King Henry III of England, the son of King John, reigned for fifty-six years from 1216 to 1272, one of the longest reigns on record. He was nine when he came to the throne, sixty-five when he died. We know more about Henry, on a day-to-day basis, than any other medieval monarch. This is thanks to the thousands of letters he issued every year. These were written for him by the clerks of the chancery and were sealed with the great seal. Before they were sent out, copies were recorded on parchment rolls. While the originals of the letters are mostly lost, the rolls survive in England’s National Archives at Kew. Some of the letters, dealing with standard administrative matters, had little input from the king, but others are highly personal and were probably dictated by him. They cast a graphic light on his character and lifestyle. Such light is missing for earlier kings when such copy rolls either were not kept or do not survive. Copy rolls do survive for later kings but cease to record their personal letters.
The letters show Henry as warm hearted, open handed, physically lazy, and full of fun. When he went to see the Roman baths at Bath, he had his jester thrown in. We know that because, the next day, Henry issued a letter giving the jester a new suit of clothes to replace those ruined by the ducking! The letters also show Henry as a connoisseur of art and architecture, who lived in comfort surrounded by paintings and images speaking to his regality and religiosity. Henry was indeed deeply pious, being widely regarded as a “most Christian king.” The letters reveal just how close was the connection between politics and religion. In the 1250s, when embarking on a scheme to place his second son on the throne of Sicily, a scheme widely regarded as completely impossible, Henry explained he was going ahead because he believed God was on his side. After all, God was able to quell tempests and move mountains, so obviously he could also bring a happy end to the Sicilian project. Henry believed this all the more strongly because, or so he believed, interceding for his success at God’s right hand was his patron saint, Edward the Confessor, the last king of the old Anglo-Saxon line, who was buried in Westminster Abbey. It was to honor the Confessor and win his favor that Henry rebuilt the Abbey, creating the magnificent church surviving to this day. Standing out from the letters is the impatience and enthusiasm with which Henry drove forward the Abbey and other commissions. A new hall is to be completed in time for the king’s arrival even if a thousand workmen have to labor night and day. A new golden cup is to be finished by Christmas, whatever the cost, so that the king can see the queen drink from it and be content.
The letters have many examples of what contemporaries called Henry’s “simplicity,” a word best translated perhaps as naivety. It got him into many scrapes, including the Sicilian affair. Sometimes wiser heads told him what to do. In one extraordinary letter, written while in France, Henry informed the kingdom he was now returning home, the king of France, Louis IX (later Saint Louis), having told him, in a personal interview, it was shameful to be absent for so long! It had come to something when the king of France had to teach the king of England his duty. Henry’s unwisdom was the more unfortunate because he was a king in a new and difficult age. He was the first English monarch restricted by Magna Carta and the first challenged by the power of parliament. His personal rule culminated in a revolution stripping him of power. He was deemed “insufficient” for the government of the kingdom. Yet Henry’s passivity and piety had brought many years of peace to England. In the end, it helped him survive the years of revolution. He died with the realm at peace and was buried in the new Abbey he had built at Westminster, his greatest achievement.
David Carpenter is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He has published widely on the reign of Henry III and in 2015 wrote a new study of Magna Carta for the Penguin Classics series.