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With All For All: The Life of Simon de Montfort. Interview with Darren Baker

In January 1265, Simon de Montfort summoned a Parliament in the name of the Young King’s nephew, Henry III, that has been long recognized as a prototype for the institution today. Many historians are apt to disagree, but celebrations are already underway to mark the 750th anniversary of that event. According to the author of a new biography on Montfort, it’s right that they do, because his contribution to political reform in England was immense and incomparable for centuries to come. We have asked Darren Baker to drop by and share a few of his thoughts on him.



I am honoured to welcome Darren Baker to our humble abode to talk about his recently released biography of Simon de Montfort. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Could you tell us why Simon de Montfort? Do you remember the first time you saw his name?

Thanks for having me here. It’s an honour for me as well to be in the realm of the Young King, whom I met for the first time in Thomas Costain’s books on the Plantagenets. My lifelong fascination with Simon de Montfort began in these same books, although I remember seeing his name for the first time in another book as a young boy. There was something about this king being defeated and captured by his French brother-in-law that caught my imagination. I could probably point it out to you on the page if you showed me the book today, it’s stuck with me that long.

If I am correct, you have been researching Simon for several years now. When exactly did you start thinking about writing his biography?

There had been no new biography of him in twenty years and nearly all of them take a generally hostile view anyway. So I set out to write the biography I wanted to read. It’s certainly no whitewash, just looking at the same events from a different angle with a bit more cross-current of information. I gave myself nine months to write it and actually made that deadline with two days to spare.


                                   Darren Baker  in front of the Lewes Memorial

What have you learned about him over the years of your research in addition to his contribution to the development of Parliament? Could you tell us a few words about Simon himself?

I had to learn more about the two pivotal events in his life, the Albigensian crusade of his childhood and Henry’s entire reign. I suppose not surprisingly, I came away from the first with a much better opinion of his father than historians generally have, and in the case of Henry, I grew to respect him because he was a better man at heart than most other medieval English monarchs. He seems to be all but forgotten by the British public today, probably for no other reason than he was no warrior king like Richard I, Edwards I and III, and Henry V, and yet everywhere today you see more of his legacy than all of them put together. As for the kind of man Simon was, we don’t know what he looked like, we can just go by the very general description of one chronicler that he was tall in body and handsome in face. Another one noted he had a courteous and pleasant way of speaking. Put these two together and I don’t see the modern tendency to portray him as grasping, harsh and imperious. But there has always been this natural inclination, even in his own day, to see him like his father, who was not afraid to employ fire and sword against the Albigensian heretics. It’s probably fair to say he had a breadth of personal qualities, both good and bad, that made him stand out amongst the average nobleman of that era.


This roll of the genealogical line shows Simon and Eleanor's children in the bottom row: Henry, Simon, Amaury, Guy, Richard and Eleanor

Simon and Eleanor's marriage must have been a love match. What do we know about Simon’s relationship with his wife and children?

It was certainly a love match in the sense they had to be married in secret. They were lucky her brother was the type to fall for such romances and so lent them his support. Of course, they had their trials like any marriage. On one occasion they were upbraided by a friend, she for what he called marital insubordination and Simon for his temper. They had financial troubles and it seems he at least was plagued at sometime or other by the fact that she had broken her vow of chastity for him. Whether he actually seduced her, as Henry later charged, we’ll never know for sure. Both had phenomenal energy and were supreme organizers, and for whatever friction was caused by having similar high-strung temperaments, they made a formidable team. He stood up for her against the likes of the Marshal family and her own half-brothers, and she stood by him through all the troubles ahead with her brother. They doted on their children, but were not uncritical, and they in turn remained steadfastly loyal to the end, something many historians don’t necessarily see in a positive light.


                   The ruins of Odiham Castle, where Simon and Eleanor saw each other for the last time.

Simon and Henry III were brothers-in-law. Was the animosity between them purely political or did it touch the “personal” side as well?

You get the feeling they became great friends after Simon’s arrival at court. They were about the same age, were devoted to religion and learning, and Henry was enamored of French culture, which also helps explain why he couldn’t get enough of his wife’s family. Montfort certainly stuck by him during the rebellion of Richard Marshal in 1234 and through all the grumbling that accompanied the arrival of the Savoyards two years later. Allowing his sister Eleanor to marry him was the greatest testament to their friendship, and yet it was in tatters within two years, all because Henry got the feeling that Simon had used him and in the end was more trouble than he was worth. Their relationship never recovered, but with Eleanor in the middle, they had no choice but to deal with each other.


                                                                             Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells. 

Could you remind us what exactly Henry III did or did not do to find himself opposed by his disgruntled barons?

Henry had been stung badly by the Marshal rebellion and later by all the antagonism created by Simon and Eleanor’s secret wedding. We can see from that point on he was eager to create a court of his own making, mainly dominated by his wife’s family from Savoy and later by his own half-brothers from Lusignan. He dismissed the great officers of state and consulted his English magnates only when he needed money for his misadventures. They naturally resented all his favoritism for these foreigners and refused him one tax after another, so Henry turned to more devious methods to get the money, namely by exploiting Jewish finance and putting pressure on his sheriffs to collect more in fines, fees and rents than was justifiable. By the time the barons had enough of his relatives in 1258, so did the whole realm with his reign in general.

What turn might history have taken had Lord Edward stayed in Simon’s custody?

Montfort had made Edward’s release conditioned on moving him out of his lordship of Cheshire and installing his own son in his place. His reason was to keep Edward and his Marcher friends from teaming up in the future, which is exactly what happened after he escaped. Montfort knew his nephew well enough to know he would never abide by the loss of Cheshire or his scheme to impose constitutional controls on his future reign. His only hope was to keep him under closely supervised parole even after his official release long enough for the arrangements of his government to sink in among all the parties concerned, even if that took years. In the end, the treachery of the Clare family changed everything in a matter of months.


                            Simon turned Kenilworth Castle into a nearly impregnable fortress. It was the last holdout of the the Montfortians.

What did Simon's death at Evesham mean for his family? We know that his eldest son Henry perished with him, but his other children and Eleanor? What happened to them?

Eleanor held on to Dover while she sent her sons Amaury and Richard ahead to France, then followed them over with her daughter Eleanor. She died ten years later in a nunnery founded by her husband’s sister. The oldest surviving son Simon, whose tardiness had contributed as much to his father’s defeat as Edward’s generalship, held out until the end of the year. By that time Henry had stripped the family of the earldom of Leicester and given it to his son Edmund. He offered the younger Simon some form of compensation, but Henry and Edward’s promises were so worthless by that point that he felt it was better to escape to France. The fourth son Guy had been wounded at Evesham and was still in prison when he too escaped the following year, in 1266. Louis and Margaret of France tried to reconcile the two families, but Henry only pretended to go along, so the Montfort boys moved on. Richard went south to campaign and disappeared from the records. Guy achieved the most notoriety when he threw away a promising marriage and military career by murdering his cousin Henry of Almain in Italy with the help of his brother Simon, who died later that year. Guy served only the most meager of sentences for this act of vengeance, an indication that continental Europe thought the English royal family had it coming for the desecration of Simon’s body at Evesham. Guy went back to campaigning, was captured, and died in prison. Edward got his own revenge by capturing Amaury and Eleanor as they sailed to Wales with the intention of her marrying Prince Llywelyn. He kept Amaury in prison for six years before releasing and deporting him. He had the most colorful career of the lot and died sometime around 1300. Eleanor was allowed to marry Llywelyn, but she subsequently died in childbirth in 1282, and her child was whisked away to live her entire life in a nunnery after Edward’s Marchers killed Llywelyn. She died in 1337, the last British Montfort of that line. Guy left behind two daughters in Italy.

Do you think Henry and Edward found it difficult to blot out the memory of Simon from the social consciousness of the nation?

Most definitely. They had to pass statutes preventing people from going to his shrine at Evesham or even talking about the miracles to be had there. Edward rarely failed in anything he took in hand and within ten years he managed to shut down the cult. To do that, however, he had to put aside his own personal bitterness and reach out to the surviving Montfortians and adopt several of the precedents set by Simon during his rule. But of course there was little he could do about Simon’s impact on the lower rungs of society, about all the songs and tales that continued to flourish into the next century. One wonders what he might have thought of his own son Edward sitting down one night as king and being entertained by a redheaded woman named Alice singing, not about the great Hammer of the Scots, but about Simon de Montfort.


                                                                The memorial to Montfort marks where his remains were interred at Evesham Abbey.

What about Simon's legacy in England?

If most people recognize the name at all, it has something to do with Parliament, even if there is nothing around the houses of Parliament to indicate it. The Victorians erected a statue of Richard the Lionheart there instead, probably for no better reason than they liked his name and he represented the idea of raw British might. There is also the problem of Montfort’s order for the Jews of Leicester to leave just after he was given seisin in 1231. The case itself is very complicated and we can no more expect the people of the Middle Ages to understand our condemnation of religious intolerance than we can understand their use of torture in judicial proceedings. But there will always be that ill-informed politician ready to dip back into the past in order to cast the first stone.

How would you encourage readers to approach your book?

Look at the pictures first, because that’s what I do when I pick up a book. I actually hadn’t thought of any when I first sent the manuscript to the publisher, but they encouraged me to go scouring through several online sources and I’m quite happy with the lot we came up with. I try to make the captions as detailed as possible for that reader who has only time for a quick flip-through in the bookstore. I also had a few run-ins with my editor, who was reasonably keen to follow the rules of grammar, but I wanted to ensure that what I was doing was storytelling and not just telling a story. Because it is a great story first and foremost, and I deliberately chose an introduction that sets the tone for the conflict to come between two of the most fascinating power couples in English history: Simon and Eleanor and Henry and Eleanor.

Thank you for paying a visit to our Lesser Land and giving us the opportunity to learn more about Simon de Montfort and his legacy. Good luck with all your upcoming projects. Hodně štěstí s novou knihou. Já už se těším na čtení.






Darren Baker was born in San Diego, California, but grew up near Charleston, South Carolina. He went into the Navy after high school, serving aboard a submarine during the 1980s. He left to attend the University of Connecticut, where he took his degree in modern and classical languages. A backpacking tour behind the former Iron Curtain led him to where he lives today, in the northeast corner of the Czech Republic, making him a neighbour of mine. He stayed here because he met a young lady, who now accompanies him, along with their two children, on his medieval excursions. He is making plans to write a biography of Henry III because, like Simon, he too deserves a fair hearing from a modern audience.


You can learn more about the book from Darren Baker’s website Simon de Montfort 2014
You can also order the book from Amberley Publishing
Click here to buy the book from Amazon.com

Comments

  1. Thank you for this incredibly interesting interview Kasia & Mr Baker. The story of Simon de Montfort is indeed a great one. He is one of my favorite heroes of the MA & his partnership with Eleanor one of my favorite power couples. The depiction of their story in Sharon Penman's Falls the Shadow is also a favorite novel, so I am looking very forward to reading this biography. I'm hoping we will understand more of the family dynamics, especially the relationship between sons & a powerful role model who may have had some difficulty passing on the essential ingredients that build strong mature sons.

    Brava! Bravo!

    Joan

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  2. Enjoyed reading this interview about a very controversial historical personality.

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  3. Thanks for your comments. Henry and his family are often cited for their closeness and loyalty to each other, but the Montforts have enjoyed no such recognition. There's too much readiness in wanting to pin the blame for his downfall on his sons, but it seems they were rather typical for their class of that age. Montfort chided and supported them much the same as Henry chided and supported Edward, they both had family relations we can all relate to today.

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  4. Any comment on Katherine Ashe's biographical novels of Simon de Montfort?

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  5. They are very well-researched and offer a wealth of description that makes it easy to imagine the scenes as they play out. Her "speculations" created quite a stir, particularly Simon as the father of Edward. I don't subscribe to them but in this case she does raise the valid point that something must have set Henry off more than just what was reported.

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  6. What a great interview. Your knowledge and passion of the subject shines through in every paragraph.

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  7. I was so happy to discover this article just now. I have been hugely fascinated by Simon for many years. Thanks for posting, and Darren's book is definitely on my list now!

    ReplyDelete

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