In great ambition lies destruction
On the subject of men who carry the seeds of their own destruction within, today I’d like to introduce you to Roger Mortimer. Seems apt, given that it is 686 years today since he was executed. This is a man who epitomises the consequences of too much ambition, too much greed. He was also an extremely capable person, an experienced leader of men and a man with impressive strategical skills. Not that it helped him…
Had I been able to travel back in time (yes, please!) I would actually consider dropping in on Roger and giving him the friendly advice to retire from the public eye gracefully – although that could have been difficult to do, given that he was sleeping with the Queen Isabella, mother to the very young King Edward III. Clearly, bedding with queens carries the risk of untimely and gruesome death (see my post on the Earl of Bothwell) making me conclude that maybe we as a race have more in common with spiders than I am entirely comfortable with.
Roger Mortimer was born in 1287 as the eldest son and heir of Edmind Mortimer. Of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the Mortimers were a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, and Roger was raised to shoulder this responsibility. He seems to have spent much of his childhood with his uncle, another Roger Mortimer (Roger senior is perhaps most (in)famous for having delivered Llewellyn ap Gruffyds head to Edward I) and was by all accounts a well-educated and handsome young man, who had as many friends among the aspiring clergy as he did amongst his peers.
No sooner had Roger survived infancy but his parents began checking out potential brides. After some scouting, they decided on Joan de Geneville, a well-dowered little Irish Heiress (well, French blood figured prominently). The happy couple were wed when Roger was only fourteen, but apparently the lad knew what to do, and a year later Joan gave birth to a son, the first of the thirteen children she was to give her husband. Thirteen! Clearly, the young couple were very affectionate, and Joan quite often accompanied her husband as he went about his massive estates.
In 1306, Roger was knighted by Edward I in a massive ceremony which included Edward, Prince of Wales. More or less of an age, the two young men seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even if Roger had the distinct advantage of being in control of his own purse strings (his father was dead since some years back) while the prince depended on his father. The Edward-Edward relationship was not an easy one; Edward I was a tough old man, and there were times when his son probably felt that no matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough. In retrospect, it is easy to agree with that opinion; Edward II may have been a nice man, unjustly maligned by history, but he was not much of a king.
Anyway; the old king died, the new king took over, Joan had babies as regularly as clockwork, and Roger nurtured his career, serving the king in one capacity after the other. He was handed the rather nasty job of pacifying Ireland – and specifically of routing Edmund Bruce, Robert Bruce’s younger brother who had claimed the title of King of Ireland – and set off across the Irish Sea to do his best. Roger’s first tour in Ireland was not all that successful – the Irish did not take kindly to being pacified, one could say – but when he returned for a second tour as Lieutenant Governor, Roger managed to establish control over the Emerald Isle. Edmund Bruce was killed, Roger organised the administration, filled vacant offices, inspected his own (well, his wife’s) extensive holdings, and while he was at it he founded Trinity College in Dublin.
In 1318, Roger Mortimer returned from Ireland victorious. The king was duly grateful, but also somewhat disturbed; Roger Mortimer was a tad too capable, and Edward II was getting rather sick and tired of competent – and powerful – barons who were telling him how to run his kingdom. At the time of Roger’s return, Edward was at loggerheads with his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, the single most powerful man in England, arguably more powerful than the king himself.
Thomas of Lancaster does not come across as a particularly nice man – nor a wise one. He constantly antagonised his royal cousin, he was more than active in separating the king from his favourites (Lancaster was personally involved in the execution of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s boon companion) and he seems to have been quite convinced the sun shone out of his own backside. Always a man to insist on his prerogatives, he constantly needled the king, causing conflicts about almost everything. At times, Lancaster’s grievances were legitimate, as in the case of the Despensers (father and son – both favourites of the king, both named Hugh) and in 1318 a stale mate had arisen between the king and his not so loyal subject.
It may be worthwhile to take the time here to point out that Roger Mortimer hated Hugh Despenser (both of them). Hugh Despenser (both of them) hated Roger Mortimer. The families’ bad blood went back a couple of generations – it was Roger’s grandfather who had killed Hugh Despenser the younger’s grandfather at Evesham. That Despenser had sided with Simon de Montfort against the king. So when Lancaster demanded that the king be counselled by a group of barons that excluded the Despensers, Roger was all for it. The king was not, but felt forced to agree.
For some years, an uneasy truce existed between the king and his barons. While there was a council of barons to officially counsel the king, he seems to have preferred to take his counsel behind locked doors from Hugh Despenser (both of them, but mostly the younger). The barons seethed. The king was in flagrant breach of his coronation oath, and people muttered about Magna Charta and faithless kings. Roger Mortimer had so far done his best to remain a loyal servant to the king, but when the king repeatedly went against law and custom to give Hugh Despenser (both of them) whatever their little hearts desired, be it another man’s land or not, something snapped in Roger. He knew the Despensers were his mortal enemies, and Mortimer had no intention of sitting around as a sitting duck for the Despensers to shoot at.
In 1321, incensed by yet another case of unlawful behaviour by Despenser that the king chose to ignore (as I said; a bad king), Mortimer allied himself with Lancaster and began a full-scale attack on Despenser land. Mortimer was a military professional with years of experience on the field – specifically on Irish bogs. He and his men squashed whatever resistance they encountered, and by the end of the summer Mortimer had his men encamped around London. His only demand was that the king exile the Despensers – and he wasn’t alone in demanding this, as a number of English barons, including Lancaster, agreed with him. The king wailed. The king gnashed his teeth. The king acquiesced, weeping as he signed the order that effectively exiled the Despensers. He must have wept even more when he signed the pardons for his rebellious barons, seeing as they’d only acted “in the interest of the realm”.
Mortimer now had TWO (Three) powerful enemies; Hugh Despenser (both of them) and the king. Not that our baron seems to have been unduly worried – or maybe he truly believed the Despenser issue had been sorted once and for all. If so, he seriously underestimated the king. Edward showed an impressive amount of ingenuity and drive, going from baron to baron to mutter about Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster. These men, the king whispered, threatened his royal rule – and not only that, but also the power of any minor baron. However, the king went on, should these minor barons ally themselves with the king, well then…
Not only were there a number of minor lords in the king’s camp. He had a number of earls who felt more than bound by their oaths to the king, albeit that they might secretly have agreed with Roger’s objections to Despenser. One such earl was Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. This particular earl was a veteran of political intrigue, as respected by Roger Mortimer as he was by the king. Had Aymer been around to smooth things over a few months earlier, things might never have become quite as polarised. As it was, Aymer had no success in attempting a rapprochement between the king and his stubborn baron.
Things came to a head over an incident at Leeds Castle (which, just to confuse things is in Kent, nowhere close to Leeds). The castle belonged to Lord Badlesmere, and when he wasn’t around it was his lady wife who did the running of things. This lady had the temerity to refuse the queen entry to the castle, and this insult was just the excuse King Edward needed. In a matter of weeks, he had the castle besieged. The garrison surrendered on the promise of their lives, but were summarily hanged anyway. Poor Lady Badlesmere was dragged off to the Tower with her children – one of which was Roger Mortimer’s little daughter-in-law.
Shit, one could say. Mortimer decided to do some pow-wowing with Lancaster and trotted off up to Pontrefact Castle. In the south, the king continued raising an army, and suddenly the tables were turned, with Mortimer having to flee the advancing might of the king. Had Thomas of Lancaster held true to his vow to Mortimer and joined forces with him, chances are the king would have been defeated. As it was, Lancaster chose to sit in the north and sulk, muttering that he had never liked Badlesmere.
Mortimer retired beyond the Severn, but he was a pragmatic man – and a realist – and knew his chances of holding out in the long run were extremely slim. Which was when the Earl of Pembroke approached him and suggested he submit to the king, who, Pembroke said, would be merciful. Pissed off as hell, yes, but merciful.
It is testament to Pembroke’s reputation that Mortimer took him at his word, but what happened next would for ever sully Pembroke’s honour. Mortimer rode to Shrewsbury and submitted to the king, only to be brusquely informed that whatever Pembroke may have promised was no longer valid, and Mortimer should prepare himslef to die – and die gruesomly. In chains, Mortimer was dragged off to the Tower, there to await his final date with the executioner.
That date never happened. Despenser must have begged the king on his bare knees to rid the world of Mortimer, but whatever bursts of initiative had inflamed Edward in 1321 now petered out. Plus, he had an angry country on his hands, given the number of barons he had summarily executed in the aftermath of Mortimer’s rebellion – starting with his own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who was first defeated by the royal forces at the Battle of Boroughbridge, then convicted of treason and summarily beheaded.
Mortimer was therefore allowed to languish in captivity – alive, but deprived. However, hawks like Mortimer don’t like being cooped up, and in August of 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower, having first ensured the guards had been served drugged wine at their annual celebration of St Peter. The king’s Greatest Traitor was free – and hot-footed it to France, while back home his wife and children remained prisoners of the king.
In France, Mortimer was to join forces with Queen Isabella, King Edward’s disgruntled wife (read more here) Actually, they did more than join forces – they sort of joined everything together, indulging in a passionate affair. I imagine Edward choked on his wine at the thought of his wife in the arms of his rebellious baron. He must have choked even more when he realised just what a threat those two were to his throne – in particular as Isabella had her eldest son, the future Edward III, with her.
Well, we all know how that ended, don’t we? Isabella returned to England in 1326, accompanied by Mortimer and her son. Edward and Hugh Despenser fled westwards but were captured. Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth and subsequently forced to abdicate. Hugh was subjected to a mock trial and a gruesome execution. Mortimer, dear peeps, had arrived. Together with Isabella, he controlled the young king and through him, the kingdom. Let’s just say that not everyone cheered at this development.
Mortimer turned his impressive organisational skills to ordering the kingdom, hiring competent officers throughout the realm. Good men, to be sure, these officers were officially the king’s men, but most of them were loyal to Mortimer first, the king second. As it should be, Mortimer probably felt. Not so much, the young Edward III thought. For now, the young king was not in a position to strike back, and initially he seems to have respected and even liked Mortimer. But as the years passed, Edward began choimping at the bit, increasingly concerned when it seemed neither of his regents (his Mama was as involved as Mortimer in running things on his behalf) had any intention of stepping down.
Late in 1328, various of the barons rebelled, led by Henry of Lancaster (brother to the dead Thomas) Lancaster demanded that he be regent, seeing as he was closer kin to the king and also a much more important baron than the upstart Mortimer. This did not go down well with Mortimer – or Isabella. And as to being a more important baron, well that was easily solved: in October 1328, Mortimer became the 1st Earl of March. Lancaster likely choked. So, more importantly, did Edward III, who felt strongarmed into giving Mortimer the title.
Anyway: in early 1329 the rebels were crushed, and Mortimer and Isabella were magnanimous in defeat, exacting fines rather than lives. Things, it seemed, had settled down, except that the kingdom was constantly plagued by rumors that the old king was alive, rumours that could potentially escalate into rebellion as men flocked to the standards of Edward II, preferring him to being ruled by an upstart marcher lord and an adulterous queen.
Officially, Edward II died already back in September of 1327. He was interred in Gloucester in December of that same year, but there are a lot of oddities re this death – like the fact that no one actually saw the dead king prior to him already having been covered by cerecloths (part of the conservation process). Also, there were murmurs as to whether the king had died or been murdered, with fingers pointing not so discreetly at Mortimer. In truth, a very infected situation, even more so when more and more people started circulating teh theory that the king was alive but imprisoned.
So, was Edward II dead? Well, I am of the opinion that he probably wasn’t – several historians agree with me, but just as many are convinced Edward II did die in 1327. Even if he was dead, I have problems believeing Isabella and Mortimer would have ordered his death – an anointed king was an anointed king, however much deposed he was. But what I believe is neither here nor ther – if nothing else because the barons back in the 14th century wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about what I might think. After all, they were living these turbulent times, not reading about them with a nice cuppa close at hand.
One of the barons who genuinely seems to have believed Edward II was still alive was the drop-dead gorgeous Edmund, Earl of Kent, much younger half-brother of Edward II. Edmund even went as far as to consider how to break Edward out of captivity, and some of his missives ended up in Mortimer’s hand. What followed is one of the blacker stains on Mortimer, because at parliament in Winchester in march 130, he effectively manipulated teh procedings in such a way that he gave the young king no option but to condemn his uncle to death.
Edmund was terrified. He pleaded and begged for his life, but there was nothing to do – Edward had his hands tied and couldn’t pardon him without showing weakness. And so Kent was hauled out to die in his shirt on a cold March day. Except that the executioner had fled, not wanting any part in this. Hours of waiting ensued, the condemned man shivering in his shirt unrtil someone was found willing to cut his head off. Not pretty. At all. Edwrad would never forgive Mortimer for this – an intelligent young man, he realised just how elegantly Mortimer had played his cards to assure himself of this grisly outcome.
From that moment on, the clock was ticking for Mortimer. And, as described in this post, in October of 1330, the young king and his companions acted, entering the castle of Nottingham through a secret passage to take Mortimer captive and haul him off to London where he was to stand trial on a number of charges – including murdering the former king. (Elegantly played by Edward III. By accusing Mortimer of this crime, he effectively killed off any speculation that his father might still be alive. Clearly, Edward had learnt a thing or two from his regents)
Mortimer was not accorded a fair trial. Bound and gagged, he was not given the opportunity to speak in his defence. Just like at Hugh Despenser’s trial, four years before, the outcome was given. Mortimer was condemned to die, but was spared the horrors of being hanged, drawn and quartered, He was “just” to be drawn and hanged.
On the cold morning of November 29, 1330, he was led out to the waiting horses, dressed in the black velvet tunic he’d worn to Edward II’s funeral. He was tied to the horses, dragged through the streets of London all the way to Tyburn. By then his tunic was in tatters, and what remained was torn of him, so that he stood naked while the noose was tightened round his neck. Some final words, a prayer, and up he went, life being strangled out of him as the noose tightened. And so, dear peeps, died Roger Mortimer, a man so driven by ambition he did not realise just how close he was flying to the sun until it was too late.
Personally, I have a fondness for Mortimer, which is probably why I’ve built my entire 14th century series round his rise and fall. It is also why I’ll be raising a glass in honour of his memory today. A man larger than life deserves as much, methinks.