The Battle of Lewes, 14th May 1264, by Darren Baker author of With All for All: The Life of Simon de Montfort
14th May marks the anniversary of one of those events which most people in England have probably never heard of and yet which has influenced how they live their lives today. On this day in 1264 an army under Simon de Montfort defeated and captured King Henry III in and around the town of Lewes, Sussex. Under the resulting peace treaty, Henry agreed to abide by the Provisions of Oxford, the reforms that had been enacted as a reaction to his personal rule and a court packed with foreign favourites.
It was Henry’s disregard of these Provisions that ultimately led to the armed conflict. Now, with the King under his control, Montfort summoned Parliament in the aftermath of Lewes to make these reforms a permanent fixture of government. England thus became, for all intents and purposes, a constitutional monarchy, the first of its kind in Western Europe. Montfort took this political evolution a step further when he expanded the representational base of his next Parliament six months later. A year later Henry’s son, the future Edward I, escaped from custody, raised an army, and had the Montfortian leadership massacred at Evesham, but there was no undoing their work. From that point on, Parliament would not only be the national forum for matters of state, but would have the final word on all taxation.
That’s just the historical perspective of why Lewes is such an important, if neglected, event in British history. If a battle can be said to have endearing features, Lewes is certainly one of the few: there was the exchange of letters between both camps as they tried to find a way out of what had become a bitter standoff; there was Edward himself, who cost his father the battle by going off on a murderous joyride against the London contingent because they had pelted and insulted his mother the queen the year before; and there was the windmill, where Henry’s brother Richard sought shelter after his line crumbled. Richard took great pride in the fact that he was the titular 'King of the Romans' and the Montfortian soldiers had a merry ole time parading him through the streets of Lewes afterwards covered in the dirt and grime of the windmill.
The place where the windmill stood is marked today, as are many other parts of the battlefield. The impressive memorial to the battle can be found near the ruins of the priory, where Henry and Edward holed up after the battle. The castle is still standing and commands the best view of the South Downs, where Montfort assembled his troops for their advance on the town. There is no statue or marker on the ridge of the Downs denoting, for example, Montfort addressing his men (‘Today we fight for the sake of the realm of England’), but it’s just as well, for it better re-creates the atmosphere of that momentous day 751 years ago.
For more on Simon de Montfort have a look at Darren Baker's biography With All for All: The Life of Simon de Montfort.