Simon de Montfort and the historians
By Daniel Waley
Sussex Archaeological Collections No.140 (2002)
Abstract: The career and personality of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (c. 1208– 1265), the leader of the baronial revolt against King Henry III, provides a striking exemplar of the malleability of historiographical opinion. Montfort has been treated as hero and villain and (misleadingly) as ‘the founder of the House of Commons’. The attitudes of the writers discussed in this article should be interpreted in the light of their own times — for instance, the English Civil War, the Jacobite risings, the French Revolution and nineteenth-century Liberalism. The emphasis in the article is on the importance to the historian of his historical background rather than on his exploitation of new sources.
Introduction: Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, is a figure much in the foreground in Lewes. He was the victor of the battle fought in 1264, the event with which Lewes is most generally associated, and street names in the town (Leicester Road, Prince Edward Road and others) commemorate the battle. However, the topic of this lecture is not the life, career or achievements of the great earl, but what historians have written about him; my theme is historiography.
Nevertheless, a preliminary biographical word is necessary. Simon was born around 1208 and he died in 1265. He was mainly French by descent (only one of his four grandparents was English) and he was born in France. In 1230 he came to England and there he was promoted to posts of importance by the king, Henry III. He married the king’s sister Eleanor and in 1239 was created Earl of Leicester. A preliminary sentence on Henry III (reigned 1216– 72) is also required. Henry was an incompetent ruler, in difficult circumstances, his poor judgement being shown most evidently by his scheme, an absurdly over-ambitious one, for acquiring the crown of the Sicilian kingdom for his son Edmund. Montfort became prominent among the king’s many baronial critics by 1258, the date of the Provisions of Oxford which enshrined a constitutional scheme for conciliar control of the royal authority. By 1263 he was the leader of the baronial opposition to his royal brother-in-law. He defeated Henry and his son Edward at Lewes. In January 1265 he was responsible for the summons of a parliamentary gathering, to which a number of borough representatives were summoned, this being an innovation in England. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Evesham in August of the same year.