Kings and Queens in London – Henry III

Kings and Queens in London – Henry III

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Continuing our series looking at the legacy of English monarchs in London. This time Henry III

henry iii

King Henry III by Elkington & Co, cast by Domenico Brucciani 1873, copyright National Portrait Gallery

Considering his reign spanned 55 years, it is not surprising that Henry III left more of a legacy to London than some of the other kings we have looked at in this series. Henry III certainly didn’t have an easy start to his reign. Aged just nine years old when his father John died in 1216, he faced a rebellion by his barons and an invasion by the French. The situation was recovered by William Marshall the Earl of Pembroke who acted as Henry’s regent, gradually turning the barons back to the Kings side, defeating the French at Lincoln, and reissuing Magna Carta (which John had repealed). William Marshall was an old man by this stage and he died shortly afterwards. You can see the tomb of this rather unsung hero of British history in the Temple Church

William marshall

William Marshall’s tomb in Temple Church


One of Henry III’s most substantial legacies is the expansion of the Tower of London. During Henry’s reign a new outer wall is built to the tower and this extends along the frontage of the Thames itself. An entrance was built on to a wharf and to guard this entrance a tower was built – which is now known as The Bloody Tower (although it didn’t acquire that name until 350 years later). This part of the river wall collapsed during construction, and after being rebuilt collapsed again almost a year to the day later. One story says that the ghost of Thomas A  Beckett appeared before the collapse and caused it as revenge for the angry Londoner’s enraged by Henry’s spending. Whatever the cause the rebuilt wall still remains today.

The Bloody Tower, Tower of London

The Bloody Tower, Tower of London

Henry III also expanded the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London – with some exotic animals kept in cramped conditions. He received a gift of three lions as a wedding gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, to match the lions on Henry’s standard, a polar bear from King Haakon of Norway (the bear was allowed to go swimming in the Thames), and an African elephant, a gift from King Louis IX of France. The elephant caused a sensation in London with crowds flocking to see the unusual animal. You can see Matthew Paris’s drawing of Henry III’s elephant in the Parker Library in Cambridge

henry iii elephant

Henry II’s elephant, Matthew Paris, c1255. Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, UK

Henry III was in awe of the Saxon King, Edward the Confessor and was keen to be buried next to him in Westminster. To this aim he ordered the existing Westminster Abbey to be rebuilt, using the gothic style of architecture now popular in France, including the tallest nave in England, a beautiful paved floor commissioned from the Cosmati family in Rome and a dedicated shrine to Edward the Confessor. It’s easy to be overawed by the Victorian monuments in Westminster Abbey, but next time you are there, try to mentally strip them away and imagine the towering empty nave as it would have looked in Henry III’s design.

All of this was ruinously expensive, and huge taxes were levied on Londoners, however London’s Jewish community suffered particularly during the later part of Henry III’s reign. Under William Marshall the rights of Jews had been protected in return for loans to the crown, however after Marshall’s death Henry III ordered loans to the crown to be cancelled, Jews to be imprisoned and their property confiscated. Eventually Jews were ordered to wear badges, live in separate areas, and for some, forcibly converted to Christianity. Those that converted were rewarded with the confiscation of all their property and made to live in a building called the Domus Conversum – a home for converted Jews in Chancery Lane on the site of where Kings College Library is now. A fragment of this building survives and has been mounted in the wall of the library, behind the bike sheds. On the entrance arch you can find a statue of Henry III

Statue of Henry III at Kings College Library

Statue of Henry III at Kings College Library

Henry III ordered the closing of all the law schools in the City of London, leading to lawyers establishing themselves on the western fringe of the City. This eventually led to the establishment of the Inn’s of court and the creation of a legal quarter in London, which obviously still exists today.

Henry III’s taxation and oppressive rule soon led to another baron’s rebellion, this one led by Simon De Montfort. Interestingly de Montfort lived briefly at the palace of Peter II of Savoy, a key ally of Henry III. The Savoy Palace occupied land between the Strand and the Thames – it was burnt down in 1381, but the name lives on – as the famous Savoy Hotel. When the beautiful hotel was built they put up a plaque to commemorate De Montfort’s stay

Simon De Montfort Plaque at the Savoy Hotel Copyright London Remembers

Simon De Montfort Plaque at the Savoy Hotel Copyright London Remembers

Henry III’s long reign came to an end in 1272 when he died while his son Edward was away on the crusades. He is the first of the kings in our series to be buried in Westminster Abbey, so you can go and visit him there. However, despite his long reign, there doesn’t seem to have ever been a pub named after him, nor a street or a school. With Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London there is plenty to remember him for.

Rob Smith, David Charnick, Jill Finch, Dave Brown and Tina Baxter contributed to this post



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