|Henry III's shrine of Saint Edward the |
Confessor in Westminster Abbey
Unlike his cynical and even agnostic father, Henry was an exceptionally pious man. Henry was only a boy of nine when John died—some allege from a surfeit of peaches, though more likely from dysentery (which most unpleasant symptoms are not unlike a surfeit of peaches) and Henry inherited the throne. As a minor, his authority was exercised by a regent, William Marshall, who was, according to Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, “the greatest knight who ever lived.” William died however before Henry reached his majority and Hubert de Burgh, justicar of England and Ireland, took the regency into his own hands. It was not as satisfactory an arrangement as might be hoped. Henry found much of his reign a struggle with the barons of England who were trying to fend off the royal authority that was threatening their own customary feudal rights and privileges. The issue at hand was the efforts for a central and national government (the King) to emerge from the feudal society based on regional powers exercised by local nobility. The Church favored, not only in England but generally, the emergence of strong central monarchy and Henry depended on the structures both of the English Church and the papacy for his support.
Henry’s ties to the papacy led him into a war in Sicily when Pope Innocent IV tried to name Henry’s son, Edmund, King of Sicily to replace Conrad IV Hohenstaufen as king there. It was a fruitless effort. Sicily was too far away for English victory and this war simply meant expense in money and life. In fact, Henry was just a pawn of the pope who—like other thirteenth century popes—was determined to break the power of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in Italy. The English barons revolted against the king’s policy and Simon de Montfort emerged as head of the baronial resistance. de Montfort defeated and captured Henry at the battle of Lewes in 1264. Henry was reduced to a figurehead and de Montfort, in the King’s name, summoned the Great Council of the Realm—an assembly of the nobility which had met from the time of the Norman invasion and which itself had been preceded in Anglo Saxon days by the Witenagemot, an assembly the leading men of the realm—to which de Montfort added representatives of the gentry from each shire and the burgesses from each town. This effectively created the institution which today we know as Parliament. Henry was freed from his captivity in 1265 and took savage retribution on his enemies among the barons.
Henry was a complex character. He was a passive man, lacking strength of character, but vicious in his retribution to his enemies once he had the upper hand. He was pious to a fault and that political indecisiveness, even weakness, was probably related to being overly pious. His hero was Edward the Confessor. He rebuilt not only Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey but the Abbey itself at great expense, hiring the architects of the new Gothic styles from France. Reading that Edward dressed simply and without ornaments, Henry did likewise. And he named his first son and heir Edward so that an Edward would once again sit on the throne of England. By his reign one could say that the once autonomous Church of England was thoroughly absorbed into the Roman Communion, no longer a Church in communion with Rome but definitively “under” papal rule. For all his efforts to overcome the barons and establish a strong crown, Henry, in his piety, missed the threat the Church presented to royal authority.
Henry’s son, Edward, was as strong a king as his father had been weak. Like his father, Edward was a prisoner of the barons from 1264 until his escape the following year. He rallied the royalist party against the barons and defeated de Montfort at the battle of Evesham in 1265. He was responsible for the mutilation of de Montfort’s corpse in retaliation for his father’s, King Henry, captivity. Edward succeeded Henry in 1272. Edward was off on Crusade at the time of Henry’s death, but his reputation cause sufficient fear among the baronage that there was no challenge to his authority during the time it took for him to return to England. And in fact Edward had the confidence to take his time on the return, stopping off to oversee his French possessions. Edward was a great king but like his father, who was a good man but a bad king, Edward was a great king but a bad man. It very often goes that way. Edward is often remembered for two things. In 1295 he summoned “the model parliament.” Following on the precedent set by de Montfort in the 1265 assembly, the peers were joined by two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each town. Moreover, these “commons” (as opposed to the nobles) insisted that they should not merely assent to the decrees of their betters, but have a direct role in shaping the decisions. (They did not meet separately as a “House of Commons” for almost another fifty years, but sat in council with the nobles.)
Edward had a long history of anti-Semitism. The Jews in England “belonged” to the Crown—just as the Jews of Rome belonged to the Pope. The King was free to do with them as he liked. Edward taxed them into poverty. He exploited their unpopularity among the common folk—the Jews were the moneylenders since usury (the charging of interest) was forbidden to Christians—for the popularity of the monarchy. In 1279 he had three hundred Jews executed for “coin clipping”—the practice of shaving the edge of coins to accumulate the small amounts of gold or silver such shaving might yield, but, at the same time, debasing the coinage. In 1280, he forced the Jews to submit to listen to sermons preached by Dominican friars in efforts to convert them. Finally in 1290 he confiscated their property and ordered all Jews expelled from the realm. Jews were only allowed to return to England in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. The seizure of Jewish property gave the crown great financial advantage and would be copied by Philip the Fair of France in 1306.
Edward’s need for money made him turn against the Church as well as the Jews. In 1279 and again in 1290 Edward enacted “statutes of mortmain.” Mortmain, from the old French morte (dead) and main (hand) was the practice of leaving land to the Church. If Lord Jones owns a field and leaves it to his son, his son pays an inheritance tax on it. And when the son dies and the grandson inherits it, the grandson pays an inheritance tax on it. And so to the great grandson and each future generation—they must pay the tax again and again. The land would in each generation provide income to the Crown. But when Lord Jones leaves that same land to the Church, the land passes into “the dead hand” of the Church, that is to say it no longer passes from one generation to the next but now is owned in perpetuity by an institution that never dies and thus never is subject to the inheritance tax. That land passes out of the Crown’s income. Modern folk don’t tend to leave land to the Church or to other institutions. We may leave money, even trusts, but not land. But in the Middle ages such bequests were not only common—they were all but universal. More and more land was being left to parish churches, abbeys, hospitals, friaries, collegiate churches, bishoprics and other religious institutions. The wealth of the Church was growing exponentially. Edward was determined to stop this but it was perceived to be an attack on the Church. Nevertheless, ways around the statutes of mortmain were devised and the Church continued to benefit from the generosity of the faithful. It would in the long term be fateful, however, as the wealth of the Church would prove to be too tempting a plum for King Henry VIII to resist.