Saint Simon? The Death of Simon de Montfort in Contemporary Chronicles

Simon-de-Montfort

Statue of Simon de Montfort on Haymarket Clock Tower in Leicester

Thirteenth-century England was characterised by periods of civil strife. King John’s refusal to uphold the Magna Carta, despite having signed and ratified the document only weeks earlier, brought the country to a civil war in 1215 that would last for two years. Magna Carta itself was based on Henry I’s Charter of Liberties and defended individual and ecclesiastical rights with a view to limiting the despotic nature of Angevin kingship. After King John’s death from dysentery in 1216, the nine-year old Henry III was crowned and, on 12th November 1216, the Magna Carta was reissued in his name. Although many of the barons were now reconciled with the new king, the war continued until September 1217, partially as a result of the international policies of the French Louis VII. Although conditions initially improved under the young Henry III, by the 1250s the now-older king’s reckless and uncontrollable spending, combined with his preference for foreign favourites, had sown the seeds of discontent that eventually culminated in a Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267).

 

Overview of Simon de Montfort’s Life and the Second Barons’ War

Simon de Montfort (c. 1208 – 4 August 1265) was the son of a Frenchman, also Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. He was brought up in France and came to England in 1229 with no knowledge of English. Upon his arrival, de Montfort gave up his right to his familial lands in France and, instead, petitioned for English inheritance, which he was accordingly granted.

His position as a close favourite of Henry was cemented when he married the King’s sister, Eleanor, in January 1238. However, the friendship was not to last and, early in 1239, de Montfort and his family fled court. Simon departed for the Holy Land as part of the Barons’ Crusade, returning in late 1241 to assist Henry in his campaign against Louis IX. Despite this reconciliation, the years following were turbulent and Simon’s relationship with the King fluctuated wildly. By 1254, Simon was at the head of baronial opposition in parliament and, at the ‘Mad Parliament’ of 1258, the barons, led by de Montfort, succeeding in convincing Henry to ratify the Provisions of Oxford, which reasserted the rights of the barons to governmental representation and demanded that parliament meet three times a year. Despite this initial success, in 1261 – and with the assistance of Pope Clement IV – Henry III revoked his assent to this legislation and, by 1263, the early battles of the Second Barons’ War were underway.

On 14th May 1264, the King and Prince Edward were taken hostage at the Battle of Lewes. Simon de Montfort became the de facto ruler of the kingdom and Henry III was, again, forced to assent to the Provisions of Oxford. Although this left the barons in a strong position, the Pope issued bulls of excommunication to de Montfort and many of his supporters (although there is considerable debate as to how official these excommunications were). In May 1265, Prince Edward escaped and amassed an army of royalists and baronial defectors, including Gilbert de Clare, de Montfort’s former ally. The massacre of Simon the Younger’s army in a night-time raid at Kenilworth further weakened the barons’ position and, at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265, they were defeated. Simon de Montfort was killed and his body mutilated. His hands and feet were cut off and sent to different corners of the country whilst his decapitated head, with his testicles ‘hung on either side of his nose’, was sent to his wife. Despite de Montfort’s death, the war rumbled on. An effort to broker peace was attempted in 1266 through the Dictum of Kenilworth (31 October 1266), which overturned the Provisions of Oxford, re-established royal prerogative and, in return, saw Henry reconfirm the Magna Carta. The final barons surrendered in the summer of 1267 and the war was over. Whilst Henry III and the papacy forbade any popular veneration of Simon de Montfort or the reporting of his miracles, his illegal, popular cult continued to garner support across the country.

Like the Becket Affair, the Second Barons’ War engendered an enormous amount of literary production. Political songs in Latin, Anglo-Norman and English were written to celebrate Simon de Montfort’s victory at the Battle of Lewes (1164) and to bewail his death a year later. Contemporary monastic chronicles of the day expanded their remits from local, institutional concerns to include an account of the conflict and miracle collections were compiled by William de Rishanger and monks at the Abbey of Evesham. The majority of these accounts were profoundly pro-baronial in their biases and many constructed Simon de Montfort as a martyr.

This month we are reading two extracts from contemporary Latin chronicles of the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham and the fragments of two late-thirteenth century motets celebrating Simon’s sanctity.

 

The Chronicle of Melrose

The Chronicle of Melrose covers the period between 745 and 1270. It was written at the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose, on the Scottish border and, in the twelfth century, was a source text for a number of important chroniclers – including Roger of Hoveden. Like almost every other contemporary chronicle of the Second Barons’ War, the Chronicle of Melrose is profoundly pro-baronial in its biases.

 

The Westminster Continuation of the Flores Historiarum

The Westminster Continuation extends Matthew Paris’ Flores Historiarum from 1265 to 1307 and is an extremely contemporary source for the Second Barons’ War – and the only extant pro-Henrician one. The bias of this chronicle is perhaps not surprising considering that Henry III was the abbey’s benefactor and patron and his government was located next door to the abbey itself.

 

Miles Christi and Salve Symon

These are two late-thirteenth century fragmentary motets (a piece of choral music, usually sung unaccompanied and regularly included in liturgical offices) celebrating Simon de Montfort. They are found, respectively, in Cambridge, St John’s College, MS 138 (f. 1) and Cambridge, Jesus College, MS QB 5. These fragments illustrate that, despite the popularity of his cult, Simon de Montfort was celebrated in official liturgical offices for at least some time after his death.

 

Topics for discussion

  • How does each text present the reasons for the conflict? How do they construct their respective protagonists and antagonists?
  • What role does law, nationality and religion play in each of these chronicles? How are they manipulated and to what effect?
  • How does rhetoric function in these texts?
  • How do we read the rhetoric of sanctity bestowed on Simon de Montfort by the Melrose Chronicle and the two fragmentary motets? How is it legitimised? What are its purposes? How problematic is the translation of such rhetoric to a secular figure?
  • What use do the texts make of authority?
  • What is the role of an anti-monarchical and anti-papal popular saint?

 

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