This article has been written by members of the Hansard writing team using research by Professor David Carpenter and Christopher Tilley, as well as other sources.
Who is Simon de Montfort?
Simon de Montfort (c. 1208-65) was born in France and came to England in the 1230s to assert his claim to the earldom of Leicester. Henry III, who had become king as a nine-year-old in 1216, took charge of the government of England from 1234. Throughout his reign, Henry angered England’s barons—the kingdom’s most powerful men—with unsuccessful campaigns in France, a failed bid to install his son as King of Sicily, and extravagant personal spending, all of which resulted in large tax demands.
Little is known about Simon de Montfort’s early life, but he was probably raised in southern France, where his father was fighting a crusade against the Cathars. Montfort rose quickly in Henry III’s court, and married Eleanor, the king’s youngest sister, in secret without the permission of the barons, who were outraged because royal marriages were considered national business. Montfort was forced to flee England in 1239 after he used the king’s name without permission to clear a debt. However, relations were mended, and Henry named Montfort his lieutenant in Gascony in 1248.
Montfort ruled Gascony like a king. He besieged castles and ignored local rights and privileges, once again invoking Henry’s anger. Montfort’s rule incurred heavy debts, which Henry refused to back, particularly as Montfort’s actions had exacerbated the civil unrest that he had been sent to address. Henry tried Montfort for mis-governance in 1252, but support from the barons caused the trial to be abandoned. Montfort, however, was humiliated by the episode.
The Provisions of Oxford were drafted by Montfort and a group of barons in 1258. They required the king to accept a new form of government that effectively removed him from power and replaced him with a council of 15 barons that had the power to appoint ministers and was responsible for managing the country through regular Parliaments. The Provisions of Oxford were followed in 1259 by the Provisions of Westminster, which strengthened baronial rights and the role of the courts. Later divisions between the barons allowed Henry, with the support of the Pope, to repeal both sets of provisions in 1261. Montfort spent the following year in Paris, but he returned to England in 1263 and demanded that Henry enforce the Provisions of Oxford.
Civil war broke out in England after Henry refused Montfort’s demands. Having captured London and Kent, Montfort sought to win popular support for his cause by expelling all foreigners, as well as England’s Jewish population, who suffered widespread hostility due to the high level of indebtedness to Jewish moneylenders. By October 1263, Henry had reaffirmed Magna Carta and the provisions stemming from it.
There was an unsteady truce, but it did not last. After his victory in the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, Montfort captured Henry, as well as his brother and son—the future Edward I. With the king reduced to a figurehead, Montfort called a Parliament that sat between January and March 1265. He expanded representation to include two knights from each county, and two citizens or burgesses from England’s cities and boroughs. This is the first recorded Parliament to which both knights and burgesses, or common citizens, were summoned, so it can be viewed as an embryonic House of Commons. Edward escaped captivity later in 1265 and led royalist forces against Montfort, who was killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265.
Victorian historians compared Montfort to George Washington as the founder of a new democratic constitution based on representative government, but few would accept this view today. Montfort’s regime was focused on himself, but whatever the questions about his motives, his appeal to the representatives of the populace was a significant development. There is strong evidence for his Old Testament-based religious piety and his attachment to the Provisions of Oxford, which was partly inspired by his religious devotion.
Montfort was also hard and acquisitive. His reforms were not entirely selfless, and were largely based on his own financial problems and grievances against Henry III. Nevertheless, Montfort fought for an early form of political morality and open justice, which continue to echo in the public consciousness to this day. Leicester’s De Montfort University and De Montfort Hall bear his name. One of four statues on the Haymarket Memorial clock tower in Leicester depicts Montfort, and a relief of his image adorns the wall of the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives.
Find out about Simon de Montfort's Parliament
In 2015 the Houses of Parliament, along with the people of the UK, will be commemorating 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta (1215).