Simon de Montfort and King Henry III: The First Revolution in English History, 1258–1265
By Sophie T. Ambler
History Compass, Volume 11/12, 2013
Introduction: The Montfortian revolution was the greatest assault on royal power in England before the 17th century civil war. In 1258, a group of barons seized the reins of government from King Henry III of England (1216–1272) and governed by a council in his name. Over the next few years the country was plunged into civil war as Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, sought to entrench conciliar control, before Montfort’s rule was ended in 1265 in the bloody mess that was the battle of Evesham.
Arguably, few periods in medieval history can rival this one for drama, or the abundance and variety of sources that testify to it. Even so, these events are relatively unfamiliar amongst the general public, perhaps because Henry III is overshadowed by a more famous (or, rather, infamous) father and son: the cruel and rapacious King John and the courageous but brutal Edward I. Henry’s contemporary epithet was ‘simplex’: at best ‘straightforward’, at worst ‘simple-minded’. Led astray by more forceful personalities, Henry was nevertheless generous hearted and, above all, pious. This is not the sort of personality to grab headlines.
Conversely, his brother-in-law and captor, Simon de Montfort, was possessed of a personality that mined the greatest depths of both devotion and hatred amongst his contemporaries. This combination of personality and political upheaval has long enticed researchers, although this is not a field marked by great scholarly debate. Research has been undertaken in the past 20 years or so by a cooperative circle of scholars and their students, particularly by David Carpenter and his school, who have worked closely with the sources to explore these events and their protagonists in the context of 13th century cultures and society.