5/14/13

Battle of Lewes 1264 and the Rebellion of Baron Simon de Montfort

On this day in 1264, the Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester (b.1208-1265) won a stunning victory over the royal armies of King Henry III (b.1207-1272), led by his son Prince Edward (1239-1307). Known today as Edward Longshanks and as King of England, Edward I (r.1272-1307), the Hammer of the Scots, the Battle of Lewes was fought in Sussex, England and and was shattering victory of the royal army. Arguably the most well known battles to have been fought during the struggles of the Barons' Wars in 1215-1217 and in 1264-1267, de Montfort's victory at Lewes made him (disputably) a candidate to become the next sovereign King of England.

Prince Edward, center, fights at the Battle of Lewes, Today in History, 1264

The Baron's Wars themselves are singularly important because of the creation of the Magna Carta 1215, and for de Montfort's later calls to create a strong representative parliament to check the then unlimited power of the King and the English Monarchy. However the military significance of the Battle of Lewes cannot be overlooked, it being one of only a handful of battles in medieval England pre-Wars of the Roses, to have ever directly threatened the Plantagenet hegemony so acutely. A dynasty which dated back to the heyday of the Angevin Empire with King Henry II and his sons, all descendants of William the Conqueror (known also as William the Bastard of Normandy) and which died on the field of Bosworth and Ambion Hill in 1485 with King Richard III.

What we today refer to as the Second Baron's War (1264-1267) began when a number of influential Norman-English barons rose in defiance against what they and many of their followers believed were the unjust powers and privileges which the King levied upon his subjects, both noble and peasant alike. In the immediate prelude to the second great rebellion of the English barons, a number of leading magnates led by the Earl of Leicister, Simon de Montfort, forged the Provisions of Oxford (1258), from which de Montfort presided over his peers in a council and parliament, swearing allegiance to the King and their fellow barons. This "community" of earls, barons, and knights would be charged with governance of the shires and to above all, check the power of the King in London. Eventually King Henry moved to end the Barons power, which he did by receiving a Papal annulment in 1261-62.

Simon VI de Monfort, 6th Earl of Leicester from a 19th century depiction

Led by de Montfort the Barons rebelled yet again in 1263, forcing the King to adhere though the following year he would seek arbitration from King Louis IX of France (b.1214-1270), making a large scale clash of arms inevitable for the first time since the First Barons' War of 1215-1217. Vastly different from the Second Barons' War the first rebellion was a prolonged conflict fought predominately in sieges, which saw Lord Robert Fitzwalter receive the aid of a large French expeditionary force in order to make King John of England abide by his affixed seal on the Magna Carta. King John died in 1216 before any real peace could be attained, his son Henry of Winchester succeeding him as Henry III inheriting both the crown and an uneasy peace. This would last until the end of Henry's 56 year reign, when a rebellion of many leading magnates led by the Earl of Leicester, began in the year 1262.

Earl Simon left, and King Henry III, right

The Battle of Lewes, May 14, 1264

Earl de Montfort brought somewhere between 3,500 to as many as 5,000 men to Offam Hill, about a mile north-west of Lewes, a town in East Sussex in southern England. His armies (battles) were commanded by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, his son Sir Henry de Montfort, and the honorable Sir Henry de Hastings, raised to lordship by Earl Simon himself. According to the surviving medieval sources, the knights, lieutenants, and nobles of the barons army were all dressed splendidly for battle at Lewes, wearing the red crosses on white in the Crusader style. Sir Henry de Hastings commanded a battle of levies mostly commoners and low level vassals (peasants and tradesmen who could afford basic armor & weapons).

The royalist force who opposed them from within Lewes numbered probably between 6-8,000 to a maximum of 10,000 men, with 1500 knights, led by King Henry III, Prince Edward, and Richard, the King's brother, the Earl of Cornwall and  from 1257-1272, the titular King of Romans, which then meant King of Germany (though he held little influence on the continent otherwise). Attempting to seize the initiative, Earl de Montfort charged with his knights who made headway into the royalist ranks, cutting directly into King Henry's lines in a savage attack led by the Gilbert de Clare (b.1243-1295), the Earl of Gloucester (b.1243-1295).

Known as the Red, or the Red Earl, de Clare was a fierce man, stout in combat and always in the thick of melee in his youth. A month before the Battle of Lewes de Clare led a group of men-at-arms in an pogrom against a significant number of Jews in Canterbury in c.1262-1263. In the years after Second Barons' War he became an influential Marcher lord on the Welsh border.

King Henry surrenders to Earl Gilbert de Clare at the end of the battle. In reality he most likely surrendered from within the priory at Lewes

The King fought bravely by all accounts and had two horses killed from underneath him, his retainers fighting in a tough & brutal melee which allowed him to escape with his life that day. The critical moment of the battle came when the young Prince Edward charged the rebel lines sending the inexperienced London levies under Sir Henry de Hastings in a bloody rout which saw many ridden down attempting to flee the field. Without knowing it Prince Edward had allowed the battle to be lost by pursuing the barons gentry infantry to the back of the Earl de Montforts lines and away from the main battle.

In the final push through the Royal lines the Barons managed to rout the royalist skirmishers and knigts entirely, later capturing the King inside St. Pancras priory. Hoping to save the day Prince Edward thought to redirect his knights in a charge towards their own lines back into the baronial army. These "warlike" men were substantial in number and though the day was lost, they had hoped to perhaps slay Earl Simon in single combat and to end the Barons cause despite the shattering defeat of King Henry's army. This charge never materialized and Prince Edward was captured near priory.

By the end of the Battle of Lewes, perhaps 2,000-3,000 or more men lay dead or dieing, though no archaeological evidence can support any accurate numbers, nor can we can determine exactly where the attacks were made near Offam Hill. Therefore little solid evidence has yet to be uncovered as to where the majority of the common fighting men would have been buried. De Montfort and his rebel barons had achieved a total victory in the Battle of Lewes, routing the Royal host whilst capturing both the King and the Prince, both of whom would remain captives for sometime.

Upon escaping after a nine month captivity Prince Edward raised another army to deal with rebellious barons. This time with the help of the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, who betrayed the baronial cause to take up arms against Earl de Monfort. A year later in August a strong royalist army met the depleted Barons' army at Evesham, holding a 3 to 1 or perhaps even greater advantage. The baronial army was crushes and Earl Simon lost his lost life, the cause of the barons undying despite his death on battlefield.



Earl de Montfort's 'Last Stand' at the Battle of Evesham, 1265


Major Battles of the Second Barons' Wars


Battle of Lewes 1264-The Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort defeats the Royalist army of King Henry III and Prince Edward, making them his captives, forcing the Mise of Lewes.

Battle of Northampton 1264- April. King Henry's besieged the Baron's castle at Northampton. De Montfort escaped but his son Simon the younger was captured by the royalists.

Battle of Evesham 1265-Fought on August 4, 1265. A Royalist army led by Prince Edward and the Earl of Gloucester, who defected to the Royalist side after Edward escaped de Montfort's custody, defeats the baronial army of the de Montforts. Most of the rebels are slain on the field, including Sir Henry de Montfort and his father Earl Simon, whose body is horribly mutilated after the defeat. The defeat at Evesham all but ends the major resistance of the barons who rose after the Provisions of Oxford were nullified.

Siege of Kenilworth 1266-The End of the Second Barons' War. Most of the baronial rebels submit to royal authority after the six month siege which returns many of the rebels to the kings justice following the Dictum of Kenilworth, allowing some to buy back their forfeit lands and titles.

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