Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March (1287-1330) remains a figure of much controversy even over five hundred years after his death. With the recent (and extremely thorough) research carried out by historian Kathryn Warner on Edward II and Queen Isabella, interest in Roger has grown as a result. Was he responsible for the apparent murder of Edward II? Were he and Queen Isabella even lovers? Was he a tyrant, deserving of his execution? Dr Ian Mortimer looked to answer these questions in his excellent 2003 biography The Greatest Traitor: the Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330, yet there is still little middle ground.
As a result of academic and popular interest in the life of Roger Mortimer there has also been several historical fiction novels written in recent years, notably Anna Belfrage’s trilogy ‘The King’s Greatest Enemy’ centred on Edward II’s reign and the Mortimer family. Anna is a popular and award winning author of historical fiction and in this guest post she discusses what it was the drew to Roger Mortimer.
An author setting out to write a fictionalised version of historical events must decide from what point of view these events will be related. After all, if I were to write from Hugh Despenser the Younger’s perspective, the rebellious barons led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, were a nasty lot who deserved to be hanged, drawn and quartered. From Roger Mortimer’s perspective, Hugh Despenser was an amoral and grasping bastard who got his just deserts when he was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1326.
Seeing as I’d developed a crush on Roger Mortimer already at the age of twelve, I knew exactly whose side I was on. Accordingly, Roger Mortimer plays the central role in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy. But I hesitated in making him the protagonist, because no matter how much I admired Mortimer, I was not entirely taken with how he handled things the last few years of his life. Enter Adam de Guirande, my fictional creation who adores Roger Mortimer—at least initially—but has problems reconciling his love for his former lord with some of Mortimer’s actions.
I spent a number of sleepless nights as an adolescent anguishing over Mortimer’s ultimate fate. I also conducted weird rituals involving walking backwards and lighting candles at midnight, this to somehow leap the huge divide of time that separated me from Roger Mortimer so that I could warn him that pride is almost always followed by fall.
Obviously, Roger Mortimer didn’t need me to tell him that. He lived in a time and age where the concept of the Wheel of Fortune was well understood – ergo what goes up one day, comes back down the next. Except, of course, that to judge from his actions he didn’t quite believe it would apply to him. What can I say? An excessive amount of pride.
Mortimer was born to power. Loyal servants of the king, his ancestors had established themselves in the Welsh Marches, where they held substantial amounts of land. It was expected that little Roger would grow up to diligently serve his king and thereby further the Mortimer interests.
Initially, things worked according to plan. Roger Mortimer was a capable—and trusted—royal servant. However, Edward II had a predilection for choosing a favourite and rewarding him with riches and powers well beyond what said individual had earned. This did not please Mortimer. In fact, all the barons except the lucky favourite were less than thrilled by their king’s favouritism. Which is why Edward II’s first favourite, Piers Gaveston, was brutally murdered by rebelling barons in 1312.
Some years later, Roger Mortimer was in Ireland, there to reinstate order and bring this troublesome province firmly back under English control. Meanwhile, a certain Hugh Despenser began climbing in Edward II’s favour. This, as per Mortimer, was not good. The Despenser and Mortimer families detested each other—had done so since Roger’s grandfather killed Despenser’s grandfather at Evesham in 1265—and with King Edward’s loving support Despenser became too powerful, thereby threatening Mortimer’s people.
Many heartily disliked Despenser and the king’s willingness to ride roughshod over law and custom to give his favourite what his favourite desired. In 1321, the disgruntled barons, led by Mortimer and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, rebelled. Initially, they reaped major success, obliging the king to exile his favourite. But Edward II was not about to take this lying down, and as this king lacked neither courage nor brains when sufficiently riled, some months later Lancaster was dead, Mortimer was rotting in the Tower, and Despenser was back with the king.
So far, Mortimer had all the traits of a romantic and doomed hero. A man committed to his cause, a man fearlessly staring death in the face to defend what is right (or what is his). No wonder I developed such strong protective feelings for him when I first heard of him – especially considering that I was entering puberty, which in general has hormones zipping back and forth in a most disquieting way.
Fortunately for Mortimer and my young and fragile heart, he did not die in the Tower. In August of 1323 our hero escaped, a daring feat involving clambering up chimneys, running over roof tops and climbing walls before finally making it to the river. Once free, Mortimer made for France, determined to one day return and crush Despenser. Feelings I could totally sympathise with, even if I wondered what price Mortimer’s family would pay for his escape.
Roger Mortimer had married Joan of Geneville when they were both in their early teens. A well-matched couple, these two went on to have twelve children or so, the majority of which were locked up after Mortimer’s rebellion.
His wife was treated harshly, but I believe Joan applauded his daring escape, relieved to know he was safe in France. However, in early 1326 rumours reached England (and I’m betting Edward and Hugh made sure they definitely reached Joan) of Roger spending his nights with Queen Isabella, Edward II’s estranged wife. Not something that would have pleased Joan. Not something an honourable man would do—not when his wife was languishing in captivity because of him.
As a romantic teenager, I could forgive Mortimer for his passionate relationship with Isabella. Yes, I felt sorry for Joan, but IMO Roger and Isabella were made for each other: ambitious, intelligent, ruthless – an explosive and effective combination. Fate (and a common objective) brought them together, and what can man do against fate? My invented character Adam was less forgiving: how could his beloved lord so dishonour the woman who had spent years locked up because of him? The older I got, the more prone I became to agree with Adam: how could Roger treat his wife as he did?
In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer returned to England at the head of an invading army. Some months later, Despenser was very dead. He’d died in the most gruesome way possible while Mortimer and Isabella sat and watched, sipping wine and feeding each other delicacies. Not something I found easy to reconcile with my youthful hero-worship of Mortimer. My hero had just acquired a second major dent in his halo. It left me squirming inside, while making up excuses along the line that Despenser had it coming, and what did I expect of a medieval grandee?
Obviously, I was going to have to address these issues in my books. When it comes to Joan, historian Ian Mortimer suggests that Roger Mortimer went to see her late in 1326, presenting her with a gift of books. In the below, I’ve expanded somewhat on this:
Adam bowed deeply, grateful for this opportunity to compose his features. The lady before him bore little resemblance to the lady he conserved in his memories, her previously so womanly figure reduced to that of a stick-like waif, narrow wrists protruding from the embroidered cuffs of her sleeves.
She was wearing a silk veil and wimple, but a heavy braid of grey hair hung in plain sight, and from the way Lord Roger winced, Adam suspected Lady Joan was taking the opportunity to show him what these last few years had cost her. While he had been safe and sound in France, his loyal lady wife had suffered years of deprivation, and her suffering must have been compounded by the rumours concerning her husband and the queen.
“My lady.” Lord Roger approached her with his hands extended, as if to take hold of hers.
Lady Joan backed away. “My lord husband,” she said stiffly, emphasising the last word. “Long have I awaited your visit.”
Lord Roger looked away. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner, but I—”
She waved him quiet. “So now what?” she asked.
“I…” Lord Roger wet his lips. “I brought you a gift.” He gestured, and Adam presented Lady Joan with the carefully wrapped bundle.
“A gift?” Lady Joan undid the cloth, revealing three books. Beautiful books, even Adam could see that, one of them reminiscent of Queen Jeanne’s book of hours. For what seemed like an eternity, Lady Joan just stood there, studying the books.
“Thank you,” she finally said. “And now what?” she repeated. “Will we return to Wigmore together, husband?” Yet again, she emphasised the last word. Yet again, Lord Roger looked away.
“Ah.” Lady Joan nodded, and her hand closed on the uppermost book. “For close to five years, I have been held captive. Five years in which my life has shrunk to four walls and a constant fear – for you, for our children. Five years spent mostly on my knees, praying for your safe return, for the sanity of our daughters, locked away among the nuns, for the lives of our sons, held prisoners by the king. I have prayed and prayed, and what have you done? What?” The book flew through the air, hitting Lord Roger full in the face. “You, husband, have shamed me! Before the entire court in France, before our sniggering countrymen, you have paraded that whore of a queen as your mistress, while I – I, your loyal wife, mother to your children – have suffered on your behalf. And this…” She picked up the next book and hurled it at him. “This is how you see fit to repay me? By buying me books?”
Phew. Somewhat heated, that… Anyway, as we all know, Edward II was forced to abdicate, his son was crowned in his stead, and it soon became very clear just who did the ruling: Isabella and her Roger. This did not go down well with the barons. And then, in September of 1327, came the news that Edward II was dead.
“Aha!” said the barons, pointing at Mortimer, “he did it.”
I have never believed Roger Mortimer murdered Edward II – for the simple reason that I find it inconceivable Isabella would have let him do something that heinous. I even remain unconvinced as to Edward’s death, but whatever my convictions, back then most people assumed Mortimer had rid himself of a dangerous enemy.
Whether or not he had royal blood on his hands, Mortimer was definitely guilty of usurpation—together with fair Isabella. He controlled the administration of the kingdom, he filled positions with men loyal to him, he called the shots. But the young king was growing up, and many a disgruntled baron was quietly whetting his sword, waiting for the opportunity to bring Mortimer down. Power, Mortimer was discovering, was easier to grab than to control, but he no longer had the option of backing down gracefully—there were too many wolves clamouring for his blood.
In March of 1330, Mortimer decided to teach all those unruly barons a not-so-subtle lesson titled “be prepared to die if you threaten me”. He did this by manipulating the Earl of Kent into treachery and once he had proof of the earl’s intentions, he had him arrested, wording things in such a way that the young king had no choice but to condemn the terrified earl to death. Seeing as Kent was Edward III’s uncle, Mortimer thereby sealed his own fate. It became apparent to Edward that either he took control soon, or there was a major risk Mortimer would never let go of his power—no matter who he might have to kill to remain on top.
Roger Mortimer in 1330 was no longer all that much of a hero. Yes, he was undoubtedly capable—he had the administration of the realm ticking along like clockwork—he was intelligent and brave. But he was also greedy and desperate to hang on to what he had, to some extent out of fear.
For me, the later years of Mortimer’s life was like watching the pedestal I’d placed him on crumble to pieces. Instead of a hero, here was a man, as weak and fallible as all of us are. As an adolescent, this development made me weep, ergo that desire to travel back in time and save him from it. As a novelist, I had found the perfect character: complicated and enigmatic. Which doesn’t stop me from still experiencing moments when I’d like to save him from his fate, have him ride off into a glorious sunset already in 1327 and leave the centre stage to all the squabbling factions who were more than eager to control the young king.
Ultimately, all that ambition, all that hunger for power, came to an inevitable end: in November of 1330, Roger Mortimer hanged for treason. His death was celebrated by many, but devastated quite a few, among them my fictional Adam de Guirande—and me. Silly, I suppose, to be so affected by events more than seven hundred years in the past. Or maybe it isn’t.