1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Montfort, Simon de
MONTFORT, SIMON DE, Earl of Leicester (d. 1265), English statesman and soldier, was born in France about the year 1200. He was the fourth and youngest son of Simon IV. de Montfort (see above), the leader of the Albigensian crusade, by Alicia de Montmorenci. Simon IV., whose mother was an heiress of the Beaumont family, claimed in her right, and received from King John, the earldom of Leicester (1207), only to lose it again through espousing the French side in the wars between that sovereign and Philip Augustus. The young Simon, of whose youth and education nothing is recorded, came to England in 1230 and attached himself to Henry III., obtaining with the consent of his sole surviving brother Amauri a re-grant of the family earldom. Simon was for a time unpopular with the English and closely attached to the royal party. He gave, however, an early proof of religious fervour, and of an unbending harshness, by the expulsion of all the Jews who had settled in his borough of Leicester to practise usury. In 1238 he obtained the hand of the king's sister Eleanor, the widow of the younger William Marshal. The king approved of the match, but it was resented by his brother Richard of Cornwall and the baronage, and objections were raised on the ground that Eleanor had previously taken vows of chastity. With some difficulty Earl Richard was pacified; and Montfort obtained the pope's confirmation of the marriage by a personal visit to Rome. In 1239, however, the influence of detractors and a quarrel over some obscure financial transactions in which he appears to have used Henry's name without a formal warrant led to a breach between himself and the king. The earl and his wife went for a time to France; and, though a nominal reconciliation with the king was soon effected, both departed on crusade with Richard of Cornwall in 1240. Eleanor was left behind in Apulia while her husband proceeded to the Holy Land. He acquitted himself with distinction, and there was some thought among the Frankish barons of appointing him to act as regent of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. But he returned in 1241, took part in Henry's disastrous French expedition of 1242, and was readmitted to full favour. Between 1243 and 1248 he received many gifts from the king; he stood forward in parliament as a mediator between the court party and the opposition; it is only from the correspondence of his friends Grosseteste and Adam de Marsh that we learn of his dissatisfaction with the condition of church and state. He was keenly interested in Grosseteste’s proposals for ecclesiastical reformation, and was considered the mainstay of the reforming party. In 1248 he again took the cross, with the idea of following Louis IX. to Egypt. But, at the repeated requests of the king and council, he gave up this project in order to act as governor in the unsettled and disaffected duchy of Gascony. Bitter complaints were excited by the rigour with which the earl suppressed the excesses of the seigneurs and of contending factions in the great communes. Henry yielded to the outcry and instituted a formal inquiry into the earl’s administration. Montfort was formally acquitted on the charges of oppression, but his accounts were disputed by the king, and he retired in disgust to France (1252). The nobles of France offered him the regency of the kingdom, vacant by the death of the Queen-mother Blanche of Castile, but he preferred to make his peace with Henry (1253), in obedience to the exhortations of the dying Grosseteste. He helped the king in dealing with the disaffection of Gascony; but their reconciliation was a hollow one, and in the parliament of 1254 the earl led the opposition in resisting a demand for a subsidy. In 1256 and 1257, when the discontent of all classes was coming to a head, Montfort nominally adhered to the royal cause. He undertook, with Peter of Savoy, the queen's uncle, the difficult task of extricating the king from the pledges which he had given to the pope with reference to the crown of Sicily; and Henry’s writs of this date mention the earl in friendly terms. But at the “Mad Parliament” of Oxford (1258) Montfort appeared side by side with the earl of Gloucester at the head of the opposition. It is said that Montfort was reluctant to approve the oligarchical constitution created by the Provisions of Oxford, but his name appears in the list of the Fifteen who were to constitute the supreme board of control over the administration. There is better ground for believing that he disliked the narrow class-spirit in which the victorious barons used their victory; and that he would gladly have made a compromise with the moderate royalists whose policy was guided by the Lord Edward, Henry’s eldest son. But the king's success in dividing the barons and in fostering a reaction rendered such projects hopeless. In 1261 Henry revoked his assent to the Provisions, and Montfort left the country in despair.
He returned in 1263, at the invitation of the barons, who were now convinced of the king's hostility to all reform; and raised a rebellion with the avowed object of restoring the form of government which the Provisions had ordained. For a few weeks it seemed as though the royalists were at his mercy; but he made the mistake of accepting Henry's offer to abide by the arbitration of Louis IX. of France. At Amiens, in January 1264, the French king decided that the Provisions were unlawful and invalid. Montfort, who had remained in England to prepare for the worst, at once resumed the war, and thus exposed himself to accusations of perjury, from which he can only be defended on the hypothesis that he had been led to hope for a genuine compromise. Though merely supported by the towns and a few of the younger barons, he triumphed by superior generalship at Lewes (May 14, 1264), where the king, the Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall fell into his hands. Montfort used his victory to set up the government by which his reputation as a statesman stands or falls. The weak point in his scheme was the establishment of a triumvirate (consisting of himself, the young earl of Gloucester, and the bishop of Chichester) in which his colleagues were obviously figureheads. This flaw, however, is mitigated by a scheme, which he simultaneously promulgated, for establishing a thorough parliamentary control over the executive, not excepting the triumvirs. The parliament which he summoned in 1265 Was, it is true, a packed assembly; but it can hardly be supposed that the representation which he granted to the towns (see Parliament and Representation) was intended to be a temporary expedient. The reaction against his government was baronial rather than popular; and the Welsh Marchers particularly resented Montfort's alliance with Llewellyn of North Wales. Little consideration for English interests is shown in the treaty of Pipton which sealed that alliance (June 22, 1265). It was by the forces of the Marchers and the strategy of Edward that Montfort was defeated at Evesham (Aug. 4). Divided from the main body of his supporters, whose strength lay in the east and south, the earl was outnumbered and surrounded before reinforcements could reach him. For years after his death he was revered by the commons as a martyr, and the government had no little difficulty in reducing the remnants of his baronial supporters. His character has suffered in the past from indiscriminate eulogy as much as from detractors. He was undoubtedly harsh, masterful, impatient and ambitious. But no mere adventurer could have won the friendship of such men as Marsh and Grosseteste; their verdict of approval may be the more unhesitatingly admitted since it is not untempered with criticism.
The original authorities are those for the reign of Henry III. The best biographies are those by R. Pauli (trans. C. M. Goodwin, London, 1876); G. W. Prothero (London, 1877); C. Bémont (Paris, 1884). See also the letters of Adam de Marsh in J. S. Brewer's Monumenta franciscana, vol. i (Rolls series, 1858); H. R. Luard, Epistolae Roberti Grosseteste (Rolls, series, 1861); F. S. Stevenson, Robert Grosseteste (London, 1899); W. H. Blaauw, The Barons’ War (Cambridge, 1871). (H. W. C. D.)