The Song of Simon de Montfort: England’s First Revolutionary and the Death of Chivalry

Sophie Thérèse Ambler. Oxford University Press, 2019. 428 pages. $29.95.

Song of Simon de Montfort cover image

By Allen D. Boyer

“Our English Catiline,” Sir Edward Coke called Simon de Montfort: meaning a man of patrician lineage, serious intellect, and military distinction—and at the same time ambitious, arrogant, and violent. In all its contradictions and fascinations, that singular personality stands out in The Song of Simon de Montfort

In this debut biography—knowledgeably, lucidly—Sophie Thérèse Ambler unpacks a conflict that has been controversial for almost eight centuries, the struggle between de Montfort and Henry III of England, the clash between an indolent king and his most ambitious subject.

With hindsight, Simon de Montfort has been seen as a parliamentarian. Ambler convincingly portrays him as a Crusader. It was an inheritance from his father, also named Simon de Montfort (whom Ambler calls “the Count,” to avoid confusion). “If the measure of a great lord was in his following,” Ambler writes, then the Count “stood as one of the greatest lords of Europe, for he commanded God’s army in Languedoc.” He had been a brutal dévot commander, slain at Toulouse when the townspeople sallied out against him. To this background, Ambler traces Simon’s implacable faith and fierce commitment to principle, which went with an overweening confidence in his own rights and abilities. Simon himself, like Archbishop Thomas Becket, secretly wore a hair shirt. 

Simon came to England in about 1230. He was a landless younger son, just of age, pressing a tentative claim to a title. Henry welcomed Simon, named him Earl of Leicester (Simon had talked the previous earl into supporting his claim) and sent him to govern Gascony, the last fragment of English Aquitaine. He allowed him to marry his sister Eleanor.

Henry III, as David Carpenter’s recent biography illustrates magnificently, gave to the Church. Ambler focuses on how Simon made allies of churchmen. He was close to Robert Grosseteste, the scholarly Bishop of Lincoln. Expanding on Aristotle, Grosseteste argued that no subject should raise his hand against an anointed king—but opined further that a king who lived above his means, burdening his subjects with taxes, became a tyrant. Grosseteste sent his disciple Simon a summary of this new definition of kingship in 1249. This was precisely when the king’s judges and sheriffs were raising royal revenues with new fees, fines, and proceedings (the eyre of 1245-49 netted King Henry approximately £22,000, “a massive sum not far off the level of the crown’s ordinary annual income”).

During the parliament of 1258, Simon was one of the barons who donned armor to challenge King Henry. That confrontation brought years of deadlock. When the barons had the upper hand, they forced through the Provisions of Oxford, forcing the king to let a council rule. Henry objected; the council answered that “when the king talks sense he should have his way.” These replies, Ambler suggests, were “caustic—and sometimes sneering”; they “have a familiar air: could it have been Simon who was tasked with responding to the king?”

Within the politics, there were dynastic and constitutional tensions. Forty years before, England’s disgruntled barons had talked of bringing in Simon’s godly father to replace King John, Henry’s father. The elder Montfort had issued a charter, the Statute of Pamiers, which provided for government by council, protected subjects’ rights, and forbade the sale of justice—before Magna Carta, and foreshadowing his son’s efforts to enforce Magna Carta. Simon’s own sons, in their turn, were King John’s grandsons, young men whose blood placed them in line for the throne.

In 1264, matters came to open war. At the battle of Lewes, Simon led the rebel army that captured the king and his son, the formidable Lord Edward. Early the next year, Simon and the other barons called a parliament—the first such assembly to deserve the name of Parliament, it has been said, because knights and burgesses, as well as nobles and churchmen, were summoned to discuss the state of the realm. Ambler writes:

“The gathering of such men . . .  provided a singular opportunity to promote the new regime—for if they could be persuaded of the council’s virtue then they would carry the sentiment home at the parliament’s close . . . .  The assembled men of parliament—bishops, abbots and priors, barons, knights and townsmen—represented a body that might equal or even surpass the king himself in authority: the community of the kingdom.”

Greed and aggression tarnished this moment. Simon enriched his family at Henry’s expense, transferring royal estates to himself and his sons. Rebel armies slaughtered Jews and looted their property. When other barons sought a share of the spoils, Simon responded “all too briefly or lightly.” He traveled with a threatening retinue of knights—scores of them, nearly 200, crucesignati in surcoats whose sword arms bore the sign of the cross. Anachronistically, but inevitably, this calls to mind the fascist armbands of a later century.

The Lord Edward was a tall, muscular, fair-haired young man, fond of jousting and fighting—hot-headed, too, but with an active mind inside the violence. He was imprisoned under the guard of his Montfort cousins, who might claim the crown if he died. Edward did not misunderstand his peril. He escaped; he joined barons whom Simon had estranged; and, moving and fighting quickly, he trapped Simon’s forces at Evesham in the West Country, in a bend of the River Avon. 

Evesham was not simply a clash of armies—less a battle than a murder, it was called. Simon died there. This is the end of chivalry in Ambler’s subtitle. It was partly the result “of the Montforts’ choice to dedicate themselves to holy war, in which chivalric principles did not apply.” It was also a political reaction that was only to be expected after Simon’s political choices: to treat a middle-aged king as an immature princeling, to parade the king and his son as a spectacle in Westminster Hall, to seize royal lands as if he expected never to relinquish them. Finally, it was also the choice of the Lord Edward, who detailed a mounted squadron and gave no quarter to Simon’s closest followers. The violence unleashed at Evesham warned what Edward, as king, would do to Welsh princes, Scottish patriots, or anyone charged with coining.

Evesham ended the threat to Henry and his dynasty, but the idea of reform had spread. The English people had heard of the barons’ project in The Song of Lewes, a long work in rhyming Latin couplets that praised Simon as a charismatic leader. Ambler writes:

“This force was Simon’s most potent weapon: for what he was attempting—the transformation of the known political order—was radical. Without their charismatic patron, the Provisions would have been nothing more than a flicker in the political dark, forgotten as the shock of the first coup was absorbed, and the political community settled back into a conservative and comfortable pattern. It was Simon and his magnetic power that could thrust the radical Provisions through the barrier of custom.”

That the people heard of the Provisions and Parliament was Simon de Montfort’s greatest good fortune while he lived. Fittingly, Ambler’s title alludes to the Song of Lewes. For the broadening of the English political community was the good that Simon did that lived after him.

Allen D. Boyer (ΦBK, Vanderbilt University) is completing a history of the law of treason in England.  Vanderbilt University is home to the Alpha of Tennessee chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.