The Battle of Evesham 1265 AD I

By John Sadler

Edward’s masterly raid on Kenilworth had blunted the potential thrust from the younger Simon; the father would be a much tougher nut to crack. De Montfort had incurred much opprobrium in seeking to provide for his brood: he could possibly have overcome this had not the sons themselves exacerbated the problem by flaunting their own hubris. Not only were they arrogant, they were ruthlessly avaricious and notably prone to violence. It is said that, on the field of Evesham, as the baronial army toiled up the slope to its fate, Simon rebuked his son Henry, accusing him that it was their greed which had brought about the fall. This may be apocryphal but it has a certain ring of veracity. The baronial forces had finally crossed the crucial barrier of the Severn at Clevelode, located in the manor of Kempsey and owned by a stout Montfortian, Walter de Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester.

Advance to contact

As Carpenter points out, there is a measure of confusion as to the elder Simon’s movements in those first, crucial days of August; Ramsay, Oman and Burne all assert that the earl quit Kempsey on 3 August and marched the dozen and more miles to Evesham that day. The current view, however, based upon a rereading of the chronicle sources is that the advance to Evesham took place only during the hours of darkness on the night of 3 – 4 August and that the baronial army arrived at Evesham on the morning of the 4th, just prior to the battle. Cox follows the contemporary view, considering that Simon marched from Kempsey at dusk (say 7.30 pm) and thus reached Evesham just after sunrise (at that time of the year around 4.43 am), certainly before the expiry of the first hour (5.58 am). By the evening of the 3rd the earl would have been aware of his son’s difficulties and the success of the royalist descent. He would have viewed this as a setback rather than a disaster; Simon the Younger’s army was beaten but not destroyed – he had ‘lost not all his power . . . but kept a great host’. There was no reason why he could not lead forces to Evesham for a juncture on the 4th. The town itself would, in any event, be a sensible staging point if de Montfort intended simply to march toward Kenilworth and join his son there.

For the whole of 3 August, then, or at least during the long, hot hours of day, neither army moved. Some writers find this anomalous, and yet, certainly in Edward’s case, his men would have desperately needed rest. The foot may not have marched far, but the horse had ridden the hard miles to Kenilworth, fought a sharp little action and then ridden back to Worcester; neither men nor mounts would be immediately ready to deploy again. Edward could derive satisfaction from the knowledge that he had significantly blunted young Simon’s spear, but it was not broken; if he could be joined by the earl then the Montfortians would combine into a very substantial army. The royalists had no grounds for complacency – Robert of Gloucester tells us that the army from Kenilworth, their earlier losses notwithstanding, had by the morning of 4 August advanced as far as Alcester, a mere nine miles north of Evesham. One cannot but wonder if, had the younger Simon possessed the drive and energy of his father, matters might still have ended very differently.

Through the short summer night, the heat of day still heavy on dust-laden roads, the baronial army moved; if we assume a marching speed of 2½ mph then reaching Evesham in the first light or morning would be no great hardship. The route would have taken it onto what is now the A44, crossing the Avon firstly at Pershore and then again by the bridge at Evesham, standing south-east of the abbey complex. On reaching the town, Earl Simon, together with the captive king, no better than a recalcitrant mascot, heard early mass and, on Henry’s peevish insistence, took some modest refreshment; Simon, unbendingly austere, at first demurred. He had weighty matters on his mind: effecting union with his son’s forces was but part of his intention; the rest was to put some ground between himself and the royalists, whom he still believed to be at Worcester. The four miles between there and Kempsey had been far too close for comfort: over the past weeks the morale of his men had been severely tested, and the news from Kenilworth was not calculated to raise the spirits.

Edward had two key objectives, both urgent – he must first prevent a junction of his enemies and, second, he should bring Earl Simon to battle on favourable ground as soon as possible. An advance to Evesham, if properly timed, would place the royalists between the two baronial divisions, thus frustrating a juncture and would, if executed with due swiftness, place them on ground which would facilitate a death blow to the earl’s army. Evesham is a pleasant market town; it is remarkable in that it is surrounded on three sides by the Avon, which flows around east, south and west in a loop so that the northern approach, with the ground rising markedly heading out of the town, is the only clear direction of access and egress. It is at the top of the rise that the three roads coming in from Alcester, Worcester and Stratford all join and that into the town descends Green Hill – probably the same line as the present A435 (T). Though no evidence of rig and furrow can be detected, it is possible that the ground was farmed; there is mention of ‘East and West fields’. Cox suggests that a straggle of orchards and enclosures surrounded the town and that Green Hill itself with the ground beyond was common pasture, easy ground upon which to deploy troops.

At this time town and abbey were nestled against the head of the loop; the abbey with its attendant parochial chapels was the most distinguished building by far, and parklands stretched down to the river, with the streets concentrated just north of the abbey precincts, around the bridge at Bengeworth; this key crossing was the only means whereby an army could enter the town from the south. If the bridge was sealed off then any defenders within the town would be forced to either defend the place or attempt to break out northwards. As matters stood in the early hours of 4 August, his men having marched all night, Simon, of course, did not intend to fight a battle. He had no aversion to fighting, but the odds would not be even until he had joined his son; for the meantime he had to keep out of reach of the royalists.

Sir Charles Oman accepts that Edward had divided his army into three corps and that these advanced through the hours of darkness on the night of 3 – 4 August. Oman is content to suggest that by first light they too were approaching Evesham and that the prince came from the north (Worcester – Flyford – Dunnington – Norton); de Clare marched on his right, thus approaching from the north-west (Worcester – Wyre – Craycombe), whilst Mortimer came up on the western flank (Worcester – Pershore – Hampton). The chronicler Trevet tells us Prince Edward marched from Worcester and traversed a river by a settlement he calls ‘Clive’ – this location has since been associated with Cleeve Prior on the Avon. It lies some fifteen miles east of Worcester and some five miles north-east of Evesham; there was a ford here and the Evesham – Stratford – Kenilworth road runs through it. That the army was divided into three marching corps is supported by Guisborough, Trevet and the Evesham chronicler; the latter confirms that these several axes of advance effectively penned the earl’s forces within the town and the encircling loop of the Avon.

The road which passes through Cleeve Prior is that which leads to Kenilworth: by cutting this, therefore, Edward had effectively blocked Earl Simon’s route. This presupposes that de Montfort was intending to march on Kenilworth; if his objective was in fact Alcester then this road too would have to be controlled – to cover one and not the other was pointless. It is generally accepted that at or before Cleeve, de Clare’s corps was detached to approach Evesham via the Alcester road; common sense would validate this. Wykes, however, offers confirmation when he states that one corps of the royal army was hidden from the eyes of the baronial division in Evesham by rising ground – all concur this must refer to Green Hill.

There is less consensus as to the approach of the third royalist corps under Mortimer and the role the marchers played in the subsequent battle; the debate is somewhat convoluted but is essential to our fuller understanding of the course of the deployment and ensuing combat. It is possible that the prince, having crossed at Cleeve and detached Clare’s corps to cover the Alcester road, reached Offenham on the east bank of the Avon, some two miles north of the town – it was here he then detached Mortimer’s corps to sweep around to the west and block the exit by securing the bridge at Bengeworth. The prince then used the ford and bridge at Offenham to bring his own corps to the west bank and unite with de Clare.6 Both Ramsay and Burne take this view, but Carpenter points out that Guisborough, one of our chief sources, is emphatic that, from the defender’s perspective, Edward’s corps approached from the north, and Mortimer from the west and to the rear.

Sir Charles Oman, however, takes the view that Mortimer’s corps was detached from the outset and marched via a different route, actually following that taken by Simon; this is, at least in part, favoured by Carpenter and Tony Spicer, and has much to recommend it. The inherent logic is that though Edward with his own and de Clare’s corps had cut both the Kenilworth and Alcester roads, the trap was not fully set unless de Montfort’s possible line of escape from the town was also sealed. Had the earl marched from Evesham to the north and found his line of advance checked, he could simply have turned about and escaped south or westwards over the bridge across which he had earlier entered Evesham. This would not have been an easy manoeuvre but it would have been possible; Earl Simon was a general who drilled and trained his men, and Edward knew his formidable uncle should never be underestimated. For present purposes I propose to accept that this was indeed the case. Carpenter disagrees with Oman in that he rejects the notion Mortimer was detached from the commencement of the night march. If Edward marched along the Flyford – Dunnington road his army would have been some seven miles to the north of de Montfort’s movement along the Pershore – Evesham route. If this was the case, and given that these manoeuvres took place entirely in the dark, neither army could have had any real idea as to the whereabouts of the other.

Carpenter avers that the royalists in fact followed the line of the present B4084. De Montfort, as mentioned, came onto what is now the direction of the A44 just before Pershore. This alternative puts the armies no more than two miles distant and on a parallel course, separated by the river barrier of the Avon. If this was so, and the logic is compelling, then it was at the village of Fladbury that Mortimer’s corps was detached; the Avon could be forded at Cropthorne, and Earl Simon’s army followed as it entered Evesham. This must surely be the correct interpretation and Oman has not fully considered the difficulties in taking medieval armies over largely unknown roads during darkness. When the royalists left Worcester there was no clear understanding that Evesham was their goal, and to have detached Mortimer at this point would have been tactically unsound. Edward’s intention was simple: to shadow and entrap the baronial forces, whilst giving de Montfort no hint of what they were about; if the earl was alerted he could have taken steps to slip the snare that was tightening around him. To succeed Edward must delay that moment of recognition until it was too late to avert the looming catastrophe. In this he was entirely successful.

Once Mortimer had taken the fork at Fladbury, Edward, with his and de Clare’s corps, may have quit the line of the B4084 and marched north to cut the Alcester road just short of the hamlet of Norton;8 de Clare was detached here whilst the prince’s corps continued its march for a further distance of 2½ miles to reach Cleeve. Carpenter suggests that using the crossings at Offenham was avoided as this considerably increased the risk of observation, even if, by then, it was barely light; nonetheless the passage of a large number of armed men would have been likely to attract attention in a quiet countryside. Cox prefers to rely on an assertion put forward by the Evesham chronicler that the two corps jointly climbed the rise of Green Hill by a venerable stone marker identified as Siflaed’s Stone. This stood some 230 yards west of the river Avon immediately north of a trackway (now Blayney’s Lane) which leads from the crossing at Offenham to the ridge of Green Hill. Clearly this entry suggests that Edward’s corps had used the bridge and ford at Offenham.

We must again focus on the question of numbers and we descend, once more, into the realm of conjecture. Melrose claims that the royalists enjoyed a comfortable superiority, perhaps as high as three to one or more. That the prince commanded a significantly larger army is clear. De Montfort was relying upon the reinforcements being brought by his son and had no intention of giving battle beforehand. His army had endured weeks of hard campaigning and would have suffered reduction through death, wounds, sickness and desertion; true, Simon had been reinforced by Llywelwyn’s Welsh spearmen, but we have no indication as to their strength. Most writers understandably fight shy of providing an estimate; English Heritage in its Battlefield Report for Evesham suggests that there were 10,000 royalists and 5,000 rebels, with some 4,000 of the latter being slain. This is all conjectural but, if we consider that at Lewes the previous year Simon had no more than 500 horse against three times that number, it is most unlikely he had more at Evesham, and he probably had a good deal less. I offer the following suggestion for putative numbers: Simon may have had, say, 300 cavalry, knights and mounted men-at-arms, and no more than, say, 2,500 foot and 1,000 Welsh spears. I would surmise that Edward had, say, 4,000 men in his corps, of whom 500 – 700 were mounted; I give Mortimer and de Clare each a total strength of 2,500 – 3,000 men, with perhaps 400 – 500 being mounted knights. On this basis the royalists enjoyed an overall superiority of three to one, still at least two to one if we accept Mortimer’s corps played no actual part in the fight itself.

The armies deployed

As the quickening light of a summer’s dawn filtered into the streets of the market town, these were thronged by a horde of footsore, weary men, amid the collective stench of an army – sweat and unwashed clothing, leather and horse-dung, a raft of bodily odours. They had marched some 15 miles through the hours of darkness over rutted medieval tracks, dried by the sun but layered with thick, clogging dust which would have coated the tired men like a heavy shroud. Removed from the hubbub, king and earl heard mass in the abbey, an extensive Benedictine house; adjacent stood two parish churches, those of All Saints and St Lawrence.

Earl Simon can hardly have consumed his impromptu breakfast when scouts came in to report troop movement to the north. For the present this did not need to augur badly – the earl’s barber, known as ‘Nicholas of keen eye’ and a man familiar with heraldry, reported seeing the banners of the younger Simon and others of the Montfortian faction. He was, of course, deceived: the pennons flaunted were those taken earlier at Kenilworth – the noose was tightening. Still not alarmed – and why should he have been? – Simon gave orders for his division to form up and be prepared to advance. As a safeguard he detailed the sharp-eyed hairdresser to ascend the abbey tower and look out for any sign of the men the earl must have suspected were dogging his march. As he looked out, Nicholas saw the dummy flags droop and the royalist colours raised high; he knew instantly what was occurring and scurried back to report these dire tidings.

Worse, Mortimer’s corps was sighted: the back door was sealed off, and only one option other than surrender remained. In this, the moment of absolute crisis, Simon de Montfort did not falter: he knew himself to be out-generalled, outnumbered and without any prospect of retreat – it was fight or die. It is said that, in his bitterness and anger, he blamed the avarice of his sons, but he knew in reality that it was he who commanded and his mistakes, compounded by his own despotic hubris, had brought his affinity to this desperate pass. He accepted that the burden of leadership remained his and his honour would countenance no thought of flight, but he did urge his son Henry, Hugh Despenser and Ralph Basset to attempt escape. To their credit none would abandon the earl, and they prepared to share the hazard of impending battle. Bishop Cantilupe provided the kneeling knights with absolution, so that they might face death with a clear conscience.

It was now perhaps 8.30 in the morning but, even as the Montfortians hurried to gird themselves for the fight that was now inevitable, the air, which had been heavy and close, suddenly thickened, with darkening skies and an ominous rumble of thunder; lightning flickered over the town, showing the threatening array of hostile colours in stark detail. Rain suddenly lashed down on the men positioned below, the Almighty adding a suitably Wagnerian flourish to what was about to unfold, nature’s corollary to man’s fury. There may have been some suggestion that the earl should have simply barricaded himself and his men within the abbey precincts and fought a defensive action – this he refused to do, rightly so: sallying out and seeking to break through the ring, whilst a high-risk strategy, at least offered some hope; to become penned like rats in the trap offered none.

We must now consider the line of advance adopted by Simon in leading his army out of the town. Probably the most likely was the route of the present trunk road: for the Montfortians this meant marching due north along High Street, past the last of the houses, across some 300 yards of level ground then the gentle swell of Green Hill. The ascent continued for a further 600 yards toward the line of the ridge; there his enemies awaited. The earl had deployed his forces with the cavalry in column to the front and infantry, under Humphrey de Bohun, behind; the former were of good quality, and the latter, having so many Welsh who were less than enthusiastic, a deal less resolved. Guy de Baliol had the honour of carrying Simon’s banner; the king, fully harnessed, rode with the earl, the other men of rank following; with the magnates were many of their household knights – John fitz John, Giles d’Argentan, Fulk of Deane, Harry of Hastings, Peter de Montfort and his two sons Piers and Robert. Each of these men rode with the near-certainty of death, yet none was shown to falter.

It is said that, as they rode out of the abbey gate, Baliol snagged his lance bearing the earl’s colours against the lintel, breaking the shaft, an ill omen if one was needed. The town ‘lavour’ or wash-house probably stood on the northern fringe of the settlement: here Simon halted, presumably to order his knights into a dense marching column, and again offered those who would the chance to flee without dishonour. This could be taken to imply, as Cox would assert, that the bridge was not in fact closed or not closed entirely, and that a means of escape still existed. Here I tend to the view expressed by Tony Spicer that the Montfortians held the bridge, certainly the town end of it, with, quite possibly, a strong guard or picquet on the far side. Mortimer might have been near, even very near, but it is possible that his corps had not fully come up or that the Montfortians were able to hold them off, at least for the interim. De Montfort’s urging might be interpreted to imply that the knights, those young men with family responsibilities, should ride clear whilst they could. That he should choose to make these remarks at this particular juncture would suggest he was aware the back door might soon be firmly closed; at present it remained ajar.

Tony Spicer concludes, disagreeing with Cox, that had de Montfort been able to get the whole army away he would have done so; this is entirely sensible – his coming to Evesham in the first place was intended to put distance between himself and Edward. There is no shame in refusing battle against impossible odds; to do otherwise willingly would be at best reckless. De Montfort was not reckless: he fought at Evesham because he had no choice; had he had the means to escape, he would have done so and history would have thought none the worse of him. Nor do I accept that Simon was courting martyrdom: not to fear death is very different from actively seeking to embrace it – quite simply, whatever his failings he, like his father, was a good officer, aware of the heavy burden he carried, with so many men’s lives and fortunes hanging on his judgement. He knew he had been humbugged, that no escape route existed; it was his duty then to lead his men clear or fall in the attempt. It was all and the best he could do; Simon de Montfort did not shirk responsibility.

As before, the Montfortians sported their habitual white crosses on right upper arm, front and back. As the demonic heavens rattled above, the dense column of knights made its way up Green Hill, vestiges of settlement giving way to pleasant orchards and fields, heavy with the promise of high summer, the ripe, golden corn standing high. Even with the blackening shroud of the storm whipping about, their proud banners glowed with the richness of the bearer’s arms. It was now that Simon recognized de Clare’s banner amongst those of his enemies – ‘that red dog will devour us today’ he is said to have quipped.

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