10 things you might not know about Simon de Montfort

Often dubbed the father of English democracy, in 1264 Simon de Montfort led a baronial revolt against King Henry III, established a constitutional monarchy and, in the act he is most famous for, revolutionised the representation of parliament, the future Commons. Not for another 400 years, until the advent of Oliver Cromwell, would England see a revolution led by a figure of comparable stature. Here, Darren Baker, brings you 10 facts about Simon de Montfort…

Simon de Montfort


Not that Simon de Montfort

History remembers two of them with that name, father and son. Simon de Montfort senior originally came from a minor lordship close to Paris, but when his uncle Robert de Beaumont, the earl of Leicester, died in 1204 without any children, he went to England to claim the earldom. King John rebuffed him, but in 1210 some disaffected nobles elected him king. They had had enough of the devious John, and Simon by this time was the most famous warrior in Europe. He was the inspired leader of the Christian forces in the Albigensian Crusade and scored major victories against the odds.


Contrary to popular belief, Simon de Montfort senior did not direct the sack of Beziers, where as many as 20,000 people are said to have perished, nor did he utter the likely fictitious command to “kill them all, God will know his own”. But he was loathed as an invader from the north who burned heretics and acquired their property in equal measure. His death in 1218 during the siege of Toulouse was both mourned and cheered. He was succeeded by his eldest son Amaury, whose status as a French peer barred him from claiming the earldom of Leicester. It was a different story for his younger son Simon, however…



Simon seduced the king’s sister

Still in his early twenties, the younger Simon de Montfort (6th earl of Leicester) came to England in 1230 and persuaded John’s son Henry III to give him the earldom. Henry was interested in reclaiming Normandy and other French provinces taken from his father by King Philip Augustus of France and saw Simon as a future supporter to this end against his increasingly isolationist barons.

Eight years later the king found himself facing a rebellion at home when it was discovered that he had secretly married his sister Eleanor, the widow of William Marshal II, to Montfort, who by then was seen as a foreigner interloper with too much influence at court. Matters were made worse by the fact that Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity after the death of her first husband.

Henry bought off the rebels, but the next year he turned against Simon for pledging him as security for a loan. Montfort had to borrow heavily to acquire the earldom and his wife and figured his brother-in-law the king was good for the money. In front of the court, Henry let loose a tirade that accused him, among other things, of seducing his sister, thereby forcing his hand in the marriage.

The Montforts’ first child was born less than a year after the wedding, but a decade later Simon was suffering pangs of conscience that suggest he had indeed seduced Eleanor before they were married.

King Henry III
King Henry III wearing a red gown and a crown. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Simon was English, French, European

Simon de Montfort, the 6th earl of Leicester, could not speak English when he first came ashore [he would have used French with the people he hung out with at court], but he quickly integrated and within a few years was being described as an Englishman. The court abounded with foreigners at that time. Henry III was by nature cosmopolitan and pursued a continental policy to maintain English influence across the Channel. Simon was of the same mind and cultivated his family and contacts in France to firmly anchor England within Europe.

The nobility, however, saw it all as a waste of time and money and grew resentful of these ‘favourites’. After Henry defeated the reformers in 1261, the barons and clerics aroused the English-speaking population against the king and foreigners. They chose as their leader Simon de Montfort because he was the only one with the talent and prestige to pull it off.

So it was a distinctly English revolution: a foreigner toppling the king on a platform of getting rid of all foreigners. Of course, Simon by then had been the earl of Leicester for 25 years and had an English wife and children. But politics being what it is, he was eventually toppled himself in part because some of the men who brought him to power began to resent a foreigner telling them what to do.


Simon was not an anti-Semite

Not any more than other Christians of that era. Apart from remembering that it was a time of crusades and religious fervour, medieval people lived by a completely different value system to our own. Judging them in terms of modern political correctness is therefore presumptuous and misconceived.

In Montfort’s case, he expelled the Jews that were living in Leicester following his arrival in 1232. Actually it was only half of Leicester. The other half belonged to his great-aunt Margaret, the sister of Robert de Beaumont, and the half-dozen Jewish families who were expelled moved across the border to her side. Religion aside, Montfort’s action reflected a crackdown on the Jews then going on in France over the debts owed to them by Christians. The inhabitants of Leicester expected their new lord to offer them a political gesture and this expulsion is what he gave them.

The Jews would return over time to his half of Leicester and even Montfort got into the business of borrowing money from them, but there’s no denying Jews suffered greatly during the revolution Montfort led against the king 30 years later. They were beaten, robbed, and in one horrific night in 1264 some 500 were massacred in London by supporters of Montfort’s rebel army. The religious fanaticism behind it was mostly a sham. It was plunder and a sadistic free for all they were after.

The Montfortian leaders of the city offered shelter to the survivors and Simon forced the perpetrators to turn over their loot, but then condemned himself in the eyes of posterity by using it for his cause.


Simon was nominated to be the governor of Jerusalem

After falling out with Henry in 1239, Simon went on crusade in the Holy Land in 1240. Crusading was a family business and his brother Amaury preceded him there the year before, only to be captured in an ill-advised raid by the Egyptians. Since there was a truce at the time between the Christian and Muslim forces, there was little for Simon to do except get mixed up in the politics of the region.

His cousin Philip de Montfort was one of the leaders of a faction opposed to imperial rule over Jerusalem. Simon was the emperor’s brother-in-law inasmuch as his wife Eleanor’s sister Isabella was married to Frederick II and got to know him well during his travels. Philip figured his cousin, whose possessed ambition and charisma, was the best compromise candidate to unite both factions at a time when the Egyptians were bent on re-conquering Jerusalem. Together they asked the emperor to make Simon their governor, but nothing came of it [historians are unsure as to why] and Simon left the Holy Land.

It was his good fortune, for three years later the Egyptians directed an Asiatic people fleeing from the Mongols to sack Jerusalem and they did so with great carnage. Philip was one of the few lucky ones to escape and remained a lord of the crusader states until assassinated by an agent of the sultan while at worship in 1270.

Simon de Montfort
Simon de Montfort. From ‘A Short History of the English People’ by J R Green, published in 1874. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Simon was not the founder of parliament per se

As England grew in population and wealth, the royal inner council evolved from an intimate round table to a major assembly. By 1236 this assembly, which met only at the king’s invitation, was called parliament, meaning a discussion or debate. Revolution broke out in 1258 after one group of barons had enough of the king’s brothers and forced him to exile them. Since they had long wanted to reform his government, they took a step further and enacted the Provisions of Oxford, which gave the barons unprecedented power.

One of these provisions called for parliament to meet three times a year at fixed intervals, thereby taking it out of the king’s hands and making it an independent institution of state. When Henry sought to regain power in 1261 by having the pope annul his oath to the Provisions, his point of attack was to reassert control over parliament, and Simon moved to stop him. Although motivated as much by personal and political reasons as idealism, Simon shrewdly saw parliament as the main check on the king. When he took over the government after his success in the civil war of 1264–65, it was to parliament that he addressed his plan of government, which was in effect England’s first constitution. He later enlarged the scope of representation outside the landed elite, namely by including the wealthy merchant class of the cities, and in doing so acted like a prime minister – the first one, we can say, in English history.


Simon was a great warrior like his father

In 1248, Henry chose Simon to quell his mutinous province of Gascony because he had the reputation for being an outstanding soldier. This seems to have been based on his father’s reputation, however, because Simon himself had no record of major engagements before coming to England. When he went to war against Henry in 1264, he was as much a novice as the rest of his forces.

Henry mastered the initial phases of the campaign and had Simon cornered in London. He was ready to finish him off when Montfort made one of those bold strokes he would forever be remembered for: he marched on the king at Lewes with a numerically smaller army and won the battle. It came about when Henry’s son, the future King Edward I, left the battlefield to go on a killing spree. Simon exploited this and ended up taking both the king and prince captive. The next year Edward escaped his captors, raised an army, and was determined not to repeat his stupidity at Lewes.


Simon was hacked to pieces on the battlefield

This is usually what most people know about Montfort, aside from his role in the birth of English parliament. Deserted by the conceited and xenophobic earl of Gloucester, Simon found himself trapped at Evesham in August 1265. Before the battle, Edward put together a death squad to find Montfort (his uncle), and kill him. Whether it was at their hand or not, Montfort was slain, stripped of armour and chopped up. The men who killed him were motivated by a fiendish bloodlust worked up on the battlefield.

It used to be that the nobility were spared and captured for ransom, but not anymore. Edward ordered his men to kill as many of the Montfortians as possible, the result being he forever changed the nature of warfare and politics in England. Unlike his father, who did not execute a single political opponent in his 56 years on the throne, Edward had men such as William Wallace and David of Wales dispatched in grisly fashion. He wanted everyone to know that what happened to Simon de Montfort could be their fate as well.

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)


Simon’s sons scandalised Europe

After Henry resumed power in 1265, the five surviving Montfort children and their mother, Eleanor, left for exile on the continent. Two of them, Simon and Guy, found service in Italy and Sicily. Guy proved himself to be as sagacious a warrior as his father and quickly rose to become the military governor of Tuscany. In 1271 Guy and Simon arrived in Viterbo, where a papal election was in process. There they learned that their cousin Henry of Almain was in the city as well. He was at worship in a church when Guy burst in and slaughtered him at the altar. The hapless Henry was then dragged outside to be hacked up by Guy and his men in gruesome retribution for the treatment of his father’s body.

Henry was chosen as a target because of his close personal connection to Edward, his desertion of Simon during the civil war, and his marriage into the family of the Montforts’ mortal enemy in France. The brothers were disowned, with the younger Simon dying later that year, but Guy got off with no more than house arrest. As brutal and shocking as the murder was, there was a feeling somebody had it coming because of the disgraceful treatment of Simon’s body at Evesham.


Simon was the grandfather of the last Welsh Princess of Wales

Simon’s greatest enemies during his rule were the so-called marcher barons of the Welsh borderlands. To keep them in line, he made an alliance with Prince Llywelyn of Wales in 1264. The agreement called for Simon’s daughter Eleanor to marry Llywelyn, but Henry’s restoration put that on hold. After Simon’s widow died in 1275, the younger Eleanor left for Wales to go through with the marriage. Accompanied by her brother Amaury, they were captured at sea on orders from Edward, now the king.

He imprisoned Amaury, convinced he had something to do with the murder of Henry of Almain, but kept Eleanor in comfortable confinement at Windsor. Only after Llywelyn submitted in 1278 did he allow the marriage go forward.

In 1282 Eleanor died giving birth to a daughter named Gwenllian. Llywelyn was up in arms against Edward later that year and killed in a prelude to the conquest of Wales. Fearing the infant’s combined Welsh and English royal heritage (she was King John’s great-granddaughter), Edward had her placed in a nunnery in Lincolnshire, where she died in 1337, perhaps unaware of her famous and fiery ancestry.

Darren Baker is the author of With All For All: The Life of Simon de Montfort (Amberley Publishing, 2015), a biography following Montfort’s life from his birth and upbringing in France until his defeat and death at the hands of the future Edward I.


This article was originally published by History Extra in June 2016