Nicholas Vincent reviews the career of the king whose long reign was overshadowed by the rivalries of his nobles, and who is primarily remembered for his piety and his building activity.
Henry III spent October 19th, 1266, the fiftieth anniversary of his accession to the throne, at Kenilworth in Warwickshire, encamped before the walls of the great castle that for the past four months had resisted siege. So far as we can tell, no crowds of well-wishers gathered, and no anthems were raised in thanksgiving for Henry’s long reign (1216-72) – the longest yet recorded for an English sovereign. Instead, men awaited in trepidation the proclamation of peace terms intended to save England from civil war. It was barely a year since Henry had escaped the captivity inflicted upon him by his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. At the battle of Evesham, near worcester, on August 4th, 1265, Montfort had been slain, his head, hands and feet cut off, and his testicles dispatched to a former enemy as brutal tokens of revenge. At the height of the battle, lying wounded in scenes of butchery made all the more memorable for being enacted amid a violent thunderstorm, Henry is said to have cried out, ‘I am Henry of Winchester your King. Do not kill me’. Since Evesham, Henry had reigned under permanent threat that rebellion would both continue and spread. October 1266 was thus an inauspicious moment to celebrate the first golden jubilee of an English monarch.