‘Such was the murder of Evesham, for battle it was none’ – so wrote the 13th-century chronicler Robert of Gloucester of the defining moment of the Barons’ War. The battle, or ‘murder’, was fought out on 4 August 1265 between those loyal to the increasingly unpopular King Henry III, and rebels, led by Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, who favoured a more representative form of government.
When I first wrote about Evesham for MHM (‘Lewes and Evesham’, July 2012), I had preconceived notions as to what had taken place. My alma mater was nearby, so I had studied the ‘field’ as a boy, and felt I knew it intimately: as an eight-year-old, I had even attended commemorations in Evesham’s Abbey Park that marked the 700th anniversary of de Montfort’s death, a stone being placed on the site of the former abbey’s high altar, once the burial place of what remained of the rebel leader.
Much has changed in the intervening years, however. In 2015, a festival was held to mark the battle’s 750th anniversary, with a re-enactment taking place, not on the battlefield site, much of which remains in private hands, but on the Crown Meadow, a public open space where tooled-up 21st-century ‘knights’ could bash ten bells out of one another. As a public speaker, I was invited to talk about the battle and its place in history on four occasions during that festival year, including in a yurt on the meadow when soaring temperatures threatened further battlefield casualties.
The 750th also prompted further scholarly works on the principal protagonists, including Henry III – the son of Magna Carta (Matthew Lewis, 2016) and The Song of Simon de Montfort – England’s first revolutionary and the death of chivalry (Sophie Thérèse Ambler, 2019). Reading these excellent works, and others, I realised that it was time to reappraise what happened at Evesham on that stormy morning in August 1265.
Born into conflict
Henry III (1207-1272), the son of King John (1166-1216), could not have acceded at a less auspicious time. John may have died, but the First Barons’ War (1215-1217) raged on. In trying to wriggle out of the provisions of Magna Carta, John had precipitated this conflict, as the rebellious major landowners known as the ‘barons’ tried to bring him to book. The barons even had their own rival ‘monarch’ in mind: the future Louis VIII of France. With forces loyal to Prince Louis controlling London, the nine-year-old Henry was forced to have his coronation in Gloucester, his leading advocate and protector being the famous knight William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke (c.1146-1219). It was Marshal’s victory at the Second Battle of Lincoln (20 May 1217) that determined that young Henry would have his throne, and go on to be one of our longest-reigning monarchs.
Henry, born in Winchester (so known as ‘Henry of Winchester’), declared himself ‘of age’ in 1227, and by 1234 had taken the administration ‘into his own hands’. His governance would be ill-fated, however. War with France went badly (Poitou was lost); he was ‘beset with favourites’; an ill-advised, hair-brained scheme to plonk his son, Edmund, on the throne of Sicily became an expensive fiasco; and his reign became increasingly synonymous with ‘misrule and extortion’. Having been born into conflict, thanks to his father, Henry would soon have fighting of his own to do.
A rebel leader
Ironically, the barons’ figurehead in the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267) would be the king’s own brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265). Eleanor, the youngest child of King John, had married William Marshal’s son, who had also fought at Lincoln, then, after his death, had married de Montfort (1238). In 1258, it was de Montfort who was behind the constitutional reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford, as parliament found its teeth and forced the errant king to transfer his power to a commission of barons. However, disunion among the barons saw Henry repudiate his oath, egged on by a Papal denunciation of the provisions (1261), and, following a brief war (1263), support from the French king, Louis IX (son of Louis VIII, who had contested the First Barons’ War), led to the provisions being annulled. The following year (1264), Earl Simon and his followers took up arms against Henry.
The root causes of the fallout between king and earl are complex. A quarrel in 1239 was patched up, but when Simon was sent to Gascony as the king’s deputy (1248), he put down dissent with ‘a heavy hand’, which gave Henry an opportunity to hear all manner of complaints against him. Although Simon was acquitted of any wrongdoing, a festering grievance remained and more monarchical mishaps (bad harvests, famine, Papal exactions, and the ‘rapacity’ of Henry’s favourites) eroded the patience of the barons, who now just needed a leader. Simon de Montfort was only too happy to oblige.
The Second Barons’ War
London and the coastal towns of the Cinque Ports let it be known that they rejected Louis’ bailing out of his fellow monarch, and Simon, now regarded as leader of both the baronial cause and a nation, gathered forces, which surprised Henry and his son, Prince Edward, at the Battle of Lewes (14 May 1264), where both the king and his heir were captured. The settlement of the ‘Mise of Lewes’ imposed a new governance, with three ‘electors’ (one of whom was, of course, Simon), nine councillors (appointed by the electors) and ministers of state (nominated by the councillors). The whole thing was to be underpinned by a parliament, summoned for 20 January 1265, which is held to have been the most representative assembly to this date, with barons, bishops, and abbots augmented by knights from the shires and representatives from some of the towns. Here lies the genesis of de Montfort’s claim (possibly overstated) to be the ‘father of parliamentary democracy’ in this country. What is undeniable is that Lewes, and its Mise, represented total humiliation for the royal party. Consequently, revenge was all that mattered to the displaced Prince Edward (1239-1307), the future Edward I and ‘Hammer of the Scots’.
But de Montfort’s ‘righteous’ rule failed to unite all of the barons. Some defected back to the king, including Gilbert de Clare, the 7th Earl of Gloucester (1243-1295), who had been one of the three ‘electors’. Having been an ally of de Montfort, de Clare would oppose him at Evesham. The royal faction would also soon have its leader, when Prince Edward eluded his captors, and grimly resolved to achieve both the release of his father and the death and decapitation of his tormentor.
The road to Evesham
Earl Simon had got himself blocked in the Welsh Marches, with Edward and Gloucester in pursuit – a game of cat and mouse lasting from late June to early August 1265, with Simon finally breaking out from Hereford, and marching to Kempsey, a crossing point of the Severn, three miles due south of Worcester. He was here on 2 August. It is not always easy to discern what strategy lay in commanders’ minds, but no doubt de Montfort planned to effect a consolidation of his family’s strength by joining with his son, ‘young Simon’ (1240-1271), who was holding the de Montfort stronghold of Kenilworth, north-east of Worcester. Prince Edward beat Earl Simon to it, however, catching young Simon napping – his surprise attack on Kenilworth (31 July-2 August) seeing Montfortian troops, arms, and banners taken.
On the night of 3 August, Simon completed his march south-east from Kempsey to Evesham, a town sitting in a loop of the River Avon, and often prone to flooding. He would have crossed by the only bridge then existing (on the site of today’s Workman Bridge) and entered the town from the south, ensconcing himself at Evesham Abbey. On the same evening, Prince Edward and Gloucester moved on Evesham from the north. Simon’s strategy, which was probably to advance on to Kenilworth and join with young Simon, was about to be thrown into disarray.
Received wisdom has always had it that de Montfort, a hardened and experienced battlefield commander, allowed himself to be lured into an inexplicable trap that almost defied comprehension. Seemingly not appreciating the potential danger in the river’s loop, he found himself incarcerated between Edward’s force, which had closed off the northern escape route, and a further royal contingent, led by Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer (1231-1282), which had secured the bridge (also known as the ‘Bengeworth Bridge’, after the part of Evesham that lies to the south). For me personally, this aberration on de Montfort’s part was so dumb it defied belief, so despite the orthodoxy I found myself always questioning it, but lacking any substantive evidence to the contrary. At first, de Montfort thought everything fine, when he espied Montfortian banners coming on from the north, believing this to be the approach of young Simon. It was, of course, Prince Edward, and on realising this, Earl Simon immediately appreciated the hopelessness of his surrounded position. Somerset Bateman’s account of nearly a century ago (Simon de Montfort, 1923) was a typical retelling, with Mortimer following the east bank of the Avon, from the north, to close the trap.
The battle I described in these pages in 2012 was fairly straightforward. Having taken his last communion in Evesham Abbey, Simon decided to launch his outnumbered force at the gap between the two ‘battles’ (Edward’s and Gloucester’s) that were arranged across the road leading out of Evesham to the north, today’s High Street leading into Greenhill, where the heaviest fighting was to occur. Leading his men in a ‘flying wedge’, de Montfort tried to punch a way through the centre of the royal army but ended up surrounded as his enemies’ wings wrapped around. The battle was brief, bitter and bloody, fought in a thunderstorm that the monks of the abbey considered a portent of doom. Some 3,000-4,000 men, out of a baronial army of around 6,000, were butchered in the battle and rout, with many refugees trying to effect a crossing of the Avon by heading east up Blayneys Lane, ending their resistance at the appositely named ‘Dead Man’s Ait’, with presumably very few able to cross the river to sanctuary at Offenham. Some made their way back into the town to be cut down by Mortimer’s men who, in this long-accepted version, were now advancing from the Montfortian rear.
Earl Simon, a warrior brought up on the chivalrous notions of the Crusades, and son of a crusading father, was shown no chivalry whatsoever, as Edward sent a hit-squad to seek him out, kill him, and dismember him. Henry, a prisoner at the start of the fighting, had a fortunate escape, if the battlefield obelisk is to be believed, crying out ‘I am Henry of Winchester, your king; do not kill me’ as he was about to be smitten by one of Edward’s knights. Father and son were happily reunited. Another father and son, Simon de Montfort and his eldest son Henry (1238-1265), lay dead, the mortal blow that finished the Earl administered, according to Bateman, by a nameless ‘soldier’, who had ‘crept behind him’.
Reference to numerous battlefield books confirms the orthodox view that Earl Simon was caught in a trap at Evesham. We’re told that when Prince Edward crossed the Avon at or near Cleeve Prior and began his descent to Evesham, it was Mortimer whose force was detached to circle around the town to the east, securing the bridge that sealed de Montfort’s fate: for example, Hastings to Culloden by Young and Adair (1964), where it is claimed that the first royal soldiers that de Montfort’s men spotted were Mortimer’s at Bengeworth, and this was when and where the confusion over banners occurred. Warner’s The Daily Telegraph British Battlefields (1972-1975) also has Mortimer at Bengeworth, as do Walking & Exploring the Battlefields of Britain by Kinross (1988), The O S Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain by Smurthwaite (1984), Seymour’s Battles in Britain 1066-1746 (1997), and the ‘getmapping’ book British Battles, with text by Harrison (2002). A challenge to the battlefield orthodoxy was coming, however – one which would support the personal doubts I had harboured for decades.
Sophie Ambler’s 2019 biography of de Montfort relies partly on a relatively recent find in the College of Arms, an account written shortly after his death, probably by one of the monks who witnessed his final communion and recorded what followed.
First, it appears that de Montfort was not immediately resigned to his fate. He apparently attempted to get word to young Simon to hasten from Kenilworth, believing that he could yet turn the tables on Prince Edward and catch him between two Montfortian armies. The story has always been that de Montfort spotted young Simon’s banners approaching from the north, initially assuming this was his son, but at some point realised it was Edward’s army displaying its captured booty. I assume that the Earl had already tried to get word to his son, expecting (presciently) that battle was soon to be joined.
Whatever force young Simon was able to muster had, it seems, departed Kenilworth (24 miles distant) on the morning of 4 August, but would end up impotently nine miles short of Evesham. Having already been caught napping, young Simon was now guilty of insufficient gusto in his pursuit of Edward.
Earl Simon had another option, which was to seek sanctuary in Evesham Abbey and await the relief force, a seemingly wise move given that his troops were worn out after three days of forced march and little sustenance. Whether young Simon’s depleted force could have broken through was another matter, as was the question of whether sanctuary would have been respected anyway (the later Battle of Tewkesbury, in 1471, confirms that a bitter civil war could see sanctuary violated).
Furthermore, it seems that the Bengeworth Bridge, and therefore the escape route south, was open – and that Edward had permitted this. His reasoning was based on the wisdom of the Roman writer Vegetius, who argued that a trapped army would fight determinedly to the death (having no option), whereas one that could escape will degenerate into confusion, with some preferring to fight, and others opting for flight. It may not even have been as simple as this, for Simon had familial warning (in 1241, his elder brother Amaury had been killed as some tried to flee in the chaos of his final battle). While it was possible for Simon and his mounted knights to gallop over the bridge to safety, his foot soldiers, massed on the northern side of the narrow escape route, would have been cut down in their droves as the royal army pressed into the town.
Simon’s final option was to fight, but with an outnumbered army and without the advantage of terrain (he would be attacking uphill), his prospects did, indeed, look bleak. A lot rested on his decision, for it was unlikely his knights would be treated chivalrously (capture and ransom), as had happened, for example, at the Second Battle of Lincoln. Lewes had demonstrated that this war was different, as some of Simon’s knights had found to their cost that day. Dying in battle was a de Montfort tradition, too, for a family proud of its martial prowess. Simon’s father (d. 1218) and another brother, Gui (d. 1220), had started the familial carnage, which continued with an uncle, also Gui (d. 1228), and finally Amaury. Maybe, just maybe, Simon felt that this was his time.
As Simon began his advance, he is said to have given his consent for anyone who wanted to save themselves by crossing the bridge. No one from his close circle took up the offer. However, de Montfort’s Welsh infantry, commanded by Humphrey de Bohun (1225-1265), certainly did begin slipping away – which was precisely what Edward had anticipated. Humphrey, who had remained loyal to de Montfort throughout the war, was actually captured in the battle (an exception to the rule it seems) but died of his wounds three weeks later. According to Matthew Lewis, citing the French chronicler William (or Guillaume) de Nangis (d. 1300), Simon and his son, Henry, each tried to persuade the other to flee from the approaching debacle, but both resolved to face the enemy.
As the rebels headed towards the royal army, they were faced with three ‘battles’, not two, as I’d formerly believed. I had always thought that Mortimer had detached from the main royal force to secure the bridge – but apparently not so, as he formed Edward’s right flank, with the Prince in the middle, and Gloucester away on the left (with another alteration to the established view, which always had Gloucester on the right and Edward on the left). With three ‘battles’ instead of two, Gloucester is now placed on the left, with Mortimer on the right.
Mortimer, in fact, would have a special role to play as the leader of that hit-squad, destined to surround, murder, and mutilate de Montfort. In Evesham today, just over the bridge, on the Bengeworth side, is ‘Mortimers Quay’, presumably named in the belief that he held the bridge, completing the entrapment of de Montfort. It is just a part of the orthodoxy that appears to have been rewritten. Mortimer was not at the bridge, he was closing on Simon from the right wing, as Gloucester’s troops wrapped around on the other side. King Henry, garbed in borrowed armour, and probably intended to fall with Simon, is supposed to have been saved at this point as the battle entered its death-throes. Simon’s horse was killed from under him and some semblance of a ‘last stand’ ensued, as de Montfort and his most committed followers fought to the last. Mortimer himself is supposed to have delivered the coup de grâce with a spear-thrust through the neck. The rout followed, with some heading for Dead Man’s Ait and others fleeing for the town. Some of these got to the abbey church and sought sanctuary, but Edward’s vengeful troops had their blood up and followed them in, leaving a pile of dead at the high altar. The battle, such as it was, was over. Simon de Montfort was dead; so, too, his son Henry. Another son, Gui (d. 1291), was wounded and surprisingly taken prisoner, having been found ‘among the heaps of dead and dying’, according to Bateman’s 1920s account.
Another Model Parliament
Edward became king on the death of his father in November 1272 and would reign until 1307. In 1295, he summoned ‘an assembly of the estates’, held to be another representative parliament, the so-called ‘Model Parliament’. His arch-adversary, de Montfort, may have died at Evesham – but the cause of democracy had certainly not.
Stephen Roberts is a former history teacher who has written several times for MHM, including articles on Edward III and the Siege of Leningrad.