Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 16 November 2012

King Henry III

Today is the 740th anniversary of the death in 1272 of King Henry III, and the accession of his son King Edward I - who was on crusade at the time, and did not return to the country until 1274. That he was able to do that, less than a decade after the end of a civil war which revolved around the person of the King and his powers is testimony to the fundamental strengths of the institution of the medieval English monarchy, and the overalla chievement of King Henry III since his own accession as a boy, during a time of civil war fifty six years earlier.

King Henry lll

King Henry III

Image: myths.e2bn.org

An online account of the King and his reign can be read here.

There is an lengthy but really excellent and sympathetic life of the King by H.W. Ridgeway in the Oxford DNB which can be read here which is full of insight and understanding.

King Henry III is often presented as imperious and overly ambitious, prone to foreign-born favourites  and as a ruler whose failings led to the rise of Parliament. That view is the result of both contemporary chroniclers, such as Mathew Paris of St Albans, who were quick to identify the source of the kingdom's problems with the King and his court, and of later Whig historians, who following this line, saw in the thirteenth century the rise of Whig constitionalism - led by the foreign-born brother-in-law of the King, Simon de Montfort, the patriotic founder of Parliamentary liberty...

This view has never cut much ice with me - I have always sympathised with the King, and am inclined to see Earl Simon as  being for Henry the brother-in-law from Hell.

King Henry III's achievement was very considerable - inheriting the crown as a boy, with a French army occupying much of the country and much of the aristocracy alienated from his father's rule, and the Angevin system tottering, he was able, despite all the difficulties of his reign, to leave the institution peaceably to a son far away, who did not need to hurry home to secure his inheritance.

For all the errors he may have made during his reign the King had restablished the foundations of royal power, exercised his authority and influence, as Ridgeway argues in the article referred to above, in a conciliatory manner and given the monarchy a new mystique in the cult of St Edward and the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. He was a great patron of the arts - not just at Westminster but in all his castles and palaces - often to the detriment of his finances. Apart from Westminster abbey itself little of this now survives - it has to be conjured up inthe mind from the pages of the History of the King's Works and other sources. A genuinely devout and pious ruler he enjoyed, as Ridgeway shows, a brief postumous cult as a potential saint at Westminster.

Westminster and its place in the life of the monarchy is very much his creation, and remains crucial to rhe English notion of Kingship. As King he gave the crown an Englishness it had not possessed since the Conquest - not least in naming his sons after the Anglo-Saxon royal saints Edward and Edmund. He himself sought, with limited success, to hold on to his possessions in France, and left his heart to be buried at Fontevrault. His nobility were less interested, and not until King Edward III was an English King able to enthuse his aristocracy for the French wars.

What also emerged from the reign, and came to fruition under the Edwards was the fact that a Parliament including not only the great magnates but also the representitives of the shires and towns - which was not invented by Simon de Montfort, but arguably, in principle if not in reality, by that arch-constitionalist King John half a century earlier - if well handled, was a means whereby the Crown could exercise more power as an institution than it could by itself.

The effigy of  King Henry III in Westminster Abbey

Image: thecultureconcept.com

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