The 4th of August is the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Evesham. Evesham was the second and final pitched battle of the Second Barons’ War (1263-67).
Henry III’s mismanagement of the realm through failure in foreign wars, rebellion in Gascony, poor distribution of patronage and increasing financial and judicial grievances, had led to increasing baronial dissatisfaction. This culminated in the Provisions of Oxford (1258) and Westminster (1259) where the barons forced reforms on the King. These covered three broad areas of grievance. The first was to check his favouritism of his foreign relatives. The second involved restructuring a judicial system which had become increasingly unjust, and the third was an attempt to force the royal finances to be better managed, reducing the need for constant, excessive taxation.
However this watershed moment in English constitutional history, which forced the King to have a privy council partly elected by the nobility, was soon undermined. Fracturing in the baronial party meant that the King was able to secure a Papal Bull in 1261, declaring the provisions as null and void. But the royal faction was similarly disparate, and infighting caused by political manoeuvring for power surrounding the Lord Edward (later Edward I) and Queen Eleanor alienated several keys nobles from the King’s cause. When Simon de Montfort returned to England in 1263 to lead the baronial faction, the scene was set for a civil war. This began with both sides raiding the lands of their rivals, with side neither gaining a clear advantage.
Soon both sides attempted to end the troubles peacefully at the Mise of Amiens (1264) when Henry III and Earl Simon de Montfort’s parties agreed to the arbitration of the King of France, Louis IX. Perhaps unsurprisingly Louis ruled heavily in favour of his fellow royal, which far from ensuring peace left no option to the baronial faction but full scale civil war. A series of sieges (the mainstay of medieval warfare) ensued with neither side gaining significant advantage, and it was not until the Battle of Lewes (14 May 1264) that the two opposing forces met in strength.
Despite having fewer troops, perhaps as little as half the King’s number, the baronial army under Simon de Montfort won a significant victory. A seasoned campaigner experienced from the Crusaders and fighting a series of rebellions in Gascony, Simon de Montfort was able to outmanoeuvre the much larger royal army with a forced march in darkness, overwhelming royal sentries and deploying his force on the high ground.
By way of contrast to the Earl Simon, King Henry was no warrior but a scholarly and pious man, who contemporaries said was better suited to a hair shirt than a mail one. De Montfort not only demonstrated his strategic superiority over his King by his forced march and domination of the best ground, but he also showed tactical shrewdness in the disposition of his forces. Drawing his army into four divisions (known contemporarily as ‘battles’) he deployed three of these to his front and, crucially, kept the fourth under his own command as a reserve.
The royal right was commanded by the Lord Edward. Wishing to avenge the insult that the Londoners had given his mother Queen Eleanor, the Lord Edward led his cavalry against the left wing of the baronial army – where the Londoners were deployed. Although the heavily equipped royal knights routed the London levies, the protracted pursuit took Lord Edward and the cream of the royal army from the battle. By the time they returned de Montfort had, using his command of the ground and tactical reserve, defeated the King’s larger army. Lord Edward returned only in time to witness defeat. The battle was a baronial victory against the odds, which resulted in the capture of King Henry, his brother Richard Earl of Cornwall and Lord Edward. Henry III was forced to comply to the Provisions of Oxford once more, with de Montfort effectively a ‘quasi-king’.
Nevertheless, a little over a year later the reforming baronial movement was dealt a fatal blow at the Battle of Evesham. The barons’ once again fractured over patronage and self-interest, with important nobles such as Gilbert de Clare deserting de Montfort’s cause. By 1265 the Marcher lords Roger Mortimer and Roger Leyburn were in open rebellion against de Montfort, and when Gilbert de Clare orchestrated the escape of the Lord Edward, the Marchers had a royal figurehead to lead them. Their cause was given added legitimacy by Papal support for Edward to rule in the captive King’s stead. Running out of powerful allies, de Montfort looked to the Welsh king Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, a move that whilst adding men to his cause, made him more unpopular with English barons and only steeled the Marchers against him.
Whilst de Montfort’s Lewes campaign demonstrated strategic and tactical shrewdness, the events leading up the fateful battle of Evesham showed no such brilliance. A large portion of his forces, under the command of his son Simon the younger, were ambushed and seriously weakened by a dawn raid by Lord Edward at Kenilworth. Unable to join his forces, the elder de Montfort found himself outmanoeuvred by Lord Edward’s Marcher army. When the two opposing forces met at Evesham Simon de Montfort was trapped between the river Avon and the much larger Marcher army. Lord Edward had totally outmanoeuvred de Montfort, whose escape over the bridge to the east was guarded by the Marcher lord Roger de Mortimer.
Realising the hopeless of his situation, being out numbered and surrounded, Simon de Montfort prayed for God to have mercy on his soul – realising the enemy would soon have his body. Forced to attempt to fight his way out, de Montfort ordered a central attack on Lord Edward’s army, hoping to break through the encircling force. However, Humphrey de Bohun refused to led the baronial infantry in the assault, with de Montfort instead having to lead with his cavalry, uphill towards the Marchers. Before battle was even joined de Bohun’s infantry quit the field, only to be caught and slaughtered in the rout that followed the battle, leaving de Montfort to a similar fate.
Cresting the hill, de Montfort’s contingent fully saw the task that confronted them and the Earl had his outnumbered force form a circle. From this point the battle descending into a bloody slaughter, with Simon de Montfort, after being unhorsed eventually falling to the lance of Mortimer, who’s contingent probably advanced from below, through the routing infantry of de Bohun to encircle the remains to de Montfort’s army.
Although the discrepancies between the various chroniclers mean the details of the battle will likely never be known for certain, all agree on its bloodiness. Lord Edward’s Marcher army secured victory swiftly, probably in less than two hours, and showed little mercy even to fellow knights. Robert of Gloucester termed it the ‘murder of Evesham (for battle there was none).’ Such was the ferocity that the captive King Henry, taken forward by de Montfort when he advanced, only escaped being slain by his would-be rescuers by crying out ‘I am Henry of Winchester, your King. Do not harm me!’
After the battle de Montfort was stripped of his armour, and was found to be wearing a hair shirt underneath it. A righteous and pious man, he had been convinced of the legitimacy of his cause and was prepared to die for it. But de Montfort’s righteousness did not dampen the ferocity of his opponents, who in the rout slaughtered so many in the local abbey as they attempted to escape or gain sanctuary, that the crypts ran with streams of blood. Nor did de Montfort’s famous piety and self-conviction stop his enemies from mutilating his body. His killer, Roger de Mortimer sent de Montfort’s head and testicles, the latter draped over the dead Earl’s nose, to his wife as a trophy, whilst his hands and feet were cut off for public display.
With their leader slain, the survivors of the baronial faction fled to late Earl Simon’s stronghold of Kenilworth castle. The siege that ensured was much more typical of medieval warfare than the swift battle of Evesham, although the siege of Kenilworth was more protracted than most – being the longest in English history. The war eventually ended in October 1266, when the Dictum of Kenilworth brought peace to the realm and allowed the remaining Montfortians to buy back their confiscated lands.
The baronial reforming movement was over, and for the remaining six years of Henry’s reign there existed an uneasy peace.His successor Edward I went on to rule with a royal strength that his father had never possessed. However, the seeds of reform had been sown, and in the 1275 Statues of Westminster Edward himself had enshrined elements of the Provisions of Oxford. De Montfort was brutally slain at Evesham, but his legacy perhaps lived on.
Although depicting a crusading scene, this image from the near contemporary Morgan bible shows some of the types of arms and armour that would have been used during the Second Barons’ War. It also show the potential brutality of medieval warfare that manifest itself at Evesham.
Arms & Armour at the time of Evesham:
The main form of armour of the knightly classes was mail, which by this time completely covered the body, including hand and feet defences. Helmets ranged from the conical nasal helm, to the wide-brimmed kettle hat, to the fully enclosed great helm.
However, this level of protection would have only been available to the social and military elite. Infantry would typically be more lightly equipped with less armour, perhaps of fabric rather than metal. The padded gambeson, worn under mail, could also serve as armour in its own right, but even this level of protection would have not been available to all.
During this period knights still predominately fought mounted, as heavy cavalry dominated the battlefield. The lance was their primary weapon of shock, which when couched with the weight of horse and fully armoured rider behind it could cause immense damage in a charge. Swords, axes, maces and daggers would have been carried for close combat and the melee or pursuit that followed. Larger, two-handed weapons were also known, but the shield was still an important part of defensive equipment at this time, so most weapons were wielded in one hand.
The primary arms of the infantry would have been staff weapons or missile weapons. The most common form was the spear which if not excessively long could be used in conjunction with a shield, but heavier forms of two-handed staff weapons were also in use.
The infantry of the period also used bows and crossbows. And although English and Welsh archery had no yet gained the fame it massed use was to win in the next century, they still featured in armies of the period. However at a battle such as Evesham which was decided by a single charge, their opportunity to influence the battle would have been limited. Crossbows, although also used in the 13th century battlefield, were particularly favoured in sieges. Not yet having reached their full power potential, with prods of the period primarily being wooden rather than composite or steel, they were still potentially deadly to even armoured men.