London 1264: from Magna Carta to Montfort’s Parliament.

As part of our series on Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s parliament, Ian Stone, a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, discusses how a recent discovery among the records of the Corporation of London shows just how tightly bound the citizens of London had become to Simon de Montfort’s regime in advance of Montfort’s famous parliament of 1265…

In December 1264 Simon de Montfort summoned his famous parliament, ‘the House of Commons in embryo’, to meet in London on 20 January 1265. This assembly marked a first in the history of England and of parliament, for its attendees were not just the earls, the lords (ecclesiastical and lay), the barons and the knights of the shires, but the townsmen of England too. Montfort, in seeking to build as wide a base as possible for his regime, required every major town to send two representatives to this assembly; but the men of the Cinque Ports and London, his most loyal supporters, were asked to send four men. The Portsmen and the Londoners were being both recognised and rewarded for their steadfast adherence to the baronial cause.

The period of Reform and Rebellion had begun at a parliament at Westminster in April 1258 when an armed baronial delegation marched in on King Henry III and demanded that the state of the kingdom ‘be put in order, corrected and reformed’. With this action Henry III’s ill-fated personal rule came crashing down around his ears. The Lond0ners had, on the whole, allied with the reformers from the start: in July 1258 the citizens had ‘immediately’ affixed London’s communal seal to a text of the Provisions of Oxford; in July 1263, following a violent outburst of pro-Montfortian rioting, the ‘whole commune’ of London had professed their support for the wider reforms now known as the Provisions of Oxford; and in December 1263 the Londoners had broken down the gate at London Bridge to allow Montfort and his army escape being trapped by the king’s forces outside of the city walls. As we shall see, however, it was to be during 1264 that the Londoners would really prove their worth to the baronial regime.

In January 1264 the country hovered on the brink of civil war and, in a last ditch attempt at reconciliation, the rival parties agreed to submit all matters to King Louis IX of France for arbitration. First among the baronial reformers’ list of ‘grievances which had oppressed the land of England’ was the complaint that the king was not upholding Magna Carta. Doubtless many in London would have been fully in agreement with the reformers here: after all, clause nine of Henry III’s Magna Carta promised London its ‘ancient liberties and free customs’, yet on ten occasions between 1239 and 1257 the king had suspended London’s liberties, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. When Louis’s judgment came down emphatically in Henry’s favour, the London alderman and chronicler, Arnold fitz Thedmar, writing his account of these events within a few months of Louis’s judgment was equally as emphatic: the Londoners, the men of the Cinque Ports and ‘almost all the ordinary people of England’ objected to Louis’s award. The attempt at arbitration had failed and across the country civil war broke out.

By 10 March 1264, if not earlier, bands of Londoners led by Hugh Despenser were attacking exchequer and royal officers in London, as well as ravaging the lands of not just royalists but even members of the royal family in the home counties. In his chronicle Arnold fitz Thedmar wrote that soon afterwards the barons and men of London were joined together by oath, but historians have made little of this rather jejeune entry. However, the text of this remarkable oath has recently been discovered in a document found among the records of the Corporation of London [subscription required]. What this document shows is that twenty-one leading Montfortians, of whom one was Thomas fitz Thomas, mayor of London representing the commune of the city, swore an oath on 31 March 1264. In taking this oath these reformers promised faithfully that ‘from this hour [we] will hold together, both us and all those who hold themselves with us in all rightful quarrels. And to save our liberties and customs and maintain them against all those who would wrongfully wish to do us violence’. Moreover, this document also confirms that subsequently every man in London over the age of twelve made a similar pledge on the gospels that he would ‘maintain the same oath’. In a repeat of the events of May 1215 which led up to the sealing of Magna Carta, the Londoners and the reformers had allied themselves together by a solemn oath; this time, however, in defence of their cherished liberties.

How seriously the men of London were to keep to the terms of this oath was soon to be tested. On 14 May 1264 many hundreds of Londoners lined up with their baronial allies on the battlefield at Lewes in Sussex. Against them, outnumbering them, and with superior weaponry were the royalist forces. Despite this inferiority it was the Montfortians who won the day with a victory so complete that not only did they capture the king, they also took his eldest son, Prince Edward; Henry’s brother Richard, king of Germany and earl of Cornwall; and Richard’s son, Henry of Almain. Montfort now took control at the centre and it was in an attempt to secure the peace and legitimise his regime that he called his famous parliament six months later. According to one contemporary chronicler, however, the victory at Lewes had been bought with the blood of the men of London. Oath-bound to the Montfortian regime, and having proven their worth on the field of battle, Montfort made sure that the Londoners were rewarded for their unfaltering support.

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Ian is currently working on a new edition of Arnold fitz Thedmar’s chronicle; he also teaches Latin and history at Morley College London.

You can read  all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament is also marking the 2015 anniversaries with a series of events: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes an exhibition in Westminster Hall, The Beginnings of that Freedome’, which we were delighted to work with them on the accompanying text. 

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