Anybody with more than a passing interest in English history will recognise the name ‘Mortimer.’ They will perhaps recall Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March arguably the most famous (or notorious) son of the family, his invasion of England, affair with a Queen of England, the alleged murder of a King and his inglorious downfall three years later. The last three years of his life 1327-1330 are perhaps the best known years of all Mortimers before and after his lifetime. Roger Mortimers various misdeeds and the reputation he earned in the last three years of his life, to modern eyes at least, overshadows the Mortimers as a whole.
Dr Ian Mortimer wrote an in-depth (and long overdue) biography of Roger in 2003 and the year before that Charles Hopkinson and Martin Speight wrote ‘The Mortimers; Lords of the March’ which provided us with brief details of the leading members of the family. This year Phillip Hume has published a book ‘On the Trail of the Mortimers’ which details the places on the marches and in Wales that are associated with the family. There are also scores of academic papers dedicated to members of the family and events in history that they were a part of yet the Mortimers still somehow manage to slip through the net of popular history. Recently when visiting Ludlow Castle, a former home of the family, I was irritated to see the entire family described as ‘The murderous Mortimers.’ I realised very early on when researching the Mortimer family; they just aren’t that well known despite having a society dedicated to their study and despite having played a role in most of the big events of history from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Yet theirs is one of the most fascinating stories within history.
In his exhaustive ‘Antiquities of Shropshire’ Reverend Robert William Eyton when speaking of the Mortimers states that;
“In short, the very name of Mortimer implies turbulent restlessness and never stated ambition, alternate honour and disgrace, the greatest ascendancy succeeded by the most utter ruin.”
This is perhaps my favourite description of the Mortimers whom I have spent a number of years researching. The male line became extinct in 1425 at the death of the 5th earl of March, Edmund Mortimer and this eloquent sentence could perhaps be seen as a fitting epitaph for a family who once dominated the Welsh Marches and who, if it were not for twists of fate; could have been the ruling house of England, Wales and Anglo-Ireland.
The Mortimer family can be traced back to the 11th century. In 1066 when he crossed the narrow sea in 1066 William, duke of Normandy brought with him his Norman nobles, all eager to claim lands in fertile England. One of these such men was Roger I of Mortemer who is generally thought to have been born at some point prior to 990AD. He is thought to have been the son of Hugh, bishop of Coutances and an unknown woman who might have been a niece of Gunnora the duchess of Normandy and great grandmother of the aforementioned William.
Born at Mortemer Castle about 30 miles from the capital of Normandy Rouen, Roger took the name of his place of birth and thus the Mortimer family was born. After the battle of Hastings and subsequent Norman conquest of England the Mortemer family settled in England. The family found their fortunes rising after the disgrace of Roger de Breteuil, the 2nd earl of Hereford for his part in the Revolt of the Earls in 1075. It was Roger I’s eldest son, Ranulph who acquired Wigmore Castle in the 1070’s and made it the family seat which it would remain so until 1301 when the nearby Ludlow Castle came into Mortimer hands.
The 13th century saw the rise of the Mortimers with the 1230 marriage of Ralph Mortimer, baron Mortimer to Gwladys Ddu a daughter of Llewelyn ab Iowerth, prince of Gwynedd and de facto ruler of much of Wales. The identity of Gwladys’ Mother is not certain, she may have been an illegitimate daughter of the prince of the child of Llewelyn’s wife, Joan of England, a natural daughter of King John of England. Their son Roger rose to become a trusted friend and companion of Edward I, remaining loyal to Henry III during the second barons war he fought at both Lewes and Evesham, where at the latter he was personally responsible for killing Hugh le Despenser and Simon de Monfort, earl of Leicester.
Roger died in October 1282 to Edward I’s grief and just two months later his eldest surviving sons Edmund and Roger tricked Llewelyn ap Grufydd, Prince of Wales near Builth in Wales and killed him. Roger, better known to history as Roger Mortimer of Chirk carried the severed head of Prince Llewelyn to King Edward at Rhuddlan. By the following year much of Wales had fallen to the English. In 1304 Edmund died, leaving as his heir the aforementioned Roger later 1st earl of March.
If the 13th century was the rise of the Mortimer family then the 14th century was the pinnacle of their success ending abruptly with the execution of the first earl of March on November 29th 1330. Because of the interest in Edward II and his Queen there is a secondary interest in the Mortimer family, namely the last years of the life of Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March and this is merely a snapshot in time. The three-year long halcyon of power where a Mortimer was King of England in all but name and the tyranny he descended into do not do justice to the Mortimers et al. The male line of the family lived on for another ninety-five years after the death of the first earl of March and arguably their success can be seen as being equally as impressive but they remain largely forgotten.
Ergo, a vigorous and in-depth study of this fascinating family is long overdue and I hope that through my blog and forthcoming book that I can help to bring them to the fore of popular history.
The arms of the Mortimers of Wigmore. Colours; barry or/and azure on a chief of the first two pallets flanked by two base esquires of the second over all an inescutcheon argent. The different members of the Mortimer family had personal badges, such as a white wolf, the white lion and suchlike.