Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rochester, England, Good Friday 1264

by Katherine Ashe

The tales of Robin Hood tell of the longed-for return of the just and able king in an age when the sheriffs are oppressing the people with unheard of taxes and the occupant of England’s throne is wicked King John. According to the tales as we’ve received them, the yearned for king is Richard the Lion Heart. But history differs.

The sheriffs were not especially bad in the reign of King John, and the people so loathed not only him but also his elder brother Richard the Lion Heart that Richard remained in France and dared not go home. His foolishness on crusade had resulted in his being seized and held for ransom, and raising that ransom impoverished everyone in England.

Simon de Montfort
The longed-for king who was abroad and whose return was prayed for was Simon de Montfort. He had made the principals of elective government, set forth in 1258 in the Provisions of Oxford, a reality. He had seized control of England and King Henry III (King John’s son), but had not, like others with such opportunity, murdered his king and usurped the Crown.

Henry III
Instead, he treated Henry with deference and attended him to France to sign a peace treaty with King Louis IX. It was there in France that he realized Henry was maneuvering to undermine the young Parliament. The terms of treaty gave Henry an army for Crusade, but Montfort learned the army was to meet at Wissant, a port for embarkation to England, not Palestine. And Henry was delaying his return home until the army was fully assembled. Meanwhile, in England, the knights elected to represent the people were very vulnerably gathering for Parliament.

Montfort presented himself at the Duke of Brabant’s office, where kings hired mercenaries and where Simon had hired many in the past for Henry. He took command of the mercenaries already hired and marched them to England to the Parliament’s defense.

Plainly, he stole King Henry’s army. Later, on trial for treason, he would explain that he was simply “going where the King ought to have been going.” As for the armed men with him, he replied “I always travel with horses and men.” Margaret of Provence, Louis’s queen, and the Peers of France who judged the trial were moved to hilarity. King Henry was forced to drop his case.

It was during this time, between the establishment of Parliament in June of 1258 and the end of the trial, which had detained Montfort in France from 1260 to 1263, that the misbehavior of the sheriffs – which had been identified and stopped by the Provisions – was resumed and reached its peak, now virtually under license from King Henry.

A popular theologian, Joachim de Flor, in the 12th century had posited a New Age: the Third Millennium, which was to arise about the year 1260. It would be an age of gradual decline of the old order of kings and nations and the rise of a new, all-encompassing world order that would be led by a government elected by the common people.

The events at Oxford were hailed by the Dominicans and Franciscans as the first sign of the New Age. And Simon de Montfort was seen as the Angel of the Apocalypse who was initiating this new era. Even those less given to such beliefs saw him as the fighter for justice and good government. The common folk saw him as the people’s savior.

Kneeling Knight
Pleaders came from England to persuade Simon to return. He did once, with a letter testifying that Pope Alexander IV, on his death bed, gave his support to the Provisions. But he saw no effective movement at that time. His plan for his future was to return to Palestine where the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in confusion and Italian merchant factions were making mayhem in the streets. Once he had been the chosen candidate for Viceroy of Palestine, but the Emperor Frederic II had passed over him. Now Frederic was dead and his empire shattered. If Montfort was ambitious, the Crown of Jerusalem was well within his reach.

As he was preparing to leave for the East, a committee of young English lords came to plead again for his return. King Henry’s abuses had reached such a pitch that an army was gathering at Oxford and Montfort’s cousin Peter already was engaged in battle in the western shires.

Doubting, probably more curious than eager, Simon agreed to go and see what was happening at Oxford. Since King Henry had gained no satisfaction from the trial in France, Simon was at great risk of being seized and tried again for treason in a far less friendly court. He was smuggled from the coast to Oxford, traveling at night and wrapped in an engulfing black cloak.

At Oxford he found virtually all the young generation of lords and many of their fathers who had fought beside him in wars abroad. They were assembled with the single hope that he would lead them, seize England again and make the just and liberal government of the Parliament a permanent reality.

Stunned by the ardent spirit of the young lords and their utter faith in him, he replied to their plea, I’ll as willingly die here fighting faithless Christians, as die in Palestine fighting for Holy Church.

With this new army, in a sweep encircling England, he achieved domination and the restoration of the Parliament. But most of the old lords who still survived, who themselves had clamored for the Provisions, now saw that what curbed the freedoms of the king, curbed their freedoms as well. The old order with its flaws seemed better to them than the new. And they were enraged by the role that Montfort, their colleague, had stepped into -- what they saw as the glorified holy leader of a dangerous cult of reform.

The royalist faction gained increased strength from forces come from abroad. War directly against the king was averted only when, instead of joining in combat just outside London, both sides agreed to arbitration by King Louis in France.

Montfort had reason to feel confident that before the King and Court of France he could place the people’s case effectively and their position would be understood. Parliament was not a usurpation of the powers of the Crown, but a system devised to support a disastrously weak monarch, aiding him to serve his country better. King Louis well knew Henry’s faults.

But on the way to Amiens, where each side was to present its case, as he was crossing a frozen stream just a few miles from his home, Montfort’s horse slipped and fell, crushing its rider’s leg. Simon would have likely died of fever had he tried to travel further. He had to return home. At Amiens, the opinion of King Louis’s confessor prevailed. For elected representatives of the common man to have their will hold sway over a king was a reversal of Nature. It was as if a mouse dictated to an eagle. There could be no Parliament, although its supporters must be granted amnesty. That was the most that Louis could do for Simon, his life-long friend.

Kenilworth Castle
At home at Kenilworth, Simon received the news and refused to accept the decision. He sent his supporters to retake cities that the royalists occupied. His sons Henry and Guy went to seize Gloucester, but failed and soon returned to him. His son Simon led forces to Northampton. Gilbert de Clare, heir to the earldom of Gloucester, was to retake Rochester, on the London to Dover road. He himself would go to London, the center of his strongest support, to assess what military value was there.

His wounded leg had not recovered yet, so his military engineer, who had designed the defenses for Kenilworth, built an armored cart to convey the crippled leader. This fully enclosed steel vehicle became famous throughout England.

London Bridge
At London, Simon found the city strong in his support, every able man armed to fight the war. The city rabble was yearning to see action. To test them, Simon sent the Londoners muster, to the king’s brother’s fief at Isleworth. There the Londoners not only sacked the manse, but raped and murdered everyone they could catch. Simon judged the Londoners unusable in battle.

It was at this time Simon heard that his son Simon and his forces had been vanquished at Northampton and his son captured. He marched with his sons Henry and Guy and a mixed force of young knights, lordlings not yet knighted and archers from Wales, and perhaps from Sherwood and the Weald, north to the rescue – without the Londoners.

Only a few hours from the city, a fast messenger reached the march with news the Londoners were rioting and had attacked the city’s Jews, sacking their homes and businesses and setting their neighborhood on fire.

Abandoning the rescue of his son, Simon returned to the city and found the Jews’ street reduced to cinders and rubble and the whole of the city’s population in a dangerous state of agitation. He ordered the commoners to give up their arms. The order was ignored. So long as he remained among the Londoners a sullen quiet prevailed, but he dared not leave. And while this dangerous lull in his campaign persisted, King Henry’s army moved to attack Kenilworth, then dropped their siege and turned southward to meet more troops arriving from abroad.

Despite Gilbert de Clare’s siege, the royalists under Roger Leybourne and the Earl de Warenne held the city of Rochester and guarded the route from London to Dover and the southern ports. The taking of Rochester was essential. Montfort gathered the unruly men of London, made them a contingent of his army and marched south.

Rochester Castle
Rochester lies on the London road where it crosses the tidal River Medway. It is a city built upon a hill with its cathedral, its central square and its castle on the hill’s summit. Encamping upstream of the city, after consultation with de Clare, Simon apparently summoned the London river boatmen to gather all the boats they could find and to study the river’s tides, the movements of its flow.

The next day, which was Good Friday of the year 1264, the men guarding walled Rochester’s river gate tower saw a multitude of small boats approaching laden with the rabble of London. And before them floated a small ship unmanned and aflame.

Prodded on its drifting course by the boatmen, it rode inexorably on the tide and crashed into the wooden gate and tower. In moments its cargo of flaming pitch had the defense works on fire. Those in the tower leapt into the water where they were stabbed and bludgeoned by the Londoners as their boats crowded in.

The burning gate and wall it guarded were taken, and the rabble disgorging from the boats made their rampaging way into the city streets.

As the riverfront was being overrun, the bell of Rochester Cathedral, at city’s peak, began to toll, for it was nine in the morning of Good Friday: the bell tolled the Lord’s knell.* Within the cathedral, and in every church, the statues were draped in mourning as was customary.

On the far side of the city Montfort, his sons Guy and Henry and their army had joined Clare at the city’s landward east gate. His archers and the archers of Rochester’s militia were fully engaged. Then the arrows from the city slowed. There was a lull and in the lull everyone became aware the bell had stopped its tolling. There was a sound of screaming in Rochester’s streets.
Despite Leybourne’s and Warenne’s orders, the militia archers deserted, rushing to protect their own homes. Montfort and Clare’s men broke through the undefended gate.

The city was in turmoil. The Londoners were running wildly everywhere, committing rape and slaughter, breaking into houses and seizing what they pleased. Simon ordered his own forces to capture anyone seen in the act of rape, murder or theft. Except for Leybourne, Warenne and a few soldiers who’d taken refuge in the castle, the city was taken, but the chaos did not cease.

At the cathedral, across the town square from the castle, Simon found the bell ringer pierced with arrows and hanging from his rope high in the tower. Priests defending the golden objects of the altar lay murdered, the altar stripped. Montfort’s army turned from battling royalists to arresting Londoners. Hundreds were taken in the act of horrid crimes.

At dawn the next morning a large, stout block of wood stood in the square before the cathedral and in easy bow shot from the castle wall. Londoners who had been caught in crime, one by one were hauled to the block and beheaded. The beheadings lasted well into the afternoon, as the people of Rochester mourned their dead.

Leybourne and Warrenne and their men watched from the castle’s battlement but made no move. Nor did they when Montfort, below and well within their arrows’ reach, knelt for a Mass for Rochester’s dead. Then the long line of mourners bore the coffins of the London rabble’s victims to their graves.

Easter Sunday’s Mass was performed in the square. And again Simon, in penance for the sack of Rochester, knelt unarmed, an easy target below the castle wall. Again Warenne and Leybourne held back their archers.

Monday the siege resumed, the castle’s gate was taken by Clare. Montfort remained in his tent, his belief in his cause crushed. Soon he would beg King Henry’s peace, asking only for amnesty for those who’d followed him. But Henry would refuse.

*The hour of the Crucifixion according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the award winning Montfort series, including Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243, an Amazon Historical Fiction Best Seller. The battle of Rochester will be found in volume four, Montfort The Angel with the Sword 1260 to 1265.

Amazon US
Amazon UK


  1. Thanks for this fascinating post, Katherine! I've never been a great fan of Simon De Montfort, but even less of most of the Plantagenet kings of this era. The best of them, IMO, was Henry II.

  2. Discipline was always a problem for a medieval army. Good post. Thanks!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.