If Henry’s situation was different from his ancestors, so was his reaction. The depth of his piety, centring on his devotion to Saint Edward the Confessor, sets him apart from all his predecessors. Fortunately, thanks to the richness of the source material, we know more about his daily conduct than that of any other medieval monarch.
Henry was nine years old in 1216 when he came to the throne. He was 65 on his death in 1272. His reign totalled 56 years. In some ways, he was the ideal king for the Magna Carta age: warm-hearted and accessible. His rule was totally unlike that of his hard-driving, spiky father. John’s conduct had provoked a barons’ rebellion in 1215 and the concession of Magna Carta. Henry’s brought years of peace, a blessing for which he was widely praised.
BUILDING ON THE PEACE
Henry’s peace provided the framework for an explosion in the money supply and a new commercial network of markets and fairs. It facilitated the preaching of the friars, the pastoral work of bishops, and the building of cathedrals. The whole of Salisbury Cathedral (other than the spire) is a work of Henry’s reign, and are as important in parts of Worcester, Lincoln, Ely, and Hereford cathedrals.
Internal peace was linked to the absence of external war. Henry’s campaigns in Wales were last resorts, and he lived in harmony with the king of Scotland. Indeed in 1237, he settled his quarrels with the Scots in a statesmanlike treaty. While Henry wished to recover his lost continental empire, he only mounted two brief (and unsuccessful) campaigns to do so. In 1259, he made peace with Louis IX of France.
Where John had been reviled for his impiety, Henry was revered as a ‘rex Christianissimus’ and ‘a most Christian king’. He was famous for attending masses and giving alms to the poor. In the 1240s, he was feeding 500 paupers daily at court. On 13 October 1260 (the feast day of Edward the Confessor), 5,016 paupers crammed into Westminster Hall.
It was in the 1230s (influenced by the monks of Westminster Abbey, where Edward the Confessor was buried) when Henry adopted the Confessor as his patron saint. From then on, the cult was central to his being. He hoped the Confessor would both support him in this life, and secure his safe passage to the next. Henry’s devotion was something entirely new. Its visible sign today is Westminster Abbey, which Henry rebuilt in the Confessor’s honour.
Unfortunately, for all the respect for his piety and his investment in ‘soft power’, Henry’s rule became increasingly unpopular. The problem, as contemporaries saw it, lay in his naivety and incompetence. Henry was undoubtedly ambitious, but he found it hard to judge what was practical and what was not. His delight in giving was easily exploited by grasping ministers and flattering favourites.
The amount of patronage Henry gave to his foreign relatives placed him at odds with the Englishness of his subjects. His madcap scheme to put a son on the throne of Sicily infuriated churchmen (they had to stump up the money). In the end, a political revolution in 1258 stripped Henry of power and placed the government in the hands of a baronial council that is responsible to parliament. Henry’s struggles to break free led to a civil war, his capture at the battle of Lewes in 1264, and more than a year in which Simon de Montfort effectively ruled England. Even after Montfort’s defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265, it was two years before peace returned to England.
Henry owed much of his victory to his son, the future Edward I, but his reputation as a good and pious man was also important.
Henry died in 1272 with his authority intact and his kingdom at peace. His new abbey at Westminster had been consecrated three years before, and there he was buried close to the Confessor’s shrine.
How then do we know so much about Henry? The answer lies in his letters. These letters were written for him by the chancery or office clerks who travel with the king. Few of the original letters survive, but fortunately, the chancery kept copies on parchment rolls (new ones were opened for each regnal year). The letters survive in the National Archives at Kew. In 1250–51 alone, the rolls contain nearly 4,000 items of business.
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