Simon de Montfort, the Battle of Lewes and the English Constitution Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Simon de Montfort, the Battle of Lewes and the English Constitution

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There are two reasons to be interested in the battle which took place near the Sussex town of Lewes in 1264. Firstly, it led to a development of the English constitution. Secondly it involved a clash between two contrasting men: King Henry III and Simon de Montfort1.


The 13th Century saw the first stirrings of the Renaissance in Europe, as merchants and crusaders returned from abroad, with beautiful objects and new ideas. Developments in art and crafts reached their culmination in the building of great cathedrals. Inflammatory political ideas were also kindling.

England had been part of the Angevin empire, which also included at least half of France and the south and east of Ireland. The kings had been in the habit of spending much of their time abroad. However, the empire was lost in King John's reign, leading to a rise in nationalism in England. In addition, the feudal system was weakening while towns and cities were growing in importance, creating a class of independent-minded citizens. The legal system was already in place, but the country was only groping towards a political system.

The reign of King John had ended in rebellion and stalemate. The rebellious barons forced Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, on the King to set out the relationship between government and governed. Its most important provision was Clause 61, which provided for the setting up of a council of twenty five to enforce its terms. This was the first attempt to set up some kind of parliamentary restraint on the king. It was also the first time that the great barons, the lesser nobility, the towns and the Church formed an alliance.

This was a time when battles were often fought in a ritualistic manner, like a game of chess. The foot soldiers were expendable, but knights, castles and bishops could be seized and held as bargaining chips. The foot soldiers were lucky to have tunics of leather or cloth. Although some had bows and arrows, massed ranks of archers had not yet been developed. The main force consisted of knights on horseback, who wore armour which was becoming increasingly elaborate. The cavalry were usually formed up into three divisions, known as 'battles' and drawn up to face the 'battles' of the enemy.

Henry III

Henry was only nine when he became king in 1216. He had two regents, Stephen Langton and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who endorsed the Great Charter and set out on a programme of reform. However, without a standing army or a system of taxation, it was difficult to enforce foreign policy or to finance the increasingly complex business of government. King Henry's youth gave impetus to the regular calling of the Great Council. Its main function was to redress grievances and advise the executive, but it evolved into a consultative body and became known as 'parlement.'

King Henry took over the full responsibility of government in 1234. He was a man of contrasts: chaste and pious but unscrupulous; obstinate and yet feckless, prone to rushing into military adventures for which he had no skill. He could be charming, yet he was capable of bribing, threatening, blustering and setting people against each other. He had cultivated tastes, and surrounded himself with favourites of foreign origins. One of his main preoccupations was the building of Westminster Abbey, and the improvement of royal palaces and houses. His public and private expenditure became hopelessly confused, and he resorted to every expedient to raise money.

Simon de Montfort

Simon de Montfort was a French adventurer who came to England and became a patriot. The de Montfort family took its name from a stronghold between the valleys of the Eure and the Seine in Normandy. They were related by marriage to both the Norman and French royal houses. Simon was single-minded and constant, ambitious, tough, self-disciplined and God-fearing. Little is known about his upbringing but he may have fought alongside his father, who was a crusader notorious for cruelly supressing the Albigensians2. Simon became a skilled military commander. He was unusual in planning his campaigns, playing attention to detail and imposing military discipline.

Simon first came to England in 1229 and claimed the title and lands of Earl of Leicester, which his father had inherited but been unable to claim. Simon shared Henry's civilised tastes and the King found much to admire in him. However, foreigners were unpopular at court and Simon spent much of the next seven years fighting abroad, before the King restored his inheritance. Strains developed between the two men when Simon hurriedly married the King's sister, Eleanor. Not only were there rumours he had seduced her, but she had taken solemn vows of chastity after the death of her first husband.

Growing Discontent

The King was unpopular among the barons for his extravagant expenditure and promotion of foreigners. In addition, the demands of the Pope on England became more and more oppressive. In 1242, the King decided to renew the war with France, which he had first attempted in 1229. He landed at Royan, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, but his force was outnumbered and he had to withdraw to Bordeaux for the winter. When the King of France issued an order to seize English merchants, Henry sent a fleet, but it was scattered by storms. He tried to raise money by saying he was going on crusade and, when his counsellors opposed this, he played them off against each other.

In 1248, the king sent Simon de Montfort to Gascony, which was a source of trouble. At first, Simon did well, capturing the chief troublemaker. However, when rebellion broke out again, Simon returned to London, to seek support from the King. The Gascons accused Simon of tyrannical behaviour, which he denied. However, a bitter quarrel broke out between him and the king.

In 1255, the king made another blunder. The Pope offered him Sicily, but the gift was a ruse, as he was expected to raise an army and stand surety for Papal debts. When the army which Henry had raised was defeated, the barons were angry. Matters were made worse by a bad harvest, followed by a severe winter, which resulted in famine. The summons went out for the Great Council to meet, but the barons refused the large sum of money the King needed for his Sicilian venture.

They met again in Oxford in June 1258, in the so-called Mad Parliament, which began the move to real reform. Simon de Montfort was one of the leaders of the barons, although the reforming clergy were also important. The Provisions of Oxford set out a system for ensuring that representatives were chosen to provide permanent oversight of the King's actions. Unfortunately, it was too cumbersome and complex to be effective. For a while, enthusiasm for reform waned.

However, relations between the King and Simon de Montfort grew worse. In 1263, disturbances broke out along the Welsh border, sparking a campaign by the baronial army which caused much bloodshed. Simon may have been unable to control it, as he was often absent in France. However, by the time he returned, he became the leader. Parliament met in September and the King, Simon and others sought the help of the French King Louis to find a reconciliation. However, King Louis was a believer in absolute monarchy. On 23 January, 1264, he gave his verdict, in a deed known as the Mise of Amiens, which annulled the Provisions of Oxford. The barons had expected a compromise and refused to accept the decision.

Civil War

The country was split. The main baronial support included London, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and parts of Eastern England. The King's support lay to the west. Rebellion started in London, where the townspeople appointed their own constable and marshal. It spread and the King's elder son, Prince Edward, tried to restore order.

Simon called a meeting of his supporters at Northampton, but it had fallen to Prince Edward and been savagely sacked. Simon turned southward and attacked Rochester. After fire-ships were used to burn the wooden bridge, the town was taken and sacked, although the castle held out. However, there were rumours of a disturbance in London. As Simon couldn't afford to lose the support of the city, he abandoned the siege of the castle and hurried away. King Henry's army made a forced march from Nottingham to Rochester in five days, then moved on to take Tonbridge. His aim was to take the Cinque Ports, which were strategically important. However the wardens of the ports, backed by public opinion, put their fleets out to sea and Henry turned back. From Battle he went to Lewes, reaching the town on Sunday 11 May.

The Battle of Lewes

Lewes had been a town of some importance since William the Conqueror gave the Rape of Lewes to William de Warenne. The town nestles in a gap in the ridge of the South Downs, where the River Ouse makes its way towards the sea. The castle is in an ideal defensive position, high above the valley. Outside the town walls to the south lay the Priory of Saint Pancras at Southover, which was the senior house of the Cluniac order.

By the time the King arrived, his men and horses were tired and hungry and food was in short supply, He made his headquarters in the Priory of Saint Pancras. Prince Edward, now nearly 25, rode through the town to stay in the castle with his friend John de Warenne. The army camped outside the town walls. The King was not expecting an attack and settled down to rest. Simon had left London on 6 May. It is not clear how large his army was, but it was certainly smaller than the King's and included many untrained Londoners. When the King reached Lewes, Simon was setting up camp about nine miles north, in wooded country around Fletching and Piltdown.

The barons made a final offer to the King, the terms of which were reasonable. If Henry allowed the Oxford Provisions to be amended by a committee of churchmen and accepted their recommendations, the barons would pay 50,000 marks compensation for damage and loyally serve the crown. The King gave a curt refusal of the offer. He had reasons for his complacency, as he was surrounded by the most powerful men in England.

On the night of 13 May, the King's army was probably relaxing, but the baronial army was making preparations for battle. They probably left their camp sometime after midnight, reached the Downs undetected and formed up on a plateau just out of the sight of the castle. To the left were the untrained Londoners, while the central 'battle' was commanded by the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, the right 'battle' by de Montfort's sons Henry and Guy. The fourth 'battle' was kept in reserve under the command of Simon de Montfort himself.

When the summons was given, the Londoners descended the spur towards the castle. There had been no time for the royalists to draw up their army in formation. Prince Edward and other leaders rode out to the attack. The Londoners fled towards Offham but the royalists hewed them down. Simon may have loosed the Londoners as a decoy, as Prince Edward wasted time and men pursuing them. De Montfort probably held back his own centre and right 'battles' on the plateau until the royalists started to climb up the hill to form up into two 'battles'. Then his cavalry charged down the hill into their disorganised ranks. There was fierce fighting round the town gates and the Priory. The King fought bravely but his brother Richard took shelter in a windmill until he was forced to surrender. The battle continued with skirmishing in the streets, and arrows bearing pellets soaked in an inflammatory liquid were fired from the castle. By the time Prince Edward returned, he found the royalists crushed. Many people were killed, while others were taken prisoner and the town was badly damaged by fire.


While the wounded were being carried to the Priory and other religious houses for treatment, messengers were sent carrying the leaders' terms from one headquarters to the other. The full peace terms contained seven articles. The first two confirmed the Provisions of Oxford and named a body of arbitrators to enforce them. The third and fourth directed that the arbitrators should choose only English counsellors and that the King should be bound to act on their advice. The remaining articles provided for hostages, indemnity for Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Gloucester and their associates and a date by which the terms should be confirmed.

When the summons was issued for a Parliament to meet in January 1265, it marked an important constitutional advance. All the sheriffs in England were commanded to send 'two knights from the loyal honest and discreet knights of each shire' to advise the King. York, London and other towns were asked to send two of their 'discreet, loyal and honest citizens and burgesses.' Although the knights of the shires had been called to Parliament before, in 1258, this was the first time that members of the new urban middle classes were asked to take their places. However, this was not an exercise in democracy. The citizens were not expected to express their opinions; they were only there to witness justice being done and to pledge their constituencies to paying their share of the costs of government.

Meanwhile, the country was still in a state of disorder. Simon found it necessary to restrict the activities of royalists and to raise ransom money to pay for the costs of war. For good military reasons, he took control of strongholds in strategic places, but he also gave his sons responsibilities that might have been better carried by others. He was suspected of profiting at the expense of others and quarrelled with the Earl of Gloucester.

Prince Edward escaped from custody at Hereford and led an army to strengthen the royalists' hold on the Welsh border by taking Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth There was severe fighting round Gloucester. Simon de Montfort's men marched into Wales to raise an army there, without much success. They struggled back across the Usk and the Severn, aiming for his stronghold at Kenilworth. On the way, they spent the night at Evesham. This was not a good place to defend, as it lies in a loop of the Avon, with rising ground on the open side to the north. It may be that his men were too tired to go further. On 4 August Simon led his depleted army out of the town and saw an army approaching from the north. The engagement became a massacre. Simon was killed along with about 160 knights and gentlemen. His body was cut up but Benedictine monks rescued the remains and gave it burial in the Abbey church.

Increasingly King Henry left matters of state to his son Edward and died in November 1272. When Edward became King, he paid tribute to his enemy by enshrining in the constitution the habit of regular consultation with a more representative parliament.


Simon de Montfort must have been a man of vision and courage, but it would be wrong to see him as a democrat. He and his supporters were concerned to limit the King's extravagance and prevent him engaging in foolish wars. The knights of the shires were called to Parliament partly to offset a royalist bias among the barons. Simon was undoubtedly a skilled commander, but not an experienced politician. He was proud and unbending and managed to antagonise his allies. His greatest achievement may have been to influence Prince Edward, who consolidated the reforms of the rebels into practice in his own reign.

1If you are interested, you might want to read Battle Royal by Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish (1965).2The Albigensians were adherents of a form of Christianity prevalent in Southern France in the 11th to the 13th Century. The Church regarded them as heretics.

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