Henry III – 50 Years in 50 Books

Writing in The Times, Dan Jones said, “Taken together, the two volumes of Henry III are more than just the fruits of four decades of [David] Carpenter’s scholarship. They set a gold standard for medieval royal biography.”

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, David Carpenter, who grew up at Westminster Abbey, recounts the story of the writing of his biography of Henry, beginning in the late 1980s.

‘Don’t touch the Aga, it’s hot’. These were the first words I remember, when, as a four year old boy, no taller than the Aga itself, I arrived in 1951 at our new house in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. My father had just been appointed a canon of Westminster and we had travelled up together from Stanmore, where he had been rector. In 1985, I was with my father again when, having retired, he walked away from the Abbey, after thirty-four years as canon, archdeacon and latterly as dean.

Westminster Abbey” by HerryLawford is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Given my long association with Westminster Abbey, it might seem unsurprising that I became a medieval historian and a biographer of its builder King Henry III. For indeed, it was Henry who, between 1245 and 1269, built the great church seen so recently, in all its magnificence, at the coronation of King Charles III. In fact, however, my path to Henry III was less direct. Growing up at the Abbey, the king celebrated was not Henry, but his sainted predecessor, and builder of the first great church at Westminster (depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry), Edward the Confessor. At Oxford, as an undergraduate, my third year ‘special subject’ was not the one on the reign of Henry III, but ‘British Policy and the making of the ententes, 1898-1908’. My eventual doctorate, while medieval, was not on Henry but on English local government and society. It had the rather unprepossessing title, ‘sheriffs of Oxfordshire and their subordinates, 1194-1236’ and was not publishable as a book. It did, however, open windows onto the politics of Henry’s reign, many of the later sheriffs being amongst his leading ministers.

WLA vanda Cast of Tomb Effigy Henry III” by Wikipedia Loves Art participant ‘Va_Va_Val’ is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

With this preparation, and having published various articles derived from the thesis, I started to wonder, we are now in the late 1970s, whether I might indeed write a biography of Henry III. There were several reasons why this seemed an attractive proposition. The first was the huge political and constitutional significance of the reign, linked to the sheer drama and excitement of events. The reign saw the implantation of Magna Carta into political life, the emergence of parliament and, between 1258 and 1267, a period of reform, rebellion and civil war, in which Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, became the first noble in English history to seize power and govern the kingdom.  A second reason was that Henry’s reign seemed almost an open field. The last full scale study, written by Sir Maurice Powicke,  had been published back in 1947. I was and remain an admirer of Powicke. He could write with great style and insight about people and situations, but he hardly provided a coherent account of Henry’s reign. He also made no use of the vast amount of unprinted legal and financial material in the Public Record Office. A third reason was that there seemed a ready made home for a new biography. The English Monarchs Series, founded by Eyre and Spottiswood, and in the 1970s with Methuen, was already established as the gold standard for monarchical biography. I sent, therefore a proposal to Methuen. The result was a contract which I signed in 1980.

In starting, work on Henry’s reign my aim was simple. It seemed obvious that a biography of a king must tell the story of the reign and have as its core a political narrative, although one which tried to understand why things happened and with what consequences, rather  than being simply ‘one damn thing after another’. So I set myself to compile a file of events for each of the fifty-six years of Henry’s reign from  1216 to 1272. They still line one side of my study. Alongside these were  thematic files about Henry’s piety, his court, his distribution of patronage and so on. The source material was provided by the chancery rolls (the rolls recording  the king’s charters and letters), the writings of contemporary historians, and the unprinted financial and legal material in The Public Record Office. In doing all this I was lucky in having plenty of time since my teaching duties, before becoming a lecturer at King’s College London in 1988, were light, indeed, absurdly light by contemporary university standards. Thus it was that in the late 1980s, having finished the basic research, as I thought, I started to write the biography. The trouble was I found the story of the early reign so intriguing that I was soon writing what amounted to a whole book on Henry’s minority. (He was only nine when he came to the throne in 1216). When I revealed this to Methuen, my editor, Ann Mansbridge, reacted with constructive calm and decided to publish what I had written, very much in English Monarchs format. The result was The Minority of Henry III, which appeared in 1990.  

If anyone had told me in 1990 that it would be another thirty-three years before I would finish Henry’s biography, I would not have believed them. But so it was. Volume 1, The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, covering the period from Henry’s birth in 1207 (with a light sketch of the minority) down to the revolution of 1258 eventually appeared in 2020 (in the middle of Covid). Volume 2, Reform, Rebellion, Civil War and Settlement, taking the story from 1258 down to Henry’s death in 1272, followed in 2023. Several reasons explain the delay. I wanted to explore numerous ideas arising from the basic research and article succeeded article in a continuous and absorbing flow. (Some of the results appeared in my volume of essays, The Reign of Henry III.) There were also two books The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284, in the New Penguin History of Britain, and Magna Carta: A New Commentary, in the Penguin Classics Series, the latter published in 2015 to coincide with the Charter’s 800th anniversary. And then there was the Henry III Fine Rolls Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which made available online the rolls recording the offers of money to the king for concessions and favours.

In all this long time, however, I never lost faith in Henry’s biography, never doubted that I would complete it. The subject remained compelling, indeed grew more so over the years.  In between the books, articles and projects, I did write substantial portions of the text.  I was sustained by the encouragement and support I received from Yale which took over the English Monarchs Series in the 1990s. I was also inspired, indeed sometimes goaded, by the volumes in the series being brought out by my friends, starting with Nigel Saul’s superb biography of Richard II, published in 1997. Later I much admired the style (amongst much else) of Chris Given-Wilson’s Henry IV: ‘by the summer of 1405, it must have seemed as if Henry had perfected the art of falling and falling without ever quite hitting the ground’. I also tried, unavailingly (in the end I gave up) to emulate the alliterative chapter headings of Mark Ormrod’s, Edward III: ‘The Leopard and the Lily’, ‘Pestilence and Politics’, ‘the Ransoming of Rulers’ and so on.

It was, finally, at the beginning of 2015, with the Magna Carta book out of the way, that (now or never) I started in earnest to finish Henry III. I decided to write it all again from the start, revising the earlier text as I went along, thus ensuring the work formed a coherent whole. The end result, however, posed Yale with a problem: an author who had previously failed to produce anything for them had now produced far too much, indeed two long books rather than just one! It was at this point that Heather McCallum made a crucial and courageous decision, one I hope justified by the biography’s eventual reception. This was indeed to publish Henry in two volumes. The decision made, the whole team at Yale could not have worked harder or been more committed to the books. Indeed the volumes are the first in the English Monarchs Series to have coloured illustrations.

One important intervention at the pre-publication stage affected the form of the books, I think for the good. Both volumes were read for Yale by Michael Prestwich, whose magisterial biography of Henry’s, son, Edward I, had appeared in the Series back in 1988. Michael felt that I should cut out from the text references to modern historians and their debates since these impeded the flow of the narrative and anyway would quickly date. I took the advice. For the most part I have made up my own mind from the evidence and have given the results, while making clear, I hope, my debt to fellow historians in the footnotes. In that sense the biography is comparable to another Yale volume, namely Peter Marshall’s acclaimed history of the Reformation, Heretics and Believers, which follows much the same approach.

I do not regret the many years it has taken to produce Henry III. For a start, it gives me far less time to learn I have got it all wrong! More seriously, the eventual biography is far richer than had it appeared back say in 1990. That is partly thanks to the work of fellow historians, several of them Yale authors. I refer frequently in the notes to two brilliant books by Paul Binski – Westminster Abbey and The Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power and Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England ­– while Lindy Grant’s, path breaking Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, suggests many points of comparison and contrast with Henry III’s equally feisty queen, Eleanor of Provence.

Further study in the years since 1990 has also given  me a far fuller understanding of the primary sources in all their unique profusion. The letters on the chancery rolls in particular illuminate both the king’s personality and  the twists and turns of politics in a depth and detail they fail to do for later medieval monarchs, the chancery having then ceased to follow the king and ‘gone out of court’. Here lies the justification for two volumes rather than one.

From his letters and other sources a vivid picture of Henry emerges. He was warm-hearted, emotional, courteous, accessible, humorous, profligate, angry sometimes but easily appeased, ambitious sometimes but pacific and physically lazy, in defeat quiescent rather than defiant, interested in detail but, in the secular sphere, lacking the intelligence to use it effectively, a king with a high sense of regality’s outward show, but sometimes a low sense of its actual practice, a connoisseur of art and architecture, a lover of beautiful things and of the people closest to his heart, a king simplex (as was often said) in the sense of being pious and innocent but simplex too in being naive and foolish.

Henry’s pacific personality contributed to the long peace of his reign. It lasted from the end of the Magna Carta civil war in 1217 all the way through to the Montfortian war in 1263, and by his death was re-established.  Even more important for Henry’s reputation, and vital indeed  for his surviving the Montfortian challenge, was the respect he enjoyed  as a most Christian king, a rex Christianissimus.  There was here a wider background, for the preaching of the friars and the pastoral work of bishops made this a period when religion and politics were intertwined in a way unseen again until the 1640s. Simon de Montfort and his allies were driven by a sense of righteous mission and believed that reform of the realm was necessary to save their souls. Indeed, in a unique way, the reforms were as much concerned with their own malpractices as those of the king.

One aspect of Henry’s piety, applauded then by his Christian subjects, abhorrent now, was his persecution of the Jews. Another, more benign, was his alms giving to the poor. At one period in the reign  500 paupers  were being fed at court every day. And then, above all, central to Henry’s life in a way unparalleled with any other medieval monarch, was devotion to a patron saint, in Henry’s case, Edward the Confessor. So, in the end, we return to Westminster Abbey for it was in the Confessor’s honour that Henry rebuilt the Abbey in so ‘sumptuous’ (a favourite Henrician word) a fashion. In doing so, Henry was very aware of the Abbey’s status as a coronation church. To house the great congregations, no expense spared, he constructed a spacious galleried triforium and transepts of exceptional length. (As a six year old boy, at the 1953 coronation, I sat high up in the north transept). The Abbey remains Henry’s great legacy.    

David Carpenter with the Yale team at the book launch for Henry III vol. 2 at Westminster Abbey, May 2023

About the author

David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He is the author of numerous books including a new study of Magna Carta for the Penguin Classics series.

About the books

Henry III
The Rise to Power and Personal Rule, 1207-1258

David Carpenter

‘[A] monumental, awesome yet highly readable book…Carpenter is the foremost scholar of England’s 13th century, and his spectacular erudition shines on every page. . . . Above all, he has narrative gifts that root this history of our medieval country in reality rather than in romance, and makes the lives of our distant forebears feel as comprehensible as our own.’
Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph

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Henry III
Reform, Rebellion, Civil War, Settlement, 1258-1272

David Carpenter

‘There are few historians working today who know so much and write so well. Taken together, the two volumes of Henry III . . . set a gold standard for medieval royal biography.’
Dan Jones, Times

Find out more

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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