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8th Baron of Wigmore and 2nd Baron Mortimer (1304-1330)
1st Earl of March (1328-1330)
De facto ruler of England (1327-1330)
Born 1287 Died 1330

The Young Roger

Roger was known to his contemporaries as Roger Mortimer of Wigmore in order to distinguish him from his uncle, who held the Marcher Lordship of Chirk and was thus known as Roger Mortimer of Chirk, although today he was more commonly distinguished from the numerous other Roger Mortimers by being referred to as either the 8th Baron of Wigmore or as the 1st Earl of March.1

Our Roger of Wigmore was born on the 25th April 1287, the eldest son of Edmund Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer and Margaret de Fiennes, second cousin to Eleanor of Castile, who was of course the wife of Edward I. Edmund Mortimer was famous for having led the party that suprised and killed Llywelyn ap Gruffudd at Builth in 1282, but this was only the latest in a long series of clashes between the Mortimer family and the native Welsh, as the Mortimers had fought a long border war in the mid March for centuries as they strove to expand their domains westwards from Wigmore into Wales.

Nothing much is none of Roger's youth except that his father died on the 17th July 1304 before he had come of age. Roger therefore became a ward of Piers Gaveston, but gained full possession of his inheritance on the 9th April 1306 at a cost of 2,500 marks despite being only nineteen. His inheritance was fairly impressive, comprising the Marcher lordships of Wigmore, Radnor and Maelienydd, the town of Presteigne together with a few hundred manors scattered across most of England, one third of the town of Bridgewater and the Irish lordship of Dunamase. Roger was also betrothed in 1299 or 1300 to Joan de Geneville, sole heiress of her father Geoffrey de Geneville2, and could thus anticipate adding Ludlow Castle and barony of Meath and the liberty of Trim in Ireland to his extensive domains.

His grandfather Roger Mortimer, 6th Baron of Wigmore had been one of king Edward I's closest companions and supporters, and of course his father had been of singular service in bringing Edward the head of Llywelyn; it was natural therefore that Roger should follow the family tradition of service to the crown. It was therefore no suprise to find Roger amongst the three hundred or so men, including his uncle, who were knighted by Edward I at the Feast of the Swans on the 22nd May 1306. Indeed there appears some evidence that Roger was a member of the set of young gentlemen such as the young Earl of Gloucester and Piers Gaveston who were friendly with the young Edward, Prince of Wales.

Given the close friendship that existed between Piers Gaveston and the younger Edward, Prince of Wales it was perhaps natural that he should follow Piers Gaveston when he was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1308, and between 1308 and 1312 Roger spent most of his time in Ireland. It is not certain what Roger did afterwards, although he may well have served in Aquitaine, but he was certainly back in England by 1314 when he was required to provide 300 infantry for Edward II's expedition to the north against Robert the Bruce. Roger therefore fought at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when he captured by the Scots but later released without ransom, (Roger was third cousin to Robert the Bruce) and given the job of returning king Edward's privy seal and shield (found on the battlefield) together with the bodies of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Robert de Clifford.

Roger and Ireland

Roger was to spend much of his early career in Ireland; as noted above through his marriage to Joan de Geneville, Roger had acquired extensive estates and influence in Ireland, and there suggestions that he may well have been in Ireland during the very early part of Edward II's reign, but he was certainly in Ireland during the period when Piers Gaveston was Lord-Lieutenant in 1308-9 and remained thereafter between 1310 and 1312.

The issue was was that his father-in-law Geoffrey de Geneville had obtained his estates through marriage to a de Lacy heiress, but many of the de Lacy family disputed his possession claiming that these lands were subject to Irish custom which debarred women from inheriting. So Roger and his wife stayed in Ireland seeking to establish their control of the disputed lands and fighting a small private war against the de Lacys, a war which later developed wider political ramifications. In the immediate aftermath of Bannockurn, Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland invaded Ireland in an attempt to open up a second front against the English. Edward Bruce proclaimed himself high-king of Ireland and began a particularly bloody attempt to terrorise the Irish into submission. To the de Lacys the arrival of Edward Bruce provided an opportunity to stir things up and rekindle their claim to their lost lands, and they openly sided with the Scottish invaders much to the discomforture of the English crown.

Such acts of disloyalty helped Edward Bruce spread chaos across the island and the English reaction was uncoordinated and poorly organised; led by the Earl of Ulster the English were defeated at the battle of Connor and it seemed at one time as if Ireland was about to follow Scotland in breaking away from the English crown. Although Roger was in Ireland at the time, he was not present at the defeat at the Connor and was in any event called back home were his services were required in dealing with other challenges to the crown's authority.

In early 1315 he was in south Wales where he assisted with the suppression of the revolt of Llywelyn Bren in Glamorgan and then joined with Bartholomew de Badelsmere in putting down another revolt by the townspeople of Bristol. After such loyal service to the crown and with a clear self-interest in resolving the Irish question Roger was the natural choice to be placed in charge, and on the 23rd November 1315 he was appointed King's Lieutenant of Ireland.

In the spring of 1316 Roger Mortimer arrived in Ireland with a new army. Naturally he took advantage of his position to take action against the de Lacys who were now ruthlessly crushed whilst Roger patiently re-established English control of southern Ireland and left Edward Bruce bottled up in Ulster. Although Roger was recalled to England in early 1318, he had by then established the basis for the subsequent crushing of the Scottish led rebellion; on the 14th October 1318 John de Bermingham defeated Edward Bruce at the battle of Faughart and delivered Edward's head to his grateful namesake in England. Roger's reward for delivering Ireland from the Scots was £4,000, and in March 1319 he was reappointed as Governor of Ireland although this time with the slightly less elvevated status of Justiciar. His second period of rule in Ireland was less eventful, and was essentially a moping up as he sought to reimpose order on a country badly disrupted by the earlier Scottish invasion.

Roger and the Contrariants

To understand what happened next we need to go back half a century to the Barons' War of 1264-1265 when the reform movement led by Simon de Montfort had risen in armed rebellion against Henry III. At the time Hugh Despenser, 1st Baron Despenser was Justiciar of England and one of de Montfort's keenest supporters. The revolt was crushed at the battle of Evesham on the 4th August 1265 when Edward I or the Lord Edward as he was known at the time, organised a 'hit squad' whose orders were basically to accept no surrender and kill the leaders of the revolt. The leader of this hit squad was a man named Roger Mortimer, 6th Baron of Wigmore and one of its victims was Hugh Despenser.

The Despenser and Mortimer families were thus sworn enemies and in particular Hugh Despenser the Younger had sworn revenge for his grandfather's death. Therefore despite his record of loyalty to the crown, Despenser's rise to power created a problem for Roger particularly when Despenser began to build himself an empire in south Wales, in direct opposition to Roger's own interests in that locality. It seemed obvious that Hugh Despenser would soon seek a pretext to act against Roger and fulfil his oath of revenge. Therefore when Roger returned to England in late 1320 he was reluctantly forced to abandon his previous support for the crown and join in with Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and the other Marcher Lords in opposition to the king.

This revolt of the Contrariants as they were known, was initially successful and forced Edward II to banish the Despensers but Edward rapidly regathered his support. Soon the Despensers were back and a royal army was on the move against the Contrariant strongholds in the Welsh Marches. De Bohun soon abandoned the cause and fled north to join with the Earl of Lancaster leaving Roger and his uncle with little option other than to surrender to the king at Shrewsbury in January 1322. (See the Contrariants for further detail about this particular episode)

Roger and Isabella

Formally condemned to death for treason Roger, together with his uncle, had this sentence commuted to one of life imprisonment. But although confined to the Tower of London, it seemed only a matter of time before the Despensers would use their influence with Edward II to force a change of heart. Indeed news that an order for Roger's execution was imminent was what prompted Roger's daring escape from the Tower in August 1324.

After his escape, frantic efforts were made by the authorities to recapture him. Roger was now public enemy no 1, but despite the best efforts of the government Roger was able to slip away across the channel to the safety of France. There Roger spent his time at the court of the king of France, very probably trying to gain French support for an invasion of England. The French however were not particularly interested, and Roger seemed doomed to a futile life in exile until the arrival of Isabella of France, wife of Edward II and brother of the French king Charles to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the War of Saint Sardos. Isabella was similarly disenchanted with her husband and his Despenser favourites, their shared dislike of king Edward and his regime blossomed into something else and Isabella soon became his mistress.

The scandal of their relationship forced the couple to leave France for the Netherlands, where the couple found a more appreciative audience. There William the Good, the Count of Holland and Hainault was eager to reach a deal and provided the couple with the necessary ships and men to effect their invasion3. Having landed in England on the 26th September 1326 the invasion of Roger and Isabella was remarkably successful, and within a matter of weeks the old regime collapsed in the face of widespread indifference; Edward II was captured on the 16th of November, and forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Edward III. (See The Deposition of Edward II.)

Ruler of England

Although Edward III was now nominally king, the real power belonged to Roger Mortimer, who quietly stood in the shadows and manipulated events to his advantage.

His insistence on facing political realities (and honouring his pre-invasion bargain with Robert the Bruce), meant that the Treaty of Northampton (that brought about an end to the war and the recognition of an independent Scotland) also excited the open opposition of the Earl of Lancaster and his supporters. His elevation to the status of Earl of March in 1328 excited the jealousy and anger of many whilst the entrapment and judicial murder of Edmund of Woodstock in 1329 together with the naming of many fellow conspirators in the largely fictitious plot against the new regime made many fear that they would be next. However it was his appearance in the guise of King Arthur at the Round Table tournament of that possibly excited the greatest fears as Roger paraded his royal descent from the ancient kings of Gwynedd and gave rise to fears that Mortimer was scheming for the throne himself. The Earl of Lancaster, despite the onset of his blindness, prevailed upon the young Edward III, to act against Roger before it was too late.

In October 1330 a Parliament had been called at Nottingham, and it was there at Nottingham Castle on the 19th October that Roger Mortimer was seized and placed in custody. In spite of Isabella's entreaty "Ayez pitie! Ayez pitie a gentil Mortimer!" Roger was unceremoniously placed in chains and carted south to London to face the judgement of his peers.

The End of Roger Mortimer

Why do you boast in mischief, O mighty man?

On the 26th November 1330 Parliament assembled to pass judgement against the Earl of March. Roger Mortimer faced fourteen specific charges of which the most serious were procuring the death of Edmund of Woodstock, illegally removing Edward II fron Kenilworth Castle and ordering his murder at Berkeley Castle; the other twelve charges relating to usurping the authority of the king and self enrichment.

This was very much a show trial, as although Roger was present he was dressed in a cloak bearing the legend Quid Gloriaris ('where is your glory'), bound and gagged and not permitted to speak in his defence. The verdict was not in doubt, the only point of contention was what of execution would be applied. So Roger was condemned "a traitor and enemy of the king and the realm" and sentenced "to be drawn and hanged".

On the 29th November he was dressed in a black tunic and placed securely on an ox hide, in such a fashion Roger was dragged through the streets of London on the two mile journey from the Tower to Tyburn Hill behind by a pair of horses. Battered and bruised, and in some pain one imagines, once placed on the scaffold he was permitted to make a short speech during which he admitted that the Earl of Kent was the victim of a conspiracy. He was then stripped naked, Psalm 52 was read out after which he was hanged for the few necessary minutes to terminate his life. Perhaps in deference to the feelings of Isabella the customary dismembowelling etc was omitted on this occasion.

His body was left on the scaffold for two days before being cut down and buried at Greyfriars Church in London. His remains were later removed and reburied either at Greyfriars Church in Shrewsbury or more likely Wigmore Abbey, but since neither foundation survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries no one is quite certain.

The character of the 1st Earl of March

Roger Mortimer remains one of the most intriguing characters in British history who rose from being a comparatively minor baron to king in all but name. Unfortunately surprisingly little is known about him as he left little behind in the way of the documentary records; there are no letters or documents that bear his stamp, and he produced no explanations of his conduct or motivations. Even when at the forefront of events he preferred to remain in the shadows and thus he remains somewhat of an enigmatic figure who briefly rose to the highest position in the kingdom.

Roger Mortimer has received what might be termed a bad press, principally remembered as the man who committed adultery with the Queen of England, usurped the crown's authority and murdered a king. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica condemns him as "greedy and grasping" and judges that "he was no more competent than the Despensers to conduct the government of the country". However it should be noted that he had the sense and the capability to negotiate an end to the Scottish War which had eluded his predecessors and the evidence shows that his greed was somewhat restrained, certainly compared to that of his sidekick Isabella. A more measured judgement of his time in power is given by his biographer who states that "It would be fair to say that he governed as best he could, but was increasingly compromised by his most controversial policies, especially Scottish independence."

By inclination Roger was committed supporter of the House of Plantagenet, one of the few loyalists that Edward II could count on at the beginning of his reign, and the man who had delivered Ireland from Edward Bruce. It was the sheer incompetence of Edward II that placed Roger in such a position in 1321 that he felt that he had no choice other than to oppose the king.

Even after his dramatic and daring escape from the Tower of London in 1324 he might well have lived out the rest of his life peacefully in exile had events not conspired to place Isabella at his side with the young prince Edward under their control. The motivation behind his subsequent invasion of England may be simply have been to defeat his enemies and recover his estates and position, but once put into effect the outcome was somewhat inevitable, and once Roger had taken power the greatest problem was that he was not a member of the royal family and thus had no legitimate claim to authority. It was only a matter of time before the young Edward III would grow to maturity and seek to take power into his own hands and threaten both Roger's position and life and thus Roger Mortimer has been described as "a frightening example of a man corrupted by both power and fear."

There is indeed a note of desperation in the last months of Roger's life as his judicial murder of Edmund of Woodstock and moves against Edmund's fellow 'conspirators' attest but one gets the impression not of an evil man but of a man trapped by circumstance and propelled by fate to his appointment at Tyburn on the 29th November 1330.


NOTES

1 The Title of Lord or Baron of Wigmore is a feudal rather than a peerage title, but Roger is almost always referred to as the 8th Baron of Wigmore than as the 2nd Baron Mortimer which is a recognised peerage title
2 Geoffrey de Geneville had married a de Lacy heiress and so gained possession of these Irish estates. His only son having died, he placed his younger daughters in a convent and made Joan his sole heiress.
3 What William the Good got from the deal was the betrothal of his daughter Philipa of Hainault to the young Prince Edward, the soon-to-be Edward III.


SOURCES

The main source for the life of Roger Mortimer is the sole account of his life, Ian Mortimer's The Greatest Traitor (Plimlico 2004). Other sources referred to include
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for MARCH, EARLS OF
  • T. F. Tout The History Of England From The Accession Of Henry III To The Death Of Edward III (1216-1317) (Longmans Green and Co. 1905)
  • Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
  • Paul Doherty Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II(Robinson 2004)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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