Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis
|Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: For a monarch whose reign over England of fifty-six years was unequalled until the nineteenth century, Henry III remains curiously little-known. This carefully-researched, informative and admirably objective account of his life and times helps to shine some light on a monarch who inevitably remains a rather shadowy figure.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: October 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
For a monarch whose reign over England of fifty-six years was unequalled until the nineteenth century, Henry III remains curiously little-known. Nobody could ever claim that he was a particularly outstanding or successful ruler, but the fact that he held his throne for so long in an unstable age was probably no mean achievement in itself.
He inherited the crown at the age of nine, and at a time of crisis. His father, King John, had died suddenly, during what almost amounted to civil war with the barons, and at a time of struggle with the French. Thanks largely to his protector and regent William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, royal authority which had suffered so badly under his father’s misrule was restored. An attempt to reclaim family possessions in France by invading Poitou ended in failure, as did an attempt to place his second son Edmund on the throne of Sicily. Moreover since his majority he had had the thankless task of meeting endless financial demands from the papacy, having become the vassal of the pope as a result of events during his father's reign.
It also fell to him to wrench power back from over-mighty nobles, who at length found a figurehead in the King’s brother-in-law and former close friend turned rival and foe, Simon de Montfort. Defeated and taken prisoner after a battle at Lewes in 1264, he was saved by his eldest son, Edward, who helped him to escape and defeat Montfort at the decisive battle of Evesham a year later.
Henry emerges as a pious man, remembered largely for rebuilding Westminster Abbey. At one stage he planned to go on a crusade to the Holy Land, but was prevented from doing so by a rebellion in Gascony. He was also a devoted husband to his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, and fond father to their five children, but at the same time an inept ruler prone to making bad decisions, and an extravagant as well as unpopular one inclined to overspend on building projects as well as on foreign favourites who contributed nothing to England. It was fortunate that he could rely on people around him of greater ability, above all the much more able son who succeeded him on the throne in 1272 as Edward I.
Inevitably, to some extent this book is not just a biography but also a history of his reign. He was not a particularly strong character, unable to impress his personality on the kingdom over which he reigned. It is noted in the final chapter, ‘A Forgotten King’, that he is ‘easy to lose amidst the towering, monumental figures of his reign’, such as his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and above all Montfort. He is however one of the very few Kings in medieval English history to whom no personal crime can be attributed, although he had the misfortune to be the sovereign who bridged a gap between the failures of his father and the reforms of his son.
Lewis has done him a service in devoting this carefully-researched, informative and admirably objective account of his life and times, although it is hardly surprising that he still remains a rather shadowy figure.
For an account of the period immediately prior to his reign, we also recommend Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England by Dan Jones.
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