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Simon de Montfort – A man ahead of his time

Simon de Montfort – A man ahead of his time

Simon de Montfort… many may have heard of a university with the name, but otherwise they’re unaware of just how much impact this medieval character has had on modern day life. Born a Frenchman early in the thirteenth century (specific date unknown), by 1239 de Montfort was the 6th Earl of Leicester and an influential landowner. But that’s only where things actually begin…

His father, Simon de Montfort senior and the 5th Earl of Leicester, lead many campaigns against the Cathars, and thus Junior’s upbringing naturally imbued him with an understanding of conflict. Though French by birth, it seems he was an Englishman at heart, however, and his story is an inspiration to all who profess such a leaning themselves.

For the sake of brevity, our account starts at the point Simon and his brother, Amaury, negotiated the split of their inheritance, for this is where de Montfort began his quest for England. In short, Amaury bid for the French possessions, in return for Simon accepting Leicester. Being the younger son, he may have thought this was the best he could get, and he released himself from his rights in France, whilst his brother did the same with respect to their English property.

He stamped his mark on his domain early on. And it has to be said he wasn’t always one for the gentle approach. Before long, de Montfort had expelled the Jewish community. Such behaviour, though highly questionable by today’s standards, was probably spawned from his father’s devout Christianity and loathing of the Jews in France. And although we are not in any way looking to vindicate his behaviour, we’re simply setting the scene, it also has to be remembered he was a product of his time. If one suspects that a quest for popularity perhaps fuelled his actions, it’s worth bearing in mind he was also seeking to ban usury; a practice which was, unfortunately, widely associated with the Jewish community.

By 1236, and being the substantial character he clearly was, he had become a favourite of the king – Henry III. By 1239, he was formally recognised as the 6th Earl of Leicester, and what is probably best described as a helter-skelter style relationship between the two began.

The entrenching of the relationship with the king…

In 1238, Simon married Eleanor, Henry III’s sister. There are suggestions that he had seduced her so, although Henry was peeved, fearing a scandal the king publically approved of the union. However, the actual ceremony took place in secret and without consultation with the powerful barons of the land; which was certainly an issue for some. Eleanor had previously been married to William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke and son of William Marshal, 1st Earl, whose diplomacy and chivalry had won much respect amongst the baronial community. And the breaking of Eleanor’s vow of perpetual chastity upon her first husband’s death was not something the barons took lightly. Not only had de Montfort acted in opposition to the gallant legacy of his revered father-in-law, but he was of foreign descent too. This was not an attractive proposition to the mighty of the land. And only the money and willpower of the king was able to quash the rebellion that ensued.

Perhaps as a result of this, the kinship between Henry and Simon remained cordial for a while. Henry supported de Montfort’s quest to obtain papal approval for his marriage, and their first son was baptised Henry in honour of his uncle. In return, Simon had the opportunity to act as both the king’s counsellor and be named one of Prince Edward’s (later known as Longshanks) godfathers. Such cordiality, however, was never set to last.

Relations begin to sour…

It appears that de Montfort got a little big for his boots. Without consultation, he named Henry as security for the repayment of a substantial sum he owed to Eleanor’s uncle. Upon discovering this, Henry’s reaction was explosive. He denounced the earl as a seducer and an excommunicant, and threatened to have him imprisoned in the Tower. De Montfort had no choice but to flee to France with his wife until things died down.

To pass the time, he tucked a crusade under his belt – the Baron’s Crusade – and only then turned his eye back to Henry and his campaign against Louis IX of France. If de Montfort’s intention had been to re-curry favour with the English king, though, his discipline to see such a quest through failed him. The campaign was not a success and Simon publically denounced the king’s (in)ability to take note of the discontent swelling across the country that was resulting from both famine and the king’s inappropriate favouring of some of his French relatives.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the relationship between the two men began to swing from one way to the other. The French tried to lure Simon back but, for his own reasons, he resisted and instead tried to make peace with Henry once again by dealing with unrest in Gascony. His requests for a subsidy to achieve this, however, were turned down by Henry, and the tenuous nature of their relationship brought itself to the fore once more. Though he helped the king to extricate himself from pledges he’d made to the Pope with regard to Sicily, de Montfort then headed an opposition against him in Parliament as part of the ‘Council of Fifteen’. This was a historical turning point for democracy. The Council of Fifteen had drawn up the ‘Provisions’ at Oxford in 1258. The objective of the Provisions had been to subject the king to a council and parliament, so it was never going to be an easy sell to Henry. Henry made use of his ability to divide the barons, and rocked all attempts to stabilise power by the Council.  When de Montfort tried to take matters into his own hands, contrary to the orders of the king, Henry regained power and, once again, the earl was forced to flee England.

Wrestling for power on behalf of parliament

The dissatisfaction of the barons may have slipped out of sight for Simon, but it wasn’t out of mind. The king’s wilful disregard for the barons’ concerns left many convinced that he was actually hostile to all reform. With Henry having ridden roughshod over the Provisions they’d worked so hard to instate, de Montfort felt compelled to return to England and take control of the council once more.

This he did. But diplomatic relations were fraught, complex, and emotively divided. To put things simply, it became a battle between parliamentarians (so to speak, aka. De Montfort stalwarts) and royalists.

Mayhem and disruption ensued, with even Louis IX getting involved to arbitrate. This wasn’t good for Simon, for Louis completely overturned the Provisions and civil war broke out. On 14th May, 1264, both sides met at the Battle of Lewes, the king and his cronies were captured, and de Montfort was once again able to set up a government based on the principles of the Provisions. The king retained his title, but decisions and approval now fell to the council; all to be subject to consultation with parliament.

De Montfort sent a summons – in the king’s name – calling each county to list its boroughs and send two representatives to parliament. Henry’s motivation to issue a call to his shires was focused on raising funds – he was in need of money. He had instructed his queen to summons knights elected by their shires. However, de Montfort extended this call to ‘ordinary’ folk elected to be representatives… and thus parliamentary representation was born.

A man ahead of his time…Simon de Montfort

The fickle nature of the barons came to the fore once more, though. Despite their original support for the Provisions, it was actually the barons who objected to the shift in power the most. It was a potent mix of individuals who allied themselves with de Montfort’s enemies, and he soon suffered significant losses to both his power and his forces. Once Prince Edward had too played a part with a few dastardly tactical moves, Simon found himself critically outmanoeuvred at a battle at Evesham.

It was a desperate battle. De Montfort’s son, Henry, was the first to die and, it would seem, the earl then felt that it too was his day to go. A squad of Edward’s men had been charged with hunting him down on the battlefield to put an end to his rule once and for all, and they discharged their duties with aplomb. His death was brutal and unforgiving. His body was hacked apart and his head, with testicles dangling, was sent to Wigmore Castle. Other limbs were sent elsewhere as a mark of dishonour. And what little was left and found of his remains was gathered by his loyal followers and buried under the altar at Evesham Abbey.

Simon de Montfort’s grand legacy…

Today, Simon de Montfort’s name lives on and he is without doubt considered to be one of the founders of representative government. A relief of him even dresses the wall of the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives. And let’s not forget that De Montfort University is named after him. Plus to add to this legacy, his personal coat of arms still forms part of many banners and crests even today.

He was a man of significant forward vision who had a heart for the representation of the people. He fought against the tyranny of kings to his last breath, and to this day we have a lot to thank him for.