Simon de Montfort and the Battle of Lewes

On the anniversary of the battle of Lewes, news of a new play that explores the causes of the battle and we launch our 2015 conference website…

750 years ago today, the enigmatic Simon de Montfort won his greatest victory against Henry III: defeating the King at the Battle of Lewes and taking him and his heir Edward captive. To mark the anniversary a new play, ‘Montfort’s March’, is being performed on the Sussex Downs. Performers and the audience take the route of de Montfort’s army the night before the battle, exploring the causes of the rebellion.

The triumphant Song of Lewes written after the battle did not downplay its significance, nor that of de Montfort: ‘the faith and fidelity of Simon alone is become the security of peace of all England’. But both then and ever since, de Montfort has been difficult to understand: the so-called ‘father of English democracy’ who rebelled to settle his own family’s grievances; the cosmopolitan, French-born earl who fought for Englishmen against ‘alien’ nobles.

The origins of the Battle of Lewes lie in the discontent about Henry III’s foreign favourites and his expansionist plans overseas. In 1258 a group of barons, de Montfort among them, marched to the King and demanded reform. The subsequent ‘Provisions of Oxford’ were truly radical. The country was to be governed by a council chosen partly by the King and partly by the barons, parliaments were to be held regularly, and grievances against royal and baronial officials throughout the country addressed.

Although Henry initially agreed to the Provisions, he went back on the agreement and the following years were marked by civil war. Simon de Montfort emerged as the rebel leader. His own motives for rebellion were complicated. Many now argue that his initial involvement was caused by his own grievances against Henry, in particular securing a dowry for his wife Eleanor (the King’s sister), and lands for his family. But de Montfort seems to have had a genuine commitment to political reform, demonstrated in his unusual summons of burgesses to represent towns and cities in the Parliament he called for 1265.
At the Battle of Lewes his army fought in the white cross of crusade. Taking up his commanding position on the Downs by cover of night, his army initially suffered heavy losses at the hands of Lord Edward, the future King ‘Longshanks’. But Edward’s men left the battle, leaving his father’s forces to be cut to pieces. Henry himself had two horses killed from under him. Edward and Henry were forced to flee to Lewes priory and to accept de Montfort’s terms.

His rule did not last. Just a year later his army was massacred and he was killed, his body mutilated, at the Battle of Evesham. Yet he had a lasting impact on English politics. The future Edward I chose to call frequent Parliaments. The political nation became broader, with minor knights and gentry increasingly included in government. No-one would now call the 1265 parliament the start of democracy, but burgesses were summoned to more and more Parliaments. By the 14th century they had become an indispensable feature of English government in the House of Commons.

Next year is the 750th anniversary of the 1265 parliament, as well as the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. To mark these anniversaries we will be hosting the annual conference of the International Commission for the History of Representative and Parliamentary Institutions (ICHRPI) with the help of UK Parliament, King’s College, London and Royal Holloway, University of London. The conference, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments: Constructing representative institutions 1000-2000’ will explore the initiation and development of political institutions from the early Middle Ages onwards, and consider the significance of foundational documents and major events in their subsequent history. Today we launch the conference’s website which includes more information on themes, speakers, and how to attend. We’ll update this regularly over the next year, so keep watching for further information.


For more on ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, visit the new website.

You can still catch ‘Montfort’s March’ on the South Downs until 18 May. For more, see The Company’s website.

Further reading: David Carpenter, ‘The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain, 1066-1284’ (2003); J.R. Maddicott, ‘Simon De Montfort’ (1994).


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