Sir Thomas Mortimer; A Mortimer bastard & the case of a frère.

Whilst looking up some Mortimer related stuff online I stumbled across an argument about Sir Thomas Mortimer in a genealogy group. I didn’t comment but read the comments with interest. Whilst quite aware of Sir Thomas and the questions over his legitimacy I had been unaware of the argument of Nicholas Harris Nicolas in his 1826 Testamenta Vetusta, a collection of wills. Whilst also being aware of and having a copy of the will of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd earl of March in its original French I confess, I had never seen Harris’ English translation of it.  The argument over Thomas centred on whether he was even a brother of earl Edmund and if so, was he legitimate?  Some were claiming that he was not a brother of the earl sans Harris, others saying he was and then arguing over whether he was legitimate or not. It was actually quite entertaining. But anyway, I decided to have a look at the Harris work myself and it seems that the question over the relationship between Thomas and earl Edmund hinged on the word frère (spelt friere by Mortimer & Harris) and the nature of its meaning which could mean brother or friar.  It all seemed quite obvious to me, being quite familiar with the will in its original French, so I thought that I would write about it on this blog. The two texts I shall be referring to are as follows;

*  A collection of all the wills now known to be extant of the Kings and Queens of England, Princes and Princesses of Wales, and every branch of the Blood Royal from the reign of William the Conqueror to that of Henry the Seventh Exclusive. MDCCLXXX (John Nichols)
**Testamenta Vetusta,  Nicholas Harris Nicolas, MDCCCXXVI

Thomas Mortimer has a unique status in the Mortimer family. Whilst certainly a son of Roger Mortimer, 2nd earl of March, it is not known with any certitude if he was a legitimate or a bastard son. He is not mentioned in the Wigmore Chronicle which makes an illegitimate birth all the more likely. However the version of the chronicle that survives today is many time copied and his exclusion may be a mistake yet still quite implausible.[1.]

Thomas is thought to have been born around 1350 although possibly sooner (aft. 1346).[2.] We cannot say with any certainty that he was born before his Fathers marriage to Philippa Montagu as we do not have a date for their marriage.[3.] There are no clear dates for the two sons of Roger 2nd earl and his wife, with the eldest, Roger, thought to have been born around 1350/1 and the second son and eventual heir Edmund being born around 1351/2. This does admittedly mean that Thomas could have been a younger son, but this is improbable for reasons that shall be discussed below.  Nothing is known of Thomas’ childhood but given his close relationship with his  brother earl Edmund  they were probably raised together.  In his will, proved on January 22nd 1382, the earl twice referred to Thomas as “our brother” and left him £100.[4.]

There is some controversy over the mention of Thomas’ appearance in the will of his brother, however with some scrutiny it can be cleared up and perhaps lends a clue to the uncertainty of his presumed status as an illegitimate son of his Father. As aforementioned Thomas is mentioned twice in the will. In the 1780 inclusion of earl Edmund’s will of 1380 (in French)  he is referred to as ‘Thomas notre fiere’ (Thomas our brother). The author of the 1780 book notes that only one brother, Roger, was mentioned by William Dugdale in his Monasticon Anglicanum but concludes that given the inclusion of “Thomas notre fiere” in Edmund’s will then there must have been another brother; Thomas himself.

Nicholas Harris’ published collection of wills in 1826 includes earl Edmunds will translated into English and challenges the 1780 version stating that the author made a mistake with his translation, also noting that Dugdale does not mention Thomas Mortimer and that earl Edmund’s Mother Philippa does not mention having a son called Thomas in her own will.[5.]  Harris concludes that such a brother of earl Edmund never existed and the twice mentioned Thomas was a friar, ‘friere’ translating as ‘brother’ as well as ‘friar’ supposing that earl Edmund meant “Brother Thomas.”  It is incredibly unlikely that earl Edmund would leave anybody the princely sum of £100 bar his heir, (worth nearly £50,000 today)[6.] equally unlikely is the idea that countess Philippa would have ignored the existence of her son Thomas when she sealed her will. This supports the idea that Thomas was not her son at least and was therefore illegitimate.

Having further studied the 1780 French version of the will (certainly written in French in 1380) it becomes clear that the mistake lays with the 1826 version and it is hard to draw any conclusion other than being deliberate purely so Harris did not detract from Dugdale’s
Monasticon Anglicanum in any way.[7.] As above mentioned, the fault actually lays in Harris’ translation in which he appears to deliberately omit key words.  In his will earl Edmund bequeaths “a plate of silver for spices enamelled with the Mortimer arms on the bottom” to Friar John Gilbert, bishop of Hereford “Friere John Gilbert, évêque (sic.evefq’) de Hereford”  as well as a hanaper to Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland “notre très cher friere Monsieur Henri, Count de Northumberland.”  Notice the difference between the use of friere for a clergyman, John Gilbert and that of a layman, Henry Percy. For Gilbert earl Edmund calls him friere John, Friar John, whereas for Percy it is notre très cher Henry- our dear brother. Harris notes that because of the marriage of Henry Percy’s son, Henry “Hotspur” to earl Edmund’s daughter Elizabeth Mortimer, the earl considered earl Henry his brother.

It appears that Harris was determined to reject any notion that the Thomas mentioned in earl Edmund’s will was the son of Roger Mortimer, 2nd earl of March at all. Harris completely ignores earl Edmund referring to Thomas “notre friere” despite including the original French text after Thomas’ name purely to make a point that friere in the instance of Thomas simply means friar. Unfortunately he then completely ignores his point about earl Henry Percy also being referred to as friere. Interestingly despite his use of the original French text following Thomas’ name, he omits the “notre” suffix, meaning “our” despite including it for Percy. Without the “notre” the text simply translates as Thomas brother, not brother Thomas. Upon reinserting the original text into Harris’ translation shows that earl Edmund, speaking in third person, quite simply meant “Thomas my brother”  as he refers to his sons as “notre filz Roger/Edmund“; our (my) son(s).

Harris goes further and decides that Thomas could not possibly be the brother of the earl because of where he was placed in bequeaths between Sir John de Bishopston, a clerk and Sir William Ford, a knight of his household. Sir John de Bishopston whilst indeed a clerk but had also been a feoffee and executor for Edmund’s Father who had been dead for twenty years. Bishopston was clearly a man with a long service to the family and held in great trust also.  It is not accurate to dismiss him as a mere clerk. Thomas himself, on May 1st 1380 when the will was sealed had not been knighted and was indeed, merely a member of the household of his brother.

Finally it must be noted that the Harris translation is a simplified and edited version of the original French version included in the 1780 book. For example;
Harris 1826  “To our daughter Philippa, a coronet of gold with stones and 200 pearls”
French version 1780 “Notre fille Phillipe, un coronal d’ove perie et deuz cents graund perles et auxi en fercle ove roses, emeraudes et rubies d’alisaundre.”

In conclusion; yes Thomas was the brother of Edmund, 3rd earl of March and if Harris had read Adam Usks chronicle then he would have noted that Thomas was described as the uncle of Roger Mortimer, 4th earl of March- Edmund’s son.[8.]  He appears to have leaned heavily on Dugdale which is not without problems of its own like any work. There are problems with the 1780 version of the will, the author makes a note of earl Edmund’s children, putting the order of births to make the boys older and the girls younger and then rather strangely refers to the marriage of Sir Edmund Mortimer (b.1376) and Catrin Glyn Dwr as being a fabrication claiming that “some historians pretend that he married a daughter of Owen Glendour.” [9.] [Read; the historians weren’t pretending. It happened.]

I was intending on writing about Thomas Mortimer as I mentioned in my article about his nephew Sir Edmund Mortimer. I will be writing more in-depth about his life and career, particularly during the 1380s and his eventual downfall. Now. Do I go back and tell those arguing people on the genealogy group that they should never take translations at face value?


1. The birth of the eldest son of Roger Mortimer 1st earl of March, Edmund Mortimer (Thomas’ grandfather) was not recorded by the Wigmore Chronicle either.
2. See Cal.Pat. Rolls. Edward III 1367-1370 vol xiii. October 23rd 1367. At Sheen by letter of secret seal. Thomas Mortymer esq, from the ports of Southampton or Plymouth with 2 yeoman, 3 hackneys as above and 50l. p.54 membrane 20d- cont. The men listed under the letter of secret seal around the same time as Thomas Mortimer are nearly all of the retinue of Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick; his uncle. It is likely that of age at this point thereabouts  1346/1349 birth more likely. Thomas was to remain an esquire until 1380.
. Philippa’s Father William Montagu, 1st earl of Salisbury bought the marriage of Roger Mortimer in 1336 when Roger was eight and Philippa younger.
4. “Item nous devisons a Thomas notre friere cent livres”  See Royal Wills, (1780) p.112
. It is not impossible however. In her 1356 will, Elizabeth de Bohun nee de Badlesmere countess of Northampton by her second marriage to William de Bohun left her son Humphrey a silver cup and a ring, and her daughter Elizabeth a bed. She also bequeathed various other items to her surviving sisters. There is no mention of her eldest son by her first marriage; Roger Mortimer, 2nd earl of March.
6. He left his second son and namesake Edmund 300 marks a year in land.
7. Harris also translated the 1403 will of Agnes Bardolph. This lady was a widow who remarried to Thomas Mortimer circa 1386. Despite her clear assertion that she was the widow of Sir Thomas Mortimer, knight, Harris ignores the mention of Thomas Mortimer actually having existed and remarks that Dugdale states that her second husband was actually Sir Roger Mortimer. See Testamenta Vetusta, p.162 fn.2.
8. See the Chronicle of Adam of Usk who praises Thomas as a vigorous knight.
9. See Royal Wills (1780) p. 113 fn. 3.

Warm thanks to Alistair J. Dunn for the PDF of Testamenta Vetusta and the checking of my translation.

EDIT: If anybody wants the PDF for the Harris 1826 will then email me via the contact section and I will send a copy. In due course I will type up the French version for the same.


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