The Marauding Mortimers #3 – Hanged or Beheaded?

The fate of Roger Mortimer, regent of England.

Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral

When this man’s grandfather helped the young Prince Edward to escape from Hereford it was his neighbour and fellow Marcher magnate Geoffrey de Geneville who sheltered the prince in Ludlow Castle. De Geneville had acquired Ludlow and Trim castles through marriage to Maud de Lacy. 36 years later the young Roger was betrothed to de Geneville’s grand-daughter with the now King Edward’s blessing.

Young Roger’s relatives fought for both Edward I and Edward II in the long war of attrition against the Scots. By the time of Robert Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1315 the barons were becoming tired of the imposition of taxes necessary to fund the war. Edward II is believed by many historians to have been gay. He certainly had favourites and this added to the resentment of men like Mortimer and others who were jealous of what they saw as undeserved honours and property rights granted to such men as Piers Gaveston and Hugh Dispenser.

Meanwhile de Geneville confirmed his grand-daughter’s dowry, granting all his Irish and English property rights to Mortimer. This angered other members of the de Lacy family.

The Scots Invade Ireland

Robert Bruce decided to consolidate his victory by establishing a grand alliance of Irish, Scots and Welsh to defeat the English. He therefore sent his brother, Edward, to Ireland with an army of up to 6,000 troops, to gather support. They landed on the coast of County Antrim on May 26th 1315. The de Lacy’s joined Bruce’s force. There was less enthusiasm among the general population however. One reason for this was the fact that the harvest had failed and people in Ireland were suffering starvation.

Trim Castle; temporary refuge for Maud and her son
Trim Castle; Mortimer initially failed to reclaim it from Edward Bruce

Roger went to Ireland to defend his Meath holdings but was surprised by the size of the opposition and retreated to Dublin. There, people began dismantling their houses, using the materials to strengthen the city walls. The siege they feared, however, did not happen. Bruce’s army traveled around the Irish midlands scavenging for whatever food they could find. According to one account they were reduced to exhuming newly buried bodies from graves and eating the corpses.

Mortimer was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in November 1316 and subsequently drove the Scots back to Carrickfergus and the de Lacy’s into Connaught. Edward Bruce was killed in a battle near Dundalk on 14th October 1318. (For a full account of Edward Bruce’s campaign in Ireland see Robert the Bruce’s Irish Wars, edited by Sean Duffy, Tempus Publishing, 2002)

Civil War in England

An early painting of the Tower of London
An early painting of the Tower of London

Four years later, back in England, relations between the king and the magnates were worsening. Mortimer, with his uncle and the Earl of Hereford, led the opposition but was forced to surrender at Shrewsbury and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there for some eighteen months until he escaped and set sail for France.

The king’s wife, Isabella, had also become disenchanted by her husband’s behaviour and managed to persuade him to allow her to travel to France in order to negotiate a peace deal with her brother King Charles IV of France. There she met up with Mortimer and plotted to overthrow King Edward, replacing him on the throne with his son.

They gathered an invasion force and sailed from Flanders, landing in the estuary of the river Orwel on September 24th 1326 where they were joined by several disaffected barons and earls. Edward was forced to abdicate in favour of his son who was crowned Edward III on 25th January 1327. The king was still deemed too young to reign so the government was effectively in the hands of Mortimer and Isabella for the next three years.

Brutal Murder

The former king became a fugitive but was captured in November 1326 and imprisoned in Berkely castle where he was brutally murdered in the following September. It was now Mortimer’s turn to rouse anger and jealousy among his former allies as he took ever more power and lands to himself. He authorised the execution of the former king’s half-brother Edmund. Henry Earl of Lancaster persuaded the young king that it was time to exercise his power and, shortly before the latter’s eighteenth birthday Mortimer and Isabella were apprehended in Nottingham castle.

"Tyburn Tree", The execution scaffold at Tyburn
“Tyburn Tree”, The execution scaffold at Tyburn

Isabella, as Queen Mother, was exempt from trial and pleaded for her son to exercise clemency towards Mortimer. Her pleas were ignored and Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn, his body left hanging for two days. (Note: the author of this claim in Wikipedia does not provide a source. Simon Schama, in volume one of A History of Britain, suggests that Mortimer was beheaded; he, too, does not cite a source.)

Illustrious Descendents

What of his widow, Joan? When Roger absconded from the Tower of London she and their daughters were captured and imprisoned by the king, first in Skipton castle then in Pontefract, both in Yorkshire. Following her husband’s execution she was again imprisoned, this time in Hampshire. She was pardoned and released six years later and all her lands restored. She survived for a further twenty years. Joan and Roger were both buried close to the family seat at Wigmore Abbey. Their tombs were destroyed with the Abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Roger and Joan are the parents of the woman whose body was discovered in the church at Much Marcle in Herefordshire in January 2014. Later descendents reputedly include Sir Winston Churchill, the present British Royal Family, and George Washington.

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