Henry’s expedition to recover Poitou was a spectacular failure. Caught off guard by Louis’ aggressiveness at the Charente River near Taillebourg, Henry retreated to Saintes, where the French were on the verge of encircling his small force when Richard, also back from the crusades, grabbed a staff and walked into the enemy camp. He was hoping the freedom he secured for many of the French nobles in the Holy Land would pay off. Louis could hardly deny him, not looking like a pilgrim, and gave the English a one-day truce. It was just enough time for Henry to save his army, but not his war chest and other valuables. He accused his stepfather of leading him into a trap, which Hugh vehemently denied before, soon enough, going over to the French side. He even took command of the French army that drove another rebel, another insignificant count, to seek safety with Henry in Bordeaux. This count, who was actually Isabella and Hugh’s son-in-law, had fought to defend Toulouse against Simon’s father a quarter of a century earlier and now used his proximity to Henry to denounce the younger de Montfort. Although Simon had been instrumental in helping the English army to escape, Henry was ready to lend an ear after his brother-in-law, disgusted with the military debacle, snarled at the king, “You should be locked up.” Henry would nurse the insult for years to come.
Like Henry, Louis IX (1214 – 1270) had been a boy king, crowned at the age of 12 after his father, another Louis, died of dysentery. His mother was Blanche of Castile, whose own mother was John’s cousin. It was through this tenuous royal connection that the rebellious barons of England invited the elder Louis, while still heir to the French throne, to take John’s place on the English throne. Prince Louis marched easily into London, but then John died suddenly (from eating, it was reported, too many eels) and the barons found themselves in a quandary: how to tell the humorless Louis his services were no longer required. He was eventually expelled with a large severance package and Henry became the rightful king with William Marshal as regent. Blanche became her son’s regent when he ascended the throne but insisted on having a say in his affairs even after he came of age. She was sitting next to him when Henry’s mother Isabella and Hugh Lusignan arrived to pay them homage. It was war after that.
This time the conflict was instigated by Henry’s mother, Isabella d’Angoulême. She was just a teenager when King John snatched her from her intended, Hugh Lusignan, the insignificant and very brown count of La Marche. After John’s death and the crowning of Henry, Isabella went back to the continent to oversee the marriage of her ten-year-old daughter to the same Hugh she left empty-handed twenty years earlier. When Hugh saw that Isabella had lost none of her beauty, he decided he preferred the mother to the daughter, who would have to settle for the King of Scotland. Isabella had born five children with John; she now proceeded to bear another nine with Hugh. But the former queen had lost none of her haughty spirit and seethed over her loss of status. One very public snub from her adversary, the equally haughty dowager queen of France, finally set her off. She assured both her husband and son that between them, they could wrest the province of Poitou back from the French. Henry was still keen on recapturing the glory days of his grandfather’s Angevin Empire, but the magnates refused to go along. He landed anyway in 1242 in the expectation of finding his stepfather at the head of an uprising. What he found instead was his brother-in-law, King Louis, ready to bag the lot of them.
Crusading was all the rage among the nobility of the 13th century. Simon returned to England alone in the spring of 1240 to raise money for his own expedition and found Henry cordial, even friendly, but otherwise offering no relief in his scramble for funds. Eleanor accompanied him as far as southern Italy, where her brother-in-law Emperor Frederick gave her the use of a stone palace next to the sea. By the time Simon reached the Holy Land, the crusade was all but over. The French force had already been defeated and Simon’s brother Amaury taken prisoner. Richard, who also preceded him there, used his personal wealth to free the French contingent swept up by the Saracens. Amaury died on his way home in 1241 but the survivors would remember Richard’s gesture the next time England and France came to blows. Simon took no part in any real action, but the local population saw something in his leadership qualities, or connections, to prevail upon Frederick to appoint him their governor. Nothing came of the matter and Simon returned to France, where Henry was again in dire straits over another ill-advised military excursion.
True to character, Henry’s break with Simon was abrupt and unseemly. He waited for the occasion of the queen’s churching – her offer of thanks for a safe childbirth – to lash out at the earl of Leicester, accusing him of owing another of his wife’s uncles a huge sum of money and offering him, the king, as security. Henry was so caught up in his anger that even charged his brother-in-law, in front of the assembled guests, with having seduced his sister, and that was the only reason why he consented to their secret wedding. Stunned and humiliated, Simon and Eleanor left forthwith, but Henry wasn’t through. He quickly had them turned out of their lodgings, then went a step further and ordered them locked up in the Tower of London. Fortunately the cooler head of Richard intervened and the unhappy couple was allowed to leave the country and settle in France.
Impressed by this practical approach, the pope gave his blessing. The marriage was further helped by the arrival of their firstborn eleven months after the secret wedding, which should have quashed certain nasty rumors circulating about. They named the boy after Henry, and when the king’s own firstborn finally arrived the following year, he was named Edward in honor of Edward the Confessor, Henry’s true inspiration for building Westminster Abbey. Young Henry de Montfort would become Edward’s first boyhood companion, later his jailer after the baronial forces captured his cousin during the civil war. When Edward escaped and rallied the royalists to defeat the opposition once and for all, young Henry fell fighting alongside his father. It is reported that Edward wept upon seeing his body lying on the field of slaughter, but then he had made sure this particular battle, at Evesham in 1265, ended in slaughter.
It was into this atmosphere of ill-will and hostility that Simon strode on another cold January day two years later at Henry’s behest. The king led Montfort into his private chapel and the arms of his sister Eleanor, who had evidently fallen in love with the handsome, dynamic nobleman despite her vow of chastity. Simon had been prepared to marry an older widow to advance his fortunes, now the king was offering him the chance to become his brother-in-law, and Eleanor a normal family life. Naturally it was all done in secret because of the indignation that was sure to follow. As expected, the magnates were furious that Henry had married his sister a second time around to a commoner, again without bothering to consult them. Even Richard had been left in the dark, but was quickly placated with a substantial subsidy for the crusade he was about to embark on. Other magnates like Roger Bigod, another future reformer who had already clashed with Simon over the claim to the honorary title of Steward, were left to growl about this alien upstart. Convincing the church was an altogether more delicate problem. Eleanor had freely given herself to Christ; redeeming her vow would not come cheaply. With money from Henry and a tenant who claimed Montfort had applied extortion (earning him a stern rebuke from Grosseteste), Simon stuffed his saddle full of gold and headed off to Rome to seek approval.
The royal wedding took place on January 4, 1236. It was a lavish affair, all of it overseen by Henry, who dipped into another sister’s dowry to help pay for, among other things, jewel-encrusted girdles for Eleanor. When he saw his bride wearing a golden gown that hugged her waist ever so tightly, he knew it was money well-spent and henceforth could deny her nothing. For starters, she asked him to find gainful employment for all the uncles in her retinue. Henry was only too happy to oblige these men from the province of Savoy in southern France. One he made the head of his council, another an earl, a third the archbishop of Canterbury. Other penniless Savoyards were given English heiresses in marriage. Henry’s subjects began to grumble about the bad influence of all these foreigners, and when Eleanor was still childless after nearly four years of marriage, they blamed her and her Savoyard uncles.
Eleanor of Provence was the second of the four daughters of poverty-stricken Count Ramon Berenger. Known as Eleanor La Belle for her beauty, she wrote poetry, one of which found its way to Henry through the hands of his brother. So smitten was Henry that he insisted on marrying Eleanor, dowry or no dowry. The council agreed, if only because Eleanor’s older sister Margaret was married to Louis, the king of France, and making these two brothers-in-law seemed like the wise thing to do. She is described as being “jamque duodennem” (already twelve) when she arrived to marry Henry. Theirs was a happy marriage but she never warmed to the English and they would remind her of that fact during the outbreak of hostilities.
By this time Richard, the earl of Cornwall, had also married into the Marshal clan. William’s sister Isabella was the widow of the earl of Gloucester, another powerful family. By marrying Isabella, Richard became stepfather to her 10-year-old son, Richard de Clare, later one of the leaders of the reform movement. Henry had objected to that marriage on the grounds that he had a better match for his brother. The new leader of the Marshals, another Richard, was inclined to think the objections came from the king’s foreign advisers, who were steadily encroaching on the authority of the magnates. Taking up arms, Richard Marshal was killed in an ambush, which forced Henry to finally purge his court of the aliens. One alien who survived the struggle was Simon, in part because he came from an entirely different background than the others, who were mostly churchmen from the province of Poitou. It also helped that Henry had finally settled on a bride for himself, and marriage into her family would result in a fresh batch of aliens swarming to England.
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