Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (1208 – August 4, 1265), was the principal leader of the baronial opposition to King Henry III of England. After the rebellion of 1263-1264, de Montfort became de facto ruler of England and called the first directly-elected parliament in medieval Europe. Because of this, de Montfort is today regarded as one of the progenitors of modern parliamentary democracy.
He was the youngest son of Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman and crusader, and Alix de Montmorency. His paternal grandmother was Amicia de Beaumont, the senior co-heiress to the Earldom of Leicester and a large estate owned by her father Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester in England, but King John of England would not allow a French subject to take ownership of such an estate in England.
As a boy, de Montfort accompanied his parents during his father's campaigns against the Cathars. He was with his mother at the siege of Toulouse in 1218, where his father was killed after being struck on the head by a stone pitched by a mangonel. On the death of their father, de Montfort's elder brother Amaury succeeded him. Another brother, Guy, was killed at the siege of Castelnaudary in 1220. As a young man, Montfort probably took part in the Albigensian Crusades of the early 1220s.
In 1229 the two surviving brothers (Amaury and Simon) came to an arrangement whereby Simon gave up his rights in France and Amaury in turn gave up his rights in England. Thus freed from any allegiance to the King of France, de Montfort successfully petitioned for the English inheritance, which he received the next year, although he did not take full possession for several more years, and was not yet formally recognized as earl.
Relations between King Henry and de Montfort were cordial at first. Henry lent him his support when de Montfort embarked for Rome in March 1238 to seek papal approval for his marriage. When Simon and Eleanor's first son was born in November 1238 (despite rumours, more than nine months after the wedding night), he was baptised Henry in honour of his Royal uncle. In February 1239 de Montfort was finally invested with the Earldom of Leicester. He also acted as the King's counsellor and was one of the nine godfathers of Henry's eldest son, Prince Edward who would inherit the throne and become Edward I ("Longshanks").
Like his father, Simon de Montfort was a hardened and ruthless soldier, as well as a capable administrator. His dispute with the King largely came about due to the latter's determination to ignore the swelling discontent within the country, caused by a combination of factors which included famine and a sense among the English Barons that the King was too ready to dispense favour to his Poitevin relatives and Savoyard in-laws. In 1248 de Montfort again took the cross, with the idea of following Louis IX of France to Egypt. But, at the repeated requests of King Henry and Council, he gave up this project in order to act as Governor in the unsettled and disaffected Duchy of Gascony. Bitter complaints were excited by the rigour with which de Montfort suppressed the excesses of the Seigneurs and of contending factions in the great communes. Henry yielded to the outcry and instituted a formal inquiry into the Earl's administration. De Montfort was formally acquitted on the charges of oppression, but his accounts were disputed by the King, and he retired in disgust to France in 1252. The nobles of France offered him the Regency of the kingdom, vacant by the death of the Queen-Mother Blanche of Castile, but he preferred to make his peace with Henry which he did in 1253, in obedience to the exhortations of the dying Grosseteste. He helped the King in dealing with the disaffection of Gascony; but their reconciliation was a hollow one, and in the Parliament of 1254, de Montfort led the opposition in resisting a demand for a subsidy. In 1256 and 1257, when the discontent of all classes was coming to a head, de Montfort nominally adhered to the Royal cause. He undertook, with Peter of Savoy, the Queen's uncle, the difficult task of extricating the King from the pledges which he had given to the Pope with reference to the Crown of Sicily; and Henry's writs of this date mention de Montfort in friendly terms. But at the "Mad Parliament" of Oxford (1258) de Montfort appeared side by side with the Earl of Gloucester at the head of the opposition. It is said that de Montfort was reluctant to approve the oligarchical constitution created by the Provisions of Oxford, but his name appears in the list of the Fifteen who were to constitute the supreme board of control over the administration. There is better ground for believing that he disliked the narrow class-spirit in which the victorious Barons used their victory; and that he would gladly have made a compromise with the moderate Royalists, whose policy was guided by Prince Edward. But the King's success in dividing the Barons and in fostering a reaction rendered such projects hopeless. In 1261, Henry revoked his assent to the Provisions, and de Montfort, in despair, left the country.
De Montfort sent out representatives to each county and to a select list of boroughs, asking each to send two representatives (this was not the first parliament in England, but what distinguished it was that de Montfort insisted the representatives be elected). It is from him that the modern idea of a democratic representative parliament derives. The list of boroughs which had the right to elect a member grew slowly over the centuries as monarchs gave out more Royal Charters. (The last charter was given to Newark in 1674.)
The right to vote in Parliamentary elections for county constituencies was uniform throughout the country, granting a vote to all those who owned the freehold of land to an annual rent of 40 shillings (‘Forty-shilling Freeholders’). In the Boroughs, the franchise varied and individual boroughs had varying arrangements.
The reaction against his government was baronial rather than popular; and the Welsh Marcher Lords particularly resented Montfort's alliance with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales. Little consideration for English interests is shown in the Treaty of Pipton which sealed that alliance on June 22, 1265.
Many other barons who had initially supported him now started to feel that Montfort's reforms were going too far, and his many enemies turned his triumph into disaster. Prince Edward escaped, and Montfort's ally, Thomas de Clare, abandoned him and took with him his garrison. Though boosted by Welsh infantry sent by Montfort's ally Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Montfort's forces were severely depleted. Prince Edward attacked the Montfort forces at Kenilworth, capturing more of Montfort's allies. Montfort himself had crossed the Severn with his army, intending to rendezvous with his son Simon. When he saw the army awaiting him at Evesham, Montfort initially thought it was led by his son. But the army belonged to Prince Edward, flying the Montfort banners he had captured at Kenilworth, and so leading Simon into a trap.
Simon de Montfort died on August 4, 1265 at the battle of Evesham, and was buried at the nearby Evesham Abbey. De Montfort and his army were awaiting the army led by his second son, Simon. He saw his son's banners flying high and began to hope, with the two armies they had a fighting chance to claim England. However, his son had been ambushed, and Prince Edward, Henry's son, led the army carrying de Montfort's stolen banners. From within the church of Evesham, de Montfort and his army led a final charge to their death. After a charge uphill against superior forces, Simon's army was completely destroyed; the battle was quoted as the "murder of Evesham, for battle it was none". Simon's body was cut up and different parts sent to the Lords who had accomplished the most. His head hung on London Bridge until it rotted. Such remains as could be found were buried under the altar of Evesham Abbey by some clerks. It was visited as holy ground by many commoners until King Henry caught wind of it. He declared that Simon deserved no spot on holy ground and had his remains buried under an insignificant tree. The remains of some of his soldiers were found in the nearby village of Cleeve Prior after fleeing from the battle of Evesham. His last words were said to have been "Now it is time to die!"
Matthew Paris reports that the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, once said to Simon's eldest son Henry: "My beloved child, both you and your father will meet your deaths on one day, and by one kind of death, but it will be in the name of justice and truth."
Evesham Abbey and the site of de Montfort's grave were destroyed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century. In 1965 a memorial stone was laid on the site of the former altar by Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Harry Hylton-Foster and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. The inscription reads:
Here were buried the remains of
SIMON DE MONTFORT, EARL OF LEICESTER
pioneer of representative government who was
killed in the Battle of Evesham on August 4 1265.
This stone brought from his birthplace the
Castle of Montfort-l'Amaury in France
was erected to commemorate the seven hundredth
anniversary of his death.
Unveiled by the Speaker of the House of Commons
and dedicated by
His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury
on the 18th day of July 1965.
Today, de Montfort is mostly remembered for calling the first directly elected parliament and is regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy. He may have a more romantic legacy; Roger Godberd, one of de Montfort's captains who survived Evesham, fought on until his capture in 1272 as a bandit or rebel in and around the Sherwood Forest area. Godberd is one candidate for being the character around whom the Robin Hood legend is based.
Sharon Penman's novel, Falls the Shadow, is a fictional retelling of de Montfort's life from his arrival in England to his death.
The de Montfort story is the focus of the second part of The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter (who also wrote as Ellis Peters). The four books tell the story of Llewellyn Prince of Wales, who married Simon's daughter Eleanor, and his three brothers.
A school and bridge are named after him in Evesham.
Napoleon Bonaparte described Simon de Montfort as “one of the greatest Englishmen.”
The last member of the family line to bear the name de Montfort was: Marie-Jean-Baptiste-Benoît de Montfort (1784-1839), 2nd Marquis of Chardonnay, Lord of La Marne, of La Malloniere, of Bicherel, who married D. Joana de Lima Barreto Coelho (London, 1814).
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