King Henry III born at Winchester Castle

The eldest son of King John was born on October 1st, 1207.

Henry III and Eleanor returning by sea from Gascony.
Henry III and Eleanor returning by sea from Gascony. British Library.

Few kings have had such a difficult start. Henry of Winchester was the eldest son of King John by his second wife, Isabella of Angoulême. She was about 19 and John was 41. His first, childless marriage had been annulled. He was far too busy losing his possessions on the Continent and quarrelling with his barons to pay much attention to his son or the four later children. Henry saw more of his mother, though that would change. Perhaps he was closest to Ellen Dun, his nursemaid, and he later made sure she was comfortably provided for.

When he was about five Henry was given a guardian, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, a Frenchman who oversaw the boy’s education. Henry was a studious child and the deep piety in which he perhaps took refuge seems to have developed early on, but the man who tried to teach him the skills of knighthood and war was not eminently successful.    

King John’s rebellious barons made him sign Magna Carta in 1215, but he soon repudiated it and the rebels invited Prince Louis of France over with an invasion force. Then suddenly in 1216 John died, a few days after Henry’s ninth birthday. Whether the boy would succeed was an open question, but he had the support of a key figure in William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, a revered model of chivalry, with other nobles and senior clergy.

Louis and the rebels held the south-east, so a coronation ceremony was hastily organised in Gloucester Abbey before the end of October. A simple gold circlet had to be used for a crown, but the small boy’s quiet dignity moved some to tears. William Marshal became regent and promptly reissued Magna Carta. He defeated Louis at Lincoln and his ally Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, sank the French ships near Sandwich. Peace was patched up and Louis was paid to go away.

The regime kept Queen Isabella at arm’s length and she soon left Henry and her other children and went back to France for a new husband. Peter des Roches was still in charge of the young king, but when William Marshal died in 1219 de Burgh became the main figure in the government. In 1220, aged 12, Henry was crowned in Westminster Abbey, this time with all due ceremony. Early in 1227, at the age of 19 and on de Burgh’s advice, Henry declared he was of full age and assumed command of his kingdom. A sea of troubles awaited him, but when he died at 65 in 1272 Henry had been on the throne for 56 years in one of English history’s longest reigns.