Post-classical history

The King Quarrels with Simon de Montfort

FOLLOWING the birth of a child it was customary for the mother, after a specified period of purification, to go publicly to church and return thanks. On August 9, 1239, Simon de Montfort and Eleanor, his wife, came to London for the ceremony of the Queen’s churching.

The young countess was in glowing health. Her own son Henry, who had been born eleven months after the secret marriage, thereby setting to rest (or so they thought) certain malicious rumors which had been going about, was now eight months old and a fine, healthy boy. The King seemed to have forgotten completely the chidings he had absorbed as a result of the unorthodox circumstances of their marriage. He could throw off easily all such unpleasant things. The sun of royal favor, in fact, had been shining high in the heavens. Simon had been given possession of the London palace of the Bishop of Winchester for the time of their stay in the city. It may have been one of the bastel houses in the heart of the old city which were always a source of surprise to anyone entering for the first time. They were gloomy and unimpressive from the street, over which they loomed darkly, but, once the copper-studded door had been passed, they startled the eye with the magnificence of a Great Hall, an arching maze of bog-oak timbers and high galleries, a never-ceasing drone of priestly chantings from handsome chapels. It may have been, on the other hand, one of the newer seats out along the river toward Westminster, where ample land was available. Here, over stone walls, the houses raised their crenelated battlements and flying buttresses and the stone chimneys which were a continual wonder to common people who lacked chimneys of any kind. Whichever it was, the Earl of Leicester and his vivacious Eleanor were lodged in high state.

They were surprised, therefore, and most unpleasantly shocked to be received with angry looks when they put in an appearance at Westminster during the evening before the churching. The King indulged in a tirade of reproach, his high, thin forehead inflamed with anger, the velvet skirts of his super-tunic rustling and swishing as he strode up and down. Simon, he declared, was excommunicate. What effrontery was this, that he dared to come into the royal presence? Did he regard himself as above the laws of the Church or did he count too much on the unrequited favor of his liege lord?

The explanation of this totally unexpected outburst was given bit by bit as the King spluttered and fumed at them. Simon had owed a debt of 2,080 marks to Peter Mauclerc, the Duke of Brittany. When the creditor decided to go on the Crusades the collection of this debt was left to the courts of Rome. The papal officers had first threatened to lay an interdict on the lands of Leicester, then, finding it impossible to get blood from a stone, had transferred the debt to Thomas of Savoy, the Queen’s uncle. This was unpleasant for the Earl of Leicester from two standpoints. In the first place, the King and Queen had been put under immediate pressure to obtain a settlement for the Queen’s uncle, and in the second, it happened that Thomas of Savoy had married Joan, Countess of Flanders, after her betrothal to Simon had been broken, and this gave an edge of malice to his demands for payment. The King was furious that this trouble had risen to plague him and he raved at the debtor. Finally he ordered the astonished couple to leave. They were to betake themselves from his sight and never return.

The earl and his wife left Westminster by river boat. They were sick at heart over this sudden turn in their fortunes. Eleanor was finding it impossible to reconcile the royal attitude with the affection and extreme kindness her brother had always shown her. They had as yet no conception of the lengths to which he could go when thoroughly angry, but they had convincing evidence on reaching the water steps of Winchester House. Here they found the lock set against them. Henry had sent messengers galloping ahead to see that they were not allowed to enter.

Simon and Eleanor, as angry now as the King, collected their evicted servants and their possessions and found quarters in a London inn. This translation from the glory of an episcopal palace to the acrid smokiness and the cramped rooms of a tavern was sufficient to rouse their feelings to fighting pitch. As soon as they had seen their people settled the indignant pair rode back to Westminster to demand an explanation.

Henry met them with a still more astonishing blast. In the presence of members of his court he declared that they would not be allowed to attend the churching of the Queen. When a reason was demanded he left his chair and strode over to face the earl at close range.

“You seduced my sister!” he charged. The habit of losing all restraint and permitting himself to say anything that came into his head had been growing with the years. Perhaps not fully aware of the effect his statement would have, but certainly not concerned, he proceeded at once to enlarge on it. “To avoid scandal I gave my consent to the marriage, in my own despite. You went to Rome and corrupted the Curia most wrongfully in my name.”

Having thus with a few furious words tarnished beyond any repair the good name of the sister who had always been his favorite, the vitriolic King went on to demonstrate that anger over the matter of the Mauclerc debt was at the bottom of his outburst. Simon, he said, had cited him as security without telling him of it. That he might be held responsible for the debt had caused him to lash out thus with the accusation which would be the most harmful.

The contemporary chronicles say that Simon de Montfort blushed and betook himself from the royal presence, a highly unperceptive reading of the character of this passionately proud man. If Simon de Montfort’s face registered the emotion stirred in him by the insult thus publicly offered his wife it would be with the pallor of an anger too great for words. It is recorded that he said nothing and withdrew at once from the court, and this may be accepted as the truth.

The King, his anger mounting to still greater heights, hurried off orders to the commune of London to have the pair lodged in the Tower. As usual, however, Richard of Cornwall was there to prevent his brother from letting his temper carry him too far. Richard saw to it that the order was rescinded and then sent word to his sister that it would be wise for her to leave the city at once. As soon as night fell the Earl of Leicester and his wife, accompanied by a small party of their people, took boat again on the Thames and made off quietly down the river. They went to France and took up residence there.


Was there any truth in the charge of incontinence which Henry had made against his sister? It was widely believed at the time, if for no other reason than because the King himself had made it. It has been given little belief since. The date of the birth of Eleanor’s first child seems to be the only proof needed that it was a libel. A sorry impression is left of the character of the King when his statement is brushed aside. He had idly and falsely, in a moment of petty passion, laid this shame on a sister who had been a lifetime favorite.

The Earl and Countess of Leicester lived in France for seven months. Henry remained antagonistic and did many things to show his spleen, and then suddenly veered in his feelings and invited them to return. Eleanor could not leave because she was expecting another child, but Simon arrived in England in response. He was welcomed by the King as though no rift had occurred between them. The court, taking its cue from the weathercock King, greeted him with a semblance of friendliness. Soon after his arrival Eleanor gave birth to their second child, a son who was named Simon.

Henry undoubtedly was quite sincere in extending the hand of friendship to the man he had injured so deeply, having forgotten by this time the sense of wrong which had led to his outburst. While accepting his protestations of regard, Simon felt no inner response. The insult had been of a nature no man could forget or forgive, particularly one of such fiery pride as the Earl of Leicester. It had been impossible for him to take the customary steps to protect his honor, and now he was obliged to bow and accept the proffer of renewed friendship. But Simon de Montfort neither forgot nor forgave.

Richard of Cornwall was organizing a party of English knights to go to the Crusades, and Simon was pledged to take the cross with him. His return to England had been partly for the purpose of making the necessary arrangements. It was a very expensive matter to go crusading. A knight required many horses for himself and his followers and a corresponding amount of arms and equipment. He needed also a substantial supply of gold because he paid his way both going and returning. Simon, who found the costs of peacetime living too much for him, encountered a great deal of difficulty in raising funds. He did not leave with Richard of Cornwall but went first to get Eleanor, who was insisting on accompanying him as far as possible. They traveled together to Brindisi, where the German Emperor, perhaps on prompting from his consort, who was Eleanor’s older sister, had loaned for her use a huge, echoing stone palace overlooking the sea. Here she stayed with her small staff of servants, her mind filled with the dangers her husband was encountering in the East.

The Crusade proved to be a fruitless effort because a truce had been arranged before they arrived. That Simon found some way of distinguishing himself is evident, however, from the fact that the “barons, knights, and citizens of the kingdom of Jerusalem” wrote to Frederick of Germany requesting that he make Simon their governor pending the time when Conrad, the Emperor’s son, would attain his majority and be capable of assuming the reins. Nothing came of it, but the incident makes it clear that the young earl had displayed some of the qualities of leadership which were to be so magnificently proven in later years.

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