Darren Baker’s latest book is a narrative history of the Montforts, one of the most famous noble families of the medieval era. It follows on from his previous works on Simon de Montfort and Henry III and their consorts, the two Eleanors.
This is an ambitious work, and covers the history of the family from their origins in the eleventh century as mere wardens and foresters, to the height of their power in the thirteenth century. As with most high-status families in this period, the Montforts had an awkward habit of using the same names for generation after generation. There is a bewildering abundance of Simons, Amaurys, and Henrys, so to distinguish them Baker helpfully enumerates the leading lights: Simon III, Simon IV, Simon V, etc.
The origins of the family are obscure – one theory is they originally came from Hainault in modern-day Flanders – and information on the earlier generations relatively scarce. Even so, it is clear the Montforts were always a colourful bunch. One of the early lords, Amaury II, was nicknamed ‘the Strong’ (le Fort) and met his end impaled on a lance. His half-brother Richard was killed attempting to seize an abbey. From the start, the Montforts were haunted by violence and tragedy, usually the consequence of ambition.
Some of the early Montfort women outshone the men. I was especially taken with Bertrade de Montfort, only daughter of Simon I, who seduced the king of France and plotted to kill his son. When abduction failed, she turned to sorcery and poison; the latter method almost worked, and her target only survived thanks to a skilled Moorish doctor. Bertrade cannot be faulted for trying, but all her schemes failed and she ended her days in a convent.
While these chapters on the forebears are highly entertaining, the meat of the book is really the history of Simons V and VI. These are the alpha Montforts, the (in)famous father and son who left an indelible mark on history. Prior to reading this, I knew very little about the Albigensian crusade, except that it was remarkably unpleasant and that Simon V met a sticky end. Baker’s narrative of the crusade makes for compulsive reading, though I would advise readers to study the maps at the start beforehand. I am reasonably familiar with some of the geography of Gascony and the Agenais in this period, but many of the locations were new to me. Unless one knows the ground, Simon’s relentless marching and counter-marching is a bit of a blur.
That said, it is clear that Simon was a furiously committed and determined individual, capable of overcoming endless setbacks. It helped that he was one of the finest soldiers of his day, although he benefited from some mediocre opposition. His two chief rivals, Raymond of Toulouse and Peter of Aragon, constantly underestimated Simon and were firmly of the belief that God favours the big battalions. As Simon showed at Muret, where his much smaller army routed Peter’s host in just twenty minutes, God tends to favour those who favour themselves.
With regard to Simon’s persecution of heretics, I was left a little uncertain. At one point Baker states that Simon burnt innumerable Cathars or ‘perfects’, as they were known. Later on he argues the actual death-count may have been less than a thousand. He does, however, ably make the point that many of the perfects were all too eager to die: they regarded this world as filthy and corrupted, and there are many accounts of them refusing to recant to save their lives, or even leaping into the fire. There is also the general savagery of the crusade to consider. While Simon was as bigoted as the next medieval crusader, he is not known to have indulged in the same excesses of cruelty and torture as his peers. One particularly harrowing account of monks being strung up and tortured – with ropes, if you care to imagine – left me wincing for days.
Overall, I found Simon V an ambivalent figure, and have always felt the same way about his more famous son. Simon VI has benefited from a glowing press: contemporaries heaped praise upon him, while recent novels have promoted the image of Saint Simon the Just, the founder of Parliament and English democratic systems. Most popular heroes turn out to have feet of clay, and so it is with Simon. As Baker argued in his last work, The Two Eleanors, saintly Simon was anything but. The real man was just as grasping and self-seeking as his peers: or, as this book places in context, his ancestors. There are too many examples of Simon’s mendacity to list here, but the standout example is his blatant attempt to sabotage the Treaty of Paris, all so he could force Henry III to satisfy an outstanding dower claim. Granted, the money was long overdue, but Simon’s willingness to sacrifice the peace of two kingdoms for his own gain is unattractive.
Perhaps the heroic image is not entirely artificial. Simon appears to have had some kind of epiphany in 1259, when he started wearing a hair shirt and stopped sleeping with his wife. He also declared his wish to do right by the ‘poor people’ who lived on his lands, and admitted he had oppressed them in the past. In the modern age, any politician who came out with this stuff might expect to be laughed at. Whatever their beliefs and prejudices, the political classes of 1259 were no fools either. Richard de Clare, the hard-boiled earl of Gloucester, refused to buy into Simon’s apparent conversion. Soon afterwards the two men almost got into a fistfight over outstanding land and dower rights claimed by Simon’s wife. Unfortunately the two men were pulled apart; one decent punch, landed square on saint Simon’s saintly law, might have restored a sense of perspective.
It is impossible to deny Simon was popular among the English, especially the commons. In July 1264, after his victory over Henry at Lewes, Simon issued a clarion call to the people of England to defend the coasts. So many peasants flocked to answer his summons that one chronicler remarked ‘you would not have believed so many men ready for war existed in England’. Whatever his intentions, it appears Simon had triggered a new sense of national identity in England. Ironically, as Baker points out, he was not an Englishman.
The story of Simon V’s fall from power and gruesome death at Evesham have been covered many times. The final drama is still compelling, and the author reminds us why the carnage at Evesham was so horrific. Simon’s brief putsch had threatened to destroy both the Plantagenets and many of the landed class in England. At this point I turned back to an earlier section, which deserves to be highlighted in any future histories of this period. Back in 1212, a renegade group of English barons had elected Simon V as king of England. Had their revolt succeeded, King John and his sons would have been killed and the Plantagenet dynasty obliterated, to be replaced by the Montforts. They failed, but the Montfortian threat weighed heavy on John’s heirs: not for nothing did Henry III once inform Simon that he feared him more than all the thunder and lightning in the world.
All of which explains the slaughter of Evesham, and what followed. Henry’s heir, Edward I, was not a man to ignore such a clear and present danger. Especially when the Montforts kept reminding him of it: further civil war raged in England for years after Evesham, and in 1271 Simon’s VI’s sons butchered Edward’s cousin Henry of Almaine in a church in Italy. When Amaury VIII and his sister, Eleanor, attempted to get into Wales to forge an alliance with Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Edward’s reaction was swift. The two were captured at sea and Amaury held in prison for years, despite the pleas of English bishops and successive popes for his release. Amaury was finally released in 1282, shortly before the final Welsh war in which Edward crushed any hope of a Montfortian/Welsh alliance. Amaury’s sister Eleanor died in childbirth, her husband was assassinated, and their daughter Gwenllian – Simon VI’s granddaughter, lest we forget – cooped up for life in a remote Linconshire convent. The ‘old seed of malice’, as Edward termed it, was rooted out forever.
That was the end of Montfortian ambitions in England, though the legend of Simon VI lived on in popular memory. Elsewhere the family were no less unfortunate. Another branch of the Montforts flourished in the Holy Land for a while, as well as Sicily and the Italian mainland, but the family curse was inexorable. The Sicilian Vespers and consequent wars finished off the Montforts in Sicily, while their cousins in the Latin east went down with the crusader states.
It is not entirely a tale of woe. The family name was revived in the early fourteenth century through Yolande of Dreux, a descendant of Amaury VII. Her grandson, John de Montfort, would eventually win the war of succession in Brittany in 1365. Here was some comfort, but the duchy of Brittany was a far cry from the glory years of the Montfort clan, when they aspired to supreme power in England, Wales, France, Italy, Sicily and the Holy Land.
Overall, the Montforts might have done well to heed the advice of one of their own. In 1119, after King Louis of France had suffered a defeat in battle, Amaury III gave him this comfort:
“Fortune is like a revolving wheel; it overturns in a moment those whom it has suddenly raised, and on the other hand frequently lifts higher those it has prostrated and rolled in the dust.”