Henry III was a believer in the absolute right of kings and did not care for Magna Carta or any early concepts of ‘the king in parliament’. This, coupled with an immense tax burden, led to demands for reform and the Provisions of Oxford in 1258.
When Henry reneged on these commitments six years later, the barons rose in revolt and found their leader in Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (who was actually the King’s brother-in-law). Although already well into his 60s, de Montfort proved an active and inspiring leader.
The Battle of Lewes
Early on the morning of 14 May 1264, de Montfort’s forces marched eight miles from their camp at Fletchling to Lewes, where the royal army was billeted. Their approach was so rapid that they allegedly captured Henry’s sentry.
De Montfort drew up his forces on Offham Hill, and almost immediately the King’s son, Prince Edward (the future Edward I) launched an impulsive cavalry attack, which scattered de Montfort’s left wing – made up of inexperienced Londoners.
The King was obliged to follow up this attack with his infantry, and advanced up the hill to engage de Montfort’s line – though some accounts have de Montfort’s forces advancing down the hill. Whatever the truth, the King lacked cavalry support, as his son was rashly pursuing the baronial left wing off the field.
As de Montfort’s reserve was committed, the King’s forces were pushed down the hill and into the town of Lewes itself, where bitter street fighting ultimately led to a royalist surrender. The King took a battering, being ‘much beaten with swords and maces’.
As the royalist army disintegrated, the King and Prince Edward, now belatedly returned, were captured at Lewes Priory. An army of some 10,000 had fallen victim to a rebel force only half its size, and the slaughter in defeat had been considerable, with anything between 1,300 and 2,700 killed (numbers are disputed).
The terms of the surrender (the ‘mise’ of Lewes) saw Prince Edward held hostage at Hereford Castle as a guarantor of the King’s future good behaviour, and left de Montfort as the ruler and controller of the King’s person. With de Montfort’s famous parliament called for the following year, the Battle of Lewes became a significant step in the development of British parliamentary democracy.
After his victory at Lewes, de Montfort promised ‘government by consent’, with the first directly elected parliament in Medieval Europe. But he discovered that maintaining power was harder than taking it.
Crucially, Prince Edward escaped from captivity by challenging his captors to a horse race, which he proceeded to win, disappearing into the sunset. The Prince then began gathering an army.
The Battle of Evesham
His first aggressive move was to attack de Montfort’s son at Kenilworth (1 August 1265), catching most of the baronial force asleep and capturing men and banners. He then marched overnight to intercept the main baronial army at Evesham, where de Montfort allowed himself to be trapped inside the loop of the River Avon.
As the royal forces closed on Evesham, de Montfort was misled by the captured banners into thinking that his son’s relief force was coming to join him. He soon realised his mistake and the hopelessness of his situation.
There was only one crossing of the river, at Bengeworth, south-east of the town, and this had been secured by Roger Mortimer’s cavalry on behalf of Prince Edward. When de Montfort surveyed the scene, high up in the tower of Evesham Abbey, he uttered his despairing submission to fate.
The baronial army now had no escape route to the south and the road north was blocked by the royal army of Prince Edward and Gloucester, which had taken up its position astride the road up on Green Hill.
Faced with these dispositions and outnumbered by some 6,000 troops against 8,000, de Montfort felt he had no choice other than to try to fight his way out by advancing north up the hill and attempting to smash his way through the royal army into open country beyond.
He duly lined up his forces in one column and aimed at the gap between the two ‘battles’ of the Prince and Gloucester. The battle was to be fought in a thunderstorm and lasted just over two hours.
The baronial army had little chance, with the royalist cavalry, held in reserve, closing around the rebel f lanks, effectively surrounding de Montfort’s struggling army. What followed was a massacre, with between 3,000 and 4,000 of the rebel troops, including de Montfort himself, being butchered.
Few prisoners were taken at Evesham: Edward’s revenge for the defeat at Lewes and all the humiliations that had followed was terrible. The remains of de Montfort were buried by the monks in Evesham Abbey. For many years, it became a place of pilgrimage. But there was an orchestrated attempt to stop the pilgrims, and eventually they ceased to come.
Finally, Henry VIII dissolved the great abbey here – and the legend of de Montfort almost died with the ruins. But there is a memorial to de Montfort at Evesham. Erected 700 years after his death, it reads:
‘Here were buried the remains of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, pioneer of representative government, who was killed in the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265. This stone, brought from his birthplace, the Castle of Montfort-L’Amaury in France, was erected to commemorate the 700th anniversary of his death.’
This is an edited extract from an article about the battlefields of Lewes and Evesham, written by Stephen Roberts and published in issue 22 of Military History Monthly. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.