This year, we are celebrating the 700th anniversary of Roger Mortimer’s escape from the Tower of London. You may wonder what the connection is between Ludlow Castle and the event. And who is Roger Mortimer? Read on to find out…
Roger Mortimer’s Coat of Arms on the Heraldic Roll, displayed at Ludlow Castle
Roger’s ancestor, Ralph de Mortimer, came to England from Normandy around the time of the Norman Conquest. Ralph was given some lands in the Welsh border and later he acquired Wigmore Castle which became the family’s main seat, and this line of the Mortimer family became known as Mortimer of Wigmore.
When Roger was born in 1287, England was ruled by King Edward I, known as the hammer of the Scots. In 1301, when Roger was 14 years old, he married the heiress of Ludlow Castle, Joan de Geneville, at Pembridge church. Three years later, Roger’s father, Edmund Mortimer, died and his wardship was granted to Piers Gaveston, the favourite of the king’s son, Prince Edward, future Edward II. Although Roger soon bought his wardship back, he remained close friends with Gaveston and the prince.
In 1306, Roger was given permission to inherit his late father’s possessions and knighted alongside the prince Edward. When Geoffrey de Geneville died in 1314, Roger acquired Ludlow Castle through his wife, Joan. He was now one of the wealthiest lords in the Welsh Marches.
You may think being friends with the prince and his favourite made him more powerful – that would be true if the prince and his favourite were more cooperative to the king. They and Roger deserted the king’s army while they were at war in Scotland and joined a tournament in France. The enraged king exiled Gaveston and forfeited Roger’s estates for punishment. Roger was soon pardoned but Gaveston remained exiled.
However, it was not long before the aged king died and Gaveston was welcomed back to England by the heir to the throne, Prince Edward. Gaveston was showered with many gifts from the prince – the earldom of Cornwall, marriage to the prince’s niece and the biggest prize was gaining the power to advise the future king. Roger also benefitted, being close to them. At the coronation of King Edward II in 1308, Roger carried a cloth in which lay the royal robes. He was also appointed the Justiciar of Ireland, the country in which he had acquired all Geoffrey de Geneville’s lands and estates.
In the next few years, Roger was busy in Ireland trying to establish his authority. Back in England, while Roger was in Ireland, Piers Gaveston became more and more unpopular among the lords as he gained more power and favour from the king. He was again exiled from England by the parliament’s decision but came back secretly to seek the king’s protection. This time, however, he was caught by Earls of Lancaster, Arundel and Warwick and executed.
After Gaveston’s death, Edward II soon found another favourite, Hugh Despencer. This was terrible news to Roger. He was more enemy than friend to the Despencers as his grandfather had killed Despencer’s grandfather at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. In addition, the friendship between the king and Roger became sour over who was to rule Ireland. Therefore, when he came back from Ireland in 1320 and found that Despencer was gaining more power and lands in the Welsh Marches, he decided to join the fight against him along with other Marcher lords. At first, the Marcher lords succeeded in driving Despencer out of the country, but the king soon recalled him and sought revenge on the lords who fought against his favourite. After a few conflicts and incidents, the royal army finally caught Roger and his uncle at Shrewsbury, and they were sent to the Tower of London. Roger’s castles and estates were forfeit and his wife, sons and daughters were also held in custody by the king’s supporters at separate locations. The royal army also defeated northern barons lead by the Earl of Lancaster, who had been against the king and his past and present favourites, at the Battle of Boroughbridge. The earl was executed after the battle.
The Mortimers from the Welsh Marches and the Earl of Lancaster from the north now being out of the way, Hugh Despencer indulged in more and more outrageous behaviour. He controlled the country’s treasury to gain money and took lands from anyone for his pleasure, even from Queen Isabella, wife of the king. Naturally Despencer made himself enemy to barons all over the country and he went beyond the queen’s limit of patience.
Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer
When we talk about Roger Mortimer, we cannot ignore Queen Isabella. Isabella was a daughter of the French king, Philip IV, and she married Edward II in 1308, when she was twelve years old. There had been ‘three in the marriage’ from the beginning – first Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despencer. She had been humiliated constantly as the king put his favourites before her. She was even abandoned by the king and Despencer when they failed in their campaign in Scotland. Although she bore some children, including Prince Edward, by the time Roger Mortimer was plotting the escape from the Tower, she no longer had warm feelings towards him.
The day Roger picked to escape from the Tower was 1st August 1323, the feast of St Peter ad Vincula. Most people in the Tower were celebrating the saint’s day with drink and food. The security would be minimal, and he had some help amongst the officers in the Tower. He prayed to St Peter for the success of his escape, vowing that he would build a special building in his castle at Ludlow if the saint granted his prayer. And it was granted. He managed to escape from the mighty prison and crossed the sea to France where he would have support from his relatives and the king of France, Queen Isabella’s brother, Charles IV.
At that time, England and France were at war over Gascony. Being the French king’s sister, King Edward ordered Isabella to mediate in the relationship between the two countries by writing to her brother. However, King Charles of France requested that Edward come to France in person to do homage. Edward refused the request as he feared that Despencer would be killed whilst he was absent from England. Then the French king offered an option of keeping his lands in Gascony if he sent Isabella and Prince Edward to France for the negotiation. The English king agreed to send Isabella but not his heir. So, Isabella was sent to France with the English king and Despencer’s spies in 1325.
The negotiations did not go well, of course. Charles would not accept any terms without the English king himself or his heir, Prince Edward, coming to France to pay homage. In the end Edward agreed to send the prince to France in exchange for Isabella’s return to England. He also sent the Bishop of Exeter who was on the side of the king to make sure that Isabella would return to England. However, as soon as she was reunited with Prince Edward, Isabella declared that ‘someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond and I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed’. Soon after this official proclamation of rebellion by Isabella, Roger joined her in the French court, and they are believed to have become lovers. Together, they started planning the invasion of Edward II’s England…
In September 1326, Roger and Isabella landed in Suffolk with a small army. King Edward sent his men to assemble his army, but many joined Isabella and Roger’s army. They had had enough of Despencer’s ruling the king and the country. They hoped for a better country with the queen and the prince. With his men deserting, the king and his favourite abandoned London and fled to the west. In November, the king and his favourite were captured near Neath in Wales. The king was taken to Kenilworth Castle and imprisoned and Despencer was executed in Hereford in front of both Roger and Isabella on 24th November.
In January 1327, Queen Isabella, Prince Edward and Roger Mortimer triumphantly entered London. The parliament was held to discuss the future of the country, but the king refused to attend. In the end, parliament agreed to dethrone King Edward. The king was informed of the decision that he was found guilty of several crimes, such as ‘governing for his own profit and allowing others to do the same’ and ‘fleeing in the company of a notorious enemy of the realm and leaving the realm without government’. Then he was asked to choose either to abdicate and pass the crown to the prince or to resist and be deposed. He chose to abdicate and so his son was crowned as Edward III on 1st February.
What happened to Edward II after the abdication is debated among the historians. In the past, it was widely believed that he was moved to Berkeley Castle and then killed with a red hot poker in September 1327. Now some historians believe that his death was made up and he was moved secretly to Corfe Castle. When his death was doubted, he was moved again, this time abroad. In the end, he ended up living on the continent and died in around 1341.
Now back to Roger. After Edward II’s abdication, all his crimes were pardoned, and his estates in England were restored. The following year, he made himself the first Earl of March, such a vast area of earldom which no one ever had before. Around that period, he updated and extended the North Range in the inner bailey at Ludlow Castle to match his new status. He also erected the building he promised when he escaped from the Tower of London.
With Queen Isabella, Roger influenced young king Edward III on his decisions, even ignoring the king’s will. He walked alongside the king and remained seated in front of the king. By the middle of 1330, his manner became so arrogant, and he had been using the royal power as his own. He granted himself many lands including all of Despencer’s in Pembrokeshire. The king could not do much to stop him during his minority. However, he would soon become of age…
On the evening of 19th October 1330, while Roger, Isabella and Edward III stayed in Nottingham Castle for the parliament, Edward brought men into the castle secretly and arrested Roger for treason. The charges included using the royal power for his benefit and murdering King Edward II. He was moved to the Tower but this time, he was not able to escape. He was hanged at Tyburn.
So, how did Roger escape from the Tower and what building did he erect at Ludlow Castle to celebrate the event? To find out, please do visit the castle during May half-term and take part in the ‘Escape from the Tower Trail’ which is running from 27th May – 4th June – more details can be found on our Events Page.