by Katherine Ashe
King Henry III versus the Provisions
No one might have seemed less likely to champion the common man than the Earl of Leicester Simon de Montfort. He was a royalist, a believer that kings were God-given and not to be overthrown. But what if the rightful inheritor of the throne was incompetent or vicious? Montfort's support of the invention of an elected government with power over the monarchy appears to have been his answer: while kings may reign, they should so do with the support and guidance of the lords and populace. Twice Montfort was offered the Crown of England, and twice he refused it – confirming his claims that he was in truth King Henry's most loyal subject.
After the Oxford meeting that produced the Provisions of Oxford -- the revolutionary format for modern elective government -- the lords who had brought about the meeting were sick and dying at Winchester, poisoned by the King's half-brothers. Montfort, staying at Oxford and untouched by the poison, set about the practical business of making the new government a reality and securing it from attack from within England and from abroad.
Under the auspices of the Provisions, he replaced the royal castellans as well as the royal sheriffs and bailiffs. And he summoned the common people of England to guard their coasts against invasion. The Oxford meeting had decided not to pay Pope Alexander IV what King Henry owed him. Not only might the papal army be turned against England, but the new government would be seen as an offence to the very nature of monarchy. Any leader could look on England as fair pickings – with the backing of the Vatican.
At Westminster that September of the year 1258, at the first convening of the Provisions' Parliament, King Henry and his heir Prince Edward (later to rule as Edward I) both solemnly vowed to uphold the government of the Provisions. A slightly enlarged and amended version was published as the Provisions of Westminster. The new parliamentary government, with its two elected representatives from each shire, began functioning. Under the protection of Simon de Montfort, yes, but not under his dictates. The elected Council determined the direction of the government according to the vote of the assembled Parliament.
King Henry presided, but took no part in leading the government. And, as with King John at Runnymede, neither he nor Prince Edward had any intention of honoring oaths that were forced from them.
Henry's first major act of state under the new government was to travel to France to complete England's peace treaty with King Louis IX. Asserting that it was his intent to go on crusade to the Holy Land, Henry gained, as an item of the treaty, an army of mercenaries paid for by Louis. Parliament's second meeting was scheduled for February, but Henry, on one excuse and another, put off returning home. Could Parliament meet legitimately without him?
Becoming suspicious of his king's procrastinations, Earl Montfort, one of the principal negotiators for Henry in Paris, went to the office of the Duke of Brabant, purveyor of mercenary armies. Simon was well known there, having been a frequent customer during the years of his viceroyship of Gascony on Henry's behalf. He discovered the reason for Henry's dawdling: the mercenary force was not yet fully assembled. And it was to embark at Wissant, the coast facing England, not on the Mediterranean where ships sailing to the Holy Land would depart.
In London, Prince Edward -- at the moment enthusiastic about the new form of government -- was daringly preparing to hold the Parliament in his own name. But on the day the much-postponed meeting finally convened, Henry sailed up the Thames with the remainder of the mercenaries and claimed he was there to convene Parliament, and that he always had meant to honor the Provisions.
Edward, seeing himself now in a position of usurpation, defected to Henry. Simon was in an impossible bind. If he didn't attend King Henry's Parliament his claim to merely be defending the Parliament would look bogus. If he did attend, he was almost certainly going to be arrested for bringing Henry's mercenaries to England without the King's consent. Despite the pleading of his sons and friends that he flee, Simon attended the Parliament to assert his good faith to both the Provisions and his King. Henry immediately had him arrested for treason.
And treason Simon de Montfort undoubtedly had committed in urging the Parliament to meet in the King's absence and providing an army for its defense. But before he was formally tried, with the inevitable sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering pronounced, King Louis intervened. Knowing the forces he'd intended for the Holy Land had been diverted by Henry for use against his own subjects in England, Louis asked that the trial be transferred to Paris and heard by his Queen, Margaret.
Despite the clear evidence against him, Simon was able to turn the Paris trial to hilarity. "Did you not go with horses and men?" "I always travel with horses and men." "Did you not go without taking leave of your King?" "I saw no need to as I was going where he ought to have been going." Henry, laughed at by the Peers of France, and reminded of his breach of the terms of his treaty, was forced by Louis to drop his case.
From 1259 to 1263, when Simon's trial ended, King Henry managed to undo almost all that the Provisions had accomplished. The new sheriffs were replaced with the old grafting ones and the Crown's assorted abuses revived.
Simon, free now but at high risk in England, had taken the Cross. He was preparing to return to the Holy Land, where he had been both highly successful and happy in his youth, when a group of English lordlings came to plead with him. They were led by Gilbert de Clare, the son of Richard Earl of Gloucester, the leader of the League who finally had died of the Lusignans' poison. The youths begged Montfort to return to England and lead them in arms for the restoration of the Provisions.
Simon went to Oxford to see what sort of army they were assembling. The force he found was impressive. Announcing, skeptically, It is as well to die fighting forsworn Englishmen as to die for Holy Church in the East, he agreed to be their leader. Within months he had conquered England. He held the royal family his prisoners.
But his very success roused opposition among the surviving older lords. Prince Edward, then King Henry, escaped but were recaptured at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, and the parliamentary government was restored.
Two problems now faced Simon. The young lords who were his captains at Lewes (the same who had begged him to come to England) insisted that the valuable ransoms of the lordly and royal captives should be divided as booty, as was customary after a battle. Montfort, considering the defense of the new government paramount, refused to release the King, the Prince and the King's wealthy brother Richard of Cornwall. He allotted their rich rents and other windfalls from the battle for use in defending the coasts, garrisoning royal castles and creating an impregnable stronghold for the Provisions' forces.
The site he chose for this stronghold was Kenilworth, a castle he had received from King Henry as a wedding present but which he had returned to the Crown in 1258 when the Oxford meeting stipulated that valuable properties given away by King Henry should be returned to the Crown so that that the monarch could live "within his own means."
Montfort had reason to trust no one in England. He refused to exchange his prisoners for ransoms and appointed his own sons to collect and oversee the use of the captives' rents. Since they were using the money to militarily enhance Kenilworth, long known as the Montfort home, the accusation that the Montforts were seizing the best booty of the Lewes battle for their own use seemed to stick. Gilbert de Clare was chief among the accusers.
The other problem, which tended to support the first, was the religious faith of the clerics in the divine rightness of Parliament and the King's Council. There was euphoria after the seemingly miraculous victory at Lewes. The Provisions were God's will and under His protection. Never mind that the new Pope Clement IV had declared the Provisions and the new parliamentary government heretical, and excommunicated its supporters. (This Pope's name, interestingly, was Guy Folques, which could be spelled, after the medieval way of recognizing no standard spelling, Guy Fawkes.)
Both the young lords and the clerics considered that Simon was adhering to outmoded thinking in insisting that the new government needed special and costly defense.
While this rift was forming among the victors, the conditions in England continued to be chaotic. Montfort's return and overthrow of King Henry had let loose disorder throughout the country. Common people dragged their sheriffs to the gibbet. Then spread their local "cleansing" to anyone who seemed royalist or whom they disliked.
It was of vital importance that law and order be restored, not only for the obvious benefit of peace, but to demonstrate that government by Parliament was viable. And the clerical members of the Council were eager to regularize the appearance of the government. They wanted King Henry and Edward set at liberty. Hadn't the King and Prince made holy vows to uphold the Provisions?
At Parliament in the autumn of 1264, the first following the battle of Lewes, Simon succeeded in having the liberty of the King and Prince postponed, but Edward's release and the disposal of funds from the Lewes conquest became major items of business for the forthcoming Parliament.
The Parliament, convening on January 20, 1265, thus found Simon at odds -- with the clergy, who wanted to believe England no longer needed the military protection his strategies provided -- and with his own young battle-captains who wanted their monetary rewards.
Simon de Montfort held England by virtue of his military tactics. The very fact of Parliament's existence was his achievement in 1258 and again in 1264. But he did not control the government. He is praised for the democratic Parliament of 1265. But it was not he whose sole power summoned the Parliament. Nor was it he who summoned the commoner representatives of the cities, augmenting the elected knights reporting from the shires -- although he had championed the interests of the London Guilds at Oxford in 1258. Nor was it he who dictated what Parliament would accomplish. This is not a story of a benevolent tyrant gracefully bestowing democracy.
In fact, although the Parliament met until mid-March, it broke up in chaos when Gilbert de Clare accused Montfort and his sons of seizing the royal prisoners' rent monies for their own use. Simon's eldest son, Henry, leapt on Gilbert, throttled him and nearly killed him before being dragged off. Gilbert was helped away, but at the door he turned back to the meeting and shouted a challenge to the Montfort brothers to a tourney a outrance, a tournament of armed forces that extended sport into boundless pursuit and fight to the death.
This was the beginning of the end for Simon de Montfort and for the fledgling elective government of the Provisions. An elected Parliament, with full power over monarchs, would not revive again until Cromwell's time.
Gilbert de Clare, on the excuse of the tourney, raised an army composed of all those who found Montfort's power threatening: young lords, survivors among the elder lords, royalists.
In an effort to give the appearance of normality, the King's Council had King Henry and Prince Edward, with the royal apparatus of law courts and tax collection, set out on a grand tour of the country to reestablish law and order. The Earl Montfort was to provide this massive entourage with protection -- but he was denied an army.
It cannot be believed that Simon, brilliant in military tactics, failed to perceive the danger of Gilbert's army and the additional support it could raise abroad. What was his intent when he set out at the head of the unwieldy royal entourage with only a few of his armed followers and a hundred Welsh archers, leant him by Llewellyn out of concern for his personal safety?
Agreeing to lead this fatal tour was not the act of a man who was behaving as master of his own and England's destiny -- the dictator, the tyrant Montfort is often portrayed as being. He was under excommunication by Pope Clement, so his option to simply leave and take the Cross again was doubtful. Perhaps he wanted to believe, as the clerics did, that the new government was under God's protection. He claimed only that he was adhering to his oath to defend the Provisions even to risk of his life -- despite his clear view that the new government was behaving with foolhardy self-security.
The hopeful tour of the law courts never achieved its goal. The cavalcade was pursued and besieged in the hills of Wales for months by the forces of Gilbert de Clare. Then Prince Edward escaped, took leadership of the royalist forces and, as Simon tried to bring what remained of the royal entourage to safety at Kenilworth, the Prince entrapped them on August 4th at Evesham.
With two of his sons, the few young knights who were his devoted followers, the Welsh archers, and with King Henry still in his custody, Simon was encircled by Edward's armies. The carnage lasted for three hours in a pelting rainstorm. Simon's torso was left dismembered on the battlefield.
This August 4 is the 750th anniversary of Simon's death. But it is not his death that is celebrated, it is his life's work -- that for which he died -- that’s being recognized. The first establishment of England's Parliament, the model of modern democracy.
Montfort the Revolutionary 1253 to 1260 and Montfort the Angel with the Sword 1260 to 1265 for a full bibliography.
Montfort Archive, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. There is preserved, in this boxed archive of original documents, the trial notes and a brief autobiography by Simon written in 1260 in preparation for his trial before King Louis for treason against King Henry. (In the event, the trial was actually heard by Queen Margaret of France.)
Annales Monastici, ed. Luard, H.R., 1864-69:
Vol. I, Annals of Burton
Vol. II, Annals of Winchester and Waverly
Vol. III, Annals of Dunstable
Vol. IV, Annals of Osney; Chronicle of Thomas Wykes; Annals of Worcester
Calendar of Charter Rolls,Vol. I, 1226-1307, Public Record Office. Kraus Reprint, Neldeln/Liechtenstein, 1972. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)
Calendar of the Liberate Rolls, Volumes I and II, Public Record Office, 1916.
Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1232-1272, Henry III. Public Record Office. Kraus Reprint, Nendeln/Liechtenstein, 1971. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)
Chronica Johannis Oxenedes, John of Oxford, ed. H. Ellis, Rolls Series, 1859.
De Antiquis Legibus Liber: Cronica Maiorum et Vicecomitum Londoinarium, Stapleton, T. Camden Series, 1846.
Documents of the Baronial Movement of reform and Rebellion, 1258 – 1267, ed. R. F. Treharne and I. J. Sanders, Oxford, 1973.
Eccleston, Thomas of, The Coming of the Friars Minor to England, XIIIth Century Chronicles, translated by Placid Herman, O.F.M., Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1961.
Excerpta e Rotulis Finium in Turri Londdinensi Asservatis Henry III, 1216-72, ed. by C. Roberts, Public Record Office. 1835-36.
Exchequer: The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer, Madox, Greenwood, 1769-1969, Volumes I and II.
Guisborough, The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed. H. Rothwell, Camden Society, third series, LXXXIX, 1957.
John of Oxford: Chronica Johannis de Oxenedes, ed., H. Ellis, Rolls Series, 1859.
Laffan, R.G.D. Select Documents of European History, 800-1492, Volume I, Henry Holt and Company, New York.
A note on the Chronica Majora: I have used several editions of the chronicle of Matthew Paris as they happened to be available to me. For readers’ reference I principally use the Bohn 1854 edition as it is most likely to be available in universities or other good libraries. The 1684 edition, in Latin, I possess and use for checking the translations but, as I cannot expect my readers to have that edition available to them, I have not cited it in the Historical Context. While the Paris chronicle proceeds to the year 1273, after 1259 it is by another hand.
Matthew Paris’s English History, from the year 1235 to 1273, volumes I to V, translated by the Rev. J. A. Giles, Henry Bohn, London, 1852. See also the Bohn 1854 edition in three volumes. Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints. (incomplete) www.kessinger.net.
Rerum Britannicarum Medi: Aevi Scriptores, or Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland During the Middle Ages, Kraus reprint 1964. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)
Matthaei Paris, Monachi Albanensis, Historia Major, Juxta Exemplar Londinense 1640, verbatim recusa, ed. Willielmo Wats, STD. Imprensis A. Mearne, T. Dring, B. Tooke, T. Sawbridge & G. Wells, MDCLXXXIV (1684)
Matthaei Parisiense, Chronica Majora, Kraus reprint, 1964. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)
Rishanger, William, The Chronicle of William de Rishanger, of the Barons’ War: The Miracles of Simon de Montfort. ed. J.O. Halliwell, Camden Society, 1840. Also known as the Chronicon de Bellis
Robert of Gloucester, Metrical Chronicles of Robert of Gloucester, Wright, W.A., Rolls Series, 1887.Royal Letters, Henry III, ed. W.W. Shirley, Rolls Series, 1862.