Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Simon de Montfort and Simon de Montfort

Simon de Montfort and Simon de Montfort
By Katherine Ashe (author of the four-volume series ‘Montfort’.)

In February of the year 1230 – or 1229 by the way they calculated years then, starting at Easter – a French youth appeared at the Court of Henry III of England claiming the title of Earl of Leicester, and its companion honor Steward of England. He was jettisoned from the Court and later offered insulting pay as a mercenary. Yet, few months after his ignominious visit to Westminster, with the support of his cousin Ranulf the Earl of Chester, he did manage to persuade King Henry to pay him the earldom’s rents. Later he would indeed be Earl of Leicester, and later still, he would make Parliament a reality, harnessing the powers of King Henry.

The youth was Simon de Montfort, and the name already was famous by 1229. His father, for whom he was named, was a leader of the Third Crusade. He refused to become entangled with the politics of Constantinople and took his forces on to Palestine, while the rest of his fellow-crusaders covered themselves with shame in the imperial upheavals. For his single-mindedness, Simon de Montfort Pere was looked upon as a hero.

Today he’s looked upon as a ruthless opportunist. In the France to which Simon Pere and his Normandy knights returned, there was a new religion rising which the papacy condemned as heretical. Named for the southern French city of Albi, a center of their preaching, the Albigensians were gaining converts from conventional Catholicism by the virtuous lives they lived and the astute reasoning of their market-square preaching. Their religion entailed a forty-day fast and a celebratory meal, followed by another forty day fast. Those who survived this regimen were confirmed as Cathars: Pure Ones.

Pope Innocent III commissioned Dominic Felix de Guzman (Saint Dominic) to found a preaching order to counter this increasingly popular diversion from standard Christianity. But when the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered, the Pope took military measures. A knight who went on crusade to the Holy Land received forgiveness of his debts and of his sins; now those highly desirable gifts were offered for a far less costly crusade merely to southern France.

Thousands of northern French knights responded, converging on the south with a holy license to destroy. They entrapped six thousand Albigensians in the church at Bezier, piled wood around the building and roasted to death every man, woman and child within. Recovering from this bout of blood-lust, the crusaders realized they needed a leader. But no one much wanted the dubious honor of making the murderous roisterers into a proper fighting force. Simon de Montfort eventually accepted the command, and of course has been blamed for the Bezier horror.

Fighting a lengthy war against the lords of southern France who harbored the Albigensians, Simon Pere was forced to hire mercenaries at his own expense. He conquered most of the strategic cities, setting up for himself a dukedom that included Foix, Toulouse and Carcassone. Then, during his absence from the city, Toulouse managed to rebel. Simon found the outer walls held against him. When he attacked, he was killed by a stone hurled from a mangonel mounted on the wall and operated by a woman. Toulouse still celebrates the event with an image of a lamb skewering a toppled lion with the point of a flagpole. (In a taxi in Toulouse I made a favorable remark about Simon de Montfort. The driver stopped the car, fished in the trunk, found a tire-iron and came at me. I escaped through the car’s farther door.)

Young Simon had been born at Carcassone at some time between 1209 and 1213 and was far too young to take part in his father’s wars. But the eldest son, Amaury, led his father’s forces – and had devastatingly little success. With money owed their mercenaries and the assets of the family’s holding, Montfort l’Amaury, bankrupted, Amaury had little choice but to cede the family’s conquests to the Crown of France. (The Languedoc region of southern France has an active separatist movement and blames the Montforts for their being incorporated into France at all. Hence my narrow escape from the taxi driver.)

Normal medieval practice usually included providing a virtual hostage to insure the contact-giver’s commitment to the agreement. The obvious choice available for Amaury to offer to the Crown of France was his little brother Simon, whose mother was also dead by 1221, and hence unable to object. But such hostages in Paris enjoyed considerable advantages of education in the most scholarly and devout court in Christendom.

There is no record of young Simon’s childhood, but his excellent education, as attested by the letters of his Franciscan friends who were among the foremost scholars of the era, and the great fondness and trust repeatedly placed in him by King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) and his mother Queen Blanche, who was regent for Louis, suggest that Simon – as I propose in my book –probably served as that hostage and was the little King of France’s childhood companion. Queen Blanche even saw fit to betroth this title-less, virtually landless and penniless orphan to Johanna the Princess of Flanders, another child-hostage at her court, but one with immense wealth and power as her dowry. Johanna eventually wed Thomas the Count of Provence.

That betrothal, and every other connection with the Court of France, collapsed for Simon after he pledged his liege to Henry III to obtain his earldom’s rents. Gossip of the period had Blanche cursing Simon and his fleeing from France. What was the dispute about? Simon’s brother Amaury repeatedly had petitioned Henry III for the Leicester titles and had been refused – understandably. Amaury was Marshall of France. He was responsible for providing mounts and pack-animals for the French Crown’s military campaigns, and England and France were at war, though in a desultory sort of way. Simon first appears in England after Amaury’s efforts irrevocably have come to naught, and at a time when France feared an English invasion.

Queen Blanche was noted for her network of spies. Was she hoping to place an agent in Henry’s Court? A man who could inform her of Henry’s plans, and possibly could influence the young and inept king away from military actions? Was Simon sent to be that agent, in his brother’s stead? And once he had pledged his solemn and holy oath of liege to Henry, as was required of him, did he then consider it would be an act of disloyalty to his pledged lord to serve Queen Blanche as her spy? My belief is that something along these lines was the cause of young Simon’s early rift with the French royal family.

That rift was mended in the years to come – though probably not by his being a secret agent for France. In 1252, when the Queen Regent was dying and Louis was on crusade in Palestine, Blanche named Simon Regent of France, a position he held with such success that the English chroniclers claim the French were temptingly considering that he would be a better king than Louis. Simon did not remain in France to seize power for himself, but fled, returning to the service of King Henry and England. And Louis hurriedly returned from Palestine, where he was being offered a sultanate if only he would convert to Islam.

Partial list of Sources:

Bemont, Charles, Simon de Montfort, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1930.

Excerpta e Rotulis Finium in Turri Londdinensi Asservatis Henry III, 1216-1272, ed. C.Roberts, Public Record Office, 1835-36.

Labarge, Margaret Wade, Simon de Montfort, Eyre and Spottiswood, London, 1962. Page 22 indicates that author’s leaning to my theory of Simon’s childhood at the Court of France.

Luard, H.R., Rolls Series, Vol. III.

Matthew Paris’s English History from 1235 to 1273, translated by the Rev. J. A. Giles, Henry Bohn, London, 1852, is a full English translation of the 13th century Latin Chronica Majora of the monk Matthew Paris of Saint Albans, the principal chronicler of the period. (The Kessinger reprint currently available is not complete.)

Please see my Volume One, Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243, for a full bibliography, and discussion of these points in the Historical Context section of the book.

The four volumes of Montfort are available in soft cover and Kindle formats from Amazon.

Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243;

Montfort The Viceroy 1243 to 1253

Montfort The Revolutionary 1253 to 1260

Montfort The Angel with the Sword 1260 to 1265

About the author: Katherine has spent thirty-four years researching Simon de Montfort and his times, building her work from original documents. Montfort is a speculative history using the novel form to answer the questions of how and why the actual events could have happened. While writing Montfort, Katherine also wrote film, stage and radio-play scripts on such historically diverse subjects as Cesare Borgia and Johnny Mitchell of the 1902 coal miners’ strike. As Katherine says, “It’s all research.”

Please visit:
Simon de Montfort on Facebook
Katherine Ashe on Facebook

Monday, August 9, 2010

chivalry, truth and the Medieval world

You out there who are reading, reenacting, going to Renaissance faires, opting out of the 21st century if just for a little while to be in the Middle Ages.

What is it we are looking for? Not a time when life was easier. It is as if we have some fundamental "hard wired" hunger for elements of that past time: for a knowledge of herbs, for loyalty to a personally known and nearby figure of leadership, for clothing that celebrates the human shape instead of merely covering it, or concealing it.

For a social system that is knowable: for a system where we are not cast out at the end of high school or college into a vastly complex world where we must sink or swim. In the Middle Ages, and for eons back through time, men and women knew their place in the world from birth, though there was room for the energetic and ambitious to move upward, or the very unfortunate to move downward.

But for most people life was going to be what it was for their parents. What old people knew had value because the world had not changed so greatly during their lifespan as to make their experience irrelevant. The young could feel comfort in the wisdom of their parents.

It is this comfort of continuity, I believe, that we seek in the Middle Ages. We have the traditional culture imprinted within us. We are drawn to it as a magnet draws iron.

For the last third of a century I have spent my most contented hours researching the life and times of Simon de Montfort. His life was far from happy, the complexities that beset him were very "modern": in addition to his loving the wrong women, he struggled with high interest rates and the jealousy of his fellow lords -- what amounted to his co-workers.

But though his problems were not so different from current issues, his solutions -- honor, truthfulness, care for his family, fidelity to the principles he had come to believe in -- are eternal and yet seem to be slipping from view in our current time amidst the hurly burly of ambition, insecurity and a culture that seems more and more to be holding greed and celebrity as the principal virtues.

How can we capture for ourselves what we perceive to be of worth in the Middle Ages?