Simon Says

It was a peculiarly English revolution, with an alien at the head of the country’s first political movement. Charisma and military skills aside, Simon de Montfort’s facility with languages certainly played a role in his rise. In addition to his native French, he was fluent in Latin (if the letters written to him by Adam Marsh are any indication). He no doubt learned to speak English well enough to pass the language proscription test of his party. While one chronicler praises him for his ‘pleasant and courteous way of speaking’, the quotes attributed to him reveal a sharp, caustic wit, arguably the first master of the sound bite in modern European history. Speaking to William de Valence: ‘You can be sure you will lose your castles or your head.’ To Henry of Almain: ‘I fear not your arms, rather your inconstancy.’ And to the world: ‘Even if everyone falls away from me, I with my four sons will fight for the just cause which I have already sworn to uphold.’ His ability to shrug off adversity was legendary even then. When told of the king’s victory at Northampton, he observed that in the course of events ‘superiority now goes to these, now to those.’

As for what Montfort really said, a small paper trail has survived that vets much of what appears in the chronicles. John Maddicott hits the nail on the head when he writes, ‘here is an individual voice, speaking with an immediacy and a vividness almost unique in the sources of the period.’ The first of the texts below is actually the last we have from him, written in 1261 during the discovery phase of his trial in France and he was recalling the events, thirty years previously, that brought him to England and into conflict with Henry.

‘The king says that he has done me great goodness in that he took me for his man, because I was not the oldest. And so that one may know what the goodness was, my brother released to me all the right that he had in our father’s inheritance in England, if I could secure it, in the same manner that I released to him the heritage which I had in France. And I went to England, and prayed the king that he would restore to me my father’s inheritance. And he answered that he could not do it because he had given it to the earl of Chester and his heirs by his charter. Upon this I returned without finding grace. The following year the king crossed to Brittany and with him the earl of Chester who held my inheritance. And I went to the earl at the Castle of St. James-de-Beuvron which he held. There I prayed him that I could find his grace to have my inheritance and he, graciously, agreed and in the following August took me with him to England, and asked the king to receive my homage for the inheritance of my father, to which, as he said, I had greater right than he, and all the gift which the king had given him in this he renounced, and so he received my homage…
‘The king of England honoured me by giving me his sister; but shortly afterwards he was incensed by a debt to which my lord Thomas, Count of Flanders, was claiming from me and for which he sued me at the court of Rome. The king wished me to pay; to which I replied that I was ready to do so, if I was legally the debtor; but I asked that justice should be done to me, as to the poorest man in his kingdom. He refused, with ugly and shameful words which it would be painful to recall. Then, the same day that he had invited us to the queen’s churching, he ordered the men of the Commune of London to arrest me at the inn where I was lodging and to take me off to the Tower; but the king of Almain (Richard) who was there would not allow that to happen at that moment. Seeing his great wrath and that he would not listen to reason, I left the country. When his annoyance was over, he said that he would pay 500 marks, and did so; but as for the 500 remaining to be paid, he had them realized from my lands, to my great detriment, the more so because I was on the eve of starting for the crusade; I had to sell part of my land and of my forest.

The only letter of Montfort’s that survives is addressed to Henry and was written as the situation in Gascony started spiraling out of control. It reveals his acute awareness of the problems he was facing and his eagerness to consult the king before proceeding further. For constitutionalists anxious to know Montfort’s true feelings about ‘the people’, this letter contains his famous phrase that he was determined to ‘uphold the rights of the poor’ against the great men of the country.

 26 March 1250
‘Sir, since your envoys left Paris, I have heard for certain that some knights of Gascony have provided themselves with everything to demand their lands by war. And they are certainly leagued together, they and their friends; and I fully understand that they will begin soon to overrun the land; but what force they will have I cannot as yet be at all sure. And because the great men of the land bear me such ill will, because I uphold your rights and those of the poor against them, there would be danger and shame to me, and great damage to you, if I were to return to the land without instructions from you and without speaking to you. For if I were there, and they made war on me, it would be needful for me to return to you, because I have not and cannot have a penny of your revenues, because the king of France holds all, and I cannot trust much to the people of the land. And on the other hand, one cannot stay such men by an army in the kind of war which they will make, for they will do nothing but rob the land, and burn and plunder, and put the people to ransom, and ride by night like thieves by twenty or thirty or forty, in different parts; wherefore it is needful in every way, if you please, that I should speak to you, before I go into the country. For I heard that they have given you to understand many sinister things of me; they will tell you soon that I was the cause of their war. Therefore, sir, if you please, do not take it amiss if, when I have finished your business in this Parliament of Paris, which is going well, thank God, I return towards you to know your advice, ready to do that which you command me. And your castles and your land and your men are well supplied, for that matter, to hold out until I come. And I have sent the lord Bidau de Coupenne there, to aid and advise them; and I have told them that I shall be there, if God will, by Whitsuntide. Given at Paris, this Easter Eve.’

It was just after the reforming program began in 1258 that Montfort dictated his will to his firstborn son Henry. Naming his wife Eleanor as his executor, the will reveals him to be a man plagued by his debts and the way he has treated his tenants. Also of keen interest is the mention of Peter de Montfort and Hugh Despenser, the only other great reformers to remain true to the end.

‘In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost, I, Simon de Monfort, Count of Leicester, draw up my will, and whatever wrongs or harms I may have done in whatever country, I want them to be corrected and my debts all paid, and mainly the debts for favors rendered to me by those who served me, which I am grateful for, as I will always be in their debt… It is my wish that those who make any claims on me be believed without difficulty, provided that they give such reasons to suggest that it is more likely that they are telling the truth than that they are lying, for it is my wish in the case of any uncertainty that the debt should be cleared on my behalf, whatever it may cost, so that I am freed from it, for I do not wish to remain in debt or under suspicion of debt to anyone… and I, for the same reason, add my own: I, Henri, son of the aforesaid Simon, wrote this letter of my own hand, and promise my Lord and beloved father that I have meant well with what is written here.’


Simon de Montfort's will
Simon de Montfort’s will