May 14 – The Right to Revolt

May 11, 2017

May 14, 1264: Simon de Montfort Defeats King Henry III at Battle of Lewes

The Battle of Lewes was one of two main battles of the conflict known as the Second Barons’ War. It took place at Lewes in Sussex, on 14 May 1264. It marked the high point of the career of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, and made him the “uncrowned King of England”.

Statue of King Henry III on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK.

Statue of King Henry III on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK.

The battle occurred because of the vacillation of King Henry III, who was refusing to honour the terms of the Provisions of Oxford, an agreement he had signed with his barons, led by Montfort, in 1258. The King was encamped at St. Pancras Priory with a force of infantry, but his son, Prince Edward (later King Edward I) commanded the cavalry, at Lewes Castle 500 yards to the north. A night march enabled Montfort’s forces to surprise Prince Edward and take the high ground of the Sussex Downs, overlooking the town of Lewes, in preparation for battle. They wore white crosses as their distinguishing emblem.

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The royalist army, perhaps as much as twice the size of Montfort’s, was led by Edward on the right and the King’s brother Richard of Cornwall on the left, while the King himself commanded the central battalion. The royalist army of the battle lines were five main commanders. The right line was Edward with William de Valance, earl of Pembroke, John de Warenne, earl of Surrey and Sussex. The left line was Richard of Cornwall with his son Henry, being the fourth main commander. The central battalion was king Henry III himself as the fifth main commander.

A statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England.

A statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England.

Edward gained early success by having led his men out from the castle to meet the enemy, running them down for some 4 miles and killing them without mercy. He had unwisely pursued the enemy’s retreating force to the north, thus sacrificing the chance of overall victory. Meanwhile, Montfort defeated the remainder of the royal army led by the King and Cornwall. On being defeated, Cornwall decided to take refuge in the Priory. He was unable to reach the Priory so he hid in a windmill, where, upon his discovery, he was taunted with cries of “Come down, come down, thou wicked miller!” All three royals were eventually captured, and by imprisoning the King, Montfort became the de facto ruler of England.

The King was forced to sign the so-called Mise of Lewes. Though the document has not survived, it is clear that Henry was forced to accept the Provisions of Oxford, while Prince Edward remained hostage to the barons. This put Montfort in a position of ultimate power, which would last until Prince Edward’s escape, and Montfort’s subsequent defeat at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.

Plan of the Battle of Lewes from The Art of War in the Middle Ages by Sir Charles Oman, 1898.

Plan of the Battle of Lewes from The Art of War in the Middle Ages by Sir Charles Oman, 1898. Click on picture for higher resolution.

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Also of interest:

June 15 – King John of England signs Magna Carta

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