A Medieval King As You've Never Seen Him Before
BBC Earth|November - December 2020
The inner workings of Henry III’s mind are laid bare in a unique collection of letters that have survived from the 13th century. David Carpenter, who has written a major new biography on Henry, presents seven insights that these documents give us into the king
David Carpenter
King Henry III of England, the son of King John, was a monarch in a new age. He was the first to confront the restrictions of Magna Carta, the power of parliament and a rising tide of English national feeling. He also began his reign bereft of Normandy and Anjou. His predecessors first held it since 1066, and the second since 1154.

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC EARTHView All

SPLASH LIGHT

LIGHT CALIFORNIA, USA

1 min read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

Human Augmentation Rewires The Brain

Scientists discover what happens to our neural circuitry when we learn to use robotic upgrades

2 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

The Next Giant Leaps

From spider robots to antennas on the Cornish coast, these UK-based projects are laying the groundwork for a permanent station on the Moon

9 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

Covid-19 After Lockdown

As the UK gradually comes out of lockdown, what do the coming months have in store?

4 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

Great Balls Of Fire

Going behind the scenes at East Anglia airbase RAF Marham to get up close to the new F-35, the first fighter jet that does (most of) the flying for pilots

5 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

The Rise Of The Cat Burglar

They scaled walls, climbed through lofty windows, and preyed on the grandest mansions in the land. Eloise Moss introduces the high-climbing criminals who stole Britons’ jewellery – and sometimes their hearts – in the 1920s and 30s

8 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

A Medieval King As You've Never Seen Him Before

The inner workings of Henry III’s mind are laid bare in a unique collection of letters that have survived from the 13th century. David Carpenter, who has written a major new biography on Henry, presents seven insights that these documents give us into the king

10+ mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

Troubled Waters

Okavango Delta, Botswana

1 min read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

First Studies From The Largest-Ever Human Genome Database Released

The Genome Aggregation Database has collected 15,708 genomes and 125,748 exomes (the protein-coding part of the genome) to help shed light on how genetic mutations can lead to disease

4 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020

What Pop Psychology Gets Wrong

Power corrupts, crowds are violent, and depression is just a chemical imbalance. Or are they? Classic psychology theories often have a nice ring to them, creating a mythology that persists throughout the media, cinema, and literature. But new research is revealing that the human mind isn’t as simple as we’d like to think

10 mins read
BBC Earth
November - December 2020