The king's uppity baron

Simon de Montfort
January 5, 1996

Almost four centuries before the English deposed and beheaded their king, the Provisions of Oxford had, according to one striking verdict, "reduced the authority of the king of England to that of a figurehead" and attempted to arrange that thereafter England would be governed in the manner of an Italian city republic. This may be pitched too high, but it illustrates the importance of Henry III's struggle with his barons in any discussion of the evolving English constitution. And after 30 years on the periphery constitutionalism is firmly back as a central issue of English medieval history. In truth, the question of whether individuals drew their political motivation from beliefs or self-interest has never really gone away. It was as much a part of the book on Thomas of Lancaster which J. R. Maddicott published back in 1970 as it is of the magisterial study of Simon de Montfort which he brings us now. Rather, constitutionalism is an issue again because some scholars have chosen to take a stand on the matter. In so doing they court the failing which blighted earlier generations of constitutionalists, not so much a tendency towards teleology as to the analysis of politics as if they could be removed from events and discussed in the abstract.

Maddicott neither addresses nor skirts around the controversy over constitutionalism. Instead, he manages to remain serenely above it. De Montfort's career, beset as it was by the respective demands of idealism and self-interest, is allowed to speak for itself. What emerges is not a struggle between irreconcilable aspects of personality but a delicate and unstable balance between motives of opposing quality which were nonetheless usually mutually reinforcing in terms of their effects. Between 1258, when he swore to abide by the Provisions of Oxford, and his death at Evesham in 1265, De Montfort's ideals and material interests stood in close alignment. The fact that he was seeking a vast sum in satisfaction of his wife's dower and, since most of his lands were his for life only, a heritable endowment for his sons does not preclude the sincerity of his attachment to the Provisions. Indeed, his fanatical devotion to the oath which he had taken to maintain them, transcending even his allegiance to the king, was, as this study demonstrates, entirely consistent with the ardent personal piety which distinguished him among his secular contemporaries. Although Maddicott draws genuine pathos from the mortal casing of private interest which leaves even De Montfort's principles and beliefs as prisoners of time, he resists even the hint of a hero led to destruction by a fissure in his nature. While readers, steeped in the Nolan report, might have a keen sense for the moral dichtomy, they are left in no doubt that De Montfort's contemporaries were part unaware, part unconcerned.

By contrast, De Montfort's national identity was both an object of ironic comment by contemporaries, the enemy of aliens who "was himself one of them by birth", and instrumental in his downfall. His English career was punctuated by absences in France, his country of origin, the cumulative effect of which proved critical. Before his rebellion Henry III consistently used him as a well connected and skilled agent for Plantagenet objectives there. With De Montfort overseas Henry was temporarily relieved of the pressure to satisfy him in England and free to lavish preferment on others. But if De Montfort's missions on the king's behalf fuelled his sense of grievance and drove him towards rebellion, the most costly absences came during the reform movement itself when De Montfort deliberately chose to devote time to personal and family matters in France. Deprived of his leadership and purpose during these periods, the reform movement lost momentum and support. So perhaps De Montfort was a victim of the difficulty of adapting to the English kingdom's changing relationship with its continental neighbours. And perhaps the same was true of his royal adversary with his dangerous fascination for things Roman, ranging from Cosmati mosaic pavements to plans for conquest in Sicily. These last speculations go beyond the conclusions drawn by Maddicott but are suggested by his own professed intention of showing that De Montfort "still enjoyed a continuing role in the society of his native France".

This is a very thought-provoking book. A great deal could be said in praise of its style, presentation and craft. But it is most of all the author's capacity to engage and empathise with his subject, while never sacrificing candour and objectivity, which might be taken as example. Follow, those who can.

Anthony Gross is associate lecturer in history, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

Simon de Montfort

Author - J. R. Maddicott
ISBN - 0 521 37493 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 404

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