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Hero or Villain?: Two views on Simon de Montfort, Crusade Leader

There is perhaps no better medieval example of the phase ‘Truth is in the eye of the beholder’ than these two versions of the death of Simon de Montfort, the leader of the crusaders during the Albigensian Crusade. 

 

In the early 13th century the Papacy called for a crusade against the Cathars – a Christian sect that had emerged in recent years in southern France. The Catholic Church was determined to eradicate these heretics, as well as those who supported them, and offered those who would fight against the Cathars both spiritual and worldly benefits. The call for crusade was taken up by many nobles from northern France, including Simon IV of Montfort, lord of Montfort-l’Amaury and earl of Leicester. By the year 1209 he was elected the leader of the crusaders and became the count over the lands he confiscated from the various nobles of southern France who resisted the invasion.

The Albigensian crusades, which lasted for twenty years, were known for its ferocity and brutal behaviour of its participants. Many atrocities were recorded as fighting raged in the mountainous countryside in southern France. To learn more about it, please read Malcolm Barber’s article The Albigensian Crusades: Wars Like Any Other?

The two most important accounts of the Albigensian Crusade comes from almost diametrically opposite viewpoints. The first is Historia Albigensis by Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, a monk from northern France who was an eyewitness to the crusader and a supporter of Count Simon. The second source is the Song of the Cathar Wars, an epic poem that was mostly written by anonymous southern writer who was very critical of both Simon and the crusaders.

To help show readers how different these two writers approached the events of the Albigensian Crusade, here is how they presented one of the most important events of the war – the death of Simon de Montfort, which took place on June 25, 1218, as he and his forces were besieging the city of  Toulouse.

Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay begins the story:

The noble Count had now been engaged on the siege of Tolouse for about nine months. One day – it was the day after the feast of John the Baptist – the defenders in Toulouse armed themselves at first light, intending with their usual deceitfulness and inborn maliciousness, to make a sudden attack on our men whilst some were still asleep and others attending divine service. To ensure a more savage attack on an unprepared foe, a more brutal assault on unprepared men, a part of their force was directed against the soldiers deputed to guard our siege-engines, whilst the rest planned to strike our camp from another direction. In this way they hoped that our men, unarmed and attacked on two fronts, would be too disorganised to resist their foes and too weak to withstand a two-fold assault.

The noble Count was told that his enemies had taken up their arms and were positioned inside their fortified lines near their defensive ditch. The report reached him as he was attending Matins. He ordered his armour to be got ready, put it on and, true Christian that he was, hurried to the chapel to hear Mass. The Mass had already started and the Count was devoutly at prayer when a huge Toulousian force left their trenches by concealed pathways, raised their standards, and with a great clamour ferociously attacked our men guarding the siege engines near the ditch….

The Death of Simon de Montfort at the siege of Toulouse - drawn by Alphonse de Neuville and created in 1883
The Death of Simon de Montfort at the siege of Toulouse – drawn by Alphonse de Neuville and created in 1883

As the battle continued, Simon de Montfort refused pleas to join the fray until the Mass was nearly over. Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay continues:

As the priest raised the Host in the usual manner the Count, kneeling but with arms raised to heaven, said most devoutly: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” He continued: Let us go and if needs must die for Him who deigned to die for us.” So saying, this most invincible of men hurried to the fight.

The battle now grew fiercer, many on both side were wounded and others slain, but with the arrival of Jesus Christ’s knight our courage and our strength were doubled. All our adversaries were repulsed and bravely driven back to their trenches by our men. The Count and those with him withdrew a little in face of the hail of stones and intolerable storm of arrows. They took their stand in front of the siege-engines, using hurdles to protect themselves from stones and arrows, for the enemy were firing intense salvoes against us from two trebuchets, a mangonel and numerous sling-staffs.

Then, tragedy struck the crusaders’ forces:

…the Count was courageously standing his ground with his men in front of our siege-engines, near the ditch, to prevent the enemy from renewing their attack on the engines. Suddenly a stone from an enemy mangonel struck Christ’s knight on the head. The blow was lethal. Twice beating his breast he commended his soul to God and the Blessed Virgin. Like St Stephen – and stone to death in that Saint’s city – he went to rest in the Lord’s keeping. Before he received the fatal wound the Lord’s brave knight – say rather, if we are not mistaken, His most gloriously martyr – was five times wounded by the enemy archers, like the Saviour for whom he now patiently accepted death, and by whose side he now lives in sublime peace, as we believe.

Meanwhile, in the Song of the Cathar Wars the anonymous author describes how the northern crusaders have a brought a siege machine known as a cat towards Toulouse, hoping to use it as protection to storm the walls. The defenders of the town meet and decide that they would need to sally out from behind their walls to attack and destroy the siege machine. After reporting on the fine speeches given by the defenders, – including one who exhorts his comrades to “Keep hitting hard at the backs of their knees and when the fight is over, they’ll be carrion.”- he begins to narrate the battle:

Our men went down the ladders, deployed onto open ground and occupied the levels, shouting, “Toulouse! Now the fire’s alight! Kill them, kill them, it’s the only way!”

The French and the men of Berry received their attack, shouting, “Montfort! Montfort! Now we’ll show up your lies!” Fierce was the struggle wherever they could meet; with swords, lances and sharpened steel they fought and struck on helmets from Bavaria. Twice Sir Arnold of Lomagne cried out to them: “Strike, sweet comrades, remember freedom! Today sets paratage free from the powers of hell!”

The anonymous writer then moves onto the scene with Simon at mass:

At this point a squire came up to the count shouting, “My lord count de Montfort, you are too slow! This piety is disastrous! The men of Toulouse have killed your knights, your troops and your best mercenaries. William is dead, so are Thomas, Garnier, and Sir Simon of Le Caire, Walter is wounded. Sir Peter of Voisons, Sir Aimery and Sir Rainier are holding the attack, they’re defending the men behind the shields. If we have to stand this slaughter any longer, you’ll never keep the fief!” The count shook and sighed, his face black with grief, and at the moment of elevation [of the communal Host] said, “Jesus Christ the righteous, now give me death on the field or victory!”

Immediately after this he ordered all his troops, his mercenaries and the barons of France to assemble with their Arab chargers. At once a good sixty thousand of them gathered. Then the count rode out fast at the head of them all, followed by Sir Sicard of Moutaut and his standard-bearer, by Sir John of Berzy, Sir Foucaud, Sir Richard and the whole mass of pilgrims. Their shouts, trumpets, horns and warcries, death flying from the slings and stones clattering from the mangonels came like a snowstorm, like thunder and tempest, and shook the town, the river and the riverbank. Fear struck them men of Toulouse and many fell into the ditches as they ran. But very soon they recovered, they made a sally across the orchards and gardens, and sergeants and javelin-men filled the area. Slender arrows and double quarrels, round stones and fast strong blows came flashing like flame from either side, like wind, like a rushing torrent.

The account continues with the moment of Simon de Montfort’s death:

…there was in the town a mangonel built by a carpenter and dragged with its platform from St Sermin. This was worked by noblewomen, by little girls and men’s wives, and now a stone arrived just where it was needed and struck Count Simon on his steel helmet, shattering his eyes, brains, back teeth, forehead and jaw. Bleeding and black, the count dropped dead on the ground. Jocelyn and Sir Aimery galloped to him at once and hurriedly covered him with a blue cape; but panic spread. How many knights and barons you would have heard lamenting, weeping under their helmets and crying out in anger! Aloud they exclaimed, “God, it is not right to let the count be killed! How stupid to serve you, to fight for you, when the daring count who was kind and daring, is killed by a stone like a criminal! Since you strike and slay your own servants, there’s no work for us here any more!”

Then they carried the count to the clergy and learned men, and the cardinal, the abbot and Bishop Fouquet received him sorrowfully with cross and censer.

But a messenger brought the news into Toulouse and such as the joy that all over the town they ran to the churches and lit candles  in all the candlesticks and cried out, “Rejoice! God is merciful and paratage shines forth, victorious for ever! The cruel and murderous count is dead, dead unshriven because he was a man of blood!” Trumpets, horns and universal joy, chimes and peals and clamouring bells in belfries, drums, tabors and slender clarions rang through the town till every paving-stone re-echoed.

Soon after the siege was abandoned, and Simon’s body was taken to Carcassonne and buried in its cathedral. It must have been a sad scene for Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay. Earlier in his work, he extolled the virtues of Simon, writing that “he was eloquent of speech, eminently approachable, a most congenial comrade-in-arms, of impeccable chastity, outstanding in humility, wise, firm of purpose, prudent in counsel, fair in giving judgment, diligent in the pursuit of military duties, circumspect in his actions, eager to set about a task, tireless in completing it, and totally dedicated to the service of God.”

Meanwhile, our anonymous southern writer, offers his own judgment of Simon de Montfort, noting what was said on his epitaph in Carcassonne’s cathedral:

The epitaph says, for those who can read it, that he is a saint and martyr who shall breathe again and shall in wondrous joy inherit and flourish, shall wear a crown and be seated in the kingdom. And I have heard it said that this must be so – if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths, by trusting evil counsels, by setting fires, destroying men, dishonouring paratage, seizing lands and encouraging pride, by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above.

Both accounts of the Albigensian Crusade have been translated and available to readers. Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay’s The History of the Albigensian Crusade was translated by W.A. Sibly and M.D. Sibly and published by Boydell and Brewer in 1998. The Song of the Cathar Wars: A History of the Albigensian Crusades, was translated by Janet Shirley and published by Ashgate in 1996 as part of their Crusade Texts and Translation series.

You can also purchase them on Amazon.com:

The History of the Albigensian Crusade

The Song of the Cathar Wars: A History of the Albigensian Crusades

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