The Greatest Traitor.

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327 – 1330

Ian Mortimer (no relation) Pimlico 2004


The period of English history covering the reigns of the first Edwards has always seemed to me like some sort of distasteful sandwich – the mighty Edward I and Edward III with the very unlovely filling of Edward II in the middle. And so this biography of a relative unknown offered the chance to assess my prejudice anew.


Edward of Carnarvon (1284 - 1307 - 1327 - ?1339 ) was the first English Prince of Wales. It is rumoured that his father promised to the Welsh that they would have a prince who spoke no English and promptly nominated Edward his son, a neonate. Harold Hutchinson (Edward II; 1971) said that Edward of Carnarvon was guilty during his reign of royal efficiency only. He suggested that although it was not wise on the part of the king to neglect the interests of the baronage, it was the effectiveness of his favourites and royal officers which caused so much enmity between the king and his major subjects. Edward was certainly very interested in first Piers Gaveston (1284 – 1312), second Roger D´Amory (1290 – 1321) and last Hugh le Despenser (1286 - 1326.) It is strongly believed that Edward had homosexual relations with all or some of these young men. Although contemporary chronicles are mostly silent on this issue, one written 50 years later at the Cistercian abbey of Meaux (in the East Riding) refers to sodomy between Gaveston and Edward, but his knife is somewhat blunted in that he does not complain of sodomy, but of ´too much´ sodomy (Hutchinson p147).


At his wedding in 1308 to Isabella of France, Edward preferred the company of Gaveston (his Perrot) to that of his new bride (perhaps because she was only 13 at the time) and her family; Gaveston we are told dressed in imperial purple for the occasion, although his rank allowed him the choice only of gold. Edward's preference for the company of Gaveston over that of his wife, whatever his motives, is generally agreed by historians as having created early discord in the royal marriage, and it cannot have helped that Edward gave to Gaveston all the gold wedding gifts he had received. Gaveston was hated for the fact that he was foreign (from Aquitaine) and an arrogant upstart, rather than that he enjoyed the royal bed.


In seeking comparisons with Edward of Carnarvon and his Gaveston, Christopher Marlowe wrote in his play Edward II (1592):


The mightiest of kings have had their minions;

Great Alexander loved Hephestion;

The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;

And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped.

And not kings only, but the wisest of men

The Roman Tully loved Octavius

Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.


I think that Cicero would not have been flattered by this quotation, nor I suspect Socrates.


Despite the crucial and disastrous role he played in the reign of Edward II, Hugh le Despenser (the third and last favourite) is almost a minor character in Marlowe's play, where as "Spencer" he is little more than a substitute for the dead Gaveston. It is more unlikely that a homosexual relationship existed here and the reason why Despenser was so hated was that he was both efficient in the royal service and grasping. By the time he was captured and executed in 1326, Despenser was exceedingly rich, and most of his wealth had come from those he dispossessed. He earned his own enemies, and unfortunately he also earned many for the king. In 2006, the younger Despenser was selected by BBC History Magazine as the 14th century's worst Briton.


As well as lacking care in his choice of friends, Edward had other displeasing habits. He enjoyed the company of humble craftsmen, of actors, musicians; his skills in wood and metal work, thatching, hedging and ditching disgusted his contemporary monkish and baronial critics. For a medieval king, Edward of Carnarvon´s tastes were odd, outlandish and shocking.


In terms of medieval kingship, Edward II was a failure. He soldiered but to far less effect than either his father or his son. He fathered a successor (highly important in a monarchy), but a successor who was used by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer in their machinations to get rid of him. He provoked only opposition from those whose duty it was to support him, and seemed able to obtain by purchase support from fortune seekers only to arouse the fury of the landed classes on whom all medieval kings depended.


One of those who was a faithful royal servant was Sir Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (which is near Ludlow in the Welsh Marches). Mortimer and his family were trusty and trusted supporters of the king and Roger had spent a great deal of his boyhood and youth in the company of the young Prince of Wales. Roger was for a time an effective viceroy in Ireland. But Edward either could not or would not stop Despenser from raiding and stealing the sources of Mortimer´s wealth – his lands in the Marches. The story that Ian Mortimer tells is in its way a tragedy. Roger was the archetypal royal minister, loyal and effective, but we find that from 1319 onwards royal policy gives this baron no choice but to be impoverished and executed or to rebel and go into exile.


Mortimer escaped from the Tower in 1323 in the nick of time, cheating the axe by a matter of hours, possibly with the help of the queen, and went into exile in France. While abroad he met Queen Isabella who was in France to negotiate with her brother the French king Charles IV over the subject of homage to be paid for Edward II´s fiefs in modern day France. The two were smitten by a coup de foudre and became lovers, much to the disgust of the French court. Both were married at that time to other people. Indeed, Roger had been the most uxorious of husbands, and he and his wife had twelve children; but in exile, Roger found his marriage difficult to sustain, and it was well known that Isabella, although having borne four children by Edward II, was now revolted by her husband, who in his turn loathed his wife. One witness said that, “the king carried a knife in his hose to kill Queen Isabella, and that he had said that if he had no other weapon he could crush her with his teeth.”


On their armed return to England in 1327, Isabella and Roger found that Edward´s support had totally crumbled, and they were easily able to take power, arrange for Edward´s deposition and to rule the country as regents on behalf of Edward III, then aged 14. It is the irony of this tale that having done all the difficult tasks, Roger became so enamoured of his new position that he began to behave in the same high-handed and outrageous manner as Gaveston and Despenser before him. He awarded himself and his family great estates and he became Earl of March. In November 1330, with the connivance of the new king, men entered Nottingham Castle through Mortimer´s Hole (a secret passageway which still exists) and took him in the chamber he shared with Isabella. He was speedily tried and executed. Edward III was at this time 17 years old and he had had enough of being dominated by his mother and her lover.


It is one of the skills of a biographer to make his readers sympathise with their subject, and Ian Mortimer has succeeded in making me look at Mortimer with fresh eyes. Roger comes over as a paragon of his time, until he was driven to despair and disloyalty by the actions of Despenser, supported by the king. Roger wanted no other than to serve his royal master with honour and recognition. The royal service he performed; the recognition was in the fact that he became more exposed to the depredations of Despenser. And the king did nothing to protect him. The book is a fascinating page-turner, and although it is written in a historical manner, Ian has achieved a book that reads like a novel. I cannot recommend it too highly.


And what about Edward II and the poker? Ian makes out a convincing case for the idea that Edward was unharmed at Berkeley Castle and was kept prisoner by the Roger Mortimer faction as a means for exercising control over the growing Edward III. The tomb in Gloucester Cathedral was either empty or occupied by an imposter (which is why the occupying body was embalmed, covered in cerecloth and kept for weeks before anyone could inspect it). The living ex-king was taken to Corfe Castle and thence to Ireland which is where he heard of Mortimer´s fall; he then spent years wandering the continent before passing away quietly in monastery in Lombardy. It is rumoured too, that in Cologne and Koblenz in 1336 Edward III had a meeting with his father who called himself at that time William the Welshman. It is even probable that Edward of Carnarvon´s body was brought back to Gloucester Cathedral for burial in 1339 or 1341 in the wonderful tomb with its fine effigies.


Ian finishes his book thus: “It is one of the wonders of British history that beneath that spectacular tomb lies the body of a man who was both a king and a penniless hermit, who lost his wife, his kingdom and everything he possessed to his childhood companion, Sir Roger Mortimer. Everything except his life.” I suspect that if I had been a contemporary and in a position to choose between these two, I should have come down on the side of Mortimer, particularly if I had any land in the Marches of South Wales.