Simon IV de Montfort: A Brief Biography

Simon IV de Montfort: A Brief Biography


Simon IV de Montfort (1160 – 1218 CE) played a key role in the Albigensian Crusade, the effort of Catholic popes to eradicate a dangerous Cathar dualist heresy in the Languedoc region of southern France. De Montfort’s prosecution of the Crusade against the Cathars was brutal and uncompromising by modern standards. Nevertheless, his conduct provides valuable insight into the chivalric conventions and ambiguities of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Thus we can study de Montfort both as an important historical figure and as a lens for comprehending how knights functioned during this period.

The de Montfort line descends from the Counts of Flanders in Northern France. Simon’s mother was the daughter of the Earl of Leicester and thus after the death of her childless brother, she inherited a claim to the earldom that would be important in later years. In 1181 Simon succeeded his father as Baron of a small estate north of the forest of Yveline, near Paris. He made an opportune marriage to the daughter of Bouchard III of Montmorency in 1190. Meanwhile, he built his reputation through regular attendance in the tourney circuit of northern France. In 1199, while attending a tourney in Ecry-sur-Aisne, he heard the eloquent French priest Fulk of Neuilly preach on behalf of the Fourth Crusade and immediately committed himself to the venture. He took up the cross with his brother Guy, who had earlier participated in the Third Crusade.

The brothers departed together for the Holy Land with proclamations of religious zeal. Nevertheless, the Christian army was redirected by the Venetians to attack the Adriatic city of Zara. Subsequently the city, although Christian, was unjustly sacked by the Crusaders in 1202 to generate plunder and help finance the expedition. Significantly, de Montfort was true to the injunction of Pope Innocent III not to attack fellow Christians and so refused to participate in this perversion of the Crusade ideal. Contemporaries tell us that Simon attempted to talk his companions out of the sack and at one point even (incorrectly) reassured the hapless Zara citizens that they would be spared. When his fellow Crusaders later compounded their treachery and proceeded to sack the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, Simon de Montfort left their company and continued his Crusade commitment by joining the contingent led by King Emico of Hungary. This group went on to prosecute the Crusade in Syria.

De Montfort’s decision not to participate in the sack of Christian cities helped build his reputation as a stalwart Catholic. He also proved to be a formidable warrior and a good leader. Further, his contemporary biographers describe the Baron as a man of extremely committed Dominican orthodoxy. Consequently, when Pope Innocent III announced the “internal” crusade against the Cathar heretics of the Languedoc, de Montfort was quickly placed in one of the command roles. The Albigensian Crusaders scored early victories at the towns of Beziers and Carcassonne, where they massacred tens of thousands of Catholic citizens as well as the minority populations of Cathars. It was at Beziers that the Abbot of Citeaux, Arnaud Amaury, reportedly gave the order “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

It was following the massacre at Beziers that Arnaud Amaury sought a French noble to take command of the Pope’s army. There were no volunteers. Leadership of the campaign was a serious challenge because it would require the dispossession of the existing feudal lords in the Languedoc region, most notably the Count of Toulouse and the Count of Foix. This action was fraught with both social and legal uncertainties. Simon de Montfort emerged as the candidate most acceptable to all. He attempted to refuse the appointment but was forced to accept by his peers and by the Abbot of Citeaux acting as the pope’s representative. De Montfort reluctantly accepted and thereafter in 1209 Pope Innocent III recognized him as his “direct vassal.”

The choice of de Montfort proved to be inspired. He sustained an uncompromising spirit of aggression against the heretics and their supporters, and he demonstrated excellent tactical and strategic skills. During the nine years until his death in battle, he led a successful campaign despite vacillating support from the Catholic Church and the powerful Capetian Monarchy in his home region. Although he sometimes showed leniency to the heretics if they repented, those who would not were treated harshly with ritual mutilation and by being driven naked from their homes. At the town of Minerve in 1210 he had 140 Cathars burned alive – the first such use of the stake in the Crusade. In another characteristic action near the town of Bram, de Montfort ordered the eyes of all the prisoners gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. He spared one man a single eye so he could lead the others from town to town, showing the fate of those who opposed him. His actions were chronicled by papal representatives who propagandized the Crusade as the work of God by pious Christians against satanic heretics committed to the Evil One. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Languedoc remember him differently.

Between 1210 and 1213, de Montfort led a series of victories across southern France, destroying Cathar strongholds. These successes culminated in 1213 when he defeated King (Pedro) Peter II of Aragon, who had intervened in the conflict to protect his rights north of the Pyrenees, at the Battle of Muret.  Peter II was killed in the action and his forces panicked, granting de Montfort his most renowned victory. His continuing string of successes led Pope Innocent III in 1215 to grant him the titles of Raymond VI, the deposed Count of Toulouse. Innocent III died the following year.

In late 1217 de Montfort learned that the son of Raymond VI, now Raymond VII, had returned to Toulouse to rally the region against the invasion of their lands. Consequently he returned to Toulouse and besieged it. The siege was still underway on 25 June 1218 when Simon IV de Montfort, known for acts of great personal valor, was killed near the city walls while leading a counter-attack to combat a sallying of defenders. He stopped to aid his brother, Guy, who had been wounded by a crossbow bolt. A large stone from a mangonel (a rotating-beam siege engine like a small catapult) smashed into his head with great force. Reports from the time tell us that “the stone struck Count Simon on his steel helmet, shattering his eyes, brains and back teeth, and splintering his forehead and jaw. Bleeding and black, the Count dropped dead on the ground.” Legend further has it that the mangonel was operated by a team of ladies, small girls and women (“donas e tozas e mulhers”) from Toulouse.

After his death, leadership of the Albigensian Crusade fell to de Montfort’s son, Amaury, who exhibited none of the skills of his father. Raymond VII of Toulouse and the Comte de Foix took advantage of the disarray among the Crusaders and defeated the invading army at Baziege. The new pope, Honorius III, eventually convinced King Philip Augustus of France to take ownership of the Crusade and to send his son, the future Louis VIII, to assist Amaury. With the resources of the Capetian crown against them, the Cathars were systematically destroyed. The heresy was declared eliminated in 1229. Subsequently the Treaty of Paris ceded control over the Languedoc to the Capetian Monarchy, helping to build the Kingdom of France. The Holy Inquisition was created in the same year to continue the good work of suppressing heresy in the Languedoc region.

De Montfort’s steadfast service to the crown led one of his sons, also named Simon de Montfort, to be granted the earldom of Leicester previously confiscated by King John of England. During the later rule of King Henry III this same Simon de Montfort played a key role in the establishment of parliamentary rights in England. He is often referred to as “the Father of Parliament.”

Simon IV de Montfort serves as an excellent “poster child” for the conflicted interpretations of medieval knighthood and chivalry held by twenty-first century society. He was simultaneously devout and principled; courageous and fanatical; while capable of cruelties difficult for contemporary Westerners to comprehend. He accumulated great power and wealth by prosecuting a crusade against his neighbors, yet was willing to relinquish both at the command of his spiritual leader. Although de Montfort demonstrated his commitment to Catholic virtues by his refusal to sack Christian cities in the East, and again by his willing support of the internal Crusade against heretics, he is reviled to this day in Southern France. In 1899 the city fathers of Toulouse commissioned a mural on the ceiling of the Salle des Illustres depicting de Montfort (in the guise of a lion) pierced by the “Lamb of Languedoc”, an allegorical symbol of the region. Thus he serves as a suitable individual for our quest to understand the nature of chivalry.