King Henry III – 56 years and 29 days
Some English (and British, after the accession of King James I of England & VI of Scotland) managed to keep their backsides firmly on the throne for longer than the average birth to death life expectancy of their subjects.
This post is one of a series about the 5 longest reigns – all of which were (or are, in the case of Elizabeth II) over 50 years. For obvious reasons, they were all young when they came to the throne, but not all were children.
For the fifth-longest English reign, that of King Edward III in the 14th century, see this previous post.
The fourth-longest reign was also a Medieval one – King Henry III in the 13th century. Henry’s reign, which started when he was only 9 years old, saw the development of the rule of law and the power of Parliament in England (despite, rather than because of, the King). It was also during Henry III’s reign that the City of Westminster became the fixed seat of many government functions.
King Henry III’s Family and Background
Like the fifth-longest reigning King, Edward III, Henry III had a difficult family and background. Henry was born on 1st October 1207, the eldest child of King John and Queen Isabella of Angoulême.
King John was the youngest of the 8 children born to King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.When he was born, his parents’ marriage was already turning hostile (Eleanor of Aquitaine later supported her sons in rebelling against their father, and was locked up for the rest of Henry II’s reign). When Henry II died, his eldest son, William, and his then heir, Henry the Young King, were already dead.
The third son, King Richard I (also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lionheart in English) died without a legitimate son in April 1199, and John inherited the throne, having already tried to usurp it while his brother Richard was fighting in the Crusades in the Holy Land.
John, who was given the charming nicknames of John Lackland, and John Softsword, is popularly regarded as the worst-ever English King, amid some stiff competition. He alienated his barons by losing almost all the Crown’s possessions in France, by confiscation property without trial, and by having starved a baron’s wife to death in a dungeon.
King John was excommunicated by the Pope in November 1209, and the country placed under an interdict, so no baptisms, marriages or funerals could take place.
John was also responsible for the disappearance and likely murder of Arthur of Brittany, his older brother Geoffrey’s son, who had a better claim to the throne than he did. His barons forced him into signing the famous Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15th June 1215.
King Henry III’s mother was Isabella of Angoulême, 11 or 12 years old at the time King John took her away from her home and her then-fiancee, Hugh of Luisignan. John, although 20 years older than his new wife, consummated their marriage immediately – Isabella was said to be very beautiful even at the time of her marriage, when she was so very young.
Henry III had 4 full brothers and sisters, Richard Earl of Cornwall, Joan, Queen of Scotland, Isabella, Holy Roman Emporess, and Eleanor or Nell, who married William the Marshall and then Simon de Montfort.
He had 9 half-siblings, the children of his mother Isabella of Angoulême and her second husband, Hugh X of Luisignan (the man to whom she had been engaged before King John married her instead).
Henry III’s childhood
Henry III was born in Winchester Castle, in 1207, and was therefore often known as Henry of Winchester. A fascinating site about Winchester’s Great Hall can be found here.
Henry’s parents had separate households and incomes, as was normal for medieval Kings and Queens. From birth, Henry was based in the Queen’s household, before his own household and officials were established when he was 7 years old.
King John’s death in 1216 made Henry III the first child-King since the Norman Conquest, and the second-youngest monarch from then until now – only Henry VI inherited at an earlier age, when King Henry V died and left his 8 month old son as King.
Accession to the throne
After the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, King John fell out with his barons again. A majority of them rebelled against him, and offered the throne to the heir to the French throne, Prince Louis of France, who invaded as a result of the invitation. Louis was proclaimed King in London in May 1216, and King John then moved around the country to rally support against the French.
John was crossing the Wash, an estuary between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, when the tide came in faster, and much of his baggage train, horses and soldiers were lost. The Crown Jewels, in the baggage train, vanished for good. John died a few days later on 18th October 1216, at Newark Castle in Lincolnshire.
Having rid themselves of King John, the barons turned against Louis of France, and Henry III was proclaimed King at the age of 9, and crowned for the first time by the Bishop of Winchester, with a simple gold coronet, as the Archbishop of Canterbury was still with Louis, and the Crown Jewels were at the bottom of the North Sea. He was later re-crowned in 1220, in an attempt to remedy these problems.
King Henry III’s Minority
As Henry was too young to rule directly, a protector was appointed. The first was William the Marshall, Earl of Pembroke.
An extraordinary man, William had served 4 Kings – Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard I, , and lastly John, despite the fact that most of these Kings loathed each other, blood relationships notwithstanding. (Henry, Richard and John were all sons of Henry II).
When William the Marshall died in 1219, the second protector, until 1227, was Hubert de Burgh.
Both protectors announced that they would rule in according to the letter and in the spirit of the Magna Carta.
Although William the Marshall was about 70 years old when he became the protector, he nevertheless organised the defence against Prince Louis, and got rid of the French invasion quickly. He personally lead the victorious English army against the French in the battle of Lincoln.
The Magna Carta was re-issued in 1217, by William the Marshall, who had been one of the original barons who signed it and made King John do the same.
Henry III’s Adult Reign
Henry took over the government in 1227, when he was 20 years old. His reign was marked by struggles with his barons, who liked the Magna Carta and resisted all attempts to dilute it or ignore it.
King Henry married Eleanor of Provence in 1236, when he was 28, and she was about 13 – she met him the same day as they married. Eleanor was intelligent, more educated than almost any other medieval woman, and attractive. She was disliked by many in England, however, and brought a lot of relatives with her who obtained patronage from the royal households.
Henry and Eleanor of Provence had at least 5 children, and perhaps up to 9. 5 children lived long enough to be counted for certain. The eldest was Edward, later Edward I, then two daughters, Margaret and Beatrice, who married the King of Scotland and the Duke of Brittany respectively. The fourth was another son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, and the fifth a daughter, Katherine, who died in late childhood.
Henry and Eleanor both encouraged literacy and education – at least 3 university colleges were founded at Oxford during Henry’s reign, and an increasing number of books were published, including Matthew Paris’ Historia Anglorum, part of his major work of history, Chronica Majora.
Henry’s royal motto was qui non dat quod habet non accipit ille quod optat, or in English, He who does not give what he has, does not receive that which he wants
Henry imported a large number of his half-siblings from his mother’s second marriage, the Luisignans. This was a very unpopular move.
One of Henry’s major opponents was Simon de Montfort, Ear of Leicester, who married Henry’s youngest sister, Eleanor (also known as Nell).
In 1258, the King was obliged by the barons to sign the Provisions of Oxford, which provided for a King’s Council and regular meetings of Parliament to supervise what the King did. Henry III objected to these limits on his power, and got the Pope to absolve him of the oaths in 1262.
This lead to war – the rebels, under Simon de Montfort, captured much of southern England, and in 1264, at the Battle of Lewes, captured Henry III and his heir, the future Edward I.
Edward escaped, and rallied his forces, and the de Montfort experiment in constitutional monarchy was ended 16 months later at the Battle of Evesham.
Following the victory at Evesham, the retribution against the rebels was thorough. Simon de Montfort’s body was cut up and the parts distributed as prizes of battle.
Edward I, having won at Evesham, was in many ways in control of the government, as his father was now a little vague and happy to leave important matters to his son and heir.
Henry III died in November 1272 at Westminster, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, also the site of Edward the Confessor’s tomb. Henry had been very fond of the cult of Edward the Confessor, and had made the Abbey, built by Edward in the early 11th century, an important royal site and place of pilgrimage.
Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, lived almost 20 years longer. She stayed in England, and brought up several of her grandchildren, including Edward I’s. She then took the veil, and died in 1291 in Amesbury Abbey, a Benedictine foundation, also known as the Abbey of St. Mary and St. Melor
Henry was succeeded by Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks (because of his height) and Edward Hammer of the Scots (because of his successful wars in Scotland).