Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Rise, Rise and Fall of Sir Roger Mortimer

by Arthur Russell

Sir Roger Mortimer
After the defeat of Edward Bruce at Faughart in Ireland in October 1318, Sir Roger Mortimer’s reputation as an effective soldier and administrator made him a vital ally of King Edward II. The King was facing a resurgence of rebellion from his barons mostly arising from the activities of his latest favourite, Sir Hugh Despenser, his closest adviser. Established laws and agreements were being set aside to endow Despenser’s family with lands and titles as Despenser took over roles the King was too lazy or unwilling to perform himself. The pattern for this been set a decade earlier with a former Royal favourite, Piers Gaveston. The difference from Mortimer’s point of view was that while Gaveston had been his mentor and friend, Despenser was a mortal enemy arising from an old Marchland dispute in which Despenser’s grandfather was killed by Mortimer’s grandfather. This meant that Mortimer had to be careful. The King might appreciate his talents but showed that he had no qualms ignoring everything when it came to pleasing Despenser. Mortimer was somewhat relieved to be sent back to Ireland as Justiciar, thereby taking him away from court intrigues.  He was “out of sight, out of mind”.
Over the next 2 years he restored the post Bruce Irish colony to a healthy state so that by the time he left, the country had not known such peace and prosperity for generations. By contrast, the England he returned to in late 1320, was on the brink of civil war due to the continuing actions of Despenser.

Mortimer joins the rebellion - Mortimer’s interests had suffered considerably in his absence. He felt constrained to join an alliance of barons who resisted what Despenser, and through him the King were doing. As a Marcher Lord with rights and privileges that were guaranteed under Magna Carta, Mortimer simply had no other choice. The King was alarmed by this latest challenge and summoned the barons to court to declare their loyalty. The rebel barons ignored the summons and attacked Despenser territory in South Wales. Despenser pressured the King to declare them traitors; which meant their lands and titles were forfeit. At this point, the rebels were at pains to say their opposition was not against the King, but against the Despensers (father and son). Edward offered concessions, but refused their demand to banish the Despensers. Mortimer was stripped of his Irish Justicarship in favour of a Despenser relative who proceeded to return Ireland to the anarchy from which it had been rescued.
During the next months, the King was forced by the rebels to banish the Despensers. The elder Despenser fled to Bordeaux, blaming his son’s greed for his family’s downfall. Sir Hugh became a pirate exacting revenge on ships conducting trade and commerce between England and the Continent. This caused economic damage as well as severe embarrassment to Edward, who seemed less disturbed by this than by the anger and insult he held against the rebel barons, now clearly led by Mortimer.
What followed was one of the most rapid changes of fortunes in history.

King Edward II
Royal Revenge - Having won their campaign against the Despensers, the rebel alliance immediately fell apart. The event that sparked the King’s revenge was the refusal of one of them to allow Queen Isabella to shelter in Leeds Castle as she went on pilgrimage to Canterbury. The King ordered the castle to be besieged, while none of the alliance came to help. The offending lord and some followers were executed by the King who now, with the help of barons who had not previously taken sides; felt strong enough to move against the remaining rebels. Mortimer quickly realized that his best course lay in making his own peace with the King, who accepted his submission and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. All Mortimer titles and properties were seized by the crown.
In the following months, the King exacted terrible revenge on the barons with a series of horrific executions, while Sir Hugh Despenser was recalled from exile and restored to his former position. Despenser wanted Mortimer executed, but bowed to the King’s wish to commute this to perpetual incarceration in the Tower.
The King now had absolute power, which meant that no castle or estate was safe from Despenser who continued to enrich himself and his family at the expense of those he considered the King’s (and his) enemies. This drew the enmity of the bishops and Queen Isabella, the sister of the French King Charles IV, who increasingly saw Mortimer as the best focus for growing opposition to what had become Royal tyranny.
In 1322, she accompanied the King and Despenser on a disastrous Scottish campaign and was treated to the sight of her husband and his chief minister ungallantly fleeing from King Robert’s army, leaving her to fend for herself. With the help of her ladies, two of whom died, she eventually managed to find her way back to court.

Mortimer the Exile - Both Despenser and the King now saw the threat that Mortimer alive, even as a prisoner; posed. Despenser determined to kill him, confident that the King would have to allow it; but before this could happen, Mortimer, with the connivance of the Queen and the sub-lieutenant of the Tower, escaped and fled to France. It was months before the enraged King learned where Mortimer was. He suspected the Queen’s role in the escape and punished her by stopping her income. The four royal children were taken from Isabella and put in the care of Lady Despenser.
France and England were by now edging towards war with one another, due mainly to Despenser’s bellicose policies towards France which he was forcing on the King. This meant that Mortimer was welcomed by King Charles as an ally. All England feared imminent invasion by Mortimer the fugitive, who was now cast in the role of bogeyman supreme and the focus for everyone who resented Royal tyranny.
In March 1325 the King allowed his Queen to travel to France to use her influence to defuse the political situation with her brother. He sent handpicked servants with her with instructions to spy and report “disloyal” actions and words. In truth the Queen was delighted to leave England and her ruined marriage behind her.  She managed to forge a peace between Edward and Charles, which while distasteful to Edward, was as good as he could have hoped. One significant condition was that the 14 year old heir, Prince Edward, had to present himself in France to pay homage to Charles. This brought the Prince to his mother’s side and under her influence. Edward immediately demanded that wife and son return immediately to England. With her brother’s support, Isabella refused, blaming the obnoxious (to her) presence of Despenser at court as her reason.
On Christmas Day 1325, Mortimer finally met Isabella at the French court and thus began the most notable romance (and Royal scandal) of the Middle Ages between the exiled baron and the spurned Queen. His wife’s marital desertion was an extreme humiliation for Edward when he acknowledged it in Feb 1326 and had to ask his subjects to prepare for an invasion led by Isabella and her lover. Meantime, Mortimer’s wife, the unfortunate Joan and their 3 sons, was being held prisoner by Edward, while Mortimer’s mother managed to keep herself out of the King’s hands.

Illustration of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella 
Isabella & Mortimer invade England - On 20th September 1326, Roger and Isabella joined the invasion fleet and the small army of 1500 mercenaries they had assembled at Rotterdam, to invade England. They landed in Suffolk on Sept 24th. Surprised that the invaders came with such little military force, the King assembled one of the largest armies ever seen in medieval England to destroy them. He did not reckon on the love his people had for their Queen who with the young Prince, won them to her side. What should have been Edward’s overwhelming victory turned into a demoralizing retreat as the Queen succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of her subjects as she progressed through the English countryside. With all the resources of the land at his disposal, the King was effectively paralysed and isolated. He could not count on the loyalty of the citizens of London, and abandoned the city in early October. Anarchy reigned in the city as high ranking Royal supporters were lynched by a mob and brutally executed. Edward fled to Despenser’s territories in Wales, in vain hope that the Welsh might join him. Despenser senior was captured and executed by Mortimer after a siege in Bristol. The King having lost all hope of resisting the wrath to come, attempted to take ship to Ireland, but failed due to adverse weather. At the end of October the King and his remaining supporters, including Hugh Despenser, were captured. Mortimer exacted full and final revenge on Hugh Despenser, who was tried, condemned and immediately publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in Hereford.

Royal Abdication - Mortimer and Queen Isabella were now de facto master and mistress of England, but needed legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the world. King Edward II had to be made to abdicate in favour of his fourteen year old son, who was firmly under their control. A Parliament was duly convened at which the King was given no other option but to abdicate and pledge support to his son, who was immediately crowned to replace him. It was the first, but not the last time that the power of Parliament (representing People Power), was pitted against ‘the Divine right of Kings’. The ousted King was charged and found guilty of a long list of crimes against his people and realm and was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle.
The new regime found that a live ex-King is not an easy thing to live with, as the Royal prisoner became the focus of many conspiracies. Life was further complicated by the need to embark on another inevitable campaign against King Robert Bruce who was pillaging the North of England. This took Mortimer away from court, earning him blame from the young King when Roger refused to let him lead his army against a superior Scottish army who were too well positioned. After weeks of pointless skirmishing and chasing across Northern England, the Scots simply returned home.

Conspiracy and Regicide - What happened next has been the cause of much argument and debate, theory and counter-theory. The narrative goes that the deposed King died or was murdered while under the care of Mortimer’s subordinates in Berkeley castle in 21st September 1327. Speculation (then and since) suggests that Mortimer was the prime mover in Edward’s death as he had much to gain from the King’s demise. (Ian Mortimer proposes in his book ‘The Greatest Traitor’, that the death and funeral was faked, with the Queen and the young King “buying into” the ensuing deception for their own good reasons). 
Mortimer and Isabella now acted as virtual rulers of England. The young King Edward III was growing older and becoming impatient with his overbearing mentor who was losing the support of many former allies, envious of his power and influence. He was blamed for concluding a peace treaty with the Scots which effectively stripped many Northern Lords of their Scottish estates. Opposition came to a head when Mortimer insisted on having the King’s uncle, the Earl of Kent executed for conspiring to rescue the ex-King from Corfe Castle where rumour had it he was being secretly kept. Mortimer was using Royal power against his enemies, many of whom fled England.
(Note - The death of heirless Charles IV of France in Feb 1328, had far-reaching effects as it opened the possibility that his nephew, King Edward III of England should inherit the French throne. This would lead to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1337).

The Fall of Mortimer - It now seemed that Mortimer’s tyranny was no better that that of Despenser, especially when Mortimer began to take over huge territories and titles for himself and his supporters. After 5 years in Mortimer’s shadow, it was time for Edward III to exert control over his most powerful subject, if he was going to hold onto his crown – a crown which many feared Mortimer was about to seize for himself, unless something was urgently done about him.
With the King’s approval and connivance, Roger Mortimer was arrested in his castle at Nottingham in October 1330. A month later he was tried and executed in Tyburn, being spared drawing and quartering meted out to Hugh Despenser three years before. The main charge against him (one of fourteen); was the regicide of King Edward II.
Queen Isabella, who had pleaded for Mortimer’s life to be spared, was retired with a comfortable pension and lived privately until her death in 1358.

Comment - Sir Roger Mortimer was one of the most colourful figures of medieval England. Many of his political activities were cloaked in secrecy, which means that his importance in the paradigm of the age is often overlooked and understated.  His relatively short life provides a rich source of material to inspire many books of more than one genre; be it romance, political drama, (even a detective novel for any writer feeling inclined to delve into the machinations surrounding King Edward II’s murder [or not?]). He was a true Machievellian in a pre-Machievellian age who eventually lost out to an equally unscrupulous King, for whom he had done so much to place on England’s throne. Mortimer inevitably became the final victim of his own insatiable ambition. 

Sir Roger Mortimer features in my book ‘Morgallion’ which is set in early 14th century Ireland during the Bruce invasion, which sought to establish a Bruce dynasty in Ireland. Sir Roger was largely instrumental in preserving the English colony and restoring English hegemony there.


  1. What an excellent piece on Roger Mortimer. My only complaint is that modern pictures of medieval men so frequently make them look sullen and ill-shaved. But that's a trifle compared to the concise, clear rendering of history Arthur Russell has given us.
    Katherine Ashe, author

    1. Thanks for your good words Katherine. I have long had an interest in Roger Mortimer and regard him as one who has never been accorded due recognition for the role he played. Much of this is due to his own desire to operate in the background orchestrating people and events. He well understood the dangers of showing his hand in a world that was not ready to question or subvert the Divine right of Kings. A future generation in England, and later in France; would do it with a lot more success.

  2. What an excellent piece on Roger Mortimer. My only complaint is that modern pictures of medieval men so frequently make them look sullen and ill-shaved. But that's a trifle compared to the concise, clear rendering of history Arthur Russell has given us.
    Katherine Ashe, author

  3. I have read a historical romance that told this story. There is much fodder in the historical facts to encourage interest that's for sure.

    I enjoyed your post, thanks!

  4. Brilliant - I agree that Roger Mortimer is very underrated and his contribution usually ignored. I've always thought it a huge pity that he wasn't able to stay longer in Ireland as he was one of the most effective 'crown' representatives for centuries.

    I really enjoyed the post. Thank you.

  5. Roger Mortimer was firstly introduced as a patriot who later developed a Mchiavellian due to circumstances created because of the stubborn nature of his king and little because of greed.Thankyou.Really a helpful note.

  6. Hi I know this post is old but I am a huge fan of Roger Mortimer z d I think he got an unfair reputation. He was doing his job . But what is not clear is his role? Who had the power in the regency? I couldn't see Isabella having much. The picture I get of Mortimers role is conflicting sometimes in the background other times sitting in parliament taking part eg prosecutor with the Earl of Kent. It seems he gave out orders and had the final say on most things


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.