The medieval chronicler Matthew Paris portrayed Simon as a charismatic and complex figure: forthright and enigmatic, chivalrous yet at times dictatorial, an able military strategist who cultivated the friendship and guidance of the foremost religious leaders of his time. Ironically, he was a critic of Henry III for the favouritism that he showed towards foreigners while being a favoured foreigner himself.
Simon was born in France about 1208 the third of four sons and named after his father Simon. The elder Simon had made his reputation on the fourth crusade but is better remembered for his ruthless treatment of the Albigensian heretics.
Amaury, Simon’s eldest brother, pursued the family’s right to the Earldom of Leicester. His efforts were frustrated both by his French citizenship and by the fact that Henry III had given the benefit of the Leicester lands to Ranulf, earl of Chester, for life. Around 1229 Amaury exchanged his claim to the Leicester lands for Simon’s lands in France plus a money payment. Simon came to England to press his Leicester claim with the king of England, Henry III. As a reward for Simon’s efforts in the Normandy campaign of 1230, Henry agreed to respect Simon’s claim, but only after Ranulf had released his prior entitlement. Simon managed to persuade Ranulf to sell him his right to the Leicester lands. These payments to Ranulf, and the earlier one to his brother Amaury, were to lay the foundation of financial problems that dogged Simon throughout his life.
Henry III made Simon welcome in England, and the two men were friends throughout the 1230s, but later there were alternate periods of hostility and concord between the two men; Simon’s financial problems were often the cause of their quarrels. Simon tried to make a profitable marriage, but he was vetoed in his attempts to take a French wife by what was seen as his new allegiance to an English monarch. However, in 1238, Simon’s life took a decisive turn when he married Eleanor, the widowed sister of King Henry III.
The marriage was shrouded in controversy not least because the ceremony was conducted in secret. The barons complained that such an important decision should not have been taken without their consent, and there were objections from the religious community who remembered that Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity on the death of her first husband. Such was the furore that Simon had to ask the Pope not to invalidate the ceremony; however the marriage did prove to be a success.
Row and Reconciliation
In 1239 relations between Henry and Simon deteriorated significantly: Simon named the King as a guarantor of one of his debts without first asking Henry’s permission. Henry denounced Simon as not only a perjurer but as a seducer; the King claimed that he had only agreed to his sister’s marriage when he discovered that Simon had seduced her. Simon’s financial problems were further aggravated by the fine that the King levied to repay the controversial loan, and the need to finance his decision to go on Crusade.
Simon and Henry were reconciled in 1240, and, in 1241, Simon joined the king’s disastrous expedition to recover his lands in Poitou. Although Simon was critical of the king’s management of this campaign, Henry was clearly pleased with Simon’s contribution: he arranged to pardon some of Simon’s debts, granted him custody of Kenilworth Castle, and ensured that Eleanor received an income for life from her deceased first husband’s estate.
Whatever the difficulties between the two men, Henry realised that he needed Simon’s abilities as a military leader and his contacts in France, while Simon needed Henry’s influence to service his personal and family ambitions.
Governor of Gascony
1248 saw Henry appoint Simon as governor of Gascony where Simon faced opposition to England’s rule both from within and outside of its borders; Simon used his political skills to negotiate an extension of the existing truce with the French King and an agreement to go to arbitration over the claims of the King of Navarre. Simon then brought the Gascons under control by imprisoning opponents without trial and confiscating property; his treatment of the Gascons was so harsh that, in 1251, they revolted against Simon’s rule.
Henry intervened to overrule Simon, but this, together with inadequate financial support, led to further friction between the two men. Matters came to a head in 1252 when Simon faced an inquiry into his behaviour in the province. Simon successfully defended himself and won sufficient support to be exonerated from blame. Henry was initially unwilling to allow Simon to resume his control of the province, but, by 1253, Henry needed Simon’s skills once more, and he had to recall Simon to help him quell a Gascon revolt.
Henry III had inherited two significant problems from his father, John, that were to continue to plague the King throughout his reign: the loss of nearly all of England’s possessions in France, and the limitations placed on the King’s powers by the Magna Carta. A further cause of the barons’ anger was Henry’s habit of granting important posts and lands to foreigners: he gave the honour of Richmond and the post of Archbishop of Canterbury to two Savoyards who were uncles of Henry’s French wife, and he gave one of his Lusignan half brothers the earldom of Pembroke and the other the diocese of Winchester. Simon too was a foreigner, and Henry used De Montfort’s European connections and negotiating skills to try to promote better relationships with both France and Scotland. Simon took advantage of these opportunities to improve his own financial situation. Under the influence of the Savoyards, Henry accepted the Pope’s offer of the throne of Sicily for his son Edmund, but the king needed to organise an expensive military campaign to wrestle it from its Hohenstaufen rulers.
The Sicilian venture failed leaving the crown with large debts. This disaster together with the continued arrogant and lawless behaviour of the Lusignans, and the ruthless money-raising methods of the Crown’s sheriffs accentuated the barons’ dissatisfaction with Henry. In June 1258, under pressure from the barons, Henry was forced to concede some of his power and accept the ‘Provisions of Oxford’ by which a permanent council of 15 members, only three of whom were chosen by Henry, was created; this council would meet three times a year with powers to advise the king on all matters and to amend and address any appropriate injustices.
Simon identified himself strongly with this reform movement promoting what he believed to be the justice of the Barons’ claims, but, whilst he attended the council held in February and October 1259, business in France meant that he was absent from other meetings. The Lusignans had refused to swear allegiance to the Provisions of Oxford which led them to leave England. This expulsion persuaded some of the barons that sufficient reform had been achieved, and interest in reform waned. Simon despaired at this lack of resolve, but he was unable to influence events as he was preoccupied with his own finances and the treaty with France.
During 1260 Henry successfully re-established his hold over power. The relaxation in the Barons’ attitude encouraged Henry to postpone the February 1260 parliament. Simon was so critical of Henry that the King decided that it was time that Simon was brought before a court to defend himself against charges of delaying the peace treaty with France in pursuit of his personal financial claims and threatening the Crown. The trial, however, never took place as the attentions of the court were diverted by an uprising in Wales. Simon was able to take a leading role in the Michaelmas parliament of 1260 where the reformers concentrated on strengthening their own powers.
During 1261 Henry, aided by the absence abroad of both Edward and Simon, was determined to regain his powers, and he succeeded in obtaining papal absolution from his oath to abide by the Oxford Provisions. Realising that these measures were likely to arouse strong opposition, Henry took up residence in the Tower of London early in 1261 then argued at the February parliament that the Council was exceeding its powers. He invited one of the banished Lusignans back into England, and he replaced the Justiciar and the County Sheriffs with appointees loyal to the Crown. Henry’s moves were opposed by Simon, but his fellow Barons’ support was weak, and it seemed that the Provisions of Oxford were henceforth to be ignored.
On his return to England in 1263 Simon once more took up the cause of the Provisions of Oxford: he won support from disaffected knights, a limited number of the magnates, the City of London, and the Church. By 1264 matters had escalated to such a degree that armed conflict broke out which led to the first major battle between Simon and Henry at Lewes in Sussex. Simon was successful, and he took both Henry and his son Edward prisoner. Despite this success, Simon continued to lose the backing of his fellow barons, and he was forced to draw his support from elsewhere.
Now in control of the King, Simon called a parliament and filled it with those barons who continued to support him and with representatives from the shires and towns. Simon’s four sons started to take advantage of their father’s powerful position, and they seized land and other resources for themselves; this led to a loss of support for Simon’s cause including the defection of the powerful Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. By the end of May 1265, Simon’s prospects were dealt a further blow when Edward managed to escape.
On 4 August 1265 Simon faced an army led by Edward at Evesham. Simon’s outnumbered forces charged uphill at their opponents, but their courage was not enough to prevent them being slaughtered. Simon and many of his closest supporters died, and de Montfort’s body was dismembered.
Simon’s torso was interred close to the high altar in Evesham Abbey, and claims started to be made of cures enjoyed by those who visited this site. The authorities were so concerned with the growth of a cult around Simon’s memory that eventually his body had to be moved to unconsecrated ground.
The story of Simon’s life shows that he was a man of considerable talents: soldier, administrator, diplomat, scholar, ardent Christian, loyal husband and father. Whilst he always pursued his own financial and other self-interests, there is no doubt that Simon also promoted justice and the idea that parliament was sovereign. At times Simon has been referred to as the ‘Father of the House of Commons’, but ordinary citizens would have to wait a further 600 years before any meaningful power was devolved to them.
The above abridged summary of Simon de Montfort’s life, and the bibliography, have been drawn from Patrick Rooke’s excellent short biography. The author’s permission to use his work is gratefully acknowledged by the Society. If you want to read the complete illustrated work (38 pages soft covers) copies may be purchased from the Society by sending a cheque for £6. 50, payable to the ‘Simon de Montfort Society’, to David Snowden. 2 St Matthews Close, Four Pools, Evesham WR11 2ES, United Kingdom.