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Simon de Montfort - the origin of our name

Who was Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester?

Simon de Montfort was born around the year 1208 in northern France, the younger son of French nobles. In the late 1220s, he gave up his entitlements to any family lands to his older brother, in return for the right to claim the Montfort inheritance in England. De Montfort travelled to England to claim the lands and title of Leicester, through indirect inheritance from his grandmother and uncle. He was granted the patrimony and was titled earl from around 1239. De Montfort became a favourite of King Henry III and in 1238 married the king’s sister Eleanor. As a result, he was influential and active at the highest level of English politics. He was also unpopular among the English baronry, so went overseas in 1240, on crusade to the Holy Land. De Montfort then returned to England, where he was a loyal counsellor and servant of Henry III. He fought with the king in France in 1242, he was appointed one of 12 commissioners to resolve a political crisis in 1244, and acted as an ambassador to the papacy, France, and the Imperial Court.

But in 1248, the king sent de Montfort to quell a rebellion in the French province of Gascony. As a result of de Montfort’s handling of the situation, relations between him and the king deteriorated. De Montfort treated the Gascons harshly and was prosecuted for illegal procedure and oppression, though the earl was acquitted by his peers. At the same time, de Montfort’s personal relations with the king declined, as the king failed to give him financial compensation for his military costs. De Montfort began to consider that Henry III was unfit to rule, and he took part in growing baronial opposition to the Crown.

By the later 1250s, the English nobility was discontent with the rule of Henry III and forced him to make political concessions in the Provisions of Oxford, considered as England’s first written constitution (in reality, it continued the ideas of Magna Carta of 1215). The aim was to curb the king’s power, reform the law and introduce a fairer system of local government. This programme had wide support for it was seen as a movement of justice and fair rulership.

Over the following years, the movement disintegrated as the barons fell out. De Montfort went to France but in 1263, returned to England and led a rebellion against Henry III. The earl defeated and captured the king at the battle of Lewes in 1264 and became de facto ruler of England. To seek wider consent, Montfort called a parliament in 1265 and, for the first time, knights from the county and burgesses from the towns of each shire were elected to represent their communities. Despite this, opposition to Montfort continued and the earl was defeated and killed at the battle of Evesham in 1265.

Why did the university take his name?

In 1992, Leicester Polytechnic changed its name to De Montfort University. There were two reasons. Firstly, the name is linked with civic institutions in Leicester such as De Montfort Hall and the 19th-century century clock tower, which includes a sculpture of the earl. Secondly, de Montfort is credited with having established the first representative English parliament and was seen traditionally as a “father of democracy”. The name was therefore adopted to signify the university’s location within and commitment to the city of Leicester, and the traditions of democracy as epitomised by the British Parliament.

Some people say Simon de Montfort was an anti-Semite. Why would DMU keep his name in that case?

While Simon de Montfort is remembered chiefly for his achievements as an architect of and campaigner for a representative parliament – achievements which originally inspired DMU to take his name – it is argued, too, that he bears responsibility for the persecution of Jewish people because in 1231 Montfort issued a charter expelling Leicester’s Jewish community in an overtly anti-Semitic act.

We believe there should be no remembrance of Simon de Montfort without acknowledgement of the controversy he attracts. As a university, we actively encourage challenging discussion and the sharing of many cultural viewpoints and opinions.

In 2020, the De Montfort Students’ Union (DSU) campaigned to have the name of the university changed in view of the controversy around Simon de Montfort. As a result, the university conducted an extensive series of engagements, discussions, a focus group with Jewish colleagues and students, an open academic debate and two further meetings between staff, students and DSU between late 2020 and mid-2021. These were focused on the historical context of the Simon de Montfort name and its legacy, evaluating all the arguments for and against a name change.

The overriding consensus from this consultation exercise was that there is value in remembering historical events and actions in order that lessons be learned from them.  

Various practical, economic and social challenges associated with a potential renaming process were also acknowledged by the various groups.

It was decided, finally, that while the campaign had been very worthwhile, it was not the right time to consider an institutional name change and the Student Union withdrew their proposal following the university’s commitment to undertake the actions below.

Is DMU open to changing the name in future?

While we have no plans to enact a change in the near future, we remain passionate about and thoroughly committed to our goals of equality, diversity and inclusion, and to being a truly anti-racist university. To this end, we have agreed together to explore ways in which we can continue to acknowledge, discuss and learn from the legacy of Simon de Montfort.

Proposals include this new dedicated DMU webpage outlining the history and legacy of the figure, the recent debate and our resulting position; student scholarships in the name of the anti-racist university agenda, in conjunction with Decolonising DMU; DMU Local community projects with Leicester’s Jewish groups; and a host of other initiatives and collaborations with local organisations and national guest speakers.