A tunnel, a tunnel, a kingdom through a tunnel
Some weeks back, I introduced you to Ralph Stafford, a gentleman (?) notorious for having abducted his second wife, Margaret Audley. When the bride’s parents protested, the king, Edward III, ruled in favour of Ralph. The king, you see, was indebted to Stafford – and to a bunch of other young men – for their role in the events that led to Roger Mortimer being toppled from power.
I’ve been living in a very close relationship to dear Roger Mortimer for quite some years by now – he is the indirect protagonist of my ongoing series The King’s Greatest Enemy. Accordingly, I’ve also spent quite some time with Edward III, watching him grow from a confused boy torn in two between his parents to a young man seething at having his powers usurped by that damned Mortimer. I am quite fond of both of them, and as to my protagonist Adam de Guirande, he loves them both, which inevitably is going to cause him tremendous heartache and pain.
Anyway: for those of you who do not walk about with a summary of the events 1322 – 1330, a brief recap may be required. In 1322, Roger Mortimer was imprisoned by Edward II for having risen in rebellion against his liege. The expectation was that very soon he’d hang before being disembowelled and quartered. For some reason, Edward II chose not to execute Mortimer, and instead our daring Roger orchestrated an escape from the Tower and fled to France, where he was warmly welcomed by King Charles.
The French king was the brother of Edward II’s wife. Isabella. Poor Isabella had spent the first years of her marriage playing second fiddle to Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s beloved Gascon favourite, and by 1322 she was yet again forced out of the king’s affections by a certain Hugh Despenser. Well, to be correct TWO Hugh Despensers, as there was a father and a son. The Despensers were greedy men. Edward was more than happy to give them what they wanted, trampling roughshod over the rights of his other barons. While the king was fond of the older Hugh, it was the son who claimed the king’s heart, and even if we will never know just how intimate the two men were with each other, it is obvious Edward valued Hugh more than his wife.
Things weren’t helped by the fact that England and France were effectively at war over Gascony. Isabella toed a fine line between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to her brother, and at some point King Edward decided she was not to be trusted, which was why he deprived her of all her incomes, all her dower lands. Major, major faux-pas. If not before, this high-handedness definitely pushed Isabella over into the enemy camp, at present an ever growing collection of disgruntled English barons headed by the charismatic and capable if exiled Roger Mortimer.
The Gascony situation went from bad to worse – Isabella’s uncle, Charles de Valois, crushed the English troops – and Edward realised he needed to negotiate some sort of peace or lose his French lands. Suggestions were made that he send Isabella. Edward was not entirely comfortable with this – he was no fool, however incompetent a king he was, and he knew his wife had not forgiven him for taking her lands away from her. Still; Isabella was a wise choice and in 1325 off she went, Edward first having assured himself Mortimer was nowhere close to the French court.
Isabella negotiated a peace treaty, and all that needed to be done was for Edward to come to France and do homage. Hugh Despenser panicked at the thought of being left alone in England with the king away in France. He feared (probably quite correctly) that the barons would take the opportunity of murdering him. Instead, he convinced the king to send his young heir, Edward of Windsor, to France. Hmm. Yet again, the king was doubtful, and he spent days and weeks mulling this over. In the end, Hugh’s pleading won the day, so Edward II had his son made Duke of Aquitaine and sent him over to France and his waiting mother. He was never to see his son again.
Meanwhile Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer had joined forces. Well, to be quite correct, they joined more than forces, engaging in a passionate love affair that had the sheets sizzling and the entire French court gossiping. Two handsome, intelligent and determined people formed a pact to see England rid of the yoke of the Despensers, and once Prince Edward had joined them, they had the wherewithal with which to do it.
Prince Edward was betrothed to Philippa of Hainault. This was to prove a happy and succesful marriage, but at the time it was an expedient move, pledging the prince’s hand in marriage in return for the ships and men required to invade England. What Prince Edward thought of all this is unknown. What his father thought is somewhat more well-known. He wrote his son several letters in which he ordered him to return home and act the dutiful son. Except, of course, that Queen Isabella had no intention of allowing her son to leave…
In 1326, Queen Isabella returned to England accompanied by her son and her lover. In a matter of weeks, all resistance crumbled, and in November of 1326 Mortimer and Isabella had the distinct pleasure of watching Hugh Despenser’s agonising death while partaking of a light meal. The king was imprisoned, obliged to abdicate, and come February 1327 England had a new king, the fourteen-year-old Edward III. Some months later, his father was purportedly dead, his funeral a magnificent affair in Gloucester.
Obviously, the boy king couldn’t rule on his own. Obviously, the self-evident choice of regents were Isabella and Mortimer. Well; as per Isabella and Mortimer. Others did not agree. Henry of Lancaster proposed himself as regent, and the young king’s uncles, Edmund of Kent and Thomas of Norfolk, also wanted a say. Not about to happen. Isabella trusted Mortimer and no one else, and soon enough the lovers had the kingdom under their thumbs. Note the plural – their thumbs. Isabella was no meek woman, she was an equal partner in this great endeavour.
The barons weren’t all that much happier under Isabella and Mortimer than they’d been under Despenser. Not so much due to misuse of power – Mortimer set up an efficient administration and returned the rule of law to the kingdom – as due to the fact that it was the queen mother and her lover who held both reins and purse-strings. There were some rebellions, and in March 1330 the king’s uncle, Edmund of Kent was accused of treason and executed. Kent clearly believed the former king was very much alive, which begs the question if maybe he was.
King Edward couldn’t forgive the execution of his uncle. Besides, in June of 1330 he became a father, and all of him itched to be rid of his regents. And so the tunnel plot came into being, although I seriously doubt anyone called it the tunnel plot.
Main players in this were Ralphie boy, Sir William Montagu, Robert Ufford and a number of other men who all had that in common that they were the young king’s men, not Mortimer’s. At the time, Mortimer had surveillance on all of them, and as he feared something was a foot he subjected some of them to intense questioning, Montagu among them. It was but a matter of time before Mortimer found sufficient evidence to lock them all up – or execute them – which was why Montagu urged that they “bring the dog down before it bites us all”. There was unanimous consent among the plotters. Time was ripe.
The setting for the planned overthrow was Nottingham Castle, known as one of the strongest and most impregnable castles in the kingdom. Well, except for the tunnel, that is.
In October of 1330, Parliament was convened in Nottingham. At the time, the Mortimer-King Edward relationship was strained – it had been ever since Earl Edmund had died back in March. King Edward’s relationship with his mother was not much better – I imagine what we have here is a mother refusing to acknowledge her son is an adult, not so much because she wanted to constantly tweak his childish chubby cheeks but because she rather liked being in control.
Nottingham Castle was a huge complex, but with all the people staying there to attend Parliament, things were a bit cramped, and most of Mortimer’s men were given lodgings in the outer wards. The king and his boon companions were present, but on this particular October evening the king complained of feeling ill. He retired to his rooms alone – well, as alone as a medieval monarch ever was. Mortimer, Queen Isabella, the bishop of Lincoln and a few others repaired to Mortimer’s rooms, situated at a convenient distance from that secret tunnel.
Now, before we go any further, I must clarify that I seriously doubt Mortimer would not have been aware of a secret passage. He was nothing if not a meticulous man. Thing is, the passage had doors both ends, and these were always kept locked. Mortimer could not know that Montagu et al had managed to find a keyholder and oblige this young man to unlock the doors.
Things quieted down. From Mortimer’s chambers came the odd laugh, the sound of voices in deep discussion. From the door behind which was the tunnel came a squeak. One by one, the plotters emerged, swords at the ready. One of Mortimer’s men saw and attempted to raise the alarm, but it was too late. The door to Mortimer’s rooms were kicked open and in swarmed the determined young men. Mortimer’s long-time squire Richard de Monmouth threw himself in front of his lord in a desperate attempt to save him. Richard died. Mortimer made for his sword. Queen Isabella screamed for help. How she screamed! Over and over she screamed, while her lover was overpowered and bound.
Despite Isabella’s screams, no help was forthcoming. Instead, a gagged Mortimer was dragged out of the room. They were never to see each other again. Isabella was carried off to Berkhamstedt Castle. Mortimer was hauled down the secret passage and hoisted onto a horse. Moments later, they were on their way, making for London. The king rode with them, and in Leicester he was all for hanging Mortimer on the spot, but was convinced it was best to have him face a trial by his peers.
On November 26, 1330, a gagged Mortimer was brought into Westminster Hall and accused of a long list of crimes, among which figured murdering the previous king. Hmm. Unable to defend himself, he was found guilty – well, chances are he’d have been found guilty anyway – and hanged. Twenty-four years later, his conviction was overturned – a bit late in the day, one would think.
Queen Isabella made her peace with her son and lived out the rest of her days as the perfect widow. Who she truly grieved for – her husband or her lover – we will never know. My bet is on Roger, the man who for some years encouraged her to soar, fly as high as she wished. Unfortunately, both Roger and his Isabella had forgotten the story of Icarus. Fly too close to the sun, and chances are you will crash and burn.
King Edward went on to become one of the more capable of English kings. Determined to be a better king than his father, he never fell under the sway of a favourite – well, except as an old man when his mistress Alice Perrers called the shots.
And as to Montagu, Stafford, Ufford and all the rest, they went on to become successful magnates. And one of them, as we know, became filthy rich through abducting his (much younger) wife. Details, schmetails, the king felt. His loyal Ralph could do no wrong and besides, maybe the bride wanted to be abducted. Hmm. Double hmm.