The fifty-six years reign of Henry III forms one of the periods during which the mere chronicle of events may seem tedious and trivial, yet the movement of national life and constitutional progress was very important. Except during the stirring epoch 1258-1265 there was little that was dramatic or striking in the events of the reign. Yet the England of 1272 was widely different from the England of 1216. The futile and thriftless yet busy and self-important king was one of those sovereigns who irritate their subjects into opposition by injudicious activity. He was not a ruffian or a tyrant like his father, and had indeed not a few of the domestic virtues. But he was constitutionally incapable of keeping a promise or paying a debt. Not being stronghanded or capable, he could never face criticism nor suppress discontent by force, as a king of the type of Henry I or Henry II would have done. He generally gave way when pressed, without attempting an appeal to arms; he would then swear an oath to observe the Great Charter, and be detected in violating it again within a few months. His greatest fault in the eyes of his subjects was his love of foreigners; since John had lost Normandy the English baronage had become as national in spirit as the commons. The old Anglo-Norman houses had forgotten the tradition of their origin, and now formed but a small section of the aristocracy; the newer families, sprung from the officials of the first two Henries, had always been English in spirit.
Unfortunately for himself the third Henry inherited the continental cosmopolitanism of his Angevin ancestors, and found himself confronted with a nation which was growing ever more and more insular in its ideals. He had all the ambitions of his grandfather Henry II; his dreams were of shattering the newly-formed kingdom of France, the creation of Philip Augustus, and of recovering all the lost lands of his forefathers on the Seine and Loire. Occasionally his views grew yet wider; he would knit up alliances all over Christendom and dominate the West. Nothing could have been wilder and more unpractical than the scheme on which he set his heart in 1255-1257, a plan for conquering Naples and Sicily for his second son. Moreover it was a great hindrance to him that he was a consistent friend and supporter of the papacy. He had never forgotten the services of the legates Pandulf and Gualo to himself and his father, and was always ready to lend his aid to the political schemes of the popes, even when it was difficult to see that any English interests were involved in them.
His designs, which were always shifting from point to point of the continent, did not appeal in the least to his subjects, who took little interest in Poitou or Touraine, and none whatever in Italy. After the troubled times which had lasted from 1214 to 1224 they desired nothing more than peace, quietness and good governance. They had no wish to furnish their master with taxation for French wars, or to follow his banner to distant Aquitaine. But most of all did they dislike his practice of flooding England with strangers from beyond seas, for whom offices and endowments had to be found. The moment that he had got rid of the honest and capable old justiciar Hubert de Burgh, who had pacified the country during his minority, and set the machinery of government once more in regular order, Henry gave himself over to fostering horde after horde of foreign favourites.
There was first his Poitevin chancellor, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, with a numerous band of his relations and dependents. As a sample of the king's methods it may be mentioned that he once made over nineteen of the thirty-five sheriffdoms, within a fortnight, to Peter of Rivaux, a nephew of the chancellor. Des Roches was driven from office after two years (1234), and his friends and relatives fell with him. But they were only the earliest of the king's alien favorites; quite as greedy were the second family of his mother, Isabella of Angouleme, who after King John's death had married her old betrothed, Hugh of Lusignan. Henry secured great English marriages for three of them, and made the fourth, Aymer, Bishop of Winchester. Their kinsmen and dependents were equally welcomed.
Even more numerous and no less expensive to the realm were the Provencal and Savoyard relatives of Henry's queen, Eleanor of Provence. The king made one of her uncles, Boniface of Savoy, Archbishop of Canterbury it was three years before he deigned to come over to take up the post, and then he was discovered to be illiterate and unclerical in his habits, an unworthy successor for Langton and Edmund of Abingdon, the great primates who went before him. Peter of Savoy, another uncle, was perhaps the most shameless of all the beggars for the king's bounty; not only was he made Earl of Richmond, but his debts were repeatedly paid and great sums were given him to help his continental adventures.
King Henry's personal rule lasted from 1232, the year in which he deprived Hubert de Burgh of his justiciarship and confiscated most of his lands, down to 1258. It was thriftless, arbitrary, and lacking in continuity of policy, yet not tyrannical or cruel. If he had been a worse man he would have been put under control long before by his irritated subjects. All through these twenty-six years he was being opposed and criticised by a party which embraced the wisest and most patriotic section of the baronage and the hierarchy.
It numbered among its leaders the good archbishop, Edmund of Abingdon, and Robert Grosseteste, the active and learned bishop of Lincoln; it was not infrequently aided by the king's brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who did not share Henry's blind admiration for his foreign relatives. But it only found its permanent guiding spirit somewhat late in the reign, when Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, became the habitual mouthpiece of the grievances of the nation. The great earl had, oddly enough, commenced his career as one of the king's foreign favorites. He was the grandson of Amicia, countess of Leicester, but his father, Simon the Elder, a magnate whose French interests were greater than his English. had adhered to the cause of Philip Augustus in the days of King John and the Leicester estates had been confiscated. Simon, reared as a Frenchman, came over in 1230 to petition for their restoration. He not only obtained it, but to the great indignation of the English baronage married the king's sister Eleanor in 1238.
For some time he was in high favour with his brother-in-law, and was looked upon by the English as no better than Aymer de Valence or Peter of Savoy. But he quarrelled with the fickle king, and adhered ere long to the party of opposition. A long experience of his character and actions convinced barons and commons alike that he was a just and sincere man, a friend of good governance, and an honest opponent of arbitrary and unconstitutional rule. He had become such a thorough Englishman in his views and prejudices, that by 1250 he was esteemed the natural exponent of all the wrongs of the realm. He was austere and religious; many of his closest friends were among the more saintly of the national clergy. By the end of his life the man who had started as the kings unpopular minion was known as Earl Simon the Righteous, and had become the respected leader of the national opposition to his royal brother-in-law.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.