On 1st August 1323, Roger Mortimer did something that only a few others have also achieved – he escaped from the Tower of London. With a bit of help from the Tower’s deputy constable, Gerald d’Alspaye who had rather usefully drugged the garrison, Roger, Alspaye and his cell companion Richard de Monmouth, scaled the walls, dropped onto the Tower’s wharf and from there found themselves passed along a chain of helpers until they reached France. Needless to say, Edward and Hugh Despenser were more than livid, but at that point probably had no idea just how dangerous Roger was to become.
Once in France Roger was welcomed by the French king, Charles IV (Edward’s brother-in-law), who was already on the verge of war with England over Gascony. Roger had plenty of reason to stay in France – his son, Geoffrey, had lands there – inherited from his grandmother, and Mortimer’s cousin and uncle – Robert and John de Fiennes, had estates in Picardy. But it seems that Roger was not content to stay in comfortable exile in one place, no matter how welcome he was made. He was next reported staying with the count of Boulogne. Certainly, during the next year it seems that Roger travelled about a fair bit – whether to earn a living from his sword or else to try and get some support for an attempt to invade England is not really known. Edward and Hugh, however, by this time were clearly fearing that their enemy was preparing an invasion force with rumours flying that ships were about to set sail from any number of European ports.
By the end of 1323, England eventually found itself at war with France over a skirmish at the town of St Sardos in Gascony. French natives living or trading in England were cast out and Isabella herself was subject to strictures – mainly the confiscation of her lands, a reduction in her living expenses, and the removal from her influence of her children (although many already had their own households, so that oft-repeated accusation that her children were forcibly removed from her does not, under scrutiny, hold water).
Mortimer and Isabella
In March 1325, after much debate, Isabella was sent to France to negotiate with her brother to end the war. One of the demands of the truce was that Edward should also travel to France to do homage to Charles for his lands in Gascony. However, he was counselled against it by Despenser who knew that once Edward was at a distance, his enemies could make their move and remove him – permanently – from Edward’s side, just as had happened to Gaveston. Edward was, to put it bluntly, caught between a rock and a hard place. He dare not leave his friend to an uncertain fate (or even risk capture or assassination himself) by going, but if he did not then he would lose his lands in Gascony. The only other alternative acceptable to Charles was for him to send his eldest son and heir to the throne, Edward, instead.
Once again, a lot of soul-searching took place but eventually, Edward made his son the Duke of Aquitaine and invested him with Gascony. By the end of September, the young prince had accordingly crossed the channel and performed homage for his new lands. A post about the problems Edward faced in his decision can be found here at Alianore’s Edward II blog.
When Isabella set foot on French soil, Roger was nowhere near – he was in Hainault, probably laying the ground for the alliance which would, in the near future, pay off very handsomely. Some writers have theorised that Roger and Isabella had already formed some sort of relationship (and plot to invade England) even before she left England and also that she had even assisted in Roger’s escape from the Tower. But all of this is just mere supposition – there is no firm evidence that the two of them had any sort of former alliance. Roger, however, was an opportunist – and having both the queen and the prince of England so near must have felt like his prayers had been answered. Very soon it was reported that he was back in Paris, and attending very closely to Isabella. It soon became clear that not only had Isabella allowed Roger into her life but also her chamber and was refusing to return to Edward. The prince, too, seemed to prefer the company of his mother in France but that may be because it was presented to him that he had no other choice.
With Isabella at his side and the young prince under his control, Roger now had the means by which he could raise an army against his former enemies. By promising the marriage of Prince Edward to Philippa of Hainault (one of the Count’s daughters), he was able to use her dowry to pay for ships and men. It looked like his years of exile were coming to an end.
On the 24th September 1326, Mortimer, Isabella, other English exiles and a group of Hainault mercenaries landed at Orwell in Suffolk and rapidly gained local – and then nationwide support – for their intention to destroy the hated regime of the Despensers (although it wasn’t mooted at this point, to get rid of Edward too). What then happened during Edward and Hugh’s final days together can be read here.
With all opposition either dead, fled or imprisoned (including the now erst-while king), Isabella and Mortimer now had a free hand in the country, ruling in the name of the new king Edward – who, being only a young teenager was considered too young to rule by himself. However, it seems that they learned nothing from the behaviour of Edward and the Despensers, awarding themselves land and vast sums of wealth (Isabella) and even a title (Earl of March – Mortimer). Mortimer was very clever in that he publicly distanced himself from the government and its decisions, but, like a puppet master, he was the one pulling all of the strings behind the scenes.
The couple’s arrogant, ruthless and vainglorious behaviour won them no friends – in fact within a couple of years most of their erstwhile allies against the Despensers had deserted them and were starting rebellions instead – notably Henry, the earl of Lancaster and the earl of Kent. In February 1330, Mortimer had Kent arrested and then executed for allegedly concocting a plot to free Edward II, who Kent – for his own reasons – thought was still alive. His treason was proven to those trying him by a compromising letter and a confession; the young King really had no choice but to agree to the death of his favourite uncle. By this time, Mortimer’s tyranny was unchecked and no-one was safe. Kent’s plot had also implicated other nobles and it looked as though England was about to descend into a paralysis borne of fear and paranoia.
Maybe Edward III himself felt threatened by Mortimer’s spectacular ambitions – after all, he was getting to the age now when he could rule by himself. And how would Mortimer cope then – deprived of the power and position that he had at present? The country was also bankrupt thanks to mainly his mother’s greed for riches (when they had taken power, the coffers were full to overflowing thanks to the Despenser’s talents for making and hoarding gold for both themselves and the king). Edward may also have been resentful of Mortimer’s hold over him and his mother – and his total lack of regard for protocol for Edward’s position as king (walking beside him or even in front of him for example). In any case, Edward decided he’d had enough. During a parliament, called by Mortimer at Nottingham Castle in October 1330, Edward gathered to himself a group of young men of the same mind as himself. On the 19th October, with the help of a bit of local knowledge, the men entered the castle through a secret passageway from the cliff below, met up with the king and surprised Mortimer, Isabella and some of his council in Isabella’s chamber.
Roger’s bodyguards put up a good fight and Hugh de Turpington, a loyal supporter of Roger from the early days was killed. Mortimer was arrested and Isabella, Edward’s own mother, put under guard. In the subsequent trial, Mortimer was accused of many of the things he had himself accused Hugh Despenser of, as well as some extras. He was found guilty and condemned to death. On the 29th November, he was executed by hanging as a common criminal from the gallows at Tyburn – a far less gruesome end than he had condemned Hugh Despenser to suffer. His body was left on the gallows for two days and nights before being cut down.
The chronicler Murimuth writes that Roger was buried at Greyfriars in London – where Isabella was later interred – and this version is one which many modern historians and novellists have chosen to repeat – being blinded by what they see as a great love affair. BUT – an entry in the Close Rolls states that Roger’s body was, in fact, interred at Greyfriars in Coventry. It seems though, that his wife Joan wanted him to be buried in Wigmore Abbey, near his original seat of power, according to a petition from her in 1332. The wording of this petition also makes it clear that at this stage Roger’s body was definitely at Coventry, as the friars seemingly had no intention of giving it up! Unfortunately no tomb (or the abbey or church) exists today to prove things either way.
Roger’s accomplices were also arrested – as was his wife. His family was disinherited – although this decision was later reversed and Joan pardoned. Isabella, being the king’s mother, was let off quite leniently considering her compliance in Mortimer’s plots. Her income was severely curtailed and she was, for a time, also kept under guard – although it appears that she certainly had quite a measure of freedom for a prisoner. At this point two more myths need to be exploded: Isabella DID NOT go mad and die in Castle Rising – it never happened. Also – there is absolutely NO evidence that Roger and Isabella had a child – although it may certainly be possible, there is no trace of such in any record or chronicle.
Roger was a man who, early on, promised much – as warrior and leader. His unfortunate fall from favour at court and subsequent rebellion against Edward certainly have elements which promote some sympathy for the man and his reasons. Up until the rise of Despenser, Mortimer had been a loyal servant and his military and governing prowess had been extremely useful in Ireland. However, once he became the power in England, he turned to the kind of tyranny that he had previously fought against. He not only repeated the mistakes of Despenser – he added to them. And it is for these actions that history mostly remembers him – oh, and of course the probable murder of Edward II.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online – Roger Mortimer, Earl of March
National Archives Online – SC8/61/3027
The Greatest Traitor – Ian Mortimer
King Edward II – Roy Martin Haines