How Simon De Montfort and Rebellious Barons Led to the Birth of English Democracy

History Hit

4 mins

20 Jan 2018

On 20 January 1265 Simon De Montfort, the leader of a group of barons rebelling against King Henry III, summoned a group of men from across England to gather support.

Since the days of the Saxons, English Kings had been councilled by groups of Lords,  but this marked the first time in the history of England in which gathered to determine how their country would be ruled.

Tides of progress

England’s long march towards democracy began as early as 1215 when King John was forced into a corner by mutinous Barons and forced to sign a piece of paper – known as Magna Carta – which stripped the king of some of his almost limitless powers of rule.

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Once they got this small concession, England would never be able to return to absolute rule again, and under John’s son Henry III the Barons once again launched a revolt that lead to bloody civil war.

Incensed by the King’s demands for extra taxes and suffering under the weight of a nation-wide famine, the rebels had seized control of most of the south-east of England by the end of 1263. Their leader was a charismatic Frenchman – Simon De Montfort.

Simon De Monfort

Simon de Monfort, 6th Earl of Leicester.

Ironically, de Montfort had once been despised by the English as one of the Francophile King’s favourites at court, but after his personal relations with the King broke down in the 1250s he became the crown’s most implacable foe and the figurehead for his enemies.

De Monfort had always been something of a radical by 13th century standards, and earlier in the war he had come close to alienating his allies by proposals to cut the power of the kingdom’s foremost barons as well as the monarch.

This tetchy relationship came back to bite him in 1264 when divisions within his ranks lead to an opportunity for Henry to exploit with the help of an intervention from the King of France. The monarch managed to regain London and keep an uneasy peace until April, when he marched into the territories still controlled by De Montfort.

There, at the climactic Battle of Lewes, Henry’s larger but ill-disciplined forces were defeated and he was captured. Behind bars he was forced to sign the Provisions of Oxford, first enshrined in 1258 but rejected by the King. They limited his powers further and have been described as England’s first constitution.

Henry III captured at the Battle of Lewes. Image from John Cassell’s ‘Illustrated History of England, Vol. 1’ (1865).

The King was officially reinstated but was little more than a figurehead.

The first parliament

In June 1264 De Montfort summoned a parliament of Knights and Lords from across the kingdom in a bid to consolidate his control. It soon became clear however, that the people had little regard for this new aristocratic rule and the humiliation of the King – who was still widely believed to have been appointed by Divine Right.

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Meanwhile, across the channel, the Queen – Eleanor – was preparing to invade with more French help. De Montfort knew that something dramatic had to change if he was to keep control. When a new parliament was gathered in January of the new year, it included two urban burgesses from each of the major towns of England.

For the first time in history, the power was passing from the feudal countryside into the growing towns, where people lived and worked in a manner far more familiar to most of us today. It also marked the first parliament in the modern sense, for now alongside the lords some “commons” could be found.

Legacy

This precedent would last and grow until the present day – and usher in a philosophical shift about how a country should be governed.

The Houses of Lords and Commons still form the basis of the modern British Parliament, now meeting at the Palace of Westminster.

Of course it is a mistake to view it in too rosy terms. It was a shameless political exercise on De Montfort’s part – and there was little diversity of opinion amongst his very partisan assembly. Once the power-hungry rebel leader began to amass a considerable personal fortune his popular support began to wane once again.

In May, meanwhile, Henry’s charismatic son Edward escaped captivity and raised an army to support his father. De Montfort met him at the battle of Evesham in August and was defeated, slaughtered and mutilated. The war finally ended in 1267 and England’s brief experiment with something approaching parliamentary rule was ended.

The precedent would prove harder to vanquish however. Ironically, by the end of Edward’s reign, the inclusion of townsmen in parliaments had become the unshakeable norm.

 

Main Image: Simon De Monfort dies at The Battle of Evesham (Edmund Evans, 1864).