The First English Revolution
The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons’ War
Bloomsbury 239pp £30
The first English revolution? Yes indeed. The baronial movement against Henry III, which began in 1258, marked a radical overturning of the established order. It saw the management of the country taken out of the king’s hands and put under the control of a baronial council governing in the king’s name, yet actually in his stead. Magna Carta had limited the king’s powers, but its makers had not contemplated his effective replacement. The makers of the Provisions of Oxford, the reforming programme of 1258-59, did just that. Not surprisingly, however, the impetus behind this constitutional coup could not be maintained. Divisions erupted among the king’s opponents before Henry himself was restored to power and then swept from it by Simon de Montfort’s victory at the battle of Lewes in 1264. Only with de Montfort’s own death at Evesham in the following year, during a battle fatal to more knights than any since Hastings, was royal authority re-established.
Adrian Jobson retells this dramatic story with verve and brio. He does not set out to provide a new interpretation or to add extensively to existing knowledge, but rather to present an up-to-date narrative which takes account of all the most recent research. Although his work is firmly grounded on the period’s multifarious chronicles and records, it follows closely the lines of approach laid down by the large-scale works on the period of the last 20 years. That said, it provides much interesting new detail, some drawn from his doctoral thesis on judicial proceedings in Oxfordshire and some from an observant reading of the chancery rolls.
If the book has weaknesses, they derive from its relative brevity. The turbulent events of the baronial reform period are tightly packed and densely textured in the historical record and to cover them in 174 pages of text is a tall order. At some points the detail is so compressed as to jeopardise its intelligibility to the students and general readers that Jobson presumably has in mind. What will they make, for example, of his reference to the ‘tithed inhabitants’ of villages – meaning those enrolled in the neighbourhood groups known as tithings, itself a technicality that needs explaining?
At other points the presentation of the evidence is so curtailed as to leave its significance baffling. We are correctly told that magnates bought up debts owing to the Jews, but later refused to accept the debtors’ payments. The reason for this puzzling behaviour only becomes clear if we realise that the magnates could then seize the lands pledged for the debts’ repayment: which we are not told. The problems of overcompression are particularly noticeable in the first chapter, where the causes of the 1258 revolution are traversed at such a pace as to leave the reader breathlessly trying to keep up. Here and elsewhere there is a need to stand back from the detail, to draw out its general significance – and to avoid cliché. We hear too much of the ‘headline-grabbing announcements’ of the Provisions of Oxford, the ‘shockwaves’ sent through ‘the proverbial Westminster village’ by Welsh successes in 1260 and even of Simon de Montfort’s ‘moral compass’ (the latter surely the invention of Gordon Brown?).
Despite these faults, Jobson has provided what is now the best brief introduction to a fascinating period. It will be the first resort for students in a hurry; but they will need to keep their wits about them. It is a commendation to say that this is not a book for the lazy reader.
J.R. Maddicott's most recent book is The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327 (OUP, 2010)