Henry de Montfort – the stuff of legends

Henry_de_Montfort 2In an age before births were jotted down in church registers, Henry de Montfort (1238 – 1265) has the distinction of being one of the few people of the Middle Ages whose birthday, November 26, has been preserved. Famed chronicler Matthew Paris thought it fit to note it at the time because the queen was still childless after nearly three years of marriage. Since young Henry was the daughter of the king’s sister, Paris was relieved that the royal succession was assured into the next generation. (He had apparently forgotten all about Henry’s other nephew and namesake, Henry of Almain, born three years earlier.)
     Obviously named after the king, who may or may not have been his godfather, Henry de Montfort was educated by one of the most learned men of the century, Robert Grosseteste. From this connection grew the legend that Grosseteste saw the future in the lad’s eyes and told him that he would die on the same day as his father, in the cause of justice. Grosseteste no doubt found time to impart practical instruction as well, for Henry had learned his letters. The surviving copy of his father’s will is in his hand.
     Henry seems to have had no marriage prospects, in England or on the continent. Perhaps Simon and Eleanor were waiting for the king to arrange an illustrious match for their oldest son much as he had done for all the French nobodies who came flocking to the court with his and his wife’s families. He was almost twenty when the reform movement began, which ended any chances his uncle the king might come through for him with a rich heiress.
     The young man came into his own after the Lusignans were exiled. To avenge the insults they had levied against his father, he gathered up family and friends to besiege them in their holdout on the continent. Nothing was reported to have come of it, and Henry returned to service under Simon. Despite the growing bad blood in the family, he remained friends with his boyhood companion Edward, who knighted him and his brother Simon and took them to tourney in Gascony. Once their relations soured, Edward always seemed to get the better of his older cousin. Henry allowed him to escape during the siege of Gloucester, and again, this time fatally, when the heir was under house arrest. Edward is shown feeling remorseful after Henry was killed at Evesham, but that had more to do with Edward than Henry.
  Henry de Montfort and his brothers were given key assignments in their father’s provisional government. Simon wasn’t blind to their failings and would subject them to a fair amount of abuse. His famous threat to lock them away with the benefit of neither sunlight nor moonlight was in response to their goading his partner Gilbert de Clare, who subsequently deserted to Edward. The last reported exchange between father and son has Simon laying the blame for their fall at Henry’s feet. ‘Sir Henry, this hath done thy pride.’
   Whatever disappointment Simon may have felt in his first-born son, Henry got off better The Blind Beggarthan his brothers did in the hands of later writers. Whereas the younger Simon died cursed by all and Guy stewed in a river of boiling blood, Henry was the subject of at least two flowery romances in the 19th century. ‘The Brides of Dinan’ doesn’t have him uttering the Provisions of Oxford in his dying breath, as Grosseteste might have wished, rather his love of a young girl attending Mad Maud Mortimer, of all people. In ‘The Prince and the Page’ he survives Evesham only to end up as a blind beggar who scrapes together a fortune for his daughter’s dowry. This story got its basis from the ‘Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green’, a Tudor ballad that has Henry begging for that dowry. There are Blind Beggar pubs in London and Calgary today named for this aspect of his legend.  

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Honouring 750 years since his struggle