Battle of Lewes: English Barons Defeat, Capture King Henry III
Today in Military History: May 14, 1264
I present for you another of those small medieval battles that have escaped the notice of the general public. We start with a king behaving badly, which forces his nobles to assert their rights and provokes a three-year war called the Second Barons War (1264-1267).
King Henry III of England (reigned 1216-1272)
Nearly two hundred years after the Norman conquest of England, King Henry III ruled the nation. He was, however, abusing his royal power by appointing many corrupt officials, as well as giving land and privileges to foreign favorites. The English barons felt that the Magna Carta, signed in 1215 and enumerating various rights enjoyed by the nobles, was being ignored by the monarch.
In 1258 Henry needed money to fund a crusade in Sicily. Disaffected nobles seized the opportunity to force Henry to accept the establishment of a reforming council made up of twelve knights of the realm and three royal councilors. Both king and barons swore to uphold the proposed government reforms in what became known as the Provisions of Oxford. However, King Henry had no intention of keeping his oath. He appealed to Pope Urban IV, who absolved Henry of his oath in 1261.
The barons objected, and appealed to French King Louis IX as an arbiter. In January of 1264, Louis declared the Provisions of Oxford annulled. The nobles, led by Simon de Montfort, realized that the king was opposed to all reform, and raised his standards to force the Henry to abide by the now-rejected Provisions of Oxford.
Simon de Montfort
A French-born noble, Simon De Montfort came to England to acquire an estate which was part of his inheritance. He was the youngest of three brothers, and therefore was not expected to benefit from his family's many connections in the French and English royalty. Simon was present in the 1220's in the south of France during the Albigensian Crusade, where his father was killed. De Montfort was heir to the lands of the Earl of Leicester, but was denied them as he was a Frenchman. In 1229, Simon gave up his rights to any lands in France, thereby becoming eligible for receiving the earldom. He finally received his lands in 1230, though he did not take full possession of them for several more years.
Simon became a favorite of King Henry III (and became family when de Montfort married the king's sister in 1238), even went on crusade twice, but apparently saw no fighting. In about 1249 or 1250, King Henry asked Simon to act as governor of the Duchy of Gascony (in southwestern France), one of England's overseas possessions. However, Simon's strict governance brought complaints to Henry's ears. An inquiry absolved him of all charges, but the incident thoroughly disgusted De Montfort and he temporarily retired to France in 1252.
De Montfort returned to England a year later, and apparently reconciled with King Henry. However, when the Provisions of Oxford were signed in 1258, Simon's name was one of the 15 royal councilors who sought to act as a brake against the king's actions. When Henry revoked his assent of the Provisions in 1261, Simon again left the country in despair. He returned two years later at the request of the English barons, and raised his standard in rebellion against the king.
Run-Up to Lewes
De Montfort's forces met some initial success, taking several castles and threatening much of southern England. However, when King Henry agreed to Louis of France's arbitration of the Provisions of Oxford, Simon stood down and awaited the result. When Louis announced in favor of Henry, De Montfort resumed his campaign.
King Henry raised his own forces, and began recapturing castles and towns that had fallen to the barons. The royal army made a series of forced marches through central and southern England, at one point marching 150 miles in five days. On May 11, 1264 Henry and his now-somewhat depleted army reached the town of Lewes, located in the county of East Sussex in southern England on the Ouse River. Henry hoped to rest his men for a few days, then continue their campaign against the rebellious barons.
The royal army was followed closely by the baronial forces under De Montfort. On May 13, De Montfort's army arrived at the village of Hamsey, a mere eight or nine miles north of the King's forces in Lewes. Earl Simon then sent a message to the king, giving him proposals for peace. Not wanting to give away his precise location, the message only hinted that the barons were somewhere near Lewes. [A friend of mine having experience with mediaeval Latin informed me that the term "in bosco juxta Lewes" means "near the woods of Lewes."] The king rejected the peace overture out of hand, and De Montfort and his followers prepared to attack the royalists the next day.
Coat of arms of Simon de Montfort
De Montfort spent the better part of the day and into the night organizing his force (thought to be between 3500-5000 men) into corps, as well as arranging their positions in the coming march to the battle. He also ordered all the men in his army to few white crosses on their surcoats, not only to identify themselves in battle, but to show that they fought for justice. Shortly before dawn on May 14 – which would have occurred at about 5:11 a.m. – the barons' army was rousted, organized, and began the march to Lewes. Rather than marching directly south on the well-known road from Hamsey to Lewes, Earl Simon ordered his army to march westward then southwestward for several miles. Then, the force turned southeast. They stopped about two miles outside of Lewes to deploy for battle...
Looking at the map of the battle (below), there is an interesting formation of the South Downs, the range of hills that sit to the west of Lewes. The ridge is broken into three spurs which generally point eastward, with narrow valleys between them, with a gentle slope toward the town. Earl Simon arranged his men at the top of this slope. King Henry had no inkling that the barons were in the neighborhood. He had sent out no reconnaissance of any sort. Though he had placed some men at the top of the western ridge, they had no provisions with them. Late on the evening of the 13th, all of these men – save one – slipped back into town, looking for food. The lone lookout fell asleep under a bush and was taken by baronial scouts. The photo at the beginning of this post shows the likely view of Lewes as the barons' force saw it, looking down from the South Downs, although the town has expanded westward in the last 750 years.
King Henry's army was encamped haphazardly about the town. The king himself was ensconced in the Priory of St. Pancras, the walls of which enclosed an area of some 20 acres. The southern edge of Lewes bordered on a large area of tidal pools, mud-banks and marshland. Prince Edward and his followers were camped in and around the castle of John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, northwest of town. [Warenne had once belonged to Earl Simon's anti-royalist party, but had switched back to the king's party.]
Various chroniclers have placed the size of the royal army at around 10,000 men. However, the king had re-captured and garrisoned several castles over the past month. Also, in trying to catch up to the baronial army in southeastern England, a large number of footmen had straggled behind or even been killed or captured by irregular troops opposed to King Henry. Therefore, I think it is entirely possible that Henry's forces may only have numbered 4500-5000 men, a force not much larger than, or possibly equal to, the barons' army.
Earl Simon divided his force into four roughly equal parts, with knights and mounted men-at-arms positioned in front of the footmen. [One chronicle puts the total number of cavalry in the baronial force at 600, which seems to me to be a bit low.] On the right wing were stationed perhaps 900 men. Commanding this wing were Henry and Guy de Montfort, sons of Earl Simon; John de Burgh, and Humphrey de Bohun (whose father the elder Humphrey would be in the left flank of the royal army). The center of the baronial army, totaling 1000 men, was under the command of the 21-year old Earl of Gloucester Gilbert de Clare, John FitzJohn, and William de Montchesney.
The left wing was probably the army's weakest; it consisted of a small cavalry contingent, and a large number of recently-recruited infantrymen from the streets of London. The horsemen were led by nobles Nicolas de Segrave, Henry de Hastings, and John Giffard. Finally, the reserve force was directly commanded by Simon de Montfort himself. It consisted primarily of troops from his own retinue, with the addition of more London infantry, commanded by Thomas of Pevelston. The reserve was situated to the rear of the baronial center.
The baronial army deployed itself somewhat forward at about 8:00 am or so, just on the upper slope of the Downs. This act brought them to the attention of the king's army, primarily the grooms of the various nobles who were grazing their masters' horses in the fields west of town. Rushing back to their bivouacs, the lackeys sounded the alarm and within minutes King Henry's army was rushing to take up some king of position to oppose de Montfort's force. Putting on their armor, buckling on their swords, mounting their horses, finding a place in the line of battle; the king's army resembled a rabble rather than a trained army.
Basically, Henry's army shook itself out into three wings, with the cavalry in the forward positions. The left wing was commanded by the king himself, more by luck than anything else. Generally, in this time period, if a king commanded a royal army, he usually led the center. However, Henry spent the night in the relative comfort of the Priory of St. Pancras, on the far left of what would be the battlefield. Also present in this wing was the Earl of Hereford Humphrey de Bohun – whose son was on the opposite side of the battlefield in the baronial right wing. Command of the royal center fell to Richard Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry. He had under his command several Anglo-Scottish nobles and their retinues, namely Robert de Bruce (grandfather of Robert the Bruce who eventually became King of Scotland), John Baliol, and John Comyn.
The right wing of the royal army was commanded by Prince Edward, the future king of England better known as "Longshanks" (see above), assisted by the Earl of Surrey John de Warenne, William de Valence, Guy de Lusignan, and Hugh Bigod. Edward's retinue had spent the night bivouacked around Lewes Castle, with Edward apparently sleeping in the castle itself. Six years previously, Prince Edward had sided with de Montfort and the reformers over the Provisions of Oxford. However, he finally came around to his father's side, defending the king's royal prerogatives. The royal army had no reserve, as most of the remainder of Henry's army was stuck in garrison duty at several re-captured castles.
Battle of Lewes
Acting alone, Prince Edward's troops struck the first blow of the battle at about 9:00 a.m., charging the left flank of the baronial army. After sharp fighting which lasted about an hour, the baronial horsemen retreated, falling upon the ranks of the London footmen. Thrown into confusion, the infantry of the left wing fell back, and the entire right wing rapidly routed from the field. As Edward was not a seasoned battlefield commander at age 25, he ordered his entire right wing to pursue the fleeing Londoners. This would be a crucial mistake, taking as much as one third of the royal army out of the battle.
At about 11:00 a.m. or thereabouts, the center of the royal army began a slow advance. Whether because of the general chaos or from misunderstanding orders, the left wing commanded by King Henry did not begin advancing until perhaps half an hour later. As the army was about halfway up the slope of the Downs, the baronial center and right attacked down the slope. The horsemen of both sides engaged in a clash of arms, each side looking to capture rather than kill their opponents, looking for hostages to ransom. The infantry stood ready to help rally retreating cavalry.
At about noon, de Montfort gave the decisive order. Personally commanding the reserve, he marched to his right, striking the flank of the royalist left. The left held its own for nearly an hour and half. Finally, however, the weight of both the baronial reserve and right flank proved too much, and the royal army took to its heels. Many men – including King Henry – shut themselves up in St. Pancras Priory, while others made for Lewes Castle. Many others tried to swim the Ouse River, resulting in quite a number of them drowning.
Meanwhile, Prince Edward and his forces had spent the past few hours pursuing the retreating Londoners, putting quite a number of them to the sword. At one point, Edward spotted an iron-shod wagon that was known to belong to Earl Simon, and was flying his battle standard. De Montfort had fallen and broken his leg several months before, and had ordered the construction of this contraption (which some chroniclers refer to as his "chariot"). By the time of this battle, Earl Simon had recovered sufficiently to ride his horse again. Therefore, he left the "chariot" in his rear with much of his baggage train.
Thinking Earl Simon was still in this conveyance, Prince Edward ordered his horsemen to attack it. What they found, however, was several leading men of London who have refused to support de Montfort's cause, in fact had conspired to betray him to the king's men. Not trusting them, Earl Simon had taken them prisoner, tied them up and left them in the cart. As the baggage train was looted, several of the more zealous royal horsemen attacked the cart, killing those men inside it despite their denials of not being de Montfort. Finally, Edward managed to regain control of his men, and rode back to the battlefield.
By the time he arrived, the battle was essentially over. His father's forces were scattered, or cowering in the Earl of Surrey's castle or the priory. [There is a story that Richard of Cornwall, King Henry's brother and uncle to Edward, had tried to reach the priory to join his brother. He was blocked from that attempt, so took refuge in a nearby windmill. When his position was discovered, some baronial nobles and their soldiers began shouting at him, "Come out, come out, thou wicked miller!"]
Casualty figures from this battle are not known. Eventually, all three royals surrendered to de Montfort's forces. As a result, Earl Simon de Montfort became the de facto king of England. For the next year, he called for elections for a truly representative Parliament for England. For this reason, de Montfort is considered one of history's great democratic figures.
Footnote #1: Prince Edward escaped from de Montfort in May of 1265. He raised his standard against the baronial faction. He was one of the leaders of the royal army at the battle of Evesham, which took place on August 4, 1265. Soon after, he went on a crusade to the Middle East. Edward was crowned king of England on November 16, 1272, reigning until 1307.
Footnote #2: De Montfort was killed at the battle of Evesham. His body was cut into several parts – similar to the hanging, drawing, and quartering usually used on traitors – and the parts were scattered about England. What remained of his corpse was buried on the site of the former Evesham Abbey. Today, a memorial stone marks the site of de Montfort's grave (see below).