With a terrible flourish of trumpets, Edward Plantagenet, prince of England, led his mounted knights at full gallop toward the infantry of Simon de Montfort, who were charging down Offham Hill to meet them. The rattling armor of the knights added to the din made by the shouting men, rearing horses and thudding hooves. Earl Simon’s foot soldiers, a contingent of volunteers from London, were lightly armed and inexperienced in battle. Prince Edward’s horsemen charged right through their ranks, chopping with swords, axes and maces. After recovering from the shock, the surviving Londoners dropped their weapons and ran from the field. Most of them tried unsuccessfully to hide among the rocks and hollows along the slope. The opening phase of the Battle of Lewes on the morning of Wednesday, May 14, 1264, was turning into a rout for Earl Simon’s outnumbered army and a rousing triumph for the royalist forces of King Henry III of England.
Henry and Simon had been at odds with each other for years, though it had not always been so. Born in Montfort d’Aumauri, Normandy, in 1208, Simon de Montfort had come to England in 1230 to reclaim land owned by his family. King Henry liked the young Norman nobleman and not only gave him his lands but also made him earl of Leicester. In return, Simon promised to pay a fee of 100 pounds sterling and supply 60 knights in time of war, and was made the king’s steward. Simon, however, secretly married the king’s widowed sister, Eleanor, in 1238, without asking Henry’s approval. Their friendship cooled from that point. Moreover, while the marriage gave the ambitious Simon financial security and a sudden rise in social position, it earned him the enmity of the church, to which Eleanor had taken an oath of perpetual widowhood after the death of her first husband.
When the king’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, organized a party of English knights for the Crusades, Simon — deciding it might be best if he left the country for awhile — volunteered to go with him, and took Eleanor as far as Italy. He returned to show his martial mettle in 1248, when Henry appointed him governor of Gascony. Fending off French challenges to the territory earned the earl a reputation as ‘the wisest and stoutest warrior in England,’ but the king envied his prowess and distrusted his ambition. For his part, Simon came to see that Henry was neither a strong military leader nor a forceful king. The adjective most often used by contemporaries to describe the king was’simple.’
The denouement began in May 1258, when Simon and the leading members of England’s nobility confronted the king and demanded a more active role in running the country. There was a precedent for this, of course — the Magna Carta, signed by Henry’s father, King John, in 1215, had guaranteed a number of rights to all Englishmen on paper, with the barons gaining the most power in practice. When John died in 1216, loyal barons had done most of the decision making for the 9-year-old King Henry III. Now, fearing the prospect of civil war, Henry agreed to the Provisions of Oxford, whereby the king would submit all decisions to an advisory council consisting of 15 barons, including Simon — a forerunner of Parliament.
Needless to say, Henry did not take kindly to the provisions or to the restrictions they imposed. He was soon ignoring the barons’ advice and tried buying them off with gifts whenever they complained. That failed to deter Simon, however, who insisted on a permanent council. The dispute between the king and his brother-in-law festered for six years, until they both agreed to have King Louis IX of France act as arbitrator to settle their differences. In January 1264, at a gathering known as the Mise of Amiens, Louis annulled the provisions. The French king opposed limitations of royal power on principle, and informed Earl Simon that he had no right to interfere with Henry or his government.
Louis’ judgment left Simon with a choice: either give up his dream of curbing royal power and authority, or fight. The earl decided to fight.
In the coming conflict, Simon would be able to call on a slightly larger number of men than the king. Of the 400 mid-13th-century knights known by name, only about 100 were recognized as royalists — though it has also been estimated that there were as many as 12,000 knights throughout the kingdom.
Besides those mounted knights, contingents of armed tradesmen from London and other cities also sided with the barons. These levies tended not to be very well trained, however. On one occasion, a group of Henry’s courtiers broke up a drill parade of one of the amateur units, informing the men that the profession of arms was ‘not fit for bran-dealers, soap-boilers, and clowns.’
Both Henry and Simon spent the spring of 1264 preparing for war. On Palm Sunday, April 5, Henry’s eldest son, Prince Edward, captured the town of Northampton from the barons. One of Edward’s prisoners was Earl Simon’s son. Northampton’s most determined defenders turned out to be a group of Oxford scholars who shot at Edward’s men with longbows, crossbows and slings.
Simon retaliated by laying siege to Rochester Castle on the Medway River in Kent. The royalist garrison managed to beat back each attack, however, and held off the barons for eight days. Late in April the earl received word that Henry and his army were threatening to attack London, one of the barons’ main strongholds. Simon immediately broke off the siege and began marching northwest, hoping to intercept Henry before he could reach the city.
Unknown to Simon, the king actually had no interest in London. What he wanted was control of Kent and Sussex, the land between London and the English Channel ports. If he could control that part of England, he could keep communications open with France and his allies there. Therefore, instead of moving on London, Henry attacked a baronial unit outside Rochester. Some of the prisoners he took were tortured — this may have been the age of chivalry, but it was honored more in word than in deed and was usually reserved for the noble classes.
From Rochester, the royal forces moved southeast. Earl Simon’s castle at Tonbridge was captured on May 1. The king’s army then went on to Winchelsea and Romney. Outside Romney, Welsh archers who supported the earl harassed the king’s men from the cover of woods along the roadway.
Henry’s harried men stopped at Lewes, in Sussex near the Channel coast. Earl Simon’s army was right behind and camped at Fletching, eight miles to the north. King Henry spent the night in the priory at St. Pancras, about half a mile south of Lewes, while his 21-year-old son Edward took up residence in Lewes Castle, west of the town.
The royalists enjoyed a decided numerical advantage at Lewes, and the hotheaded young Prince Edward was spoiling for a fight. On May 13, the bishops of Chichester, London and Worcester delivered terms on Simon’s behalf to King Henry. Simon offered to withdraw his army and pay Henry 50,000 marks if the king said he would promise to obey the annulled Provisions of Oxford. The royalists had nothing but contempt for the earl and his terms, the acceptance of which both Henry and Edward would have regarded as an admission of weakness. Henry rejected the offer, and Edward remarked that he would only be satisfied when Earl Simon was hanged for treason.
Now realizing that battle was inevitable, Simon led his men out of Fletching that evening and stopped just north of Lewes. His commanders suggested a night attack against the royalist forces, but Simon rejected it — attacking under cover of darkness, he said, would be cowardly, treacherous and dishonorable. Instead, the baronial forces did not begin moving south toward Lewes until first light on May 14. Simon turned off the roadway at the town of Offham, and his men began trudging up the side of Offham Hill.
Offham Hill is steep and high, overlooking the neighboring countryside for miles. A lookout could have seen the baronial army well in advance and sent a warning to Lewes. Luck was with Earl Simon that morning, however. His advance scouts found only one royalist lookout on the hill, and he was fast asleep. The surprised sentry was taken prisoner, and the army continued undetected toward Lewes.
When forward units came within sight of the bell tower of St. Pancras priory, where King Henry still slept, the baronial army halted and was formed into divisions by its commanders. The exact size of Simon’s force is not known, but most sources put it between 4,000 and 5,000 men, with an additional 600 cavalry. Not only were his troops outnumbered, but most of Simon’s most experienced and trusted commanders had also been taken prisoner in earlier skirmishes.
The baronial army, whose men were described as dressing in Crusader style with a red cross on a white shift, deployed in the customary three divisions, or ‘battles.’ The center was commanded by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, one of Simon’s most trusted lieutenants, also known as Gilbert the Red. The right was led by Henry de Montfort, Simon’s son and an experienced soldier in his own right. At the head of the left wing was Sir Henry de Hastings, a veteran of two Welsh campaigns. Though Sir Henry was an excellent commander, Simon expected little from his battle, since it consisted primarily of lightly armed Londoners with little or no combat experience.
As a reserve, another force of Londoners was placed behind the three main battles. Far to the rear were the baggage wagons, along with Simon’s personal cart, described as a four-wheeled chariot. The earl had recently broken his leg by falling from his horse and had had to direct operations from that cart, but at that time it was occupied by three frightened London businessmen who had been caught trying to sell information to Prince Edward. Simon would decide what to do about them after the battle.
By that time, the royalist army had been alerted and was drawn up for combat. Its estimated 9,000 men included 1,500 armored knights. At its head was King Henry himself, who had elected to lead his supporters despite his own military deficiencies. At his left was his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who liked to call himself ‘King of the Romans.’ Commanding the right battle was Prince Edward.
Much has been made of Prince Edward’s military skill, and he has been romanticized at great length as ‘Longshanks’ and ‘Hammer of the Scots.’ Edward, however, was also greedy, sadistic and violent — attributes his adoring official biographers tend to overlook. In one instance, witnesses reported that he ‘horribly mutilated’ a young man he met on the street, for no apparent reason. He also stood by and watched as some of his men looted a priory at Wallingford — afterward, he probably collected his share of the loot. Edward’s courage remains undisputed, but his glaring character flaws also played a large part in his military career. His cruelty and obsession with vengeance would affect his judgment as much as his more publicized traits.
The royalists had advanced only about a quarter mile from Lewes when Earl Simon ordered the three battles of his force to charge — by taking the initiative, he reasoned, his outnumbered army would have an advantage. It is not known who on the royalist side first saw the charge coming and gave the order, but the order was given, and soon both sides were rushing toward each other.
The cavalry made contact first, as mounted knights crashed into each other with a clang of armor. Almost at once, the ordered ranks disintegrated, and the fight broke into individual combats as horsemen hammered and hacked at each other with maces and long, heavy swords. Some fell to the ground, their armor split. The chain mail that predominated among them could stop a blow from a club or mace, but the impact would pass right through it, often resulting in broken bones and hemorrhaging. The odd pieces of plate armor they wore and their flat-topped, cylindrical helmets were more effective against most weapons, although a heavy sword could split even plate. The horses too were sometimes protected with coverings of chain mail, leather or quilted cloth, depending on what the individual knight could afford.
Simon’s left wing, commanded by de Hastings, was confronted by the royalist right, led by Prince Edward. Only a thin line of armored knights stood between Edward and his paladins and Sir Henry’s green London infantrymen. Outnumbered, the baronial horse soon began falling back, leaving the line of foot to absorb Edward’s next charge.Foot soldiers, including archers, wore a padded doublet called a gambeson that helped soften the impact of a club or mace. The primary infantry weapon was the spear, but some of Simon’s London contingent may have picked up pitchforks, scythes or other farm implements during the march.
Even experienced infantrymen would have been hard-pressed to hold their own under the conditions that de Hastings’ men faced at Lewes. Sir Henry’s raw London troops had no chance at all. They broke ranks and fled. Some headed toward the west, hoping to hide in the woods, while others tried to escape across the Ouse River to the east.Edward, sensing an easy victory, gave chase. Besides tactical reasons for launching a pursuit, he had a personal grudge against Londoners because of the way they had treated his mother the year before — as her barge had passed under London Bridge, crowds threw stones and rotten fruit at her. Now the prince was determined to have his revenge. For about four miles, he and his horsemen pursued the Londoners and cut down a large number of them. About 60 men also drowned in the Ouse.
In the course of that pursuit, Edward’s cavalry came upon Earl Simon’s baggage train, as well as his personal cart. Expecting to find the earl, the royalists were disappointed to find only three prisoners. Without bothering to inquire their identity or which side they were on, the horsemen killed the captives — apparently, having cut down so many men already, three more did not seem to matter.
Edward’s men took their time looting Earl Simon’s baggage after killing most of the men who had been left to defend it. By the time he gathered his scattered horsemen and led them back to the battlefield at Lewes, it was early afternoon. Edward was confident that the royal force had routed the barons. Instead, he discovered that Simon had won full possession of the field, that his father was being held prisoner in St. Pancras priory and that the royal forces were in full retreat.
During Edward’s wild pursuit of the London contingent, the battle had been lost — as a direct result, in fact, of his ill-judged chase. When he saw the prince’s right wing, one-third of the royalist forces, go charging off into the distance and out of the battle, Simon had brought up his reserves and attacked the royalist center and left battles en masse. The earl probably did not lead the attack himself, but he took part in the wild melee of individual combats that ensued.
King Henry, though not as renowned as his son for battlefield exploits, reportedly fought honorably and well at Lewes. His gaudy red-and-gold banner made it easy for everyone on both sides to recognize him on the field, and he had two chargers killed from under him as he managed to fight off a determined attack by Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester. He soon realized, however, that he was fighting a losing battle. Outnumbered, the king and his household knights retreated to St. Pancras priory. Only the steadfastness of his life guards saved him from death. One of his knights, Philip Basset, left the field with 20 wounds.
The commander of the royalist left, Richard of Cornwall, also acquitted himself well, but he did not have the king’s household cavalry to support him. Ultimately his outnumbered force also broke and ran toward the Ouse. Cornwall himself sought shelter in a mill, which came to be known as the Mill of the Hide.
The mill was quickly surrounded by an armed mob that gathered outside waving weapons, calling Cornwall obscene names and demanding that he surrender to them. Realizing that he had no choice but to comply, Cornwall emerged from his hiding place and was marched through Lewes by his captors. The mob relished every bit of the irony in seeing the king’s brother, who had grandly insisted on calling himself the King of Rome, covered in the dust and dirt of the mill from which he had been flushed.Prince Edward and his lieutenants managed to size up the situation at once. He was all for reviving the battle and attacking Simon de Montfort personally, convinced that if he killed the earl, the baronial cause would die with him. His men, however, wanted no part of that plan. They were now heavily outnumbered and stood little chance of finding Simon, let alone slaying him.
While Edward’s commander left the field and rode off to the south, the prince and a handful of followers decided to fight their way to St. Pancras. Their reward when they reached the priory was to be taken prisoner as well. Edward’s reward for his final act of impious valor was that he remained a hostage for more than a year.
After spending a night in the priory with his son and his followers as captives, Henry agreed on May 15 to discuss terms with Earl Simon. Throughout the day’s negotiations, priests acted as intermediaries, coming and going between the priory and Simon’s headquarters in the town of Lewes. No copy of the treaty, the Mise of Lewes, has survived, and nobody has recorded exactly what its conditions might have been. It is certain, however, that it left Simon de Montfort with more power and prestige than he had had before — and King Henry with less.
With that agreement sealed, there remained the unpleasant task of disposing of the slain. The streets of Lewes were lined with dead and wounded, and most of the latter would also die. The abbot of St. Pancras priory put the number of dead at 2,700, most of them peasants.
The helmets and armor of the knights was more than the average peasant could afford. A second reason for class disparity in the number killed was the profit motive — a captured knight could be held ransom for a considerable sum, determined by his rank and station, whereas a peasant soldier was worth nothing but killing.
In 1846, during construction of a railway line through the site of St. Pancras priory, excavators discovered a mass of human bones in a well about 18 feet below ground level. There were enough bones to fill 13 freight cars — probably well over 1,000 skeletons. The bones were taken from the site and unloaded a short distance away, where they were used as fill for an embankment then under construction. Whether they were the remains of Henry’s or Simon’s men is unknown.
After the Battle of Lewes, England had two rulers. Henry was still king, but Earl Simon, Gilbert the Red and the Bishop of Chichester headed a committee of barons, church leaders and two representatives of each town who held control over the rights and power of the crown.
Simon’s de facto reign would be colorful but brief. After Gilbert, accusing Simon himself of behaving too much like a king, met with Prince Edward and raised an army against him, the earl would die fighting at the Battle of Evesham on August 3, 1265. For the time being, however, as Winston Churchill wrote in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, ‘Simon de Montfort was now in every respect master of England.’
This article was written by David A. Johnson and originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!