Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.01, Jobson, The First English Revolution

13.09.01, Jobson, The First English Revolution

On the eve of the 750th anniversary of the outbreak of the Barons' War in 1264, Adrian Jobson has sought to synthesize current research on the political struggles of the reign of Henry III, place them into their own historical context, and finally explain why this "First English Revolution," as he calls it, still resonates with us today. Jobson argues that the period of reform and rebellion from 1258 to 1267 was crucial in the development of parliament and its final emergence as "a formal consultative body that dealt with the 'common business of the realm'" (ix-x). Moreover, the imposition of conciliar governance, the effective transfer of political power from the crown to a corporate body, was far more radical than anything envisioned in Magna Carta, and was to reverberate throughout the rest of the middle ages in England.

Jobson begins by examining the origins of reform, which he locates in the policies that Henry III had pursued from the beginning of his own personal rule in 1234, policies that he sees as a continuation of the approach advocated by the king's earlier mentor, Peter des Roches. Henry's vision of kingship was shaped on the one hand in reaction to the violent end of his father's reign and the imposition of Magna Carta, and on the other hand by a notion of sacred kingship embodied in the cult of Edward the Confessor, and exemplified by his brother- in-law, Louis IX of France. But whatever Henry's vision of kingship might have been, he was constantly challenged by inadequate financial resources to accomplish his goals. Jobson provides an overview of both the fiscal innovations introduced in the middle years of the reign, and of the costly continental ambitions that quickly eroded any progress in the royal finances. Less obvious, but ultimately perhaps even more important, was a social transformation taking place in the thirteenth century, as the number of knights fell from 4,500 at the beginning of the century to perhaps 1,250 at the end. Overburdened as local agents of the crown in the counties, this smaller elite group became the leaders of gentry society and increasingly significant politically. Until 1258, Henry's ability to appease the greater magnates of the realm, such as the earls of Gloucester, Norfolk, and Hereford, prevented political discontent from turning into revolution. But one more factor contributed to the destabilization of the regime, and that was Henry's support of not one, but two, factions at court in the form of his wife's Savoyard relations and his own Poitevin half- siblings. Henry's direction of the bulk of his patronage to one or the other, particularly the Poitevins, alienated his magnates, and in particular his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, who saw his own obligations from the crown repeatedly overlooked.

Even with all of the factional strife present at the royal court, Henry might have survived had he not indulged his continental ambitions. Failed campaigns in Brittany in 1230 and Poitou in 1242 were bad enough, while even more successful intervention in Gascony was very costly in both financial and personal terms, but Henry's involvement in the so-called Sicilian Business, in which he sought a crown for his younger son Edmund, was the final straw for the developing political opposition in England. Exacerbated by Henry's request for taxes to fund a war in Wales, as well as the continued flaunting of the law by Henry's Lusignan kinsmen, the members of the Westminster parliament of April 1258 started down the path to revolution. A powerful coalition of seven nobles, led by the earl of Gloucester and Simon de Montfort induced the king to agree to a committee of twenty-four, twelve to be chosen by the king and twelve by the barons, to reform the governance of the realm. Parliament met again in June 1258, in Oxford, and was well attended not only by the great magnates of the realm, but also by members of the knightly class. A Petition of the Barons, drawn up in advance for the committee of twenty-four to consider, reflects the broadening of the reform movement to include complaints not only about the royal government, but the conduct of private lords as well. The result of the deliberations of this parliament was the Provisions of Oxford, which Jobson examines in detail. He also stresses the impact of reform in the counties, particularly the work of the newly appointed justiciar, Hugh Bigod. Jobson also sees the sometimes overlooked Ordinance of the Magnates of February 1259 as central to the overall spirit of reform, as it formed a sort of "self-denying ordinance" by which the behavior of the great landowners and their servants was to be subjected to the same scrutiny as that of the king and his royal officials. The apogee of the reform movement came in October 1259 in the Provisions of Westminster, which Jobson describes as "a veritable smörgåsbord of legislative and administrative measures [that] reflected the three core themes of the 'common enterprise': provision of justice, law reform, and the supervision of policy making" (43).

The next five years saw a constantly shifting political balance of power between the king and the reformers, and Jobson provides an analysis of the character of both Henry III and Simon de Montfort as central to this process. Henry's departure for France in November 1259, in order to finalize the peace with France that would be embodied in the Treaty of Paris was a turning point. The question of the dower of Eleanor de Montfort (Henry's sister and Simon's wife) was finally resolved, on terms far more satisfactory to the king than the earl. Moreover, Henry used the occasion of the treaty to introduce a new great seal, allowing him to issue royal orders without the presence of the entire council. After delays occasioned by the death of the dauphin and the marriage of Henry's daughter Beatrice, Henry wrote to postpone the Candlemas 1260 parliament, a clear challenge to the Provisions of Oxford. Following his belated return to England, Henry successfully undermined the conciliar constraints that the Provisions has placed upon his kingship, culminating in a release of his obligations to adhere to any of the recent reforms in a bull of Pope Alexander IV and his settlement with his barons in the Treaty of Kingston in November 1261. Soon however, Montfort appeared with a new bull from the pope reversing course. The pendulum swung back and forth until both sides, king and reformers, turned to the king of France for arbitration.

Simon de Montfort's refusal to abide by the terms of the resultant Mise of Amiens, despite his prior commitment to do so, "in order to conserve the Provisions of Oxford, because they were founded on the Charter" (107), illustrates both his commitment to the reform movement and his blindness to his own moral ambiguity. He was a man of principal only when principal was on his side. Immediately after the Mise he launched violent attacks on the lands of Roger Mortimer in the Welsh Marches and sacked Worcester on 28 February 1264, where the Jewish quarter was destroyed. Henry unfurled the royal banner at Oxford on 3 April 1264, initiating civil war. Royalist successes in the Midlands, at Northampton and elsewhere, placed Montfort in a precarious situation, making his control of London imperative. The violence against the Jewish community in London, following the earlier anti-Semitic violence in Worcester, is one of the darkest stains on Montfort's reputation, but is often overshadowed by his military brilliance. Jobson provides a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the battle of Lewes, Simon de Montfort's greatest victory. The peace settlement, the Mise of Lewes, was solidified by the subsequent London parliament of June 1264--which included four knights as representatives of each county--that issued the Ordinatio or Ordinance, which fully embodied the principles of the Provisions of Oxford.

Simon de Montfort's triumph, celebrated in the remarkable Song of Lewes, was to prove short-lived. Faced with opposition from both the French court and papal curia, he was a somewhat isolated figure. His need for widespread support at home may explain the inclusion not only of county knights, but also burgesses from several towns including York, Lincoln, and Sandwich and the Cinque Ports at the Hilary parliament of 1265. His enforcement of both the Provisions of Oxford and the Provisions of Westminster was populist and popular, but his own self-aggrandizement, both financial and military, was decidedly not. The ranks of the reformers soon began to fragment, and the dramatic escape of Prince Edward from Hereford Castle in May 1265 provided a rallying point. The royalist recovery culminated in Edward's decisive defeat of Montfort at Evesham in August, where the earl himself was killed along with thousands of his followers, and at least thirty knights, an unprecedentedly high figure for the period.

The royalist policy following the triumph over Montfort is discussed in Chapter 6, under the heading "Retribution and Reconciliation." There was more of the former than the latter, and Jobson assigns the blame for this as much to Henry himself as to the Lord Edward. London was restored to royal favor only after paying an enormous fine of 20,000 marks, while the Montfordian remnant, "the disinherited" were eventually reconciled in the settlement known as the Dictum of Kenilworth, which allowed them to recover their lands on payment of substantial fines.

In his concluding chapter Jobson briefly sketches out the legacy of the baronial reform movement in later English history. After two decades of what he describes as "pragmatic conciliation," by the 1290s Edward I's heavy taxation in the face of multiple wars led to renewed political tensions between the crown and its critics. This culminated in the Confirmatio Cartarum and the Articuli super Cartas, both of which made conscious reference to the Montfortian reforms. So too the Ordinances of 1311 which imposed strict limitations on Edward II's royal authority and made imaginable his later deposition. While Edward III largely avoided confrontation with his magnates and the county communities, his grandson Richard II once again faced limitations on royal power not only during his minority, but also in his adult years. He too was ultimately deposed. Jobson sees a conscious parallel in the reign of Charles I, where Edward Coke looked back to thirteenth-century precedents in arguing against royal power, and men like John Pym and John Hampden challenged the absolutist tendencies of the second Stuart king. Indeed, Jobson suggests that while "the public execution of Charles I may have been an unprecedented act in English can be seen as a natural development in a cumulative process that had originated in the 1260s" (173).

This is a book that requires a certain amount of background knowledge, but advanced undergraduates will find it useful as a roadmap through the complicated political thicket of the 1250s and 1260s, as well as through the equally complex historiography of the period. Along with published works, Jobson has made considerable use of a number of recent, unpublished, doctoral dissertations. His bibliography provides an up to date resource, indicative of the considerable work done on the reign of Henry III in the last several decades.