Sunday 6 April 1264

The Battle of Northampton

by Adrian Jobson

April’s onset witnessed the end of any lingering hopes for a negotiated settlement between Henry III and the baronial opposition. On Wednesday 2 April, the king authorised a safe conduct for Peter de Montfort, a close friend and supporter of Simon de Montfort, to meet the royal envoys at Brackley in Northamptonshire.[1] But the earl of Leicester’s recent offer to accept the Mise of Amiens in its entirety, the only proviso being that the king should ‘remove the aliens and govern through natives’, was still unacceptable to Henry as it maintained a key principle of the reformist programme that his choice of ministers should be restricted.[2] For Henry, with whom the military advantage lay, there would be no conditional peace. On Thursday 3 April, therefore, he ordered the unfurling of the royal standard at Oxford.[3] This symbolic act, which marked the formal commencement of hostilities, was the opening salvo in a six week campaign that would begin with an astonishing victory for the royalists.

Northampton, lying some forty miles north-east of Oxford, was a key strategic castle town that lay at the crossroads of several important road networks. Strongly garrisoned, it shielded the main Montfortian stronghold at Kenilworth from a royalist attack. Commanded by Simon de Montfort the Younger, the earl of Leicester’s second son, Northampton’s garrison was mainly drawn from the surrounding shires and had been reinforced by the arrival of some students from the recently dispersed University of Oxford. Henry, having received intelligence that the town’s defences were in a poor state of repair, marched his now formidable army northwards. Arriving before Northampton’s walls on the evening of Friday 4 April, his demand for admittance to both the town and castle was immediately refused.[4]

At sunrise on Saturday 5 April, therefore, the royalists launched a two pronged assault upon the town. Sending several siege engines in a diversionary attack to engage the defenders at Northampton’s southern gate, the main royalist force directed its assault upon a weakened section of the town’s north-western wall adjacent to the gardens of St Andrew’s Priory. Soon the walls were breached, possibly with some assistance from the French prior Guy de Busseria as he was subsequently said to have secretly undermined the garden’s walls in advance and shored up the damaged section with wooden props.[5] The Young Simon, having learned of the breach, bravely attempted to rally the defence, but was soon captured when his horse stumbled and threw him unharmed into the town’s ditch. News of his capture caused immediate panic. Some threw down their arms and sought sanctuary in nearby churches. Others retreated into the castle, where they intended to offer further resistance.[6] Night fell, but next morning the depleted garrison realised that the castle’s poorly maintained walls were incapable of resisting a prolonged siege. Left with little alternative and in order to avoid further unnecessary bloodshed Peter de Montfort, who had assumed the command of the rebel forces following the Young Simon’s capture, surrendered to Henry. Joining them in captivity were more than 55 barons and knights – including Baldwin Wake, Adam of Newmarket and Adam le Despencer – the loss of whom considerably weakened the rebel cause.[7] In capturing Northampton, Henry had driven a wedge between the two heartlands of Montfortian power: the Midlands and the South. For Montfort, the war had commenced with the most inauspicious of starts.

[1] CPR 1258-66, 310.

[2] J.R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort (Cambridge, 1994), 265-6; A. Jobson, The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons’ War (London, 2012), 109-110.

[3] R.F. Treharne, ‘The Battle of Northampton, 5th April 1264’, in Simon de Montfort and Baronial Reform: Thirteenth-Century Essays, ed. E.B. Fryde (London, 1986), 307.

[4] Dunstable, 229-30; C.H. Lawrence, ‘The University of Oxford and the Chronicle of the Barons’ Wars’, EHR, 95 (1980), 100, 107-10.

[5] Dunstable, 229-30; Treharne, ‘Northampton’, 309-10.

[6] Treharne, ‘Battle of Northampton’, 309-11; Jobson, The First English Revolution, 109-110.

[7] Treharne, ‘Battle of Northampton’, 312-3.

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