On the 20th of January, 753 years ago, Simon de Montfort (1208-65), 6th Earl of Leicester, summoned a parliament to meet at Westminster Hall. Historians have traditionally regarded that assembly as the first English Parliament or the first session of Parliament, even though the origins of Parliament can be traced back to the 12th century, when King’s councils were held.
However, King’s councils and previous assemblies had been, so to speak, elite gatherings between the King, barons, bishops and the King’s chosen advisors. What was particularly striking about de Montfort’s parliament was that he invited directly elected representatives (i.e. knights and burgesses) from every shire and major town in England. De Montfort’s parliament, thus, not only represented a unique event in Europe at that time but also a turning point for democracy.
We can justly claim that on the 20th of January 1265 the House of Commons was born. Correspondingly, Simon de Montfort deserves the title of ‘Father of Parliament’. Although this event constituted a milestone for British democracy, it is not well-known. The same is true for the key character.
A Controversial Figure – A Few Notes on Simon de Montfort
Ever since the Frenchman Simon de Montfort has been a controversial figure. Some have praised him as a hero, or more than a hero. For instance, he has sometimes been treated as a ‘political saint’ and a ‘martyr for justice’.
Others have viewed him in a more negative light. According to the English medieval historian F.M. Powicke (1879-1963), for example, he was a stubborn fanatic and a political crusader. The Dictionary of British History closes the entry about Simon de Montfort with the following lines:
“What does seem clear is that Simon was no great radical or social reformer. Rather, he accepted the social order of his day and took support from whatever quarter he could.” (p. 444)
‘Doing God’s Work’
Simon de Montfort, nevertheless, remains an important historical figure. At the battle of Lewes between the armies of de Montfort and King Henry III in 1264, his forces, though outnumbered, defeated the royal army. Afterwards, both King Henry and his heir, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward I), were taken prisoner. Therefore, Earl Simon de facto became the most powerful man in England, calling the extraordinary January Parliament in 1265.
In the same year, he was eventually beaten by royalist forces at the battle of Evesham. Here the victorious royalists killed him and dismembered his body. Despite the fact that he was trapped, he did not flee since he had a rigid discipline.
Generally speaking, he was convinced that he was doing God’s work. Apart from this, a BBC article states as follows:
“He was strongly influenced by churchmen who taught that great men should be concerned with the poor and that a ruler should benefit wider society. In his will of 1259, he admitted to having concerns that he may have oppressed peasants on his lands.”
The site of his death, appropriately enough, turned into a place of pilgrimage for ordinary people.
In addition to the ‘Dictionary of British History’ and the BBC article ‘Simon de Montfort: The turning point for democracy that gets overlooked’, Daniel Hannan’s excellent book ‘How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters’ (2013) and the 2nd episode of the BBC documentary ‘Michael Wood’s The Story of England‘ (2010; approx. 34:00-47:30) were very helpful.