Simon de Montfort and the barons’ crusade: why rebel lords waged holy war against Henry III

The nobleman Simon de Montfort saw himself as a righteous general leading his army into a holy war. As Sophie Thérèse Ambler recounts, not only did he fight infidels overseas but, in the 1260s, he also challenged the authority of the crown on home soil...

Royal at arms: In a 14th-century manuscript, Henry III (left) is shown fighting his nobles during the Second Baron's War (1264–67). This was both a revolutionary war and, from the perceptive of Henry's foes, a religious conflict. (Image by Bridgeman)

As the darkness seeped away into the dawn, the army reached the crest of the hill and the men put down their packs. Each of them wore on his chest and shoulder an insignia: the cross. They were crucesignati, crusaders. Before they set out on their march through the early hours, a bishop had promised them remission of their sins if they fought hard in the hours to come. Now, as they readied for battle, they turned to listen to their leader. They were fighting today, he told them, for the honour of God, the saints and the church. May the Lord, he prayed, grant them the strength to do his work and overcome the wickedness of all enemies. Finally, he commended to God their bodies, and their souls. Then the men, in their thousands, sank to the ground. Laying their faces against the earth, they stretched out their arms, sending their own prayers for heavenly aid.

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They went on to fight, and to win, that morning. Their battle, though, was not fought amid the arid mounts and plains of the Holy Land, but on a hillside in Sussex. Their enemy not the Muslim infidel, but the monarch of England. This was a new sort of holy war, for their objective was neither the taking of sacred ground nor the preservation of the Christian faith. It was a new way of ruling England, a way that had no effective place for kings. Their leader was Simon de Montfort – and his victory that day in May 1264 in the battle of Lewes would make him the most powerful man in the kingdom.

Simon de Montfort
Simon de Montfort. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The movement had begun six years before, in the spring of 1258. A band of seven noblemen, de Montfort among them, had donned their armour and marched on Westminster Hall. Their threat was clear: Henry III must hand over the reins of power or they would take them by force. The threat struck home. “What is this, my lords?” the king had cried. “Am I, poor wretch, your captive?”

The nobles went on to set up a council of 15, which took control of the machinery of central government – the exchequer and chancery – and the instruments of royal power in the shires: the king’s castles and the sheriffs. The council would rule with the help of parliament. This had hitherto been summoned only at the king’s wish (usually when he needed consent to raise a tax) but was now to meet, come what may, three times a year to help make decisions about the running of the kingdom. These measures, and those that followed, came to be known as the Provisions of Oxford, after the parliament in the summer of 1258 at which they were drafted.


Listen: Sophie Ambler chronicles the dramatic life of Simon de Montfort, the 13th-century rebel who battled Henry III for mastery in England


The Provisions were nothing short of radical. Medieval Europe was accustomed to protests against improper royal rule in the form of rebellions, but those were demands for the restoration of good government by the king. This was the first attempt to overturn the political system, doing away with monarchy as a means of ruling and, in early 1265, producing the first parliament to which representatives of the towns were summoned. It was the first revolution in England’s – or indeed in Europe’s – history.

Low-key monarch

Yet, there was nothing in Henry III’s rule that warranted such drastic measures. Henry, unlike his father, King John, did not rule with disregard for the law and was not cruel – indeed, he was devout, generous and tolerant towards his nobles. But Henry was simplex, a term used by his subjects to mean that he lacked political nous and was easily led. In 1258, frustration with Henry’s simplicity peaked when he demanded a tax to fund his proposed conquest of Sicily – an eyewateringly expensive venture about which his subjects had not been consulted – and failed to bring to heel his half-brothers, the Lusignans, who were perpetrating illegal and insulting attacks on their fellow magnates. But in the historical parade of tyrannical or disastrous rulers, Henry III’s reign hardly ranked at all. There was no clear reason to turn to radical action. The barons did so, it seems, in the heat of the moment, as tensions and tempers flared in the crucible of a particularly rowdy parliament.

De Montfort headed the first revolution in England’s – or indeed in Europe’s – history

But even if de Montfort’s regime was hard to justify rationally, reasons soon emerged to preserve it. First, the council set out to provide justice to the numberless women and men of low status who had suffered under Henry’s rule (for the king, unable to extract the money he needed from his nobles, had borne down upon those who could not resist). The council introduced a stream of measures to alleviate their suffering and to offer them ready access to justice, so that the royal officers responsible for their maltreatment could be called to account. The ruling nobles also imposed upon themselves the same standards of good government that they demanded of the king – and offered the same right of redress to their own subjects.

There was a second moral buttress to the Provisions, too: an oath. At the Oxford parliament, all (except the Lusignans) vowed to support each other in defence of the Provisions. This was a sacred promise, made in the sight of God, and it required the staking of one’s soul.

It was this sense of sacred commitment that brought Simon de Montfort to the fore. It was de Montfort who seems to have driven the legal and social reforms, and insisted that magnates hold themselves to the new moral standard, and it was he who reminded those who wavered of their oath. He was “moved to rage” (as the chronicler Matthew Paris reports) at the Earl of Gloucester for hesitating to implement the reforms in his estates. “I have no desire,” he told his fellow noble, “to live or keep company amongst people so inconstant and false. What we are doing now we agreed and swore together.”

King Henry III of England
King Henry III of England. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

To emulate his father

In presenting the situation in these terms, de Montfort set in train the transformation of the rebels’ political programme: it would become a holy cause, for which he and his men would go on to offer their lives. In a culture that valued armed devotion to God and the church almost above all else, it was an alluring proposition.

But such fervour had a dark side – with terrible consequences, in particular, for England’s Jewish population. The year before the battle of Lewes, the Montfortians, seeking funds for their campaign and giving vent to their hatred, launched a frenzied attack on the Jewish people of London. “Sparing neither age nor sex”, as the chronicler Thomas Wykes reports, they “inhumanly butchered the aged and elderly… children wailing in the cradle, babies not yet weaned hanging from their mother’s breast”. Independent reports suggest that between 400 and 500 were killed. The massacre was part of a developing pattern in which Jewish people were persecuted systematically, but its furious nature was probably the result of crusading fervour.

For all its brutality, it was this fervour that gave de Montfort’s sentiments their wide appeal (attracting not only noblemen but bishops, monks, friars and many people from society’s lowest ranks to the cause). But as for de Montfort himself, his inspiration was personal – and it came from his father.

Simon de Montfort the elder, known to his followers simply as the Count, was elected leader of the Albigensian Crusade in 1209, charged with commanding the expedition against the Cathar heretics of Languedoc. The Count has been widely vilified, although this reflects subsequent attitudes more than medieval ones. (Modern audiences tend to be disturbed more by the killing of white Europeans than of Muslims of the Middle East). In his own time, the Count was greatly admired for his prowess and dedication to the holy cause, and was even chosen in 1212 by the barons of England plotting to replace King John. To de Montfort, who grew up listening to stories of his father’s deeds, the Count was a hero.

There was one element of the Count’s character that was emphasised above everything else in these stories: he held true to his oath to fight the holy war no matter what suffering he had to endure, while lesser men, those who were faithless, timid or selfish, abandoned their oaths and abandoned the Count. As de Montfort the elder’s story was committed to parchment, and tales of his heroic deeds were sung in the family’s feasting hall after his death, this became a model for leadership in holy war. The Count’s children, de Montfort the younger among them, were being exhorted to live up to his example.


Listen: Professor Nicholas Vincent discusses the life and reign of the infamous 13th-century monarch, whose reign saw military disasters abroad and the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215


And so when de Montfort the younger became leader of his own holy cause, he looked to his father’s memory for inspiration and appealed to this model of leadership, casting himself as indefatigable in his dedication and denouncing those who failed to keep their oath to the Provisions. When many of his allies submitted to the king in 1261, he reportedly proclaimed “that he would rather die without land, than withdraw from the truth as a perjurer”. After his great victory at the battle of Lewes, the song composed to celebrate his victory emphasised his unparalleled commitment: “Hence can they, who readily swear and hesitate little to reject what they swear… estimate with how great care they ought to preserve their oath, when they see a man flee neither torment nor death, for the sake of his oath… Woe to the wretched perjurers, who fear not God, denying him for the hope of earthly reward, or fear of prison or of a light penalty.”

There was a final example set for de Montfort to follow. The Count had been killed fighting his holy war in 1218 (his head was smashed open by a boulder from a trebuchet while besieging Toulouse), and other Montfort men were killed in the same campaign: the Count’s brother and the Count’s second son, Gui. De Montfort’s eldest brother, Amaury, survived this expedition only to die in 1241 on his way home from the Holy Land.

De Montfort transformed the rebellion into a holy cause, for which he and his men would go on to offer their lives

This extraordinary rate of attrition was the result of the Montfort family’s dedication to holy war. Death for noblemen was unlikely in European conflict between Christians at this time, because the values of chivalry protected those of knightly status and they would normally be taken captive for ransom. In holy war, whether in Languedoc or the Middle East, killing regardless of status was expected and the risk of knightly death was accepted. As de Montfort took up his oath-bound cause in England, and transformed that cause into a crusade, he did so knowing that death in holy war was a family tradition. And, just 15 months after his triumph at Lewes, he would follow in the footsteps of his martyred family members, in the expectation of a martyr’s reward.

Rebels brought to heel

Since the battle of Lewes, the Montfortian council had been ruling England, holding captive the king and his eldest son, Edward (the future King Edward I). But fortunes turned suddenly in the spring of 1265 when Edward escaped. He raised an army and, on 4 August 1265, caught up with the Montfortians at Evesham. He quickly secured the high ground; de Montfort’s army, caught unawares, faced the dismal prospect of fighting, outnumbered, uphill. While withdrawal was still possible, he reportedly told his men to flee: “Fair lords, there are many among you who are not as yet tried and tested in the world, and who are young; you have wives and children, and for this reason look to how you might save yourselves and them.” Turning to his old friend Hugh Despenser, he urged him to withdraw. Hugh could recover his position, for he would leave behind him “hardly anyone of such great value and worth”. Hugh did not hesitate in his reply: “My lord, my lord, let it be. Today we shall drink from one cup, as we have done long since.”

Carnage and cruelty

In the battle, Hugh would be cut down, one of the host of knights, together with thousands of non-noble troops, who chose to follow de Montfort to the end. That morning Edward had selected his 12 best men, who were charged with killing de Montfort on the battlefield. This calculated brutality continued after de Montfort’s death. Edward’s men set upon his corpse, cutting off his hands, his feet and his head, and cutting off his testicles and stuffing them into his mouth. His head was dispatched as a prize to the wife of the man who struck the lethal blow.

The death of Simon de Montfort at the battle of Evesham, 1265
The death of Simon de Montfort at the battle of Evesham, 1265. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The barbarity did not end there. When the battle was lost, de Montfort’s men attempted to take shelter in Evesham Abbey, but Edward’s men broke the laws of sanctuary and hacked them down. “What was horrendous to see,” recalled one of the monks of the ghastly scene that confronted him, “the choir of the church and the inside walls and the cross and the statues and the altars were sprayed with the blood of the wounded and dead, so that from the bodies that were there around the high altar a stream of blood ran right down into the crypts… no one knew how many there were except God.”

No such battlefield slaughter had been seen in England since Hastings. The massacring of de Montfort and his fellow nobles was a mark of their transgression, for stepping far beyond the bounds of noble conduct when they trampled on the crown. But it was also tied up in a monumental change in military culture: the descent into intra-noble killing, on and off the battlefield. This would see terrible results, too, in the Sicilian wars of the 1260s–80s – indeed, in 1271, two of de Montfort’s sons would avenge their father’s death by butchering Henry of Almain, Henry III’s nephew, in the church of San Silvestro in Viterbo. Such intra-noble brutality would also be repeated in the British Isles in the Wars of Independence, and across Europe in the Hundred Years’ War.

Edward’s men set upon de Montfort’s corpse, cutting off his testicles and stuffing them into his mouth

De Montfort’s story is key to understanding how this happened, for his elevation of a political struggle to the level of holy war was part of a larger phenomenon. In the 1250s and 1260s, the papacy launched a preaching campaign across Europe to raise an army of crusaders to attack the Hohenstaufen dynasty (whose territorial expansion threatened papal power in Italy), while the papal legate sent to oust de Montfort’s regime was authorised to offer indulgences to those fighting for the English crown.

Men were now being told that taking up arms against fellow Christians was not only acceptable but laudable, and would gain them the same spiritual rewards as fighting in the Holy Land. If that was the case, was killing fellow Christians, regardless of status, equally acceptable? For two and a half centuries, the mental and geographical boundaries governing the conduct of war had been coterminous. Now, with no guidance as to which rules applied where and when, they began to disintegrate. It meant the death of chivalry, at least in the form that it had been known since the turn of the millennium.

Sophie Thérèse Ambler’s latest book is The Song of Simon de Montfort: England’s First Revolutionary and the Death of Chivalry (Picador, May 2019).

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine