Henry’s basic grievance was that the barons had gone beyond the intentions of the Provisions. They had met and acted without him, kept him impoverished while enriching themselves, failed him in his foreign policy pursuits, all undeniably true and lamentable since he, the king, had every desire to rule by the Provisions. His summoning parliament as required by them was the most obvious example of his good faith. Whether chastened or not, the barons were caught off guard as Henry secretly moved to usurp full authority. He secured Dover and the Cinque Ports to ensure the arrival of mercenaries, placed his own men in key positions, and relocated to Winchester, his birthplace, where he subsequently announced that the pope had absolved him of his oath to observe the Provisions. The barons united again under Gloucester and Simon, but they could no longer count on Edward’s support. At first the heir refused to accept the absolution for himself, but was eventually won over by his mother. He also arrived with William de Valence, the hated Lusignan whose deportation had been the groundwork for the original Provisions, then left again for Gascony after his uncle was restored to favor. But Henry’s treachery cost him allies too. Hugh Bigod, turned out as castellan in Dover, defected back to the barons and was joined by his half-brother John de Warenne, the only magnate who had refused the initial oath to the Provisions in 1258. The king’s biggest problem, however, was the resistance he faced on a local level. When he attempted to supplant the sheriffs with his own men, Simon saw to it that the barons installed their own rival sheriffs (referred to as “wardens” so as not to create any confusion). He then went abroad to plead their case before Louis, to raise foreign troops, and in what was perhaps his most defiant act, he and Gloucester summoned their own parliament, consisting of local knights, to meet in St. Albans and discuss what to do about the king’s subversion. Henry refused to back down and countered with his own parliament in Windsor. The standoff was broken when Gloucester again deserted to the king, this time bribed by the favors of Queen Eleanor. In a treaty made at Kingston in November 1261, the reformers agreed to renegotiate the Provisions with Richard, the king of the Romans, acting as arbitrator. This clear defeat of the reforming program left Simon disgusted. He departed for France, saying he would rather live in poverty than in perjury.
At the opening of parliament in October, a group calling itself the ‘community of the bachelors of England’ demanded that the barons quit stalling and reform the entire realm, including themselves. The bachelors were probably knights, summoned to represent the counties and clearly disappointed by the lack of progress being made on a local level. An ‘eyre’, or circuit court, had been launched during the initial phase of reform to address grievances against magnates and sheriffs, but the backlog of cases overwhelmed the justiciar, Hugh Bigod. These knights found an unwitting ally in Edward, who was all for the barons getting a taste of their own medicine. Whether shamed or bullied into action, parliament subsequently enacted the Provisions of Westminster, an updated version of the Provisions of Oxford that provided more legislative muscle for local concerns. Edward also swore an oath at this time to aid Simon in the movement. Like his uncle, Edward had wrangled with the crafty earl of Gloucester, the chief impediment to reform, though his reasons were more personal. Clare was one of the more ardent proponents of the treaty with France, which the heir to the throne saw as infringing on his future rights. The treaty itself was finally ready, and toward the end of November Henry crossed over to France to ratify it with Louis. He was expected back by the end of January, for the Provisions had set 2 February for the first of the three parliaments the king was required to hold every year. Citing unfinished business, Henry wrote to Bigod that he was delayed and that no parliament should be held without him. Simon was having none of it, and when his former confederate Bigod refused to defy the king, he and Edward began preparing for armed conflict. Clare began his own campaign, insinuating to Henry that his son was planning to seize the throne. Still, the king lingered on the continent. Not until April did he arrive, at which time he submitted a list of those who attendance in parliament he looked forward to with anticipation. Neither Simon nor Edward was on the list.
At this point all eyes turned to Rome and Paris. The pope had threatened to excommunicate Henry if he didn’t settle the accounts for Sicily, but it was merely a ploy to get the barons to come out and rescue their monarch from the privations of hell. Henry was similarly rebuffed when he sent his clerks around to individual churches to ask them to stand surety for loans to the king. No longer the master of his own government, nor held in much esteem it would seem, the king could only watch helplessly as the deadline passed. In December 1258 Alexander informed Henry that he couldn’t wait forever and would now seek another candidate for the throne of Sicily. As for Henry’s privations, he magnanimously declared that they had been suspended “with our accustomed kindness.” Holding on to Sicily had been one of the reasons for Henry to achieve a lasting peace with France. He still pressed forward, because he genuinely liked his brother-in-law Louis and felt that by freely giving him Normandy he could extract both security for his other holdings and money to pay for mercenaries to seize back his kingdom. Of course he no longer had much love for his other brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, but saw no reason why he shouldn’t continue as the lead negotiator…until he realized just how wily he and his sister Eleanor could be. Henry was still thousands of marks in arrears to the couple, and while he had made some effort to meet his obligations, they were never a priority as were his debts and gifts to other members of the family. Nor had the king shown any interest in making advantageous matches for the Montfort sons, five in all, as he had done for other members of the nobility. When a clause appeared in the treaty calling for Henry, Richard and Eleanor, the surviving children of John, to renounce all claims to Normandy, Eleanor refused until her brother paid up. Henry was livid, suspecting that Simon had convinced the one king to demand the renunciation simply so he could extort the other. Louis worked out a compromise, but over a year would pass before the treaty was ratified. Henry would never forgive Simon or his sister for their obstructive behavior.
Henry’s years of misrule were seemingly at an end. The provisions adopted at Oxford were akin to an unwritten constitution that put the king in a straightjacket. No more flagrant favoritism, no more arbitrary taxation, no more foreign fiascos. For knights, tenants and townsfolk, the office of justiciar was revived to root out corrupt sheriffs and bailiffs. The provision indicated by later chroniclers as the root cause of the war was number Five, which decreed that anyone who attempted to subvert the Provisions be declared an enemy of the people. To this end, Henry was asked to swear an oath to abide by them and did so with no resistance. He had, after all, sworn to uphold Magna Carta many times and got away with every violation. After initially refusing, Edward also took the oath, as did his cousin Henry of Almaine, who had vainly sought to avoid it by saying he needed his father Richard’s permission first. The magnates themselves were leery about their own oaths. The earl of Gloucester for one had only wanted something done about the Lusignans. Reform of the realm might well endanger his position as a leading peer. Simon too supposedly wavered. A deeply introspective man, partly as the result of his friendship with Oxford scholar Adam Marsh and other Franciscans, he was troubled by the debts he had incurred, the oppressive demands he made on his tenants in order to meet them, and by Eleanor breaking her vow of celibacy to marry him. Accepting the Provisions might atone for these transgressions, but more importantly, failing to defend them would be mortifying to a man brought up in the aura of crusading virtue. His oath to this new faith, as it were, would have to be total, demanding for starters that his body and soul undergo rigors worthy of a religious conversion. Henceforth he would awake at midnight for prayer, eat frugally, dress only in plain garments, even in the company of the nobility, and abstain from sexual relations.
Before leaving, Henry appointed his wife Eleanor to rule in his stead with Richard serving as her adviser. Their immediate task was to replenish the treasury, drained by the affairs in the south, even if it meant nickel and diming. Eleanor contrived to have the citizens of London make back payment for the queen’s gold, her percentage of the arbitrary fines and import duties the king would levy on the city. Richard was rebuffed when he made an appeal to the Jewish community. The chief rabbi insisted they had no more money to give now that papal merchants had cornered the usury market. Fed up with the royal reaming, he asked permission for his people to leave the kingdom. And just where were they planning to go? Even Louis, that most saintly of monarchs, was openly hostile to them. Neither act of extortion added much to Henry’s coffers, so an Easter parliament was summoned to ask for funds. War with Castile was imminent, the regents announced, and the king needed money and manpower. Some enormous darts were even put on display to show the kinds of weapons he was up against. The magnates were dubious, not least because the queen was making plans at that very moment to travel with Edward to this so-called war zone. But it was de Montfort who exposed the subterfuge. Sent specifically by Henry to report on the king’s success in achieving peace in Gascony, Simon did exactly that, and parliament denied the royals their request.
It had been Henry’s intention to come to Gascony and show that it could be ruled with peace and understanding. When he arrived in 1253, he found he had a war on his hands and that some of his subjects, again led by the queen’s relations, had switched their allegiance to the king of neighboring Castile. He not only had to resort to the same harsh tactics employed by de Montfort but even asked his brother-in-law to come and lend his military expertise. Simon grudgingly went, motivated by loyalty and his spiritual adviser, Robert Grosseteste, who reminded him not to forget all the benefits he had received from Henry. The king’s treachery was not forgotten, however, and de Montfort made him pay dearly in compensation. In the end, Henry’s campaign proved to be his only successful adventure abroad. He won over the Gascons to his son’s overlordship and got Alfonso, the king of Castile, to give up rival claims to the region by having Edward marry his half-sister, the third Eleanor in this story.
Meanwhile Louis was having a worse time of it overseas. He had carefully prepared for his crusade, amassing a huge war chest and nearly two thousand ships to ferry an army to Egypt. He had decided to subdue Cairo first, where the real power in the region was wielded, before marching gloriously into Jerusalem. His march down the Nile River Valley was sheer agony for his men as disease, hunger and harassment took their toll. The Saracens pressed home their advantage and destroyed his army at Fariskur. Louis was captured and ransomed for half a million pounds, which took a whole two days to weigh out. Ashamed to go back, Louis spent the next four years in Palestine, most of that time as a pawn for the warring Muslim factions. Not that he could help either side much. Of the 2,800 knights who accompanied him to Egypt, less than 100 left with him. The disaster rocked France, where his mother Blanche of Castile had to contend with another crusade. A mad monk from Hungary known as “the Master” declared that the Virgin Mary had given him instructions, balled up in his fist, that called for him to lead an army to Palestine to free the king. Flocks of shepherds heeded the call, joined by riffraff of all sorts. At first Blanche thought they might just succeed and gave them her support. Then they started raiding French towns and villages and bullying the clergy until she was forced to order their destruction. A butcher put an axe in the head of the Master while Simon ordered another threatening mob to be gone from Bordeaux lest they be “cut to pieces.”
A humiliated and insulted Henry called his governor a “maker and lover of strife” and ordered him to observe a truce. “Go back to Gascony and reap its reward like your father before you.” Henry’s parting shot was the only comfort the Gascons could take home with them, knowing as they did that the elder Montfort was killed fighting nearby. Simon suspected that his demise was just what the king was hoping for; that way he could give his lands and title to one of his foreign relatives. Now burning for vengeance on his accusers, Simon returned with an army of mercenaries but found his enemies waiting for him with an even more determined force. He managed to avoid defeat and capture, but his intervention was for naught. Henry stripped him of military authority and told the Gascons they were no longer bound by loyalty to him. Disgusted by the king’s betrayal, Simon left for Paris, where he received an unexpected offer. Louis was still languishing in the Holy Land, which had consumed the best of his nobility, and the recent death of his mother had thrown the regency of the country into turmoil. Impressed with de Montfort’s resume, the council of peers offered him the post of regent until Louis made it back. He declined, saying he was a subject of England now and forever. The French were persistent, but so too was de Montfort, who would remain loyal to his adoptive country to the last.
Henry’s policy in Gascony was an absolute mess. The province was nominally Richard’s, but now, at the queen’s insistence, it was to be given to their teenage son Edward. Eleanor wanted it pacified, but not at the expense of her Gascon relatives, who were creating most of the trouble there. The king thought that by playing good cop to his lieutenant’s bad cop, he could win the affection of his subjects in the region. When Simon learned that his archenemy, the archbishop of Bordeaux, had left for England with a delegation to denounce him, he raced back across France to head them off. Although he arrived in good time, he found Henry in ill-humor and ready to believe the worst about him. Wanting to at least give the pretense of fairness, the king assembled a panel of the leading peers to render a verdict. Something of an unofficial transcript still survives from this trial, provided in the comments by our advocates.
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.
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.
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 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.