Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Battle of Lewes and Victory of Simon de Montfort May 14, 1264

by Katherine Ashe

Smon de Montfort
The Londoners had rampaged through Rochester, stealing, raping, murdering. The army of Simon de Montfort, the army defending the existence of an elected Parliament, had taken the city, all but the castle at its heart. But the victory of the mob was ghastly and Montfort had repaid the brutes among his followers. Everyone caught committing a crime was seized and beheaded in the public square while the holders of the castle watched.

Stricken by the Londoners’ mayhem, Simon had withdrawn to his tent, leaving the taking of the city to his sons Henry and Guy, Gilbert de Clare and Humphrey de Bohun Fils and the young lords among his followers. King Henry’s army of the chief lords of England and their knights was in the north gathering back city after city for the Crown. Then word came that Henry was marching upon London.

Simon, rousing from his withdrawal, ordered his army to march north to defend London -- if they could. The royal army included almost all their chief vassals of the King and their knights. Still healing from his broken leg, crushed when his horse fell in an icy stream, Simon traveled in the steel-plated cart his military engineer had built for him. His army was composed of a few young lords, twenty youths not yet knighted, archers from Wales and possibly from Sherwood and the Weald, assorted partisans and 3,000 Londoners – those against whom no crime could be proved. It was a force almost entirely of amateurs who marched to confront the well-armed class of hereditary soldiers pledged to the Crown.

At London, three royalist sympathizers had agreed to set the city afire but their fellow townsmen, discovering their plot, seized them and the city failed to burn.

Henry III
In the King’s camp word came of Montfort’s attack on Rochester. Henry, finding his capital not burning, and more troublesome than he’d hoped, chose to go on south to meet the Earl and rebels. And the armies passed each other, all unknowing, only a few miles apart.

At Rochester the small force left holding the castle at siege surrendered. The Earl de Warenne and Roger Leybourne, its royalist defenders, rejoined the King’s army. No one knew exactly where Montfort’s forces were.

To successfully retake London, Henry’s advisors – principally his brother Richard, now the elected King of the Germans – thought they should have a fleet to blockade the Thames to prevent the city being supplied from the river. At the continental port of Damme a mercenary force, already hired with royal funds, was waiting to embark. Henry decided to continue south from Rochester to Dover where a swift ship could be sent to Damme to summon the mercenaries and their ships to join the royal forces for a last, decisive battle at London.

But at Dover King Henry found that all ships were at sea. No one would say when they would return. The seamen of England were strong supporters of the Parliamentary cause and the Earl Montfort. Deliberately they’d gone to sea to avoid serving the King. Henry moved on, determined to visit all the Cinque Ports along England’s southeast coast until the force at Damme could be reached.

Learning that the King’s army had retaken Rochester, Simon turned his own forces south.
At Hythe, Romney and Winchelsea most ships were out of the harbor and the few captains in port who could be made to swear their allegiance to the King all had reasons for being unable to sail. The royal march moved on to Hove, its long line of lords and their knights, court clerks, servants and baggage wagons extending far along the road as it wound through woodland.

Some sixty to seventy lords would serve at the King’s battles at any given time. These were never the full count of the vassals-in-chief; some would be too young, some too old and some too ill. But this had been a summons that most were glad to answer. The Provisions of Oxford that created the elected Parliament, limiting the King’s powers, also limited theirs. Even several of the lords who’d helped compose the Provisions were among those most adamant against them now.

Each of the lords commanded between twenty and a hundred-and-twenty knights. And this goodly number of experienced fighting men each brought with him his squire, at least one war horse, several riding horses, pack horses, at least one baggage wagon with a team of oxen, and assorted servants. The royal equipage included wagons for the Wardrobe (consisting not only of the royal clothing and linens, traveling bed tent, camp furniture, etc., but also the royal treasury and its various clerks with all their record-keeping supplies), wagons for weapons and armor, battle and riding horses with their grooms and tack, and usually some provision for entertainment on the road such as hunting dogs and hawks, musicians and very likely a trouvere or troubadour, and perhaps the King’s fool, Henry of Avranche, although he’s not mentioned this late in Henry’s career.

Although the King and his vanguard reached Winchelsea by afternoon, night fell with the baggage wagons and many on foot not yet arrived. When morning came and still the last of the baggage wagons hadn’t come in, search was sent back along the road for them. The wagons were found emptied, overturned, their oxen gone, the drivers lying pierced with arrows.

These were terror tactics, and the royal forces moved on in feat. They moved ponderously on toward Hastings, now under frequent attack by archers unseen in the woods. With relief, the royalist entourage emerged on high downs as the road left the forest, but the deadly archers maintained their assault -- and remained as invisible.

Lewes Castle
That night at Hastings the King’s advisors urged -- for whatever safety could be gained -- that the march to Hove be divided at the mid-point with a pause at the Earl de Warenne’s town of Lewes. There a small castle provided defense and the Priory of Saint Pancras offered shelter and hospitality.

And so the royal march, harried by arrows, came to Lewes, inland from the high downs where, carving through the open grassland, the Rover Ouse gouged out a valley with steep slopes. A small castle stood upon a mound beside the village; the priory backed upon the curving, swampy river.

Edward and Eleanor
Lewes Valley is wider, the slopes gentler now than they were that day in May, 1264 when the King and lords of England billeted in the Priory. Only the King, his principal lords, clerks and servants could have been housed in the monastery. Prince Edward and his followers occupied the castle. But where were the mass of soldiers, servants, baggage wagons, war horses, common riding horses and oxen to spend the night? Where but in the valley: between the priory, the river, the village and the slopes up to the coastal downs?

Given nature’s inexorable process of erosion, the valley’s grown rather wider than it was in 1264. The space between the priory and the slopes must have been crowded with all the encumbrances of an army’s camp: tents, baggage, cook-fires and many, many people. While the King and his chief lords dined grandly with the monks, the knights, their squires and servants sat by their tents at their fires and ate their field suppers.

Learning that the King was moving south and threatening the Cinque Ports, Simon de Montfort had brought his army south as well. It was his archers harrying the royal march. But the horror of the massacre at Rochester had shaken Montfort’s faith in his cause. A cause that championed the common people’s right to have a say in their government. But how worthy was the common man when he could commit such vile assaults upon his fellow commoners as had happened at London, then at Rochester?

Montfort led an army of less than a hundred youths, passionate for the cause of this new form of government, but most of them untried in any but sport combat. The greater number of his forces were complete amateurs armed with whatever they’d brought from home that could serve as weapons. They were trailing a massive royal army of professionals. The noble youths were worthy, if the commons seemed not. Montfort’s intent was not to fight but to negotiate.

He wanted amnesty for the good young men putting their lives at stake for a cause that he himself probably now thought was doubtful. He sent his closest friend, Walter Cantaloup the Bishop of Worcester, and Henry de Sandwich the Bishop of London to King Henry at Lewes with his offer of surrender.

If you will renounce your foreign advisors I will surrender and prostrate myself at your feet. We offer thirty-thousand pounds in reparations for damages we may have done. We admit that we are in the wrong and beg your mercy.

King Henry refused. Such an offer could only mean that Montfort’s followers were without hope. Simon had been tried for treason twice, and twice gone free. Henry meant to see him die this time. And Prince Edward -- enraged at the London mob that not only sacked Rochester, but hurled garbage, stinking dye and lewd insults at his mother the Queen -- yearned for this chance to punish them.

While the two Bishops were presenting the plea for mercy to King Henry, Simon, with his followers, was moving through the forest not very far away. Each man in his company wore a makeshift white cloth cross sewn to his outer garment. It was believed by the common people that the Provisions’ Parliament was the first manifestation of the New Millennium decreed by God. In this thousand years, beginning in the year 1260, the common man would come to rule the earth. Franciscans and Dominicans preached the coming of this New Era and the Angel of the Lord, bringing forth this transformation, they claimed was the Earl Simon de Montfort.

Simon, determined to uphold the oath he had taken to defend the Parliament of the Provisions, so far as seemed possible, does not appear to have been moved by these beliefs, but rather by a determination to curb erratic and abusive misuses of power. He had particularly felt the force of King Henry’s vicious whims.

Reaching the village of Fletching, about seven and a half miles from Lewes, the white-crossed army waited for the bishops to return. They came with the King’s absolute refusal of mercy, and the Prince and King Richard’s challenge to war.

Among the little army’s baggage was the Bishop of Worcester’s traveling altar. Simon ordered it set up out-of-doors, in the darkness before the doorway of Fletching’s church. There the Last Rights were administered to every one of the Provisions’ followers. To the twenty noble youths not yet knighted, dressed in white, Montfort himself gave the colle, the sword-tap and blessing of knighthood. Then the army, prepared to die, moved on.

Well before dawn they reached Lewes. The village’s main street led to a bridge across the Ouse. Montfort ordered the bridge destroyed. Skirting the village, he and his followers climbed to the downs in darkness led only with muffled lanterns, and he ranged his forces.

Three peninsulas of the high downs stretch toward the river, probing into Lewes valley. On the brink of the furthest Montfort set his sons Henry and Guy with a third of the young knights. Below them the road toward Hove continued. But here the tents of the vanguard and the royalists horse-lines must have been, ready to move onward the next day.

At the middle peninsula’s brink, opposite the priory, the Earl set the two young heirs of earldoms: Gilbert de Clare and Humphrey de Bohun. The Londoners, under his own steward Seagrave, he set on the nearest peninsula, blocking the route by which he had come, and opposite the castle where the bishops told him Edward was lodging.

On a little rise on the downs he set his well-known armored cart. What was a well-kept secret was the cart’s contents: the three men who had intended to burn London. Simon himself, anonymous upon an unmarked horse, stood in good view of the battle ground with a few remaining forces in reserve. All was arranged in darkness: the order to strike would be at the first sighting of dawn upon the downs -- while Lewes was still in night’s shadow.

With the first hint of light, Montfort gave the order. Down the steep slopes galloped his forces from the two points above the royalists’ camp, and the Londoners climbed downward towards the castle. On the shadowed slopes a few early foragers were cutting grass for the royal army’s oxen and horses. At sight of the armed men streaming toward them they screamed and ran, raising the alarm. In the time it took a sleeping monk to rush to the bell rope in priory’s tower, Saint Pancras’ bell began to toll alarm.

How long could it have been before the young lords and new-made knights were upon the camp? Certainly not long enough for the knights and squires to rise from sleep, dress and arm for battle; for their servants to lower their tents, remove their baggage, saddle and bring up their horses. Certainly not time for the King; forces to mount and form in proper battle ranks. Reason has it that the royal army was set upon in camp and almost unaware – with no chance to form proper mounted ranks and to oppose Montfort’s forces, also in proper ranks, as the theoretic battle plan on Charles Oman’s map of the Battle of Lewes describes.

No, reason has it that the young knight came at a full down-hill gallop upon a sleepy, rousing camp, tumbling tents and slaughtering emerging men unarmed or at best half-armed. The fighting on the ground before the priory must have been slaughter, made the more chaotic by the strewn materiel of the camp.

How long was it before the lords housed with the King and his brother Richard could arm, mount and emerge from the priory into the chaotic congestion of the battle? What did they face but a very messy battle-ground littered with tents, wounded and dying men, and half-armed men on foot desperately fighting fully armed youths on horseback?

What of Edward and his friends in the castle? At sight of the Londoners, the Prince and his followers armed, mounted and chased the Londoners back up the steep slopes and onto the downs. Nor did they stop, but continued their pursuit all across the downs at gallop, cutting down the three thousand of the city’s mob as they fled on foot. Prince Edward indulged in this human hunting party from dawn until late afternoon with no thought for the battle that his father faced in Lewes.

While Edward absented himself and his soldiers, the battle in the valley seethed, with mayhem worked by the unpracticed youths against the surprised royal army.

Seeing the Earl Montfort’s famed armored cart perched at a vantage point up on the downs, the King’s half-brother William de Valence and Roger Clifford left the battle, determined to take it, seize Montfort and speedily end the conflict. They climbed up the slope, away from the combat, and tried to pry the steel-plated vehicle’s door open -- and failed.

After long, repeated effort they gave up and decided to attempt another approach: they would roast the Earl in this steel oven. It took time to find wood, for there was none on the downs, and hot coals had to be brought from somewhere. Did they thread their way through the battle in the valley, find coals in the priory kitchen, go back through the battlefield and up the slopes to set their fire underneath the cart? As the fire did take hold, they heard faint screams and pounding from within the cart. When flames had destroyed the cart’s wood frame enough for the door to be pried partly open, out came coughing, wheezing and half-cooked, not the Earl Montfort but the three men who conspired to burn London.

By this time it was late afternoon. Edward, smeared with the blood of Londoners, rode up with his friends, and for the first time the Prince and the attackers of the steel cart noticed it was quiet in the valley. The battle of Lewes was ended.

Edward had left his cousin Henry of Alemaine and a few knights to guard the castle. There they remained until Edward returned. Leaving his knights at the castle, the Prince, washed and changed into clothes decent for the royal supper, walked through the gory wreckage of the battle-field to the priory to report to his father. He found strange young knights in white guarding the door, but apparently he didn’t find this odd. The Prince found King Henry sitting amid a few armed men. Seeing him, Henry burst into tears, glad and astonished that he was alive. Through his tears, Henry confessed he and the surviving lords were prisoners. The battle was lost to Montfort. Edward too was now a prisoner, having wandered into Simon’s headquarters in the seized priory.

But the Prince was not a man who let defeat daunt him. He had spent the previous night eating and drinking copiously in the priory and was aware of its plumbing facilities. Brought before the victorious council that was still reeling from the stunning victory, after the due courtesies between the captured Prince and his uncle Montfort, Edward asked permission to use the reredorter, the monks “Men’s Room.” Simon sent him along with a couple of guards. The priory’s facility consisted in a long, raised stone basin through which the river’s water was channeled for washing. From there the wash- water flowed behind a broad stone ledge for the body’s relief -- sitting, or standing. The constant flow carried sewage out through a hole in the wall and into a stream in the swamp behind the priory. Edward managed to disable both his guards, jump over the ledge and escape by squeezing out though the sewer duct. From there he made his way back to his friends holding the castle.

In the priory Simon and his followers were counting their prisoners. Searches among the dead and wounded showed the King’s army was utterly destroyed. How could this happen? It seemed the victory for Parliament was a miracle. Some claimed to have seen angels and saints striking down the forces of royal oppression. The King was in their keeping. The Prince could not go far. A few lords had been seen fleeing the battle. But no one knew what had become of the King’s brother, Richard the king of the Germans. Search was intensified to find if he was among the wounded.

A mile from Lewes, where the peninsula of the downs reached above the road to Hove, a windmill stood. In the late-afternoon sunset four young white-clad knights climbed the slope, half-doubting the advice they’d got from a witness of the battle. With loud cries they confronted the mill, threatening siege and invasion. When at last the door was unbolted from within, there stood King Richard of the Germans. The novice knights’ prize made them famous; songs were sung of them; they became the model of young chivalry’s good fortune. (Did their not so daring deed inspire Cervantes?)

The Battle of Lewes was won – a complete victory for the cause of Parliament. On this day, May 14, 2014, the 750th Anniversary is celebrated. In the days preceding, the march has been re-created, and the battle at Lewes re-enacted (on the May 13th) with celebrations commemorating this signal victory for Simon de Montfort and early Democracy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine Ashe is the author of the four-volume Montfort series, with the Battle of Lewes and its aftermath in volume four: Montfort The Angel with the Sword, 1260 to 1265.

Sources (a full bibliography is in Montfort The Angel with the Sword):
Rishanger, William, Chronicon de Bellis pp. 29-31.
Annales Monastici, Vol. II, Waverly
Kingsford, Charles Lethbridge, The Song of Lewes (pub. 1901, reprinted 2012.)
Oman, Charles, History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, pp. 424-30


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