The Second Barons’ War: Simon De Montfort and the Battles of Lewes and Evesham by John Sadler (Author) REVIEW
If Simon’s position was extremely unfavourable, it was not yet completely hopeless. If he could punch through the royalist ring then at least a portion of his force might yet link up with that of the younger Simon, and Evesham might be a reverse rather than a catastrophe. Some chroniclers tell us that the earl formed his men in a circle; this seems unlikely, and a wedge-shaped deployment makes more sense. Green Hill rises no more than 200 feet and we may be confident the main fighting occurred along the ridge-line, though there is some dispute still as to exactly where. If we discount the notion, favoured by some historians, of an attempted flanking movement by the baronial army, and follow Rishanger, who asserts that the rebels came straight up the line of the present road (an interpretation followed by Burne and Carpenter), we may thus properly locate the fight where the roads meet – that is, where the east/west axis of High Street meets the north/south line of the Fladbury track (Blayney’s Lane). Local tradition records a large number of human bones being found in the land adjoining the old Offenham Bridge – ‘Deadman’s Ait’.
As the rebels advanced the royalists deployed from marching columns into line – this battle would be the classic duel of line versus column. If we follow Burne and Carpenter, Prince Edward’s army formed two wings or battles astride and flanking the Alcester road, directly barring the rebel manoeuvre; Edward on the left, de Clare on the right. We can be reasonably sure that de Montfort was advancing with cavalry in front and infantry behind; we are a good deal less sure of the royalist array – very possibly it was similar, with the mounted arm to the fore and the infantry drawn up behind. Carpenter points out that the prince might have done better to deploy on the lip of the ridge rather than to the rear of the summit on an almost level plateau. When Simon reached the crest his enemies were still some 600 yards distant; nobody was going to be surprised in this encounter. Had the prince had more time then he might well have advanced his banner across that gap, but insufficient time was available.
Here we run into some difficulties with timings. If de Montfort raced from the town at the very first confirmation of a royalist presence then the battle could have begun very early, just after first light. I do not, however, think this altogether likely; for one thing the army had marched all night, and the men would have fallen out to seek rest and sustenance. To get them back in harness, into line, saddled and mounted would have been no easy business. Besides, there was an argument for staying put, delaying any encounter until, hopefully, the younger Simon came up with his power. I tend, therefore, to follow those chroniclers who state the battle was actually fought around the third hour, that is, 7.15 – 8.30 am.
As the heavens lowered and roared, de Montfort’s cavalry dug spurs for the charge, (never likely to be more rapid than a fast canter to maintain cohesion), and his squadrons surged forward over the gently rising ground. Lightning forked as the rebel knights came on, the tattoo of the storm rising around drumming hooves. This was the testing point, when man and beast were poised and welded as one, the lances couched and aimed; the riders stiffened in the saddle, braced for the resounding shock of impact. Not so the rebel foot: once the Welsh levies had seen the proud and overwhelming array of their foes their column disintegrated. The panic as ever proved infectious and the whole force simply dissolved: despite the frenzied curses and ranting of their officers the men could not be brought to rally – de Montfort now had only his mounted arm.
Cox takes the view that the rebels formed a circular ring to withstand the attack, but I disagree. I prefer to think that the Montfortians attacked, as Burne, Carpenter and most other writers assert, and that their initial onslaught made some considerable headway. The charge had gathered weight and the press of mailed horsemen struck deep into the royalist line, attacking at the vulnerable junction between the two divisions. At the Schwerpunkt (a phrase borrowed from the German Panzer element of Blitzkrieg – the focus of the attack) Simon enjoyed immediate superiority of numbers; his brigade had the momentum and cohesion of the charge, fuelled by desperation. If he could break through here, the majority of the cavalry could be got off the field; the foot were beyond rally or recall but their loss was not crucial – that of Simon and his mailed horsemen, including some of the leading rebels, would be.
Like breakers pounding on the shore the charge struck home: the Montfortian knights collided with their foes, column versus line, and in that moment it was the column which gained the advantage. Most chroniclers agree that the baronial army drove in the royalists to their front, sheer élan and mass combining into an irresistible momentum. The prince’s men were forced back in some confusion; losses were surely incurred, and for a brief, tantalizing moment it seemed that Simon’s tactics might prevail and calamity be avoided. Not so; the royalist officers managed to stem the rot, and knights such as Warin of Bassingbourne steadied the shaken rank and file, herding their men back into the fight, probably using the flat of the sword.
Simon failed to create a breakthrough. What he caused was a salient: his charge drove a wedge into the royalist line but did not break through. This was the worst of outcomes, for as the wings of the prince’s army swung inwards like revolving doors, the Montfortians became hopelessly entrapped; their partial success proved the basis for their utter destruction. As Carpenter observes, it is quite possible that the fight had moved toward the location of Battle Well and that, as the slaughter unfolded, some were driven along Blayney’s Lane and into Deadman’s Ait. It would be now that de Montfort formed his survivors into a circle, ready to sell their lives as dearly as possible, for there was no further manoeuvre; that which could be attempted had been tried and had failed. Death was now inevitable, and honour was all that could be salvaged.
And so it was. The Montfortians died hard – Henry, taking station by his father’s banner, was said to have led the charge but was overpowered and cut down. More soon fell around him; their horses killed, the rebel knights fought on foot, with sword and mace and axe, their lances blunted or broken. As the blood frenzy seized the prince’s and de Clare’s men, circling the doomed knights like prowling wolves, one faintly ludicrous figure was that of Henry III of England, the hapless spectator in whose name both sides fought. Henry was no warrior; besides, whom was he to fight? He stood in more danger from a chance blow from his friends than his enemies: despite his harness, he was slightly injured by a lance thrust by one of his son’s or the earl’s men. His entreaties to all not to lay hands upon their king, plaintive in the circumstances, were finally heeded: Adam de Mohaut recognized the king after removing his helmet. Coming up, Prince Edward took charge of his battered and doubtless bemused parent, and conveyed him to a place of safety; the battle to the death for control of his kingdom continued.
Simon was, for a while, shielded by his household men who fell, like the huscarls of old, true to their oaths. Despite the weight of his years and the hopelessness of his position, the earl would think neither of flight nor surrender; whatever his faults, Simon’s valour and steadfastness command our respect. As his supporters were hacked down upon the blood-soaked ground, the earl wielded his sword with skill and determination; he accepted death but would not bend his neck as a tamed sacrifice. It is impossible not to feel some empathy with Macbeth when he recovers his dignity in the face of disaster, and so it is with Simon. At length his horse was killed beneath him but still he fought on foot as the ring of his enemies closed about. At least a dozen opponents now assailed the old man, but he would not surrender his sword but with his life. It is said one of the commons struck the earl from behind, sliding a dagger between the rings of his mail. He stumbled and the strength left his limbs as the vengeful blades cut him down. It is said he died well, as we would expect, his last words being ‘Dieu, merci’ – his tribulations were at an end.
The earl’s enemies, in the demonic exhilaration of victory, stripped the dead man of harness, clothing and dignity; he was, it is said, still wearing a hair shirt. Others went further, including William Maltravers, who savagely and vilely mutilated the corpse, cutting off head, extremities and genitalia. This viciousness was neither ordered nor condoned by the prince, who had sought to save the old man’s life, but rather arises from the singular hatred felt by the marchers. Now Cox has Mortimer’s men in the fight from the start, but I more incline to the view expressed by Tony Spicer. He suggests that the marchers were indeed present but had in fact fought their way over the bridge and then attacked from the rear, following the Montfortians in their route out of the town. This makes excellent sense, and if we accept that, as De Laborderie claims, de Montfort was killed by Mortimer, then there is chronicle evidence, if somewhat tenuous, in support – we do know Simon’s severed head was sent to Lady Mortimer at Wigmore, presumably as a gruesome memento.
Ranged around the dreadfully mutilated remains of the dead earl were the corpses of many of his affinity and several leading reformers, including Hugh Despenser, Peter de Montfort, Guy de Baliol, William de Mandeville, Ralph Basset of Drayton, Thomas of Astley, William of Birmingham and Richard Trussel; at least a score of other gentry also fell. Others, such as Harry of Hastings and David of Uffington, were captive: as Cox points out, these last two, amongst 16 men of rank known to have been captured, were taken by marchers, lending some weight to the notion that Mortimer and his affinity were more intensively involved. Of course, de Clare also drew support from the marchers. The younger Simon had led a large mounted contingent from Kenilworth but had halted the column at Alcester so the men might break their fast; as the march was resumed he was greeted by the sight of stumbling fugitives fleeing the stricken field. Stunned and shamed by his tardiness, the survivors turned and rode back to the great fortress where they bottled themselves up behind its great rampart. The younger de Montfort was stricken with guilt over his failure and refused all sustenance for days. His failure had indeed cost his father, brother and their affinity very dear indeed.
An undisclosed number of fleeing men, both on horse and on foot, were hunted down by the whooping victors, their sharp lances spearing men like fish. Some drowned in an attempt to swim the Avon, whilst others were cut down on its banks; some may well have scattered down Blayney’s Lane to leave their bones in Deadman’s Ait. Yet more sought to hide in gardens or amongst the golden carpet of ripening wheat; their blood soon manured the rich earth. Into the streets and the slaughter continued: men writhed and piled shrieking in the lanes and wynds; some sought sanctuary in the two parochial churches, in the park and cloister, even in the abbey chapel. But there was no sanctuary to be had on that storm-tossed morning, and the whole peninsula was soon carpeted with dead; hacked, mangled and stiffening, blood poured forth in torrents, with a reeking garnish of severed limbs and spilt entrails. With killing came indiscriminate looting, and it would have taken a brave or foolhardy townsman to cling fast to his goods against such a tide. The abbey was not spared and its treasures added wantonly to the victors’ haul. So murderous was the assault on the abbey and the desperate survivors sheltering within that the place was regarded as unholy, polluted by the orgy of bloodletting for three decades. A number who escaped Evesham got as far as Tewkesbury, a fief of de Clare, where his adherents made short work of them, littering the streets with yet more carcasses.
Estimates of the total number of dead vary, all probably on the high side, though the fight and pursuit were undoubtedly exceptionally bloody. Cox quotes a figure of 7,500 from the baronial army. I consider this far too high; Carpenter wisely abstains from any assessment, apart from agreeing that the chroniclers’ claims are too high, the figure of 10,000 in total being preposterous. My suggestion, and it is no more than that, bearing in mind the projected size of the forces involved, is that the total number of dead was probably between 2,500 and 3,000 at most, the vast majority being from the rebel side. Of Prince Edward’s men few of note were slain; Hugh de Troyes and Adam of Ridware were said to have been killed by their own friends as they had not sported the distinctive red crosses worn by royalists, and Philip of Leominster was another who fell in the melee.
The Battle of Evesham was now over. By midday the baronial army was destroyed and the desperate survivors in hiding or routed; its leaders were dead or captive; Humphrey de Bohun surrendered and joined the train of battered captives herded back to Worcester the day after. For the monks and townsmen the grim business of clearing up began. We sometimes have a view of the medieval period as one of unrelenting bloodshed but this is, of course, quite untrue. Few if any of the inhabitants of Evesham would have witnessed anything other than the occasional local brawl; nothing could have prepared them for this horror. We should not be tempted to glamorize medieval warfare: what was visited on the citizens of the town that day was the equal of the atrocities we have seen within the last decade or so being enacted in the Balkans and elsewhere – brutal, savage, indiscriminate.
On the bloody ground, after the jackals had stripped and scarred the many corpses, lords, gentry and commons were piled in an affinity of the fallen; stench of blood and ordure hung like a shroud in the leaden air. Some of the earl’s affinity crept out into the midst of the horror to retrieve their master’s remains. How they recognized the shell that was left we cannot say, but the torso was lugged onto a broken ladder for a bier and covered with a tattered cloth – scarcely the pall for a man who had made kings tremble. Simon’s remains, together with those of Hugh Despenser and Henry de Montfort, were brought back to the abbey, where the blood of their slaughtered followers gilded the marble. Prince Edward had already given assent so the dead might have decent interment; the king added his consent, so that the fallen lords might be laid under the choir of the abbey church. The prince appeared saddened over the death of his cousin Henry; indeed the savagery on the field seems to have been largely confined to the marchers and their affinity. The earl was not laid to rest till the following day, 5 August, and the monks did the best they could for the rest. The remaining dead were collected under the auspices of the abbey and interred in the existing graveyard, presumably, as Cox suggests, in large pits dug for the purpose.
Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, leader of the reforming faction, was dead, but the constitutional revolution he and others had set in train was not so easily disposed of. The man might have perished, but the legacy would prove rather more enduring.