When a thunderstorm once forced the King, as he was rowing on the Thames, to take refuge at the palace of the Bishop of Durham, Earl Simon of Montfort, who was a guest of the prelate, met the royal barge with assurances that the storm was drifting away, and that there was nothing to fear. Henry's petulant wit broke out in his reply. "If I fear the thunder," said the King, " I fear you, Sir Earl, more than all the thunder in the world".
The man whom Henry dreaded as the champion of English freedom was himself a foreigner, the son of a Simon de Montfort whose name had become memorable for his ruthless crusade against the Albigensian heretics in Southern Gaul. Though fourth son of this crusader, Simon became possessor of the English earldom of Leicester, which he inherited through his mother, and a secret match with Eleanor, the King's sister and widow of the second William Marshal, linked him to the royal house. The baronage, indignant at this sudden alliance with a stranger, rose in a revolt which failed only through the desertion of their head, Earl Richard of Cornwall; while the censures of the Church on Eleanor's breach of a vow of chastity, which she had made at her first husband's death, were hardly averted by a journey to Rome. Simon returned to find the changeable King quickly-alienated from him and to be driven by a burst of royal passion from the realm. He was, however, soon restored to favour, and before long took his stand in the front rank of the patriot leaders. In 1248 he was appointed Governor of Gascony, where the stern justice of his rule, and the heavy taxation which his enforcement of order made necessary, earned the hatred of the disorderly nobles.
[Authorities. - At the very outset of this important period we lose the priceless aid of Matthew Paris. He is the last of the great chroniclers; the Chronicles of his successor at S. Alban's, Rishanger (published by the Master of the Rolls), are scant and lifeless jottings, somewhat enlarged for this period by his fragment on the Barons' War (published by Camden Society). Something may be gleaned from the annals of Burton, Melrose, Dunstable, Waverley, Osney, and Lanercost, the Royal Letters, the (royalist) Chronicle of Wykes, and (for London) the "Liber de Antiquis Legibus." Mr. Blaauw has given a useful summary of the period in his "Barons' War."]
The complaints of the Gascons brought about an open breach with the King. To Earl Simon's offer of the surrender of his post if the money he had spent in the royal service were, as Henry had promised, repaid him, the King hotly retorted that he was bound by no promise to a false traitor. Simon at once gave Henry the lie; "and but that thou bearest the name of King it had been a bad hour for thee when thou utteredst such a word!" A formal reconciliation was brought about, and the Earl once more returned to Gascony, but before winter had come he was forced to withdraw to France. The greatness of his reputation was shown in an offer which its nobles made him of the regency of their realm during the absence of King Lewis on the crusade. But the offer was refused; and Henry, who had himself undertaken the pacification of Gascony, was glad before the close of 1253 to recall its old ruler to do the work he had failed to do. Simon's character had now thoroughly developed. He had inherited the strict and severe piety of his father; he was assiduous in his attendance on religious services whether by night or day; he was the friend of Grosseteste and the patron of the Friars. In his correspondence with Adam Marsh we see him finding patience under his Gascon troubles in the perusal of the Book of Job. His life was pure and singularly temperate; he was noted for his scant indulgence in meat, drink, or sleep.
Socially he was cheerful and pleasant in talk; but his natural temper was quick and ardent, his sense of honour keen, his speech rapid and trenchant. His impatience of contradiction, his fiery temper, were in fact the great stumbling-blocks in his after career. But the one characteristic which overmastered all was what men at that time called his "constancy," the firm immoveable resolve which trampled even death under foot in its loyalty to the right. The motto which Edward the First chose as his device, "Keep troth," was far truer as the device of Earl Simon. We see in his correspondence with what a clear discernment of its difficulties both at home and abroad he "thought it unbecoming to decline the danger of so great an exploit " as the reduction of Gascony to peace and order; but once undertaken, he persevered in spite of the opposition he met with, the failure of all support or funds from England, and the King's desertion of his cause, till the work was done. There is the same steadiness of will and purpose in his patriotism. The letters of Grosseteste show how early he had learned to sympathize with the bishop in his resistance to Rome, and at the crisis of the contest he offers him his own support and that of his associates.
He sends to Adam Marsh a tract of Grosseteste's on "the rule of a kingdom and of a tyranny," sealed with his own seal. He listens patiently to the advice of his friends on the subject of his household or his temper. "Better is a patient man," writes honest Friar Adam, "than a strong man, and he who can rule his own temper than he who storms a city." "What use is it to provide for the peace of your fellow-citizens and not guard the peace of your own household?" It was to secure "the peace of his fellow-citizens" that the Earl silently trained himself as the tide of misgovernment mounted higher and higher, and the fruit of his discipline was seen when the crisis came. While other men wavered and faltered and fell away, the enthusiastic love of the people gathered itself round the stern, grave soldier who "stood like a pillar," unshaken by promise or threat or fear of death, by the oath he had sworn.
In England affairs were going from bad to worse. The Pope still weighed heavily on the Church. Two solemn confirmations of the Charter failed to bring about any compliance with its provisions. In 1248, in 1249, and again in 1255, the Great Council fruitlessly renewed its demand for a regular ministry, and the growing resolve of the nobles to enforce good government was seen in their offer of a grant on condition that the chief officers of the Crown were appointed by the Council. Henry indignantly refused the offer, and sold his plate to the citizens of London to find payment for his household. The barons were mutinous and defiant. "I will send reapers and reap your fields for you," Henry had threatened Earl Bigod of Norfolk when he refused him aid. "And I will send you back the heads of your reapers," retorted the Earl. Hampered by the profusion of the court and by the refusal of supplies, the Crown was penniless, yet new expenses were incurred by Henry's acceptance of a Papal offer of the kingdom of Sicily in favour of his second son Edmund. Shame had fallen on the English arms, and the King's eldest son, Edward, had been disastrously defeated on the Marches by Llewelyn of Wales. The tide of discontent, which was heightened by a grievous famine, burst its bounds in the irritation excited by the new demands from both Henry and Rome with which the year 1258 opened, and the barons repaired in arms to a Great Council summoned at London. The past half-century had shown both the strength and weakness of the Charter: its strength as a rallying-point for the baronage, and a definite assertion of rights which the King could be made to acknowledge; its weakness in providing no means for the enforcement of its own stipulations.