British barons & the Barons’ Wars

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British barons & the Barons’ Wars

A ‘Baron’ indicates the lowest rank in the British peerage*, though the title itself is one of the oldest. A Barony meant land that went with the title. Barons were originally the military tenants-in-chief of the Crown. The name is French, and came with the Norman Conquest that began (and triumphed under William, Duke of Normandy) in 1066.

The word means ‘vassal of the Lord’. If it had any limitation – that limitation was confined to those who held (or were awarded) land directly from the King in return for military allegiance and service.

Magna Carta (1215) made a distinction between the ‘lesser’ baronage, who could be summoned to the Great Council by general writ, and the ‘greater’ baronage, called up by personal writ or message. The greater barons were considered to have a hereditary peerage, meaning the title and lands could be passed on after death to the oldest son (or daughter if there were no male heir).

In 1387 King Richard II made John de Beauchamp Baron of Kidderminster, by means of a ‘letter patent’ (a letter signed and sealed by the King) which gave this rank to Beauchamp and his heirs. This became common practice from 1446, establishing the principle that peerage could be created either by writ, or summons or letters patent – though the latter was more customary.

It was the barons who forced King John I to make agreements with them and sign Magna Carta at a meadow called Runnymede by the side of the River Thames. The first king to try to reduce the barons’ power was the Angevin/English (first) Plantagenet, Henry II, father of John (and Richard ‘The Lionheart’).

The Barons’ Wars 1215 – 17 & 1264 – 67 were fought in England between King John and the nobility. In June 1215 John, faced by concerted and determined opposition from both the Church and the Barons, could do nothing but agree to the Magna Carta. It is arguably possible that things might have gone very badly wrong for the pompous and unintelligent John if he had not conceded when he did.

But John failed to keep his promise (not for the first time) and thereby provoked the Barons into offering the English crown to Louis, Dauphin of France. He landed with an army in Kent, in May, 1216. This second invasion has been largely neglected by historians, or at least reduced in importance when compared with Duke William’s in 1066. John, like Harold before him, was in the North when his enemy landed, and he hurried south. Death overtook him and he died prematurely in October, 1216. The Regent acting for his young son Henry III stopped a civil war by re-issuing Magna Carta. Louis was thoroughly beaten at Lincoln, and his supply ships captured off Sandwich. The Dauphin was forced to sign the Treaty of Kingston-on-Thames in September, 1217.

Henry was unfortunately another incompetent King of England (there have been an abundance of them), and in case Magna Carta was not enough, he was made to sign the Provisions of Oxford (1258) further weakening the power of a king; but his own renunciation of these reforms led to civil war in 1264, in which the baronial forces were led by Simon de Montfort. Henry III was himself taken prisoner at the Battle of Lewes in May, 1264 – and the Barons were briefly in control of England, until de Montfort sought to broaden his support by extending parliamentary franchise to the shires and towns of England (1265).

Montfort was defeated and killed at Evesham in August 1265; the Barons’ struggle continued, led by Montfort’s supporters, but had petered out by 1267. The importance of the Barons’ Wars is they included a second invasion of England by a foreign force.

* Baron/Baroness


Earl (formerly Count)/Countess



(Royal) Duke/Duchess (the first five of these titles could also be called ‘Lord’)

By | 2012-02-12T16:09:05+00:00 February 12th, 2012|English History, World History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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