King Henry III and The Battle of Lewes

Following a talk given by James Dickinson on 16 April 2024, Joanne Garner has expanded the notes taken by Lois Willett of the meeting, included in the June 2024 Newsletter, and added some context and further references.

James commenced his talk with an intriguing remark, “On 14 May 1264 Henry was asleep in The Priory in Lewes and his eldest son, Prince Edward, was asleep in Lewes Castle. The attack by the rebels took the Royalists by complete surprise.”

How did this surprise attack come about? Henry’s forces, known as ‘the Royalists’ were camped in and around the ancient ‘motte & bailey’ site on which Lewes Castle still stands. The town, full of narrow streets which had grown up around the castle, was mostly surrounded by the tidal River Ouse and its water meadows. Some Royalists were also garrisoned near The Priory, built on another mound in one of the marshy meadows to the south of the castle.

The ‘rebels’, led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, were camped on higher, drier ground on the Downs, (approximately site now Lewes Racecourse) they attacked from a north-westerly direction. Henry had been moving his forces east to west, expecting reinforcements from his French allies to land at any time; possibly at Chichester (to the west), at Shoreham, or even up the Ouse to Lewes on a tide. But the rebels had come speedily from London via Fletching and Offham when they learned of the King’s plans. They were very well informed, and de Montfort an experienced battle hardened campaigner.

The rebels were divided into four main divisions, one of which comprised ‘the Londoners’, not professional soldiers but city dwellers with only basic weapons and little other defensive armour; Prince Edward had a major grudge against them from an incident a year earlier, in which his mother, Queen Consort Eleanor of Provence, had been insulted by chanting Londoners as she sailed down the Thames. The Prince was determined to avenge the insult, but was not expecting the attack to come so soon, or from the north: the royalists knew the rebels had a force half the size of their own circa 5,000 men, the royalists’ force numbered approximately 10,000, many of whom were knights with full armour. And they were expecting reinforcements. They had therefore replied defiantly and dismissively to a dutiful letter from de Montfort several days before, via a deputation including the Bishops of London and Worcester, in which they assured the King they intended him no harm, and of their undying fidelity to him. This, they claimed, caused them to strive to ‘rescue him from the undesirable companionship of those many about him’.

Despite the overwhelming odds, Simon was an experienced and astute commander, and knew exactly how to take advantage of any opportunity for strategic superiority. It was not difficult for him therefore to take his opponents, defiant and somewhat complacent, by surprise. Legend has it that Simon had broken his leg before battle commenced, and could not participate as a combatant, though he did oversee and direct his troops meticulously.

Henry on the other hand was not a natural warrior or even leader; his impetuous and inexperienced son Edward was easily goaded by the Londoners’ group to take big risks. Although Edward and his knights responded with an alacrity not shown by the other royalist divisions, his impulsive nature left his father’s forces flanks exposed, while Edward pursued the fleeing Londoners.

Edward and his troop of knights, which numbered 3-400 mounted men, galloped on their large warhorses up the steep hill, arrayed in chain-mail and helmets with lances lowered (as practised in many jousting tournaments). They charged the Londoners en masse, their opponents being on foot with hardly any armour or weapons. To the charging troop’s surprise, the Londoners immediately broke ranks and fled, with Edward and his colleagues in hot pursuit. The knights drew their flat bladed, two edged swords, designed to cut and slash as they rode, and inflicted this tactic on all the victims they could catch, inflicting many fatal injuries. Some of the Londoners tried to flee across the water meadows, and were drowned or even sank in the mud. Estimated total casualties of the Battle are 15,000.

As author E L Mann observes, perhaps Edward’s knights imagined that in their one ‘daring’ cavalry charge, they had already won the battle? This was a misguided assumption if so, cavalry charges are known throughout history as having one great difficulty, that of keeping the horsemen together, or re-assembling them into a group ready to be useful again, whether the charge is successful in achieving its objective or not.

History does not record if that was their assumption, or whether they were simply caught up in the excitement of the chase. Either way, Edward’s group pursued their vengeful pursuit and only returned to the town too late to be of use to his father’s forces. These were in smaller, less organised groups around the town and its narrow streets, trying to follow a string of orders while still putting on their armour and mounting their horses (itself quite a feat, requiring time, at least one servant and a mounting block, due to the weight and size of their armour and weapons!).

Taking tactical advantage of Edward’s absence, the well organised and prepared rebels came over the top of the hill and commenced the array of their main battle order. Henry had insufficient troops ready to rebuff such a well organised assault effectively. There was fierce if chaotic fighting, the exact progress of which is not recorded, but it included fighting in the narrow streets as well as in and around the Castle. By the end of the day, Henry was forced to surrender, and taken captive, as was Prince Edward, when he eventually returned. The ‘Mise’ of Lewes (a legal settlement agreement dictated by the victor) was made on 14 May 1264.

Both Henry and Edward were later held at different locations under ‘house arrest’. Eventually, by a clever ruse which involved ‘borrowing’ his guards’ horses for exercise, and wearing each one out in turn, Edward escaped his captors on the last mount and fled to London, to regather what was left of the royalist forces. (Edward 1st later became one of the best ‘Warrior Kings’ of the age.)

It was convention (chivalric code) at the time between knights on all sides of a battle to avoid killing an opponent outright. Instead, they captured them and demanded a ransom. Ransoms were worth a great deal and few wanted to forego the chance of increasing their wealth and lands in this way. So although poorer ‘foot soldiers’ were often slaughtered in the melee of battle, the ‘aristocrats’ were usually spared.

However, in a brief ‘reign’ of just over a year, during which de Montfort took control of the government and Henry was effectively just a figurehead, Simon met the regrouped royalist forces at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, and was killed. At Evesham, chivalric convention was ignored, de Montfort was deliberately brutally murdered, stripped of his armour and his corpse cut in pieces, which were sent around the country to convince any lingering strongholds of rebels that he was indeed dead, and the rebellion over. In the event, it wasn’t quite over, but the impact of the brutality on the rebels was considerable.

Nevertheless, during his brief ‘reign’, de Montfort had sought to broaden the social foundations of parliament by extending the franchise to commoners for the first time. In addition to the nobility, the knights of the shires and representatives of the towns came to be represented for the first time ever. As James observes in his flier of this talk, Simon de Montfort left a permanent legacy which has been taken up by democrats in the UK and many parts of the world. Never again has an English monarch been able to exercise power in the way they did before the de Montfort rebellion.

James observed that, having inherited the throne from his father John, aged only 9, Henry’s regent until he reached the age of majority was Sir William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. He was appointed Regent and Protector of the Kingdom. James described Marshal, though aged nearly 70 at the time, as ‘the Winston Churchill’ of his day. Marshal devoted himself to the service of Henry and proved a wise, loyal and far sighted regent, while Henry was still a minor. He was also politically astute. He had already faithfully served three monarchs, and was known as the epitome of a knight’s virtues, without his vices. Marshal arranged two coronations for Henry, the first in some haste, at Gloucester Cathedral for tactical reasons, and the second at Westminster, which had by this time become the commonly accepted correct place to install a new king. It was normal at the time for the Pope to be involved in the decision about the coronations, as the monarch paid homage to the Pope. When Marshal died on 14 May 1219, Henry lost an invaluable ally, from whom he did not appear to have learned much. Marshal’s legacy in our heritage is that even today, the ‘Earl Marshal’ organises coronations for the monarch! The ‘favourites’ chosen by the young king as his counsellors, could not compare with Marshal’s impeccable service to his young charge.

James’s flier for the talk includes an illustration of ‘Henry, ‘as he might have appeared’ to contemporaries, with a drooping left eyelid. This was perceived at the time to add to the overall impression of his character as weak, ineffectual, indecisive, naive and guileless. This was totally opposite to Marshal, his former Protector. Despite Marshal’s example, Henry demonstrated ineptitude as a politician, just at a time when political ‘nous’ was required to navigate the choppy waters of his reign, a trait which partly incited what is known as the ‘2nd Barons’ War’. Henry was one of the greatest sponsors of architecture and art of his age, though this did not endear him to his contemporaries. Quite the contrary, as his ‘pet’ projects required large funds, raised through expensive loans. For instance, his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, first founded as a Benedictine monastery over 1000 years ago, and embellished by his ancestor Edward the Confessor, is now renowned as an architectural Gothic masterpiece. But that did not cut much ice with the barons of his time: Henry’s style of monarchy, rather than deliberately corrupt and extortionate taxation policies, were yet another source of frustration to them, as his father King John’s handling of his own reign had resulted in the ‘1st Barons’ War’ and Magna Carta.


Given its significance in English history, and its vital role in our current system of parliamentary government with a ‘figurehead’ monarchy, the context for the Battle of Lewes, itself a highly unusual Battle (5,000 ‘rebels’ defeat in one day 10,000 ‘royalists’), was politically and economically not the straightforward “Simon, hero of democracy vs Henry , hero of tyranny,” as some chroniclers describe it.

Sources and references

In order to check dates and context for the Battle, and sort out the otherwise rather confusing recurrence of the same names (Eleanor, Simon, Henry, Edward etc) I consulted Wikipedia, online Encylopedia Britannica, and online ‘Battles of Britain.’

I also found a little booklet in my father’s library of books on Sussex entitled: The Battle of Lewes 1264 by E L Mann, most helpful. (I can short term loan this to anyone who is interested, please phone). It provides a very well organised and systematic account not only of the Battle itself, as far as that is known, but also of its significant-to-this-day context: what is generally known as the 2nd War of the Barons, and the reasons that conflict arose and its far reaching consequences, up to our own day. Mann also describes clearly who was who in the opposing forces and what role they played; the constantly shifting alliances; what armour and weapons were worn at the time, etc. I also consulted a very useful ‘Lewes Town Guide’, a pictorial depiction of ‘The Historic County Town of Sussex’ pub. Lewes Chamber of Commerce (undated).

I trust a summary of the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267) from Wikipedia will suffice to summarise the great complexity of the background to the Battle of Lewes for this article, with its echoes through the centuries to our very own day. It was in fact a medley of economic, religious, political and personal interests

Wiki states, “This War was a civil war in England between the forces of a number of barons led by Simon de Montfort against the royalist forces of King Henry III. The barons sought to force the king to rule with a council of barons, rather than through his personal favourites. Significantly, the war also involved a series of massacres of Jews by de Montfort’s supporters (including his own sons Henry and Simon.) Crucially, the attacks aimed at seizing and destroying evidence of baronial debts.”

Wiki continues: “Causes: the reign of Henry III is most remembered for the constitutional crisis in this period of civil strife, which was provoked ostensibly by the king’s demands for extra finances, but marked a more general dissatisfaction with Henry’s methods of government on the part of English barons, discontent which was exacerbated by widespread famine…. French born de Montfort had originally been one of the ‘foreign upstarts’ so loathed by many lords as Henry’s ‘foreign counsellors’. Having inherited through his mother the English title Earl of Leicester, de Montfort married Henry’s sister Eleanor, with Henry’s permission but without the agreement of the English barons – ordinarily necessary since it was a matter of state. Although initially a similar age, and close as brothers in law, eventually a feud developed between de Montfort and Henry. Their relationship reached a crisis in the 1250s when de Montfort was put on trial for actions he took as lieutenant of Gascony, the last remaining Plantagenet lands across the English channel. During the reigns of Kings John 1st and Henry III, the Crown periodically raised punitive taxation on the Jews, causing moneylenders to sell their debt bonds cheaply to raise cash to pay those taxes. The bonds were then sold to the richest courtiers and supporters of the Crown at cut down prices, leading many indebted ‘middling’ landowners to lose their lands. This fed into rising anti-Semitic beliefs, fuelled by the Catholic Church. Measures against the Jews, and controls over debts and usury dominated debates about royal power and finances among the classes that were beginning to be involved in parliament, and who supported de Montfort in the war. De Montfort took advantage of the resulting rising anti-Semitism for his own benefit….. official anti-Jewish measures, sponsored by the Church, combined with resentment about debts among the barons, gave an opportunity for de Montfort to target this group and incite rebellion by calling for the cancellation of debts owed to Jews. Henry also became embroiled in funding a war (to regain some of the lands won by his grandfather Henry II, and lost by his father John) …. that made many barons fearful that Henry was following in the footsteps of his father, and needed to be kept in check like John (Magna Carta was signed by John during the 1st Baron’s War 1215-1217).”

Adding to the complexity is the fact that Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, was also French born, and as Queen Consort, deputised for her husband when he went on his many pilgrimages on foot (unlike his father, Henry was very devout). Eleanor was in the habit of giving high offices in England to her Savoyard and Provençal relations. A very different character to her husband, Eleanor was acknowledged by contemporaries as very clever, determined, skilled at poetry and a leader of fashion. Her style and decisions as Consort provided not only further contrast to the King’s approach for the frustrated English (Anglo Saxon) barons, but also added to the complicated family relations with the French, through the Plantagenet dynasty.