Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester was a favourite of King Henry III until they fell out and Simon rebelled. He has long had a reputation as the founder of the House of Commons and the father of parliamentary democracy. Here are 10 facts about this fascinating character.
1. Simon came from a famous French crusading family
Simon de Montfort was born around 1205 at Montfort-l’Amaury. His father, also named Simon, took part in the Fourth Crusade and led the Albigensian Crusade in France against the Cathars. Simon Senior died at the Siege of Toulouse in 1218, and his third son Guy was killed in 1220. Simon Senior is often considered one of the greatest generals in medieval Europe.
2. Simon arrived in England in 1229 seeking his fortune
As a second son, Simon did not receive any of his father’s inheritance. Part of the family’s collection of titles was the earldom of Leicester in England and this caused a problem for his older brother Amaury. England and France were at war, and it proved impossible to give homage to both kings, so Amaury agreed to give the English part of his inheritance to Simon. It took until 1239 before Simon was officially created Earl of Leicester.
3. He expelled Jews from his lands as a propaganda stunt
In 1231, Simon issued a document that expelled all Jews from the half of Leicester in his possession. It prevented their return:
‘in my time or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world’, ‘for the good of my soul, and for the souls of my ancestors and successors’.
There appears to have been very few Jews in the part of Leicester covered by the order. Simon implemented the measure to curry favour as a new lord.
4. Simon married the king’s sister
Simon became a favourite of King Henry III. In 1238, Henry oversaw the marriage of his sister Eleanor to Simon, despite the widowed Eleanor taking a vow of chastity.
By August 1239, Simon was out of favour. According to the chronicler Matthew Paris, Henry ranted that:
‘You seduced my sister before marriage, and when I found it out, I gave her to you in marriage, although against my will, in order to avoid scandal.’
When Simon defaulted on his debts, it emerged that he had used the king’s name as security.
5. Simon went on crusade while in disgrace
After leaving England, Simon joined the Barons’ Crusade. His brother Amaury was a prisoner and Simon negotiated his release. His participation allowed him to continue the family’s strong crusading tradition. When he returned to France, he was asked to act as regent of France while King Louis IX was on crusade. Simon refused, preferring to return to England to try and patch up his relationship with Henry.
6. Simon was a problematical Seneschal of Gascony
On 1 May 1247, Simon was appointed Seneschal of Gascony. In January 1249, Henry grumbled that the nobles there complained that Simon was too harsh. Two years later, Simon appeared at Henry’s court in ‘inglorious haste’, with three squires, riding ‘horses worn out with hunger and work’. Gascony was in open rebellion. Henry sent him back to restore order.
In May 1252, Simon was recalled, and Henry threatened to put him on trial for mismanagement, but Simon reminded the king he could not be sacked. When Henry replied that he was not bound by an oath made to a traitor, Simon roared ‘Were thou not my king it would be an ill hour for you’. In August 1253, Henry III took an army to Gascony himself and enjoyed one of his few military victories, restoring his authority in the region.
7. Simon tricked the royal army at the Battle of Lewes
The Second Barons’ War began in 1264, and Simon was the natural leader. Support grew, but there was anti-Semitic violence in London and elsewhere. He led an army south, meeting the king at Lewes on 14 May 1264.
Simon had broken his leg in a riding accident several months earlier and travelled in a covered carriage. When fighting began, Prince Edward charged the carriage. When he reached it and opened the door, Edward was infuriated to find Simon was not there. He assaulted the London contingent until they broke and fled.
Simon was on the other side of the battlefield and attacked Henry’s position. By the time Edward returned from his pursuit, the field was lost. Henry and Edward were taken captive.
8. Simon was not really the father of parliamentary democracy
Simon de Montfort enjoys a reputation as the father of modern parliamentary democracy. He summoned parliament to meet on 20 January 1265 at Westminster. Representatives of towns were to be elected alongside knights, leading to his reputation as the creator of the House of Commons.
The word parliament first appeared in 1236, and knights had been elected to sit in 1254, when burgesses may have attended too. Most towns and cities, such as York and Lincoln, sent two representatives while the Cinque Ports, supporters of Simon, were allowed to send four.
Simon picked up threads of what had been evolving over the previous decades to create a parliament that would support him. The one initiative in his parliament was asking members for opinion and input on political matters rather than merely to approve taxation.
9. Simon’s head became a gruesome trophy
Simon’s ascendancy did not last long. He attracted criticism for excluding others from power and handing castles, money, and offices to his sons. Prince Edward made a daring escape from custody and raised an army to free his father. Edward rode to meet Simon at Evesham.
When the fighting began, Edward appointed a dozen knights to act as a death squad with orders to hunt down Simon. He was quickly killed, Henry III was recovered and freed, but Simon’s body was mutilated. His limbs and genitals were hacked off and his corpse beheaded.
Roger Mortimer claimed the head as a trophy and sent it home to Wigmore Castle as a gift for his wife, Maud. It would have been a conversation piece on the mantle.
10. De Monfort University, Leicester may change its name
When Leicester Polytechnic became a university in 1992, it selected the name De Montfort University to celebrate Simon de Montfort’s links with the city and his pioneering work in parliament.
The Student Union announced in 2020 that it will endeavour to secure the changing of this name. The campaign centres on Simon’s reputation as an anti-Semite, and his expulsion of Jews from Leicester in 1231.
Today, such views are rightly considered unacceptable, but Simon was not out of step with his contemporaries on this issue. Over a hundred Jews were massacred in York in 1190, and in 1290, Edward I would expel all Jews from England. Papal Bulls frequently discriminated against Jews. This is, perhaps, the intrinsic danger of naming an institution after a medieval rebel. He held views that are repulsive today, and he was not all that history has remembered him for.