Post-classical history

Simon de Montfort as the Seneschal of Gascony

NOTHING remained to Henry of the great Angevin possessions in France save Gascony, the southwest corner. Gascony was a land of hot sunshine, sloping down from the purple Pyrenees to the marshy lands along the Bay of Biscay. In the dunes the Gascons walked on stilts, and everywhere else they strutted with an equal stiff-leggedness through sheer pride, a canny and clever race who obtained a little more distinction than they perhaps deserved when a member of their clan, one M. d’Artagnan, was borrowed, a few centuries later, for the pages of a great adventure story. They were not particularly happy at remaining under English rule. From the year 1057 they had been governed by the dukes of Aquitaine and they had been kicked like a football between England and France after Eleanor, a lovely and self-willed young woman, became their duchess and married first Louis of France and then Henry II of England. They still cherished memories of the beautiful Eleanor, but this was a slender chain to hold their allegiance to the land where her descendants still reigned.

Gascony, in fact, wanted above everything to be independent, having no more love for the French than for the English, but independence was not easily obtainable for a small and poor province surrounded by strong and avaricious neighbors. The proud men of Bordeaux and Béarn and Bigorre felt eyes on their backs all the time, the eyes of the Count of Toulouse and the kings of Navarre and Castile, each of whom aspired to the mastery of Gascony; and, more than all, the orbs of the King of France, the likeliest of the feudal tomcats to swallow the Gascon mouse.

Unfortunately for their aspirations, the Gascons had never been able to establish any unity among themselves. Their counts and viscounts were a bitterly contentious lot, always fighting among themselves and burning towns and ravaging countrysides. The nobles were, for the most part, anti-English. There were a number of strong cities such as Bordeaux, Bayonne, Dax, and Bazas which thrived on the wine trade and were inclined in consequence to be pro-English. If the people of the cities had been able to live at peace among themselves they would have been strong enough to keep the rampaging nobles in order. They in turn, however, were split into two factions, the wine merchants against the less fortunate ones who lacked a share in that profitable business.

The cleavage in Bordeaux was particularly marked. This beautiful city lying on the west bank of the Garonne, with the great vineyards of Médoc behind it, was torn by a rivalry which suggests the struggles in Italy between rich and dynastic families. The Coloms were wine sellers, wealthy, aggressive, and notably pro-English. The Solers, whose interests centered in land, were not quite as rich as their rivals but had been holding the whip hand because of a special aptitude for political activities. The city had the right to select its own mayor and to fill the council or jurade, and because the Solers had a wily leader in one Rustengo de Soler, they had been monopolizing these offices. Rustengo had been in the wine trade at an early stage of his career, as witness an occasion during the reign of John when a cargo of his had been confiscated. Retiring with a considerable degree of wealth, he had become a landowner and was inclined to look down on those who still engaged in his earlier occupation. He lived in the city in a stone house which was large enough to accommodate some of his sons and their families as well as a great many servants and armed adherents. The house of old Rustengo had become the center of all Soler activities, and from it he craftily directed the government of the city with the dignity of a Montague or a Capulet and with more than a hint of the fine trappings of a doge of Venice.

Henry had appointed a succession of seneschals to represent him in Gascony, with conditions growing progressively worse all the time. The province had been brought close to the point of chaos by the bitter clashing of factions and the incapacity of the men the King had sent to govern the country.


On May 1, 1248, Henry appointed Simon de Montfort seneschal of Gascony. There was general approval of the move and a feeling that at last the right man had been found to curb the contentious Gascons and establish order in the land. At first Simon held back from accepting, knowing perhaps how much he would be hampered by the vacillation and the interference of the King. He demanded an absolutely free hand for seven years, a grant of two thousand marks a year, and the military support of fifty knights. Henry, unwilling to allow a subject so much authority, gave in with reluctance and agreed grumblingly to all the conditions. He kept none of them, of course, after the first few months.

Simon went about his task with great energy and foresight. Blanche of Castile had resumed the regency of France when Louis set off for the Crusades again, and the new seneschal went to her first. They agreed to a truce for two months. He then traveled on to Gascony, arriving in considerable state with his train of fifty knights and proceeding at once to let the robber barons and the quarreling citizens know that he intended to be master. That he made mistakes at first is only too clear, particularly in the severity of the methods he adopted. From the first moment, however, that the hoofs of his weary steed raised Gascon dust from the hot white roads he demonstrated something which would later make him the great benefactor of the English. His policy was to break the power of the nobility. The reason for this was partly one of sound policy. Only among the commercial classes in the cities and towns was a pro-English sentiment to be found, and it was the part of wisdom to work with them. The reason went much deeper, however. Simon de Montfort, scion of a distinguished line, bred to feudal traditions, had ideas stirring about in his head which would have shocked his equals and outraged the king who employed him, and which perhaps were a puzzle to himself. He had an awareness of something wrong in the world and a slowly awakening willingness to assist in setting things right.

He found that much of the dissension in Gascony stemmed from the activities of one of the most powerful counts, Gaston of Béarn. Gaston was a cantankerous and selfish schemer and an unpleasant fellow personally for whom Simon had a great dislike. Inasmuch, however, as the mother of this rancid individual, Grasenda, had been the first wife of Raimund Berenger, he was a half brother once removed of Queen Eleanor. There was never any way of being sure how far the Queen’s sympathies would carry her in anything having to do with a relative of hers, and this made it necessary to deal carefully with Master Gaston. Simon accordingly concluded a truce with him before turning his attention to the other troublemakers. The Viscount of Gramont, one of the most persistent, was taken prisoner and thrown into a dungeon at Le Réole without the formality of a trial. A storm of protest resulted, but there must have been good reasons for dealing with him in such a summary manner. The viscount was left in his cell for seven years, long after Simon de Montfort gave up his post in Gascony. The next victim of Simon’s vigorous methods was the Viscount of Soule. Frightened, no doubt, by the fate of his fellow viscount, he refused to appear when summoned to court. Simon reached out promptly and captured him at Mauléon and made him pay a fine of ten thousand molas. The most important step taken was in connection with the King of Navarre, who was persuaded to an arbitration of his differences with the English Crown.

Peace descended suddenly on Gascony. This brand of firmness was new to them. If the methods of the seneschal were unexpected, however, they were easily recognizable. The awed citizens saw in this kind of thoroughness the gift to Simon from his stern and relentless father who had been called the Scourge of the Albigenses. They did not like the taste of this severe medicine, but for the time being there was nothing they could do but mutter their discontent.

After three months in Gascony, Simon hurried to England to report what he had done, leaving a surprising degree of quiet behind him. As he returned to his post immediately and continued to govern with the same firm hand, it may be taken for granted that Henry had approved and had sped him back with the royal blessing.


Simon de Montfort’s first duty on returning was to settle the strife which was turning Bordeaux into two hostile camps. An election for mayor was approaching, and the Columbines, as the wine merchants were called, were determined to defeat the party of the Solers. Old Rustengo was so far advanced in years now that he had become practically bedridden, but this did not hamper that wise old political leader in his efforts to maintain control. From his huge house in the shadow of the Gothic cathedral of St. André he pulled the strings with all his old cunning, and it was expected that the Soler interests would win.

On the night of June 28, with the voting set for the following day, the Columbines came out in full force, filling the old Roman town with the clamor of their marching and singing. The Solers responded by pouring out in equal numbers, and soon there was fighting in the streets. Simon de Montfort had retired to his chamber, but he emerged at the first sound of conflict, issuing orders to both parties to return to their homes. The Solers, lacking the sagacious presence of old Rustengo, disregarded the order and continued to harry and attack their opponents. The seneschal threw himself into the melee on the side of the Columbines, and the fighting reached such a serious phase that men were killed on each side. Simon succeeded in driving the rioting Solers back to the house of their leader, which he invested and attacked. Rustengo was quick to surrender, ordering his followers to lay down their arms. The ringleaders on both sides were placed under arrest, including the old man, who was hauled from his bed and thrown into prison with the rest. Rustengo, however, was treated with every consideration, being allowed a comfortable chamber and as many servants as he needed for his personal comfort.

After an investigation the seneschal placed the blame on the Solers, who had disregarded his orders to disperse although the Columbines had been willing to obey. He therefore released the leaders of the latter faction but kept Rustengo and several of his most active followers in prison. The voting was held and the party of the wine merchants won.

It was unfortunate that Rustengo died while still in prison. His sons, who had been allowed their freedom, screeched in all the market places of Gascony that Simon de Montfort was responsible for his death. A deputation headed by one of the Soler sons went to England to demand satisfaction. Henry heard them, believed what they said, ordered all the confiscated property of the faction to be restored, and was preparing some action to clip his seneschal’s wings when a deputation from the other faction arrived, headed by William Raymond Colom, who had been elected mayor. After listening to them Henry, that somewhat less than resolute arbitrator, changed his mind and had the Solers thrown into prison.

No purpose would be served by recording all the sudden ups and downs which followed and the continual shifts in the position and favor of the King. Certain episodes must be introduced, however, to make clear the parts played by King and seneschal.

Simon was in Paris in March 1250 in an effort to negotiate a five-year truce with Blanche of Castile. Word reached him there that the anti-governmental factions in Gascony were planning a revolution on a wide scale, and he sent an important letter to Henry, important chiefly because it happens to be the only letter of his which remains in existence. He first advised the King that the forces of rebellion would strike after Whitsuntide and then pleaded for an audience to decide on the steps necessary under these circumstances. “Forasmuch as the great folk of the land,” he wrote, “look upon me with evil eyes, because I uphold against them your rights and those of the common people, it would be peril and shame to me, and great damage to you, if I went back to the country without having seen you and received your instructions.… Nor can they be checked by an army as in a regular war, for they only rob and burn, and take prisoners and ransom them, and ride about at night like thieves in companies.”

Before going on with the account of what developed it is advisable to pause and comment on the phrasing of this letter. It is clear that the seneschal is determined not to take any steps which lack the approval in advance of the King. He will be fighting an enemy who rides in the dark of night and strikes without warning, and the sharpest kind of measures will be necessary. More important still is the wording of one phrase, because I uphold against them your rights and those of the common people. The reference to the common people was not inserted in the letter to assist in swaying the King to the support of his officer in this crisis. Henry had no concern for the rights of the common people. That this consideration weighed in the mind of Simon de Montfort would incline the King to look on him with suspicion. The reference may be accepted, therefore, as an honest and vehement expression of the thoughts in the seneschal’s mind and not as an argument to influence the King. It was so much in Simon’s mind that he inserted it even though he knew it would hurt rather than help his cause. It thus becomes clear that in dealing with the men who “ride about at night like thieves in companies” he wanted to protect the common people. The arbitrary methods he adopted in breaking up the baronial combinations can be more easily understood and, in this light, more readily condoned.

Simon went to England and had his talk with the King. The latter was uneasy over the situation, willing enough to have Gascony brought to subjection but fearful of the consequences of the strong measures which alone would avail.

“By God’s hand, Sir Count,” he said in the tone of bitter faultfinding which had become habitual with him, “I will not deny you have fought bravely for me. But—but in truth there ascends a clamor of grave complaint against you!”

In spite of the royal misgivings, some funds were supplied and the seneschal returned to Gascony with the understanding that the uprising was to be put down with a firm hand. The expected rebellion did not take place, but there was continuous fighting of a desultory nature after Simon’s return. He did not find it necessary to go beyond the instructions he had received when in England, but at the beginning of the following year he arrived again in London with only three squires in his train after a mad gallop across France which had worn them all out. He could no longer continue the struggle, he declared, without support from home. He had exhausted all his own funds and had reached the end of his resources. Three thousand marks were doled out to him, and he rode back to Gascony in time to defeat the rebellious nobles at Castillon. It was such a complete victory that the rebels without exception made their peace and promised to sin no more. Simon then returned to England and handed in his resignation. His work was done, he declared, and someone else could now carry on the government in his stead. All he asked was that the King would recompense him for the money he had paid out of his own purse.

Henry proceeded to take a stand which can only be characterized as extraordinary. He not only refused to make any payments to the earl but went further and claimed that the latter must maintain garrisons in all the important castles in the province at his own expense for the balance of his seven years of office. Even the Queen balked at this evidence of the curious way the King’s mind worked, but Henry refused to listen to anyone. All the troubles in Gascony were due, he declared openly, to the evil conduct of Simon de Montfort himself. The earl demanded at once that an investigation be held, and with some eagerness the King agreed.

Commissioners were sent to the South to gather evidence and returned with a long train of witnesses, headed by the Archbishop of Bordeaux. The King received them with cordiality, but when Simon de Montfort put in an appearance he was greeted with coldness.

The trial was held in the refectory at Westminster and lasted for five weeks, the commissioners acting as judges. It was conducted with great bitterness on both sides. The bitterest of all the participants was Henry. He injected himself at every stage into the cross fire of question and answer, of charge and countercharge, shouting and losing his temper and making two things abundantly clear: that he wanted Simon to be judged a traitor and to have all his possessions confiscated to the Crown. Even when his brother, Richard of Cornwall, who had governed Gascony many years before and knew the conditions at first hand, testified that Simon de Montfort had taken the only way to put down disorder, the King continued to rail at the seneschal and his witnesses. An account of the trial has been preserved in the form of a letter by Adam Marsh, who attended the proceedings. Adam by this time was an ardent adherent of Simon de Montfort, but he was also a man of honor and a Christian, more devoted to truth than to any cause or friend. It may be assumed that he set down his account with fidelity to truth and that it may be accepted literally.

A dramatic picture emerges. It was a duel between the two men, the King and his subject, Henry attacking the earl with the twisted logic which grew out of his resentment because things had gone wrong, the earl meeting his attacks with the sharpness of a sword thrust. The feeling of the King was no longer the petty malice which had prompted his charge against the honor of his sister; it was hate, a hate of white heat which could be felt in every corner of the long chamber; a hate, moreover, which was returned in full by the smoldering-eyed defendant.

Simon listened to the written charges against him and answered them orally. Some of the statements he denied and gave his own version of what had happened; others he explained on the ground that he had acted on sentences pronounced in courts of justice. He had, in fact, summoned a parliament at Dax to consider the conduct of the “pack of thieves” who were disturbing the peace of Gascony, and it was on the authority of regulations which had been passed there that he had acted in all cases. This statement he elaborated in meeting the charges, showing his conduct to have been governed by parliamentary instruction. That he had sometimes been ruthless in carrying out these instructions, he acknowledged, claiming in extenuation that only by prompt and sharp action could lawlessness be met and checked. Not until the finish did he allow his feelings to get the better of him. Facing his accusers, he cried out in a loud voice, “Your testimony against me is worthless because you are all liars and traitors!”

The trend of the evidence had been running strongly in the earl’s favor from the beginning of the hearing, and his concise and powerful summation completed the rout of his opponents. It was now clear, even to Henry, that the Council could return no verdict save one of acquittal. The King continued to interfere, nevertheless, stabbing blindly and bitterly at the man who had accepted this mission in the first place against his will and had suffered so much in attempting to complete it. Simon was stung finally to open retaliation.

“Sir King,” he said, “observe the gist of your letter investing me with the government of Gascony for seven years.” There it lay on the table before them, the document giving to Simon de Montfort full authority to meet conditions in the South by any means he found necessary. The seneschal added after a moment, allowing his voice to reach a vehement note, “Restore all the money I have spent in your service out of my own resources!”

There was a pause before the King spluttered an angry reply. “No, I will not keep my promises,” he declared. “They have no value since you yourself have betrayed me.”

The Earl of Leicester was not one of the subservient men who clustered about the King and accepted the edge of his biting tongue in silence. He advanced a step in the direction of the royal dais.

“That word is a lie!” he cried. “Were you not my sovereign, an ill hour would it be for you in which you dared to utter it!”

Henry had passed the lie to many men, but this was the first time that he had to swallow his own medicine. He was too astonished to make an immediate reply.

Having gone this far, Simon allowed himself a further verbal aggression. “Who could believe you a Christian?” he demanded to know. This was followed by a direct challenge: “Do you ever go to confession?”

“I do indeed,” answered the King.

“What is the use of confession without repentance?”

Henry now found tongue to answer. “Never,” he cried, “have 1 repented anything so much as that I allowed you to enter England and take over lands and honors here!”

The verdict of the Council was unanimous. Simon de Montfort was cleared of all charges, his conduct in the office of seneschal tacitly approved. That night the candles burned in the chancellery, where the King worked with a coterie of his closest advisers. John Mansel was one of them, without a doubt, for Henry was deferring to his judgment now on all occasions and following his suggestions. In an effort to snatch some shreds of victory from the defeat of the trial, a set of conditions was drawn up and stamped with the royal seal without any responsible member of the Council being consulted. Simon was to return to Gascony, but a truce was to be declared and maintained until he, Henry, could visit the province and settle all questions under dispute. In the meantime certain castles were to be handed back to their owners, certain confiscated properties were to be restored, certain prisoners were to be released. Every point was a concession to the complainants who had been declared by unanimous decision of the Council to have failed in establishing a case.

Realizing that the King had made it impossible for him to carry on his duties with any hope of success, Simon returned to the South of France with the greatest reluctance. Henry bade him farewell with the words, “Go back to Gascony, thou lover and maker of strife, and reap its reward like thy father before thee.”

When the seneschal reached Gascony he found that his opponents had already broken the truce. Gaston of Béarn had marched a strong force against Le Réole and was besieging the castle. Collecting such forces as he could, Simon succeeded in defeating the arch-troublemaker. He won another battle at Montauban, with more difficulty this time, as the disaffected barons had brought a large army into the field against him. As soon as this battle had been won two royal commissioners appeared and handed him a communication from Henry in which he was sternly commanded to abide by the terms of the truce.

“I cannot observe a truce,” declared the seneschal, “which the other party refuses to recognize.”

On receiving this reply, the commissioners handed him a second note containing notification that he had been removed from office. This procedure, most clearly, had been carefully planned in advance. The ingenuity of the trap laid for the seneschal’s feet suggests that the idea had not originated in the mind of the King. Henry was distinctly lacking in originality. John Mansel seems the most likely concocter of the scheme. He was now deep in Henry’s confidence. In the years immediately following, the King’s policy would show a cunning and a degree of resourcefulness never displayed before.

Simon de Montfort kicked aside the steel jaws of the trap. He had been confirmed in his office by Royal Council, he declared, and would not retire until his seven-year term had expired. When word of his obduracy reached England a meeting of Parliament was called in an effort to get constitutional sanction for his dismissal. Parliament refused to take action. Henry was thus brought to the need of offering terms. Grudgingly and unhappily he agreed to pay all the debts Simon had contracted in Gascony and to give him seven thousand marks by way of compensation if he would resign his office.

Simon de Montfort accepted these conditions. It was with reluctance that he laid down his baston and departed. The robber barons still “rode about at night like thieves in companies.” The common people still suffered the terrors of civil war. Had he been too harsh in his methods and thus responsible for the continuing strife? Or, on the other hand, should he have gone to greater lengths and rooted out the quarreling barons once and for all? The man who crossed the Garonne and rode through Guienne into France was not happy over his first experience as a ruler.

He arrived in Paris at a crucial moment. Worn out with anxiety for her son at the Crusades and by the exacting nature of her official duties, Blanche of Castile had been taken ill and had died, leaving the state without any head. Fearing that the old dissensions would break out again, the council of peers began hastily to throw a government together. The post of seneschal was offered to Simon de Montfort, special commissioners being sent to him twice to urge his acceptance. The proffer of this important position was evidence that his conduct in Gascony had been watched closely in France and, moreover, with approbation. He refused the offer, stating that he was an English subject and intended to remain one.


Henry had the utmost confidence in his capacity to settle matters in Gascony, but he seemed in no hurry to get away, letting almost a year elapse before making any move. Perhaps he was held back by the emptiness of the royal coffers. Empty they were, at any rate, and the King was finding it a difficult matter to replenish them. Knowing that the barons would refuse a subsidy, he fell back on an old order of the Pope’s to the English clergy which stipulated a grant to the Crown of ten per cent of all the revenue of the Church to be applied to crusading expenses. The clergy had refused up to this point to obey the papal mandate. The King decided to lay his suggestion that this was the time for the grant to be paid before the Bishop of Ely, that dignitary having been rather more lenient in his attitude than his brother bishops. My lord of Ely, however, displayed no leniency on this occasion. He not only refused to entertain the kingly suggestion but proceeded to lecture Henry for his extravagance. Henry flew into a passion and ordered his officers “to turn out this ill-bred fellow.”

By means fair or otherwise he raised funds for the venture finally and was ready to leave by the middle of the following year, 1253. He issued instructions that during his absence Queen Eleanor and Richard of Cornwall were to act as regents jointly. There seems to have been an understanding, however, between the royal couple, at any rate, that Eleanor would exercise the functions of ruler and that the King’s brother would act in a consultant capacity. Henry made out a will to confirm this, a brief document which was the only testament he ever drew. The confidence he thus demonstrated in his strong-minded spouse would yield bitter fruit later.

He sailed from Portsmouth on August 6 with a large retinue of knights and administrative assistants, John Mansel being one of the latter. Prince Edward was brought from Eltham to bid his father farewell. He was now in his fourteenth year and had grown tall, his head being almost on a level with the King’s. He was brisk and workmanlike in the use of weapons and was going to make a great soldier, this long-legged heir to the throne; but on this occasion he was no more than a boy who did not like being left behind. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he watched the departure of the royal flotilla.

On reaching Bordeaux, Henry found conditions to be worse than ever. While he had fiddled at home, the fires of Gascon dissension had burned briskly. Gaston of Béarn had supplied yeast to the bread of discontent by making an open alliance with Alfonso the Wise of Castile. The latter was to push his claims to the province with the active aid of the troublesome Gaston and, in the event of success, Gaston was to be made seneschal. Henry was disturbed at the turmoil which existed and found himself at a loss as to what to do. He did what might have been expected of him, therefore; he sent for Simon de Montfort. “We beg you to come,” he wrote, “and discuss affairs with us, and show us what you wish to be done.”

Simon was still in France and in poor health. Remembering the scenes at Westminster, the hatred Henry had displayed, the accusing forefinger which had been leveled at him, the King’s bitter speech of farewell, he must have indulged in a wry smile on reading the communication. His first impulse was to refuse. It was some time, at any rate, before he stirred himself to obey and set out for the southern province with a small following of knights. Henry received him with outward cordiality, and they proceeded to take counsel as to the best method of pacifying the country.

A solution was now in sight. The craftily smiling Alfonso of Castile had always been in the background of Gascon intrigue, and Gaston of Béarn had never been more than a gadfly responding to the fan of Castile. If Alfonso could be persuaded to withdraw his pretensions, the disobedient nobility would be left without any prospect of support and would cease to be defiant. The first step toward such an agreement had been taken before Henry left England, a proposal that the Lord Edward, heir of England, should marry Alfonso’s half sister, the infanta Doña Eleanora of Castile. It was decided now to pursue the proposal actively.

Two plenipotentiaries were dispatched from Bordeaux to open negotiations in Burgos, Peter d’Aigueblanche, Bishop of Hereford, and the inevitable John Mansel. The Castilian ruler was found in a receptive mood. It is doubtful if he had ever entertained serious designs on Gascony. Rather he had been using his claim as a means to an end. The infanta, a lissome girl of ten years with charming manners and the promise of great beauty, pleased the English representatives. The bishop and the resourceful Mansel found one reservation in the mind of the Spanish monarch. English princes in the past had been notoriously fickle in matrimonial matters. The infanta’s mother was the Joanna of Ponthieu who had been so unceremoniously tossed aside by Henry himself in his desire to have Eleanor of Provence as his Queen. There must be no playing fast and loose in this case. The Lord Edward must appear in Burgos not later than five weeks before Michaelmas of the following year to claim his young bride. If he failed to arrive within that time, the marriage contract would be canceled.

The major stipulation of the contract was a solemn promise that Alfonso’s claims in Gascony would be relinquished. When word of this reached Gaston of Béarn he realized that he had been left to face the consequences of his treason alone. Dissension and civil war ended with dramatic suddenness.

Simon de Montfort was delegated to return to London and report the happy solution of Gascon troubles. He seemed to have regained royal favor, but the rapprochement was all on the surface. The hatred which had flared up at Westminster still smoldered between them. The King was almost certainly laughing up his sleeve at his own cleverness in sending the Earl of Leicester to England to carry the glad tidings that he, Henry of Winchester, had succeeded where Simon de Montfort had failed.

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