What happened in history? Many alleged facts are dubious at best as what we know of as history is self-serving, the record compiled
by victors. But the role of the individual in history simply cannot be brushed aside.
In this short series of papers I have selected out four individuals - two men and two women - who truly were movers and shakers, determined over-achievers who were broken on the wheel of history. Simon de Montfort, once Lord of a small insignificant seigneury in the Ile de France, became Governor of the entire Langue d'Oc and could have become master of an empire stretching across the Pyrenées to Aragon.
Phillip le Bel, King of France, a man probably unjustly maligned, defied and defeated not only the Papacy but also the Knights Templar, those premature internationalists who claimed the right to make and break Monarchs. Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, turned a string of French defeats into victory. Yet we know little of her; was she really a bastard daughter of the French Royal House, most probably sired by the King's own brother? Shakespeare, who had his own axe to grind, and portrayed her as a foul-tongued harridan who used black magic to defeat the invading English soldiery as without such infernal aid it simply was unbelievable that the English could be defeated by the epicene French. It is tragic that the magnificent Jehane should now have been adopted by the French National Front.
Lastly I have chosen another woman, today virtually forgotten, who was renowned as a fighting captain, as the "Queen of Ice and Fire". This was the beautiful Margaret, daughter of King René d'Anjou, and wife to England's ineffectual Henry of Lancaster, a woman who fought desperately to preserve her son's inheritance but who finally was brought down by the armies of Edward of York and his brothers.
THE BUZZARD (1218) by John Comley
The citizen soldiers defending Toulouse had stood firm against the besieging armies but the construction of the mobile siege tower - which
could be moved nearer and nearer to the walls - meant certain doom to those trapped within so on the morning of June 18th 1218 they launched
a desperate sortie and managed to fire the wooden structure. A bloody struggle followed as the besiegers promptly counter-attacked and
forced them to retreat; but then a heavy stone, fired from one of the crude catapults lining the walls, found its target, crushing the soft iron of the
leading horseman's helmet and breaking his skull. Frantic cheering broke out on the ramparts as the defenders watched the soldiers pulling
away a broken body, leaving a shield emblazoned with the familiar and loathed fork-tailed lion on the trampled ground.
The chronicler wrote " .....the town and the very paving stones rang to the sound of horns, trumpets, and church bells ringing...." while the people shouted :
Montfort est mort! The Devil is dead! Montfort est mort, est mort, est mort!
The titular lord of the City was Count Raymond VI, an unhappy man whose lands had been seized because he refused to hand over his Cathar and Jewish subjects to the mercy of Catholic inquisitors. He had taken refuge in neighbouring Aragon, so that Simon de Montfort - the knight of the three red plumes and the fork-tailed lion - wielded the reins of power in the south. Raymond, who was himself a Catholic, had appealed to the Pope but his continued protection of heretics in his lands made it certain that he could not expect help from that quarter
As Raymond had been dispossessed, de Montfort laid claim to and was given supreme command in the South. He had taken the city once before but had never been able to suppress guerilla attacks in all his newly acquired territories. When Raymond and his son re-entered France from Spain with a new army, the invaders were forced to fly from Toulouse and de Montfort was once again obliged to lay siege to what was to have been his capital city. The defensive walls had quickly been repaired, new moats had been dug, and a new citizen's militia had taken shape, while barricades of stakes and beams were set up under the very eyes of Simon's mercenaries. He had despised the "unarmed burghers" who defied him from behind these barricades; but the angry civilians repelled every assault because they knew exactly whom they were fighting while the soldiers outside were merely trying to hold on to half-secured loot which was already slipping through their fingers.
Simon de Montfort, whose name now denotes intolerance and cruelty, was initially a minor player in the Albigensian Crusade but seems unique as he was an unrelenting champion of the rights of the Church - just as long as these did not obstruct his own ends - who was distrusted equally by the Pope on whose behalf he had fought and by the King of France, who wrote that he "hoped that the man would die in harness rather than survive and live to prove a worse nuisance than all the heretics combined." But it was nevertheless Simon contemptuously nicknamed "The Buzzard", who had risen from his small and debt-ridden estates at distant Montfort d'Amaury and done most to save the Faith in the degenerate south. Even the Papal legates, much as they disliked him, knew it had been his military genius alone which had broken the stiff-necked Occitan nobility. Had Pope Innocent himself, who had launched the Crusade, really not known the true nature of the monster he had helped to create? Certainly King Phillip had no wish to have such an ambitious vassal carving out a kingdom for himself in the South and he was well aware that Simon was trying to arrange a marriage settlement between his own daughter and the young King of Aragon. But at Simon's elbow, urging him on, was the bellicose legate, Arnald-Amalric of Citeaux, untiring in his pursuit of heresy and who - as religious leader of the Crusade - bore major responsibility for the infamous slaughter at Béziers.
It is now generally accepted that the Cathar (Albigensian) faith, the heresy which had triggered the Crusade, originated in Bosnia and quickly spread throughout Northern Europe. Many other small sects had emerged during the 12th century and many of them professed a total contempt for the corrupt opulence of Holy Church and its indifference to the needs of the poor. Cathar heretics believed in a God of pure spirit who was not and could not be involved in affairs of the world and the flesh. The world was corrupt in its very essence and all earthly principalities and powers - including the Roman Church - were evil, the tools of Rex Mundi, the God of the material world
This nihilistic faith spread with extraordinary speed through most of Europe and Holy Church reacted predictably. In 1180 the Pope preached a Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the Midi but the King of France refused to be involved as he had other fish to fry in the North. The unfortunate Count Raymond, in whose territories at least one half of the population openly rejected Rome, tried time and time again to make his peace with the Church but as he was unwilling to suppress heresy in spite of all warnings, the Pope's errand boy Pierre de Castelnau excommunicated him in 1208, declaring his rule over his hereditary territories to be null and void. War then became inevitable..
The Army of the Cross assembled at Lyon in July 1209 under the general direction of the papal legate Arnald-Amalric. Many leading noblemen joined in but there were also many impoverished barons and knights for whom a Crusade was not only a way of obtaining both indulgence for any sins past and present and in the future but also of enriching themselves in the process, as the French nobility had always been adroit at identifying its own interests with those of God. Amongst them was a debt-ridden knight from the Ile de France, Simon de Montfort, an experienced and skilful campaigner who had been nominated as military commander and whose cruelty was to become a byword even in an age when violent death was commonplace.
Chroniclers give wildly varying estimates of the numbers involved in the campaign but it is clear that less than half of the Crusaders were fighting men, and that they were followed and encumbered by thousands of adventurers and camp followers as well as genuine pilgrims. This mixed assembly invested and burned Béziers and carried out a wholesale and indiscriminate killing of the citizens Arnald-Amalric wrote to tell the Pope that "nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to death, regardless of age and sex and a contemporary observer wrote laconically that if the mercenaries hadn't fired the town, the Crusaders would have been rich men for the rest of their days.Carcassonne came next..
Raymond of Toulouse, hoping to ingratiate himself with the invaders, had joined them rather than come to the aid of his threatened neighbour, Raymond-Roger Trencavel. The city fell and the young Count, seized while trying to negotiate terms, disappeared from history. Anyone taking part in a Crusade had to spend a minimum of 40 days in action so after Carcassonne fell many volunteers went home. Arnald-Amalric offered Trencavel's lands first to the Duke of Burgundy then to the Counts of Nevers and St Pol. As all three noblemen declined them he awarded them to de Montfort, who chose to remain as the military arm of the Papacy in the South.
Even Pope Innocent was not at all pleased by many of de Montfort's subsequent deeds. Raymond VI had submitted to the Church but the new lord continued to wreak havoc across the Midi. 180 heretics were burned in Minerve despite a promise of safe-conduct if the town surrendered and Simon's mercenary soldiers began consistently to kill prisoners and indulge in wholesale looting. The Pope wrote to him indignantly, " You have laboured for your own advantages and not for the faith"; but Rome was a long way off and Arnald-Amalric knew that without de Montfort's brutal genius the captured lands would be retaken and that the abominable heretics would renew their activities. So he excommunicated the wretched Count of Toulouse a second time; and, despite the fact that Raymond asked the Pope to intervene, he encouraged de Montfort to destroy all strongholds that resisted his authority.
The next few years were marked by hideous atrocities as Simon's new armies, by this time made up mostly of mercenaries, were responsible for massacres at Alayrac and at Bram and many other places. His military victories were invariably followed by a burning of heretics. In 1211 400 men and women were burned at Lavaur alone. He then moved on to assault Toulouse but failed and opted instead to continue with his heavy-handed pacification of the surrounding lands. Raymond begged aid of his kinsman, Peter of Aragon, but in 1213 Simon defeated and killed Peter at Muret and so at last, after being formally nominated as the "Lord of the Langue d'Oc", Simon de Montfort entered Toulouse in triumph and immediately demanded the destruction of the city walls. As he was so heartily detested the citizens of Toulouse broke out in revolt a year later and Simon, once again rejected by the people of that hotbed of heresy besieged it once again. His soldiers were by this time wearied of the incessant fighting and made little headway against its civilian defenders, who knew they could expect no mercy if they were defeated.
Simon de Montfort died outside the walls of his chosen city, his skull crushed by a stone projected by a catapult on the ramparts. It is widely believed that this weapon was being worked by the women of the city but confirmation is lacking. His career had taken him from a minor patrimony in the Ile de France to the mastership of a territory which stretched from the Rhone to Aquitaine. There can be no doubt regarding his skills as a military commander as although he had failed twice to storm Toulouse, he had won victory after victory in the field against overwhelming odds. He had fought ostensibly on behalf of Holy Church but eventually he fell out even with the legate Arnald-Amalric because he refused to give the Church any administrative authority in his new domain. He had played for high stakes and lost, and his death was greeted with enormous relief throughout all the territories he had tried to make his own. The appearance of this greying man on any field of battle, marked out as he was by the waving red plumes over the fork-tailed lion, had seemed invariably to terrify anyone who dared oppose him, and that must surely be the epitaph that would have pleased him most.
© John Comley, late 20th century
This is the first in a series of four short historical pieces by the same author, due to copyright restrictions I am unable make them available here, he also wrote some Modern Short Stories.
If you find John Comley ( who I believe lives on the south coast of England) you might be able to get copies of these works
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