The later years of the thirteenth century reign of king Henry III were dominated by a constitutional crisis, which degenerated into civil war. Opposing the king’s attempts to raise more money, incensed by his methods of government, were a coterie of leading barons, led by Henry’s own brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort. Fearing Henry was attempting to centralize power in his own hands, reversing some of the powers and freedoms the baronial rebellions against his father king John had won.
The baronial discontent tuned in with a general rumble of anger in the country, caused by widespread famine and hunger in the 1250s and ‘60s. As a result the barons were able to recruit sections of the populace to their cause.
In 1258, initiating the move toward reform, seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of twenty-four barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a great council in the form of a parliament every three years, to monitor their performance.
However, the king soon reneged on this agreement, precipitating a struggle with de Montfort over control of the royal council and state policy.
London was of course divided, but there was a groundswell of popular support for de Montfort and the reformers. Although many of the aldermen and leading merchants were firmly behind the king, de Montfort and his allies learned to circumvent them by appealing to the popular opinion of London.
In London popular politics was often expressed through the folkmoot, an open assembly of citizens, held in what would later be the northeast corner of St. Paul’s churchyard (more extensive than it is now), close to the food markets of Cornmarket and Cheapside, which was then the effective nucleus of the city,
Earlier in the struggle the king had used the folkmoot against his opponents – harnessing the popular voice against the power of the City faction resisting the king, and using the authority it conferred to replace them with his own supporters. De Montfort now reversed this process, arousing popular support to push for his demand for a reform of royal government. The folkmoot was susceptible to pressure and manipulation by interested parties – the fact that its support was utterly reversed in the course of a few years may indicate a swing in opinion, or that the relevant meetings were packed.
But beyond the directed, considered alliance of leading citizens with the barons, there was a rage and rebelliousness, which has often characterized London politics, and which these respectable rebels would often flirt with, tap for allies, but fear at the same time. The uncontrollable violence of the London mob, sometimes progressive, sometimes reactionary and xenophobic – often, outbreaks had elements of both. Hatred of the royal family broke out in 1263 as de Montfort marshalled opposition to king Henry.
Henry refused to give in to de Montfort’s demand for the 1258 Provisions to be restored – sparking an uprising across half the country. In London, the king and queen locked themselves in the Tower as panic swept the capital. His attempt to raise a loan in the City to pay for troops was rejected, and his son, Edward, raided the New Temple on June 26th 1263 for cash. Order collapsed, and people poured into the streets, armed, as the aldermen tried to persuade the king to surrender.
Throughout late June and early July armed bands hunted down royalists, attacked their houses, and daily demonstrations thronged the streets. Leaders emerged from the crowds (their enemies, temporarily impotent, marked down 50 names of those they considered leaders of the popular movement). The uprising of the lower orders pushed the London authorities to make an alliance with de Montfort; the king, who had been besieged in the Tower, announced his surrender to their terms on July 16th. The husting and aldermannic government were set aside and the populace, led by a revolutionary mayor, governed through the folkmoot and reasserted control of the mayoral election. The ‘whole commune’ of London professed their support for the baronial reforms.
But the struggle was to continue, with the balance of power see-sawing between the parties, and erupt into pitched battles between the king’s party and de Montfort’s. In December 1263 the Londoners broke 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.
By March 1264, 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. And in May that year, many hundreds of Londoners lined up with their baronial allies on the battlefield at Lewes in Sussex, where king henry was defeated by de Montfort’s forces.
Though de Montfort then took over the government, calling the first real representative Parliament, he was killed in 1265 by royal troops. Revenge on Londoners who were known to have been prominent in support of the reform party was swift – hundreds of Londoners were rounded up, 60 leading citizens were taken as hostages, the property of several was seized by the royal party. A number of Londoners (or people who happened to have been there when the fighting started!) totally unconnected with the wars were arrested, robbed and imprisoned in various parts of the country, in an orgy of retribution.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online