Medieval > Second Barons' War
BATTLE OF EVESHAM (1265)
In 1264 at Lewes Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester defeated and captured King Henry III and his son, Prince Edward. He subsequently established a Government run in accordance with the Provisions of Oxford but, when Prince Edward escaped from captivity, a new Royalist army was raised that won a decisive victory at the Battle of Evesham (1265).
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In early 1265 England was under the de facto control of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. In the preceding years he, along with other key magnates, had opposed the autocratic rule of Henry III as well as the King's promotion of French favourites at the expense of the Anglo-Norman Barons. In 1258 attempts had been made to curtail Henry's power with the Provisions of Oxford; a treaty which required the King to surrender key powers, particularly on taxation and inheritance, to a council headed by Montfort. But Henry sought a Papal Bull to annul the treaty and was supported by the decision of Louis IX of France, who had been asked to arbitrate between monarch and Barons, in favour of the King. The result had been the Second Barons War (1264-7) with the rebel forces being headed by Montfort.
The war had started in January 1264 and had initially gone well for the King with the capture of key rebel outposts at Northampton, Leicester and Nottingham and relief of a siege around Rochester Castle. But the Royalist cause met with disaster in May 1264 when the King and Prince Edward were defeated at the Battle of Lewes and both taken into Montfort's custody. Thereafter the Earl had forged a Government based on the Provisions of Oxford.
Within a year of Montfort's victory however, opposition was growing against his regime. Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester had been a key supporter of Montfort but had become envious of his fame prompting him to defect to the Royalist cause. He initially concealed his change of heart and used his position to question the continued detention of Prince Edward (who was being held at Kenilworth Castle). This led to the Prince being held under less stringent conditions which facilitated his escape. Using new exercise opportunities afforded to him, he exhausted all but one of the horses of his guards before mounting this and galloping off! Edward joined Roger Mortimer, Lord of Wigmore and Gilbert de Clare in the Welsh Marches where they and other Marcher Lords rallied around him.
With Prince Edward now at the head of a large army, Montfort headed to Wales to bolster his forces and successfully concluded an agreement with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) to provide infantry. Even so the Earl was aware he had insufficient forces and thus instructed his godson, another Simon, to raise an army in England. The Earl then manoeuvred to avoid engagement with Edward's forces whilst he awaited augmentation by this second army.
Prince Edward moved his forces against the younger Montfort and attacked him at Kenilworth Castle. He caused heavy losses and crucially also captured numerous Montfortian banners. Edward then moved his forces west starting to shadow the Earl who by now was in Evesham, a town situated within a loop in the River Avon. Approaching under the captured enemy banners, Edward was able to trick Montfort into thinking he was about to be augmented by his godson. Too late he realised the deception and found himself in a dire position. The bridge over the Avon was too small for an evacuation and whilst Montfort himself could have fled, and might have saved part of his army, it would have been the end of his career. Furthermore he received intelligence that a Royalist column was making its way towards the bridge on the other side of the river. Noting he had little choice, Montfort resolved to fight.
Edward had mustered a substantial force perhaps as large as 15,000 strong. This dwarfed the 5,000 men Montfort had within the town itself which included a significant detachment of Welsh troops.
The battle was fought on 20 August 1265. Edward's forces approached from Worcester in the west. They advanced along the route now known as The Squires (which connects the A44 and A46) and occupied the plateau on top of Greenhill to the north of Evesham. Edward had clearly learnt from Lewes.
- Stage 1: Deployment
Around 9am Montfort addressed his troops and led them out of Evesham with cavalry to the fore and his Welsh contingent, who were seemingly reluctant to fight, as his rearguard.
- Stage 2: Cavalry Charge
With Edward holding the high ground with a substantially larger force, Montfort would have realised how desperate his position was. He led a bold cavalry attack with his entire mounted force along the course of the Evesham Road (now the A4184) into the Royalist centre. It is possible that Edward had not had sufficient time to muster his entire forces on the Greenhill plateau by this stage and, if so, it must have been Montfort's intent to break the Royalist line.
- Stage 3: Surrounded
Montfort's charge seemingly had some success with some of the Royalists pushed back. But the difference in numbers eliminated any hope Montfort might have had of breaking their line. The Royalist divisions on the left and right had not been engaged and, led by Mortimer and Gilbert, enveloped Montfort.
At the start of the battle Edward had made it clear that the normal rules of chivalric warfare were not to be applied during the fight. Furthermore he had hand-picked a 'death squad' to target Simon de Montfort himself and kill him by any means. Now totally surrounded Montfort formed his army into a circle but weight of numbers overwhelmed him. The battle turned into a rout with the encircled troops being cut down in accordance with Edward's vicious policy. Montfort himself was killed by Roger Mortimer and was subsequently hacked to pieces; his hands, feet, head and genitals were hacked off. Henry III was lucky; dressed in Montfortian armour he was with the Earl as the rout commenced and was set upon by Edward's troops - "I am Henry of Winchester! Your King! Do not kill me!". Roger Leybourne recognised his monarch and took him safely to Edward.
- Stage 4: Rout
Edward's victorious army now charged against the Welsh troops who broke and fled. They were pursued mercilessly by Edward's forces and even those seeking sanctuary in Evesham Abbey were not spared.
The battle was a relatively short affair with chroniclers suggesting it was over within 2 hours. Baronial casualties were estimated to be around 4,000 - almost 80% of the original force - largely due to the Royalist policy of no quarter. Almost all of the rebel Barons were killed alongside Montfort - those taken alive were stripped of their armour and hacked to death. The brutality led Robert of Gloucester to describe the battle as "the murder of Evesham, for battle it was none".
The victory at Evesham and the death of Simon de Montfort all but ended the Second Barons War. One final battle, another Royalist victory, would be fought at Chesterfield (1266) but the peace that followed, as detailed in the Dictum of Kenilworth, fully restored Royal authority. Seven years later Edward was crowned King and, unlike his father and grandfather, conformed to the medieval ideal of a strong warrior ruler. In the immediate term though the victory over the Barons freed Prince Edward to proceed on crusade where he further enhanced his military experience.
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There is a short battlefield walk that snakes from Evesham towards Greenhill (the scene of the battle). A couple of information panels can be found on this route. In Evesham itself a monument in Abbey Park marks the burial place of Simon de Montfort who was originally laid to rest in the Abbey (which itself has gone - a victim of Henry VIII). Other than this the battlefield isn’t really configured for tourists although the key elements and terrain can be appreciated from the footpaths of the modern roads.
Greenhill Plateau. The plateau occupied by the Royalists. Montfort would have advanced from Evesham towards the camera.
Greenhill Plateau. The Royalist position.
Montfort Monument. The monument can be found in Abbey Park.