This edition of OFF THE PAGE opens with a conversation about The Gathering at Keystone College, an annual literary event that takes place on the college campus in La Plume, PA on July 15-18, 2010.
To this day the British and the French don’t always get along. Starting with the Norman Conquest in the year 1066, overtly and subtly the French exercised an influence on the customs, language and society of the rough-hewn Anglo-Saxons. For example, is there such a thing as a truly English “cuisine” (or even a good old Germanic word for it)? French dominance of Britain wasn’t necessarily always a bad thing, except that the Brits never really had an opportunity to return the favor. By the mid 13th century the traffic was heavy between England and France, the people were bound by a common religion and the aristocracy of the two nations recognized family ties. But it was a time of political intrigue, ongoing warfare, corruption that reached into the Church and it’s no surprise that we would come to know this as the Dark Ages.
One of the pivotal characters of the time was Simon de Montfort, one of the major figures in the history of his era even if an attempt was made to write him out of history. A Frenchman who married the sister of England’s King Henry III, he received the title of 6th Earl of Leicester. As a participant in the Crusades he briefly served as mayor of Jerusalem. Later, observing how the King of England was not acting in accord with the stipulations of the Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort arranged for a general election to choose members of a legislative body. He is considered the founder of the British Parliament. His image is among the founders of democracy honored in bas-relief on the wall of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But his actions were considered treasonous and although there were those who believed he should be canonized as a saint, after his death in the Battle of Evesham it was declared that his name should not be spoken in public in England, a ruling that stood for 700 years. The historical record of Simon de Montfort is difficult to piece together, but one of the most thorough accounts can be found in a new series of books by Katherine Ashe. At the start of the volume Ms. Ashe explains, “The actual, unquestioned events in the life of Simon de Montfort are so mutually contradictory, and there are such important gaps in the documentary evidence surviving from the thirteenth century that, to explore a plausible sequence of cause and effect, I’ve taken freedoms beyond those allowed a historian. Montfort is offered under the aegis of fiction.”
Katherine Ashe has written a detailed, action-packed, insightful historical romance, “Montfort: The Founder of Parliament The Early Years 1229 to 1243”. It follows a young, bright and deeply religious Simon de Montfort (the fifth or sixth to bear that name) through his first days in England, his “secret” marriage to the King’s sister — a teenage widow who had become a nun — his personal appeal to Pope Gregory IX to release his wife from her religious vows, and his friendship and then conflict with King Henry III. He might also have been the actual father of Queen Eleanor’s son. Simon is described as having a “brittle nature” that was often burdened by guilt, which is lightened when he volunteers to take part in the Crusades and marches off to the Holy Land.
And that’s just in the first book. The second volume of four, “The Viceroy”, has been released and the final two are nearly finished. They will carry Simon de Montfort to his great accomplishment of convening the first elected British Parliament and finally to his death on the field of battle. It is a prodigious effort — the result of over thirty years of research, study and travel — for Katherine Ashe of Starucca, PA. Her background includes writing for the stage, radio and television, including a one-man show about Edgar Allen Poe.
Katherine Ashe joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about Simon de Montfort and the monumental work of historical fiction.