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Katherine Ashe Interview on Fly High on the subjects of the Court of Love and Simon de Montfort

Montfort The Early Years 1229 -1243
Montfort The Early Years 1229 -1243

Q. Montfort is a huge book, in four volumes, well over 1500 pages. How do you start a work like that?
A. Well, as Glenda the Good in The Wizard of Oz says, “It’s always best to begin at the beginning.” Actually the first scene I wrote for Montfort is now in Chapter Seven. It’s the scene in which Simon meets King Henry’s sister, the Countess Eleanor of Pembroke, who is a nun. Queen Eleanor – there are five Eleanors – is holding a Court of Love, and Simon blunders into it. The first words of Montfort that I wrote are the exchange between Simon and the Queen:
“Today we are discussing Tristan,” the queen said sweetly, in the manner of one talking to a child, or to a fool. She gestured toward an elderly waiting woman sitting by her. “Lady Alice contends that the sword Tristan placed between himself and Queen Isolde, as they slept in the grove, was the True Cross. What is your opinion?”
“That’s blasphemy!” The rude words broke from Simon’s lips.
A tight smile curved the queen’s bow mouth. “You speak strongly, Sire. But you are quite wrong. Would you have love fulfilled?”
“Yes, when it is sanctioned and lawful.” Simon gazed upward in exasperation, casting his glance anywhere but at the queen.
“But desire is far purer than possession,” she insisted.
“Tristan had possessed the queen. They were adulterers, Madam.” As he spoke his eyes met Queen Eleanor’s and his gaze locked in hers.
I’ve never changed a word of that scene, but I’m not sure I fully understand it even now. It does capture the essence of the Court of Love’s philosophy of courtesy – the belief that unfulfilled, yearned-for love is a spiritually purifying experience.

Q. What are you meaning by “courtesy?” It doesn’t sound like you’re referring to good manners.
A. No. “Courtesy,” in the sense the Court of Love meant it, was the elevated regard man paid to woman. It derived from the Albigensian’s heretical notion that when Lucifer and his angels were cast out of heaven, by an act of Grace each was divided in half and only one half fell to earth. Each angel’s other half remained in heaven. Though angels are properly neither male nor female, this division resulted in one half being male and the other female. The half consigned to earth eternally longed for reunion with the half that remained in heaven – which was of course of the opposite sex. The troubadours, many of whom were partisans of the Albigensians, wrote songs about this longing between a man and woman, a longing only fulfilled when the earthly partner died. The linkage of Eros and Thanatos that lies deep in Western culture springs from this heretical notion cast into twelfth and thirteenth century poetry. Courtesy, in a sense, was the recognition by man that salvation was achieved through love of woman.

Q. What was this Court of Love?
A. It was actually a type of court, like a court of law, held originally by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de France, and later by other royal and noble ladies at a given time in their halls. The “panel” was all ladies and they debated issues – such as the significance of Tristan’s Sword. They also heard case and past judgments.

Q. Legal cases?
A. Questions regarding love. A lover could bring a complaint against his beloved and receive a judgment from the court.

Q. I can’t quite picture this.
A. Here are some examples. They’re rather eye-opening.
A knight was in love with a lady who told him she couldn’t love him because she loved someone else. Fair enough by the Court’s standards. But then the lady married that someone else. The knight re-applied for the lady’s affections, on the grounds that she could not possibly continue to love the man to whom she was now married. The Court held that where love was compelled, as in marriage, it must soon die. They found in favor of the knight and ordered the lady to accept him as her lover.

And lest we have any doubts about just what the ladies meant, here is another case:
Two knights loved the same lady. After some debate, the Court could not decide in favor of one or the other, so they divided the “favors” of the lady, awarding the favors of her upper half to one knight and the favors of her lower half to the other. The winner of the upper half crowed that he had the best award. At which the ladies of the Court told him bluntly, “Everyone knows the favors of the lower half are preferable to the favors of the upper half.”
Small wonder that Simon, who had been brought up in the modest and devout Court of Paris with Saint Louis, would have been highly annoyed at finding himself in a Court of Love.

Battle of Damietta, Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi, 16, f. 54v

Q. In that quote there is a hint of a relationship developing between the Queen and Simon…?
A. Indeed there is. Theirs could be a perfect, obstructed love. Not only would an affair with the Queen be treason, the Queen’s family and Simon’s were utter enemies, hers as supporters of the Albigensians in southern France, Simon’s because his father was the leader of the crusade against the Albigensians.

Q. Your book suggests there was a relationship…
A. Yes. Other modern authors don’t seem to see it, but it was the gossip of the mid-13th century. There are considerable indications that Queen Eleanor’s first son, who became Edward I, was probably fathered by Simon de Montfort. I go to some length in the Historical Context section of Montfort The Early Years to provide the documentary evidences.

Q. What proofs do you have?
A. Nothing can be proven of course. Unless one were to do a DNA test on Edward’s remains, and that would prove little because most of the high nobility of Europe were inter-related. But there are documentary evidences that argue it was highly likely:
Despite three years of marriage, the Queen had failed to conceive and was believed to be barren (the Chronica Majora attests to this.) A faction was rising to displace Henry and put his far more sensible brother Richard on the throne. The Queen’s having a child would avert this threat. So much for the Queen’s motive beyond nurturing a merely ideal love.

The King and Queen were visiting Kenilworth, Simon’s home, on Sept. 15, 1238 – the royal accounts give this as the location where royal documents were executed on that date.

Queen Eleanor gave birth to Edward in June, a perfect nine months later.

A month and a half after the royal visit to Kenilworth, the royal accounts register a payment to a physician who guarantees the Queen will become pregnant if she and Henry drink a herbal tea and pray at the tomb of Saint Edward.
The potion works a “miracle.” King Henry is so overjoyed that he makes an elaborate tomb for Saint Edward in the abbey church at Westminster (it’s still there.)

In June, the queen, seven months after taking the potion, gives birth to a normal-term-seeming, hearty baby. He is named Edward, after the apparent worker of this miracle.

King Henry makes festival for his whole Court, and especially brings his favorite, Simon, to London, lending the Montforts the most splendid mansion at the royal command. Simon serves as one of the child’s godfathers at the baptism, and his seal appears witnessing almost every document issued by the Court between June and August 9, showing he was the King’s closest companion through all this time.

The ceremony of the Churching of the Queen took place on August 9. In this ritual the Queen makes her first confession since the onset of her pregnancy, and is welcomed back into the Church (feminists bristle at this – but that’s how it was.) Queen Eleanor made her confession to Edmund Rich, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was Simon’s worst enemy (but that’s another part of the story.)

Simon and his wife arrived late at the church. The Queen (the Chronica Majora reports this in minute eye-witness detail) was trembling so badly that her veil was shaking –people were saying she had left her bed too soon. King Henry was disruptively pacing back and forth across the dais as the Archbishop soldiered on with the ceremony.
As he saw Simon enter at the back, King Henry called out, “So! You do dare show your face here among decent Christians!”

Simon took his wife and left, returning to the manse Henry had leant them. But Henry sent bailiffs to evict them.
Simon returned to the church with his wife, his infant son and the baby’s nurse. The crowd parted. He went to Henry, threw himself on the floor at Henry’s feet and begged for forgiveness and mercy.

Thanks to the Chronica, we know exactly what King Henry said: “Forgive you! My friend! Always so ready to serve! It seems your serving knows no end! You seduce…” (here I believe Henry realized he was going too far – he needed this heir to block Richard’s faction, so he caught himself and brought forth a bundle of old issues that already had been resolved between them) “…you seduced my sister before the wedding; to avoid scandal I gave my consent in my own despite…” (Bemont’s translation from the Chronica.)

Henry went on to accuse Simon on various financial issues – all of which had been resolved by the previous May. At the end of his tirade, the King broke down entirely and fell weeping into the arms of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Simon was so crushed it took the King’s brother Richard to rouse him to get up off the floor. Then, with his wife, child and baby-nurse, Simon fled directly into exile in France.

That is what the documents of the period tell us. I don’t think it takes any leap of the imagination to see that, following the Queen’s confession and an apparent breach of the secrecy of the confessional by the Archbishop, Henry at least believed Simon had fathered the royal baby. The witnesses of the event thought Henry had gone mad. Simon, interestingly, did not seem even surprised, took the abuse and fled.

Some readers of the Volume One blurb – who have not read the book — seem to see my view as scandalous, but those who have read Montfort find it persuasive. Absolute proof is probably never will be had.