Hugh de Mortimer

Today I am writing -albeit briefly- about Hugh de Mortimer, an earlier member of the Mortimer family who died in 1181. 


Hugh is believed to have been born in Normandy in the 1090’s, possibly sooner. He was the grandson of the first Mortimer,  (de Mortimer) Roger who took his name from the castle of Mortemer in the Siene-Maritime region historically in upper Normandy (Haute-Normandie).[1.] It is not clear whether Roger fought at Hastings alongside William duke of Normandy in 1066, but his son Ralph was certainly present in England in the years after the conquest of England. After the rebellion of Roger FitzOsbern, the second son of William FitzOsbern, 1st earl of Hereford [2.] which Ralph may have helped to suppress, the Mortimer family acquired the castle of Wigmore which was to remain the principal seat of the family until Ludlow Castle gradually replaced it in the 1300’s[3.]

In stark contrast to the last of the Mortimers of Wigmore after 1330, these early Mortimers were unusually long lived. Roger is believed to have been born around 990 if not earlier and the last mention of him is as a witness of a charter circa 1080, his son Ralph is thought to have been born in the 1050’s and died at some point between 1115/1127. Ralph’s son Hugh would live such a long life that historians, unable to believe that he could have survived into his eighties or nineties, decided that he must have been two separate Hugh de Mortimers. This is incorrect. [4.]

Despite holding extensive lands in England [5.] the Mortimers connection with their homeland Normandy was to remain very strong. Hugh probably grew up on the family lands in Normandy.  He was in England during the reign of King Stephen whose reign is mostly remembered for a time of upheaval and violence, known as the ‘anarchy’ as Stephen battled his cousin Matilda for the throne. Hugh remained loyal to Stephen despite many of his Marcher allies switching to support Matilda, leaving him increasingly isolated at Wigmore. Indeed, in 1149 Hugh was forced to remain inside of Wigmore castle as Roger, earl of Hereford besieged him. Prior to this in 1148  Hugh  had laid siege to Ludlow Castle, then in the hands of his former ally Josce de Dinam [6.] but was unsuccessful and was later ambushed by Dinam and held prisoner within Ludlow castle. He would secure his freedom with a massive ransom of 3,000 silver marks and the Wigmore Abbey Chronicle notes that on top of the huge cash sum, Hugh had to surrender his plate, expensive horses and his birds (likely highly trained falcons).

Hugh was described in his own lifetime as “wrathful” “arrogant” and “proud” [7.] He was most certainly violent, a trait he appears to have shared with his son and heir Roger. During his reconquest of Maelienydd [8.]  he captured Rhys ap Hywel in 1145 and had him blinded three years later, he was also responsible for the death of Maredudd ap Madog ab Idnerth in 1146. [9.]

King Stephen died in October 1154 and was succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry who was crowned King Henry II then in his early twenties faced the unenviable task of restoring royal authority to England after years of political turmoil which had left the magnates over mighty. Henry decided that all former royal castles must be taken back by the crown and Hugh Mortimer, who held Bridgnorth (formerly royal) took issue with this.  He was not the only magnate to do so, but whilst men like Roger, earl of Hereford and William, count of Aumale backed down and submitted, Hugh did not. Perhaps Hugh thought that this young and relatively untried king would be intimidated but in this he was to be proved very, very wrong. Henry destroyed Hugh’s castle at Cleobury Mortimer and did much damage to Wigmore. The incredibly honest (and somewhat cutting) William of Newburgh in hiHistoria rerum Anglicarum tells us that Hugh surrendered Bridgnorth and was pardoned by Henry and Hugh’s “heart beat a little before had been like the heart of a lion, but who now became a humble supplicant.”  Clearly Hugh had picked a fight that he could not hope to win, too used to have his own way during the chaos of Stephen’s reign, and was rudely awakened by Henry II. Fortunately for Hugh, he was allowed to keep his other lands as he was still an important figure on the marches and there was nothing to be gained by further punishment.

Hugh Mortimer and Henry II never seem to have had a particularly good relationship and Hugh remained a bellicose and defiant figure right until his death. He remained active -and reckless- well into his eighties, possibly older given the question mark over his birth and is known to have once again defied Henry, ignoring a command to surrender stolen cattle. This event, in 1167, saw Hugh, by now in his sixties or seventies, fined £100, a fine that he never bothered to pay.

Perhaps the last event of note in Hugh’s long life was the death of Cadwallon ap Madog, a brother of the above mentioned Maredudd ap Madog and cousin to Rhys ap Gruffydd better known as “the Lord Rhys.” Rhys was the the ruler of Deheubarth having succeeded in 1155 after the successive deaths of his older brothers and half brothers. Rhys’ father was Gruffydd ap Rhys d.1137 and his mother Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd had been killed in 1136 near Kidwelly battling the Anglo-Normans. Despite several set backs, notably in 1158 and 1163 by 1165 Rhys had managed to regain control of most of his ancestral lands and by 1171 had made peace with Henry II, which would last until the latters death. Cadwallon ap Madog made his own peace with Henry II in 1175 and appears to have recovered much of Maelienydd as well as ruling Elfael at the death of his brother in 1176 which must have enraged the elderly Hugh Mortimer. Owing to the cordial relationship between Rhys and Henry II, there was to be no campaign to recover the bulk of  Maelienydd and Cadwallon’s son Maelgwn was ruling Maelienydd a decade later.  In the early autumn of 1179 Henry II called Cadwallon to his court, ostensibly to answer charges of disrupting the peace and/or waging war. It was on his return to Elfael that Cadwallon was intercepted and murdered by men loyal to the Mortimers.

It is extremely unlikely that Hugh or his son Roger knew nothing of these plans and indeed, the murder was probably carried out on one or both of their orders. Henry II was understandably enraged as Cadwallon had been travelling under a safe-conduct, a detail that was must have been known to the Mortimers but subsequently ignored. Roger Mortimer was arrested and imprisoned at Winchester where he was to remain for three years, only being released in June 1182. The family lands were confiscated but eventually recovered  probably at the time of Roger’s release but by this point Hugh was already dead, having died at Cleobury Mortimer on February 26th 1181.[11.] It was possibly because of his advanced age that Hugh was spared prison for the murder of Cadwallon ap Madog.

Hugh is primarily remembered for his foundation of Wigmore Abbey dedicated to St James, where he personally laid the foundation stone after allowing the monks to choose the land their abbey would be built upon in the 1170’s. After his death Hugh would be buried before the high altar. Although the recipient of some stinging criticism during his lifetime, the historian writing of the foundation of Wigmore Abbey perhaps rather unsurprisingly, tell us that Hugh was “lofty stature, valiant in arms, and very noble in speech. If the deeds that he had wrought in England, Wales, and elsewhere were put in writing, they would amount to a great volume.”


[1.] Roger de Mortemer was thought to have been born in the early 990’s and died at some point between 1078/1084. He held Mortemer castle for only a few years before it was confiscated by duke William. Roger had fought at the battle of Mortemer in 1054, routing the French led by Henry I (d.1060) and had captured Ralph, count of Crépy  (later Valois, whose career was not unalike that of Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March). Roger gave shelter to Ralph for some days before letting him go free without extracting a huge ransom. Some of Roger’s lands lay within France rather than Normandy and his wife Hawise had in her possession some lands which may have lay under Ralph’s control. This led to speculation that Hawise may have been Ralph’s own daughter and therefore Roger’s father in law. This was first suggested in the 1874 by the British historian James Robinson Planché in his exhaustive work on William the Conqueror.  For sheltering and freeing Ralph, Roger was exiled by a wrathful William, his lands confiscated. Duke William and Roger soon reconciled but the Mortimers never regained Mortemer Castle. See Planché, The Conqueror and his Companions, Vol I, 1874
[2.]Roger de Breteuil, 2nd Earl of Hereford d. aft 1087 succeeded his Father as earl of Hereford in 1071. After marrying his sister to the earl of east Anglia Ralph de Gauder without the kings permission the two rose up in rebellion in 1075. Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria was also involved but confessed but was still sentenced to death, he was executed at St Giles hill, Winchester.  De Breteuil and de Gauder were imprisoned and then exiled.
[3.] Wigmore was built circa 1070 by William FitzOsbern 1st earl of Hereford most likely in timber and then rebuilt in stone by the Mortimers.  Despite Ralph Mortimer rebelling against King William II, in favour of his brother Robert, duke of Normandy, he was not punished as William needed the support from the very men who had turned on him. In 1095 there was another rebellion, but there is no suggestion that any Mortimer took part.
[4.] This is shown in the Wigmore Chronicle, however authors of the Complete peerage disregarded it. Dr Ian Mortimer has produced fresh research that strongly points to Hugh having truly lived to an extraordinarily advanced age for a man of his times.
[5.] The Domesday book tells us that Ralph Mortimer held lands and properties in over twelve English counties.
[6.] Dinam was married by Stephen to Sybil, a daughter or niece of Hugh de Lacy. This marriage brought Ludlow castle, a strategic marches stronghold into Dinam’s keeping.  Whilst Ludlow never fell to Hugh, he was successful in blockading the castle so well that taking Hugh by treachery was the only means left open to Dinam.
[7.] See the Chronique de Robert de Torigni, abbé du Mont-Saint-Michel (can be found online) and Historia rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh.
[8.] This Welsh kingdom was adjacent to Mortimer lands and had fallen to Hugh’s father Ralph but had been subsequently lost after the death of Henry I.
[9.] See Annales Cambriae
[10.] Gwenllian was the youngest daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynan, the king of Gwynedd.
[11.] The Annals of Worcester state that Hugh died in 1185 “Hugo de Mortuo Mari, fundator abbaye de Wiggemore” and his describe his burial “ad ostium capituli Wigornirie.” The year of death is almost certainly in error as his son Roger was to be responsible for the debts of his Father in 1381, including the £100 fine that Hugh neglected to pay.


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