Thursday, October 31, 2013

Evesham and the Witch of Wigmore

Simon de Montfort at Evesham, and the Witch of Wigmore

There is no doubting the firmness of Christian faith held by Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester, and that whatever he may have known of the surviving pre-Christian faith whose adherents were called witches and warlocks, he would have deplored. This is not a story of the Earl willingly involving himself with witchcraft. Nevertheless, his death at Evesham in August of 1265 is linked with the practices of that old pagan faith.

The royal entourage that Montfort was leading, on a tour of the King’s courts of law to reestablish peace and order, had been besieged and stalked. Lords opposing what they felt was Montfort’s excessive influence in the new, parliamentary government had banded together under the leadership of the young Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare.

Many felt that when the Parliamentary party, led by Monfort, had vanquished King Henry III’s forces at Lewes in 1263 the ransoms of the numerous lords taken prisoner should have been awarded as spoils to those who fought on Montfort’s side. Instead, the sums were used for governmental purposes, chiefly the arming of England against the likely prospect of invasion from abroad by any of a number of powers, from the Vatican to the King of France or any nobleman willing to take up the papal cause with the Crown of England as reward. England’s new government of elected representatives with power over the monarchy was a direct challenge to the entire system of hierarchy that the Church was trying hard to enforce through the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas.

The fending off of multiple attacks from abroad was successful. The ultimate threat to the Parliamentary party, and to Simon de Montfort personally, came from within. De Clare and his cluster of dissatisfied former followers of Montfort found allies among England’s lords. Many resented the adulation of Montfort expressed by the commons and the orders of friars who saw him as the Angel of the Apocalypse defending a new era of freedom for the common man.

And there were lords with holdings on the Welsh Marches who resented the treaties that Montfort had made with the Welsh in an effort to pacify England’s western border and focus her military strength to resisting invasion. The very success of Montfort’s defense policy – no invading army succeeded in landing – seemed to argue a lack of necessity and added to the irritation of the Marcher lords.

Leader of the Marchers opposing Montfort was Roger Mortimer, Lord of Ludlow and Wigmore. He joined the forces Gilbert de Clare was amassing. When Prince Edward escaped from Montfort’s entourage and joined de Clare, the stalking campaign that had besieged the royal tour at Hereford then pursued it through the hill country west of the Severn River gained focus and its end-game strategy.

The royal tour of the courts was not a military operation, therefore it had no army in attendance, only a small guard for the King, the royal clerks and the Treasury – the purpose being only to tour law courts, hear cases and give justice. Llewellyn, known later as the Last, leant Montfort a hundred archers when the deadly intent of Clare and his followers became evident.

In short, Clare had a substantial army at his command, and Montfort and his train of royal clerks and accountants had no army. 

Trapped west of the flooded Severn River, Montfort sent message after message to his son Simon in the east to raise an army and come to the rescue. Young Simon was slow in responding, but by the beginning of August he had amassed a substantial army at Kenilworth and had built boats to convey them over the Severn.

But, receiving no reply from his son for weeks, Montfort at last attempted a dash westward to reach safety at the castle of Kenilworth. The castle had been his own holding. He had returned to the Crown, then fortified for the Parliamentary party’s defense.

Prince Edward, well aware of young Simon’s activities, and fond of his cousin and close friend, apparently had no wish to hurt the Montforts, merely to end the Parliamentary movement that suppressed the free powers of the Crown. While young Simon and the leaders of the army he had raised caroused in feasting and debauchery in a bathhouse at Kenilworth, celebrating their departure for war the next morning, Edward stole their all arms, their horses and even their clothes.

Then the Prince turned his army again toward Montfort, an army he knew to be so large, so overwhelming to the meager force that opposed it, that the only reasonable response would be surrender. But there were those within his forces who had personal grudges to settle.

Having left the royal clerks and the wagons of the Chancery and Treasury at Hereford, Montfort -- with only the young lords who were his most devoted followers, the hundred Welsh archers, and King Henry who was effectively his prisoner -- succeeded in crossing the Severn at last and marched at speed through the night toward Kenilworth. He’d received no word of his son’s success in raising forces, and if indeed an army had been raised, the long wait with no word made it seem likely it had met the Prince’s forces and had been destroyed. He certainly knew nothing of Edward’s midnight thievery.

Morning came and Montfort’s followers were still hurrying toward the safety of the walls of Kenilworth when King Henry persistently demanded rest and breakfast. Against his better judgment, Montfort bent to his king’s wishes. Halt was called at the abbey of Evesham, and the monks provided a meal as scouts were sent out and a watcher placed on the abbey’s tower to warn of Edward’s coming.

Edward, closely following the small, fleeing group, divided his army in three to surround Evesham and Green Hill, just to the north of the town. Having stolen young Simon’s army’s flags, he raised them and Montfort’s scouts and watcher, seeing from a distance, were deceived.

Montfort and his followers were jubilant – young Simon was at last coming to their rescue. But, as they watched the approaching armies, they saw young Simon’s flags lowered and Prince Edward’s flags raised. They were deftly being surrounded by overwhelming force.

Montfort urged all those with him to flee from the town at once but they refused to leave him. Believing the Parliamentary forces raised by his son to be defeated, and preferring death in battle to almost certain  death by hanging, drawing and quartering as a traitor to the Crown, Simon de Montfort refused to surrender.

The contingent the Prince was leading was circling northeastward around Green Hill. Montfort may have thought there was a slim chance that, before they closed the way north to Kenilworth, a few of those with him might get through and reach the safety of the castle, about thirty miles distant. But by the time he and his followers, with King Henry in their midst in borrowed armor, reached midway up Green Hill, Edward’s forces were forming an array across the summit.

Edward demanded surrender. Montfort continued advancing. Edward cried out for surrender again and again. And he never gave the order for his forces to attack. Simon de Montfort was the Prince’s much loved uncle –some said his true father. And the youths with the Earl were all the Prince’s friends. But the men with Edward were infuriated by the Parliament that curtailed their rights over the peasantry, and some were Montfort’s personal enemies. They broke ranks and surged down Green Hill’s slope, engulfing and destroying the meager resistance that could be raised against them. There were few survivors.

Long after all the rest were dead or had surrendered, a core of battling continued. Fighting close together, surrounded by their enemies, Simon and his eldest son Henry were cut down even as the Prince tried to call halt. Foremost among their slaughterers were Roger Mortimer, the Marcher lord, and King Henry’s half-brothers of Lusignan, descendants of that witch of French lore, Melusine.

By some accounts the day was August 2, the holy day of the old pagan faith, called Lammas. It was said that when Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, hailed as Angel of the Apocalypse, lay dead, common folk came to sop up his blood and spread it on the fields for their blessing. So it was said.

What is known for a certainty is that, utterly counter to Christian custom, his body was dismembered by a knight named William Maltraverse. The hands, the feet, the arms, the legs, the genitals were distributed. The head was given to Roger Mortimer who sent it to his wife, a well-known witch, at Wigmore. There the Lady Mortimer “foully shent” it. The chronicler says no more and no doubt knew no more.

The hands of the Earl had a better fate. While a messenger was conveying them in a bag, they appeared in the air before him clasped in prayer. The messenger, like Paul of Tarsus, was stunned, repented and converted -- the first of many who experienced the miracles of Simon de Montfort and came to believe in his sanctity.

At Evesham, when Montfort’s stripped and mutilated torso was lifted from the ground, a spring burst from the earth with water rich in miraculous healing powers.

The significance of the Earl’s blood spread upon the fields, and more on the Old Faith, its beliefs and practices, will be discussed here in postings between Halloween and December 21, the Darkest Night.

See also Montfort the Angel with the Sword by Katherine Ashe