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Henry III
1216-72 AD

Henry III, the first monarch to be crowned in his minority, inherited the throne at age nine. His reign began immersed in the rebellion created by his father, King John. London and most of the southeast were in the hands of the French Dauphin Louis and the northern regions were under the control of rebellious barons - only the midlands and southwest were loyal to the boy king. The barons, however, rallied under Henry's first regent, William the Marshall, and expelled the French Dauphin in 1217. William the Marshall governed until his death in 1219; Hugh de Burgh, the last of the justiciars to rule with the power of a king, governed until Henry came to the throne in earnest at age twenty-five.

A variety of factors coalesced in Henry's reign to plant the first seeds of English nationalism. Throughout his minority, the barons held firm to the ideal of written restrictions on royal authority and reissued Magna Carta several times. The nobility wished to bind the king to same feudal laws under which they were held. The emerging class of free men also demanded the same protection from the king's excessive control. Barons, nobility, and free men began viewing England as a community rather than a mere aggregation of independent manors, villages, and outlying principalities. In addition to the restrictions outlined in Magna Carta, the barons asked to be consulted in matters of state and called together as a Great Council. Viewing themselves as the natural counselors of the king, they sought control over the machinery of government, particularly in the appointment of chief government positions. The Exchequer and the Chancery were separated from the rest of the government to decrease the king's chances of ruling irresponsibly.

Nationalism, such as it was at this early stage, manifested in the form of opposition to Henry's actions. He infuriated the barons by granting favors and appointments to foreigners rather than the English nobility. Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester and Henry's prime educator, introduced a number of Frenchmen from Poitou into the government; many Italians entered into English society through Henry's close ties to the papacy. His reign coincided with an expansion of papal power - the Church became, in effect, a massive European monarchy - and the Church became as creative as it was excessive in extorting money from England. England was expected to assume a large portion of financing the myriad officials employed throughout Christendom as well as providing employment and parishes for Italians living abroad. Henry's acquiescence to the demands of Rome initiated a backlash of protest from his subjects: laymen were denied opportunity to be nominated for vacant ecclesiastical offices and clergymen lost any chance of advancement.

Matters came to a head in 1258. Henry levied extortionate taxes to pay for debts incurred through war with Wales, failed campaigns in France, and an extensive program of ecclesiastical building. Inept diplomacy and military defeat led Henry to sell his hereditary claims to all the Angevin possessions in France except Gascony. When he assumed the considerable debts of the papacy in its fruitless war with Sicily, his barons demanded sweeping reforms and the king was in no position to offer resistance. Henry was forced to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, a document placing the barons in virtual control of the realm. A council of fifteen men, comprised of both the king's supporters and detractors, effected a situation whereby Henry could do nothing without the council's knowledge and consent. The magnates handled every level of government with great unity initially but gradually succumbed to petty bickering; the Provisions of Oxford remained in force for only years. Henry reasserted his authority and denied the Provisions, resulting in the outbreak of civil war in 1264. Edward, Henry's eldest son, led the king's forces with the opposition commanded by Simon de Montfort, Henry's brother-in-law. At the Battle of Lewes, in Sussex, de Montfort defeated Edward and captured both king and son - and found himself in control of the government.

Simon de Montfort held absolute power after subduing Henry but was a champion of reform. The nobility supported him because of his royal ties and belief in the Provisions of Oxford. De Montfort, with two close associates, selected a council of nine (whose function was similar to the earlier council of fifteen) and ruled in the king's name. De Montfort recognized the need to gain the backing of smaller landowners and prosperous townsfolk: in 1264, he summoned knights from each shire in addition to the normal high churchmen and nobility to an early pre-Parliament, and in 1265 invited burgesses from selected towns. Although Parliament as an institution was yet to be formalized, the latter session was a precursor to both the elements of Parliament: the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Later in 1265, de Montfort lost the support of one of the most powerful barons, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edward also managed to escape. The two gathered an army and defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evasham, Worcestershire. de Montfort was slain and Henry was released; Henry resumed control of the throne but, for the remainder of his reign, Edward exercised the real power of the throne in his father's stead. The old king, after a long reign of fifty-six years, died in 1272. Although a failure as a politician and soldier, his reign was significant for defining the English monarchical position until the end of the fifteenth century: kingship limited by law.
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