The house of Montfort arose some 50 kilometres west of Paris in a place known today as Montfort l’Amaury. Their family name ‘de Montfort’ is usually associated with two Simons, father and son, the relentless Albigensian crusader and the determined English revolutionary, both men of the 13th century.
Less known is the prominence of the de Montfort women.
De Montfort women as warriors and queens
The de Montfort women’s influence reaches back to the 11th century, starting with Isabella. When she fell out with her siblings, she put on armour and led a troop of knights in the field against them. Her sister Bertrade had different ambitions.
She grew tired of her husband’s lecherous ways and ran off with the king of France, who deserted his wife to marry her. Hoping to see her son succeed to the throne over her stepson, Bertrade had the older youth poisoned, but the attempt failed and brought about her disgrace. She died in a nunnery in 1117.
De Montfort women as crusaders and nuns
Two generations later, Simon III de Montfort stood loyally by the English in their fight with the French. He was rewarded with marriages for his children into the Anglo-Norman nobility. His daughter Bertrade II married the earl of Chester and was the mother of the legendary Ranulf de Blondeville, arguably the last of the great Anglo-Norman barons.
Simon IV de Montfort married Amicia of Leicester. Their son Simon V crusaded against the Albigensian heretics and was joined by his wife Alice, who actively participated in his war councils. Their daughter Petronilla was born during the crusade and baptised by Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order.
After Simon’s death in 1218, Alice de Montfort placed Petronilla in a nunnery, where she became the abbess later in life. Alice’s oldest daughter Amicia II founded the nunnery of Montargis, south of Paris, and died there in 1252.
De Montfort women in England
As the son of Amicia of Leicester, Simon the crusader inherited the earldom of Leicester. It was confiscated by King John in 1207, but his son Simon VI reclaimed the earldom in 1231. Although he was born and raised in France, this Simon de Montfort became an English noble through his English grandmother Amicia.
He rose high in royal favour and married Eleanor, the youngest sister of King Henry III. Together she and Simon had five sons and one daughter. The clash between Eleanor’s husband and brother ended in civil war and Simon’s death in 1265 at the battle of Evesham. Eleanor de Montfort left England to live out the rest of her life in Montargis and took her namesake daughter with her.
De Montfort women in Italy and Wales
Guy de Montfort was the only one of Eleanor’s sons to marry. He found service under the king of Sicily and rapidly advanced to become the count of Nola. He received an heiress as his bride and had two daughters, of whom only the youngest Anastasia survived to adulthood. She became the countess of Nola at her father’s death in 1292 and married into the senatorial Orsini family of Rome.
Eleanor de Montfort died in 1275, living long enough to see her daughter marry Llywelyn of Wales by proxy. Later that year, the boat carrying young Eleanor was captured by the forces of her cousin King Edward I, who had been alerted to her intentions. Eleanor was confined at Windsor Castle and not freed to marry Llywelyn until 1278.
She died four years later giving birth to a daughter Gwenllian. When Llywelyn was then killed, the baby girl was placed in a nunnery in Lincolnshire. By the time of her death in 1337, the de Montfort family, once so admired and respected across Europe and the Mediterranean, seemed long extinct.
De Montfort women in Brittany and back to England
But their fortunes were about to be revived under Yolande of Dreux. She was the countess of Montfort through her descent from the senior branch of the family. She married Arthur II of Brittany and their grandson son John defeated his cousins to become the duke of Brittany in 1365, a hundred years after Evesham.
In 1386, this John of Montfort took as his third wife the famous Joan of Navarre. She was the mother of his children and after his death became the queen of England with her marriage to King Henry IV.
Darren Baker is a historian and translator who specialises in 13th century Europe. Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century is his second book for Pen & Sword.