Simon de Montfort was born in France in about 1208. His father was a large landowner, but when he died he left his land to Simon's older brother Amaury. The de Montfort family had owned land in England in the past and Amaury suggested that Montfort should visit Henry III in to see if the land could be reclaimed.
Montfort arrived in England in 1230. Henry liked Simon, was sympathetic to his claim and gave him back his family lands. The king also agreed that Montfort should become the new earl of Leicester. In return, Montfort promised to pay a fee of £100 and to supply sixty knights in time of war.
The new earl of Leicester also agreed to become the king's steward, which involved him in organizing ceremonial functions. This pleased Montfort as it enabled him to meet most of the rich and influential people in England. As he was short of money Montfort hoped that this would help him to meet a rich widow.
Montfort was an attractive man with a title, and several women showed an interest in him. The woman he chose was the king's sister, Eleanor. Married at nine and a widow at sixteen, Eleanor was now one of the richest women in England. The king was initially against the marriage but eventually Eleanor managed to persuade him to change his mind.
As his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort became one of King Henry's main advisers. Henry also valued Montfort's abilities as a military commander, and in 1248 sent him to take control of Gascony, one of the last areas in France that was still part of the English empire.
After working closely with Henry III , Montfort soon became aware that the king was a poor leader. Montfort developed the opinion that the situation would only improve if the barons played a more active role in running the country. Other leading barons shared Montfort's views and in 1258 they decided to take action.
In May the barons went to see the king. They demanded that in future the king should not make decisions without consulting his barons. Fearing a civil war that he would lose, Henry accepted their demands for reform (the Provisions of Oxford).
Fifteen barons, including Simon de Montfort, were selected to become members of this advisory council. However, it was not long before Henry was ignoring his advisers. When the barons complained, Henry bribed them with gifts.
Simon de Montfort refused to change his mind over the need for a permanent council. Montfort had a reputation for being sympathetic to the needs of ordinary people. This helped him gain the support of the majority of people who lived in the large towns and cities. For example, in London the people rebelled against Henry and handed over the city to Montfort.
After rallying his supporters, the king decided to take on Montfort's army. The two sides met at Lewes in Sussex in on 14th May 1264. The bishops of Chichester, London and Worcester, who were all supporters of Simon de Montfort, attempted to negotiate a truce before the battle started. However Henry, who had a much larger army and was confident of victory, refused to do a deal.
Montfort had recently broken his leg falling from a horse and had to direct operations while sitting in a cart. However, it did not stop him winning a famous victory. At the end of the battle the king had been captured and those members of his army that had survived had fled from the battlefield.
Montfort and his second in command, Gilbert the Red, now organized a new parliament. As well as barons and leaders of the church, two representatives from each town were invited to attend parliament. The day-to-day running of the country was carried out by three men: Simon de Montfort, Gilbert the Red and the Bishop of Chichester. However, within a few months the barons started to complain that Montfort was acting like a king.
Gilbert the Red argued with Simon and left London. In June 1265 Gilbert met the king's son, Prince Edward, in Ludlow. The two men raised an army and began their campaign by capturing Gloucester. When Montfort heard about the size of his enemy's army, he is reported to have said: "Let us commend our souls to God, because our bodies are theirs."
A dawn attack at Kenilworth on 2nd August 1265 took forces led by Montfort's son by surprise. The following day Montfort's main army was attacked at Evesham. Prince Edward's army had an easy victory and Montfort's outnumbered army was slaughtered. After Simon de Montfort had been killed, his body was mutilated. His head was cut off and displayed round the country as a warning of what happened to people who rebelled against their king.
Matthew Paris has argued: "Earl Simon, who gave up not only his property, but also his person, to defend the poor from oppression, and for the maintenance of justice. Report goes, that Simon, after his death, was distinguished by the working of many miracles, which, however, were not made publicly known, for fear of kings." However, Thomas Wykes claimed he had another objective: "Simon de Montfort... desired to put down the mighty and ruin their power... so that he might more freely and easily subdue the people, after having destroyed the strength of the magnates."
May the Lord bless Simon de Montfort and also his sons and his army who, exposing themselves to death, fought bravely for the English people... Simon de Montfort had few men used to arms; the royal party was large, having assembled the greatest warriors in England... but God provided... since God is a help for those who are on the side of justice. Thus it was right that God should help the Earl, for without God he could not overcome the enemy.
Simon de Montfort... desired to put down the mighty and ruin their power... so that he might more freely and easily subdue the people, after having destroyed the strength of the magnates.
By his death the Earl Montfort gained the victory,
Like the martyr of Canterbury he finished his life;
The good Thomas would not allow holy church to perish,
The Earl fought a similar cause, and died without flinching.
Although by treason almost robbed of his own kingdom,
Edward overcome conquering legions by a wonderful effort.
The noble offspring carried back his father to the government of the kingdom,
Wickedly wrested from him, which he had longed ruled.
Earl Simon, who gave up not only his property, but also his person, to defend the poor from oppression, and for the maintenance of justice. Report goes, that Simon, after his death, was distinguished by the working of many miracles, which, however, were not made publicly known, for fear of kings.