Darren Baker of the simon2014.com blog and associated newsletter ‘The Provisions‘, has a new book on Simon de Montfort, With All For All, out now* with Amberley Publishing. I posed a few questions to him in the lead up to publication, to probe how his book responds to a range of opinions about this complex character circulating in the academic world:
This is the first biography of the Earl of Leicester since J. R. Maddicott’s Simon de Montfort in 1994. What do you see as the key distinction between your characterisation of Montfort and his? Do you think interpretation has shifted in a particular direction in the last twenty years?
Maddicott gives perhaps the fullest account yet of Montfort’s life and career. He is what you might say is a biographer’s biographer, meaning his work will always be an indispensable resource for people like me. In the end, however, I feel his judgment is too harsh, that he is inclined to see him easily corrupted by his success, to be too much like his father, who incidentally I don’t think was the complete demon he is often portrayed as today. Maddicott is certainly not the first to present such a sombre view, but so thorough is his biography that it has been the prevailing opinion since it came out. I see Montfort as a much more inspiring figure, one who truly did make a lasting contribution, and at first I felt compelled to answer criticisms about him in the body of my book. I then realized that most lay readers probably couldn’t care less for any scholarly tug-of-war, they just want a great story, so I shuffled my opinions to the back of the book.
Scholarly opinion identifies the Montfort family’s financial struggles, especially the difficulty securing Countess Eleanor’s widow’s rights from her first marriage, as the basis of the Earl’s deteriorating relationship to his brother-in-law, Henry III. Would you agree?
No, I believe it goes back to a single incident, the queen’s churching of August 1239. It had to be such a traumatic moment for both Montforts, to be humiliated by the king in front of their peers, family and friends, and just six months after he was made Earl, with the two of them on the top of the world. Henry had a shabby side to be sure, but his actions here are completely inexplicable. It’s been speculated there was more to his outburst than what was reported, and I think it’s a fair question, because Henry never again showed any endearment towards his sister or her husband. Her widow’s rights and their financial struggles are probably the most egregious examples of the problems between them that wouldn’t go away. Henry had to be shamed into taking any action at all by people like his mother-in-law, and even after that he continued to show more favour in the dispute to others like William de Valence or Margaret de Lacy. When Eleanor finally got him in her clutches over the Treaty of Paris, I think she was more than justified in demanding her day in court, and yet modern historians have been withering in their critique of her and Simon in the affair over the treaty.
We know that Montfort was friends with a number of senior Franciscans such as Adam Marsh, and leading prelates like Robert Grosseteste and Walter Cantilupe. In your biography, how important are these connections in forming Montfort’s attitude to government, and ultimately reform?
Their influence can be gleaned from the only personal documents of his to survive. In both cases he’s expressing his concern for the poor people of the land and their rights. His will is of particular interest because it was drawn up six months after the reform movement began and has the tone of a penitent. He admits he has been unjust and is determined to make amends. He was clearly a very capable, deeply introspective individual, and the Franciscans no doubt saw him as one of the few members of the nobility with the stuff, if you will, to make reform happen. And yet so low has Montfort’s reputation sunk among modern scholars that there is even a tendency to overturn one cherished tradition. We know that he had seen a copy of Grosseteste’s tract on tyranny and justice and it had been long held that this fired his imagination in the service of good government. Now the suggestion is that Grosseteste sent it to Simon as a critique of his own administration in Gascony, that he was the tyrant who needed reining in. I don’t agree with this supposition at all.
Montfort’s behaviour after his unexpected success at the Battle of Lewes is sometimes cast in a selfish light; privileging settling his own grievances and securing lucrative positions for his sons, over and above an idealistic pursuit of reform. Where do you sit on this assessment? How much did personal and financial interests affect his rule?
There seems to be something offensive about any leader of a popular movement who doesn’t subordinate his private interests in favour of idealistic pursuits. It smacks of the Bolshevik philosophy of revolution, that sacrificing your family’s welfare is the ultimate testament to the cause, that appearance matters above all else. Of course, they were notorious hypocrites, seizing everything in the name of the state and then helping themselves to the coffers behind gilded doors. There is no doubt that Montfort believed that he and Eleanor deserved to have their claims settled like anyone else, plus they were concerned about the future of their children like anybody else. Henry certainly did little while he was in power, now Montfort would remedy that situation and at the same time secure the constitutional monarchy, because as everyone knows, the nobility was apt to betray him at some point or other. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that he didn’t just entrust lands and positions to his sons in any kind of blatant manner. He let them have it when they deserved it. But he depended on them to the same extent he depended on Montfortian stalwarts like Hugh Despenser, Peter de Montfort, and the bishops. They apparently didn’t have any problem with the way he went about distributing land and patronage. Perhaps for many historians the idea that Montfort in the end was out to enrich his family best explains the suddenness of his downfall. It had offended Gilbert de Clare above all, who was concerned that Montfort had abandoned the Provisions, and so he defected to Edward and the Marchers. This explanation forgets that Clare made out as well as anyone, being given possession of Pembroke and parts of Surrey, which he exploited for his betrayal, and the swiftness he employed in trying to seize Montfortian properties after Evesham reveals his true motivation. Montfort’s downfall can be attributed to many factors, and trying to accommodate this easily disgruntled young man with too high of an opinion of himself and his abilities was definitely one of them.
Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 celebrates its 750th anniversary this year. How conscious was Montfort, in your assessment, of attempting something new in this assembly? To what extent do you think he was reacting to immediate circumstances, or following a longer term plan?
Henry himself made one of the great if inadvertent contributions to the development of Parliament by summoning the knights in 1254 to ask for an aid. Simon was there and no doubt keenly observed the grievances brought up by these representatives. In the second of his showdowns with the king, in 1261, he decided to hold his own rogue Parliament to consist of such locally elected knights, and it was later to them that he turned with his plan for the constitutional monarchy after Lewes. So we have this idea of a more politically inclusive Parliament going back at least ten years and Montfort was nothing if not politically astute. By 1265, it was already clear he could no longer rely on the great men of the realm, so he turned to the lesser men, which in many ways can be seen as the forerunner of the House of Commons. His invitation to the burgesses in January 1265 is of significant importance because it also points the way beyond the feudal state. The growing business, or money class, in England was becoming just as dominant as the landed aristocracy, and Montfort welcomed their support because that was the future, whether or not he personally agreed with it at heart. He was already pointing in this direction six months prior to summoning the 1265 Parliament with his Peace of Canterbury, which hinted that the constitutional monarchy would continue into the next reign, thereby institutionalizing these radical reforms. He certainly wasn’t alone there and drew plenty of inspiration from mentors like Grosseteste, Cantilupe, and even Louis in France, but it did take a man of his stamp to make them work.
The ethos of the reform movement seems to have influenced policies under Edward I, despite the latter’s clear commitment to his personal sovereignty. How do you characterise Montfort’s influence on his nephew during the period leading up to 1264? Would you argue for a direct influence, or is it more subtle than that?
Edward is always a tough read because he was much more extreme in everything he did than Montfort ever was. England might well have been the wonder of the Middle Ages had he applied that energy to his father’s artistic tastes instead of crushing foe after foe. His early alliance with Montfort seems to have been sincere. True, he was out to defy his parents, but even after he caved the first time, in 1260, he was still the centre of a group of young idealists interested in reform. It was after he caved the second time a year later that he was lost to the movement. Violence was always his answer to shame and humiliation and so he made his uncle the special target of his hatred leading up to both Lewes and Evesham. I don’t necessarily see Edward as a reformer at all as king, rather much more politically sensitive than his father ever was, and so early on he adopted several of the Montfortian precedents not out of any idealism, but to keep the realm quiet and his authority secure.
Louise Wilkinson and Lars Kjaer respectively have cast the Countess of Leicester as an important and active supporter of reform, for instance, by providing hospitality that enabled her to maintain key political networks for the Montfort family. How does your biography deal with the Countess’s involvement in her husband’s political agenda?
I would like the reader to think that where they see Simon, Eleanor is close at hand. Modern historians have been equally severe to her, in part I believe because of a few admonitions from Adam Marsh. I was quite surprised to find a female biographer like Margaret Labarge describing her with words like shrill and nagging. Perhaps Eleanor could be haughty and a bit full of herself, but we also get touching glimpses of her wanting to be a mother, cheerfully providing assistance to Grosseteste, taking her children to church, and her fear for her husband during the ordeal of Gascony. We even see her as friends of Margaret the Lacy even though that lady received more favourable treatment from Eleanor’s brother, the king. I don’t doubt she and Simon had a tempestuous marriage – how could it be otherwise given the circumstances of it even taking place at all? – but it was enduring, and his friendships with the great reformers were just as much hers. Securing southern England from invasion after Lewes was vital and the Montfort family’s operations there, with Eleanor running it from her base in Odiham, was key to it. It’s little wonder she chose to spend her final days with the Montforts of France rather than give her brother the satisfaction of dictating terms to her.
Calls to canonize Montfort arose soon after his death and had to be prohibited by royal decree, which indicates he had achieved strong and fairly widespread support beyond elite political circles. To what extent do you think this was prompted by idealism, or a cultivated political approach to secure the future of reform?
Political shrines in those days served lots of purposes. For peasants, pilgrimages could offer a miracle or at least a goal in life other than threshing corn and dying. For the clergy, they were moneymakers, and for discontented nobles a way of rallying the opposition. All three were the case for Montfort’s shrine in Evesham, but it is perhaps the devotion of the peasants that is most endearing. They risked corporal punishment and losing what little they owned for making the trek to Evesham, but they had come to learn that they too were part of a political community, which they owed to Montfort’s revolution. This of course was anathema to Henry and Edward, not only in terms of the power it implied, but any memory of Simon de Montfort was a reminder of their shame, and that’s why Edward, at least, made it a point to reabsorb the diehard Montfortians. When we think of the tale of John de Vescy and his relic of Simon’s foot encased in silver, one can imagine Edward winning him over with all sorts of flattery and promises, and once Vescy clamps his seal on the document, Edward asks him, “By the way, John, you still got that foot somewhere?”
The sources of thirteenth century England are especially rich, not only in administrative detail but also in descriptions and assessments of the personalities involved, which must be of great value to a biographer. What have been your most valuable sources in reconstructing the Earl’s personality and motives, and why?
Like most biographers and historians of that period, I am indebted to Matthew Paris the most because of his penchant for detail, flair and candidness. True, he’s biased and his rants can sometimes get out of control, but it is certainly our loss that he died just as the reform period was taking off. In the case of Montfort, the sources swing wildly from one end to the other as we might expect of political dailies today, and that helps to keep everything in perspective. Unfortunately, my understanding of Medieval Latin is very limited and so I must rely on translations, which in the case of Wykes or Rishinger I was not able to obtain a single full copy of. That’s where secondary sources become invaluable, because without them, I wouldn’t have known where to turn for original input or receive inspiration for taking up this compelling story in the first place.
Thanks Darren for giving us these extra insights into your thinking on the complex character of the Earl of Leicester. You can get a copy of Darren’s book direct from the publisher in the UK, or via the Book Depository. RRP £20.
* The book will be released on 19 April in the USA.