The war of the clicks has begun and the Internet is the battleground. A novel that provocatively suggests that Simon de Montfort was the real father of Edward I has offended otherwise polite society. They hope to skewer the book by bombarding a one-star review of it with ‘helpful’ clicks. Supporters are now fighting back by clicking the five-star reviews. The lines are drawn, may the best mouse win.
The dispute involves one of the most curious incidents in the history of the English royal family. On August 9, 1239, King Henry III used the occasion of his wife’s churching, her public offering of thanks for a safe childbirth, to accuse Simon de Montfort of seducing his sister. The speculation in the novel, and the author insists it’s only a novel, is that what Henry really meant to say was that Montfort had seduced his wife. Fortunately for Queen Eleanor and his newborn son, the future Edward I, the king thought better of himself at the last moment and decided to sully his sister instead.
The sister here is another Eleanor, the wilful youngest child of King John. When she found herself a widow before the age of twenty, she swore she could never love another man and took a vow of chastity in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This happened right around when Montfort arrived in England from France to reclaim the family domains in Leicester. He was witty and charismatic, speaking a Parisian French more refined to the ears than the provincial Anglo-Norman of the English court. The young widow couldn’t resist herself.
As the king, Henry could fix things, but Eleanor’s vow wasn’t the only problem. She was a princess, and therefore good marketing material for the fortunes of the kingdom. To marry her to some foreign upstart was bound to create resentment among the nobility. Henry, the former boy king whose answer to every problem was just do it and let things work themselves out, agreed to marry them in secret and take his chances. The nobility griped, but he had weathered their contempt before and always would. The archbishop, however, was an ornery fellow who didn’t take lapses in judgement lightly. He refused to be reconciled even after Simon, with money from Henry, successfully purchased the Pope’s blessing for his marriage.
So the stage is now set in the book. The queen goes through the ritual of confession to the archbishop before her churching, he hears that Montfort is the real father of her baby, and storms off to tell Henry. The king looks at Montfort and stammers, ‘You…you seduced my…my sister!’
At first glance, the plausibility of this story could be the unseemliness of the occasion. After four long years, all of England was rejoicing in the birth of a healthy heir. The king even showed his favour to the Montforts by lending them a magnificent estate for their lodgings in London. And then, all of a sudden, he lashes out at both of them in front of the distinguished gathering. It stands to reason that the king must have discovered something truly terrible for him to ruin the ceremony in the manner he did. His anger was so great, in fact, that he ordered the couple locked up in the Tower before cooler heads intervened.
Whatever Simon did that set Henry off, the connection to the birth of Edward naturally makes good fodder for historical novelists eager to fill in the gaps. In this case, the material is appealing because Queen Eleanor comes from Provence, the land all but razed under Simon’s father during the Albigensian Crusade. Ach, another heretic! But she too is a foreigner in a land that has become painfully insular since John lost most of the English possessions on the continent. The weather is atrocious, the food inedible, the servants speak in a coarse, unintelligible language, and the French of the court has no air of sophistication to it. Eleanor comes from the land of troubadours and chivalric musings, Simon from Ile-de-France, both worlds apart from noisy, grimy London.
And, of course, there are the four barren years after the royal nuptials. Relief spread throughout the land when the Montforts’ own first child was born in November 1238, thus assuring the royal line if it turned out the king couldn’t cut it in the queen’s bed chamber. Since Edward was born in June 1239, Queen Eleanor would have had to conceive when Princess Eleanor was in the late stages of her pregnancy. Simon would have to be a real cad for him to father both children in these circumstances. The novel addresses this point by suggesting that Princess Eleanor was pregnant when she married Montfort in January 1238, a medieval crossbow wedding as it were, and gave birth three months before the official release date. Simon’s wife, therefore, was already delivered of their first child before he lay down with the queen. Hm, still a cad.
A truly incredible story if that were indeed the case. Montfort, the alien who brought the monarchy to heel, who taught the English the value of their native language and institutions, actually sired the man who eventually killed him in battle. Only one thing is missing: Nobody thought of it at the time. In 1258, nearly twenty years after the churching incident, the reform movement began with the expulsion of Henry’s nasty half-brothers from the kingdom, due in large part to the efforts of Simon and Queen Eleanor, though for different reasons. The brothers, who had grown quite close to Edward as he approached manhood, began defaming his mother and uncle to everyone in earshot, but never once hinted at any kind of illicit union between them.
And not that people didn’t talk about such things in those days. Henry was fickle and excitable by nature, given to rehashing slights and scandals at the worst possible moment. He once accused Gilbert Marshal, son of the famous William, of acts so vile that Matthew Paris, the master of medieval gossip, felt they were better left out of the record. Henry’s outburst, moreover, occurred while Gilbert was in mourning for the loss of his sister. At the time of the churching, one of the queen’s uncles complained to Henry that Simon owed him money and had used the king as surety for it. It would be keeping with Henry’s character for him to suddenly explode at someone whom he believed had abused his good nature.
Unfortunately for him, he had picked the wrong man to humiliate in public. From that moment forward, it was Montfort who would speak his mind, who would openly scoff at the thought of the king going to confession, and actually threaten him, to the astonishment of the other nobles, over his choice of words. But he was also a deeply religious and introspective man, and the evidence suggests he was long bothered by Eleanor breaking her vow of chastity to marry him. Surely, sleeping with the queen would have bothered him more.
As for the Eleanors, the queen’s lack of immediate offspring could be explained by her age, which was put down as twelve when she married the king. A generous man and natural artist, Henry had a keen eye for curves and was probably waiting for Eleanor’s to develop more before going into full action in the conjugal bed. And Henry’s sister had the same excitable and impulsive qualities he had, leading her priest to once admonish her for marital insubordination, whatever that was supposed to mean. If Simon had strayed, with the queen no less, it can be safely assumed she would have raised hell. Instead both couples had loving families that remained loyal to the end, when their fortunes became intertwined with the future of the English nation.
Finally, there is the matter of appearance. Edward, it was noted, had the same drooping eyelid that Henry did. He also stammered, and while Henry didn’t as the norm, one can imagine him doing so during one of his fits. ‘You…you…’ But consult the family tree and another intriguing prospect crops up. If Simon were Edward’s father, then the Montfort children, given that Henry was their natural uncle, would have probably looked more like the king than his own son and heir. And Edward, that complicated man, would not have had one drop of English blood in his veins. Indeed, Henry’s only English blood came from his great-great-grandmother Matilda, the wife of Henry I. Montfort too was descended from this same King Henry, and therefore from William the Conqueror, but that was through one of his legion of illegitimate children in France.