REVIEW – The song of Simon de Montfort: England’s first revolution and the death of chivalry

3 mins read
Sophie Thérèse Ambler
Picador, £20 (hbk)

Simon de Montfort was a colossus in English affairs during the 13th century, as this biography skilfully explains. What is revealed is a man who was shaped by the mores of his times.

Aggressive and self-confident, he was subject to extreme outbreaks of temper when crossed, even by a king. Yet he was also deeply pious, and loyal to members of his party.

Most famously, he is often regarded as having helped to shape early forms of parliamentary government in England. That he was ultimately to fall in a violent confrontation with King Henry III (or, more precisely, the Henry’s son Edward I) at Evesham in 1265 is well known. What is less understood is the festering quarrel that simmered between Simon and the English king for several decades before this.

This book brings the events of these epochal years freshly into the light of day in a well-crafted, easily assimilated style.

Earlier events in Simon’s life are brought out anew, but due to limitations of sources some lingering uncertainties remain. For example, Simon’s governorship of Gascony (1248-1252) was a turbulent time.

He was accused by Gascon opponents of governing as a tyrant, which led to a major fall-out with Henry III. Chroniclers’ accounts of these important issues are sparse outside those written by Matthew Paris and a few others, such as Adam Marsh, both known to be advocates of Simon’s cause. They present Simon as the injured party, a version of events with which the author seems largely to agree.

Yet, without overlooking the inadequacies of Henry as king, there is a feeling that Simon was overbearing, wilful, and lacking in tact. Given this, and the fact that his father (also Simon) had earned himself a fearsome reputation and made himself deeply unpopular with many Gascons when he too had governed them several decades previously, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Simon’s appointment was a disastrous error of judgement.

Simon had a foot in several camps. As well as being a prominent figure in England, at various times he was offered the regency of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and also of France at a time when Louis IX was away for an extended period in the East.


But it is for events in England that Simon is best remembered. The build-up to his civil war with Henry III has some resemblance to the English Civil War (or ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’) in the 17th century: a trial of strength between King and Parliament, with Simon taking on something of a Cromwellian role, and Henry III creating alarm when he attempted to recruit forces in France to resist the parliamentary challenge, much as Charles I would do with his Irish army in the late 1630s. Henry’s general political ineptitude also has uncanny resemblances to that of Charles I.

Yet in other ways Simon was a man of his times: a fundamentalist Crusader, as his father had been, and also a man who had no compunction in expelling Jews from his territories. He was not alone in this, of course, and the author points out that Simon only acted in ways that contemporaries expected; yet this sits uncomfortably with an image of a great exponent of constitutional government.

Still, his political agenda was radical and challenged many tenets of the feudal Establishment. It is little wonder then that, as the author observes, he was ‘a hero to his followers and a demon to his enemies’.

He was certainly a brave and God-fearing military leader, an inspiration to those he led into battle, but he was less successful in the political sphere, and this ultimately led to his downfall.

Militarily, he was determined and sometimes innovative, such as when he attacked Rochester with the use of a fireship. But even though, according to contemporaries, he was born under the star of the god of war and was involved in many campaigns, he – like most other warriors of his time – fought few pitched battles, and it is the two that he was involved with, the triumph of Lewes and the disaster of Evesham, that most define him in modern eyes.

He met his death in a campaign which, the author observes, saw the undermining of the always dubious concept of chivalry, while at the same time marking an important stage in the development of parliamentary government in England.

This study enables us to understand Simon in the round, a greatly important if not an always attractive figure. Simon de Montfort was a man of his times: ruthless and driven by ambition, even to some contemporaries cruel and volatile. But, above all, he could not and would not be ignored. As a result, he had a lasting impact both on his own time and on those which followed, as this work eloquently explains.

Review by Wayne Bartlett

This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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