The bachelors of England
Kenilworth Castle, where the bachelors made their last stand.
US President Obama was supported by many young people. Back in the 13th century, young men also gave crucial support to the reformer who established Parliament and to the reforms that would help to define the constitutional responsibilities of the king – and, 700 years later, the responsibilities of the US President. To achieve this, they risked their lives.
In the 1250s, the bachelors of England were young and energetic and their blood boiled at the corruption of the king's sheriffs. Like you they loathed unfairness and wrongdoing.
They were idealistic, and they grounded their idealism in a real, historic constitution - Magna Carta, which they knew and loved. Their grandfathers had fought for the liberties and justice enshrined in the Great Charter, and their grandsons did not intend to let them be lost.
The bachelors of England, as they called themselves, were not alone in wanting change.
Village constables and freeholders, university students, Londoners, fishermen, blacksmiths, tailors and carpenters, the great earls of England, bishops and abbots, farmers and merchants stood together in opposing Henry III's administration. They gathered in a parlement - the word came from the French word that means talk - where they declared their opposition to injustice, self-dealing bureaucrats, costly foreign adventures and high taxes - many of the same things we oppose today. Like many people today, they were also galled that their money was being used to give special favours to foreigners.
Meeting at Oxford, they swore a sacred oath that they would correct these injustices. Then they embarked on a campaign, "imbued with the ideal of justice for all" (Oxford DNB).
In what appeared to be a great victory for the reformers, in 1258 -59, Henry III agreed to the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster -
Incorruptible sheriffs, accountable to the council, who were restricted to one-year terms and had to live in the shires they served.
Travelling justices to hear appeals and see that justice was done.
No church funds seized to pay for war.
A council of barons to meet as a "Parliament" to approve or disapprove taxes and discuss affairs of the realm.
Three regularly scheduled Parliaments a year.
Reforms to help tenants with grievances against their lords.
Four glaring problems soon became evident.
First, the justice reforms were meant for everyone - not only the king - but most of the great earls made no effort to put them into effect. Second, Edward, the heir to the throne and a treacherous prince, was opposed to the reforms - or in favour of them - it was never certain which. Third, Henry "gnawed and tunneled like a rat" to undermine the reforms. And fourth, as is often the case today, the people had a just and compelling cause, but they lacked a great leader.
The campaign lost steam, but happily for the cause of justice the Welsh revolted - freedom-loving people owe much to the Welsh. Henry was forced to reissue the Provisions. Once again, however, he failed to enforce them. Frustrations mounted. It was at this agonizing juncture that a leader appeared - but only because the bachelors of England were prepared to follow him, for what is a leader without followers?
The leader was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. An adventurer and a political reformer, Montfort, had come from France when he was 22 to recover his English inheritance and had eloped with the king's 23-year-old sister Eleanor. His quarrel with the king was first fuelled by personal grievances – Henry refused to pay the money he owed him - and later by principle.
Montfort was a spiritual disciple and a courageous warrior. He was also an educated cosmopolitan who appreciated money. His friends included the scientist and bishop Robert Grosseteste and the Franciscan friar Adam Marsh. Like our own good friends, they were blunt when they thought Montfort's actions were subpar. Grosseteste once gave Montfort a devastating dressing-down when he heard that he had extorted money from a businessman. And yet it would be Montfort’s chivalry and his growing belief in justice that the bachelors and the tailors and carpenters and fishermen of England would rely on.
The bachelors of England held on to their dream of justice as the reforms turned to dust. One of the youngest bachelors was Piers de Montfort, no relation to Simon, but the son of Peter de Montefort, who lived at the Castle of Beaudesert, near Simon de Montfort’s castle at Kenilworth. When the king repudiated the reforms and fielded an army to crush the reformers, Piers joined Simon and the bachelor knights to defend them. His father Peter, a good horseman, an excellent swordsman, and a cool and skilled mediator joined his son. The time for mediation was over.
Peter and Piers were captured at Northampton in April, 1264. In May, Simon de Montfort rode into battle at Lewes with a broken leg. With him were several earls, the bachelor knights, including two of his sons, and a force of Londoners. Brilliantly led by Montfort, they captured both the king and Prince Edward.
Winning is one thing. Building on victory is another. The king continued to drag his heels so in a daring break with tradition, Montfort called a national parliament early in the new year of 1265 and asked every city and town to send two elected representatives to meet with the knights representing the shires.
On January 20th – the same date that US Presidents will be sworn into office centuries later - the representatives met at Westminster. Nothing like it had been seen since Rome was a republic thirteen hundred years earlier. Parliament affirmed the reforms, and the government prepared to enforce them.
It looked like a triumph, but Prince Edward escaped.
The cause began to lose supporters. Montfort was not a perfect man, and some thought him autocratic. After the Prince escaped, many deserted the cause, but Peter, Piers and the bachelor knights remained loyal.
Despite setbacks, Montfort persevered. As a soldier he knew that victory can be plucked out of the jaws of defeat. As a Christian he was slowly learning that new life can rise out of free and generous self-sacrifice.
Defending the reforms
In August 1265, the reformers camped in the Vale of Evesham. With them was the captive king, whom they treated with the utmost courtesy. They had hoped that Simon’s son would arrive with reinforcements so they could reach London, where the people strongly supported the cause. On the morning of the 4th of August they discovered that Prince Edward had surprised and surrounded them with an army twice as large as theirs.
Unlike Muslim extremists who hide behind children and women and fire from mosques, Montfort refused to use the captive king as a pawn or to exploit Evesham Abbey for military purposes. On that summer morning he also understood that Edward wanted him dead. He gathered the bachelors around him, and asked them to leave. He urged them to escape and support the reforms at another time and place. They refused to abandon him.
The Vale of Evesham
The sky darkened under an approaching storm. Just before he rode into battle, Montfort said simply,
They have our bodies. God has our souls.
The two sides fought in a violent thunderstorm until only a small circle of reformers remained standing. As Edward’s men moved in, Peter fell and Simon was killed along with his son Henry. A number of the bachelor knights died. Piers was wounded. At Prince Edward's orders, Simon de Montfort's body was hacked into pieces.
The bachelors of England became the Dispossessed. They lost all their lands. They made a last stand at Kenilworth Castle. But over the course of several decades, something extraordinary happened.
The ideas for which Montfort and the bachelors had died were re-membered - Edward I agreed to the reforms, and Parliament was established.
The surviving bachelors, including Piers, regained their lands by paying heavy fines. Later Piers donated a substantial part of his inheritance to the founding of Merton College, Oxford.
The relief of Simon de Montfort in the US House of Representatives