Jan Cooper discusses the events of the Great Siege of Kenilworth 1266, following on from her earlier article on the life and death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham:
Those of Earl Simon’s supporters who had escaped the carnage of Evesham made their way back to Kenilworth Castle. Also returning to the castle was the Earl’s second son – another Simon de Montfort. There was much anger and bitterness amongst the Montfortian supporters and that anger was directed towards Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the King’s brother, who had been at Kenilworth in his sister’s custody since his capture at Lewes. He had therefore played no part in the battle of Evesham or Earl Simon’s death but Young Simon so feared for his uncle’s life that he had him released.
King Henry tried to persuade the rebels to leave the castle, saying that if they would surrender immediately they would lose neither their lives nor lands but they did not trust him and remained where they were. He then disinherited all of those who continued to stand out against him.
The Countess Eleanor and her younger children were at Dover Castle and from there eventually went into exile in France where Eleanor found favour with the French Queen and lived out her life at Montargis Abbey but did not become a Nun.
Kenilworth castle had been kept well provisioned with both food and siege equipment, including Trebuchets. During the next few months the rebels ravaged the countryside looting and stock-piling food and munitions against the expected siege.
Late in 1265 Young Simon left the castle to meet with other supporters at Ely. On his way back he was captured by Prince Edward and forced to agree to surrender Kenilworth Castle and accept the King’s peace. However on arriving at the castle the garrison commander, Henry de Hastings, refused to comply saying that he held the castle in the name of the Countess of Leicester and would surrender to no one but her. This may have been something which had been agreed between Young Simon and de Hastings prior to him leaving the castle, just in case he should be captured. He was then sent under guard to London but escaped on route and fled to France to try to raise support.
In March 1266 one of the King’s messengers returned from Kenilworth minus a hand – the time for talking seemed to be over and the King called a muster which finally took place at Northampton in May. Once all the armies were assembled they set out, arriving at Kenilworth around 22nd June, the King vowing that he would not leave until the castle fell.
Four siege camps were established commanded by King Henry, Prince Edward, Prince Edmund and Roger de Mortimer.
The King requisitioned vast quantities of munitions, money, food and drink to be sent to Kenilworth. Powerful siege machines (Trebuchets, Mangonels and Ballistas) and fighting towers were brought and also barges for what was to be an unsuccessful assault across the Mere.
As Patron of the Priory the King was entitled to hospitality and would most likely have been accommodated there, with his Queen, when not at his siege camp. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and Cardinal Ottobuono (the Papal Legate) also spent much time at Kenilworth during the months of the siege. The latter tried to mediate between the King and the rebels but to no avail.
In July Cardinal Ottobuono (wearing his red cope) excommunicated those inside the castle. (It is said that he delivered his Papal Bull of Excommunication from a safe vantage point at the top of Castle Hill – still known as ‘Bull Hill’. (This may be apocryphal.)
Apparently this act aroused the defiance of the rebels who, according to Robert of Gloucester, had a cope and other clothes made in white in which they dressed Master Philip Porpeis, a cleric and their surgeon, who presented himself on the battlements of the castle as a ‘White Legate’ and “excommunicated” the King, the Cardinal and the whole army! Morale was clearly still very high as they awaited the expected relieving force from France.
In August, at the Cardinal’s request, the King called a Parliament at Kenilworth – given the people involved and the facilities which they would require, the most likely venue for this is the Priory Church. The purpose of this meeting was to set up a Commission to decide what steps should be taken to return peace to the land and to consider the case of the ‘disinherited’ (as the rebels had come to be known). An order was made for an initial committee of 3 Bishops and 3 Barons’ representatives:
- Walter, Bishop of Exeter
- Walter Gifford, Bishop of Bath and Wells (then Chancellor)
- Bishop of Worcester
- Roger de Somery
- Robert Walerand
- Alan de la Zouch
They then co-opted the following:
Bishop of St. David’s, Earl of Gloucester, Earl of Hereford, John de Baliol, Phillip Basset and Warin de Bassingbourne, making a full Committee of 12.
The Papal Legate and Henry of Almain (the King’s nephew) were appointed Arbiters in the event of a dispute – their services were called upon several times during the deliberations.
Eventually agreement was reached and the terms of surrender set out in a document known as The Dictum of Kenilworth. This allowed for the rebels to leave the castle unmolested and gave the ‘disinherited’ the opportunity to buy back their lands on payment of very heavy fines set on a sliding scale dependent upon the extent of each individual’s involvement in the war and siege. The exceptions to the ‘benefits’ of the Dictum were the members of the garrison who were involved in maiming the King’s messenger and the garrison commander, Henry de Hastings. They were to be imprisoned at the King’s will.
The Dictum was delivered to the castle on 31st October 1266 and was, the following week, publicly proclaimed at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick.
De Hastings declined to accept on the basis that the terms were intolerable and they had been given no say in choosing the Commissioners. He demanded changes and was playing for time, still hoping that help would come from France.
As chivalry demanded the King gave the rebels 40 days of grace saying that if no word had been received from France by 11th December they must surrender or expect no mercy. The King and Prince Edward then began to prepare for a final all-out assault upon the castle.
Conditions within the castle must then have deteriorated very quickly. Their dwindling food supplies had run out, they had already eaten their own starving horses and then disease, probably dysentery, swept through the castle. In their weakened state many died and those who survived were forced to accept the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth and surrender. Starvation and disease had succeeded where siege warfare had failed! (The Annals of Dunstable tell us that “at the beginning of the siege there were within the castle 1000 men – 700 of whom were armed and ‘vigorous’ – plus 160 women and an unknown number of servants.” There is no record of how many survived).
On 13 December the King granted letters of safe conduct to the rebels to go where they wished and they departed, banners flying.
King Henry finally left on 15th December ending an almost six months’ stay, an unprecedented length of time for a medieval monarch to remain in one place. During that time the whole of England had been governed directly from Kenilworth.
The conditions inside the castle when the siege finally ended must have been quite dreadful and the Sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire was given the obnoxious task of having it cleaned up. He was also instructed to dismantle the siege engines.
The Priory was completely impoverished, having been forced to support the King for such a very long time.
On 16 December 1266 King Henry granted the castle of Kenilworth and the earldom of Leicester to his second son the Lord Edmund, later also creating him Earl of Lancaster, and thus began almost 200 years of Lancastrian ownership of the castle and patronage of the priory during which time both grew and prospered once more – but that is another story!
Despite the exclusion of Henry de Hastings and others from the ‘benefits’ of the Dictum, by July 1267 Prince Edward had received them into the King’s peace, they having sworn on the Holy Gospels to keep the peace and never bear arms against the King or his heirs again. De Hastings did not keep his word! He became leader of the remaining “disinherited” in the Isle of Ely (just prior to their surrender) and died the following year.
A final thought. Many “Kenilworthians” believe that the 1266 Parliament was held on the field now known as “Parliament Piece”. There is actually no contemporary written evidence to tell us exactly where in Kenilworth the 1266 Parliament was held, nor to support the suggestion that Parliament Piece is in any way connected with this event. Indeed, since 17th century musket balls have been found there – but no 13th century artefacts – it seems more likely that the name derives from Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces who may have camped there when they came to Kenilworth during that Civil War. For further comment on this see Kenilworth History 2016 page 16.