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  Simon  de Montfort (c.1208–1265), seal, 1258 Simon de Montfort (c.1208–1265), seal, 1258
Montfort, Simon de, eighth earl of Leicester (c.1208–1265), magnate and political reformer, was the third son of Simon de Montfort (c.1170–1218), lord of Montfort l'Amaury in the Île-de-France, and of Alice (d. 1221), daughter of Bouchard de Montmorency.

Family and youth

Despite the general obscurity of his early years Montfort was almost certainly brought up in southern France, where his father waged war against the Albigensian heretics from 1209 until his death. He first appears assenting to a charter made by his mother in 1218. After his father had died, he seems to have returned with her to the family's northern estates, though he may have returned to the south for his first grounding in arms during the renewed Albigensian war of 1226–9.

Two factors in Montfort's early life played an important part in determining his future. First, Simon senior had inherited a claim to the earldom of Leicester through his mother, Amicia, sister and coheir of Robert de Breteuil, earl of Leicester, who had died childless in 1204. Three years later the Leicester lands were divided between Simon and Amicia's sister Margaret, wife of Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester. But Anglo-French hostilities meant that the new earl of Leicester never took possession of his inheritance. The claim subsisted none the less, to be transmitted after Simon's death to his eldest son, Amaury. By 1230 Amaury had transferred some or all of his rights in the earldom to his younger brother Simon junior, and it was this transferred claim that brought Simon onto the stage of English politics. Second, Simon senior had been a man of intense and aggressive piety: the disciple of the reforming Parisian evangelist Foulques de Neuilly, a participant in the fourth crusade, and the close friend of St Dominic, as well as the leader of militant orthodoxy against the heretics of the south. His wife, Alice, was a zealot of a similar sort. The religious fervour of his upbringing, the product of both circumstance and parental influence, marked out the course of Simon junior's future career just as surely as his family claim to the earldom of Leicester.

Relations with Henry III, 1230–1248, and marriage

Simon de Montfort first went to England in 1230 to pursue his claim to his inheritance. In this he was remarkably successful. The value placed by Henry III on his service and connections, particularly in northern France, and the willingness of Ranulf (III), earl of Chester, to hand over the Leicester lands, which had been in his custody since 1215, both help to explain the king's acceptance of his homage in August 1231. Montfort now held his family's portion of the Leicester estate, though not yet the earldom that should have gone with it. From this point until 1239 he rose at Henry's court, first gradually and then with increasing momentum. His close association with Ranulf of Chester until Ranulf's death in 1232 aligned him with the earl's opposition to Hubert de Burgh, Henry's unpopular justiciar. This allegiance also led him towards the party of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, which ruled the court and country after Hubert de Burgh's disgrace in 1232; but he was not so close to des Roches as to be imperilled when the bishop himself fell from power in 1234. The dissolution of these factional rivalries cleared the way for Simon's own entrée to the heart of the court. He attended meetings of the great council from 1234, forwarded Henry's diplomacy in Wales and Scotland, and acted as steward—an office traditionally attached to the earldom of Leicester—at the king's marriage to Eleanor of Provence in 1236. In that year Henry was already speaking of him as earl, though there had as yet been no formal conferment of the title. His closeness to Henry, and to a regime whose combination of financial improvidence and fiscal oppressiveness was proving increasingly unpopular, made him enemies, whose hostility increased after the culminating move in his upward progress: his marriage in January 1238 to , the 23-year-old sister of the king, and widow of William (II) Marshal, earl of Pembroke (d. 1231).

Montfort's marriage to Eleanor, rushed through by Henry without any attempt to consult the magnates on what was a matter of national business, outraged those conventions of baronial consent to royal policy that had been hardening since Magna Carta. It was equally offensive to the church, since Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity in the early days of her widowhood. The marriage provoked a short-lived baronial revolt, led by Richard, earl of Cornwall, the king's brother; yet events were to prove that Montfort was less vulnerable to the opposition of his fellow magnates than to the withdrawal of royal favour. At the root of his first great quarrel with Henry lay the question of money. Possessing only half of the original earldom of Leicester, worth about £500 p.a., Montfort was not especially wealthy. His buying-out of his brother's claims to the earldom, not fully achieved until Amaury ceded his rights in England in April 1239, had been expensive, and his impending crusade, after he had taken the cross probably in 1237, added to his financial difficulties. The result was a heavy burden of debt. In 1239 Montfort found himself owing 2000 marks to Thomas of Savoy, the queen's uncle, and in order to extricate himself from this imbroglio he presumed on his relationship with Henry by pledging the king's name for the debt's repayment. When this became known, in August 1239, Henry reacted with explosive anger, stirring the pot by accusing Montfort, almost certainly unjustly, of having seduced Eleanor before their marriage. Montfort and his pregnant wife were forced to flee abroad.

Despite its unfortunate sequel Montfort's marriage to Eleanor contributed powerfully to his establishment in England and in English political life. First, it added greatly to his wealth. Eleanor's position as the widow of William Marshal had left her with a dower income of some £930 p.a. in cash and land. This was far more than Montfort's income from his Leicester inheritance, and the disposition of the dower lands through southern England, with concentrations in Wiltshire and Berkshire, extended his influence beyond the Leicestershire and Warwickshire core of his ancestral holdings. Second, the marriage provided him with a family. , the couple's first son, was born in November 1238, his name marking the bonds of affection between Montfort, Eleanor, and the king; and three other sons, , , and , followed by c.1245. Their only daughter, , was born c.1258. New lands and a growing family provided one means by which Montfort put down roots and became assimilated, however imperfectly, into the English governing class.

Yet they also added to the tensions already evident in Montfort's relations with Henry, and again the problems were financial. In Eleanor's widowhood her brother Henry had taken over responsibility from the Marshal heirs for the payment of an annual fee of £400 in respect of Eleanor's dower lands in Ireland and Wales: a sum which the couple claimed, from 1244 onwards, was entirely inadequate compensation for the widow's customary third. Henry had similarly failed to settle any marriage portion on Eleanor at the time of her marriage to Montfort, thus making no provision for the endowment of their family. These deficiencies left Montfort precariously placed, for on Eleanor's death her dower would revert to the Marshal heirs, leaving Montfort with inadequate means to maintain his position or that of his sons. In 1244–5 Henry made arrangements which went some way towards meeting these grievances. But they were never fully met, and in the years up to 1258 the question of Eleanor's dower and marriage portion, more than any political or constitutional matter, proved a constant source of disharmony between Montfort, his wife, and his brother-in-law.

On crusade, 1240–1241

Montfort was away on crusade from the summer of 1240 until the autumn of 1241, when he returned to France. His contingent had been preceded by a larger French force, led by his elder brother Amaury, and by an English army under Richard of Cornwall; but the achievement of these forces in the Holy Land was small. In another way, however, the crusade bore witness to Montfort's prestige, for during its course the barons of the kingdom of Jerusalem asked the emperor Frederick II to appoint Montfort as their governor: a request which probably testified to his military skills as well as his wider reputation. He came back to another war, that waged in 1242 and 1243 by Henry III against Louis IX for the recovery of Poitou. Montfort was summoned to Henry's aid in June 1242 and the rift between the two men patched up, thanks to Henry's proffers of cash and to his need for Montfort's generalship which underlay them. But despite their military partnership, Henry was humiliated by a narrow escape from the French at Saintes, and no territory was regained. Both men returned to England in 1243, when the king's capricious generosity brought Montfort and his wife lavishly back into favour. Some attempt was made to settle their grievances over Eleanor's dower and marriage portion; Montfort was given custody of the great midland castle of Kenilworth; and in 1244–5 he became an assiduous attender at court. As far as can be seen, he was strongly royalist in his sympathies at this time, taking no part in the parliamentary opposition to Henry's financial methods and use of patronage which characterized these years. As so often, his position owed much to his value as a negotiator with the French, and in 1247 he was sent to Louis IX to see if Louis could be induced to surrender Normandy before his departure on crusade. By this time, however, he was once again moving away from the centre of affairs, coming to court less frequently, and receiving Henry's gifts less regularly, though without any dramatic rupture with his brother-in-law.

Religion

Montfort's rise in England, his early quest for patrons, and his later pressure on Henry to meet his financial claims, all suggest the talent for aggressive self-advancement which was to emerge as one of the leitmotifs of his career. But he was also a devoutly religious man, whose Christian principles were often at odds with his voracious pursuit of his own interests. Here he was deeply influenced by three of the leading churchmen of the day: Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln (1235–53), whom he probably first met in 1231, when Grosseteste was archdeacon of Montfort's newly acquired borough of Leicester; Walter de Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester (1236–66), a neighbour in the west midlands and, like Grosseteste, a notably energetic pastor; and Adam Marsh (d. 1259), the leading Oxford Franciscan scholar of his generation. All three of these men stood for a new sort of fervent reforming Christianity. Its aim was the salvation of the laity through their attendance to the teachings of an educated clergy and their disciplined observance of the religious practices, such as regular confession and reception of the eucharist, laid down in the Lateran Council of 1215.

Many of the features of Montfort's religious life were shaped by his friends' teaching. Personally very close to each of them, and cherishing Grosseteste ‘with heartfelt affection’, according to William Rishanger, he particularly shared their respect for conscience and for the process of confession by which conscience was regulated. This was shown most clearly in the doubts which emerged in his mind during the 1240s about the propriety of his marriage to one who had previously taken a vow of chastity. In his private life he seems to have been similarly attentive to Christian moral teaching, practising austerities which may have owed as much to the general example of the Franciscans and of his friend Louis IX as to that of his three spiritual advisers. According to sources written after his death, and which therefore need to be treated judiciously but not necessarily sceptically, he used to spend much of the night in prayer, was frugal in food, drink, and clothing, wore a hair shirt, and after his oath to the provisions of Oxford in 1258 even abstained from relations with his wife. The hair shirt is widely vouched for. A more humane trait, but one that also owed much to his clerical friends, was his interest in education and learning. He was almost certainly literate, and even able to read Latin, so that Marsh could send him to the book of Job for consolation at a particularly difficult time in his life. That two of his sons, Henry and Amaury, were brought up with other noble children in Grosseteste's household, testified to his respect both for his mentor and for his mentor's ideal of a devout and learned laity.

His friends saw Montfort as an exemplar of the type of layman whom they hoped to create: pious, given to prayer, attendant to conscience, and, in Montfort's case, holding a position in worldly affairs which made him a potential force for good. That he was also a crusader was an additional commendation, for all three of his guides had an intense concern for the enterprise of the crusade. But in many ways Montfort must have disappointed their expectations. In politics his own claims and interests often took priority over all else. In his private life he proved to be a harsh and exacting lord, extorting 500 marks from a Leicester burgess in 1239, for example, in a way which earned him a devastating rebuke from Grosseteste. Although he had a more than conventional respect for the religious orders, attested by the confraternity agreement that he made with St Albans in 1257, his few recorded gifts to monastic houses do not suggest that he was a particularly open-handed benefactor; nor did he show the exceptional generosity to the poor that characterized the religious lives of Henry III and Louis IX. In public as in private the contrast between the ideals which he strove for and intermittently attained, and the more consistent quest for his own advantage, was one of the most salient features of his career.

In Gascony, France, and England, 1248–1258

In 1247 Montfort once more took the cross, intending to join the other English crusaders journeying to relieve the Holy Land after the fall of Jerusalem in 1244. His departure was forestalled, however, by Henry's recalling him from semi-retirement in May 1248 to serve as his lieutenant in Gascony for seven years. At this time the English position in Gascony was under threat both from neighbouring powers—the kings of France, Castile, Aragon, and Navarre—and from the province's own disorderly magnates who threatened to ally with them. Although Montfort was able to make peace with these powers, and thus to secure the duchy for the king, the five and a half interrupted years which he spent in Gascony did much to undermine his relations with Henry and to explain his later alignment with the reform movement of 1258.

There were two essential reasons for Montfort's growing differences with Henry. First, he took full advantage of the independent power given to him by his lieutenancy: he ruled Gascony like a commissar, imposing order by military methods—imprisoning enemies, besieging castles, destroying vineyards—which rode roughshod over local rights and aristocratic privileges. Second, the cost of these activities greatly outran the total income of the duchy which Henry had set aside for its restoration to order. As a result Montfort had both to draw on his own private resources and repeatedly to turn to Henry for financial assistance. Henry's reaction was understandable if also perfidious. He was dismayed at the grievances which his lieutenant's methods had provoked and which seemed merely to have exacerbated the internal unrest which Montfort had been sent to quell. By November 1249 Henry was receiving complaints from the embittered Gascons, contrary to the terms of Montfort's commission, and even pardoning and releasing robber barons like Gaston de Béarn whom Montfort had imprisoned. Later, in January 1252, he went further, sending envoys to Gascony to inquire into Montfort's conduct and to summon Gascon representatives to London to state their case.

Their work was the preliminary to Montfort's trial, which took place at Westminster in May and June 1252. Charged essentially with brutal high-handedness in his government of Gascony, he responded both by justifying his conduct and by accusing Henry of contravening the terms of his commission and of leaving him out of pocket. Support for Simon de Montfort from the English magnates prevented Henry from getting his way, and his lieutenant remained unconvicted, though from Montfort's viewpoint the trial itself was a humiliation and an inexpungeable breach of faith. On its conclusion he returned to Gascony, probably to take revenge on his accusers, only to be bought out in November 1252 by a generous financial settlement which terminated his seven-year commission. Assessing Montfort's character correctly, Henry had seen how best to quieten his grievances. But Montfort's subsequent withdrawal from Gascony left the province without effective government, and in the summer of 1253 a new expedition, headed by the king himself, had to be organized hastily to put down a further rebellion led by Gaston de Béarn. In the campaign which followed Henry evidently judged Montfort's military support to be indispensable, and he was once again summoned to the colours. This time he was able to strike a very hard bargain with Henry. In return for his assistance, Henry had to promise him, inter alia, an annual fee of £400, to be replaced by land of the equivalent value at a later date. This was a testimony to Montfort's military weight and to the value which Henry set on it, and the king's judgement was vindicated by the successful outcome of the campaign. When Montfort left Gascony for France in January 1254, the province had been pacified and Henry ruled once again in precarious security.

Montfort's time in Gascony soured his whole relationship with Henry III. As he saw it, the king had subverted his position, given comfort to his own and to Henry's enemies, and unjustly dismissed him. Even Henry's enforced generosity, the price of Montfort's appeasement and co-operation, had a sharp edge to it, for Henry's commitment to exchange his money fee for land could not possibly be met. From the time of the king's return to England in December 1254 his financial position deteriorated. Not only did the Gascony expedition leave him heavily in debt, but in March 1254 he had accepted Pope Innocent IV's offer of the throne of Sicily for his second son, Edmund, undertaking in exchange to pay the debts already incurred by the papacy in its Sicilian wars against the Hohenstaufen. Henry's insolvency had a direct effect on his dealings with his brother-in-law. Both the annual fee of £400 due for Eleanor's dower and the money due for the termination of Montfort's Gascon appointment fell into arrears; land could not be found to exchange for the second fee of £400; and the claim of both Montfort and Eleanor for the full value of the dower remained outstanding. To make matters worse, Montfort's developing interest in the Pyrenean county of Bigorre had, by a complicated process, put Henry still more deeply in his debt. Henry was desperately anxious to pay what he owed—a sign of the nervous apprehension with which he regarded Montfort—but he had no means of doing so.

Although Henry's financial obligations did most to determine his relationship with Montfort, that relationship was also governed by the course of national politics. Here three factors were especially important: the rise of the king's Lusignan half-brothers; the deepening crisis over Sicily; and the attempts to secure a lasting peace with France. Montfort's opinions on the first two of these issues had much in common with those of his fellow magnates, leading them all towards a united demand for political reform in 1258. By the early 1250s the four Lusignans, William de Valence, Aymer, Guy, and Geoffrey, had become the dominant faction at court, taking the lion's share of Henry's limited patronage and using their connections without scruple to enlarge and defend wide estates in the countryside. It was a special grievance of Montfort that their leader, William, had been granted a fee with the promise of land in exchange. He was, therefore, placed similarly to Montfort; but, unlike Montfort, he had been able for the most part to secure the required land. The Lusignans, too, supported Henry's Sicilian ambitions. These were opposed by almost all the magnates, and not least by Montfort, the settlement of whose outstanding claims was jeopardized by Henry's huge obligations to the papacy. On neither of these matters could Henry afford to ignore Montfort's antagonism. It was not only that his grievances, energies, and abilities constituted a powerful destabilizing force in politics. The king also needed to draw on his diplomatic expertise and knowledge of the French court in the negotiations for a permanent peace with France. These began in 1257 and were seen by Henry as a necessary condition for his intended conquest of Sicily. With Montfort closely involved in the peace process, Henry could not afford his hostility.

Montfort was not yet, however, so alienated from Henry as this definition of their differences might suggest. In 1256 and 1257 he received a number of minor royal grants (some compensation perhaps for Henry's failure to meet his major obligations), and in 1257 he was frequently at court. Although not one of Henry's inner circle, he remained more royalist than outsider, with an interest in some of Henry's aims: for example, he may have hoped that a French peace would promote the reclamation of his own family lands in France. There is no sign that he contributed to the local and parliamentary opposition to the harsh fiscal regime which resulted from Henry's penury and which bore down on county society through the sheriff's exactions and the judicial eyre. His grievances were private and financial, not constitutional and fiscal. They were nevertheless unappeased and drove him towards a common position with his fellow magnates. Others besides him—men such as John Fitzgeoffrey and Richard de Clare, earl of Gloucester—had their private quarrels with the Lusignans, with whose leader, William, Montfort himself came into violent conflict in May 1257. It was these discontents, in combination with a deeper exasperation at the folly of Henry's policies, that led in April 1258 to a demand for general reform.

Reforming principles, parliaments, and private grievances from 1258

The reform movement of 1258–9 began within the court and was directed against both the Lusignans and Henry's conduct of affairs. But it soon became much more comprehensive, not only in the support that it attracted but also in the remedies that it offered. It drew in the minor baronage, knights, and local freeholders who had been among the chief sufferers from royal misgovernment and Lusignan power, and in the provisions of Oxford, of June 1258, it attempted to place Henry's kingship under organized control through the institution of a baronial council of fifteen. The whole authority of the crown was virtually placed in commission, its operations to be supervised and its local workings investigated.

Montfort was from the start at the centre of these great events. He was among the seven confederate lords who, at the Westminster parliament of April 1258, launched the movement by demanding the expulsion of the Lusignans and the establishment of a committee of twenty-four to reform the realm. At the Oxford parliament, which followed in June, he personally renewed the call for the Lusignans' expulsion, successfully accomplished soon afterwards, and saw some of his chief supporters, including Walter de Cantilupe, placed on the various reforming committees. He took the new oath to the provisions of Oxford, though with a reluctance which suggested some apprehension about the consequences of so solemn and religious an obligation. Finally, in the months which followed the Oxford parliament, he became thoroughly caught up in the practicalities of reform and of the business of governing which was reform's corollary, acting with the council, negotiating with the Scots, and working for Henry's release from his Sicilian obligations. Flanked by John Fitzgeoffrey and the earl of Gloucester, he had a central place in what was still a collective leadership.

It was already evident that the reform movement had become something like a religious enterprise. The majority of the bishops had participated in the oath taking at Oxford, and already promises had been made in the provisions to deal with complaints against baronial as well as royal officials. The initial action of a party had insensibly become a broader campaign, imbued with the ideal of justice for all. Montfort's religious convictions, now brought to bear on politics, led him to share in that ideal and almost certainly to contribute to it. But at the same time he followed his own more private course. The preliminary committee of twenty-four had been commissioned to discuss not only reform but also the king's debts to Montfort and his obligation to turn Montfort's fee into land. The continuing French negotiations gave Montfort a lever to advance these grievances, for Louis IX had demanded Eleanor de Montfort's renunciation of her family claims, as King John's daughter, to the former royal possessions in France, and Eleanor had as yet failed to comply. Meanwhile, in October and November the new council began to clear the backlog of Henry's debts to Montfort. So from the earliest days of the reform movement public ideals and private interests became deeply entwined in Montfort's activities.

France and the treaty of Paris, 1258–1259

The difficulty of deciding whether he gave priority to the one or the other is shown by Montfort's activities in France between November 1258 and February 1259. He had gone there to forward the French peace, but when negotiations foundered he remained behind to promote his own business. In Paris in November he secured a grant of Bigorre in fee from its current lord, probably with the intention of conferring the county on his eldest son, Henry. Six weeks later, still in Paris, he made his will, calling exigently on his executors to clear his debts and to make restitution to the peasant tenants whom he had wronged, in words that suggest a pressing sense of religious anxiety. He had already taken steps to pay one particular debt, that to the nuns of St Antoine's, Paris. His long stay abroad, where his concerns appear to have been wholly personal, left the baronial council ‘mutilated’, according to Matthew Paris, and certainly seems to have held up the progress of reform: testimony to the value placed on his advice and experience.

When Montfort returned for the parliament of February 1259, however, his idealist's enthusiasm seemed undiminished. Shortly after parliament had disbanded, two sets of reforming proposals were published which made extensive concessions to under-tenants and others with grievances against their lords. When Gloucester, never more than a lukewarm reformer, backed away from these self-denying restraints, Montfort rounded on him with a sharp reminder of their common oath to the provisions. Yet Montfort himself was now to back away from the whole reforming process. From March to December 1259 he was almost continuously in France. The French treaty still hung fire, but from the time of the February parliament it had come to depend explicitly on Eleanor's renouncing her claims to the old Angevin lands. This she now refused to do until the Montforts' grievances over Henry's debts, the promised land grant, and, above all, her own dower claims, had been satisfied.

The conciliation of the Montforts thus became imperative, as they had certainly intended, before any final settlement with France could be made. With great difficulty this was partly accomplished. In May the king's debts were fully paid and land was found to replace Montfort's fee. The dower was a less tractable problem. Arguing from its inadequacy, the Montforts now put in a huge claim for arrears, together with a full settlement in land or a future payment of 2000 marks a year: demands that Henry could not remotely meet. Meanwhile the work of reform continued, though without Montfort's assistance, to culminate in the further concessions to local society published as the provisions of Westminster at the conclusion of the October parliament. Montfort returned to England for that parliament, but only to enlist the help of Edward, Henry's eldest son, in supporting his claim; he did not stay for the publication of the provisions. But, despite Eleanor's continuing refusal to renounce, Henry was now preparing to meet Louis and to make peace. When the final treaty was published, at a Paris meeting between the two kings in December 1259, it contained a compromise proposal by which Louis was to withhold some of the money due to Henry under the treaty's terms until Henry's disputes with the Montforts had been settled. This was enough to induce Eleanor at last to renounce her claims.

The treaty of Paris was a defeat for Montfort. Not only had he made no real progress over the dower question, but the Anglo-French peace meant that Henry no longer needed him as an ambassador. When he returned to England in December 1259 his grievances as well as his principles brought about the revival of a reforming zeal that had been in complete abeyance for some nine months. Taking his stand on the provisions of Oxford, and in defiance of Henry's prohibition, issued from France, he insisted that the Candlemas parliament of February 1260 should meet as the provisions required, despite the king's absence. Successfully countered by the more moderate councillors, who were not prepared to challenge the king, he now struck up a close alliance with Edward, directed chiefly against Henry and the more royalist councillors, especially Gloucester. When Henry came home in April, Montfort's blatant defiance of his directions in the preceding months, together with his earlier obstruction of the French treaty, formed the central charges made against him at a second trial. This took place at Westminster in May and from it Montfort emerged unscathed, thanks partly to the support which he received from Louis IX and partly to the trial's curtailment by a rising in Wales. But he was now politically isolated, dependent for support largely on Edward alone, and bitterly opposed to Gloucester and the court. Only at the October parliament was he restored to a central place in politics: an upturn in his fortunes which owed much to his unexpected reconciliation with Gloucester and probably to a weakening of the reforming programme, now moving in favour of lords rather than tenants, that was the price of Gloucester's friendship. Reform was not abandoned, for the council governed and the great officials were changed during the parliament, in accordance with the provisions. But it had certainly been diluted by its champion's restoration.

The crisis of 1261–1262

In December 1260 Montfort returned to France, partly to pursue Eleanor's claim to her share in the French inheritance of her mother, Isabella of Angoulême. His departure was one among several factors which allowed Henry to move steadily towards the recovery of his power. The baronial council virtually ceased to act; royal patronage was used to suborn some of its leading members; the king appealed to Pope Alexander IV for absolution from his oath to the provisions; and, finally, he launched a long indictment against what he saw as the council's misgovernment of his kingdom. Running in parallel with this programme, and closely connected with it, was Henry's attempt to secure Louis IX's arbitration on his differences with Montfort; for the king clearly believed, perhaps correctly, that satisfying Montfort's personal grievances might temper the reforming enthusiasm that was the greatest threat to Henry's position.

But such a settlement with Montfort proved unnecessary for Henry's re-establishment. This was accomplished in June 1261, when he received his papal absolution, immediately dismissed the council's men from the great offices of state, and followed this up by dispatching the unpopular general eyre to the counties and ousting the baronial sheriffs. To match what he had already achieved at the centre he thus sought the local power that was all he now needed for unhindered rule. What he had not reckoned on, however, was the reaction to these measures from the gentry of the counties who had been among the chief beneficiaries of reform. The eyres and the sheriffs were rejected in the localities, in a display of defiant opposition to royal government which Montfort moved quickly to exploit. He had returned to England in 1261 and had so far been a passive witness to Henry's recovery. Now he took charge, negotiating for help from the Welsh, Louis IX, and even the papal curia, and summoning knights from the counties to meet at St Albans in September. Montfort's marshalling of the opposition showed his energy, his organizational skills, and his sharp political eye. But in attempting to construct what looked increasingly like a military coalition he had overreached himself. Few of his supporters wanted a civil war, and in the treaty of Kingston, made in November 1261, Henry was able to buy them off with empty promises of reform. Even Montfort's closest friends, such as Walter de Cantilupe, conceded defeat, and Montfort himself crossed to France, in bitterness of spirit against those who had abandoned their oaths.

The events of 1261 had shown that, in the pursuit of reforming ideals which interlocked closely with personal grievances, Montfort could expect more backing from the gentry than from the magnates. But he had little immediate chance to apply the lesson. Despite the unappeased resentments of the counties, Henry was now apparently in full control and able to move on to the offensive against his brother-in-law. Montfort, enjoying Louis's hospitality in France from January 1262, was willing to accept the arbitration of Louis's queen, Marguerite, in his quarrel with Henry; but Henry's own aims were more aggressive. In July 1262 he too crossed to France, intending to present to Louis a full case against Montfort's conduct which would dislodge Montfort from what had repeatedly been proved to be a safe refuge at the French court. The indictment that Henry had drafted reached back to Montfort's earliest days in England and lingered longest over his supposed misgovernment in Gascony. Montfort, in reply, emphasized his services to the crown, the financial losses that they had brought him, and the unanswered claim for Eleanor's dower. Both arbitrations, personal and political, came to nothing, and in October 1262 Montfort suddenly appeared in England to present to parliament a papal bull apparently confirming the provisions. That he did so only when negotiations on his own claims had broken down was an uncomfortable reminder of how the barometer of his public principles moved in response to the pressures of his private interests.

It was not the revival of the reforming programme that brought Montfort back to England, however, but a series of fortuitous events. Henry's return from France in December 1262 coincided with a Welsh rising which threatened him with loss of territory and reputation. His swift reissuing of the provisions of Westminster, in January 1263, showed both his weakness and his need to rebuild support among the shire gentry. On hand were equally disgruntled but more powerful men who were better placed to exploit his difficulties. In 1261–2 some of Edward's leading retainers, mainly marcher barons, had been dismissed by Queen Eleanor in an attempt to reassert royal control over her son's household and finances. Cut off from lordship and patronage, these men now wanted revenge on the queen and the court and restoration to favour. When Edward himself returned from abroad in February 1263 to deal with the Welsh, accompanied by a large foreign retinue, their grievances intensified. It was their leaders, probably Roger Leyburn and Roger Clifford, who now, in April, summoned Simon de Montfort back to England.

The captain of a cause

Montfort returned as the public champion of the provisions and of the local interests they protected. That he was also the chosen leader of the ex-Edwardians, men who had little or no interest in reform, was not an immediate disadvantage, for all could unite on the prosecution of Edward's aliens and Henry's courtiers, their common enemies and (it could plausibly be said) the enemies of the provisions. After the dissidents had met at Oxford in May 1263 and demanded the provisions' enforcement from Henry, predictably refused, nationwide attacks began to be launched against the royalists, the queen's friends, and their lands. While they were under way Montfort showed his generalship by moving from the midlands to take control first of Kent, vital for links with France, and then of London, which he entered in mid-July. His progress seemed all the more assured because of his gathering support. He had now secured the backing of some of the leading bishops and Londoners, and had initiated a novel campaign for the expulsion of all aliens: a move designed to exploit the widespread opposition to aliens throughout the country. Here he displayed the political skills of the populist. But at the same time the spread of disorder had damaged his cause, for many besides royalists had suffered from what had become almost formless devastation. That he had personally benefited, through the bestowal of the lands of the exiled royalist John Mansel on his second son, Simon, threw some doubt on his own motives.

Superficially, however, it seemed that Montfort's cause had triumphed. Henry once more confirmed the provisions; some of the great officials were changed; and conciliar rule resumed. Montfort sought to confer a degree of legitimacy on the baronial government which he now headed by emphasizing his inherited position as steward of England. But in reality he was precariously placed. Those dispossessed during the summer's disorders were clamouring for restitution, while their Montfortian dispossessors saw no reason to disgorge—a conflict of interests and political morality which surfaced in the September parliament. It was partly in the interests of the dispossessed, as well as in the expectation of a favourable verdict, that Henry now appealed again to Louis's arbitration; yet although Louis pronounced in favour of restitution, his friendship with Montfort seems to have led him to endorse the provisions. This was the last success of Montfort's ministry. In July Edward's alien knights had been summarily dismissed, facilitating the return of his former followers to their old allegiance and depriving Montfort of further support from those who had brought him to power. Edward himself was now an active enemy and from mid-October held Windsor Castle for the king. Between Henry and Montfort a state of armed truce prevailed. Its outcome depended on a further arbitration by Louis, to whom both sides appealed in November to settle their differences. Henry meanwhile attempted unsuccessfully to seize Dover Castle and almost captured Montfort at Southwark in December. Both the political and the military advantages now seemed to lie with the king.

Yet Montfort's position was by no means hopeless. He retained the allegiance of most of the bishops, a large section of knightly society, particularly in eastern England, and of his own powerful retinue; nor did he have any reason to think that Louis IX, his supporter in September, would desert him. Here he was wrong. Louis's religious susceptibilities had been wounded by the attacks on churchmen during the disorders and his family affections outraged by the insults offered to his sister-in-law, Henry's queen, by the London mob. Skilfully presented to him, the baronial case turned on Henry's repeated confirmations of Magna Carta and on the status of the provisions as an outgrowth of the charter. Unfortunately for Montfort it was a case he could not argue in person, since he was detained in England by a broken leg, and at Amiens in January 1264 Louis rejected it utterly, quashing the provisions without reservation. He had lost the backing of the French court, on which he had previously been able to depend, and could now rely on force alone for the salvation of the provisions.

Defeat of Henry at Lewes, 1264, and its aftermath

Force was immediately deployed, though only ambivalently in the provisions' defence. On hearing of Louis's decision, Montfort dispatched an army under his two sons Henry and Simon to attack Edward's marcher allies, who had seized Montfort's own marcher manors in December. This was the start of a civil war. Henry returned home in February 1264, summoned troops to Oxford, and then marched against the important baronial stronghold of Northampton, the control point for the midlands. On 5 April he won a great victory there, capturing some of the leading Montfortians, including the younger Simon. Simon senior had been at Kenilworth in the early part of the year, but had moved to London in March, in an attempt to draw Henry's army southwards. Henry's victory showed the failure of this tactic, and Montfort now sought to consolidate his position in the south-east, where he remained strong. In mid-April he laid siege to the royal castle at Rochester, but was forced to retreat to London on Henry's approach. It was now Henry's turn to seek control of the channel coast, a move which Montfort had to forestall if he was to hold on to power. On 6 May he left London with a small army and on 14 May he decisively defeated Henry at Lewes, below the Sussex downs. Most of the royalists who escaped fled to France, but Henry, Edward, and Richard of Cornwall were all captured.

Lewes seemed to have delivered the country into Montfort's hands. The author of the ‘Song of Lewes’ probably reflected the views of many when he saw the victory as a divine vindication of all that Montfort stood for. The provisions had been confirmed in the aftermath of the battle, and with the leading members of the royal family effectively his prisoners and the offices of state at his command, he had the means to control the kingdom. Yet his position was far less secure than the scale of his victory might suggest. By the post-battle agreement known as the mise of Lewes, he had committed himself both to an arbitration on the provisions and to a second arbitration, to be initiated by Louis IX and to lead to a final settlement with Henry. In appealing once more to France, with the uncertainties that entailed, he sought to legitimize rule which essentially rested on force majeure. Still more immediate were the military dangers which faced him. Some castles remained in enemy hands, Edward's friends, the marchers, remained at large, and Louis, far from co-operating in the planned arbitration, supported the invasion force which Queen Eleanor was gathering in France. In this emergency Montfort turned to parliament and to the local forces which had always sustained him. The famous assembly of June 1264 established a narrow council of nine, headed by a triumvirate (Montfort himself, the bishop of Chichester, and Gilbert de Clare, the new earl of Gloucester), to rule the country; while the knights who had been summoned to parliament were seemingly allowed to nominate the sheriffs for their counties. As baronial enthusiasm for reform declined, so Montfort nurtured its local supporters.

Danger of invasion, 1264–1265

From July to November 1264 England stood in real danger of invasion. That the danger eventually subsided owed much to Montfort's leadership in holding together a coalition of baronial, episcopal, and knightly allies, whose opinions differed on what ought to be done, and to the inability of Queen Eleanor indefinitely to fund a mercenary army. Montfort's assets lay both in the possession of the royal family and in the nationalist fervour which he emotively exploited against the threat from abroad. Against these resources were deployed not only an army poised for attack but also the papal legate, Guy Foulquois, friend of Louis IX, who, from France, threatened Montfort's party with the excommunication and interdict which would have destroyed their already weakened claims to be standing for religion and righteousness. During these months cross-channel negotiations with the legate, conducted mainly by the English bishops, were almost continuous; but since Louis and the legate wanted nothing less than the abrogation of the provisions and the restoration of the king to full power, compromise was hardly possible. Montfort drew strength from an increasingly close partnership with the bishops, whose unease at defying the pope was overridden by their concern for justice and for the country's defence. By December, when the legate had retired and the opposing army disbanded, this broad alliance had been vindicated, and, with it, Montfort's commanding qualities.

Yet, as on the morrow of Lewes, Montfort was less well placed than he appeared to be. The marchers were still unchecked, although he had fought two campaigns against them in July and November and had apparently brought them to terms at Worcester in December. Once the country had been saved, moreover, his own leadership, accepted unquestioningly during the emergency, began to generate its own discontents. They sprang largely from the accumulation of land and power which had, since Lewes, steadily passed to him and his family. His leading position had given full play to his characteristic avarice, seen most notably in the takeover of Richard of Cornwall's lands for his sons. The earlier claims for Eleanor's dower, though not forgotten, were superseded by the scale of what he now acquired. Yet he could still claim, with justice, to be defending the reforms of 1258–9. The provisions of Westminster had been defended all through the negotiations with the legate and were confirmed in December 1264; the new council of June 1264 shared in the country's government; and the knights (and burgesses) were summoned to the parliament of January–March 1265 and their grievances redressed. At the same time, however, his own powers were greatly enlarged. A scheme for the release of Edward from captivity, confirmed in parliament, was used to transfer a large part of Edward's appanage to Montfort's permanent control, and the one major obstacle to these dubious proceedings, Robert de Ferrers, earl of Derby, was seized and imprisoned. Criticism came to focus on Montfort's sons Henry and Simon, the lawless and indulged beneficiaries of their father's rule. Their conduct was instrumental in losing Montfort the support of the earl of Gloucester, his one remaining marcher ally.

Death at Evesham, 1265

Gloucester's desertion in March marked a crucial step towards Montfort's downfall. Leaving young Simon to protect the south-east, he advanced westwards in April, taking with him Henry, Edward, and a substantial army. He had to settle with Gloucester and the marchers or risk the establishment of a permanently disaffected western frontier. But this he was unable to do. After inconclusive negotiations at Gloucester in early May, he moved to Hereford. There his own incaution allowed Edward to escape. Immediately Edward assumed the headship of his old following and became the military leader of a marcher alliance. Montfort summoned help from the younger Simon, but he moved westwards too slowly to help his father. In June Gloucester fell to the royalists, leaving Montfort trapped west of the Severn. After an abortive attempt to cross to Bristol his forces began to move towards Kenilworth, hoping to link up with those of the young Simon. But at Evesham on 4 August 1265 they found themselves cut off by the River Avon and by Edward's advancing troops. In the ensuing battle Montfort, his eldest son, Henry, and his leading retainers were killed. In the aftermath his widow, Eleanor, fled to France, where she was eventually joined by her remaining sons. This was the end of the Montfort family as an effective force in English politics.

Cult and reputation

In the period after his death Simon de Montfort's politics and the manner of his dying rapidly gave him the reputation of a saint and martyr. It was fostered by the Franciscans who had always been among his supporters. The cult was most active at Evesham, at the abbey where he was first buried and on the battlefield, and within months of the battle miracles were reported from both locations. In the dictum of Kenilworth, published in October 1266, the king and the new legate, Cardinal Ottobuono, forbade all reference to Montfort as a saint and all talk of his ‘vain and fatuous miracles’. But although the cult peaked in 1265–6, it continued probably until at least the late 1270s and, in a much attenuated form, until the Reformation. It was notable for the numbers who resorted to the Montfortian sites (some two hundred miracle stories are recorded in a collection compiled at Evesham), for the social range of the visitors (village constables, a tailor, a carpenter, knights, abbots, priors, an earl, and a countess, to name but a few), and for their often distant origins (in East Anglia, Kent, and Lancashire, as well as the west midlands). Even as late as 1323, and in Yorkshire, Edward II could be entertained by women ‘singing of Simon de Montfort’.

Montfort's popular reputation cannot quite be endorsed by the judgement of history. He was a man of commanding abilities, high political intelligence, verbal dexterity, and exceptional skills as a general. His range of experience—as crusader, soldier, military governor, the counsellor of kings, and the friend of scholars and saints—was unrivalled among his contemporaries. In geographical terms it stretched from Oxford to Paris, from southern France to the Holy Land, from the Welsh hills to the Palace of Westminster. His cosmopolitan outlook and interests, together with his origins and continuing friendships in France, made him always something of an outsider in English politics. His religious fervour cannot be doubted, nor can his oath-driven dedication to the reforming principles of 1258–9, which was partly an outgrowth of his religion. Yet he was at the same time hard and acquisitive, powered by the need to build a position for himself and his family which would eradicate his own early insecurity as a younger son and as a magnate excessively dependent on his wife's lands and income. Those who stood closest to him, especially Grosseteste and Marsh, pointed out the contradictions in his character, but his conversion to their ways was never more than partial. Nor was his work as a reformer entirely disinterested, for it was fuelled by personal grievances against Henry III which the reformed constitution offered the best means of satisfying. Even so, his friends were not entirely wrong to see him as standing for a code of political morality, promising justice to all, which Henry had denied. This tension in his mentality and career between the idealist and the adventurer, present from start to finish, is one which has given his political odyssey its enduring fascination. From at least the seventeenth century, with its echoes of his own time, Montfort has figured prominently in the British historical consciousness. Seen first as a would-be dictator, then as the visionary initiator of parliamentary government, he came to occupy a key position in the nineteenth-century school of constitutional history. Scholars of the twentieth century have exploited unpublished archives to fill out the picture of this complex personality. He remains one of the best-known figures of the British middle ages. In 1992 the new De Montfort University at Leicester was named after him.

J. R. Maddicott

Sources  

accounts various, TNA: PRO, E.101 · memoranda rolls, TNA: PRO, E.368 · Chancery records · R. F. Treharne and I. J. Sanders, eds., Documents of the baronial movement of reform and rebellion, 1258–1267 (1973) · C. Bémont, Simon de Montfort, comte de Leicester (Paris, 1884) · Paris, Chron. · The chronicle of William de Rishanger of the barons' wars, ed. J. O. Halliwell, CS, 15 (1840) · Ann. mon. · A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson, eds., The chronicle of Melrose (1936) · J. R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort (1994) · D. A. Carpenter, ‘Simon de Montfort: the first leader of a political movement in English history’, History, new ser., 76 (1991) · R. F. Treharne, The baronial plan of reform, 1258–1263 [new edn] (1971) · C. Bémont, Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, 1208–1265, trans. E. F. Jacob, new edn (1930) [does not incl. sources printed in 1st edn]

Likenesses  

seal, 1258, BL, Add. ch. 11296 [see illus.]