Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A most loyal and devoted spouse

by Anna Belfrage

Blue hyacinths = constancy. Apt...
There is one woman in English history that I've always felt terribly sorry for. Relegated to obscurity by her gender and far more (in)famous husband, she was a person who lived and breathed, had dozens of kids, saw riches come, riches go, was abandoned by her husband and was left to pick up whatever pieces were left after he was executed for treason. 

Who this woman was? Well, she would most certainly not have responded to the name Mrs Mortimer, no matter that she was married to Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. The lady in question was Jeanne (or Joan) de Geneville, an Anglo-Irish heiress who contributed greatly to the expansion of Roger’s domains by the addition of her dower lands. 

Jeanne was the eldest of three sisters. Her paternal grandparents only had one male heir, Jeanne’s father, and when he died it was decided to pool the family’s resources into one magnificent dowry, making Jeanne a most attractive bride. Her sisters were not as lucky – I don’t suppose anyone asked them if they wanted to be shunted off to a nunnery, but off they went so as not to dent the family’s fortune too much.

Jeanne’s grandparents had their eyes set on a prize – a scion of one of the powerful Marcher Lords. Of mixed Welsh and English (Norman) lineage, the Mortimers ruled over a sizeable chunk of Wales, and as a further advantage, young Roger was of an age with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward II. Jeanne, of course, had no say in this matter. Her first obligation was to her family, and as they decided she would wed.

By our standards, both Jeanne and Roger were very young when they married in 1301. Jeanne was fifteen, Roger was a year younger, but scarcely a year after their wedding their first son was born. Jeanne had thereby fulfilled her second obligation--to give Roger an heir. 

Maria of Brabant's marriage, late 14th century
It seems to have been a good marriage with both spouses reluctant to spend too much time apart. Jeanne accompanied Roger in the field, they travelled together, inspected her lands in Ireland together, and all this close proximity resulted in an impressive number of babies – twelve surviving children in seventeen years. No one could fault Jeanne’s fertility and on top of this she proved a capable manager, running Roger’s domestic affairs with aplomb. For twenty-two years Jeanne carried out her third obligation – that of being a good, loyal wife.

And then Roger went and ruined it all--okay, that is a simplification. The first decades of the fourteenth century were difficult for England. Powerful nobles clashed repeatedly with their king and his selected favourites, there was general unrest in the wake of Edward I, and to top things off, England was in constant conflict with Scotland--at least until the Scots trounced the English at Bannockburn.

Roger Mortimer was a man of stature and responsibilities and his motivations for rising in rebellion against Edward II were manifold and to some extent justified. 

Edward II has gone down in history as a weak king, whatever his characteristics as a person. Edward I was a hard act to follow and Edward II was simply not quite as distinctive and forceful a ruler as his father, plus he had a tendency to shower his favourites with land and riches, thereby galling the high nobility. 

While Jeanne may not have approved of her husband's rebellion--and we will never know her thoughts on the matter--she seems to have supported him as well as she could, even if I suspect she must have been cursing him to hell in private. Her husband wasn't only risking his life and lands, he was risking hers, and even worse, he was risking the future of their children.

God's Speed
The rebellion failed, Roger submitted to his king’s mercy and was thrown into the Tower, there to await what everyone expected to be his imminent execution. Did Jeanne try to contact him? See him? Did she pace her solar and wring her hands, praying for her husband’s safe deliverance? If so, God must have been listening, because dashing Roger escaped, evaded the hunt and made it safely to France.

I picture Jeanne sinking to her knees upon hearing that her husband was safe. I picture her sinking to her knees again some months later, but now in far more squalid surroundings. This time she did not raise her voice in a Deo gratias, this time she wept in helpless anger that her husband should humiliate her so, that he should cavort openly with Queen Isabella while she, his wedded wife, was languishing in captivity.

Edward II does not seem to have been a cruel man. But upon hearing that Roger had escaped, he had taken Jeanne and the Mortimer children into custody--a harsh captivity far removed from the comfort Jeanne was accustomed to. Her rooms were damp and dark, there was no money for more than the basic food and clothing, and while she paid the price for her husband’s treason, Roger was apparently lapping up the good life in France, spending his nights with gorgeous Isabella. If I’d been Jeanne, I’d have made a straw effigy of my faithless husband (or Queen Isabella--yes, probably the queen) and plunged needles into the relevant parts in revenge.

In the forefront, Isabella and Roger
The fact that Roger was bedding another woman would not have been a novelty for Jeanne. Men--and especially rich, handsome men--were expected to be lusty and vigorous, their sexual transgressions no great matter. But for a married man--and a married woman--to openly live in sin, well, that was something else entirely. 

Also, Isabella was the queen, Edward II’s wife, and to sleep with her was the equivalent of high treason. By joining Isabella in bed, Roger had thereby alienated himself permanently from his liege. 

Should Edward triumph, Roger would be hanged, drawn and quartered, something I guess Roger would prefer not to happen.

Back to Jeanne: Three years of humiliating imprisonment ended when her husband returned to England, defeated the king and forced his abdication on behalf of his young son--all the while with Queen Isabella at his side. At some point, Roger met with Jeanne, giving her a precious gift of books (which, by the way, lets us understand that Jeanne was literate enough to enjoy reading). 

“My lady.”
She whirled at the sound of his voice. Damn her heart for galloping like an unbroken horse in her chest, damn her blood for surging up her throat, her cheeks. Damn him, for standing there in the doorway, clad in robes of velvet, his familiar face wearing that half-smile that always twisted her innards into knots of pleasure.
Jeanne inhaled and pressed the palms of her hands against the contours of her thighs. For some moments she was distracted by the pleasing green of her new gown – or rather she kept her eyes on her skirts to avoid looking at him, the man she wanted to hurt, to gut as he had gutted her. The man she wanted to touch her, hold her in his arms while she wept at last, so tired of these long years without him, of months of deprivation and fear.
“Are you well?”
He sounded solicitous, and she threw him a quick look. His smile widened, and he shuffled on his feet, a throw-back to the very young man he’d been when they first wed.
“Am I well?” Jeanne drew in a long, shuddering breath. “What do you think?”
“I…” He motioned for the page to set down the books on a table before jerking his head in the direction of the door. The page disappeared with the speed of a scalded rat. “I am so sorry.”
“Ah.” She twisted her hands into the fabric of her gown.
“Don’t!” She held up her hand. “I would have you leave, my lord.”
“Jeanie,” he repeated, dark eyes never leaving her.
“Go,” she said, “rush back and rut some more with your royal whore.” It gladdened her to see him pale. He remained where he was, one hand extended towards her. Jeanne shook her head, retreating towards the window-seat. “Please… just go, Roger.” It tore her heart out when he turned and left.

As we all know, Roger Mortimer over-reached. Too greedy, too hungry for power, too ostentatious… Men who grasp for the sun tend to get badly burnt, and in Roger’s case, his days of glory were cut abruptly short when the new king had him arrested and tried for treason. It was a travesty of a trial as Roger was gagged to stop him from speaking in his own defence, and on one of the last days of November, 1330, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March was drawn and hanged at the Tyburn Tree.

The Tyburn Tree in the 17th century 
As Roger’s wife, Jeanne was implicated in Roger’s treason. More years in restricted circumstances, more years of fearing for the future of her children, more years--I imagine--of grieving for the man she’d loved, of hating him for what he’d reduced her to.

Six years after his death, Jeanne had her lands restored to her, and for the remaining twenty years of her life she lived quietly. It is said she petitioned the king to have her husband moved from Greyfriars in London, where he first was buried, to Wigmore Abbey. It is said the petition was granted, and Roger’s mortal remains were brought home to rest in the lands from whence he came. I hope Jeanne made her peace with him, maybe going as far as now and then stopping by his grave to talk to him.

Jeanne de Geneville died in 1356, at the age of seventy. She never remarried --I don’t think she wanted to.

Should you want to read more about Roger and Jeanne, I recommend "The Greatest Traitor" by Ian Mortimer. Are they related? Nope.

Anna Belfrage is the author of two published books, A Rip in the Veil and Like Chaff in the Wind. The Third book in The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son, will be published in the summer of 2013. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. 


  1. The poor woman! We do hear far more about Roger and Isabella. And not much happened to Isabella, by the way. She was, after all, the king's mother. But her husband made her life difficult too.

    Where does that quoted passage come from?

  2. She had a hard lot for certain though at least her last years were quiet. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Sue,
    The quoted passage is my own, Sue. Every now and then I dally with the idea of writing a full book about Jeanne - and Roger. Glad you liked the post, Danielle.

  4. This is a fantastic post which I've really enjoyed reading. I've been thinking a lot about Jeanne recently too and can't help wondering what she thought and felt. Did she even know that Roger was going to rebel? How did she find out about Roger and Isabella. I know that Roger brought Isabella (and young Edward III) with him to Ludlow in 1328 & that he had a new solar built to accommodate Isabella & Edward. But how did Jeanne feel about this, how did she and Isabella get on, how did Roger handle it, how did his children handle it etc, etc.
    I'm sure there's a book here too :)


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