Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, 1208-1265

AV 2 Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.jpg
AV 2 Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.jpg

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, 1208-1265

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Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (1208–1265), was an Anglo-French nobleman who, with the approval of King Henry III, effectively purchased back the title and estates of the earldom of Leicester in England that the King had given to the Earl of Chester. The Earl was about to return them to the King when de Montford purchased them instead -  at a cost that left him financially strained for the remainder of his life. From a strong relationship with King Henry based on his military capability, his flagrant use of the King to derive financial benefit - including his false declaration that the King was his guarantor - led them to split, but not before he had married the King’s sister Eleanor and, through her, gained ownership of Kenilworth Castle. He subsequently led the rebellion against King Henry during the Second Barons' War of 1263–64 which culminated in the Battle of Lewis in May 1264 when the King and his son, Edward, were captured. Edward managed to escape shortly thereafter but Simon became de facto ruler of England. During his rule, Montfort called two famous parliaments. The first stripped the King of unlimited authority, while the second included ordinary citizens from the towns. For this reason, Montfort is regarded today as one of the progenitors of modern parliamentary democracy. After a rule of just over a year, Montfort was killed by forces loyal to the King at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 where the King was rescued by a force led by his son Edward (later Edward I).

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King Henry III at the instance of his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, issued writs summoning the lords spiritual and temporal, two knights from each shire and two citizens from each town, to attend a parliament in London. This parliament met on 30th January 1265.and, more as a convenience than a truth of history, it has been hailed as the first parliament and de Montfort labelled the founder of parliamentary democracy.

This verdict would probably have puzzled yet pleased de Montfort who was a man of great integrity and honour, regarded with awe during his life, worshipped as a martyr after his death and accorded the proud title 'Flower of all Chivalry'.

He was born in about the year 1208, the second son of Simon, seigneur of Montfort in France and a great-grandson of both Robert, Earl of Leicester and Baldwin, Count of Hainault. His father was killed at the siege of Toulouse in 1218, by a stone thrown from a mangonel[1], and Simon's brother Amauri succeeded. Amauri quit-claimed[2] the English lands to Simon but King Henry Ill had already granted them in fee[3] to Ralf, Earl of Chester, and his heirs. Simon's first attempt to obtain his lands failed and he returned to France 'without finding grace'. However, the Earl of Chester quit-claimed the lands to the king and begged him to restore them to Simon and accept his homage. This he did in 1231, although it was some years before Simon obtained full possession of his patrimony, which had suffered 'great destruction of timber and other serious damage by sundry people whom the king had appointed keepers before he gave it to the Earl of Chester'.

Once Henry had accepted Simon he showed him great favour and gave him the hand of his sister Eleanor in marriage. Any royal favourite, however distinguished was bound to incur the jealousy and distrust of his fellow magnates. Simon was no exception and the king's brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, led the opposition. He complained of the secret disposal of a royal ward without consent of the Council, and of the breach of ecclesiastical discipline which the marriage occasioned, for Eleanor had taken a vow of perpetual celibacy after the death of her first husband. Simon humbled himself before the earl and 'by means of many intercessors and certain gifts obtained from him the kiss of peace'.

In 1239 Simon was formally invested with the earldom of Leicester and nine years later undertook the government of Gascony. This was an unenviable task and Simon made his own conditions. He asked for, and was accorded, plenary powers, for a period of seven years. There is no doubt that he ruled despotically, but equally there is no doubt that any other method of government would have been useless. Unhappily, his rule in Gascony was punctuated by tedious intermittent quarrels with the king, mostly about money, but also about more serious matters. The king accused the earl of seducing Eleanor before his marriage to her and even took sides with the Gascon nobles who, not unnaturally, complained of the firm hand which ruled them. The king's attitude had the effect of uniting the baronial opposition which was pre­ pared to stand up for Simon against a treacherous rabble of foreign bandits.

It was in 1257 that the Earl of Leicester quarrelled with the king's new favourite, William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. Although their quarrel was personal, it was symptomatic of the quarrel between the English magnates and the king's Poitevin favourites. This resulted in the drawing up of 'The Provisions of Oxford' which virtually substituted a baronial oligarchy for a royal autocracy.

The king and his son reluctantly accepted 'The Provisions' and the rest of Henry's reign was a constant struggle between the king, who sought to evade his obligations, and the barons who tried to enforce them. This led to the civil war which is noted for Leicester's brilliant victory at Lewes and his final defeat and death, deserted by his Welsh mercenaries, at Evesham on 4th August 1265. His body appears to have been dismembered, various nobles receiving trophies, but the chronicler William de Newburgh assures us that the various parts were miraculously reunited and honourably buried by the monks of Evesham and that miracles were wrought at his tomb. It is not unfitting that a great soldier should have been laid to rest in a monastic church, for though in many ways he was a fiery and ruthless man, like many a soldier his personal life was blameless, simple, cultured and amazingly pious.

Earl Simon's children were not made of the same mettle as their father. Henry, the eldest son, was slain at Evesham, Simon and Guy died abroad having committed sacrilege by        murdering their cousin, Henry of Almaine, son of Richard, Earl of Cornwall,   in a church in Viterbo, Amauri became a priest and of Richard nothing further is known. The Earl of Leicester's only daughter, Eleanor, married her father's ally Llywelyn, Prince of North Wales, but her line, and thus that of the great Earl, was destined to be extinguished for she died in giving birth to her first child, a girl, who later took the veil and died unmarried in 1337.

Simon's effigy can be seen in one of the magnificent windows in Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, France. There he is shown bearing Gules[4] a Lion rampant queue fourché Argent, that is, bearing a red shield charged with a silver rampant lion with a forked tail. On his lance is a banner parted per pale indented (a zig-zag vertical line) gold and red. These arms and banner are also ascribed to him in a roll of arms made in about 1245 and they appear both on his seal and on that of his father. Both Devices would seem to have belonged to the family, possibly representing different lordships, for in the early days of heraldry arms were attached to lands as well as to persons.

There were few changes in armour during the first half of the thirteenth century, so that Simon's accoutrements are very similar to those of William, Earl of Pembroke. His great sword is sheathed in a scabbard decorated with shields of his arms and his knees are protected by ornamental poleyns[5], worn over the chausses[6], which later developed into large convex plates.

 

[1]A military engine used for casting stones and other missiles against an enemy's position.  

[2] Transferred

[3] Absolutely.

[4] Red, as one of the heraldic colours.

[5] Knee armour.

[6] Pantaloons or tight coverings for the legs and feet; esp. of mail, forming part of a knight's armour.