Simon de Montfort in Modernity
Thomas Bertram Costain was a Canadian who went to live in New York. Margaret Wade Labarge was a New Yorker who went to live in Canada. However these two may have crossed paths, they both have a wonderful gift for storytelling and put it to good use in two of the most readable books about Simon de Montfort. Costain’s second part of his series on the Plantagenets is ‘The Magnificent Century’ (1949), aptly named for what was the high point of the Middle Ages in England. The struggle between Simon and Henry dominate the latter half of the book, and while clearly enthralled by Montfort, Costain doesn’t shy away from his mistakes, in particular his alienation of the difficult Clare clan.
Labarge’s biography (1962) does the great gift of walking the uninitiated reader through stories and conventions that may seem tiresomely familiar to historians, like running a medieval household and the baffling machinery of arbitration. Her view is admirably balanced until near the end, when she takes the modernist verdict that Montfort’s fall was more of his own making. Too acquisitive is a judgement often heard.
John Maddicott takes the same view in his biography, the last to hit the shelves (1994). ‘Yet although we may think that Montfort’s larger ambitions, notably his attempt to govern the country in the name of a captive king, were ultimately unsustainable, there was nothing predetermined about the way in which they were destroyed. Much depended on the mistakes and misjudgements of fallible men.’ The Simon generally presented in both books as imperious and high-handed might have replied, ‘You try it if you think you’re so good.’ His book is nevertheless a tour-de-force as he attempts to gain insight into this deeply introspective individual. The man who emerges is the complete contrast in character that has long been the tradition, only now we have a better understanding why. The tone of Maddicott’s book is subdued and the research impeccable, making it already a classic in the Montfort community.
Most of the studies on Simon de Montfort before the 20th century fall into the ranks of hagiography, as evident by Reinhold Pauli’s ‘Simon de Montfort, the Creator the House of Commons’. George Prothero, Mandel Creighton and William Stubbs were more circumspect in their works, though generally laudatory of his efforts in the development of parliamentary democracy. One dissenting voice was offered by David Hume, who in his usual understated style, put down Montfort’s moral character to ‘violence, ingratitude, tyranny, and treachery.’ The singular best book of the whole period is William Henry Blaauw’s ‘The Barons’ War’. The wealth of research and information makes it indispensable for putting this incredibly complicated story together. Little wonder it’s still in print after 170 years.
It wasn’t until Charles Bemont’s book came out in 1884 that the first truly professional biography of Montfort appeared, enriched by copies of actual documents. Most of them didn’t make it into the first and only translation made in 1930 by E. F. Jacob. Not that most readers today would find them helpful. Bemont was writing in an era where knowledge of French and Latin was naturally presumed. No translation necessary. His work takes a very sober view of Montfort and his achievements, and he uses rhetorical questions throughout as a way for readers to draw their own conclusions. Which is, when you think about it, the only safe way to proceed, given the nature of the man and his lasting influence.