Exactly 750 years ago to this week, on the 20th January 1265, elected representatives from all over the country gathered together for the first time to speak on behalf of their communities and some of the people living within them. It was an early demonstration of how democracy can rise over the absolute power of the monarchy and it laid the foundations of what is now called Parliament. One of the leaders of this popular movement was Simon de Montfort who took the first faltering steps towards freedom in a field by the Thames in a place now known as St Margarets. His story appeared in these pages in August 2012…
FRANCE early 13th century
AMAURY – Simon, I’ve got two lots of good news and two lots of bad news for you. What would you like first?
SIMON – Oh, is this a game?
AMAURY – Kind of… just choose one.
SIMON – How exciting. Right. I’ll start with some bad news.
AMAURY – The bad news is Dad’s dead.
SIMON – Dad’s dead? Oh dear… and the good news?
AMAURY – The good news? He had a lot of money and land – and he’s left it all to me. You get nothing.
SIMON – Oh…
AMAURY – …because you’re the youngest son. It’s the eldest son – moi – who gets the ducets.
SIMON – I’ll remember that! Right. Any more good news?
AMAURY – There is some land that Dad forgot about and you can have if you want?
SIMON – Could be useful….and the bad news?
AMAURY – The bad news is the land is in England and you’ll have to go over there and ask the King for it back!
So in 1230 aged 21 Simon de Montfort, born in France without title or money, came to England to see the King, Henry 3rd. Fortunately the king liked Simon and not only gave him back his family estate but also the title Duke of Leicester in return for £100 and a promise to supply 60 knights in time of war.
For all his good luck, his new title and his estate Simon was still short of cash so he set out to find himself a wife with some money. The woman he chose was Eleanor Plantagenet, one of the wealthiest women in the land and almost unbelievably, the sister of the king, Henry 3rd! Although the king was not initially keen on the match, he eventually accepted Simon as a brother-in-law, a military commander and one of his chief advisers. In 1248 he sent Simon to take control of Gascony, one of the few remaining areas in France still belonging to England. During his time working for Henry Simon began to realise that he was not a very good or a very just ruler. He felt that the only way that things would improve would be if the barons – of which Simon was one – were given a more active role in running the country. The other barons liked that idea. A lot. In 1258 they decided to do something about it.
In May of that year they went to see the king and suggested that in future he should consult his barons before making any decisions.. Fearing a civil war that he knew he would lose Henry 3rd grudgingly accepted the so called “Provisions of Oxford” which allowed the barons to form an advisory council and a parliament. Everyone looked forwarded to a brighter and more liberal future but it was not to be. In 1262 the King wrote to the Pope…
Do I have your permission to ignore the barons and their beastly “Provisions of Oxford”?
Dear King Henry,
Of course… and here’s a papal bull to prove it.
Simon and the barons didn’t care for this at all. On 29th June 1263 they held a series of meetings to discuss their grievances with the king who was staying in Isleworth. The place where they set up camp for their conference was Isleworth Park (a.k.a Twickenham Park) or what we who live in St Margarets now call – “The Barons”
Now there are many questions to be asked in St Margarets e.g – Do we need more bike racks in Crown Road? Shall we have a ‘whip round’ and see if we can refurbish the changing rooms on Moor Mead Park? but in the summer of 1263 there was only one question on everybody’s mind, peasant and peerage. What shall we do about the king and his unjust rule? After two weeks of negotiation in Isleworth Park the barons decided to ask the King of France to arbitrate. Now everybody knows that kings like to stick together and predictably the King of France voted in favour of his monarchical mate Henry 3rd. The barons were very upset and took up arms. On the 14th May 1264 at the Battle of Lewes the barons defeated the king and took him prisoner along with his brother, the Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Manor of Isleworth. When the citizens of London, who fiercely supported de Montfort, heard this last item of news they marched out to Isleworth and burnt the Manor House down!
Incidentally, because he had recently broken a leg falling from a horse Simon de Montfort directed operations at the Battle of Lewes from the back of a cart.
After his victory Montfort immediately organized a new parliament. As well as barons and leaders of the church, two representatives from each town- the ‘burgs’- were invited to attend. The day-to-day running of the country was carried out by three men: Simon de Montfort, Gilbert the Red and the Bishop of Chichester. However within a few months the barons started to complain that Montfort was acting like a king himself. Gilbert the Red was particularly upset. In June 15 1265 Gilbert met the king’s son, Prince Edward Longshanks, in Ludlow and together they raised a large army. When Montfort heard about it, he is reported to have said: “Let us commend our souls to God, because our bodies are theirs.”
On 3nd August 1265 Montfort’s main army was attacked at Evesham. Prince Edward and Gilbert the Red had an easy victory and Montfort was slaughtered. His head was cut off and displayed round the country as a warning of what happened to people who rebelled against their king.
After de Montfort’s death another baron, the Duke of Gloucester, decided to have a pop at King Henry 3rd. He raised an army of Londoners and as the chronicler Holinshed reported “approached Hounslow Heath. The king coming hither in the morning found no men to resist him.” Actually the Duke, seeing the size of Henry’s army, decided that it would be better all round if he quietly went home- so he did!
And so ends the story of Simon de Montfort – not a local lad but someone who recognised a decent campsite when he saw one. Born in France, without title or money, supported by popular acclaim he lived to challenge the supremacy of the monarchy and institute the concept of the House of Commons. For this he received mixed reviews…
‘Earl Simon, who gave up not only his property, but also his person, to defend the poor from oppression, and for the maintenance of justice.’
MATTHEW PARIS, English History (c. 1275)
‘Simon de Montfort… desired to put down the mighty and ruin their power… so that he might more freely and easily subdue the people, after having destroyed the strength of the magnates.’
THOMAS WYKES, Chronicles (c. 1290)
— from Martyn Day