Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge
We know very little of the boyhood of Simon de Montfort. His father had fought in the Crusades and was killed, when his second son, Simon, was about ten years old. Simon was not a little English boy, but was born in France, and spoke French, or a kind of broken English. He was very beautiful to look at, he had a graceful figure and very winning manners. His mother was an heiress in Leicester, but she had lived mostly in France, and the earldom of Leicester was in the hands of the king.
When Simon was about twenty, he determined to go to England to try to get back the earldom of Leicester. His handsome face, graceful manners, and foreign accent, delighted King Henry III. of England, who granted him the earldom, and allowed him to marry his daughter Eleanor.
Simon de Montfort was soon in high favour.
At first the barons looked on him as a foreigner, and hated him, but he soon overcame their dislike by adopting English ways and manners.
At court he was very popular, and his eldest son, Henry, became a favourite playfellow of the young prince.
But at the height of his popularity, the king, for some trivial reason, took a dislike to the Earl Simon, who was obliged to escape to France with his wife. Leaving her in safety in France, he went to the Holy Land, where he made himself famous and gained the affection of all.
By the time he returned to England, King Henry had forgotten his anger, and the next ten years were spent quietly enough. The earl's five sons spent much of their time at the palace playing with the king's children.
At the end of the ten years Earl Simon was sent to govern a part of France which then belonged to England. The people over whom he had to rule were wild and disorderly, and did not like the earl's stern rule and taxes. So after a time they complained to the king in England.
Earl Simon was summoned to appear in court before the king. Now he had done a great deal for the French people, though he was so stern; he had spent all the money Henry gave him, on them, and had spent a great deal of his own money too. This money he begged the king to repay him. The king refused.
"I am not bound to keep my word with a traitor," he said.
The earl was furious and answered angrily.
"I repent me sorely that I allowed thee to come to England," replied Henry.
Simon de Montfort was obliged to resign his post, and again seek shelter elsewhere for a year.
At this time the barons were very powerful; they were rich and proud, and the king was very much afraid of them. The barons wanted to help to govern the country too, and this made Henry very angry. Things were going from bad to worse; the king was weak, and did not keep the laws of the country; and the barons were growing more powerful when Earl Simon again appeared in England.
This time he joined the barons. He had been watching affairs silently for ten long years, till he saw it was time to stir. The people flocked round him when he returned.
Determined on "securing the peace of his fellow-citizens," he met the barons at Oxford to draw up some new laws for the land.
Henry became more and more frightened. He knew he had not kept the laws of the Great Charter, and he feared what might happen.
One day, when on the Thames in the royal barge, the king was overtaken by a sudden and violent storm. He was forced to take refuge at the house of Earl Simon. The earl came to meet him, and bid him not to be alarmed, as the storm was nearly over.
"I fear thunder and lightning not a little, Lord Simon," replied the king, "but I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world."
The meeting of the barons at Oxford was called the "Mad Parliament." All the barons came, and they settled that twenty-four of them should be chosen to see that the king kept the laws of the Great Charter, and that they should meet three times a year, whether the king wished it or no. Besides the barons, twelve "honest men," chosen by the people, were to come to these meetings, or parliaments, and help the barons. This first parliament you must remember, as it was the beginning of what is now called the "House of Commons." The king was made to swear to keep these laws.
"If he refuse to act with the barons of England," said the earl, "not a bit of land shall he have in the whole realm."
For a short time all went on quietly.
Then the king began to oppose these meetings, and his brother Richard opposed them too.
The people, too, began to be angry, because they said the parliament did not do enough for them.
Neither side wished to fight, so they agreed to ask the King of France to decide. But the King of France knew very little of what had been happening in England, and less of English law, and his decision made the earl very angry. So Simon de Montfort, with all the barons and nobles, marched against the king, who was collecting an army in Sussex.
He marched on and met the king at Lewes, where a battle was fought.
Before the battle the earl talked to his men. He told them Henry III. had broken his promises, governed badly, and not kept the laws; therefore, they must fight. They rushed into battle. Well they fought with Earl Simon at their head, and well too fought the king and his son, but Henry with his son Edward was taken prisoner and his men fled.
Now Simon de Montfort was at the height of prosperity. The people loved him, and made him Protector, and he was very powerful. One of the first things he did was to call a parliament. As well as the barons, Earl Simon said a knight from each shire might be chosen by the people to sit in this Parliament, and a man from each large town might also come to speak for them.
Although a great many people liked the earl and his way of governing, yet there were still a great many who were loyal to the king and his son. They did not want Henry III. to reign again, but they thought his son Edward might rule better. So they made a plan for the prince to escape from his confinement.
One day the prince said to his attendants, "I should like to ride on horseback this afternoon."
They too thought it would be very pleasant, so all rode out together. The prince made his attendants race till they and their horses were quite tired. He did not race himself, but kept his horse fresh. It was getting late, and all the other horses were very weary and hot, when suddenly the prince spurred his horse, dashed away, and joining some men who were waiting for him at a given place, he disappeared, to the astonishment and dismay of his tired attendants.
The prince then collected an army and marched to meet the Earl Simon. He met him with a few men near a place called Evesham.
"We are dead men, my lord," said one of the barons, as he beheld the royal army advancing.
"I firmly believe I shall die for the cause of God and justice," answered the earl.
A glance at the enemy showed him that the struggle would prove fatal.
"Let us commend our souls to God, our bodies are Prince Edward's," he said to the little group around him.
The unequal contest began; the earl fought bravely. His horse was killed under him, but he fought on foot. His son Henry, who was fighting with him, lay dead at his feet. Nearly all were killed.
"Fly!" cried the earl to his small band of remaining men.
"If you die, we care not to live," was the brave answer. At last all were killed, and Earl Simon was left alone, sword in hand, but not for long. A blow felled him to the ground, and with a cry of "It is God's grace," "the soul of the great patriot passed away."
"Night fell o'er de Montfort dead,
And England wept beside him."
So died the Earl of Leicester, called by his loving people, "Sir Simon the Righteous." He had done what he thought was right and best for his country, and perished in the work. We know he was not always right, but we may still say with the poet,
"He died a gallant knight
With sword in hand for England's right."