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Simon de Montfort and the Baronial Crisis of 1258-65
Who was Simon de Montfort, and what was his role in the evolution of the baronial crisis of 1258-1265? How did this younger son of a French nobleman rise to become the de facto ruler of the most powerful nation on the globe, and what were his intentions?
Very little is known about his early childhood, other than he was the second son of a French nobleman, and was born sometime around the year 1208. He inherited the title Earl of Leicester from his older brother, Amaury, who felt there was no future in pursuing the family's English landholdings.1 Upon arriving in England in 1231, Simon immediately found a friend in young King Henry III. The two maintained their friendship for several years, and seven years after arriving in England, Simon married Henry's sister, Eleanor. Simon rose from hesitant foreign nobleman to the King's most trusted ally, and ultimately, became a member of his close family. After his marriage to Eleanor, Simon was formally recognized by Henry as Earl of Leicester, and was granted possession of the lands owned by his grandmother, the heiress to the earldom. Despite these auspicious beginnings, Simon's favor with the King was not to last long.
The rift between Henry III and Simon emerged in 1239, only one year after Simon wed Eleanor, when a petty dispute turned Henry against the two, and sent Simon and Eleanor into exile in France for the next three years.2 Henry and Simon were reconciled in 1242, but Simon never again put his full trust in Henry. While Simon doubtless felt somewhat betrayed and bewildered by his brother-in-law's outburst, he still continued to serve him as a loyal and effective royal administrator, acting as his representative in Gascony and at the French court. Simon was always known to wish Henry "nothing but good, and his behaviour towards Henry, save when momentary anger got the better of him, was courteous and correct."3 Nonetheless, Henry was terrified of Simon. It is thought that Henry's fear of Simon came from a recognition of Simon's superior intellect and oratory skills, for these skills "embodied the two distinctive but opposing traits of persuasiveness and intemperance."4 He was reported in 1258 to have said that, "frightened as he was of thunderstorms, he dreaded Simon more than any thunder and lightening."5
What instigated the rebellion of 1258? Henry had been king for forty-two years, and had proven himself to be a very poor ruler. He was wholly incompetent, a poor governor, resisted Magna Carta, and repeatedly denied the barons their rightful position as his counselors.6 The rebellion of the barons against Henry was not instigated by Simon alone. At the beginning of the baronial movement, Simon was merely one of many dissatisfied barons, and could hardly have been regarded as their "leader." As a result, no strictly contemporary account casts Simon as the sole leader, or even as one of the more prominent leaders in 1258.7 While Simon was one of the sworn signers of the 12 April Confederacy, which began the revolutionary movement, he was also one of the twenty-four authors of the Provisions of Oxford, a member of the fifteen-man privy council, and sat on other committees, as too did the earls of Gloucester, Hereford, and Norfolk, Roger Mortimer, John fitz Geoffrey, Peter de Montfort, and the Bishop of Worcester.8
Given that there were a total of eight men equally involved in the baronial movement, how did Simon rise to the forefront? While the barons remained united, Simon was but one of many loyal followers. As rifts emerged within the baronial party, his stature within the reform wing was substantially increased. What caused this rift? It was quite likely that a clash of personalities was involved to some extent, but this does not address the entire problem. At its heart was a fundamental disagreement over the direction that the reform movement should take. The conservative faction, led by Richard, Earl of Gloucester, supported the Provisions of Oxford and the Ordinance of the Sheriffs, but opposed the Provisions of Westminster. In short, "they wanted control over the king and his officials, but rejected a similar control over themselves and their agents."9 While many men joined this selfish conservative party, some, such as Hugh Bigod, the justiciar, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, remained neutral. Simon emerged as the undisputed leader of the reformers, whose goal was to affect "a drastic but strictly practical reform of the law and government of England, and a redirection of national policy, to make the realm a better governed and more just society for all its members."10 In the end, Simon's forces overcame the conservatives, and the (short term) goals of the barons were realized with the passage of the Ordinance of the Sheriffs in October 1258, the Ordinationes Magnatum of February 1259, and the Provisions of Westminster the following November.
The crisis during which Simon affirmed his leadership position came with Henry's postponement, and eventual cancellation of, the Parliament scheduled to meet on 2 February 1260. This alarmed Simon, as it was a direct violation of the Provisions of Oxford, "...there are to be three parliaments a year: the first on the octave of St. Michael..."11 If Henry could so easily set aside this provision, what could stop him from disregarding other, or all, of the Provisions, in the future? Simon responded by ordering the members to attend as scheduled, with or without Henry's participation. This was in keeping with the Provisions, as "...the chosen councillors of the king shall come, even if they are not summoned, in order to examine the state of the kingdom and to consider the common needs of the kingdom and likewise of the king."12 By provoking Simon to this level, Henry effectively brought the wrath he feared most, Simon's, upon himself. Despite the ominous appearance of Henry's position, upon his return to London from France on 23 April, the baronial opposition "disintegrated irrevocably, and in the face of anarchy and civil war, most men turned, as history, tradition and loyalty had taught them to turn, to the monarchy as the element of stability and endurance."13 Simon had been abandoned by his allies, and stood virtually alone.
Could Simon have avoided this unfortunate fate? Possibly. Treharne believes that, "had Simon shown the powers of tact, persuasion, and self-control which he displayed on other occasions, he might have held together the greater part of the baronage...."14 Simon's blind devotion to the cause of reform had the effect of driving some of his most valuable supporters, such as the justiciar Hugh Bigod, to Henry's side. After this embarrassing loss of face, and an unsuccessful attempt by Henry to convict him of treason, Simon withdrew from public life for one year. This likely would have been the beginning of a permanent retirement (for Simon was nearing what was then regarded as old age), had he not been persuaded that the majority of the baronage wanted him to return to lead their renewed push for reforms.
The barons reexamined the state of the government once they learned of Henry's clandestine efforts to secure papal bulls absolving him from his agreement to the Provisions of Oxford. Henry did secure these bulls, and published them at Winchester in early June 1261. This provoked the barons and led to the rather spontaneous rebellion of that summer. Simon, along with Walter Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester and Richard of Gloucester, led the baronial revolt. They called for three knights from each shire to attend a parliament on 21 September at St. Albans. This inclusion of the "common" man indicates that Simon "was already turning towards broadening the basis of the movement for reform, by calling in to the national council the men whom the reforms had most benefited."15 Henry responded by issuing his own summons to the knights, ordering them to appear for parliament at Windsor, twenty miles to the southwest, on the same day. As a result, no parliament was held at all. By the end of October, the cause, again, had been lost, and Simon was once more forsaken by the barons. Understandably, he was disgusted with the seemingly spineless nature of these so-called reformers, and returned to his retirement.16 Two years would pass before Simon would again involve himself in the reform movement; this was to be his final tour of duty.
As 1263 began, the barons grew increasingly dissatisfied with Henry and his "leadership." As in 1261, a large number of barons organized and approached Simon, asking for his support in a rebellion. He was reluctant to join, but did so at the request of Gilbert de Clare, son of the deceased Richard of Gloucester. The barons' disgust soon turned to rage, with Louis IX of France's issuance of the Mise of Amiens. Louis had been cast in the role of arbitrator of the dispute between Henry and Simon over the Provisions of Oxford. As was to be expected, Louis sided with Henry, and "freed him from obedience to the Provisions, which, (he) stated, ran directly against the holy and royal rights of kingship."17 The Mise of Amiens proved to be the spark needed to begin the Battle of Lewes. With this battle, Henry's forces were defeated, he was imprisoned, and his son and heir to the throne, Edward, was taken hostage to ensure Henry's good behavior. After the battle, Simon became the de facto head of the English government.
Simon ruled England in Henry's name for the next fifteen months. Under this new power, Simon wrote a new constitution for England, known as the Mise of Lewes, and required all new government officials to swear to uphold it and abide by its provisions. Simon sought the broadest possible base of support for his Mise and new government, therefore, he called his first Parliament to meet 20 January 1265. Writs were issued in Henry's name requesting that
ll the sheriffs of England...cause two knights form the loyal,
While this measure would go down in history as a bold step towards the development of the representative democracies of the modern era, Simon was on very shaky ground in including these commoners in the Parliament. By the time the summons were issued, "most of the great barons were either openly hostile or becoming evasive and silent."19 As previously stated, Simon believed that including the knights and burgesses of each shire would be a wise political move. In having these men present for the proceedings, they could lend an air of badly needed solidarity to the reform movement, and could serve as witnesses for their constituents, affirming that the country was, under Simon and his officials, being governed justly and efficiently. The Parliament sat for three months, and was concluded with the Act of 31 March 1265, which served as a "catch-all" document containing the work completed by the body. Most importantly, by the end of the Parliament, "Simon de Montfort was neither in control of events nor of his own party."20
Rifts had, once again, begun to divide the baronial movement, this time, irrevocably. One of Simon's most ardent supporters of the past, Gilbert de Clare, had begun to resent Simon, and was soon in league with the King. Gilbert "saw the older man as a foreign upstart and was afraid of finding himself on the losing side."21 In short, Gilbert was unable foresee the outcome of the conflict, and sought to distance himself from those he feared would be punished most severely. Simon was an old man, capable of risking his life for his cause; Gilbert was still young and had many years in which to prosper or perish.
In addition to the rift in the reform party, Simon was faced with mass civil unrest, beginning in May of 1265. Henry was still in captivity, and was winning more support for his cause daily. The northern counties, too, were organizing a rebellion. In addition to these challenges, Simon's old ally, Richard of Gloucester had joined with Roger Mortimer, and friends of Prince Edward were busy gathering troops in Worcestershire, and Herefordshire. French exiles were causing trouble in Pembrokeshire.22 The death knell sounded with Prince Edward's escape from captivity in Hereford. From this point until the end of his life, Simon was to lead a desperate campaign to salvage the remnants of the reform movement, and to save his own life. Neither effort would prove to be a success.
Simon and Edward spent the following few months trying to outwit and outmaneuver one another, and finally met in a valley below Evesham Abbey on the morning of 4 August 1265. The battle lasted only one or two hours, and left scores dead, including Simon, his son Henry, Peter de Montfort, Ralph Basset, Hugh le Despenser, and William de Perons.23 Simon's body was dismembered, and Edward denied him a Christian burial. With Simon's death, too, came the death of the baronial reform movement, and "brought in a period of nationwide disorder, impoverishment, and general misery."24
What do these events tell us about Simon as a man? It is undisputed that he was given to periods of great anger and rigidity. Many historians have claimed that, had he exercised more tact, diplomacy, and foresight, his ultimate fate could have been dramatically different.25 One must not forget, however, that Simon had many wonderful personality traits, too. He was a fiercely loyal and passionate man, willing to die for a cause in which he believed. As we have seen, Simon went into exile many times during his life, often because he was unwilling to compromise the principles he held so dear.26
History has portrayed Simon in many different lights, some see him as a great visionary for the cause of democracy, "a martyr for the liberties of the realm,...as the embodiment of justice,"27 while others strive to be everything that Simon was not. During the time of Oliver Cromwell, Edward Chamberlayne denounced Simon and everything he stood for, saying "Simon posed as a liberator, but his real motive was 'to pull downe Monarchicall government, and set up a factious Oligarchy.'"28 Chamberlayne saw Simon as the epitome of a dangerous man, intent on establishing his own dictatorship.
While certainly both of these arguments contain a grain of truth, I believe that Simon was, overall, a man of good intentions. He saw a need for reform, and tried to affect it as best he could. If anything, Simon's main fault was that his convictions were stronger than his communication skills. His overwhelming desire to bring about a more just and reasonable stable government went unrealized because he was unable to maintain the support of his barons. Why was this? Perhaps Simon was unable to convince his barons of the feasibility of his plans, or maybe the barons were never as committed to the cause as they professed to be. We will never know which of these is the truth. Upon closer examination, it can be argued that Simon was, in a way, a victim of the baronial crisis. Time and again, we see the support for his leadership disappear, merely because the stakes of the gamble grew uncomfortable for the other barons. Simon was, apparently, the only baron willing to sacrifice all for the cause. Even more distressing, however, is Simon's naivete in the midst of his brilliance. He always seemed to believe that this would be the time that the barons would form a solid union, counter the injustices and abuses of the Crown, and create a more perfect government. Every time, he was abandoned and somewhat discredited.
Treharne reminds us that Simon did not intend the outcomes he created, but saw no way to avoid them. It is important to remember "that he had never wished to wage a civil war, and that he was not willing to lead unless Englishmen were willing to follow in sufficient numbers to ensure that he was not merely leading a personal faction, but had some voice to speak for England."29 Treharne goes on to remind us that Simon also was never the first to instigate violence, and even tried to negotiate settlements, rather than take up arms to settle a dispute. Most importantly, Simon was "not vengeful or vindictive, and he bore no grudges or malice. In particular, in spite of his conviction that the royal power should be constitutionally controlled, he greatly respected both the ideal of lawful monarchy and the person of the king."30
What was Simon's ultimate contribution? The evidence firmly paints Simon as a man of strong convictions, and a great leader in the development of the democratic tradition, even if it was an accidental twist of fate. His very life seems the embodiment of all the democratic and reforming principles to which he dedicated his life: he began as an unknown, minor baron, rose to personal and then professional prominence, and ended his life fighting to maintain his position as the head of the most powerful government on earth. He had a tremendous grasp of the problems of his day, and exercised more political foresight than any of his contemporaries. "Without Simon de Montfort, the latter years of Henry III's reign might have been less troubled, even though that is far from certain. It is beyond question that they would have been more sordid and shabby. It was Simon's role that gave them meaning and touched them with greatness."31
Beamish Tufton. Battle Royal. London: Frederick, Muller, Ltd., 1965.
Gardiner, S. R. "Simon de Montfort." Historical Biographies. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901.
Knowles, C. H. Simon de Montfort: 1265-1965. London: The Historical Assoc., 1965.
Lyon, Bryce. A Constitutional and Legal History of Medieval England. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, and Co., 1980.
Maddicott, J. R. Simon de Montfort. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
The Provisions of Oxford. 1258.
Treharne, R. F., Simon de Montfort and Baronial Reform. ed. E. B. Fryde. London: Hambeldon Press, 1986.
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