The youngest of John’s children, Eleanor (1215 – 1275) had all the beauty of her mother Isabella of Angoulême. Only 16 at the time of her husband’s death, she would have made a splendid catch for any number of monarchs in Europe. But Eleanor was headstrong and emotional, and not only insisted on taking the veil but doing so in front of the archbishop of Canterbury. Thereafter, she retired to a little court of her own, supported by a dower income from her late husband’s estate, arranged by her guardian brother Henry in such a bungled manner that it would be the source of political recriminations for years to come.
The Leicester holdings, it turned out, generated little income to cover the debts Simon had incurred to recover them. Ever the mercenary, he cast his eyes on two rich widows on the continent and nearly snared the second one before the French court stepped in and sent him packing back to England. He was nevertheless making a name for himself at Henry’s court, where the outbreak of a power struggle coincided with his arrival. The king had supplanted his native council with aliens, creating widespread discontent and a minor rebellion by the influential Marshal clan of Pembroke. Henry had tried to win over the Marshals by marrying his 10-year-old sister Eleanor to 35-year-old William, the head of the clan. The marriage was contracted despite grumblings from the magnates. They were opposed to matches between royals and commoners on principle and princesses always made excellent bargaining chips in diplomacy. Eleanor had no more come of age when her husband died unexpectedly. Distraught, she took a vow of chastity, an impulsive act she would regret after meeting the handsome young Frenchman at court.
The expedition was a total failure. Young Henry looked splendid in his armor until dysentery took hold of him and forced him to sail back. Simon was not able to demonstrate any military prowess but did make the overtures necessary to regain his father’s former title and estates. And so, with Henry’s blessing, Montfort was on his way to becoming the Earl of Leicester. One of his first acts was to expel the Jewish population from his newly acquired domains. While insisting he was doing it for the good of his soul, Montfort was also coming under the influence of Robert Grosseteste, a leading scholar who applauded the move in both biblical and economic terms. The Jews were widely condemned for practicing usury and Montfort was no doubt currying favor among his new tenants by presuming to do something about it. In the end, the handful of Jewish families moved to that part of Leicester held by his great-aunt Margaret. She offered them sanctuary, much to Grosseteste’s dismay, and there they remained until Henry’s son Edward expelled the lot of English Jewry in 1290.
When the middle brother died during another siege, the oldest brother Amaury had only Simon to contend with for possession of the family holdings. These included the estates and earldom of Leicester, half of which came to their father through his mother, an English heiress. Questioning the older Simon’s loyalty, John seized them during his conflict with France. Amaury invited his younger brother to go to England to try and win them back. Simon landed sometime around 1230 to plead his case to the king, who spoke French like the rest of the nobility. He was just in time, for Henry, older than him by a year or two, was about to embark on his own attempt to win back land, in this case all of Normandy. A young Frenchman like de Montfort, son of a renowned crusading scourge, might prove useful to the enterprise.
Simon’s namesake father had gained fame throughout Europe for his ruthless suppression of the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade. He brought his family along for the siege of Toulouse in 1218, so the younger Simon was close at hand when his father was felled by a stone pitched from the battlements. His mother Alice de Montmorency was a match for her husband in extreme cruelty. To the Jews of Toulouse she gave the choice of converting or being put to the sword. After her husband’s death, she returned to northern France where she died in 1221. Simon was left in the care of his older brothers, who soon resumed the campaign in the south. The plaque reads:
Old Montoulieu Gardens – During the siege of Toulouse in the course of the Albigensian Crusade Simon de Montfort was killed here in 1218.
Below that in French and the original Occitan from the Song of the Cathar Wars is
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.