Sex and money

On this day of 7 January in 1238 (780 years ago), one of the first sex scandals in English politics was about to play out. The setting was the end of the Christmas court held at Westminster, where Henry III enjoyed the company of his wife Eleanor of Provence and various female relatives. They included his sisters Joan (Queen of Scotland) and Eleanor (Countess of Pembroke), his niece Helen (Countess of Chester) and his cousin Eleanor of Brittany, the forlorn and confined sister of Arthur. As the court broke up, Henry led Eleanor and his most trusted courtier at that time, Simon de Montfort, into his private chapel. There Walter, the chaplain of nearby St Stephen’s, married the two of them, with the king giving the bride away. Supposedly none of the other ladies of the court had an inkling that it was coming. Had word of it got out beforehand, it would have created a scandal. Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity following the death of her first husband William Marshal II, and Simon was just a courtier, nothing else. He came from France, owed everything to Henry, so marrying a princess like Eleanor to him brought no benefit to the realm. Sure enough, when word of the marriage got out, there was a storm, with Henry and Eleanor’s brother Richard of Cornwall at the centre of it. But it was over in a month, in part due to the unexpected death of Joan. So Simon and Eleanor were comfortably married and their first child wasn’t born until 11 months later, thus muting any suggestion that theirs had been a crossbow wedding. And then like that it exploded. In August 1239 Henry learned that Simon had been naming him as surety for the loans he had borrowed. He went ballistic and accused his friend in front of the court of seducing his sister. He had let them marry only to avoid a scandal, which of course it was now. Humiliated, both Simon and Eleanor left for exile and didn’t return to court for another four years. As for any truth in the charge, it seems that the Montforts (their seals in the images) did have some pangs of conscience and vowed to go on crusade to do something about it. They ended up not going because Henry asked them for a favour instead, and that turned into the next huge disaster in their relationship.

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