Simon de Montfort was described as “tall in body and handsome in face.” He was also said to have a pleasant and agreeable way of speaking, which helps explain why some of the greatest men of his age were drawn to him. A descendant of two aristocratic families of northern France (and of William the Conqueror), Simon was probably born at the family seat of Montfort-l’Amaury in today’s Île-de-France between Paris and Normandy. The third son of parents renowned for their fanaticism, he spent his youth in the south of France.
Stout and florid in later life, no doubt from a love of good wine, the one physical feature of Henry’s that stood out from his youth was a drooping eyelid. It suggested a slyness of character, reinforced by his eagerness to please and make a good impression while always quick to criticize and renege on agreements. A loving husband and father, pious and generous to a fault, Henry had none of the savagery of his father and son. But as king he was fickle, excitable, and prone to play favorites. He burned with ambition, but rarely had the means or ability to back it up. “Simple” was a word often used to describe him.
Next door to the cathedral is the Palace of Westminster with its iconic clock tower. It’s home to the houses of Parliament, the archaic “Lords” consisting of peers and churchmen, and the “Commons”, where the real power of the country rests. The first such parliament was convened in 1265 by Henry, more or less at the point of a sword. He had been on the throne for nearly 50 years by that time, a half century of coddling aliens and ruinous ventures abroad. In an attempt to curb Henry’s misrule, the barons turned to an unlikely peer, Simon de Montfort. The scion of a famous if fanatical family, Simon had come to England in search of fortune and quickly won the king’s confidence. Henry was so taken with the newcomer that he secretly married his sister to him, another whimsical act that had the magnates, led by Richard, up in arms. Together Henry and Simon weathered the storm but their polar personalities – one weak and capricious, the other ambitious and resolute – made a clash of temperaments inevitable. When civil war eventually erupted, Simon won the day by capturing Henry and his son Edward at the Battle of Lewes. With the royal seal firmly in hand, de Montfort issued a call on 14 December 1264 for parliament to convene with the presence of “two good and loyal men” from every town and borough. It was the first time common folk sat alongside barons, bishops and knights to discuss the business of government. The situation was dire, and a few barons, happy to have reined Henry in, were now about to do the same to Simon.
The Westminster Abbey we know today was the vision of King Henry III. A fickle man of unsteady purpose, Henry was still a boy when his father King John died in 1216 in the midst of trying to wrest control of the kingdom back from the barons who had forced Magna Carta on him. The barons would later rise up against Henry as well, not least because of the enormous sums of money he was spending, some of it to build the abbey. For Henry, its construction was both a matter of faith and calling, for he made a better interior decorator, even wedding planner, than king. Then there was the business acumen of his younger brother Richard of Cornwall, a man so rich he bought himself the title King of the Romans. When England needed new coinage, they both brought their true gifts to bear, with Henry designing the silver coins and Richard organizing the minting. But it was Henry who proved the true visionary of the two. Nothing Richard took in hand contributes a farthing today to English royal coffers, while Westminster Abbey draws in over a million visitors a year paying upwards of £17 a head.