The day it all started

On 9 August 1239, the cream of society was gathered for the queen’s churching. It was going to be a grand affair, as well it should, because Eleanor of Provence’s first child was a boy, the future Edward I. The proud father, Henry III, was always ready to go all out for any special occasion, and for his wife’s purification he ordered enough wax to make 500 candles and thirty-four oxen, salted venison, swans and other sorts of birds for the feast. Naturally those in attendance included his sister Eleanor and her husband Simon de Montfort. They too had a lot to be thankful for. Their first child was born the previous November, also a boy whom they named after Henry, and the king finally belted Simon the Earl of Leicester in February. When they arrived for the ceremony, you might think Henry would have rushed up to them and said, ‘My dear sister and brother, welcome, can I get you a cocktail?’ Instead he glowered at Simon and demanded to know what he was doing there. ‘You are excommunicated, you don’t belong in church! And you, Eleanor, you were defiled by this man before your marriage? You have no right to be here, either. Both of you, be gone!’

They left in tears and disgrace and may be something of their relationship could have been salvaged had they left it at that for the time being. But the Montforts were not the type of people to take their lumps and returned to find out what the hell was going on. Now Henry really lost it and made a public scandal of it. He accused Simon of seducing Eleanor even though she was bound by an oath of chastity, forcing him to consent to their marriage. Simon then went to the pope to bribe him with borrowed money for a dispensation for Eleanor’s vow, and when he couldn’t pay the money back, he was excommunicated. Worse, he borrowed the money by naming the king as security for it, without bothering to tell Henry first.

So Simon and Eleanor slunk away for a second time but Henry would show them for their audacity and returning to the churching in the first place and had them evicted from the quarters he lent them in London. He even chose to go further with that ungrateful Simon and ordered him tossed into the Tower, but at this point Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall stepped in and said that’s enough. But so fearful are Simon and Eleanor of the king’s wrath that they take the next boat to France, leaving in such haste as to leave their infant son behind with his nursemaid. Not until April of the following year, when Simon returned to England to raise money for his crusade and to bring young Henry to his mother, did relations begin to mend. Henry received Simon at court as if the churching affair was ancient history and Queen Eleanor made a nice gift of a gold cup to him and her sister-in-law. But Simon’s bruised ego never healed and nearly a quarter century later he bitterly recalled the king’s ‘shameful words’ to him on that occasion.

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