Sunday, 20 December 2020


 THE SONG OF SIMON de MONTFORT: England’s First Revolutionary

SOPHIE THÉRÈSE AMBLER, Picador, 2020, 428 pages

 Review by Phil Shannon

What to do with a pesky British knight of the realm who thinks that all Britons, including those of no wealth, should have a voice in making the laws that govern and tax them, and who has an armed following well up for it?  Why, you drive a lance through his neck in battle, slaughter his followers and, pour encourager les autres big time, you return to the dead knight’s body to sever his hands, feet and head, and as a coup de grace, his testicles, stuffing them into his mouth, the whole grisly package of body parts despatched as a present to your wife.

 This is exactly what the powerful land baron, Roger Mortimer, in alliance with King Henry 111 and his heir to the throne,  Prince Edward, did to Simon de Montfort, the earl of Leicester and revolutionary democrat, at the battle of Evesham in Worcestershire in 1265.  Sophie Ambler, a British historian at Lancaster University, recounts the tragic fate of this early sortie into representative government in the democracy-deficient Mediaeval Ages.

 In the beginning, Simon was a comfortable member of the elite club of land barons, bishops and Royals.  By managing royal administration in the shires (including the collection of taxes and administration of justice) as well as providing the special services cavalry corps for the king’s army, knights were essential cogs in this circle of social connection, political power and material reward.  Simon, by marrying King Henry’s sister and naming their baby Henry, was a skilled player of the suck-up game.

 There were family disputes over the economic spoils of power, however, and Simon was initially propelled onto his politically rebellious path by a large debt owed to Simon by King Henry which remained unpaid because Henry preferred to waste money on vanity military projects.

 Simon also actually took seriously the knightly oath of serving the wellbeing of the king’s subjects, something which Henry had conspicuously failed to do.  Simon’s anti-royalist radicalisation deepened in 1258 when a year-long winter (the result of a massive, climate-altering Indonesian volcano) hit the poor of England with failed crops, soaring corn prices, terrible famine and deadly disease epidemics on top of ruinous royal taxes, fees and fines.

 When, to manage this crisis, the King summoned the religious and secular elite of England to a ‘parliament’ in that year to approve his request for yet another tax, Simon lead a Bolshie delegation of rebel barons and bishops who had come to see a greedy and recklessly autocratic Henry as a threat to the ruling class unity and stable class relations that worked to the benefit of their own interests as the second-tier elite. 

 There was a flamboyant, martial demeanour to Simon’s delegation as well.  Attired in full knightly kit, swords and all, the King’s usually trusty but now aggrieved lieutenants were negotiating from strength and they did not stop with exercising their Magna Carta right of veto over tax proposals (a right won in struggle against the egregiously bad Bad King John in 1215).  More than this specific restraint on the power of the Crown, the rebels wanted an end to costly, pointless royal wars, and, further upping the ante, they demanded a revolution in England’s system of government.

 Government, they insisted, should be by a more widely representative council of ‘leading citizens’ instead of solely by the Crown and its chosen stooges.  In the age of absolute monarchy, this diminution of royal power was revolutionary.  Henry was frightened into political surrender.

 He retained the throne and some residual powers, however, and the resultant system of dual power see-sawed for six years between royalists and democrats as the population’s traditional feudal loyalties to king and lord vied with an emerging, new democratic, political consciousness.  Long before Leon Trotsky was to make ‘permanent revolution’ a trending meme, the more maximalist of the rebels, such as Simon, discovered its necessity in the struggle with the old, still extant, political order.

 Simon consolidated popular support for a showdown with royalty as he extended to the common people of England ground-breaking new rights and avenues of justice against the sheriffs, bailiffs and other agents of the state.  The 50% of the population who were tenant farmers (obliged to serve their lords - they were basically unfree serfs) also exercised new-found rights further down the food chain against their lordly owners.

 This last development alarmed the more moderate of the elite rebels but, for the moment these uncertain class allies held fast against a common enemy, the hard-line royalist reactionaries who eventually wheeled out the usual remedy of putting the upstart yokels to the sword.  The first counter-revolution, by domestic and foreign royalist forces, came a cropper, however, in the  battle of Lewes in 1265, thanks to Simon’s military acumen and political leadership.  Simon took King Henry and Prince Edward prisoner.

 With the wind in their sails, the Montfortians pressed their advantage, expropriating the castles and other assets of the enemies of democratic reform.  They took control of the capital from the royalists, winning over London’s middle class (bakers, and food and wine merchants, who were victims of royal rapacity) and the labouring class of skilled artisans and unskilled workers.  It was not just an elite of barons, knights and bishops who backed Simon but, as a London chronicler wrote, ‘almost all the middling people of the kingdom’ willingly flocked to Simon’s banner, including giving eager service as foot-soldiers in Simon’s citizens’ army.


The first parliament of the new regime experimented with a deeper, albeit limited, democracy.  Representatives to England’s ‘first House of Commons’ in 1265 were in part selected, in part elected, including not just knights, bishops and barons but lesser religious and secular notables, and townspeople (well … townsmen, but this was eight centuries ago), too.  In parallel, out in the shires, local people tasted a stronger flavour of democracy by electing their shire sheriffs.  None of this would meet the bar of the bourgeois democracy of our day, of full suffrage and direct election of parliamentary representatives, but, for the times, it was a revolutionary leap forward in democratic rights.

 As parliament deliberated, the symbolism of the humiliated king being led everywhere as a captive under the eye of Simon’s personal military detail of 160 knights, whilst Edward languished in jail, made manifest the fundamental transformation of the political order that had just occurred.

 The old elite knew it and began plotting to get their power back.  Although Simon had won over many knights, much of the Commoner population and a significant number of bishops (the Church tithed ten per cent of its wealth to fund the Montfortian army), none (bar one – who later defected) of the immensely powerful land-owning earls were Simon’s comrades in the struggle against their own class interests.

 These earls had immense wealth for funding a sizeable army, and they had the power to conscript a large body of men, also playing on the tenant-serfs’ cultural conditioning of reverence for royalty and the Pope in order to weaken popular support for Simon.  Well-off moderates in the revolution, fearing for their manors and castles and serfs, betrayed Simon by helping Prince Edward, a ferocious warrior, to escape to lead the military backlash.  The grim logic of war did the rest.

 The anti-democrats doused with blood the Montfortian “flicker in the political dark” but the example of Simon’s revolution survived in popular memory.  Sophie Ambler’s addictively readable historical narrative is grounded in diligent, insightful research and enlivened by warm sympathy for the defeated rebels.  Their revolution had its imperfections – its anti-Semitism, common for the time, is confronting, whilst Simon’s political principle of ‘good lordship’ fell short of a full extension of political power to the lord’s subjects – but the reader is rooting for it all the same.  Simon’s revolution – partial, flawed, defeated but inspirational - remains ours to finish off.

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