Rubbing the wrong face in the dirt – of Mortimer, King Arthur and tournaments
In the summer of 1329, Roger Mortimer invited more or less every nobleman in England to Wigmore, the hereditary home of the Mortimers. He was planning a major tournament, several days of fun and fighting followed by feasting. A veritable city of tents were pitched outside the walls of the castle as knights from all over came to take part in the festivities, and I imagine Roger Mortimer expended a minor fortune in ensuring his castle looked its best. Roger was fond of renovating his various castles. Some years earlier, he’d added a whole wing of additional guestrooms to his castle in Ludlow with, believe it or not, medieval en-suites. Hygiene was important in the Middle Ages—at least to those that could afford it.
Back to Wigmore. Today, little remains of what must once have been an impressive castle, standing so proud on a spur of rock. Back in the 1329 it sported new buildings, high walls, an impressive gatehouse and a huge outer bailey. Roger Mortimer was fond of pretty things, of luxuries. This is a man who owned sheets of silk, who surrounded himself with expensive books, silverware and jewels. Not for our Roger the run of the mill tunic, oh no, this man dressed with care and in expensive materials. In 1329 he could afford it, being one of the richer men in England. Being one of the young king’s regents came with its perks… How do we know what he wore, how he slept and ate? Well, Roger Mortimer had the misfortune of being attainted twice: the first time in early 1322, the second late in 1330. On both those occasions, a detailed inventory of what he owned was taken.
However, in the late summer of 1329, Mortimer’s star was firmly lodged very high in the sky. Did he have enemies? Oh, yes. His fellow barons were not exactly enthused at being lorded over by the newly created Earl of March. But Mortimer was a capable ruler, something of an administrative genius, so he had a pretty firm grip on the kingdom. To speak out against Mortimer or Isabella was to risk the regents’ displeasure. That could become quite costly and rather detrimental to your health.
Before we go any further I feel it is important to underline that I admire Roger Mortimer. Through a daring escape from the Tower in 1323 he escaped Edward II’s custody and fled to France where he regrouped, joined forces with Edward’s disgruntled wife Isabella and returned to England in 1326, there to oust the king and, even more importantly for Roger, the royal favourite(s) Hugh Despenser (there were two of them, father and son). Mortimer restored order in England and had he been wise enough to ride off into the sunset in early 1329 or so, maybe he would never have ended his life dangling from a gallows. For some reason this vibrant intelligent man didn’t see the writing on the wall: Edward III was growing up fast and was surrounded by young men who were as determined as the young king was to ensure the power in the realm was wielded by the king, not his regents. Alternatively, maybe he did, but saw no option but to cling all that harder to his power.
However, in August of 1329 the events of 1330 were still very much in the future. Mortimer felt confident enough to host this magnificent tournament sparing little expense in his efforts to dazzle the assembled nobility. Officially, the tournament was held in celebration of the recent marriages of two of his daughters, but the little brides were overshadowed by their glamourous father. By his side, as always, was fair Isabella. Mortimer’s wife, Joan de Geneville, chose not to attend. Not exactly a surprise, as I imagine she must have felt quite humiliated by the tendresse between her husband and the dowager queen. (And yes, I am of the firm opinion they were lovers. If Edward II’s great love was Piers Gaveston, then Mortimer’s love was Isabella, a woman as ambitious, as intelligent and as determined as he was)
Mortimer was trying to recreate a famous event hosted by his grandfather, also called Roger Mortimer. This Roger is famous for having supported Edward I (or Prince Edward as he was at the time) against Simon de Montfort. He was responsible for killing Montfort at Evesham and sent his wife Montfort’s head as a little gift. Loyal and capable, Mortimer Sr was one of Edward I’s most trusted men, instrumental in Edward’s conquest of Wales. In 1279, Roger the elder hosted a magnificent Round Table tournament at Kenilworth Castle. The event was a huge success, with both King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attending.
It is significant that, just as in 1279, Mortimer themed his tournament on the Round Table. The Mortimers had Welsh blood—royal Welsh blood. Our Roger’s great-grandmother was a lady called Gwladys Ddu, daughter of Llewellyn the Great and (probably) King John’s illegitimate daughter Joanna. The House of Gwynedd claimed descent from Arthur himself, so through Gwladys the Mortimers could trace their ancestry back to the most famous of chivalric kings. Hence, the Round Table.
Not only could the Mortimers swell with pride because of great-great-to-the-nth degree-granddaddy Arthur, there was also that very old prophecy stating that one day the Welsh Dragon would rise from its hiding place and rule all England. (This prophecy has been trotted out at regular intervals: Edward IV, Roger Mortimer’s distant descendant, could claim to be the dragon. So could Henry Tudor, some years later)
Now in 1329, England had a young and somewhat insecure king. Edward III was growing into his powers as a man, was already a skilled jouster and as brave as a lion, but he was very aware of the fact that he was relatively defenceless against his regents—for now. Maybe Mortimer and Isabella felt it might be a good idea to remind their young charge who called the shots. Or maybe they were so swept up into the events they were directing that they didn’t stop to think. Whatever the case, when the tournament opened, more than one person gaped when Mortimer appeared, bedecked as King Arthur, with Isabella as his Guinevere.
This did not go down well. Not with Edward III, not with most of his barons. Was Mortimer suggesting he should claim the crown himself? Did he believe he was the Welsh dragon? Probably not. But Mortimer had become complaisant and either did not understand or care how insulting his behaviour was to the king. Even worse, he no longer showed Edward the deference due to a king. Instead of walking behind him, he walked beside him. If he wanted to say something, he interrupted. Edward was rigid with rage—and fear, one supposes. There and then, I suspect Edward understood Mortimer would have to go. Soon. But Mortimer did not notice and no one had the guts to tell him he was overstepping. Not until his son, Geoffrey, took it upon himself to berate his father for his folly.
In the below, someone else than Geoffrey decides it is time to talk to Mortimer. I give you Adam de Guirande, my fictional hero in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy:
Adam waited until after compline, shrugging off Kit’s objections that this was something he should not meddle in. Adam climbed the steep path towards the inner bailey and Lord Roger’s rooms—old rooms, but as elegant—if not more—than the new solar. The guards recognised him and let him in, one of them saying Lord Roger already had a visitor, his son.
“You’re goading him!” Geoffrey’s voice carried through the half-open door.
“I am merely acting the part of King Arthur. And it does him good to grovel a bit.”
“Grovel?” Geoffrey sounded astounded. “He’s your king, Father. The king. And this…” He kicked at something, sending it rattling across the floor. “Those are the trappings of the King of Folly.”
Adam did not have time to step aside. Geoffrey barged into him, sending them both crashing into the opposite wall.
“Adam.” Geoffrey wiped his mouth. “Here to talk some sense into him? Good luck.” He took off, and in the door stood Lord Roger, eyebrows raised.
“More visitors? Come in, by all means.”
Adam entered a room ablaze with candlelight. In a corner lay the helmet Geoffrey had kicked; on the table were an assortment of rolls and quills, Mortimer’s seal lying thrown to the side.
“What can I do for you, Adam?” Lord Roger crossed his arms. “Well?” he demanded when Adam remained silent, taking in the opulence of the room. New tapestries depicting various hunting scenes flanked an impressive hearth, a huge silverware plate held pride of place on one of the tables, with a collection of silver goblets standing to the side. The large bed was covered in a counterpane embroidered with flowers and butterflies, the sheets of shimmering silk. Everywhere, the trappings of a rich man—a very rich man.
Adam cleared his throat. “You’re becoming just like him.”
Lord Roger stilled. “Despenser?” He flexed his hands a couple of times, casually picked up his dagger, and locked eyes with Adam.
“Aye.” Adam stood his ground.
“Ah. So you have appointed yourself my conscience, have you?” Lord Roger was suddenly close enough that Adam could feel his exhalations. “Have you?” he demanded, his voice rising. “With what right, eh? How dare you compare me to Despenser?” The shove sent Adam crashing against the wall. “Despenser was a sodomite, a miscreant, accursed from the day he exited his mother’s womb. A man without honour. Are you saying I have no honour?”
Adam straightened up, wiping spittle from his cheek. “You amass wealth on a daily basis, as greedy as he was—for riches and power.”
“I am not like him!” Mortimer’s face had gone the colour of ash. “Everything I do, I do for the king.”
Adam laughed. “Don’t lie—at least not to yourself. What is this spectacle of a tournament but you shouting to the world that the true power in England lies with you, not our rightful king? Soon enough, you’ll stoop to killing those who stand in your way—and where’s the honour in being a murderer?”
He could have heard a mouse fart in the ensuing silence. Lord Roger set a hand to the wall as if to support himself, all of him sagging. “You have no idea,” he finally said, turning his back on Adam. His voice shook. “No idea at all.”
“My lord,” Adam took a step towards him, wanting somehow to lift the burden that had Lord Roger stooping, arms braced against the wall.
“Go.” Mortimer kept his back to him. “And be grateful you’re no longer in my service, or I’d have you flogged.”
“For what, my lord? For telling the truth?”
Mortimer whirled and pushed Adam so hard he went staggering backwards. He slammed into the table, overturning the goblets.
“Get out!” Mortimer yelled. “And don’t forget it was I who lifted you out of obscurity. Beware that I don’t throw you back into the cesspit whence you came.”
“The lord I loved, the man I would gladly have died for, would never have lowered himself to making such threats.” Adam bowed slightly. “And I only came because I care.” He banged the door closed as he left.
Phew…quite some emotion there, right? And if you want to read more about my take on the events of 1329 I suggest you read The Cold Light of Dawn.