Roger Mortimer: the rebel baron who escaped the Tower to challenge Edward II
In 1323, Roger Mortimer pulled off an audacious escape from the Tower of London before ejecting Edward II from the English throne. But, writes Paul Dryburgh, the rebel baron’s designs on power were undone by his own big head
As the heat of the day sub sided on 1 August 1323, a boozy evening started in the Tower of London. Members of the garrison, including the constable, Sir Stephen de Segrave, settled down to celebrate the feast of St Peter ad Vincula (in Chains), the patron saint of the Tower’s parish church. Unbeknown to them, though, one of their number had slipped something into their drink – a drug so strong that “all of them slept at least two days and two nights”.
How did Roger Mortimer escape the Tower of London?
One of the most daring and ingenious escapes in the long history of the Tower was under way. Alerted to the potion’s success, Roger Mortimer, formerly Lord of Wigmore in Herefordshire, crept out into the darkness through a breach in his cell “in a very high up and confined place… out of sight and hearing of the world” into the kitchen that adjoined the king’s palace. From there, by means of “ropes ingeniously arranged into a ladder” that had been secretly smuggled into his cell, Mortimer scaled the walls of the inner and outer baileys.
In the colourful retelling of the St Albans monk Henry de Blaneforde, “guided by an angel, [Mortimer] passed over both the first and the second walls, and with the greatest difficulty he came at last to the water of the Thames”. Then he dropped into a boat which conveyed him to a group of accomplices holding horses, which bore him to the south coast. From either Portchester or Portsmouth, Mortimer sailed to northern France before King Edward II, the man on whose orders he had been imprisoned in the Tower, had the merest clue what was going on.
Today, 700 years later, Mortimer’s dramatic bid for freedom remains a vivid medieval example of the prison break story so beloved of literature and the screen. More importantly still, the events of 1 August 1323 would represent a catastrophe for Edward II. Mortimer’s escape triggered a chain of events that would lead to a coup, an alliance between Mortimer and Edward’s own wife, Isabella of France, and, it has long been argued, the probable murder of Edward. It would also see Mortimer become the most powerful man in the kingdom.
In short, by ghosting out of the Tower of London, Roger Mortimer changed the course of English history. Yet the verdict of history would not have been Mortimer’s most pressing concern as he tip-toed to freedom past his drugged Tower jailers on that warm August night. Weighing far more heavily on Mortimer’s mind was, more likely, the news that Edward II was intending to have him executed for treason on 11 August. That, at least, is what some contemporary chroniclers claimed – and that claim appears plausible, though there is no definite evidence for it.
What we do know for certain, however, is that Mortimer’s incarceration represented a spectacular turnaround in his relationship with Edward II. Just a few years earlier, the king and the captive had been the staunchest of allies.
Who was Roger Mortimer?
Roger Mortimer was a descendant of Norman knights who had accompanied William the Conqueror across the channel to England in 1066. During the early years of Edward II’s reign, he became one of England’s leading barons, not only Lord of Wigmore but also a Marcher Lord, one of the nobles appointed by the king to guard the restive Anglo-Welsh border. He remained loyal to Edward during the crisis-riven early years of the reign when an alliance of barons challenged Edward’s authority and had his favourite, the reviled Piers Gaveston, murdered in June 1312.
Mortimer’s extensive estates in Ireland made him an ideal choice as Edward’s lieutenant to tackle the invasion of the island by Edward, brother of Robert the Bruce, from 1315–18. Mortimer’s local knowledge and military talents were paramount in halting Bruce’s campaign to be recognised as king of Ireland as part of the Scots’ offensive to achieve recognition of their independence.
Mortimer also attempted to build loyalty for Edward’s lordship among various communities across Ireland. It seems he may have succeeded – for, on leaving in 1320, he was commended by the Dubliners “for having taken great pains to save and keep the peace”. Mortimer never returned to Ireland. Instead, he became embroiled in a civil war that would see him fall out with Edward II in spectacular style.
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Dispensing of the Despensers
At the centre of the dispute were two new favourites of the king with the same name: Hugh le Despenser (known as ‘the Elder Despenser’) and his son, ‘the Younger Despenser’. With the king’s tacit support, the two Hughs usurped the precious liberties and legal privileges enjoyed by the Marcher Lords. Unsurprisingly, the Marcher Lords, with Mortimer to the fore, were furious at this undermining of their powers and quickly forced Edward II to exile the Despensers.
However, in a rare show of tactical genius, Edward launched a counterattack in the winter of 1321/22. Assailed on several fronts and abandoned by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the leader of the rebellion, Mortimer surrendered to Edward at Shrewsbury in January 1322, hoping to save his life. Following a military victory at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire on 16 March 1322, Edward had many of the rebels, Lancaster among them, put to death, their corpses left hanging as a reminder to those who challenged the king’s authority.
Mortimer, meanwhile, was incarcerated in the Tower. Edward may now have felt relatively secure, but Mortimer’s dramatic escape in August 1323 changed all that. With one of his greatest enemies at large on the continent, likely plotting revenge, the king uncovered numerous conspiracies, real and imagined. The bishop of Hereford, Adam Orleton, was indicted for having abetted the rebels. Mortimer’s mother, Margaret, was sent into confinement at Elstow Abbey in Bedfordshire, accused of having held secret meetings on the Marches.
Edward had many of the rebels, Lancaster among them, put to death, their corpses left hanging as a reminder to those who challenged the king’s authority
Mortimer’s escape also persuaded Edward to act against those with links to the French court – and among those affected was none other than Edward’s own wife, Isabella. As sister of the French king Charles IV, the queen lost her lands, household and damsels in 1324. This was the first real breach in the royal couple’s relationship and, though Isabella at first remained scrupulously loyal to her husband, worse was to follow. Having voyaged to France in 1325 at her husband’s request to negotiate peace with Charles, by Christmas that year she had instead established a political relationship with Mortimer and his fellow exiles.
Edward soon made it known that he believed the couple were in a relationship more intimate than simply political (even though Mortimer himself was also married, to Joan de Geneville). Such was the scandal in France that Mortimer and Isabella were forced to flee to Hainault in modern Belgium.
Roger and Isabella’s scandalous rise to power
Events now took the king by surprise. On 24 September 1326, a fleet carrying around 1,500 men, which had embarked from Dordrecht at some point over the previous two days, landed in the mouth of the river Orwell in Suffolk. A combination of logistical brilliance and the disaffection of large swathes of English society brought Isabella quick success. Soon Edward II was on the run from London, and the king’s son (the future Edward III) was made keeper of the realm with powers to act on royal business in his father’s absence.
It was Isabella and Roger, however, who operated the levers of power. The queen established a satellite government to give legitimacy to her own strongarm tactics. She swiftly hunted down, tried and executed both Despensers. On 16 November the king himself, who had fled London with a small band of loyal men, was captured on a Welsh hillside and thrown in prison.
For many historians, Mortimer and Isabella come as a package. Politically they worked as a well-oiled machine. Their dexterous use of propaganda and management of parliament (the fruits of long and successful military and administrative careers at the very centre of power) convinced the political community to countenance Edward’s unprecedented deposition. Edward II’s reign had lurched from one disaster to the next – losing Scotland, promoting reviled favourites, alienating the church. So when the king was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son (who was crowned on 1 February 1327), there was little opposition.
Why was Mortimer known as the ‘King of Folly’?
If the country expected Mortimer and Isabella to eschew the favouritism, the arrogance and the profligacy that had dogged Edward’s reign, it was to be disappointed. Over the next three years, Mortimer and Isabella were said to have “usurped royal power and the treasure of the realm and they held the king under their subjection”.
Mortimer would take precedence over the young king in public, rising before him and walking paces ahead of him. In September 1329, Mortimer hosted the court at remote Wigmore, putting on a display of largesse remembered for centuries, hosting a lavish Arthurian tournament and dispensing gifts to the king and queen mother. Even to those closest to him, Mortimer was now displaying foolish arrogance, his son Geoffrey memorably calling him the ‘King of Folly’.
5 good (and bad) escape attempts from the Tower of London
A wife to the rescue
On 22 February 1716, Lady Winifred Herbert walked out of the Tower of London accompanied by her maids. Little did the guards know that one of those maids was her husband. William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale, was a leader of the 1715 Jacobite rising in support of the Old Pretender.
When the rising failed, he was captured and sentenced to death for treason. And that’s the fate he would have faced if his wife – who visited him regularly in the Tower – hadn’t smuggled him out dressed as a woman. Maxwell escaped to Calais and then to Rome, where he lived out his life in poverty.
A drink for the road
In February 1101, Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham, fled the Tower by a rope ladder smuggled into his cell in a flagon of wine. Flambard had plied his guards with alcohol and scaled the walls while they slept. Flambard had been imprisoned in the Tower by King Henry I on charges of financial extortion.
On his escape, he fled to Normandy where he assisted an invasion of England by Henry’s brother Robert Curthose. The invasion failed, but Flambard was pardoned and allowed to return home to concentrate on his bishopric.
The mime (and escape) artist
John Gerard was a prominent Jesuit active during Elizabeth I’s reign, who was captured in April 1594, and eventually moved to the Tower. There, by communicating through mime from his cell window, he befriended another prisoner, John Arden, whose wife smuggled a rope into his cell.
Despite badly damaged hands from the torture he had endured, Gerard and Arden escaped on 5 October 1597 by swinging over the Tower ditch into a waiting boat. Gerard, who was suspected of involvement in the gunpowder plot, later fled to the Low Countries and eventually died in Rome.
Swimming, splashing and a final straw
Edmund Neville tried to escape the Tower three times – and failed on every occasion. Imprisoned in 1584, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, Neville first filed the bars of his cell window until he could squeeze out, but was betrayed by his malodorous appearance after swimming in the Tower moat.
He retried two years later but was recaptured when his splash-landing alerted the guards. Six years on, Neville crafted a straw mannequin dressed in his clothes to fool his gaolers. It fooled no one. Neville was released in 1598, no longer considered a danger, and died in Brussels decades later.
A pirate’s rise and fall
Like Edmund Neville, the Thames pirate Alice Tankerville also failed in her escape attempt, but her fate was far more grisly. Tankerville had been imprisoned in the Tower for her part in a heist of a royal ship in 1531.
Shackled in her cell, she persuaded her gaolers – whom she had befriended while visiting her common-law husband, John Wolfe, in his cell before her own incarceration – to aid her escape. On 23 March 1534, dressed as a man, Tankerville scaled the Tower walls with a rope. But the watchmen spotted her and she was recaptured. Tankerville and Wolfe were hanged in chains and drowned by the rising tide.
And his arrogance grew. Mortimer gained vast new estates across the Marches and in Ireland, and, by his ennoblement in October 1328 as the ‘Earl of March’, implicitly claimed authority over the lordships on the borders of England and Wales. One chronicler suggested Mortimer had “become so proud that he would lose and forsake the name his ancestors had before”. The Oxfordshire chronicler Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook even claimed that “Roger Mortimer, lover of the queen, master of the king, desired to extinguish the royal bloodline and usurp the throne for himself”.
If the country expected Mortimer and Isabella to eschew the favouritism, the arrogance and the profligacy that had dogged Edward’s reign, it was to be disappointed
At the heart of such accusations is the fate of Edward II. Whether we believe that Edward was murdered at Berkeley Castle (which was what many of us were taught at school) or escaped to live out his life on the continent (as has also been claimed), the influence of Mortimer is ever present. In the former scenario, he prompted Edward’s ‘killers’ to suffocate their charge on 21 September 1327.
In the latter, Mortimer possibly maintained the captive king alive to entrap his own detractors in treasonous plots, an example being Edmund, Earl of Kent, the late king’s half-brother, who was executed in March 1330 for trying to liberate ‘Edward’ from Corfe Castle in Dorset.
Did Edward III take revenge on Mortimer?
For Edward III, Edmund’s death appears to have been the final straw. That Mortimer could engineer the execution of a member of the royal family with impunity convinced the young king that the Earl of March had to go. And so, three and a half years into his reign – with his 18th birthday fast approaching – Edward struck.
With parliament gathering at Nottingham in October 1330, Edward led a small, secret band through the tunnels under the castle. When they reached Queen Isabella’s bedchamber, they killed two of Mortimer’s henchmen and arrested the Earl of March. A horrified Isabella looked on and supposedly cried out: “Dear son, have pity on gentle Mortimer!”
No such pity was forthcoming. With his own position far from secure, Edward could not risk another escape. And so he had Mortimer transported to the Tower where a special cell was constructed for him, over looked by the king’s own chamber. Condemned in parliament for multiple crimes including usurping royal power, Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330.
His body was cut down and initially sent to the nearby Franciscan friary. Intriguingly, though, petitions from Mortimer’s widow, Joan, in 1332 reveal that the corpse had been spirited away to Coventry, a town in the custody of Isabella, where she might conceivably have been able to pay it private devotion.
So ended one of medieval England’s most remarkable lives. Roger Mortimer, among the most politically skilled men of the early 14th century, was ultimately brought down by his arrogance and towering ambition. The kingdom had once lain at his feet. His great folly was to throw it all away.
Paul Dryburgh is an archivist and historian specialising in Britain in the 13th and 14th centuries
This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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