As the full range of her surnames indicates, Eleanor Plantagenet Marshal de Montfort led a remarkable life. This youngest child of King John, who never knew her father, first appears in the early years of the reign of her brother Henry III (1216–72). She was a child of eight when, for political purposes, she was married off to a grown man, William Marshal II. Still a teenager when Marshal unexpectedly died, she took a vow of celibacy, also for political purposes, but repudiated it to marry the rising star at court, Simon de Montfort. The next twenty years saw relations between her husband and brother deteriorate to the point of open warfare. Simon’s victory in 1264 allowed him to appropriate Henry’s kingdom, but his own defeat and death a little over a year later forced Eleanor to choose exile abroad. When she died in the nunnery of Montargis in 1275, she had outlived half of her six children.

Little was known about Eleanor’s role in her husband’s revolutionary regime until five centuries later, when the French Revolution brought an end to the nunnery. The archives at Montargis contained a roll of parchment that Eleanor had apparently taken with her when she left England. The roll noted the expenses of her household, starting in February of 1265, when Simon was at the height of his power, and ending some seven months later, just before her flight to France… (read on)

 

I was still waiting for my copy of David Carpenter’s Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule to arrive when a review of it by Dominic Selwood appeared. The preface, he tells us, has something about lampreys, together with a video reference on how to eat them. Selwood checks it out and informs us that it’s a bloody spectacle, but Agincourt it ain’t, and what he sees clearly unnerves him. Given that Henry is best remembered for his taste and cultivation, the thought of the king chomping down on this hideous-looking fish might make us wonder what other surprises are in store for us in the narrative.

Plenty is the obvious answer, for this is a massive biography of more than 700 pages, and it’s just volume 1. It’s not until halfway through do we learn that Henry and his queen enjoyed eating lampreys because they found other fish ‘insipid’. It’s one of many revealing anecdotes that bring the little-known king to life. For that Henry can thank Carpenter, who has proved that a reign based on peace and piety can be every bit as exciting and compelling as those seeped in war and bloodshed… (read on)

 

Even by modern standards, the reign of Henry III is a long one, 56 years between 1216 and 1272. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had to deal with a few rebellions along the way. The most serious broke out in 1263 under Simon de Montfort, resulting in his victory at the battle of Lewes the following year. He established a constitutional monarchy, with King Henry as a figurehead and his son Lord Edward securely confined with other royal hostages. A year later Edward escaped, raised an army, and wiped out Simon and many of his cohorts at Evesham, the first thorough slaughter of the English nobility since the Norman Conquest. Henry disinherited the survivors of their ancestral lands and this act led to a prolongation of the conflict for two more years.

Thus forms the background for this new book on the Disinherited by David Pilling. In fact, it’s the only book dedicated to them. Simon de Montfort and his rebellion have received plenty of attention, but they invariably end with his corpse strewn in so many pieces across the battlefield. The most ambitious study of the Disinherited can be found in a much lauded thesis from the 1950s, but it remains published… (read on)

 

Following her Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword, Sharon Bennett Connolly throws much needed light on the lives of the high-born women of thirteenth-century England. Calling them Ladies of Magna Carta is not a suggestion that they played any particular role in the drafting of that famous charter, nor are they to be found prowling on the edges of Runnymede and shouting out to their men, ‘Make sure you get that in there too!’ As Connolly points out in the beginning, the original charter contained only a single clause that mentioned the word woman (femina) and that was to restrict her right to accuse anyone of the death of anyone except her husband. The men at Runnymede were out to protect their own rights, in this case their right to face an accuser in trial by combat, which was denied to them when the plaintiff was a woman. They were certainly not indifferent to the stake of women in the charter and made sure to safeguard their inheritances and dowers and the right of widows to remain single or to marry whomever they wanted. The reason was simple. These women were their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Whatever affected them affected their menfolk. In this sense, it’s more useful to see Magna Carta as the product of disgruntled families squaring off against the king… (read on)

 

For those familiar with his name, Simon de Montfort is usually remembered as the founder of Parliament, an oppressor of the Jews, and for the dismemberment of his corpse. Biographies of him continue to appear because fixtures like these, whether true or not, add pizzazz to his story, as well as to an age often considered dull. It was a time of peace, of feeding the poor, of developments in art, education and government. It took an outsider like Simon to stir things up, upturn the existing order. That he did remarkably well. The men who chopped up his body ushered in a new age, one dominated by resentment, vengeance and bloodshed, the kind of pizzazz that makes English history so popular today.  

The subtitle of the latest biography of Simon suggests all this – England’s First Revolutionary and the Death of Chivalry. Sophie Ambler’s stated intention is to show how it all came about as the result of hijacking crusade ideals for political purposes. She begins with the Albigensian Crusade, which was conducted against other Christians to devastating effect. She does not whitewash the role of Simon’s father in it, but sees him as the son would have, as an exemplar of knighthood. It’s a refreshing portrayal of Senior, a man too often condemned outright, and it gives hope that here is a biography of real people… (read on)