Friday, December 18, 2015

The Myth of the Good Dictator

by Anna Belfrage

History has repeatedly shown us that absolute powers rarely bring out the best in a man – rather the reverse – and yet history is full of these dictators, men who somehow got hold of power and who, once enthralled by the trappings of total control, were incapable of letting go. In some cases, there is something tragic about these men. They saw, they won, they conquered – and the tribulations in their wake has left them with tarnished reputations, some of them so black no amount of polish can bring back as much as a glimmer of what was once light and good in them.

Many of these men are fascinating. Quite a few deserve a permanent residence in hell. Many were, to a point, a victim to circumstances. After all, once power has been usurped, relinquishing it tends to be the equivalent of suicide. Many of them acted alone. Some did not, but have been apportioned the entire blame by history. And quite a few did have the best of intentions – or believed they did.

Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella
Well, after that rather massive preamble, I’m guessing you’ve worked out that somehow one of these power-hungry figures has influenced my writing. You are, of course, absolutely right. Today, I turn the limelight on Roger Mortimer, 14th century rebellious baron, lover of a queen, and ruler of a country – for a while, at least.

I must admit straight off that I find Mortimer a delicious mixture of opposites: capable and honourable, a loyal servant to the crown until his enmity with the king’s favourite forced him to rebel, Mortimer was well-educated, a skilled general and a man of taste. This was a man who sported white tunics embroidered with butterflies, who spent lavishly on his various homes, who bedded his mistress on sheets of red silk and relished intelligent discourse with men of God. He was also ruthless, greedy and, once he’d tasted the heady brew of power, determined to remain on top.

The Mortimers were a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, the proud Norman bloodline strengthened with the genes of none less than Llewellyn Fawr, whose illegitimate daughter married one of the Mortimers up Roger’s family tree. Not that the Mortimers ever felt particularly Welsh. It was a Mortimer, after all, who hacked off Llewellyn the Last’s head and presented it to Edward I. Cousin killing cousin, one could say.

By the time Roger was born, the Welsh had been brought brutally to heel by their English overlords. As a Marcher lord, Roger would probably have spoken Welsh and his household would have included a number of Welsh retainers, but he would never have defined himself as Welsh. No, Roger Mortimer was the heir to a sizeable chunk of land, one of the king’s loyal barons – and it was as a loyal servant to the English crown Roger Mortimer set out to carve himself a glorious career.

Edward II
Things went well at first. Had Edward II been a different man – a strong ruler who refused to be swayed by favourites – chances are Mortimer would never had made it beyond a footnote in history. But Edward was not a strong ruler. He was one of those unfortunates born to a destiny he did not want – but could not escape. So he consoled himself with handsome favourites, men who made him laugh and who more than gladly relieved him of the tedious task of managing the day-to-day of England.

Once such favourite was Piers Gaveston. For a while, the young Roger Mortimer was actually Pier’s ward, and he does not seem to have disliked this flamboyant Gascon who’d captured the royal heart and ear. By 1312, Gaveston was history, brutally killed by the rebelling barons led by Thomas of Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick. Edward II was forced to promise he would go back to ruling his kingdom together with a council of barons and magnates.

But Edward chafed under the yoke of his barons, and sometime around 1315-16, a new man began worming his way into the royal affections. Well, to be correct, TWO men – Hugh Despenser father and son. The younger Despenser was married to Edward’s niece, Eleanor de Clare, so chances are they’d have been hanging out a lot throughout the years – Edward was very fond of Eleanor. Whatever the case, Edward was soon as enamoured of Despenser as he’d been of Gaveston. For Mortimer, this was a major, major problem. He detested the Despensers – a feeling returned in full and then some. (Mortimer’s grandfather had killed Despenser’s while helping the then king defeat Simon Montfort)

The Despensers grew fat and happy, ever greedy for more land, more power. The king gladly gave them what they wanted, even if the lands in question belonged to someone else – like the king’s half-brothers. In the north, Thomas of Lancaster was mightily irate. In the west, Mortimer had had it. Elsewhere, the barons muttered and fidgeted. Enough was enough: the Despensers had to go. In early 1321, the barons rebelled, led by Lancaster, Mortimer and de Bohun. A cornered king was forced to sign a pardon for the rebelling barons and exile his favourites.

The humiliation rankled. For once in his life, Edward II showed initiative and drive. Some months later, the king had turned the tables on his barons, who one by one slipped off to hide, leaving at last only a beleaguered Mortimer – and the brooding Earl of Lancaster.

Against the full might of the king, Mortimer could not prevail – especially as Lancaster chose to stay in the north. In January of 1322, Mortimer submitted to the king and was thrown in the Tower. His death was considered imminent – in fact, he was condemned to death by the court, but for some reason Edward II stayed his hand. Maybe it was the low rumbling of protests at all the other executions in the wake of the rebellion. Or maybe Edward just had had enough of seeing men hung, drawn and quartered. In retrospect, not killing Mortimer was the biggest mistake Edward ever made.

The Wheel of Fortune is a fickle thing. In August of 1323, Mortimer managed an incredible escape from the Tower. Up a chimney, over the rooftops and over the walls – long before the drugged guards had realised he was gone, Mortimer was galloping for the south coast of England, from there to take a boat to France. There he was to meet up with Queen Isabella, Edward II’s disgruntled wife – as much a victim of Despenser’s scheming as Mortimer. Sparks flew, as they say, and what was to become one of the more notorious love stories of the time quickly grew into a blaze.

Queen Isabella was no passive companion in the events that were to unfold. As intelligent as she was beautiful, the queen was convinced she had to save England from the Despensers and her husband. She had to do so for her son, the future Edward III. But before she could do anything, she needed to get her hands on the young prince, presently safe in England with his father.

Now Edward II held lands in France - Gascony, to be precise. There'd been a lot of recent hostility, and so as to conclude the proposed peace treaty (negotiated by Isabella as Edward's representative in France)  the French king, Charles IV - coincidentally Isabella's brother - insisted Edward had to do homage for his lands. Through deviousness - unwittingly abetted by Despenser, who feared for his life should his king leave him behind in England while he went to France - Isabella convinced Edward II to send his son instead to do homage. The young boy arrived in 1325, was greeted warmly by his mother and uncle, and was talked out of returning home.

In 1326, Isabella led an invasive force into England. Well: she rode at its head, together with her son, but the military mastermind was her lover, Roger Mortimer.

Isabella besieging Bristol
The king was shocked. His wife and eldest son in the enemy camp, and even more, the people of England welcomed them joyously. So Edward fled instead of fighting, and in November of 1326, his luck ran out – as did the Despensers’. Hugh Despenser the elder was summarily tried and executed in Bristol. Hugh Despenser the younger was just as summarily tried – and executed in a most horrible fashion – in Hereford. Edward II was brought to Kenilworth a prisoner.

By February 1327, England had a new king, the recently crowned Edward III. His father languished in captivity, and the royal seal was firmly in the hands of Isabella – and Mortimer. Over the coming years, those two ruled England as if it were their own. Fat wardships ended up in Mortimer’s control, land and titles flew his way, and in 1328 he was even made an earl. As capable as ever, Mortimer quickly had the administration back to running as it should, appointing competent men throughout the kingdom – men loyal to him, rather than to the young king.

A network of spies kept Mortimer appraised of everything that went on in England, and as much as a whiff of deceit was sufficient for him to come down like a ton of bricks on the poor suspect. In the long run, Mortimer’s position was fragile, and being an intelligent man he must have realised that, which was why he took the precautions of arming himself with ever more land, ever more riches.

Isabella and her brothers & father (she is third from the left)
Queen Isabella was as grasping as her lover – once again, this was a tough lady who had as much a say as Mortimer, if not more, in how England was ruled on behalf of her son. As an example, upon her son’s coronation she sweetly informed Edward III that she had taken the liberty of giving herself a coronation gift, a token of his esteem for his mother. Effectively, she’d granted herself a third of the royal income.

Mortimer became the power behind the throne – in fact, he acted as if he were the king. Arrogance? Probably – but also fear. Mortimer had reached the top of the pinnacle, and was all too aware that there were a number of people just waiting for him to overbalance so as to tear him down – a bit like Ahab and the dogs in the Bible.

Edward III
Edward III, however, was not destined to be a puppet king. Mortimer’s high-handed ways, his absolute control over everything from sheriff appointments to taxes, frightened his contemporaries. A monster in the making, a power so mighty he could tread them all to dust – including the young king – he had to be stopped. Which was why, in the autumn of 1330 Mortimer was arrested, torn from his mistress’s arms in Nottingham Castle. Some weeks later, he was dead, hanged by the neck like a common criminal. His crime? Treason.

Easy come, easy go, one could say – except that there was nothing easy about Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. He fought his way to the top, driven to do so by a weak king and his unprincipled favourites. Testifying to his skills as an administrator – and the capabilities of those he’d appointed to office – Edward III made very few changes to the organisation put in place by Roger Mortimer. Some twenty years later, his attainder for treason was formally reversed and his descendants were restored to his lands (well, not all of them, seeing as he’d been too greedy in appropriating some of them). And, as some of you already know, in 1461 a descendant of our Roger became the King of England, when Edward IV, the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Roger, ascended the throne.

I suppose one cannot write a post about Mortimer without touching upon that most burning question – what happened to Edward II? As per popular legend, Mortimer had him killed rather gruesomely in September of 1327. As per some historians, it is uncertain if Edward died in 1327 – some argue there is evidence that the erstwhile king was smuggled out of the country. Others maintain he did die – but not necessarily due to murder. My personal opinion is that while I do believe Mortimer was ruthless enough to take drastic measures to ensure Edward II never returned to rule, I do not see him as dishonourable enough to murder him.  But that, of course, may reflect what I want to believe rather than what is actually true – after all, I am rather taken by the determined and ambitious Roger Mortimer.


Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.


  1. Great post! I do have to wonder why anyone in jolly old England wanted to rise to the top. It seems the safest location would have been midway, with just enough money to take care of what one had. But . . . that never would have been exciting, I suppose. Question: there were a lot of Queen Isabella's in European history. Was this one Spanish?

  2. No, this lady was French - daughter to Philippe le Bel (the French king who destroyed the Templars, burning their leaders as heretics) and sister to three consecutive French kings, none of whom left a male heir. It is through Isabella that Edward III claimed the French crown

  3. Always interesting to read, thanks for sharing! For an interesting suggestion of what might have happened to Edward(or at least, a novelist's idea seeing that we don't really know) I recommend Colin Falconer's Isabella Braveheart Of France. A bit strange, but hey, why not? Better than the gruesome ending of Marlowe's play, for example!

    1. Other alternatives are Ian Mortimer's book about Roger Mortimer, The Greatest Traitor (and no, they're not related) or Kathryn Warner's bio on Edward II :) I have my own little theory that will be revealed as my series develops

    2. Yes, Ian Mortimer is good, though I haven't read that one. Okay, we'll have to wait and see how your series pans out, then. :-)

  4. I read that it was the fact that Isabella was pregnant by Mortimer and Edward III's fear that he meant to put this child on the throne that drove Edward III to act. What is your view on that?

    1. I am not so sure about that... Isabella does not seem like a mother who would set up her illegitimate child against her trueborn son. While there is speculation about Isabella being pregnant - a fair supposition, seeing as both she and Mortimer were parents several times over in their respective marriages - there is no record of a love child ever having been born, beyond a vague reference to an unnamed "Earl of Lincoln". I think Edward III was prompted to act because of another child: his own eldest son, born in the summer of 1330

  5. They should teach history like this in school ... our children would be so much more interested than they are in dry lists of battles lost and won. Congratulations ... I want to know more now!


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