Saturday, March 15, 2014

Poison, a Stolen Army and a Revolution: Simon de Montfort and the Founding of Parliament

by Katherine Ashe

Winchester Wolvesey Castle
In the courtyard of Winchester Castle the besiegers lay dying, the foremost lords of England, poisoned and filthy with vomit and excrement. In later months several of Simon de Montfort’s knights succumbed with the same symptoms after a friendly drinking bout with the knights of Aimery de Lusignan, Bishop-elect of Winchester and half-brother of the King. Aimery’s manse in Southwark was searched. Several jars of a greenish powder were found, a potent poison that would produce the lords’ and knights’ symptoms.*

The leader of the lords at Winchester, Richard de Clare the young Earl of Gloucester, lost all his teeth and hair, even his eyelashes, and his whole skin oozed with pustules. But he survived. So did the hearty Marshal of England Roger Bigod, though he would never be as hale as he had been, and it was years before he attempted to take the field of battle again. John FitzGeoffrey, the Justiciar of Ireland, died. As did many of the lords. Their heirs, a new generation of young earls and barons, took their places.

Westminster Hall
In the months prior to the siege King Henry had summoned his lords and high clergy to Westminster to extract a tax from them -- a tax to fend off the threats of Pope Alexander IV. At that meeting the King revealed that he had pledged the Crown of England as insurance for a debt to the Vatican.

The Pope had offered Henry the Crown of Sicily for his second son, Edmund, if England merely would pay the cost of the mercenary soldiers needed to seize Sicily from the Holy Roman Emperor’s rightful heirs. Henry couldn’t pay. Now he faced the distinct possibility that the Pope might offer England to anyone willing to assume the costs of seizing it. And England was a prize worth far more than Sicily.

The lords and clergy were shocked by this stunning revelation. They flatly refused to give him the tax. So Henry met with each lord individually, extorting the money by threatening each through his greatest vulnerability. In retaliation, the Earl Richard de Clare formed a league of mutual support of resistance. The League’s six members were Clare himself; Roger Bigod the Marshal; John Fitzgeoffrey; Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester and the King’s brother-in-law; Peter de Montfort, Simon’s cousin: and Peter of Savoy the Earl of Richmond and the Queen’s uncle.

Savoy probably was Henry’s spy, for hardly had the members of the League sworn to support each other when Henry let them know he could arrest them all for treason. They responded by returning to their shires to raise their knights for protection. On their return, they were greeted by the Londoners as heroes.

When the King next met with his assembled lords and clergymen, the members of the League, arriving with their knights and in full armor, demanded that Henry observe the Magna Carta. They brought forth an original copy of the document from 1215. Its Clause 61 gave the lords of England the right to raise the country in civil war until the complaints of the people had been rectified by the Crown. This clause, signed by King John, had brought war until the day the monarch died.

Oxford St. George's Tower
Henry, terrified and probably ignorant of the clause (it had been deleted from the copies of Magna Carta he had sworn to uphold), agreed to allow the lords and clergy to meet, without his presence, at Oxford to form a committee of arbitration. He hoped they would see reason and produce the tax.

But at Oxford, instead of coming forth with money, the lords and clergy rebelled entirely. They wrote a constitution, the Provisions of Oxford, that called for a Parliament that was to meet at a regularly appointed time and place -- not just when the King happened to summon them. This Parliament was to be composed not only of the usual lords and clergy, but also of representatives elected by the common men of each shire. These representatives were to audit the honesty of the royal sheriffs and also report on any problems in the realm.

Parliament would receive the representatives’ reports and debate the solutions. The King was to be bound to act in accord with Parliament’s decisions. To make certain that he did, Parliament would chose the Chancellor (the keeper of the royal seals without which no orders were official), the Justiciar (the head of the royal courts of law), and a Council to attend the King always.

Kings had summoned councils of their subjects before, and even lately had called them parliaments. But never before had a parliament held sway over a king. Here begins the history of elective government as we know it.

With the Provisions jotted down, the Earl Richard de Clare demanded that every lord present swear to uphold these new principles of government to the full extent of their powers. Among those made to swear were King Henry’s half-brothers, Guy de Lusignan and William de Valence. With a clear understanding of this peril to the Crown, they fled to their brother Aimery at Winchester and immured themselves in the castle there.

Finding the royal kinsmen gone, fearing they might reach the continent and raise an army for the King, the lords abandoned the meeting in Oxford and rode in fast pursuit. Besieging the Lusignan brothers in Winchester castle, they were poisoned.

Alone of the lords, Simon de Montfort remained at Oxford. He was England’s principal military strategist. No doubt he considered that if the Lusignan fled it didn’t matter very much. With the tax denied, England stood in danger from papal invasion, and every king in Europe would consider this new form of government a hazard to his Crown.

Simon de Montfort
Under his own name and seal, using the newly chosen council for King Henry as his authority, Montfort had the Provisions of Oxford published in every shire, had the royal sheriffs and castellans all replaced, ordered the country to prepare for invasion, and commanded the new sheriffs to call elections for representatives of each shire. The elected men were to meet with the lords, the King and Council at London’s Guildhall on October 27, 1258.

In the absence of the leaders who lay sick or dead at Winchester, Montfort took this action solely upon himself. It is for this reason he is credited with creating Parliament and elective government as we know it. Without his actions the Provisions would have been ignored and lost.

Henry III
At his first opportunity, Henry took action to end this new form of government. That opportunity came almost directly after the first Parliament met. There was a treaty to be made with France. Henry, in company with his lords, traveled to Paris to sign it. He stipulated, as a term of the treaty, that in exchange for lands of his in France, King Louis grant him the funds for a mercenary army – for use on Crusade so he said.

When Henry declined to leave Paris in a timely way for the next scheduled meeting of England’s new Parliament, Montfort became suspicious of the King’s intentions. Henry, if not wise, was devious.

In Henry’s service as Viceroy for England’s dukedom of Gascony, Montfort had hired many mercenary soldiers; the Duke of Brabant kept an office in Paris for just such purposes. Apparently Montfort dropped in at the office where he was a well-known customer and discovered that the army being collected was being sent to a crossing of the English Channel -- not at all the direction you’d expect a Crusade to be going.

Without informing King Henry, without even saying goodbye to him, Montfort took command of the forces so far assembled and led them to England -- to defend the Parliament that was scheduled to meet soon. By now it was February.

When Henry finally returned to London, in April, he came uttering disclaimers that it had ever entered his mind to raise a force to quash the Parliament, and he called a belated Parliament of his own. Montfort was arrested for stealing the King’s army and aiding Parliament to meet in the King’s absence. Clear acts of treason.

After many months -- during which time Montfort was absent and Henry essentially quashed the Parliament -- the Earl’s trial was held in Paris with Queen Margaret of France as judge and the Peers of France as jury. The trial notes, in the Bibliotheque Nationale, astonishingly show how the Earl, in defense of his life, turned the King of England’s accusations into comedy. The case was dropped.

But by now England’s Parliamentary movement had all but died. The realm was divided between the commons and young lords who favored Parliament, and the King and older surviving lords who’d abandoned their oaths to the Provisions when they found the new government curbed their rights.

A group of young lords went to Paris to beg Montfort to return to England, to lead a restoration of the lost and only means of curbing King Henry’s abuses.

Montfort did return, and accepted leadership of an army of young lords and knights pledged to restore the Parliament. In a sweep westward, north, then east he conquered England. At the Tower of London King Henry and his heir, Edward, effectively became his prisoners.

Louis IX
But the King’s friends abroad were unceasing in the efforts. Warfare was narrowly averted at London when an army of the people, led by Montfort, met an army led by royalists. The two sides backed away and agreed to have King Louis of France arbitrate.
Arbitration brought no answer. On the way to Amiens, where the meeting was to be held, Montfort’s mount fell on ice while crossing a creek. The Earl was crushed beneath his horse. To attempt journeying any further would have cost his life.

With his absence, and failure to conduct his party’s defense, the decision went to King Henry. The defenders of Parliament were to be given amnesty -- but there would be no Parliament as the Provisions described. To have commoners, through their elected representatives, have power over a king was seen as an offense to God and Nature.

Montfort and his followers refused the decision, and fought on.

(Next: The Battles of Rochester and Lewes – and the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s victories.)

* Pp. 291 and 296, Paris, Matthew, Chronica Majora, J. A Giles translator, Bohn, 1854.


Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort the Early Years 1229-1243; Montfort the Viceroy 1243-1253; Montfort the Revolutionary 1253-1260; Montfort the Angel with the Sword 1260-1265.

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  1. Fascinating character, Simon de Montfort -- and so different from his father and brothers. Or was he?

    Do you know anything about his brother (or is it an uncle?) Guy de Montfort's marriage to Balian d'Ibelin's daughter, Helvis? I'm working on a biographical novel about Balian and would be interested in anything you can tell me about his ties to Simon de Montfort (elder and younger.) Thank you!


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