Simon de Montford wasn’t English but French – he was arrogant, brash, and vain yet he was to become a hero of English Democracy, though whether this was ever his intention or motivation remains uncertain.
He was born in Normandy on 23 May 1208, to a father who shared the same name and a family that were minor nobility but extremely ambitious as such his father was often at war doing the French King’s bidding, and the young Simon would often accompany him on his campaigns.
He was a quick learner and determined to succeed but he was not the first son and when his father died he did not inherit and so with little money and no property in France it was his elder brother Amaury, who suggested that as the family had been bequeathed estates in England he should go and pursue his inheritance there.
Simon arrived in England in 1229, aged 18, and immediately set about claiming the inheritance he had been so reliably informed was his but there had recently been a backlash in England against freeloading foreigners coming to the country to make their fortune and there was some resistance to the young Simon acquiring his estates and it was to be a number of years before he received his inheritance in full.
Once he’d done so however, and desperate to make his mark, he was to prove relentless in his pursuit of influence and power but he did not confine this to the environs of the Royal Court but rather the Royal Bedchamber.
Unknown to King Henry III, Simon had been wooing his sister Eleanor, and in January 1238 they married in secret but
when the news leaked out it caused outrage.
The Barons were up in arms for not only was Simon a noble of lowly rank and a foreigner but the marriage effected the line of succession and should have been put before the King’s Council but Henry, faced with a fait-accompli, and the fact that Eleanor was pregnant, had little choice but to endorse the marriage and as such was obliged to financially compensate some of the more outraged Barons simply to maintain order.
At first the relationship between the King and his new brother-in-law was cordial and as a member of the Royal Family in 1239, Simon was invested with the Earldom of Leicester. He also became one of the King’s Chief Advisers.
But it wasn’t long before the two men fell out.
Simon de Montford had borrowed a great deal of money using his brother-in-law, the King, as security.
He had not consulted the King in advance regarding the loan and neither did he have the means to pay it back and
in a furious exchange Henry accused Simon of being an excommunicate, a serious accusation, shouting at him:
“You seduced my sister, and when I discovered she was pregnant I gave her to you, against my will, to avoid scandal. Now you dishonour me!”
It was to be the beginning of an increasingly strained relationship.
In 1248, Simon was appointed by Henry to govern the troublesome Duchy of Gascony and despite a growing reputation as a man of little patience and irascible temper he was to prove himself an able administrator, someone who did not suffer fools but could also not be bought off.
He quickly restored order but in doing so he made a great many enemies, and these disaffected nobles were to take their complaints directly to the King.
Much to everyone’s surprise Henry instigated an Inquiry and it decided that there were charges to answer, and that de Montford should stand trial.
This was not the first time that the King had buckled under pressure and de Montford was not impressed.
Campaigning with him in Poitou he had found his leadership so pathetic that he had suggested the King should be locked up for being an idiot. Now he was giving in to the demands of a rag-tag of disgruntled, corrupt and rapacious nobles.
During a heated meeting Henry accused Simon of fomenting insurrection and keeping covenant with a traitor. Simon rounded on the King and shouted loud enough for all present to hear:
“That word is a lie and were you not my Sovereign it would be an ill-hour for you when you dared utter it.”
Despite the King’s best endeavours de Montford was acquitted by a Council of his Peers who had seen the whole affair as no better than a show trial and Henry, though frustrated and angry, had little choice than to permit de Montford to return to Gascony to govern much as he had before.
In 1253, de Montford made peace with the King but it was to be a short-lived reconciliation.
Many of the Barons feared that Henry was becoming despotic like his father King John before him and he had been forced to sign Magna Carta as a result, now it appeared his son Henry was trying to govern without reference to it.
The King it seemed wanted to centralise all power into his own hands and this was not something the Barons were willing to accept; casting themselves as Representatives of the Community of the Realm and they looked to the King’s irascible brother-in-law as their champion.
But it was to be Henry’s foreign policy and its impact domestically that was to prove the final straw.
He had accepted Pope Innocent IV’s invitation for his second son, Edmund, to become King of Sicily. But it was a throne bought at great cost for in return the Papacy demanded English support in its on-going struggle with the Hohenstauffen Dynasty and this was to be provided in the form of a massive cash grant, and Henry now demanded a subsidy be raised to pay for it.
This strained the English Treasury to breaking point and the nobility were not willing to make up any short-fall.
In the company of the powerful Duke of Gloucester, de Montford led a delegation of Barons to confront the King and though they left their weapons outside the door the implication of their visit was obvious and a clearly frightened Henry feared he was about to be taken captive.
They demanded changes and if the King had no objections then they would codify these into the governance of the Realm. Contrite and compliant he listened nervously to their demands without demur.
The result was the Provisions of Oxford drawn up in 1258.
It reformed English common law, refined and reinforced the principles laid out in Magna Carta, and clarified the rights of free men under the Laws of the Realm.
The Provisions did not just curb the Royal authority it changed its remit.
A Council of twenty four members, twelve selected by the Crown and twelve by the Barons, was created to run Local Administration and take custody of the Royal Castles, and two selected from each would supervise all Ministerial appointments and decisions.
The King was then forced to expel his foreign advisers (de Montford excluded, of course) corrupt officials were dismissed, and a system of advisers created to “Counsel the King.”
In reality this Committee of Fifteen of whom only a minority were directly appointed by the King was intended to administer the country.
At the meeting that saw the Provisions come into law Henry was openly criticised in debate and many of those present called for the King to be made accountable for his actions.
At the end of the debate Henry was forced to swear the Collective Oath to the Provisions of Oxford (he’d had little choice) and the new status quo was refined further by the Provisions of Westminster the following year.
Believing that the issue had been settled de Montford returned to the Continent but in his absence Henry felt able to campaign to woo the Barons back to his side. This was easier done than might have been expected for de Montford was a divisive figure who repelled as much as he attracted.
Following his successful wooing of the Barons in 1262, Henry obtained a Papal Bull exempting him from his Oath.
He was now determined to reassert Royal authority but Simon de Montford would prove just as determined to resist him.
The two sides were becoming increasingly polarised, it would result in the Second Barons War.
Simon de Montford was a charismatic figure, but also a prickly one who both induced great loyalty in his friends and great enmity in his opponents for he now believed his every waking moment, his every decision, his every action to be ordained by God and he saw his mission to reform English Government in messianic terms.
Those Barons in England who still opposed the King could see that he would never accept reform and in the summer of 1263 they summoned de Montford back to England and within months of his return much of south-east England was under his control.
The forces under his command he designated the Army of God and they fought for him under the Sign of the Cross.
In the meantime, the King had also been raising his own army. They were to clash near the town of Lewes on the Sussex Downs on 14 May, 1264.
Despite the King’s cavalry commanded by his son the Prince Edward having some early success his army was eventually routed and he was taken prisoner, and for the next fifteen months Simon de Montford would be the effective ruler of England.
Following his victory at Lewes, de Montford set about governing the country and implementing even more reforms. At the same time he expropriated his enemies and amassed a great fortune for himself and his family.
In 1265, he dispatched agents to draw up a list of every Borough and Shire in the country which would then send two elected representatives to sit in a new Parliament the franchise for which was to be based on a property threshold of 40 shillings.
For many of the Barons, already alienated by de Montford’s greed and overweening arrogance, the idea of permitting commoners to vote on issues affecting the nobility was a step too far. But tired of an ineffective and untrustworthy King they now looked to his son Edward, to save them from the messianic de Montford.
Prince Edward, the future Longshanks, was just as cunning and duplicitous as his father but unlike him he was politically astute and a competent military commander. Moreover, he was decisive and ruthless.
He had been placed under arrest following the defeat at Lewes but had since arranged his own escape and free from captivity he quickly raised an army with most of the Barons flocking to his side.
Despite the odds being heavily stacked against him de Montford, who’d had the opportunity to flee abroad, instead remained determined to fight. He was, after all, doing God’s work.
The two armies met at Evesham on 4 August, 1265.
Prince Edward, who had some 12,000 men under his command, was confident of victory.
De Montford’s army numbered less than 5,000 but he was hoping to be reinforced by his son’s army at nearby Kenilworth Castle but unknown to him his son had already been defeated.
When he saw an army approaching flying banners bearing his son’s crest he believed salvation was at hand and rode forward to greet them, but it was just one of the many battlefield ruses for which the future Longshanks would become notorious.
With a tactical withdrawal no longer an option and flight out of the question, de Montford could perhaps foresee his fate.
The battle was fought in a thunderstorm and not long after the fighting began under the cover of a heavy downpour de Montford’s Welsh Infantry deserted the field. Seeing that de Montford’s Army had been seriously denuded, Edward now secured all possible avenues of escape. Witnessing this de Montford remarked:
“God have mercy on our souls for our bodies are theirs.”
He knew that his only chance was to meet Edward’s army head on, but it was a hopeless cause. When he was told that his son had been killed he shouted “Then it is time to die” and charged into the fray.
Unhorsed, he fought furiously on foot before being cut down.
Once de Montford’s body had been discovered and its identity confirmed, Edward ordered that it be stripped naked, its limbs and testicles severed, and what of it remained tied to a horse and dragged through the streets of nearby towns as a warning.
Unlike Magna Carta which served notice on the King that there were limits to Royal power, that anointed by God or otherwise with Kingship came the obligation to and the responsibility for preserving the rights and freedoms of the people according to the law of the land, the Provisions of Oxford effectively established a duopoly of power and it dispersed that power to the regions.
It created a forum for the debate of issues of importance to the country, or a Parliament as we would recognise it today.
It was the first stirrings of Constitutional Monarchy and sowed the seed of a conflict that would not be resolved except by a clash of arms four hundred years in the future.
This was not clear at the time in a conflict that too many was just another violent confrontation of competing factions as Barons readily switched allegiance for short-term gain.
Except perhaps for de Montford himself who did not seek to overthrow the King, who did not usurp the Crown when it was in his power to do so but instead had a vision from God he came to believe in – to realign the nature of power in England.
Simon de Montford is now an often neglected figure, his experiment deemed to have failed, but he remains an early hero of democracy even though he may himself have shuddered at the very suggestion.