon mercilessly punished those who opposed him. Soon after, Gascony began to rebel against Simon’s harsh rule.
While Simon governed Gascony, Henry III came under the influence of the Lusignans. The Lusignans were the king’s French half-siblings. When John died in 1216, Queen Isabella abandoned England and her children. The queen remarried to Hugh X of Lusignan and had additional children by him. Seeking better opportunities, the Lusignans traveled to their half-brother’s court. In 1247, the king welcomed them, and the siblings became Henry’s new favorites.
During the 1250s, Henry III continued to make poor decisions. His Lusignan relatives proved to be both unruly and violent. They committed many crimes and believed that they were immune to punishment. Since the king relied on them for financial aid, he issued an order in 1256 that protected the Lusignans from imprisonment. As a result, Henry began to be seen as a puppet ruler.
Another costly decision Henry III made involved Sicily. In 1254, Pope Innocent IV offered the Sicilian crown to the king. Although a faraway territory, Henry viewed Sicily as an opportunity to expand English influence. He reasoned that if his second son, Edmund, claimed the throne, then Henry could begin using Sicily as a new source of income. In response to his proposal, the English barons flatly denied the king funding.
The Provisions of Oxford
By 1258, the English nobility had enough of Henry III’s incompetent rule. On April 30, the barons and their followers confronted the king. Simon de Montfort personally lead the group. After his return from Gascony, Simon had been placed on trial by Henry. During the trial, both men aired their frustrations with each other. The exchange became so heated that it caused an end to their decades-long friendship.
Simon de Montfort and his fellow nobles came to Henry III to address the growing political crisis in England. Besides the king’s inept decision making, disease and starvation had begun to spread throughout the country. The Lusignans also continued to commit crimes without consequences. Fed up with the king, Simon’s group pressured Henry to consent to the Provisions of Oxford.
The Provisions of Oxford acted as a plan of reforms. In exchange for much-needed funds, Henry III reluctantly agreed to share his decision making with a newly formed council. The barons hoped to reform the government and reduce rampant corruption. Although publicly appearing to be jointly ruling, the barons had effectively stripped Henry of power.
On May 14, 1264, Simon de Montfort led a rebel army against Henry III. In 1262, the king had obtained permission from the pope to no longer follow the Provisions of Oxford. Seeing no other way to convince Henry to rule competently, Simon and the barons rebelled in 1263. Initially, the rebels performed well and controlled southern England for awhile. However, the royal army struck back until the rebels only controlled London.
At the Battle of Lewes, the royal army suffered a humiliating defeat. As a consequence, Simon captured both Henry III and his son, Prince Edward. Simon would rule through a powerless Henry for over a year. However, Simon proved to be a divisive ruler, and England remained in a chaotic state. While Simon focused on controlling the king, Edward managed to escape. Raising another army, Edward’s troops fought against Simon’s rebels at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.
Unlike Lewes, Evesham ended in a royalist victory. During the battle, a hit squad of 12 knights searched for Simon de Montfort. Upon finding him, the knights brutally killed him. Due to his status as a traitor, Simon’s corpse was mutilated. Prince Edward had not only saved the English monarchy but established himself as a competent leader.
After the Battle of Evesham, Henry III regained his throne. Subsequently, those who had rebelled against the king lost their lands. Instead of healing the kingdom, Henry’s vengeful actions only caused further strife. Because of this, Edward had to crush multiple rebellions. By the late 1260s, England began to finally experience peace. On November 16, 1272, Henry died a senile, old man, leaving England to a more worthy successor, Edward I.
Henry III had one of the longest reigns in English history. Although he hoped to be a strong king like his ancestors, Henry proved to be a weak ruler. He allowed his foreign relatives to run rampant, continuously upset the nobility and demonstrated terrible leadership. Due to his poor decision making, Henry nearly lost his throne. However, his son, Edward, would succeed where his father had failed and re-establish the monarchy’s supremacy during his reign.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Jones, D. (2012). The Plantagenets: the warrior kings and queens who made England. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, November 12). Henry III. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-III-king-of-England-1207-1272