It is an unfortunate fact that the career of Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March has eclipsed the deeds of his family either side of his 1330 execution and the name Mortimer has become a byword for treachery in medieval England. With little interest shown for the Mortimers in popular history they have slipped into obscurity and subsequently the idea that all Mortimers were treacherous, fickle and disloyal has been allowed to perdure.
I have often argued that the Mortimers were not one man and the first earl of Marchs’ reputation whether accurate or not, should not be applied to all of the various members of the family without in-depth study being undertaken on each individual and without this, it is suggested that Edward III’s (for example) historical reputation should be assessed on the deeds of his great, great grandfather King John or those of his great, great grandson Henry VI. This would hardly be accepted and therefore this one size fits all attitude should not be used for the Mortimers of Wigmore either.
For some time now I have been in contact with David Pilling whose extensive research on Edward I has led him to the late 13th century Mortimer family. This excellent article, part one of two, explores the career of the this lesser known but important member of the Mortimer family, a famous knight whose enduring legacy was one of absolute loyalty to the throne of England.
SIR ROGER MORTIMER OF WIGMORE (Part One)
Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (1231-October 1282) was a famous knight of the Welsh March, and a classic example of the peculiar dual identity of Marcher lordships. The Mortimers were a Norman family, established in the region since shortly after the Conquest. Mortimer’s father, Ralph, married Gwladus Ddu, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorweth or Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd and de facto ruler of most of Wales. Via his mother, Gwladus, herself the granddaughter of King John of England via his daughter Joan, Mortimer had the blood of English and Welsh royal houses in his veins.
He was destined to spill a good deal of that blood in an action-packed martial career. Mortimer was a born warrior, and from the 1250s onwards engaged in a tit-for-tat struggle for supremacy in the March with his first cousin, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Llywelyn, the latest Prince of Gwynedd, had ambitions to bring the whole of Wales under his sway. The Mortimers were (generally) loyal to the English crown, and their estates acted as a buffer against Welsh incursions in the Middle March. Conflict between the two kinsmen was thus inevitable and prolonged. Mortimer first went to war against Llywelyn in 1256, aged about 25. By 1258 he had joined the baronial reform movement, aimed at restraining the government of Henry III, but his association with the rebels was short-lived. The king needed a strong hand to defend the March against the aggression of Llywelyn, and in March of that year Mortimer was summoned urgently to Chester, with horses and arms, to assist in repelling Welsh incursions. Any such effort was hopeless. Mired in political crisis, Henry could do little to aid Mortimer, and Llywelyn’s whirlwind campaigns swept all before them.
In 1260 Mortimer’s lordship of Montgomery was overrun by the Welsh. Mortimer, now captain-general of the king’s army in Wales, ordered the other Marchers to support him with their full strength. They achieved little: in July the Welsh took Builth Castle, possibly by treachery. It was alleged that Mortimer had conspired with his cousin to hand over the castle, though this seems unlikely. Others saw the loss of Builth as divine punishment for Mortimer’s violation of an alleged oath he had made to the prince. Mortimer remained in favour with the king. Two years of relative peace followed, thanks a truce with Llywelyn, but Mortimer was not idle. In February 1262 he was accused by John de Braose of coming to Corfham Castle in Shropshire with a great army (including Welshmen) and seizing it against the peace. Royal officials were appointed to retake the castle, and at the same time Llywelyn complained that Mortimer was violating the truce.
Confusingly, despite being under suspicion, Mortimer was also ordered by the king to assist in the defence of the lands of the late Earl of Gloucester. Clearly, whatever sins he committed in the March, Mortimer was too valuable to be punished. When a (false) rumour spread of Llywelyn’s death, Mortimer was named among those Marcher barons instructed to suppress the ‘contumacy’ of the prince’s younger brother, Dafydd. The truce ended in November 1262, with disastrous consequences for Mortimer. His Welsh tenants of Maelienydd rose against him, in alliance with Llywelyn, and besieged Mortimer’s castles of Cefnllys and Knucklas. Cefnllys was dismantled before Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, could come rushing up with reinforcements to save it. They managed to occupy the ruins, but were quickly surrounded by a larger Welsh force. Llywelyn allowed them free passage across the border into England, which again aroused suspicions of Mortimer’s complicity with his kinsman.
Llywelyn swept on, taking one castle after another, until the Welsh border was only a few miles from Abergavenny. There seemed to be no stopping him; the native Welsh were said by one chronicler to have stuck to the charismatic prince ‘like glue’. England was hovering on the verge of civil war, and concerted opposition to the Welsh was impossible. Mortimer grimly clung on, managing to retake Cefnllys, but this was an isolated success. Fresh catastrophe struck when Simon de Montfort, leader of the baronial coalition in England, sent his son Henry to invade Mortimer’s lands and burn his castle of Radnor. Montfort had allied with the Welsh, and the attack on Radnor was probably a joint affair. To rub salt in Mortimer’s wounds, John Giffard, another rebel baron, invaded the Mortimer estates at Christmas 1263. Giffard committed great damage and slaughter, butchering tenants and storming castles.
Mortimer was now hanging on by a thread. He was saved by the Lord Edward, King Henry’s eldest son, who came speeding west at the head of an army. Edward took the Montfortian-held castles of Hay and Huntingdon, as well as Llywelyn’s castle at Brecon, and handed them over to Mortimer. This served to replace Mortimer’s losses, at least for a time, and shore up his crumbling authority in the March. He was now able to go on the offensive. In March 1263 he joined other Marcher barons to prevent a massive Welsh army – the ‘pride of Wales’ – from invading Gwent. After two days of heavy fighting the Marchers crossed a ford near Abergavenny and attacked the Welsh in the rear, cutting their army in two. Most of the Welsh escaped westward across the Blorenge mountain, where the Marchers could not follow, so Mortimer and his allies contented themselves with killing or capturing several hundred foragers.
Shortly afterwards Mortimer was active in England. He drove Montfort’s son, Simon the Younger, into the Midlands and expelled Montfortian clerks, probably students, from Oxford. Mortimer also seems to have been present at the first major action of the war, at Northampton on 4th April 1264. Here Simon the Younger suffered a crushing defeat and over 80 rebel knights were captured. Mortimer’s see-saw fortunes plunged again at Lewes, on 14th April, where Montfort inflicted a stunning defeat on the royalist army. King Henry and Edward were captured, along with Mortimer and other loyal Marchers. After negotiations the Marchers were allowed to depart west to their estates, on condition they appeared in Parliament when summoned. They promptly broke the agreement and ravaged the west country, storming Gloucester, Bridgenorth and Marlborough, among other places. Montfort and his ally Llywelyn struck back. In two brief campaigns Mortimer’s war-weary lands were again ravaged and their lord compelled to submit to a humiliating peace. He and the other Marchers were forced to agree to go into exile in Ireland for a year a day, leaving their families behind. Upon their return, they would be put on trial for their offences.
They never went to Ireland. Mortimer found various pretexts to postpone his departure, all the while biding his time as the baronial coalition dissolved. Montfort quarrelled with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, his most powerful ally. De Clare abandoned Montfort and withdrew to the Forest of Dean, taking John Giffard with him. Earl Warenne and William de Valence, who had fled abroad after Lewes, landed in West Wales with an army of mercenaries. In response Montfort advanced to Hereford and set about refortifying the city. He took Edward with him as a hostage. On 28th May Montfort’s world caved in when Edward escaped from custody and galloped for the refuge of Mortimer’s castle at Wigmore. His pursuers rode straight into five hundred mailed horsemen led by Mortimer and Roger de Clifford. A rout ensued, with Mortimer chasing the rebels as far as Hereford. In a gesture of contempt he pinned his lance to the city gates before withdrawing. Under Edward’s leadership the Marchers obliterated Montfort’s power in the west. Within days of the prince’s escape much of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire had declared for him, while Montfortian strongholds quickly fell one after another. At last Gloucester was captured, leaving Montfort isolated at Hereford. In desperation he turned to Llywelyn, who in exchange for a few thousand Welsh spearmen extracted favourable terms from Montfort via the Treaty of Pipton.
At Evesham, on 4th August 1265, Montfort met his fate in a drama of almost Biblical proportions. Outgeneralled and outnumbered, his army was trapped by the combined forces of Edward, Gloucester and Mortimer inside a loop of the River Avon. Mortimer was placed at the head of a death-squad of twelve knights with instructions to hunt the earl down on the field and kill him. Amid crashing thunder and torrential rain, the baronial army was destroyed in an orgy of noble bloodletting not witnessed in England since Hastings. The Welsh spearmen fled and were butchered without mercy. Mortimer himself smashed through the tattered rebel lines and drove his lance into the back of Montfort’s neck. He and Sir William Maltravers, along with others, then set about hacking the fallen man to pieces. When all was over, the earl’s head was paraded on the end of a spear with his testicles hung either of his nose. Mortimer had one of his severed feet packaged up and sent as a gift to Lady Mortimer at Wigmore. All those defeats and humiliations, the repeated devastation of his estates and the threat of extinction, had been paid for.
Artwork courtesy of Matthew Ryan