ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the tag “rebellion”

The suffering of a loyal wife

medieval loveOn a September day in 1301, the fifteen-year-old Joan de Geneville wed Roger Mortimer, the future Baron Mortimer. He was one year younger, but this was apparently no hindrance as already one year later Joan was delivered of a child.

Joan brought a lot to her husband. The eldest of three daughters born to Piers de Geneville and his wife, Jeanne Lusignan, Joan born in 1286, the principal heiress to her grandfather’s substantial holdings in Wales and Ireland. Born at Ludlow Castle, her father’s residential seat, she inherited this upon the death of her father in 1292. Her attractiveness as an heiress was tripled when her family decided to concentrate all their wealth on her while dispatching her two younger sisters to convents. What the younger sisters may have thought of all this is unknown, but as a consequence Joan became quite the prize on the marital market, and I imagine Edmund Mortimer, Roger’s dear papa, was more than delighted when he reeled in this particular bridal catch for his son and heir.

Neither Roger nor Joan would have expected to have much say in who they wed. They were both born into noble houses and knew their duty was to wed as it benefited their families. A marriage was a partnership, entered into with the express intention of producing heirs and furthering the combined family interests. If said partnership developed into genuine affection and love, that was a nice little extra.

Joan and Roger seem to have been among the lucky couples who liked each other (although I imagine a fifteen-year-old girl may well have found her younger husband unbearably childish at times). Over the coming eighteen years, Joan would be brought to bed of at twelve children that we know of, suggesting she spent little time separated from her husband, no matter where he went.

After a couple of carefree years just after their marriage, things changed when Roger’s father died in 1304, thereby making him the new Baron Mortimer. He was considered too young to manage his own affairs, and initially he was made a ward of Piers Gaveston, soon to become far more famous as Edward II’s favourite than as Mortimer’s guardian. Edward I was still very much alive and kicking when all this transpired, and it was the old king himself who arranged the lavish affair at Westminster in 1306 when the future Edward II was knighted together with hundreds of other youngsters, including our Roger.

EHFA E IIIn 1307, Edward I died. His son was a very different kind of man. Where Edward I had experienced first-hand just how important it was for a king to be king and not let himself be swayed by favourites as Henry III was prone to, Edward II very quickly became dependent on his favourites. Initially, this did not affect the new king’s relationship with young Mortimer. In fact, Roger proved himself a capable and loyal servant of the king and was sent off to handle a number of sticky situations, mostly with Joan at his side.

But then the king began developing an affection for Hugh Despenser. This Roger did not like. At all. The Despensers and the Mortimers did not get along (putting it mildly) This probably had something to do with Roger’s grandfather killing Hugh’s granddaddy at Evesham and chopping off his head. I suppose such actions are hard to forgive.

Now, the problem with Hugh (according to the Mortimers) was not the man himself. It was the fact that he was married to Eleanor de Clare, niece to the king and one of the three de Clare heiresses, all of whom had substantial landholdings in the Mortimer stomping ground, the Welsh Marches. Hugh being Hugh, he (well, Eleanor really) came away with the lion’s share of the de Clare inheritance thereby making him quite the powerful lord in Mortimer’s ‘hood. Not good. In this, Roger and Joan were in agreement.

I am not sure as to how much in agreement they were when Roger, provoked by just how often the king turned a blind eye to Hugh’s less savoury deeds, went wild and crazy and attacked Hugh’s lands. I suspect Joan was with him all the way, even if she must have felt a niggle at unease: to go after Hugh was to go after the king, and even if most of the Marcher lords didn’t rate Edward II all that highly – they were rough and ready men who needed a firm hand on the bridle—he was still their anointed king. One did not rebel against the king.

Roger carried the day in that first encounter. A cornered king was obliged to pardon Mortimer and his companions for their rebellious actions and exile his beloved Hugh. That should be Hugh in plural, as the king was very fond of Hugh senior as well, as rapacious and greedy as his son. Well, according to Mortimer.

Some months later, Edward II turned the tables on the rebels. Intelligent and brave, the king had it in him to act decisively when so prodded. (It is a bit unfortunate he didn’t combine these attributes with consistency and impartiality. If so, none of what happened would have happened) Being deprived of Hugh was a major, major prod which is why the king mustered an army and went after Roger Mortimer who was forced to submit to the king in January of 1322.

He was stripped of his titles, his lands and carried off in chains to the Tower. Joan must have believed she’d never see her dear lord again, and somehow she was left with the responsibility of trying to salvage what could be salvaged from the resulting mess. Very little, as it turned out. The king showed his more vindictive side and had Joan and her children locked up. Unfortunately, not together. The Mortimer sons in England were taken to Windsor, the unwed Mortimer daughters were sent to various convents, with very little set aside for their board. Not exactly happy years for these little girls. Joan herself (with her youngest child) was kept under constrained circumstances.

In 1323, Mortimer escaped the Tower. Things became very bad for Joan who was taken to Skipton Castle and kept under very harsh conditions. Things didn’t get better when rumours reached England (and Joan) of Mortimer taking up with the king’s disgruntled queen, Isabella. (More about her and her “disgruntledness” here. This is, after all, a post about Joan and Isabella had a tendency to outshine most of her female contemporaries)

mortimerIn 1326, Mortimer returned to England, side by side with his queen. And yes, I am one of those who believe Mortimer and Isabella not only shared a lust for power but also a bed, which must have been very difficult for loyal Joan. Especially since she’d spent close to five years in captivity because of her husband. So I’m thinking she was anything but warm and cuddly when she finally met her husband again:

An ancient building, this hall still had a central hearth, the smoke spiralling upwards to the hole in the roof. The stone flags were bare of any rush mats, and even through the thick soles of Adam’s boots, the cold seeped through. The walls were adorned with heavy tapestries, there was a table and some chairs, and after having arranged for wine, Lady Joan retired to stand by the table, fingers tugging at the skirts of the cream kirtle that did little for her complexion.
Adam bowed deeply, grateful for this opportunity to compose his features. The lady before him bore little resemblance to the lady he conserved in his memories, her previously so womanly figure reduced to that of a stick-like waif, her narrow wrists protruding from the embroidered cuffs of her heavy sleeves.
She was wearing a silk veil, but a heavy braid of grey hair hung in plain sight, and from the way Lord Roger winced, Adam suspected Lady Joan was taking the opportunity to show him what these last few years had cost her. While he had been safe and sound in France, his loyal lady wife had suffered years of deprivation, and her suffering must have been compounded by the rumours concerning her husband and the queen.
“My lady.” Lord Roger approached her with his hands extended, as if to take hold of hers.
Lady Joan backed away. “My lord husband,” she said stiffly, emphasising the last word. “Long have I awaited your visit.”
Lord Roger looked away. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner, but I—”
She waved him quiet. “So now what?” she asked.
“I…” Lord Roger wet his lips. “I brought you a gift.” He gestured, and Adam presented Lady Joan with the carefully wrapped bundle.
“A gift?” Lady Joan undid the cloth, revealing three books. Beautiful books, even Adam could see that; one of them reminiscent of Queen Jeanne’s book of hours. For what seemed like an eternity, Lady Joan just stood there, studying the books.
“Thank you,” she finally said. “And now what?” she repeated. “Will we return to Wigmore together, husband?” Yet again, she emphasised the last word. Yet again, Lord Roger looked away.
“Ah.” Lady Joan nodded, and her hand closed on the uppermost book. “For close to five years, I have been held captive. Five years in which my life has shrunk to four walls and a constant fear – for you, for our children. Five years spent mostly on my knees, praying for your safe return, for the sanity of our daughters, locked away among the nuns, for the lives of our sons, held prisoners by the king. I have prayed and prayed, and what have you done? What?” The book flew through the air, hitting Lord Roger full in the face. “You, husband, have shamed me! Before the entire court in France, before our sniggering countrymen, you have paraded that whore of a queen as your mistress, while I – I, your loyal wife, mother to your children – have suffered on your behalf. And this…” She picked up the next book and hurled it at him. “This is how you see fit to repay me? By buying me books?”

Right: let’s leave her there, shall we?

Eduard3Edward II was deposed, his young son crowned in his stead with Mortimer and Isabella as his regents. Over the coming years, Mortimer would spend most of his time at court, with Isabella. Did he communicate with his wife? He must have, as they had all those children in common and a huge joint estate to manage. Did he and Joan resume marital relations, find their way back to the intimacy pre 1321? I have my doubts. Joan de Geneville does not strike me as a woman who would have been content with the crumbs from the royal table, so if Roger Mortimer was sleeping with the queen he was probably not sleeping with his wife. Did Joan miss him? Did she regret the loss of what they once had? I believe she must have – after all, once upon a time they went everywhere together, and now she was the third wheel in an intense and devouring relationship, her husband more interested in the wielding of power together with Isabella than in her. Very sad, IMO. Not nice, Roger.

Mortimer Munro-Essay-1200

Mortimer being taken down

In 1330, Edward III ousted Mortimer and dear mama from power. Isabella was “allowed” to retire and think things over, Mortimer was tried, convicted of treason and executed. In a repeat of 1322, all Mortimer’s lands were attainted—including Joan’s dower lands. Once again, Joan was tainted with the brush of treason and for a while she ended up in captivity. Again. Most unfair and unchivalrous of a young king who otherwise prided himself on being a good and valiant knight.

Already in 1331, some parts of Mortimer lands were returned to Edmund, Joan’s and Roger’s eldest son. In 1336, Joan received full restitution of her lands and could go back to managing her affairs – and those of her children that required managing. By then, her eldest son was long dead and the hopes of the Mortimers rested on the very young shoulders of Roger Mortimer, her husband’s namesake and their grandson. Not that Joan had much say in how the young Roger was brought up, but this little Mortimer was fortunate in his stepfather and would go on to make quite his mark on the world.

I hope Joan found some peace and contentment during the last few decades of her life. She had family to visit, grandchildren to take pride in, she had wealth and comfort. But now and then I suspect she thought of her Roger, of the very young lad she married and loved before she lost him to other ambitions, other goals.

Joan died in 1356 and was buried at Wigmore Abbey. This is where I would have liked to end this post by stating that as Joan had petitioned the king to have Roger’s remains returned to her to be reinterred at Wigmore abbey, she was laid to rest side by side with her husband – loyal to the end, one could say. Unfortunately, there is little to prove she succeeded in her petition, and so Joan de Geneville was buried to lie alone, far from the man who’d so shaped her life.  I’m thinking that by then she no longer cared.

9789198324518P.S. The excerpt above is from Days of Sun and Glory, the second in my series about Roger, Isabella and the people dragged along in their wake.

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…

mortimer

Roger and his lady queen

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.

edward_i__ii_prince_of_wales_1301In 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.

mortimer-c5b24c86e4c809e755d803f8adbe1aebIn 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.

mortimer-isabella2In 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.

eduard3Mortimer 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.

mortimer-munro-essay-1200

Mortimer being seized

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.

icarus-the-sun-or-the-fall-of-icarus-1819-by-merry-joseph-blondel

The fall of Icarus – Blondell

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.

Never a pawn, ever a queen

Millais 1280px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Isabella

Millais – “Isabella” (question is, which Isabella)

Okay, I can’t resist her any longer. She’s played bit-parts in some recent posts, but today’s protagonist is of the firm conviction she deserves her moment in the limelight – by birth, if nothing else, seeing as the lady in question is rather fond of her bloodlines. So, having been browbeaten into submission, I give you Isabella of France.

Some call her a she-wolf. Towards the end of his reign, her husband probably called her a treacherous, adulterous whore. And as to Isabella, she’d restrict herself to a Gallic shrug and say “I did what I had to do. For my son.” Hmm. Not only for her son…

We shall breeze through Isabella’s early years – no matter that she pouts in protest.
“But my Papa, mes frères?” she demands when it seems I intend to skip her precious Capet family. Sorry, honey: this is not about them, remember? It is about you.(And if you want to read up about her beloved frères, why not stop by here?)
“Ah, oui,” she agrees, shining up like a beacon. So, in summary, Isabella was considered the most beautiful of women, and yes she was splendidly attired when she married Edward II in 1308 at the tender age of twelve, and yes, she was upstaged by Piers Gaveston, Edward’s current male favourite.
“Upstaged?” Isabella sniffs. “Mais non. Piers was fond of me.” As was the king, to some extent. But the king loved Piers, this upstart baron who had the rest of the English nobles gnashing their teeth.

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Edward II

Very briefly, Piers Gaveston was the second son of a Gascon minor lord. Piers entered Edward’s life when Edward was a young man not yet twenty, and an immediate – and some say unwholesome – affection sprang up between the two men. When Edward became king, he showered Piers with honours and offices, thereby alienating the other barons.
As this post is not about Piers, we will leave him to his fate for now but can conclude that ultimately the royal favourite was executed in June of 1312 – murdered, some would say – at the behest of the the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster.

Edward without Piers was an unhappy man. It was some consolation when Isabella presented him with a son and heir in November of 1312 and the next few years seem to have been good years for Isabella and Edward – she grew into her role as royal consort, and whether or not theirs was a passionate affair, there were more children. Things trundled along, the king never entirely happy with his barons, the barons never entirely taken with their king.

Enter Hugh Despenser, and the relative stability of the realm was a thing of the past. The barons cast but one look at Hugh Despenser – and his father – and shuddered. The Despensers were greedy for wealth, for land, for power, and once Hugh the younger had established himself as the king’s beloved favourite, all he had to do was snap his fingers to have his wishes come true.

At this time – around 1318 – Isabella was no longer a child. She was a mother, a queen, and was seriously disinclined to be shoved into the background by a new male favourite.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” William Congreve wrote some four centuries after these events, but yes, Isabella felt scorned – and she blamed Hugh Despenser. The barons wholeheartedly agreed, and when the king turned a blind eye to Despenser’s unlawful execution of one of Roger Mortimer’s Welsh clients, a Llewellyn Bren, things came to a head.

EHFA Wheel of fortune

That fickle wheel of fortune…

In 1321, the barons, led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, rebelled. The king was forced to exile his beloved Despenser – both of them. Enraged by this humiliation, the king plotted revenge. Some months later, he had managed to turn the tables on the barons. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, de Bohun and Lancaster ended up dead.

The Despensers were reinstated. The king was overjoyed. Isabella was not. Mortimer managed to escape to France, promising to return and claim what was his. Edward and Hugh shivered in dread at this threat, and England became a dark place where it sufficed with a whispered accusation of being a Mortimer supporter for a man to lose his liberty, if not his life. Isabella became increasingly isolated, living on the fringes of a court dominated by the royal chamberlain, Hugh Despenser.

It is doubtful whether Isabella and Mortimer were in cahoots already at this point in time. In my books, I have taken the liberty of suggesting they were – it makes for a better story – but nothing indicates Isabella had ever been anything but a dutiful wife. It is therefore quite incomprehensible why Edward, on Despenser’s advice, chose to deprive Isabella of her dower lands and the related income. In one move, he had angered and humiliated his wife.

Things took a turn for the worse when the brewing conflict between England and France over Gascony exploded into outright war. It was to a large extent Hugh Despenser’s advocated policies that led to the Gascony situation. It was assuredly because of the Gascony situation that Edward II exiled Isabella’s French retainers, many of whom had been with her since 1308. In doing so, he definitely pushed Isabella into the enemy camp.

There was nothing Isabella could do but bear it. No matter that she was a queen, she had little real power, and even less so when deprived of her income. But she did have her brains – and her looks – and somehow she lulled her husband into believing she had forgiven him – or at least accepted her reduced situation.

In 1325, England decided to treat for peace with France. Edward chose Isabella as his negotiator – as sister to the French king, she was an excellent choice. She was sent over to France with a household handpicked by the king and Despenser and negotiated a peace treaty which called for the English king to do homage for his Gascony lands. “I did my job,” she whispers in my head (yes, she spends a lot of time in my head). “But I vowed never to return to Edward – not unless Despenser was banished.”

Fat chance. Edward was utterly dependent on his beloved Hugh, which was why he listened when Hugh begged him not to go to France but send his eldest son instead. Hugh feared for his life should he be left behind in England. A correct assumption, I believe.

edward 220px-Isabela_Karel_Eda

Isabella, future Edward III and Charles of France

In sending his son, Edward effectively handed Isabella the sword upon which he would eventually fall. The heir to the English throne arrived in France invested with the Duchy of Aquitaine, which in itself generated an important revenue stream. More importantly, the prince’s hand in marriage could be bartered for men and ships. And finally, with the young prince at her side, Isabella could paint a potential invasion as a legitimate venture, intended to release the English from the heavy yoke of the Despensers.

By late 1325 it was evident Isabella had no intention of returning to her husband’s side – or of sending her son home. Instead, she was spending more and more time with Roger Mortimer and rumours began to fly. A match made in heaven, those two: ambitious, intelligent and ruthless when so required. Personally, I am convinced theirs was a relationship built on hot, searing passion – and I’m thinking Mortimer didn’t mind rubbing Edward’s nose in the fact that he was sleeping with the queen.

Some people seem to think Isabella was some sort of pawn. To me, it is apparent Isabella and Mortimer were equal partners – she needed his military expertise, he needed her and the prince to legitimise his actions. Besides, there was that constant, simmering attraction, that which had Mortimer heatedly declaring that he would rather kill her than allow her to return to the king. After all those years with a man who did not set her first, I believe it was a novel and exhilarating experience for Isabella to find herself swept off her feet by the charismatic Mortimer.

By betrothing her son to Philippa of Hainaut, Isabella acquired the ships and men required to invade England. In September of 1326 she landed in Suffolk, declaring that she – and her army – were here on behalf of her son, thereby making Prince Edward complicit in the rebellion that would ultimately cost Edward II his throne. I don’t think the young prince was all that happy about this – in fact, at fourteen he must have been terribly conflicted.

Instead of leading his army to meet the relatively small rebel force, Edward II fled west with Hugh Despenser. Isabella and Mortimer went after, and wherever they went, they were welcomed with open arms, the aggrieved people hoping this would spell the end of the Despenser terror. They rode together, Isabella and Mortimer. Side by side, they led their army in pursuit of the fleeing king.

EHFA 1024px-Bristol1326

Isabella before the walls of Bristol

In October, the queen and her lover arrived in Bristol. The older Hugh Despenser was behind the walls, but after a week he gave up – and was summarily tried and executed. In November of 1326, the king was captured. With him was Hugh Despenser Jr. Edward II was carried off to Kenilworth, Despenser ended up on a gallows in Hereford, dying excruciatingly while Isabella and Mortimer wined and dined in front of him.

Some months later, the king had been forced to abdicate – he’d be declared dead in September of 1327 – Edward III had been crowned, and Isabella and Mortimer confirmed as his regents. Isabella had also ensured she’d been more than compensated for her lost dower lands: her son, the new king, had been “encouraged” to grant her an annual income of 20 000 marks, equal to approximately a third of the total royal income. The lady was, putting it mildly, greedy. Note also that no equivalent grant – or anything even close to it – was made to Mortimer.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella – in armour – with Mortimer and her army

Over the coming years, Isabella and Mortimer did everything together. They travelled together, planned together, ruled together, disappeared for months at a time together. Peace and order was restored to the kingdom, capable administrators appointed throughout the realm. Except, of course, that some barons remained unhappy, chief among them Henry of Lancaster, younger brother to Thomas of Lancaster. Henry felt he deserved the role as regent. Isabella and Mortimer obviously did not agree. In late 1328, Henry rebelled, and quite a few flocked to his banner, disenchanted with the regents’ – and especially Mortimer’s – growing power.

The uprising was put down – ever the kick-ass lady, Isabella donned armour and rode side by side with Mortimer through the night to surprise Henry at his camp at Bedford. Lancaster had no choice but to submit. Mortimer and Isabella showed leniency, fining the participants rather than executing them for treason. It seemed the kingdom had finally found peace.

Except, of course, that the young king had no intention of remaining forever under the control of his mother and her lover. In this matter, Isabella showed a remarkable lack of perceptiveness. She should have recognised her own ambition in her son, seen how the boy grew into a young man – a man determined to be the perfect king, and perfect kings are rarely managed by their mothers.

When Mortimer tricked the king’s uncle, Edmund of Kent, into treachery – which led to Kent’s execution for treason – something snapped in the young King Edward. Partly, I suspect he feared that Mortimer – and loving Mama – had no intention of ever relinquishing their power. Partly, he was enraged at having been played as a pawn in the matter of Edmund. And so, our young king retired to his chambers and began to plot.

As described in a previous post, Isabella and Mortimer were ousted from power in Nottingham – quite the cloak-and-dagger stuff, involving a determined band of conspirators and a secret tunnel. Mortimer was dragged off to face trial and subsequent execution, Isabella was taken to Berkhamstead Castle, there to contemplate her manifold sins – or rather wise up to the fact that her son expected her to return all the lands and incomes she’d appropriated over the last few years. Not being stupid, she did just that – and in return she was granted lands and income equivalent to her dower, which left her more than comfortably off.

At the time of Mortimer’s execution, Isabella was thirty-five. In some aspects, her life was over, but soon enough she was a well-received guest at her son’s court. There must have been dark and dreary days when she missed her lover and the thrilling sense of power, but ultimately Isabella was a pragmatist. She’d had her days in the sun, and such halcyon days came at a price. When she died, in 1358, she chose to be buried in her wedding finery and with Edward IIs purported heart. A repudiation of Mortimer? Not necessarily – but Isabella was a Capet, the daughter of a king, the wife of a king, the mother of a king. Of course she wanted to be buried as a widowed queen!

To close this post without touching upon the fate of Edward II would be like baking a chocolate cake without chocolate. As we all know, Edward supposedly died in September of 1327 – some say murdered by Mortimer (and Isabella). I find it doubtful that Isabella would ever have countenanced murdering her deposed husband – or that Mortimer would have lowered himself to do so. In fact, I am not entirely convinced Edward II did die in 1327 – I am rather fond of the recent theories that indicate he lived abroad for a number of years. If so, maybe Isabella was one of those behind the scheme to smuggle her husband out of England and give him his freedom in return for his oath never to return. Maybe. Or maybe that’s me being romantic again. One of my major faults, they tell me…

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: