It was on 16 November in 1272 that his reign of 56 years came to an end. That figure stood for 544 years until George III, already insane and in seclusion, eclipsed it in 1816. We don’t know what Henry’s final illness was, just that the sixty-five-year old had taken to his bed two weeks earlier. Before that, he had gone to Norwich to deal with an urban riot that left the local cathedral in ruins. The London he came home to was in upheaval again, this time over the recent mayoral election. Ordinarily his son Edward could have managed these problems, but he was off on crusade. For a while, it seemed Henry would recover.
On 5 November he ordered the Christmas feast for that year, to take place in Winchester, the city of his birth. But then his condition worsened and finally he went through the ritual of confession and absolution. He died late in the day with the magnates of the realm, and presumably his wife of 36 years, by his side. Henry may have been in an anxious state of mind, apart from knowing death was near, but he was that rare king of medieval England to die in his bed of natural causes. Of the Plantagenets alone, three died untimely deaths after their depositions (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI), three died on campaign (Richard I, Edward I, Henry V), three died in shame and despair (Henry II, John, Henry IV), and one was cut down in battle (Richard III). The only other Plantagenet kings to die in relative peace were Edward III and IV, but they were increasingly infirm in their final years, not the least of which was due to their slovenly lifestyles.
Henry was entombed in Westminster Abbey, a place he scrounged and laboured for a quarter of a century to rebuild into the form we know it today.
By Darren Baker