Tag Archives: Simon de Montfort

750 years ago this week

The end of June 1263 saw Montfort begin the final campaign to force a provisional government on Henry and his court. Dismissing yet another offer from Richard to arbitrate, he dashed for the coast and secured the Cinque Ports. During that time London had already come out for the Provisions, and went to the Tower to tell the king and queen so. Whether it was decided then and there for Edward’s next move we can’t be sure, but he and Robert Walerand gathered up several of their henchmen and on 29 June went to the New Temple to teach the presumptuous Londoners a lesson. After stealing more than £1000 in deposits, they headed for the safety of Windsor. Meanwhile, John Mansel lost his nerve and fled to the continent on that same day. For reasons still unknown, that enraged Henry of Almain, who took off after him and blundered his way into captivity. On 13 July Queen Eleanor took off in the opposite direction, for the safety of her son’s gang at Windsor. Her barge no more left Tower wharf when Londoners, infuriated that her son had robbed them, and fed up with her anyway, gathered on the bridge and pelted her with all manner of disgust. On 15 July Montfort entered London in triumph for what was to be a very short tenure at the helm. Edward was now running the show for the royalists, and as he showed at the New Temple, nothing was too low for him.

London Bridge - the royal family chose to mess with the wrong people
London Bridge – the royal family chose to mess with the wrong people

The speech that might have been

Henry V - pious and murderous
Henry V – pious and murderous

The speech Simon reportedly addressed to the troops before Lewes is full of religious hyperbole, with little indication of the oratory skills he was renowned for. He might have used his favourite expression ‘by the arm of St. James’, though unlikely to the extent that Shakespeare’s Henry V invokes St. Crispin before Agincourt. What is certain is that his march out of London to give battle to the king was an incredible act of courage, even if he did have few other options, and such a speech would have to reflect his supreme confidence. Henry V may tell his men that the lion’s share of honour awaits those who survive. Simon simply tells his to take heart, because the day is already won. 

‘My lords and men. The king has rejected our offer for peace. He refuses to recognize our fidelity and has spurned us as enemies. And so I say unto you that since there never was a good king who denied his subjects their rights, we hereby renounce our homage to him and offer our fidelity instead to the majesty that is England.

‘Many if not all of you have never been in battle before. Your faith has beckoned you here and that alone shall become the security of this great land. At midnight, we shall commence our ascent to the high ground above Lewes. As Moses before us, so too shall we climb the mountain. And when dawn breaks behind the backs of our enemies, the first glow of light in the heavens shall be a testament, an affirmation of our oath and will in all things. It shall avow that which we know is already true, that the day ahead of us has already been won, for honour and justice are on our side.’

From Simon de Montfort, a play in four acts

England’s first constitution

May - June 1264
King and Witan
King and Witan

The battle won, Simon quickly secured the surrender of Henry and Edward by agreeing to two important concessions. The first allowed the Provisions to be revisited and, if necessary, amended, a move designed to assuage the king’s wounded pride and coax him out of the priory. The second called for the release of the marcher barons, who Edward was counting on to continue the struggle while he remained in custody. Although there were still patches of royalist opposition, Montfort had no trouble mobilizing the countryside to repel an expectant invasion from the continent being organized by Queen Eleanor with money and connivance from Louis. The threat died away as the summer wore on and she was no longer able to support her army of mercenaries. A papal legate dispatched by Rome was similarly rebuffed when he attempted to gain entry into the kingdom. He had to settle for sending letters across the channel excommunicating everyone involved in Henry’s undoing. The letters were instantly seized and tossed into the sea. The legate tried to reinforce his spiritual boycott with an economic one by forbidding all exports to England. Simon brushed him off, declaring that the English could fend for themselves. He was, however, still open to the idea of the French arbitrating again on the Provisions, perhaps hoping Louis would act with more common sense this time around and confer legitimacy on the turn of events. And to ensure he understood there was no going back, Montfort summoned parliament to meet in Westminster for the purpose of setting up a provisional government until a permanent settlement could be reached. The result was an Ordinance enacted on 28 June 1264, which essentially made the Provisions constitutional in character. It created a council of nine to advise the king, with three of them forming an inner circle, and one of these always at his side. All business of the realm, all appointments, now went to committee. Whatever initiative Henry took, whatever foolhardy scheme came into his head or those of his relatives, henceforth required consent. Just as important was the consent given to Montfort’s plan of government by this ground-breaking parliament. Consisting of knights representing their local communities, the “people of the kingdom of England” gave its seal of approval to this new dawn in the age of English politics. Henry, naturally, was less enthusiastic but endorsed it, perhaps under the threat of deposition. The constitution was incorporated as part of the Peace of Canterbury and sent to the king of France for his approval. Louis was outraged. Better to be a farmer, this most humble of kings proclaimed, than to rule under such principles.

The road to Lewes

Lewes battlefield
Lewes battlefield

As usual, the initial fighting broke out in the west. Henry de Montfort scored an early triumph by bottling up Edward in Gloucester, but then unwisely accepted his cousin’s call for a truce. He had no sooner withdrawn his forces when Edward sacked the town and slipped away, causing Simon to bitterly reproach his son. The king meanwhile began gathering a large army at Oxford, where one of his first acts was to expel the student population. His intention, he explained, was to protect them from the savagery of his Scottish allies, but in fact he was clearly miffed by their true sympathies. Henry’s growing strength allowed him to brush aside a last-ditch offer by his opponents to respect Louis’ ruling on every point except the alien officials. The advantage was all his after he seized the Montfortian stronghold of Northampton, which was betrayed by local clergymen. The loss was devastating. Among the eighty barons and knights made prisoner were the younger Simon and many leading members of the movement. Montfort refused to despair. “War is such that the advantage first goes to these, then to those,” he declared and followed up by predicting that the enemy would be consumed by fear and confusion before May was out. London, however, was gripped by panic as word spread it was about to be betrayed like Northampton, resulting in the plunder and massacre of the Jews. As royalist forces burned and butchered their way through local hamlets, Simon attempted to draw them south by laying siege to their garrison in Rochester, whose inhabitants were subjected to a similar bloodletting. With barely London left to the reformist party, Simon gambled everything on seeking out and giving battle to the king. The two sides squared off in Sussex, with the royalists encamped in and around the village of Lewes and the Montfortians eight miles away in Fletching. Simon sent his bishop friends to Henry to reiterate his offer of peace if the king would observe only the provision prohibiting alien officials, sweetening it now to include 30,000 marks in compensation. Henry was inclined to accept, but Richard, aggrieved that his property had been ransacked, was against it, as was Edward. The one-time idealist and reformer declared that peace was only possible if his uncle and the others came to them with halters around their necks.

Never to perjurers and apostates

Louis' justice
                      Louis’ justice

The turmoil resulted in much spoliation of property, the ruffians playing a major role in it, and the demands for restitution prevented Simon from governing in any meaningful way. He succeeded in repatriating Edward’s mercenaries, but this had the unintended effect of drawing the Edwardians, whose prime mission had been to rid the country of aliens, back to their former master. Simon was also in danger of losing the friendship of Louis, who was horrified by the stories of violence and pillage relayed to him by Queen Eleanor and her relatives. But then, at an informal arbitration set up at Henry’s request, Louis surprised them all by confirming the Provisions and agreeing that England should be ruled by natives instead of foreigners. But it was a hollow victory, for when parliament convened in October 1263 to deal with restitution, Edward stole the initiative by slipping away to Windsor, seizing the castle, and fortifying himself there with Henry. They then proceeded to employ their mightiest weapon: bargaining power. With promises of grants and fees, Edward won over his cousin Henry of Almain and, more importantly, his former retainers. Collecting men and arms, Edward and Henry began rolling over the countryside with their two armies, reclaiming castles and evicting local authorities loyal to the provisional government. Their point of convergence was Simon’s dwindling forces just south of London, where they seemingly had them trapped after a group of royalists barred the city gates to them. Simon scoffed at Henry’s call to surrender. “Never to perjurers and apostates,” he declared and swore together with his men to fight to the last. His sympathizers on the other side of the walls managed to break open the gates in time and secure their safe passage inside. The way was still open to a peaceful settlement when Louis offered to officially arbitrate the dispute over the Provisions and both parties agreed to abide by his award. The letters sealed by Simon and Henry show how vast the defections from the popular movement had been. Of the royalists named as supporters of the king, nearly half had been involved at one time or another in the reform movement: Edward, Henry of Almain, John de Warenne, Roger and Hugh Bigod, Hamo Lestrange, etc. They were all now prepared to let the Provisions go by the wayside. But at least Simon could count on Louis.

On the brink

London Bridge
London Bridge

Edward was the first to return. Scolded by his father for “indolence and wantoness” while the Welsh ravaged the marches, he landed with a large mercenary force of Burgundians and other French-speaking soldiers. His jilted retainers had half-expected him to take them back into his service, but he completely ignored them and bestowed castles and other key posts on his new, alien followers. Incensed, they welcomed Simon de Montfort home as the one leader who had always been faithful to the Provisions, who was capable of enforcing the one provision they desired above all else: expulsion of the aliens. It was, of course, the great irony of this conflict that the English would turn to an alien for this purpose. Simon’s military reputation and unwavering defense of the Provisions made him the undisputed leader of this rebellious force that gathered in Oxford, where the reform program had been launched five years earlier. New adherents included many younger members of the baronage, among them Henry’s nephew Henry of Almain and the new earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, men later decried for being pliable as wax in the hands of a man like Montfort. He would need such idealists to offset the violence and unruliness of the Edwardians, who immediately went to work after Henry rebuffed one last call to observe the Provisions. They struck east, targeting the Savoyards and other aliens, even making knowledge of English a prerequisite to avoid reprisals. Locals long fed up with nobles, knights and clergymen who couldn’t speak their language joined in the mayhem until Henry found himself faced with a full-scale uprising. Richard rode off to intercede with Simon, but missed him on his march to secure the coast and trap Henry in London. But even that city was lost after Edward, needing money to pay off his mercenaries, staged the first great bank robbery in English history when he broke into the New Temple and seized the private deposits there. His mother grew sufficiently alarmed by the growing hostility to try to flee to Windsor by boat, but her barge was turned back after being pummeled with all manner of filth and flying objects thrown at her by a jeering crowd on London Bridge. She and her kinsmen eventually escaped to the continent, but for Henry it was all too much. He agreed to the restraints on his power enacted in 1258 and to the council naming his officials and conducting official policy. The only difference was the council was now controlled by Simon de Montfort.

More arbitration, more disaffection

Poor little Gilbert
Poor little Gilbert

When the two sides could not agree on any amendments to the Provisions, the arbitrator, Richard of Cornwall, ruled in favor of his brother and restored to him the sole right to appoint and dismiss officials. Henry would continue to rule with a packed court and the death of the earl of Gloucester in the summer of 1262 left the baronage without a nominal leader. Emboldened by events, the king sailed to France to meet his antagonist in court, where he hoped to destroy Montfort, at least in the eyes of the French. Queen Margaret was the arbitrator now, a dowdy woman who once looked amiss at all the attention Henry was paying to his niece Alice. She no doubt considered the vindictiveness of both sides unseemly, but her chance to rule on the case was interrupted when Henry was laid low by dysentery. Simon returned for the October parliament, where contrary to the order of the justiciar, he published his own papal bull, acquired through a baronial agent in Rome, affirming the Provisions. But a new threat arose to Henry’s consolidation of power, this time involving an alienated group of young men not connected to Montfort. They included Edward’s former retainers, proscribed by the queen and her Savoyard relatives in an attempt to tighten control over the heir, and Gilbert de Clare, Alice’s husband, who was supposed to succeed his father as the earl of Gloucester, only Henry, now in a completely vindictive mood, moved to deny him at least part of his inheritance. On top of this came another uprising by the Welsh, brought about when the tenants of Roger Mortimer, one of the barons cowed back into the royalist camp, revolted against his harsh rule. Local opposition also began to surge, forcing Henry to publicly proclaim that he accepted the Provisions by his own free will. The situation became so fraught that Henry, after his return home for Christmas 1262, wrote to Louis, begging him to find a successful resolution to his arbitration with Simon. Louis reported that Simon had told him that he truly believed Henry wished him only the best, but his advisers thought otherwise. He had therefore asked Louis not to concern himself any more with their case. He was preparing to return to England to have it out with the king once and for all.

Cracks in the opposition

Richard of Cornwall
Seal of Richard of Cornwall

In January, two years after he was elected King of the Romans, Richard prepared to return home. The barons were apprehensive about this most unexpected visit and sent messengers to him in Germany demanding he take the oath to observe the Provisions before landing in Dover. Richard was indignant that the magnates had instituted reforms without consulting him and therefore refused. Hearing this, and fearing that he may try to sneak one or more of his half-brothers into the kingdom, the magnates insisted on welcoming Richard with a force of arms. The King of the Romans disembarked with no Lusignans and willingly followed his brother the king and the magnates to Canterbury, where Richard de Clare, the earl of Gloucester and Richard’s former stepson, delivered the oath. The occasion marked the last complete show of unity among the barons. The next month a quarrel broke out over the progress of reform. Gloucester was in no hurry to see the new statutes apply to him or the other magnates directly, and besides he had no personal quarrel with the king. Only a few years before Henry had done him the honor of marrying his seventeen-year-old niece Alice, daughter of his now deceased half-brother Hugh Lusignan, to de Clare’s ten-year-old son Gilbert. Simon accused Gloucester of reneging on reform, and he in turn accused Montfort of delaying the peace treaty for his own benefit. When Simon left for France, saying he had had enough of his shady partner, the other magnates warned Gloucester to clean up his own domains, otherwise they would join forces and attack him. This he agreed to do, but it was the beginning of a feud between the Montfort and Clare clans that would determine the entire course of the conflict.

More than all the thunder and lightning in the world

English parliament 3
English parliament

Roger Bigod assured Henry he was not. They asked only for the removal of the aliens and establishment of a council of 24 to guide the king in reforming the government. Henry was allowed to name half the members of the council and true to form he included two of his brothers in the list. The next parliament convened on 11 June in Oxford, with the barons again arriving armed to the hilt. Ostensibly this was a war parliament in preparation for moving against the Welsh, but the barons suspected the king and Lusignans might try to ambush them with foreign mercenaries. Dubbed by later royalists as the “mad” parliament, the barons submitted a petition to the king that called for sweeping changes in the way the monarchy operated in England. A permanent council of fifteen would henceforth advise the king in all matters of appointment, policy and patronage; parliament would meet three times a year at fixed dates, not at the king’s pleasure; and the crown would resume control over all its castles currently in the hands of aliens, which was more or less all of them. As an alien, Simon de Montfort willingly offered up his two castles, but his archenemy William de Valence refused. “Thy castle or thy head, William,” Simon warned him. Parliament broke up during the noonday lunch when the brothers stole away for the coast. Not taking any chances, the barons took off in pursuit and caught up with them at Aymer’s residence in Winchester. Riding with the baronial party, Henry and Edward managed to cut a deal for their safe conduct out of the country. At this stage the king could no more control the course of events than he could the weather. The next month the royal barge was caught in a storm on the Thames. Fearing thunder and lightning as he did, Henry ordered the boat docked at the nearest abode, which happened to be the Montfort summer residence. Simon went out to greet his majesty with all due respect, but Henry shuddered at him in terror. “Never fear, my lord, the storm has passed,” Simon reassured him. “True, but I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world!”

Another king in the family

Richard and Sanchia
Richard and Sanchia

Earlier in that disastrous year Richard left for Aachen to be crowned King of the Romans, which was a nice way of saying the Germans. The title had been held by two other noblemen following Frederick’s death in 1250 and both had come to untimely ends. But Richard freely spent 30,000 marks to dispense bribes for the honor and his wife Sanchia yearned to gain an equal footing with her two older sisters, Queen Margaret and Queen Eleanor. Under the pretense of humility, Richard declared that ambition had nothing to do with his election, that he was only interested in the welfare of the people, and may he be consumed by hellfire if he was lying. The German delegates that brought him the news were every bit the liar Richard was. They told the Englishman he had been elected unanimously because the French were too warlike, the Italians too greedy, and the Germans too quarrelsome. In fact, three of the seven electors had thrown in their lot with a Spaniard, none other than Alfonso, who was still sniping that Henry had yet to make good on his pledge to join him on a crusade to North Africa. Louis supported Alfonso’s candidacy because he suspected Henry would try to use Richard’s position on the Rhine to force his claims for Normandy. But Henry, at the urging of his wife, was more desperate these days to retain Gascony for Edward and a future Sicily for Edmund. Neither was possible without a permanent peace with France. With his high standing across the Channel, it was natural that Simon de Montfort should take the lead in negotiating what would become the Treaty of Paris. . . and using it to his and Eleanor’s advantage.

Giving William a taste of his own medicine

Medieval dentistry
Medieval dentistry

Simon was one of the commissioners appointed to deal with Alexander in Rome, but the mission, for reasons unknown, never took place. He had spent most of the years of the Sicilian fiasco tending to private affairs, including a growing family. He and Eleanor had seven children in all. After first-born Henry came another Simon, then another Amaury, another Guy, a daughter who died in infancy, another Richard and finally another Eleanor. The need to provide for such a large brood kept the doting parents constantly on the king’s back to make good the money owed them. Henry did make an effort, if only because he recognized the importance of Montfort’s skills as a negotiator, particularly in France, where he was held in high regard. Much of that money was tied to Eleanor’s claims to her first husband’s estate, which shouldn’t have been a problem after Henry married their half-brother William of Valence into the Marshal clan. But William was greedy, nasty and effeminate like the rest of Isabella and Hugh’s children and chose to default rather than pay up. Their quarrels escalated until William openly accused Simon in parliament of being the son of a traitor. ‘I’m no traitor, William,’ he countered. ‘Your father and mine were not cut from the same cloth.’ When William repeated the charge, Simon drew his sword and rushed at him in full view of the assembled magnates. Henry threw himself in front of his brother to save him but the stage had been set. Montfort’s willingness to stand up to the hated Lusignans would single him out as a leader of the burgeoning reform movement.

The third son

Simon De Montfort
Simon De Montfort

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.