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Loving all his imperfections – in remembrance of Roger Mortimer. who died #otd 1330

An author setting out to write a fictionalised version of historical events must decide from what point of view these events will be related. After all, if I were to write from Hugh Despenser the Younger’s perspective, the rebellious barons led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, were a nasty lot who deserved to be hanged, drawn and quartered. From Roger Mortimer’s perspective, Hugh Despenser was an amoral and grasping bastard who got his just deserts when he was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1326.

Seeing as I’d developed a crush on Roger Mortimer already at the age of twelve, I knew exactly whose side I was on. Accordingly, Roger Mortimer plays the central role in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy. But I hesitated in making him the protagonist, because no matter how much I admired Mortimer, I was not entirely taken with how he handled things the last few years of his life. Enter Adam de Guirande, my fictional creation who adores Roger Mortimer—at least initially—but has problems reconciling his love for his former lord with some of Mortimer’s actions.

I spent a number of sleepless nights as an adolescent anguishing over Mortimer’s ultimate fate. I also conducted weird rituals involving walking backwards and lighting candles at midnight, this to somehow leap the huge divide of time that separated me from Roger Mortimer so that I could warn him that pride is almost always followed by fall.

Obviously, Roger Mortimer didn’t need me to tell him that. He lived in a time and age where the concept of the Wheel of Fortune was well understood – ergo what goes up one day, comes back down the next. Except, of course, that to judge from his actions he didn’t quite believe it would apply to him. What can I say? An excessive amount of pride.

Mortimer was born to power. Loyal servants of the king, his ancestors had established themselves in the Welsh Marches, where they held substantial amounts of land. It was expected that little Roger would grow up to diligently serve his king and thereby further the Mortimer interests.

Initially, things worked according to plan. Roger Mortimer was a capable—and trusted—royal servant. However, Edward II had a predilection for choosing a favourite and rewarding him with riches and powers well beyond what said individual had earned. This did not please Mortimer. In fact, all the barons except the lucky favourite were less than thrilled by their king’s favouritism. Which is why Edward II’s first favourite, Piers Gaveston, was brutally murdered by rebelling barons in 1312.

Some years later, Roger Mortimer was in Ireland, there to reinstate order and bring this troublesome province firmly back under English control. Meanwhile, a certain Hugh Despenser began climbing in Edward II’s favour. This, as per Mortimer, was not good. The Despenser and Mortimer families detested each other—had done so since Roger’s grandfather killed Despenser’s grandfather at Evesham in 1265—and with King Edward’s loving support Despenser became too powerful, thereby threatening Mortimer’s people.

Many heartily disliked Despenser and the king’s willingness to ride roughshod over law and custom to give his favourite what his favourite desired. In 1321, the disgruntled barons, led by Mortimer and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, rebelled. Initially, they reaped major success, obliging the king to exile his favourite.  But Edward II was not about to take this lying down, and as this king lacked neither courage nor brains when sufficiently riled, some months later Lancaster was dead, Mortimer was rotting in the Tower, and Despenser was back with the king.

So far, Mortimer had all the traits of a romantic and doomed hero. A man committed to his cause, a man fearlessly staring death in the face to defend what is right (or what is his). No wonder I developed such strong protective feelings for him when I first heard of him – especially considering that I was entering puberty, which in general has hormones zipping back and forth in a most disquieting way.

Fortunately for Mortimer and my young and fragile heart, he did not die in the Tower. In August of 1323 our hero escaped, a daring feat involving clambering up chimneys, running over roof tops and climbing walls before finally making it to the river. Once free, Mortimer made for France, determined to one day return and crush Despenser. Feelings I could totally sympathise with, even if I wondered what price Mortimer’s family would pay for his escape.

Roger Mortimer had married Joan of Geneville when they were both in their early teens. A well-matched couple, these two went on to have twelve children or so, the majority of which were locked up after Mortimer’s rebellion.

His wife was treated harshly, but I believe Joan applauded his daring escape, relieved to know he was safe in France. However, in early 1326 rumours reached England (and I’m betting Edward and Hugh made sure they definitely reached Joan) of Roger spending his nights with Queen Isabella, Edward II’s estranged wife. Not something that would have pleased Joan. Not something an honourable man would do—not when his wife was languishing in captivity because of him.

Isabella being kick-ass

As a romantic teenager, I could forgive Mortimer for his passionate relationship with Isabella. Yes, I felt sorry for Joan, but IMO Roger and Isabella were made for each other: ambitious, intelligent, ruthless – an explosive and effective combination. Fate (and a common objective) brought them together, and what can man do against fate? My invented character Adam was less forgiving: how could his beloved lord so dishonour the woman who had spent years locked up because of him? The older I got, the more prone I became to agree with Adam: how could Roger treat his wife as he did?

In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer returned to England at the head of an invading army. Some months later, Despenser was very dead. He’d died in the most gruesome way possible while Mortimer and Isabella sat and watched, sipping wine and feeding each other delicacies. Not something I found easy to reconcile with my youthful hero-worship of Mortimer. My hero had just acquired a second major dent in his halo. It left me squirming inside, while making up excuses along the line that Despenser had it coming, and what did I expect of a medieval grandee?

Obviously, I was going to have to address these issues in my books. When it comes to Joan, historian Ian Mortimer suggests that Roger Mortimer went to see her late in 1326, presenting her with a gift of books. In the below, I’ve expanded somewhat on this:

Days of Sun and Glory, by Anna Belfrage, coverAdam 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, narrow wrists protruding from the embroidered cuffs of her sleeves.

She was wearing a silk veil and wimple, 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?”

Phew. Somewhat heated, that… Anyway, as we all know, Edward II was forced to abdicate, his son was crowned in his stead, and it soon became very clear just who did the ruling: Isabella and her Roger. This did not go down well with the barons. And then, in September of 1327, came the news that Edward II was dead.
“Aha!” said the barons, pointing at Mortimer, “he did it.”

I have never believed Roger Mortimer murdered Edward II – for the simple reason that I find it inconceivable Isabella would have let him do something that heinous. I even remain unconvinced as to Edward’s death, but whatever my convictions, back then most people assumed Mortimer had rid himself of a dangerous enemy.

Whether or not he had royal blood on his hands, Mortimer was definitely guilty of usurpation—together with fair Isabella. He controlled the administration of the kingdom, he filled positions with men loyal to him, he called the shots. But the young king was growing up, and many a disgruntled baron was quietly whetting his sword, waiting for the opportunity to bring Mortimer down. Power, Mortimer was discovering, was easier to grab than to control, but he no longer had the option of backing down gracefully—there were too many wolves clamouring for his blood.

In March of 1330, Mortimer decided to teach all those unruly barons a not-so-subtle lesson titled “be prepared to die if you threaten me”. He did this by manipulating the Earl of Kent into treachery and once he had proof of the earl’s intentions, he had him arrested, wording things in such a way that the young king had no choice but to condemn the terrified earl to death. Seeing as Kent was Edward III’s uncle, Mortimer thereby sealed his own fate. It became apparent to Edward that either he took control soon, or there was a major risk Mortimer would never let go of his power—no matter who he might have to kill to remain on top.

Roger Mortimer in 1330 was no longer all that much of a hero. Yes, he was undoubtedly capable—he had the administration of the realm ticking along like clockwork—he was intelligent and brave. But he was also greedy and desperate to hang on to what he had, to some extent out of fear.

For me, the later years of Mortimer’s life was like watching the pedestal I’d placed him on crumble to pieces. Instead of a hero, here was a man, as weak and fallible as all of us are. As an adolescent, this development made me weep, ergo that desire to travel back in time and save him from it. As a novelist, I had found the perfect character: complicated and enigmatic. Which doesn’t stop me from still experiencing moments when I’d like to save him from his fate, have him ride off into a glorious sunset already in 1327 and leave the centre stage to all the squabbling factions who were more than eager to control the young king.

Ultimately, all that ambition, all that hunger for power, came to an inevitable end: on the 29th of November of 1330, Roger Mortimer hanged for treason.  His death was celebrated by many, but devastated quite a few, among them my fictional Adam de Guirande—and me. Silly, I suppose, to be so affected by events more than seven hundred years in the past. Or maybe it isn’t.

(NOTE! This post was originally written for the Mortimer Historical Society)

6 thoughts on “Loving all his imperfections – in remembrance of Roger Mortimer. who died #otd 1330”

  1. Hi Anna

    I have been reading your books regarding the Kings Greatest enemy with interest. The very last one, which depicts Mortimer’s last night plus Isabella’s heartwrenching pleas at Nottingham had me in tears. You have raised one interesting point – why didn’t Roger retire into the sunset in 1327? In my view it was already too late. To the barons it would have been very suspicious that a man who had been so prominent in his career and had lead an invasion decides to leave. Many would And if they didn’t have the king’s death to pin on him they could easily have hanged him for dishonouring the Queen. Once the affair began in France the clock started ticking for Roger Mortimer ,. although he was needed so he had a stay of execution. People would have remembered them meeting with other allies in France discussing strategy and depostion of Edward no doubt.
    Also he would never see Isabella again if he went away. The danger is that someone could have locked her up or exiled her to France. In any case whether it was 1327 or 1330 had he left those concerned would have made sure he and Isabella were permanently separated.
    Another reason for staying is that I really believe that he wanted to protect Isabella and Edward. If he left, Edward was at risk of being abducted. ( This happened with child king Alexander 111 of Scotland who was abducted several times)>
    You’ve mentioned the incident with the Earl of Kent. Its very strange and I am not sure that I understand it very well. But as Kathryn Warner points out there are no original records of the trial. We don’t know what was said or not said.
    Alison Weir points more blame on Isabella stating that she went to the sherriff to arrange the execution before Edward had time to change his mind.
    I am inclined personally to give Roger some slack on this one. If he had ignored the letter or hid it and it was found ( Edward had spies ) he himself could have been accused of treason.
    Historian Andy King does point out that Kent’s wanting to put a former king on the throne was indeed treason. However way we look at it the point is Roger cannot be blamed. There were plenty of people who could and should have shouted no, Norfolk was silent. The Jury could have delivered a not guilty verdict. Lancaster with his big mouth was silent.Edward could have imprisoned Kent for life.
    Suffice it to say that as Alison Weir says we may never know the truth of this strange story. I am not sure why Mortimer saw Kent as a threat assuming that he did.
    As this is long I am going to write another comment.

  2. Anna,
    You have mentioned the Arthurian Tournament on your blog and in your book. In general most historians have given Roger a hard time over this one as it seems that he is goading the king by dressing as King Arthur and Isabella as Guinevere. I am going to be different by suggesting a different idea. I can see why Roger acted the way he did at times.
    This was a pretty harmless event, his grandfather had done the same 50 years before in front of King Edward 1 and Queen Eleanor and no problems.

    This time such a move seemed to have angered Edward- don’t know why when it was a long dead king as the theme of the day not musical chairs on the King’s own throne or imitating Edward himself and it was on Mortimer’s own territory.
    To top things off, the Barons were embarrassed and the Mortimers , Geoffrey at least very unimpressed.

    Now as I said before I see it from Roger’s point of view. This to him was the nearest thing he was going to get to a wedding with Isabella . Remember the church was not going to give him a divorce from Joan or annullment and Isabella was not getting one either. Tough. And dear Edward would never allow it.
    Instead of sneaking around they wanted to announce their love to everyone. This tournament , with them both wearing crowns was a subtle union of sorts albeit under the more prominent wedding of Roger’s own daughters.
    On a different note Anna yes Roger Mortimer had his imperfections. Sometimes he was a hero , especially at the end. Whatever else he did, it has to be admired that he stayed with Isabella right until the end. He could and should have fled to the continent( no, not France) or further afield, but if he had she would have taken the rap and even a harder punishment. As I said earlier he’d have lost her if he fled or if they fled together both would have been captured. This is a truly wonderful man who stayed with her knowing that death was coming.
    It also has to be admired that he did anything for his family. Yes he gave himself or was awarded land grants, but some went to Joan and others to his son. By making himself Earl of March he could make excellent marriages for his daughters and this tile and land would be inherited .
    As we know the tile caused great fuss. But to risk hatred of the barons and King in order to do the best for your children and compensate them for suffering on his account, is this not a loving father?

    What an amazing man!! As Lord Mortimer let my ancestors live I am going to repay the debt. The least I can do is light a candle and pray for his soul.

    1. Hi Eimeara,
      It is always nice to have another passionate person pop by and share their thoughts on my blog.
      I think it is evident in my posts and my books that I have a major, major soft spot for Roger Mortimer.
      I am also of teh firm opinion that he and Isabella were a team–unusual in those days, for a woman to hog a leading role, but Isabella was no retiring violet and she’d been side-lined for years by hubby’s favourites.
      As to Edmund, I think this young man was vain and ambitious and therefore easily seduced into doing things that would, ultimately, lead to his death. Yes, his activities were treasonous, but I suspect that had Mortimer not forced the issue, Kent would have been thrown into a dungeon somewhere to languish for some years in the dark. After all, he was Edward IIIs uncle…
      Ultimately, we will never know the truth about those distant events and the people who participated in them. For me, as a novelist, that is a huge boon. For me, as a curious amateur historian, it is damned frustrating!

      1. Hi Anna,
        I agree totally that Isabella was no shrinking violet and she and Mortimer were a team but possibly Mortimer being the boss. I suspect he made most of the decisions. Like you I don’t believe he killed Edward 11 – and I do believe that Isabella would have decided this . It seems that both she and Mortimer retained affection for their spouses while not in love with them cared about them. The incident with the Earl of Kent makes me believe that Edward was still alive in 1330. If he wasn’t why all the fuss about trying to rescue a dead man? And the plot involved 100 people if not more. I find myself asking the question, while we will never know if Mortimer forged the letter but why show it in court anyway? Surely it was in his interests to insist that the king was dead. Surely this would bring all sorts of questions for Mortimer as nobles would suspect the King was alive and this would lead them to question his authority , Isabella’s and the legitimacy of Edward 111. I know Mortimer did mention at Tyburn the Earl of Kent was a victim of a conspiracy but could he have been forced to say that for fear that if he didn’t he would be quartered? Its interesting he didn’t mention Isabella,Joan or his family. And no mention of Edward 11. I suppose if he mentioned the king his execution could be in doubt. I think Edward did not want Isabella mentioned at all. As for Isabella yes it was unusual for a woman to take a leading role and I think that was one black mark against them. The barons would have been jealous of this. I wonder how she fared after Roger’s death? Many writers conclude she did not go mad but I think she must have. Like you I believe they were lovers but even if he was just a friend, knowing you could do nothing to help a man who you got close to must have been heart wrenching. And he had more time for then other men I suspect. But how could things be the same between her and Edward ever again? If I were in her position I don’t think I could. How could Edward expect her to? I think thats why she was moved to Castle Rising, besides a likely pregnancy , it would be impossible to live with Edward under the same roof. She would probably have brained him. I suspect she was never allowed mention his name again. I don’t think even if she was allowed to , she’d have wanted to come back to parliament/power. How could she face all those who were involved in her lover’s downfall. Same with Geoffrey Mortimer. We will never know, how did Mortimer’s daughter get on with Thomas Brotherton who supervised the executions? I’d also love to be a fly on the wall to see how Isabella got on with Joan , she must have encountered her at weddings etc and William Montagu too. That would have been very awkward.
        Recently I was surprised to be told that Mortimer’s family understood it was an Edward or Roger situation and they forgave Edward. Can you imagine Roger’s mother and Joan saying we know you had to get rid of Roger , he did get in your way and his children joining in saying we understand that you had to get rid of our father, we forgive you , now let’s have a drink . The answer to this question from the person concerned was yes I can. Seriously??

  3. Sorry Anna, I can’t stop tonight. Like you I have a soft spot for Roger Mortimer. First of all, why oh why didn’t this briliant , sharp man being the soldier he was identify the weakest point of Nottingham castle? He should have blocked the tunnels up or put men on guard there. Or is the answer to be found in your book? Probably . The image of sick, griefstricken tired man worn out by squabbles , backbiting and fighting to stay alive combined with an adulterous affairs rings true.

    Now I am going to be different, many have declared Roger an usurper. I don’t agree. He was not going to make himself King. I find the idea from some( not you) that now the Black Prince was born Roger could look forward to at least another 18 years in power is nothing short of ridiculous. No one can look forward to anything that far ahead, especially politicians who go out of fashion very quickly. No one can say they will be in any job for the next year even as we don’t know if we will be alive. If Roger really wanted to kill Edward 111he’d have done it long before. Even in 1327 it would have alienated him from Isabella and the other barons as would killing his father. Besides he’d have run into problems – Norfolk , Philippa and John of Eltham would have demanded a say. There was nothing to gain from killing Edward as he was their justification for holding power. Roger had only a very distant claim to the throne with a queue above him. There is also the argument that he wanted to kill off Norfolk after Kent was killed and Lancaster sidelined to prevent them forming another regency. He had his chance when Lancaster rebelled – instead he only fined him. Again if he wanted to get rid of Norfolk he’d have done this before. Its unlikely he would as Norfolk linked him to the royal family in a legitimate way. Nothing to gain.
    There is the argument from someone that Roger treated Edward like a child and refused to let him participate in government. Lots of regents have done this and even worse. Edward was a child, and that meant he was vulnerable to manipulation and more by hostile parties.
    The Earl of Angus kept James V of Scotland prisoner for 3 years, his mother was only allowed see him once from 1516-1524. The Duke of Albany also kept James V under strict supervision.
    Like the Earl of Angus who took custody of James V after his majority was declared at 13 , Hubert De Burgh also demonstrated an unwillingness to relinquish power. When Henry 111 reached his majority at 20 and declared he was old enough to rule it took another 4 years before Hubert fell out of favour.
    In this regard Roger was no different. However , I think he got a very raw deal as neither Hubert, or Albany or Angus were executed for usurpation. Angus as the stepfather of James v was exiled. After the disastrous reign of Edward 11 someone had to pick up the pieces. Roger Mortimer was vastly superior in skill to any other noble- he was an able administrator with experience in Government and a military leader and its very likely that regardless of his relationship with Isabella his services would have been in demand. I often feel that it must have suited Kent , Norfolk etc to let him rule. I think Norfolk was incompetent to rule, Kent too unreliable and in any case Lancaster could never have worked with Kent as he was a judge who had sentenced his brother to death.

    Lastly I am getting off the point, but as I came across a book by Richard Barber recently and it does seem that Edward and his friends were goading Mortimer and Isabella. Barber mentions the household accounts of Isabella after the Hereford tournanment in 1328 with costumes for the King and his friends for the society of Cradoc. This society involved a game where one has to find out which woman has been unfaithful. Was this played in front of the lovers? Its logical to think so and you can be sure that if Mortimer did not see it then it got back to him.
    Every time I write about Mortimer I end up having more and more sympathy for him. He was handed a mess left over from Edward, the Despensers and the lazy Thomas of Lancaster and even Edward 1. He had a hostile stepson who hated him despite him doing everything to safeguard him. Its surprising if his patience snapped .
    Ps do you know anything of Mortimer’s last hours.??

  4. Sorry I meant to say not surprising.. at the end. And forgot to mention that Hubert De Burgh was gradually allowing Henry to have more power as time went by. I think Roger was doing the same as Edward was getting his way in some appointments such as treasurer in 1330. Also we don’t know the age of authority and what the regents agreed on in this case.
    In Henry’s time it was 20 or 21.
    Sorry for going on but I hate seeing Roger being reviled in history

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