One defining day in England

The Battle of Evesham 1265. Saturday 5 August 2017. Join members of the Simon de Montfort Society for their annual wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial in Abbey Park, Evesham (near the Bell Tower) at 10.30 am. The ceremony will be followed by a battlefield walk. For further information see the Battlefields Trust Website at www.battlefieldstrust.com under events.


August 2015 marked the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Evesham, a decisive day in English history and one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil. The battle, one of two fought in England’s Second Barons’ War (1264–67), resulted in the defeat and brutal killing of the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, and his rebel barons by the forces of King Henry III under the command of his son, Prince Edward (later King Edward I). The Battle of Evesham brought to an end the political influence of the de Montfort family in England . . . but perhaps not quite. Historian Tony Spicer explains all.

Caption: The battleground seen from the top of Greenhill, with the town of Evesham in the distance. All images courtesy of Pippa Sanderson.


It is very rare that any English monarch has attempted to rule without some form of consultation process. Anglo-Saxon kings had the Witan – the consultation with the wise – which included the bishops, the earls and senior administrators. It was a powerful body with the capacity to select the king and to approve any new laws.

When the Normans came in 1066, they abolished the Witan and so the wise disappeared from English politics. Instead their consultative body was the Great Council, which was weaker than the Witan. It comprised the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and great barons, collectively called ‘the barons’.

Two factors contributed to the increase in power of the Great Council. Firstly, in times of crisis, the king needed the support of the barons who, in return, wanted political influence. Thus, in 1100, when Henry I had to fight for the throne against his elder brother, Robert of Normandy, he issued a charter that declared how he would rule the country, much like a modern election manifesto that recognised the barons as his power base. Both Steven (1135–54) and Henry II (1154–89) issued similar charters. These provided the precedent for Magna Carta in 1215.

The second factor in the emerging power of the Great Council was taxation. During the twelfth century, it came to be realised that for a tax system to function efficiently, it was best organised through the Great Council. By 1215, this had become established custom and Magna Carta confirmed that, with some limited exceptions, taxation could only be imposed with the consent of the Great Council. By the time of the reign of Henry III (1216–72), the Great Council was a much more powerful body than it had been in 1066. Around 1250 there was another gradual change: the Great Council was beginning to be called Parliament, derived from the Anglo-Norman parlement, from parler, the verb for talk.

Simon de Montfort
Simon de Montfort was descended on his paternal grandmother’s side from Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, who had been Justiciar of England (a very powerful minister) under Henry II. The earldom was successfully claimed by Simon’s father in 1207 but, in 1210, there were rumours of a plot to make Simon’s father King of England. King John disinherited him and gave the earldom to the Earl of Chester. This disinheritance was of doubtful legality because at the time John was excommunicated.

Simon, therefore, had a strong claim to the earldom although he had to borrow money to compensate the Earl of Chester. By 1239, he was firmly established as Earl of Leicester and a leading Counsellor of the King. Simon also married the King’s younger sister Eleanor and, initially, enjoyed a cordial relationship with him. He became a godfather to the King’s eldest son, Prince Edward, and he named his eldest son, Henry, after the King and the King became that child’s godfather.

De Montfort’s forces tried to force their way through the middle of Edward’s lines up this hill.

The Provisions of Oxford
There were various mishaps during the reign of Henry III and he was frequently accused of misgovernment. The Sicilian affair brought matters to a head.

In 1254, Henry III accepted an offer from the Pope of the Crown of Sicily for Henry’s younger son Edmund. The problem was that Henry would have to conquer Sicily, an operation that was completely beyond English military capability at the time. Henry had been granted a tax by the Great Council to go on a crusade. He failed to do so but, instead, spent the money on the abortive Sicilian affair. In due course the Pope became exasperated and threatened to excommunicate Henry who had to go cap in hand to the Great Council to explain and request more money.

The Great Council was unsympathetic and decided that the misgovernment had to stop. In 1258, it produced what became known as the Provisions of Oxford. There was to be an Electoral College of 24, half appointed by the King and half by the barons. The 24 would then elect an Inner Council of 15, who would meet quarterly and nothing major could be done without their consent. The provisions would last for 12 years and those involved, including the King, would swear to uphold them.

Henry III was reluctant to swear to the provisions and prevaricated. Running out of patience, some barons attended Henry’s audience chamber in armour. Although they left their weapons outside, the message was obvious: either swear to these provisions, or it is war. Henry then gave his oath.

Simon de Montfort was not the instigator of the provisions and had doubts about them. Nevertheless, he was a member of the Electoral College of 24 and the Inner Council of 15, and made it clear that once he had sworn to uphold the provisions, his oath was inviolate.

In 1261, Henry III applied to the Pope for dispensation from his oath on the grounds that it was not freely given. Bearing in mind the attendance at his audience chamber of barons wearing armour, he did have a point. The Pope agreed and absolved him from his oath. Attempts to resolve the matter were unsuccessful and war broke out in 1264.

Battle Well field, traditionally where de Montfort and the last of his knights were slain.

The Battle of Lewes and its aftermath
Simon de Montfort had acquired considerable military experience in France and elsewhere and he, therefore, became the natural military leader of the barons, although not all of them joined him; others sided with the King. Two of the most powerful barons at this time were Gilbert de Clare and Roger de Mortimer, a bitter enemy of Simon. Clare sided with de Montfort while Mortimer supported the King.

In May 1264, Simon de Montfort won the Battle of Lewes in Sussex and captured the King and his son Prince Edward. Negotiations followed with the result that the country was to be governed by a council of nine elected by Simon, Clare and the Bishop of Chichester. Although Edward was imprisoned in Dover Castle, Mortimer was allowed to go free on his promise to go into exile, a promise he declined to keep.

This council of nine never really got going as, following the previous months of war, the country was in chaos. Henry’s Queen, Eleanor, was in France threatening invasion; some barons had used the excuse of civil war to indulge in private battles; and Mortimer, having remained in England, was causing trouble in the Welsh Marches (borderlands). Simon de Montfort, as the only man able to keep some sort of order, became the effective ruler of England. The King’s only role was to endorse Simon’s decisions. A Parliament was called in June 1264 and then again in December 1264, which met on 20 January 1265.

In January 1265, for the first time, in addition to shire knights, burgesses from the boroughs (major towns) could attend in what many call the first true Parliament. Letters were sent to various boroughs to send two of the ‘most prudent law worthy and honourable citizens or burgesses’. Another interesting development was that, for the first time, expenses were paid although for some reason only to the Yorkshire knights.

The knights and burgesses were able to discuss the affairs of the realm generally and, in particular, the future of Prince Edward as it was felt unfitting that the heir to the throne should remain locked up in Dover Castle. It was decided that Edward should be released into the ‘custody of his father’.

Exterior of Leicester Tower, which was constructed in 1842 in memory of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.
The obelisk monument, built in 1845 to commemorate this definitive battle.

 

The Evesham campaign
The relationship between Simon de Montfort and Gilbert de Clare, initially a de Montfort ally, had been difficult for some time and in April broke down completely. Clare left London for the Welsh Marches. Simon followed him with a small force, including his eldest son Henry and third son Guy, together with the King and Prince Edward, and attempted to negotiate with Clare at Hereford.

In May 1265 Edward, who was allowed a certain amount of freedom, received the gift of a fine horse from Clare. An afternoon’s racing was arranged under the supervision of Simon’s knights; Edward kept back this horse until the last race. As his was the only fresh horse, Edward won easily . . . and failed to stop at the winning post. Armed men appeared on a nearby hill – Mortimer’s men – and Edward escaped to them. The war was renewed.

Edward allied himself with Mortimer and Clare and raised an army. He took Gloucester and installed himself at Worcester, leaving Simon de Montfort cut off on the west side of the River Severn. Simon did what he could to strengthen his own force, including the hiring of Welsh spearmen from Prince Llewellyn of Wales. He also sent a message to his second son Simon, who was in Sussex, to bring an army to his assistance. Simon junior did so and arrived at Kenilworth (a de Montfort stronghold) on Friday 31 July. Thereafter events were fast moving.

On Saturday 1 August, Edward learned through spies that the magnates in Simon junior’s army were sleeping in their pavilions in the grounds of Kenilworth Priory rather than inside the castle. Edward decided on a surprise attack and he and Clare led the cavalry on an overnight march to Kenilworth. Early on Sunday morning, 2 August, he attacked that part of Simon junior’s army, which was sleeping in the priory grounds, and scattered it, killing a few, capturing a number of the magnates and seizing their banners.

The same day, Simon senior marched from Hereford, taking Henry III with him, and crossed the River Severn at Kempsey. Blocked at Worcester by troops left there by Edward, and with Edward on the way back to Worcester from Kenilworth, Simon left Kempsey during the evening of Monday 3 August. He marched overnight via Pershore to Evesham, crossed the River Avon by the town bridge and stopped to rest at the abbey in the early hours of Tuesday 4 August.

While at the abbey, soldiers were sighted approaching from the north. They displayed de Montfort banners and appeared to be Simon junior’s army coming from Kenilworth. Simon senior sent his barber Nicholas up the bell tower to make sure. Nicholas saw the soldiers throw away the de Montfort banners (which were the ones captured at Kenilworth) and recognised the standards of Edward coming from one direction, those of Clare from another direction and similarly the standards of Roger de Mortimer from the west and from behind. He descended the tower and reported to Simon: ‘We are all dead men’. Nicholas was evidently not the sort of man to break bad news gently.

Map of the Battle of Evesham, 4 August 1265. Courtesy of Pippa Sanderson.

The Battle of Evesham
The crossing of the Avon into Evesham had resulted in de Montfort being trapped in its loop, surrounded and outnumbered – an estimate is Royalists 9,000, de Montfort’s army 3,000 – but it may have been even more one-sided than that.

So what was Simon de Montfort trying to achieve? Most of the chroniclers say that he intended to head north to Kenilworth, but differ over whether or not he knew of his son’s defeat there and, if so, the extent of it. There is, however, an alternative possibility. At the time the main road to London did not go through the Cotswolds but rather to the north of Evesham along Blayney’s Lane. It crossed the Avon to Offenham by ford and footbridge and then went via Chipping Campden and Blockley to Bourton-on-the-Hill and so on. Simon may have been seeking access to the London road and if he could control the crossroads at the top of Greenhill he could keep his options open: join with his son or retreat towards London where support for him was strongest.

Such was the murder at Evesham for battle it was not.”
Robert of Gloucester

Theories differ about the royalist approach but a possible reconstruction is as follows. Mortimer, who had been left at Worcester while Edward and Clare went to Kenilworth, followed Simon’s route and blocked the town bridge so preventing any escape to the south. Edward and Clare advanced from Worcester together. About a mile north-west of Greenhill, Clare’s division moved across to the River Avon to block the London road at the ford and footbridge while Edward ascended Greenhill to block the road to Kenilworth.

De Montfort’s only advantage was that he was operating on interior lines. His army advanced out of Evesham to attack Edward’s extended, elevated line along Greenhill. De Montfort attacked straight away, trying to force his way through the middle but already his army’s discipline was breaking down. Contrary to Simon’s instructions, the infantry had positioned itself behind the cavalry. With the cavalry advancing faster than the infantry, a gap developed between them and this was exploited by Clare wheeling round from the east and cutting off the infantry, which fled. Some of them tried to cross the Avon to Offenham and there are references to fighting in that area, and human remains were found on the island in the Avon known as Deadman’s Ait in the eighteenth century. Simon’s cavalry was held by Edward’s division at Greenhill and with Clare encircling from the east and Mortimer advancing over the town bridge from the south, the remains of Simon’s army were totally surrounded and the result was a virtual massacre. ‘Such was the murder at Evesham for battle it was not’, said the chronicler Robert of Gloucester.

A chronicler describes Simon de Montfort’s last moments: ‘But the whole weight of the battle turned on Earl Simon who was an old warrior, skilful and experienced, and who defended himself like an impregnable tower. But, surrounded by a wall of a few soldiers and overcome by a multitude of the enemy he fell mortally wounded. . . .’

Another source says that he was killed by Mortimer. It is certainly likely that his body fell into the hands of Mortimer’s men for it was cruelly dismembered. His feet and hands were cut off and seem to have been dispersed around the country; he was decapitated and, as a final mark of dishonour, his testicles were cut off and hung over his nose. This macabre exhibit was sent to Mortimer’s wife at Wigmore.

Only the trunk remained and this was buried by the monks in Evesham Abbey. However, because of continuing hostility from de Montfort’s enemies, the remains were later exhumed and reburied in a remote place known only to a few.

The traditional site of Simon de Montfort’s death and that of his son Henry, who was killed shortly after him, is known as Battle Well where a spring was later found. Other soldiers from de Montfort’s army were pursued and slain in the river, town and even in the Abbey Church itself.

Town Bridge, crossed by de Montfort, with Mortimer in pursuit.

Aftermath
Henry III, who was with de Montfort’s army, was rescued by Edward’s knights. A few, including Simon’s other son Guy, who was wounded, were taken prisoner. Simon junior, who was approaching Evesham from Kenilworth with what was left of his army was too late to be of any help and retired back to Kenilworth. Both he and Guy eventually escaped to Italy where Simon died from illness and Guy pursued a somewhat chequered career as a military commander.

So far as Parliament is concerned, the system adopted at Simon de Montfort’s January 1265 Parliament was endorsed by Edward I when he called his first Parliament in April 1275. Those attending included the knights from the shires and burgesses from the boroughs, with all of them able to discuss the affairs of the realm generally. Simon de Montfort is sometimes called the Father of the House of Commons – which probably goes a bit too far – as it was not until the next century that the House of Commons was really established with its own debating chamber. However, he gave great impetus to the development of Parliament, and the attendance of the burgesses, in addition to the knights, was his innovation.

One of the abbey’s cloister arches and a section of wall.
The Simon de Montfort Memorial, located near to the Bell Tower.

The Battle of Evesham brought to an end the political influence of the de Montfort family in England, but perhaps not quite. While in Italy, Guy was married and had a daughter Anastasia, who was a direct ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV. Her daughter, Elizabeth of York, married Henry VII with the very interesting result that Henry VIII, the King who said ‘We at no time stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of Parliament’ was directly descended from Simon de Montfort. ■

Evesham Bell Tower, behind scaffolding, undergoing renovations funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.