Town centre violence at weekends when the pubs close in Chesterfield and the drunks spill out, is no different to most other towns and cities up and down the land. Usually it is put down easily by the police, but had they been around 750 years ago on May 15th 1266, the situation would have been much different. Maybe the odd glass or two of strong ale was involved, but this was real warfare.
Despite King John’s signature on the Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15th June 1215, by the 1250s his successor King Henry III was again trying to rule without the authority of his people. As a result the barons again rose up against their king and this time the result was open rebellion. Basically the problem came from King Henry’s demand for extra finance, but it also marked more general dissatisfaction, especially in his method of government. Crop failure and famine was also an underlying concern to his barons who supposedly were there to advise and help run England.
Deciding to reassert the Magna Carta, the barons chose Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester to force the king to surrender more power to the baronial council. Unfortunately it was not a good move politically because de Montford was unpopular with the king since he married Eleanor, the king’s sister without Henry’s permission. The council’s intention was to form what was in effect the first English parliament, which, after later amendments, became the fore-runner of our present democracy.
With Simon de Montfort as their leader, seven of the most powerful barons forced Henry to agree to what was called the Provisions of Oxford. It effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a group of twenty-four barons instructed to form a great council, every four years.
Henry had no choice but to swear an oath upholding the Provisions of Oxford, but in 1261 he obtained a papal bull, a permit from the pope, exempting him from his oath. Angered by the king breaking the agreement, the barons raised an army, rapidly matched by the Royalists under the control of Edward Longshanks, King Henry’s eldest son. Civil war was inevitable.
Under the brilliant leadership of de Montfort, the barons’ forces had captured much of southern England by 1263, dispossessing captured royalists and granting their estates to de Montfort’s supporters. The king and Prince Edward were captured at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and using him as an impotent figurehead, de Montfort broadened parliamentary representation to include groups beyond the nobility, members from each English county and many important towns. With Henry and Edward under house arrest, the short period which followed was the closest England was to come to complete abolition of the monarchy until the Commonwealth period of 1649-1660. This worried many of the barons, who suspected that de Montfort had gone too far with his reforming zeal.
Barely fifteen months were to elapse before Edward Longshanks and King Henry escaped captivity to lead another royalist army into battle once more. In the subsequent Battle of Evesham in 1265, de Montfort was killed and his son, Simon, forced to attempt a negotiated surrender. This was rejected and the resulting impasse culminated in a six-month siege at Kenilworth castle, at which the king’s troops prevailed. De Montfort’s forces were permitted to leave the castle with their weapons and horses, but savage retribution was exacted on the rebels with authority restored only after King Henry’s intervention. The casualties of the war are estimated at 15,000.
Despite the king’s success at Evesham, civil war continued for another year. Called the Second Barons’ War, it consisted of a series of minor skirmishes, of which the so-called Battle of Chesterfield on May 15th 1266 was a small part of a general ‘mopping up’ by the king’s forces. On the barons’ side the leaders were Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby, Baldwin Wake, Lord of Chesterfield and John d’Ayville. The Royalist forces were led by Henry of Almain, nephew of Henry III.
Much tidier now than in the thirteenth century. At that time the grid-patterned streets around Chesterfield market square would have been a stinking midden, littered with rotting offal and other rubbish in streets still called by their original names – names such as The Shambles, a corruption of Fleshambles where butchers plied their trade. The church outside which the skirmish took place would have been much smaller and certainly not with a twisted spire, as this came much later
The king’s forces with Henry of Almain at their head caught up with Robert Ferrers the Earl of Derby’s group close to the church. Unfortunately he was suffering from a severe attack of gout and quickly moved inside the church to save himself. Without proper leadership, and despite John d’Ayville’s brave attack on the enemy, the rebels were soon overcome, but not before word had spread to nearby Brampton that the parish church was in danger of damage. This gave the leaders of Brampton society cause for concern because their parish was responsible for the up-keep of one of the church walls – which one and which other districts were responsible for the rest is unsure, but the men of Brampton came hot foot into Chesterfield. Fortunately for them the short-lived ‘Battle of Chesterfield’ was quickly over with no apparent lasting damage to the church. De Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby was not so lucky. Tradition says that he was betrayed by a woman and discovered hiding beneath sacks of wool stored in the church. Following his capture he was taken in irons to London where he was stripped of his titles and land.
To commemorate the 750th anniversary of the battle, an event will be held in New Square, Chesterfield on May 15th 2016, starting at 11:00 a.m. There will be a re-enactment of de Ferrers being dragged from the church, followed by a trial, as well as games, contests and music of the time. Local groups forming guilds with their own banners are expected to join in the medievally themed festivities.
For further details contact Chesterfield Borough Council:
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