The King of Folly; The death of Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March

 On a bitterly cold November morning in 1330, Roger Mortimer, the first earl of March was removed from his cell within the Tower of London and taken to his death at Tyburn. There was to be no beheading, instead he was to be hanged like a common criminal. Arguably the most famous son of the Mortimer family, there was to be no glory in his death. He was dragged through London on an ox-skin tied between two horses where he was stripped of a black tunic he had worn previously at the funeral of Edward II. He gave a short speech and was then dispatched by the noose. He was forty-three years old. Roger’s corpse would hang there stark naked and shamed for two days and two nights, a grotesque sight and a stark reminder of the fate of those who overreached themselves.

Mortimer had seized power following his joint invasion of England with his alleged lover Queen Isabella in 1326 culminating with the deposition of Edward II, Isabella’s estranged husband, in January 1327. Despite the accession of Edward and Isabella’s underage son, Edward III, Roger was to remain the real power behind the throne for three years; a King in all but name but in October 1330 it all fell apart.

Shortly before the 19th of October 1330, William de Montagu had a private conversation with the seventeen-year-old King Edward III. He’d received information of a passageway [1.] cut into the bedrock upon which Nottingham Castle was built. Both knew that Roger was suspicious and Montagu and his friends had already been interrogated. The guards of the castle had been told to be vigilant, the gates locked with the keys in Queen Isabella’s own keeping. [2.] They had to move fast and decisively.  The Scalacronica of Thomas Grey of Heaton written over twenty years later states that Montagu told the King; “It is better to eat the dog than to be eaten by the dog.” Whether Montagu ever actually said this or not is irrelevant; the sentiment is correct. Roger Mortimer was dubious of the loyalty of Montagu and his friends and they had to act before he did. It could not have escaped Edward that now he was the Father to a son; he was expendable. If he was to die, then Roger could perhaps look forward to at least eighteen years in power.

In the afternoon of the 19th Montagu and his friends left Nottingham stating that they feared Roger after their brutal interrogation. [3.] It was a ruse for after darkness fell; they were back.  Edward III had played his part in the deception well. He had retired early for the night claiming illness, his physician Pancio Controne suggesting that the King retired to his chamber until his Mother, Roger and their men had retired. Meanwhile, Montagu and his friends, led by William Eland were hiding in a thicket waiting on more men [3.] who never arrived. The was a waning crescent moon, a sliver of light in the blackness of the night and finally deciding that they could wait no longer they decided to advance, William Eland leading the way up the roughly hewn, winding staircase in absolute darkness. The doorway from passage to castle was unlocked, possibly by Edward himself and silently; Nottingham Castle was breached.

No sooner had Montagu and his friends, Edward de Bohun (Edward’s first cousin), Robert Ufford, Ralph Stafford, William Clinton, John Nevill of Hornby, Thomas West and John Molyns, amongst others stepped into the passageway outside of Queen Isabella’s bedchamber where she and Roger were holding a council with Henry Burghersh, Oliver Ingham and Simon Bereford, then they were discovered. Sir Hugh de Turplington chanced upon them and raised the alarm screaming to Roger and his companions that they were betrayed. With Turplingtons cries of “Traitors!” ringing in his ears Roger armed himself. Turplington was run through by John Nevill defending his old friend Roger as was Rogers squire Roger de Monmouth who’d rushed to the door, with him died Richard Crombek. It was futile, overwhelmed by numbers Roger was disarmed, overpowered and bound. According to Baker Queen Isabella knowing that her son was behind the coup cried “Have pity on the gentle Mortimer!” She was unceremoniously bundled back into the chamber [5.] where Henry Burghersh was discovered trying to escape by way of a latrine.

Roger himself, his sons Edmund and Geoffrey were all arrested. Geoffrey had called his Father “the King of folly” only months before so perhaps this sudden downfall was expected for him at least. [6.] Edward III, now in power had all of his prisoners removed to Leicester that very night, a distance of about thirty miles riding beside Roger who was probably gagged, tied to his horse. Upon reaching Leicester [5.], no doubt remembering how Roger had escaped the Tower of London in 1323, Edward demanded that he was hanged there and then. Had he not have been persuaded to observe the due course of the law by the blind Henry, earl of Lancaster then Roger would have met his end on the green between Leicester Castle and the church of St Mary de Castro where men were sometimes hanged or perhaps at the gallows of the town, at the aptly named Gallowtree Gate.

However, Lancaster did persuade Edward to stay his hand. Presumably Roger and his sons spent the night in the miserable and dank cellar which doubled up as a dungeon beneath the castle before being taking to London. There they were walled into their respective cells, Edward taking the room next door to Roger with six armed guards outside. Clearly there would be no chances of a repeat of the 1323 escape. They were to be held in the chilly darkness for over a month. Roger Mortimer, bound and gagged was taken to Westminster for trial on November 26th 1330. It is hard not to feel sympathy for him at this point. He had been walled up alive in the dark for weeks, the winter sun would have been blinding and burned his eyes, he would have been weak from inactivity in cramped conditions, and disorientated.

The trial was a foregone conclusion and all knew it. Bound and gagged and unable to speak in his own defence but this was unsurprising and far from unknown. There was a list of charges, the most prominent of which was Roger’s usurpation of royal authority and the murder of Edward II. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his sins. Three days later as aforementioned, Roger was taken from his cell and dragged to Tyburn the first nobleman to meet his death there, as it was usually the place of execution for the common criminal. He must have been in agony after the bone jarring two-mile journey from Tower to Tyburn, scraped, grazed and bleeding along the freezing ground. It says much for the sheer strength of the man that he was able to stand and make a short speech. He admitted that the execution of the earl of Kent in March had been a conspiracy but was pointedly silent on the alleged murder of Edward II. He was stripped naked, leaving the world as he came into it, the noose slung over his neck and there with a priest reciting Psalm 52 “Why do you boast in mischief, O mighty man….?” he strangled to death.

Mercifully; Roger had to endure but minutes of painful strangulation, his neck was crushed, his tongue swelled in his mouth, his body twitched, legs jerking macabrely; and he was dead. Edward III’s reign had truly begun.

rogermortimer

Artwork by kind permission of Matthew Ryan


Notes;

  1. It is highly unlikely that the passageway was ‘secret’ and that none of the guards knew of its existence. Grey in his Scalacronica calls the door from the passage into the castle a ‘postern.’ As Ian Mortimer states in his biography of Roger Mortimer, it was perhaps the presence of a lock on the door from passage to castle that meant it was overlooked. See, Scalacronica p.86
  2. 2. According to Scalacronica William Montagu had with him “four and twenty men.” There is some confusion as to whether Edward de Bohun’s twin brother William, later earl of Northampton was present or not. William de Bohun would later Edmund marry Mortimers widow and was instrumental in bringing Edmund’s son Roger Mortimer, later second earl of March to prominence. He did homage to Edward III on behalf of his stepson for the ancestral Mortimer lands centred around Wigmore.
  3. They’d been interrogated separately, all remaining silent except Montagu who protested loudly.
  4. Isabella is believed to have been pregnant by Roger Mortimer at this time. See Baker, 1st ed. p, 121
  5. The following March he gained a safe conduct to leave England, presumably to France as he is known to have settled there and married dying in the 1370’s. I am yet to find any evidence that he ever returned to England. Edmund died the following year leaving behind a son and heir.
  6. Leicester belonged to the earl of Lancaster and there in Lancastrian heartlands there was no possibility of anybody coming to the rescue of Roger Mortimer and his sons.

Further Reading;

Bakers Chronicle

Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Grey of Heaton

The Perfect King; The life of Edward III, Ian Mortimer

Parl. Cal. Rol.

Edward III & the coup of 1330, Caroline Shenton

Lanercost Chronicle


This article was originally written as a guest post for Stephen Spinks and can be found on his blog fourteenthcenturyfiend.

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