Ian Mortimer


The Greatest Traitor

On 1 August 1323 a thirty-six year-old man lay in a chamber high up within the Tower of London. He was a nobleman, the lord of Wigmore, Radnor and Ludlow castles, and the lord of many manors throughout England. He held half the county of Meath and the castle and lordship of Trim in Ireland, and had twice been the governor of that country. He was one of the most experienced battle leaders alive, having fought campaigns in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. But he was also the King Edward II's prisoner, sentenced to life imprisonment for having taken part in a rebellion two years earlier.

The man's name was Sir Roger Mortimer, Lord Mortimer of Wigmore. That he was a prisoner was not particularly remarkable: a great many noblemen in the early fourteenth century found themselves captive at some point in their careers. What was remarkable was that he was still alive. Nearly all of the other noblemen who had taken part in the recent rebellion against King Edward were dead, most hanged or beheaded at the king's order; and those who were still above ground, such as his sixty-seven year-old grizzled war veteran of an uncle, were imprisoned without hope of release. With the hated son of the Earl of Winchester, Hugh Despenser, whispering policy into the king's ear one moment and acting as if he himself was king the next, to be a prisoner was to be at the mercy not only of the executioner but also the assassin, the 'smiler with the knife'.

Tension was high. Shortly after their surrender, Sir Roger Mortimer and his uncle had been condemned to death as traitors. Then they had been reprieved, but there was still a danger that they would be condemned to death again, in secret. Eighteen months had passed in this grim uncertainty. In that year-and-a-half the king and Hugh Despenser had ruled without restraint. To many observers, the government was out of control, spiralling into tyranny, as the king and his manipulative friend indulged themselves in an unchecked exploitation of royal power, delighting in the humiliation and destruction of those who questioned their authority. Only one man was considered a serious threat to them: Sir Roger Mortimer, even though he was their prisoner. As opinion in the country hardened against their regime, Despenser convinced the king that they should take this opportunity to destroy him. Thus in the summer of 1323 they agreed to have Roger killed. The date was set for the beginning of August.

The morning of 1 August began like any other for those in the Tower. The afternoon too was not unusual. The early evening meal, however, was to be special. It was the feast of St Peter ad Vincula - St Peter in Chains - whose chapel occupied a corner of the Tower and whose mystical presence watched over those within its walls. The feasting in the hall of the castle was accompanied with much drinking, and the drinking continued after the eating had finished, and soon the majority of the guards were drunk. Not only were they drunk, they were increasingly sinking into a soporific state induced by the sub-lieutenant, Gerard D'Alspaye. He had arranged for the kitchen staff to administer drugged wine to the garrison. As the men fell asleep or stumbled about, D'Alspaye hastened to the chamber in which Sir Roger Mortimer waited with a fellow prisoner, a squire, Richard of Monmouth. A short while afterwards they heard the scraping of iron against stone as D'Alspaye prised stones from his cell wall with a crowbar. Soon the soft mortar gave way, the stones tumbled free, and they scrambled through a ragged hole in the wall.

Loose within the castle, Roger and his two companions hurried to the kitchen. The cook, who held domain over his kitchen staff as if they were his feudal subjects, silenced the boys and servants present, and guarded the escape as the three men climbed into a wide chimney and up into the twilight air. They crossed the roofs of the palace, climbing on to the wall walk and down into the inner bailey, then up on to the outer curtain wall of the castle, by St Thomas's Tower, near Traitor's Gate, using rope ladders. From the top of the wall they let themselves down to the marshy banks of the river. A little way downstream they were met by two Londoners, who armed them and rowed them across the river. At Greenwich, on the south bank, four men-at-arms were ready with extra horses on which they fled in the darkness down the road south, dodging the pursuing king's men by taking the by-ways to Porchester, finding the hidden rowing boat waiting to take them to a ship bound for France.


Sir Roger Mortimer remains to this day one of the very few prisoners to have escaped from the Tower, and in his own time perhaps was only the second to accomplish the feat. His freedom was not merely of personal significance. As a result of it he became the widely acknowledged leader of the resistance to the king and the hated government of Hugh Despenser. Three years later, together with Queen Isabella, he invaded England and took control of the country, thereby completing the first successful invasion since 1066. While the nature of his invasion was very different from that of William the Conqueror, the results had a huge impact on the political state of the nation. Just as at Hastings, the reigning monarch was soon removed from office, his government destroyed, and his favoured retainers stripped of their power and lands. But more importantly, for the first time in English history, the king's deposition was agreed in Parliament, not on the battlefield. It was one of the most significant events of medieval European history.

Extraordinary though it may seem, no one has written a full-length biography of Sir Roger Mortimer. One would have thought that the life of a man who ruled the country for almost four years deserves further examination. But even his name is barely known, except as the lover of Queen Isabella. As far as the literary legacies of front-rank English political leaders go, his is one of the slightest: a couple of early plays, a couple of political satires on eighteenth century statesmen, a minor nineteenth century romantic novel, and the odd chapter here and there in a few collective biographies. Even with regard to academic study Roger Mortimer has been much ignored, being the subject of only one higher degree thesis and the part-subject (on his rule with Isabella) of two others. Few academic articles have been published on his role, or his possible importance. His current reputation among scholars may be summed up as a brief, elusive, unsavoury shadow in between the reigns of Edward II and Edward III.

What are the reasons for this lack of a legacy? One might say that it is because there are more engaging personalities who steal the early fourteenth century limelight, most notably Piers Gaveston and Edward II himself. Yet Gaveston's relationship with the king was no more remarkable than Mortimer's with the queen. One was probably homosexual in nature, the other adulterous: both outrageous aspects of royal behaviour in the early fourteenth century. A more likely explanation of the absence of a biography of Lord Mortimer lies in the fact that it is very difficult to bring medieval personalities to life: we simply do not know enough about their driving forces, their hatreds and loves, to be able to build portraits of characters as opposed to uninspired, armour-clad drones following patterns of feudal behaviour. Alison Weir draws attention to the challenge faced by medieval biographers in the preface to her book on Eleanor of Aquitaine, referring to this lack of first-hand personal detail as the greatest obstacle to creating a credible portrait of her subject.

There is another reason why Lord Mortimer has not been written about before. He has had a bad press. As the man who partnered a queen - the notorious 'She-wolf of France' - in adultery, he has received no sympathy from those moralists down the years who deplore such behaviour in a woman, especially a beautiful and powerful one. In none of the dramatic works which touch upon him is he viewed with any sympathy, and in recent interpretations of Marlowe's Edward II he is portrayed as an unflinching, testosterone-exuding military man. Such a two dimensional representation is neither supported nor denied by academic historians, who place Lord Mortimer and his contemporaries into parties of political leverage rather than presenting them as personalities. Yet if we know anything of the period we know that its politics were intensely personal. Wars were sometimes lost due to one pig-headed lord's refusal to fight alongside a man he did not like. Edward II might not have lost his throne if he had not been so intense in his friendships with men who had equally intense enemies.

Another reason for the bad press Roger has received is the fact that he was condemned as a traitor by Edward III, one of the few monarchs to be as well-thought of by contemporaries and historians as the universally adored Queen Elizabeth I. There was much to lose and nothing to gain from writing well of Lord Mortimer, or even reminding the king and his court of the man's past existence. Shortly after his death there was a deliberate attempt to destroy his reputation and the memory of his popularity by dragging his appointed officers through the courts. Even when the sentence of treason on him was reversed in 1354, twenty-four years after his execution, Edward still had another twenty-three years to reign; and by the time one of Roger's descendants stood in line for the throne, sixty years later, he himself had largely been forgotten. There is thus a considerable amount of 'politeness' behind his failure to stand tall in history. This blanking of the man's positive attributes differs from deliberate propaganda or bias, but it still remains a long way adrift of the historical facts.

This brings us to the key question: is our picture of Roger Mortimer as a crooked, selfish, adulterous, military traitor deserved? All such labels are, of course, relative, especially when reflecting on an age so different from our own. But if we can sympathise with the reasons why a man does something, we might understand even his worst 'crimes'. For example, if he had no choice but to order the king to be killed, on account of the political risk of him being released from prison, his order was not necessarily a cold-hearted one, even if it was cold-blooded. But as will be shown, Roger Mortimer emerges as a far more interesting character than a mere royal murderer. He was one of the very few important lords who remained totally loyal to the king and Piers Gaveston in their most severe troubles. There is evidence to suggest that, although one of the most experienced soldiers of his age, with a particular penchant for the joust, he was as sophisticated in his tastes for objets d'art, comfortable architecture and exotica as he was in his war machines. He was certainly not ignorant of history, nor of its importance. He was a literate man, trusted as an emissary by the king, loved by the queen, and respected by the citizens of London. Even the chronicler Froissart notes his popularity. Finally he planned and carried out the most daring and complicated plot in British medieval history, which has remained secret right up until the present day. As a historical figure he stands in three camps: firstly, as one of the great fourteenth century aristocrats and secular patrons; secondly, as a baronial warlord of an earlier period; and, thirdly, as one of those remarkable people whose misdeeds set them apart from their contemporaries, forever defying categorisation.

So, before we try to reconcile Roger Mortimer with the pantheon of English history's maligned political leaders, we must remind ourselves that society then as now judges men and women on their single worst deed or crime, and in Roger's case we are talking about a man who deposed Edward II and ruled in his stead for three years, who adulterously slept with the queen, who arranged the judicial murder of the king's uncle, the Earl of Kent, and who greedily gathered to himself vast estates throughout Britain and Ireland. As the last chapter of this book will reveal, the extent to which he undermined the English monarchy is truly astounding. By the standards of his own time, which are the only ones by which a man can be judged, he was most certainly the greatest traitor of his age. It is perhaps significant that, in a reign when many men turned traitor and were killed, only three executions dramatically altered the course of events - those of Piers Gaveston (1312), the Earl of Lancaster (1322) and Roger Mortimer (1330), and only the last brought peace to the kingdom.

This book does not answer all the questions about the character of Roger Mortimer. Ultimately, as with any medieval man, we may only know him by his recorded deeds, and we will never be sure that we understand his personality when he left no personal written testimony of his character. Even his deeds are in doubt: unlike virtually every other ruler in history his obsession was in being seen not to rule, to govern invisibly, and to leave little or no trace of his unofficial dictatorship in the official records of government. Thus there are a few points in this book which, due to lack of evidence, can only be loosely associated with Roger Mortimer. However, with the important exception of Chapter Twelve and the final chapter (Chapter Twelve Revisited), this book is not a series of academic arguments as to the strengths and reliability of individual pieces of evidence; it is an attempt to illustrate the vast chessboard on which Roger Mortimer and his eminent contemporaries played out their ambitions - kings, queens, bishops, knights, custodians of castles - and to trace his career, his loves, struggles, ambitions, power structures and defeats. Even if one cannot fully understand the personality of a man who lived and died more than twenty generations ago, to see his personal struggle framed by the age in which he lived is a start to understanding his thinking. That age was one of unbridled personal ambition and bloodshed; it saw enough betrayal, corruption, greed and murder for it to merit the description 'the Age of Treason'. And yet it was also full of piety, chivalry and patriotic fervour. It was a society in which all its leading participants struggled to survive. In this light one can begin to sympathise with the actions of Roger Mortimer, and gauge for him what is perhaps the most important element of any historical personality: his integrity.

n.b. endnotes have been removed from the above draft of the introduction