An interview with Dr Timothy Brain from the Three Choirs Festival
- Credit: Carl Hewlett
Dr Timothy Brain is well known as the former chief constable of Gloucestershire; but he’s also a respected historian, who will be lecturing as part of the Three Choirs Festival.
What was going through his mind, the boy king, as he solemnly processed between the pillars of Gloucester Abbey, already ancient in this year of 1216. As he stood - upright as a little soldier, yet dwarfed by the great Norman nave - was he mourning his father, King John? The late King John who, a bare few days previously, had writhed in agonising death-throes a hundred miles north, as desperate priests failed to heal his body or save his soul. If so, the boy’s mourning placed him in an elite minority; few others shed a tear for tyrannous John Lackland.
Did the boy realise, as a light coronet was placed upon his small, dark head, that the heavy weight of a riven nation rested on his slim, slight shoulders?
Did he know, as a few supportive lords swung him up high in their arms, that this ceremony marked another kind of death? The death of innocence; the death of a childhood.
That long-ago scene is a hazy memory in history’s over-taxed mind.
Yet what we do know is this. That Henry III, crowned on October 28, 1216 - not in the great halls of Westminster but in the quiet solitude of Gloucester’s Romanesque abbey - would rule for more than 56 years, one of the longest reigns in English history. The first boy king since the days of Aethelred, long before William set his conquering feet on England’s shores.
And we know this. That although few have chronicled his life or feted his achievements – no Shakespeare play; no great monastic chronicle – it is no exaggeration to say that Henry’s long reign inexorably shaped the modern democracy we call England today.
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The teacups in the Brain household are the prettiest of delicate china, and the biscuits chocolate and delicious. “Help yourself!” Elisabeth Brain instructs, kindly, as she sets down the tray.
Her husband, Dr Tim Brain, is looking for a book. A certain book. A book hiding on one of the shelves that bulge with historical facts and figures in rooms and hallways around their Cheltenham home.
“I quite like reading fiction,” he tells me, as he searches among the bookcases in the sitting room. “I’m reading The Forsyte Saga for the second time. But, at the end of the day, although I like novels - Jane Austen; War and Peace - I do know what’s coming. New nuances; same story.
“Whereas with history…”
He pauses, years of academic study racing through his brain (a first-class history degree; a PhD; captain of Aberystwyth’s University Challenge team back in 76).
“History is a really good story. You might know the end but there’s always another way of telling it; always another fact to discover.”
“I think you’ll find it in the bookcase up the stairs,” Elisabeth calls out to him.
And he comes back with the elusive tome in hand.
It contains a contemporary description of that day in October 1216, when a nine-year-old boy was crowned King of England.
The child was dressed in royal robes made to his size; he looked a fine little knight. Great men who were present carried him into the monastery. Rich gifts were distributed when he was anointed and crowned. The legate Gualo sang the mass and crowned him, assisted by the bishops who were assembled there. When Henry was anointed and consecrated, and the service was over, the knights carried the child in their arms.
“And that’s all there is!” Tim Brain says, pointing to the meagre lines from L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, penned in Anglo-Norman by one John the Troubador. “Written 20 years after the event, so there was a lot of hearsay going on. If there were earlier records, they haven’t come down…
“Henry III is one of our most interesting, and probably one of our least-known, kings.”
Not even versified by Shakespeare?
“He escaped Shakespeare but I believe he’s mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. I think the only English monarch there mentioned. And I think Dante comes across him in the circle reserved for the indecisive. But I must check,” he adds, making for another bookcase.
(Purgatorio Canto VII: 64-136; cited as one of the ‘negligent’ rulers, I find when I look, later.)
More importantly for us, Tim Brain has chosen to focus on him – this forgotten king – for a lecture as part of the Three Choirs Festival. Why? Well, mainly because he’s the only king to have been crowned in Gloucester (and the only one since 1043 to be crowned outside of Westminster, though Edward II, of course, had the decency to be buried in Gloucester.)
But also because history pivots on this reign.
“’Tipping point’ is a better phrase. A lot of history is about massive trends; big personalities; but there are certain times when, had things gone another way, the future would have looked very different; 1216 is one of those moments.”
To find out why, we first have to set the scene. Henry’s coronation was unique: this was an England riven with tensions. Westminster – the obvious place to crown a king – was under the control of powerful dissenting barons, who were lending their support not to Henry but to his rival, Prince Louis (later, King Louis VIII) of France, another contender for the English throne. Their powerbase stretched over London, the south east and north east of the country.
“So Henry had a makeshift coronation,” Tim Brain says, “and I think he spent most of his reign trying to compensate. We have to remember that Gloucester Cathedral in 1216 was not the magnificent 14th/15th century building we know today. It was a Romanesque abbey, probably not dissimilar to Southwell Minster.”
Not only was there no Archbishop of Canterbury to lay a crown on Henry’s head; there was no proper crown. In Tim Brain’s eyes, that impoverished start to his sovereign life created a huge royal chip that never left his regal shoulders.
In 1220, when Henry had regained control of the capital, he not only organised a second coronation with all the trimmings; he also decided on his life’s project: the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey itself.
“He rebuilt the abbey in the gothic style – this magnificent new style. In a way, he must have been trying to compensate for the fact that he had this slightly… well, not quite right coronation in 1216.”
Indeed, we can mainly thank Henry for the Westminster Abbey we know and love today (though, strangely, the iconic western towers are 18th century Hawksmoor. “They look perfect, don’t they! Our planning act would never allow them to be built today.”)
The new king now had access to the royal coffers and his extravagance knew few bounds. One of the most magnificent aspects of the new abbey was a shrine to the saintly Edward the Confessor, last of the Wessex kings, who had ruled some two centuries earlier.
Henry’s promotion of the ‘Edward’ cult, Tim Brain speculates, speaks volumes.
“The whole purpose of his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey was around the shrine of Edward the Confessor. Why? For me, this is a key point.
“Who is the successor to a monarch? It’s the eldest son – but it’s worth reflecting on how rarely that has happened. Henry III succeeded as the eldest son of King John. The last king before him to succeed as the eldest son of a king had been Edward the Confessor.
“And, of course, Henry called his son, Edward: the first English king of that name for almost 200 years.”
What’s more, Henry commissioned new jewels in the stead of the simple coronet that had settled so lightly on his own head: remodelling the magnificent St Edward’s Crown. Although that original has been lost – broken up and melted down by a vitriolic Cromwell - Charles II commissioned a new set of coronation regalia a decade later (the very crown that Geoffrey Fisher placed on Elizabeth II’s head). It’s likely that more than a residual memory of Henry’s design was incorporated in the new.
Was Henry’s a happy reign? That’s a difficult question, of course, from this perspective. Certainly, Henry seemed to make a happy marriage to Eleanor of Provence, famed for her fashionable dress and her skill at poetry; moreover, he’s one of the few kings not to have fathered illegitimate children.
But his shaky start, and his long minority, made an indelible impression. He spent much of his reign searching for trusted advisers (“Collective father-figures,” Tim Brain terms them, with a knowing psychology), never quite finding them. His somewhat rocky kingship was characterised by troublesome barons and attempted uprisings. Medieval England was not a restful place.
We have no real contemporary likenesses of him, apart from a standard 13th century tomb effigy (he died at the venerable old age of 65), which shows him with long beard and flowing hair: not a distinctive look for the time.
“What we can say is that, if there were something that was striking about a king, chroniclers normally referred to it. They don’t with Henry. He wasn’t exceptionally tall or short; he sort of was Mr Average.”
And there is a big but.
Tim Brain promised us a man who changed history for ever; who helped give us democracy, both in terms of our laws and our constitution.
Well, it was during Henry’s father’s reign, of course, that the barons met with King John on a water meadow beside the flowing Thames, to sign the Magna Carta. But it was during Henry’s own time that this all-important document was modified into the foundation of England’s constitution. A constitution that established the right of justice for all, and the principle of trial by jury.
And, what’s more, it was during this volatile period that Simon de Montfort led a barons’ rebellion stripping the king of absolute authority and leading to the formation of Parliament.
So why – if we can thank Henry for these cornerstones of England – isn’t he venerated as a bigger character?
“Big things happened to Henry rather than him directly causing things to happen,” Tim Brain says. “If he had had a career choice, he probably would have been a monk, not a king.
“He was not, like John, a very bad king. He was not the sort of pantomime villain that Richard III was; he was not the towering personality of Henry VIII, or of his own son, Edward I. He wasn’t even the sort of boyhood hero-king like Henry V. Whenever battles broke out, he was either too young or too old to fight.
“At the end of the day, I’d say he was a pretty decent man, trying to make his way in a very rumbustious world,”
So let’s hear more about the amazing things that happened to him, then. The fall of kingly dictatorship; the rise of a people’s democracy. Let’s hear more about this tipping-point of history.
“Ah,” Tim Brain says with a smile. “I can’t give away all my secrets here! To find out more, you’ll have to come to the lecture.”
Dr Tim Brain’s lecture, Coronation 1216: Saving the English Monarchy, takes place on Sunday, July 24 at 6pm in St Mary de Lode, Gloucester; www.3choirs.org
The Three Choirs Festival is taking place in Gloucester, July 23-30.