Friday 22 October 2010

A Tale of Two Simons: the Montforts

I’m enjoying Michael Wood’s BBC series The Story of England but found myself a bit taken aback by his rather breathless account of Simon De Montfort that ‘champion of liberty’ beloved of the peasants. Obviously, I was not there at the time and so for all I know Simon de Montfort was a great guy who a lot of miserable historians have later tried to discredit. Civic leaders in Leicester have certainly promoted him over the last one hundred and fifty years, his statue adorns the clocktower and he has a square, a street, a concert hall and a university named after him.

There were two Simon de Montforts, father and son, and both were earls of Leicester through a connection by marriage. Simon de Montfort the elder was only notionally so as he never visited England let alone Leicester. He was a crusader and general of international reputation, notorious for his brutal suppression of the Cathars during the Albigensian crusade in the South of France. The younger Simon de Montfort, unlike his father, did establish himself in England where he was destined to become a major player on the national stage. Little is known about his early life but it is likely that after his father’s death he was involved with his elder brother Amaury in the renewed crusade against the Cathars.

‘I went to England and asked my lord the King to give me my father’s inheritance’ so wrote the young Montfort. As a younger son his financial prospects were bleak. He acquired ‘the honour ’of Leicester with the permission of Henry 111 and, at first, the income he squeezed out of Leicester was absolutely essential to him but his position and income was greatly enhanced when he married the King’s sister in 1238. However, his relationship with Henry deteriorated and in 1263 to 1264 he led a group of barons in rebellion against the King. This culminated in military success for Montfort at the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

The rebellion was a reaction to alleged mismanagement of government on the part of Henry and sought to introduce a parliament that placed the sovereign under institutional control. A reforming parliament was held in 1264 and for the first time the principle of election was introduced with shires and selected boroughs to send two elected representatives. For this reason Simon de Montfort has frequently been credited as an early pioneer of the modern parliamentary system. His regime however was eroded by factionalism and soon collapsed. A royal force defeated Montfort and his followers at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 where Montfort himself was killed.

So what are the differences between Simon de Montfort the actual historical figure and the heroic Simon de Montfort created by myth and tradition? Montfort’s public cause was government reform, however, his commitment was clearly not only to the common good. He was consistently quick to advance his own interests in terms of power and he used the rebellion to significantly enrich himself and his family. Montfort’s relationship with Leicester was chiefly about the income that he derived from the estate and extorting money from local tradesmen. Notoriously, Montfort also expelled the Jews from the town Leicester demonstrating the same militant zeal that his father had shown before him.

This was not meant to be a complete hatchet job-replies are welcome from Montfort fans.

Maddicott, J.R., Simon de Montfort (Cambridge 1997).
Simmons, J., Leicester Past and Present. Volume One: Ancient Borough (Leicester 1974.).