Sunday 18 May 1264: the battle

This was, of course, the week of Simon de Montfort’s victory at the battle of Lewes, and the compromise peace agreed in the mise of Lewes. These events have been covered so intensively and so so well, particularly by David Carpenter and John Maddicott, that there is little point in going over them again, particularly as the government records have relatively little to say. As we have already seen, the Exchequer had ceased to function. The Chancery also seems to have reduced its activities. There are no entries in the close, charter, fine or originalia rolls for this week, and just one entry in the liberate roll: the sheriff of Kent was to provide 10 marks for one Robert de Cheny to buy himself a horse. (CLR 1260-67, 136)
It is possible that some Chancery records have been lost. As Sophie Ambler pointed out in a Fine of the Month, there are numerous references in the pipe rolls of the next few years to debts recorded in a roll of fines in expedicione regis. These seem to relate to fines imposed by the king during his campaign before Lewes. Most of them were to be paid by abbots or bishops, although there are also fines from the burgesses of Leicester and Derby. They are concerned with the obligation to provide military service for the king, or for having the king’s goodwill or grace (suggesting that many churchmen had to pay fines for their failure to support the king). The fines were not collected by Simon de Montfort’s regime, but the lost fine rolls were used to draw up the pipe rolls once the king had returned to power, to record the quite considerable amounts imposed – the abbot of Peterborough owed 850 marks. (E 372/109-112)
The government record which did continue this week, and which survives, is the patent roll. The relevant section can be seen on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website. It is striking that the roll continues up to the eve of the battle, recording the activities of the royal party. There is then a break, with the bold heading Post Bellum Lewen’, and the same hand continues to record the decisions of the new regime. Before the battle, there is the routine business of pardons and safe conducts. Presumably confident of victory after the successful campaign so far, the king was distributing the confiscated lands of his opponents, and making arrangements to use the cash promised by Louis IX to finance a crusade. After the battle, the baronial government tries to establish control of the royal castles, and to secure the release of the prisoners taken at Northampton. (CPR 1258-66, 318)
Although the events of this week need no recapitulation, it is interesting to look back at the way in which they were seen by earlier writers. Some contemporaries believed that the rebels had supernatural assistance. According to the Canterbury/Dover chronicle, there were those in the rebel army who clearly saw an unknown knight, armed and with an unknown banner before him, and an archbishop blessing the army of the barons. They suddenly disappeared when the battle was over. They were of course St George and St Thomas Beckett. (Gervase of Canterbury, II, 238)
Some past historians may not necessarily have ascribed the barons’ victory to such divine assistance, but were not reluctant to deliver moral judgements, and make it fairly clear which side they were on.

William Stubbs, Constitutional History of England, 1883: the battle of Lewes, won through a singular conjunction of skill and craft on the one side, rashness and panic on the other.
Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War, 1898: Rash adventure and hot-headed eagerness in pursuit cost the Royalists the day. But neither discipline nor self-restraint were likely to be prominent in any army over which the imbecile Henry Plantagenet bore rule.
James Ramsay, The Dawn of the Constitution, 1908: The bishop of Worcester gave absolution to all who should manfully do their duty in the battle. One faith, one will linked them all together, ‘a nascent spark of the religious fervour which animated the armies of Cromwell.’
Maurice Powicke, The Thirteenth Century, 1962: a sense of beauty lingers over those days in May when the great earl waited among the woods of the Weald. In the words of the St Albans chronicler, Earl Simon’s followers were united in faith and will and courage to die for their country.
R.F. Treharne, ‘Why the battle of Lewes matters in English history’, 1964: In short, the Battle of Lewes, enforcing the doctrine of the contractual authority of a King, who can therefore be controlled or superseded if he breaks the contract, marks an important stage in the development of the principle of limited monarchy and constitutional government from Magna Carta to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

The battle of Lewes monument. (Photo by Sophie Ambler - thank you.)

The battle of Lewes monument. (Photo by Sophie Ambler – thank you.)

Treharne’s contribution to the commemoration of the 700th anniversary was accompanied by, amongst other things, the erection of the battle monument, presented to the town by Sir Tufton Beamish MP, and the publication of Battle Royal, also by Tufton Beamish. The book, although outdated in parts, is based on the chronicles, and includes a translation of the Song of Lewes. It shows that there was much more to the author than might be suggested by Private Eye’s Sir Bufton Tufton. He was a soldier, with a distinguished war record, who succeeded his father, Rear-Admiral Beamish, as MP for Lewes in 1945. He remained the town’s MP until 1974, never holding ministerial office, and active chiefly in opposing Soviet Communism and promoting European union and nature conservation (he sponsored the Protection of Birds Act 1954). The monument he presented is inscribed with a quotation derived from the Song of Lewes:

Now Englishmen, read on about this battle fought at Lewes’ walls. Because of this you are alive and safe. Rejoice then in God.
Law is like fire, for it lights as truth, warms as charity, burns as zeal. With these virtues as his guides the king will rule well.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply