The case against a King Simon

The summer of 1264 could not have been an easy one for Eleanor of Castile. She was holding Windsor castle for her husband Lord Edward when he and her father-in-law King Henry III fell captive to Simon de Montfort after the battle of Lewes. She was pregnant at the time, the result of Edward taking furlough just before the royalist victory at Northampton in April, and she had their young daughter in her care. As part of the peace deal, she was ordered to vacate strategically-important Windsor, presumably on her way to join the king’s household in the interim. Edward was imprisoned and being held as a hostage for that peace. If the terms of it failed, Montfort would be within his rights to have the young man executed. And if Henry happened to die as well, Eleanor and her child and unborn child would also have to be ‘addressed’ in any attempt by Simon to seize the throne.

Henry de Montfort
Henry de Montfort. Did his father hope to place him on the throne someday?

For whatever what-ifs are worth, there’s no escaping the speculation that Montfort, in his long-running dispute with Henry, was at some point or other aiming for the crown itself. Chronicler Thomas Wykes certainly thought so when he put it down to the earl of Leicester’s obstruction of the treaty with France back in 1259, this at a time when he wasn’t even recognized as the leader of the reform movement. It’s possible that Wykes knew that Simon’s father had been offered the crown by malcontents under King John. Maybe the son also knew it and was in fact cultivating it, if not for himself, then for his son Henry, a grandson of John. Maybe his great parliaments, comprised of the widest cross-section of society yet represented in English government, were merely demagogic ruses to prepare the realm for the day when he might one day have their approval to address them as his subjects, as King Simon.

By all accounts he would have made a more forceful king than Henry, and that, more than anything, explains why most of the barons were afraid of the prospect of Henry being retired off. True, he had left them exasperated throughout his reign with his foolhardy ambitions, his favouritism for foreigners, and unwillingness to take them into his counsels. But he also left them alone, never pressing them for the money or services they owed, allowing them a free hand to run their estates as they saw fit. Simon would be a different story altogether, and his tenure as viceroy in Gascony showed that he meant business when it came to protecting the rights of all, whether king or peasant. And that, naturally, included his own.

His rights, or grievances as they are often called today, is where the Simon of lofty ideals gets cut down to size, to just another feudal overlord in it for himself. In his case, it’s an easy portrayal because, for many historians, his father represents a notorious example of virtue and piety masking greed and ambition. It can be argued that had Henry not been so craven and made good on what was owed the Montforts, the reform movement would not have survived his first attempt to subvert it. On the other hand, there is this Simon who won’t go away, the one influenced by Robert Grosseteste and the nature of justice, whose will and testament shows he understood there was more to his place in life than protecting his own interests. Of course, power corrupts as in any age and with any individual, so the only way to infer the future as Simon saw it is to look at his short tenure at the helm of the realm.

First and foremost is his attitude towards the Mise of Lewes, the agreement that ended hostilities and provided the framework for a lasting peace. The Mise called for arbitration on the Provisions of Oxford, which on the face of it seems odd since Montfort maintained all along that the Provisions were inviolable. It’s been argued that he agreed to it simply to get Henry and Edward to come out alive after the battle of Lewes, that in fact he had no intention of implementing the terms once he had them in custody. Indeed, the friendly chronicler Rishanger says, ‘and from that time he showed himself less ready to treat for peace, according to the form that had been arranged, because he had the king and the whole kingdom in his power.’

Fair enough, but the Mise clearly calls for the participation of the French, and Louis, perhaps worried he would come off looking like the fool he was for his earlier Mise of Amiens, refused to even consider any new arrangements. Simon, who knew Louis as well as anyone on the English side, might have suspected this and inserted the French clause with the hope that nothing would come of the arbitration. But even if that were the case, he could not be expected to wait around for the petulance of the French monarch to run its course, all the while he was assisting the queen in her invasion plans. Simon, Henry and Edward had sworn that the Provisions were the law of the land back in 1258, and as far as Montfort was concerned, that was still the case no matter what Louis or the pope said. He had them embodied first in the Ordinance adopted by parliament in June 1264 and two months later in the Peace of Canterbury, where for the first time we see Montfort’s vision of the Provisions becoming a permanent fixture of the monarchy. If Edward wanted to be king, he would have to abide by conciliar control as much as his father. And that was the biggest problem facing Simon: what to do with a future king who had once threatened to clamp a halter around his neck.

It was reported that Henry accepted the June constitution under the threat of deposition. If he had been deposed at the assembly and Montfort ‘elected’ king in his place, the chances are he might have grumbled but also accepted his lot, much as his future grandson Edward II would. That unfortunate individual was later smothered in captivity because there was just something about an ex-king that seemed unnatural and dangerous. That it could happen at all was thanks to his father, who had ushered in a new era of political terror with the butchery at Evesham. Henry wasn’t like that at all. He didn’t starve his opponents to death like his father or had them chopped up, with their heads stuck on a pike, like his son. For all his abilities, Montfort might not have gotten as far as he did had Henry been made of similar stuff. But this king had always been a man more of creature comforts than absolute authority. He liked good wine, good food, planning weddings and construction projects. During the captive monarchy, Montfort made sure that the royal household was kept in the grand style Henry was used to, this despite the shambles of the economy. It may have only been meant to keep up appearances, but Henry seemingly went along and was still treated with the dignity he craved wherever he went.

Henry preferred the good life to a good fight
                                       Henry preferred the good life to a good fight

Edward was an entirely different matter. Montfort had to know from the young man’s haughtiness leading up to Lewes, and the revenge he enjoyed at the cost of the battle, that he would never be reconciled to him or restraints on kingship of any sort. To this end, he would always be a menace as long as he had the support of his friends and neighbours in the Welsh Marches. In his most controversial act as the steward of the realm, Simon arranged to have Edward moved out of his lordship in Cheshire in return for some scattered holdings elsewhere. He would install his son Henry in Edward’s place, and together with their ally Llywelyn in Wales, keep the Marchers in check.

This is the security side of the argument. If Rishanger thought that power had gone to Montfort’s head, he also understood that the barons had only themselves to thank for actions like these. Simon appropriated as many lands and castles as possible because sooner or later he knew they were going to betray him. But the other side suggests another blatant attempt by Montfort to enrich his family. In addition to Cheshire, he gave Richard of Cornwall’s lands to his son Guy to hold, and he had the marriage rights to the wealthiest widow in the land sold to his second son Simon. Lucrative deals but hardly enrichment. In the end the only real cash that can be accounted for after Evesham is the £7,000 the surviving members of the family took with them into exile. While definitely a hefty sum, it wasn’t even a third of the money Simon and Eleanor were claiming from Henry. As for those marriage rights, Eleanor would have been more than justified in accusing her brother of squandering all the good marriages on the Savoyards and Lusignans instead of arranging at least one for her sons. It was never too late to make amends.

But being a king is as much about form as power and patronage, and the number of knights in Simon’s retinue, far greater than Henry ever had, did not escape notice. If this too wasn’t purely for security measures in a land where royalist insurgents were still at large, that he was in fact showing off, there is little in his character before Lewes to indicate he was susceptible to such pretentiousness. Quite the opposite, in fact, if we can believe the tales about his fasting, sturdy physical regimen, and wearing apparel no more luxurious than a russet and hair shirt.

Assuming he did fall prey to the good life as only a king might enjoy, he would still have to answer to the people who had as much say in his government as he did. In later betraying Simon, Gilbert de Clare argued that he had abandoned the Provisions by hiring foreigners, but what really bothered him is that Simon himself was a foreigner and he was keeping him from a huge payday with the ransom for Richard of Cornwall. On the other hand, Montfortians like Hugh Despenser received modest rewards for their efforts, but remained loyal to the end. Even royalists like Matthias Bezill and John Chisull were won over to a certain extent, and Roger Bigod surely would have remained in reform hibernation had he suspected that Simon was after Henry’s throne. The support that really mattered, from Walter de Cantilupe and the other bishops, followed Montfort all the way to the killing fields of Evesham.

The English bishop, support that was vital to Montfort’s movement
             The English bishop, support that was vital to Montfort’s movement

But the bishops, like Clare, were also pressing for the release of Edward. Montfort had to know he wasn’t going to take his expulsion from Cheshire lightly. The judicial theft he later engineered of the earldom of Derby shows how far he was prepared to go to get what he wanted, and this was before he was king. Releasing him on an oath to accept the constitution and let bygones be bygones certainly wouldn’t help. As everyone knew, his word was worth even less than his father’s. Montfort had to know that Edward would never accept the settlement no matter how long he had to wait to become king. The best he could hope for was to buy time. Edward would be officially released but kept under close supervision until Henry de Montfort could firmly make Cheshire his own and the Provisions had become as entrenched throughout the realm as Magna Carta. But Simon would allow him visitation rights with the Marchers, as well as a place for the double-crossing Thomas de Clare in his retinue, an uncommon security lapse that suggests Montfort was bending over too far to bring the heir to the throne on board. The result, of course, was disaster. Edward was reputed to have cried at the interment of his cousin Henry after Evesham, but he couldn’t wait to get to Cheshire to reassert his authority there. And to sweeten the revenge, his family would take Leicester from the Montforts. Strangely, most historians never use the word enrichment in that connection.

If, from the vantage point of centuries, we can glimpse the inner workings of a man who was nothing if not introspective, there is one contemporary of Simon’s whose actions suggest she never believed the royal family was in danger, Eleanor of Provence. She might have launched the invasion force she put together, despite Henry’s pleas for Edward’s safety, had her money held out. She then switched to plan B, which was organising a personal rescue attempt by his former knights. It failed precisely because his captors threatened to send the heir flying through the air from a mangonel if they didn’t desist.

In the final analysis, if Montfort had intended to make himself King Simon someday, he was wise enough to keep it to himself. The only thing we will ever know for sure is that Henry, Edward, Richard of Cornwall and Eleanor of Castile all emerged from their captivity alive, the first two a bit more mean-spirited than before, but otherwise safe and sound. They would be the last ruling Plantagenets that found themselves in a similar situation to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *