The change of regime
On the 26th September 1326 Roger Mortimer, 8th Lord of Wigmore and Isabella of France, Queen Consort of England landed in England with a small invasion force, largely courtesy of William the Good, Count of Hainault, intent on deposing the reigning king of England Edward II. Acting throughout in the name of the young Edward, Duke of Aquitaine the invaders made rapid progress, as the unpopular royal government collapsed within a matter of weeks.
Captured and placed in secure accommodation first at Kenilworth Castle and then at Berkeley, Edward II formally abdicated his throne on the 20th January 1327. (For the ultimate fate of the former king see The death of Edward II.) Four days later on the 24th January 1327 the Edward, Duke of Aquitaine was proclaimed Edward III, and on the 29th January he was crowned king at Westminster Abbey.
Although Edward III was nominally king, the real power lay with Roger and Isabella, or more particularly with Roger Mortimer, although there were
no obvious indications of his authority. He wasn't a member of the Council of Regency, which was headed by Henry of Lancaster, and he held none of the great offices of state in person. Rather he exercised control by means of appointing his supporters to key positions in the administration. His ecclesiastical friends such as Adam de Orleton, who was made Lord Treasurer and John Hotham, Bishop of Ely who became Lord Chancellor were prominent amongst his partisans as indeed were men such as Oliver Ingham and Simon Bereford.
Of course, Roger's primary lever on power was his relationship with Isabella and the influence she exercised on the young king Edward III. Roger and Isabella had become lovers earlier in 1324 whilst they were both in France; both exiles in their different ways and both with their reasons to want Edward II, and especially the Despenser father and son team who were the real powers in the land, out of the way. Together they masterminded the invasion of England which had now placed them in control of affairs.
The Scottish Question
The first challenge that faced the new government was what to do about Scotland. Whilst Edward I had persistently struggled to bring Scotland clearly under the dominion of the English crown, since his death in 1307 the independence movement led by Robert the Bruce had increasingly gained ground particularly after victory at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
As far back as the year 1323 it had been realised in England that the war against Robert the Bruce was now a lost cause. The Earl of Pembroke and Hugh Despenser the Younger had attempted, but failed, to negotiate a permanent peace and instead settled for a thirteen year truce. But although the Scottish war of independence was to all intents and purposes effectively over, Robert the Bruce still craved the formal recognition of his status as an independent ruler from the English crown.
It seems that Roger and Isabella had reached an agreement with Robert the Bruce prior to their arrival in England, the gist of which was that they would recognise the independence of Scotland, in return for which Bruce would refrain from attacking England whilst they were engaged in the business of regime change. This was all very well but to many, in particular Henry of Lancaster, the idea of peace with Scotland was anathema as it would inevitably mean their surrendering the claims they had on territory in southern Scotland.
Once Roger and Isabella had taken control of England, the Scots were naturally eager that they fulfill their side of the bargain, and in the spring of 1328 there were clear indications that they were getting impatient and gathering an army on the borders. Therefore despite their agreement with Bruce the new administration was forced to placate the Lancastrian faction by summoning an army to deal with this Scottish threat. But the Weardale campaign of 1327 was spectacularly unsuccessful primarly because it was never intended to achieve anything.
In October 1327 negotiations began in earnest with Robert the Bruce and early in 1328, the basic terms for a treaty were concluded at York. Of course everybody was at York in order to celebrate the marriage of the young Edward III to Philippa of Hainault which took place on the 30th January. (Thus fulfilling another of Roger and Isabella's pre-invasion deals with the Count of Hainault.)
The parliament which subsequently met at York in 7th February was thus preoccupied with the issue of the Scottish treaty where the Lancastrians loudly voiced their opposition to the proposed deal. But the parliament which later met at Northampton formally ratified the treaty on the 8th May 1328 mainly because Roger insisted that the king willed it. The Treaty of Northampton formally recognised Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland, his son David was to be married to Joan of the Tower (Edward III's sister) and effectively all English claims on Scottish estates were renounced; Henry of Lancaster indignantly denounced it as a "shameful peace" and accused Roger and Isabella of treason and cowardice.
The rebellion of Henry of Lancaster
One of the advantages of Roger's exalted position was that it now made it easier to find good husbands for his many daughters, and on the 31st May 1328 he was therefore able to celebrate the double wedding of two of his daughters to James Audley and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick at
Ludlow Castle. After that happy occasion it was time for both Roger and Isabella to travel north to Berwick to deliver the young Joan to the Scots in fulfilment of their treaty obligations.
Meanwhile, whilst the rulers of England were busy matchmaking, trouble was brewing in the north where Henry of Lancaster was decidely unhappy with the way the new administration had turned out. Henry had many reasons to dislike Edward II who had been responsible for the death of his brother Thomas, and was therefore initially a keen supporter of the revolution of 1326. But now he felt that Roger and Isabella had betrayed the country through their treaty with the Scots, and were also failing to accord him the proper role in government which his status demanded.
So Henry made his displeasure felt by refusing to attend any council meetings or parliaments, whilst his supporters were busily attempting to undermined the regime by taking control of London. His objections to the new regime, which he had initially welcomed and supported, were now many and varied; Isabella had unreasonably enriched herself and wanted the return of estates she'd awarded herself, he wanted an official inquiry into the Scottish fiasco as well as the death of the former king Edward II.1
In the September of 1328 Henry made an effort to seize hold of Edward III and when that failed refused to attend the Salisbury parliament organised for the following month. The main business at Salisbury was to have been an attempt at reconciling the two sides; clearly there would no progress on that front now that Henry would not attend, but the parliament went ahead anyway and it was there on the 31st October that Edward III created his younger brother John of Eltham as Earl of Cornwall, whilst James Butler was granted the title of Earl of Ormonde and Roger Mortimer himself became Earl of March.
Many were annoyed at Roger's elevation to an earldom particularly since the choice of designation for his title, that of March, signifying the Welsh Marches, indicated his ambition to place himself in position of authority across the whole of Wales. (Which was somewhat ironic given his earlier objection to Hugh Despenser the Younger when he tried the same thing.) It was a clear indication of his ambition and inspired a further bout of opposition as in the December of 1328 Henry of Lancaster together with the king's uncles the Earls of Norfolk and Kent and issued a joint statement, accusing Edward III of breaking his coronation oath and violating Magna Carta which is to say, acquiesing in the murder of his father.
As a result on the 29th December Roger Mortimer effectively declared war on the Earl of Lancaster and gave him until 7th January to surrender. He then marched to Leicestershire with an army and began systematically laying waste every piece of property that belonged to Henry of Lancaster. Henry called a meeting at Bedford to organise opposition to Mortimer but both Thomas and Edmund failed to attend. Deserted by his allies, and perhaps recalling the fate of his brother Thomas in 1322, Henry decided to surrender and throw himself if not on the king's mercy, at least on that of Roger Mortimer.
This time Mortimer turned out to be somewhat more forgiving in these matters than his predecessors and Henry escaped with a fine of £11,000. Other key Lancastrian supporters such as Thomas Wake were also fined for their part in the mini rebellion, but otherwise there was little in the way of retribution and it seemed as if life might now settle down in England.
The Round Table tournament and the fall of the Earl of Kent
In the summer of 1329 Roger had another double wedding to celebrate as two more of his daughters were married off to members of the nobility. This time the grooms were the Earl of Pembroke, Laurence de Hastings and a son of the Earl of Norfolk thereby linking the Mortimers directly with the royal family. To celebrate this happy occasion in August 1329 a grand and splendid Round Table tournament was held at Wigmore Castle. The royal treasury was raided to fund this extravagant and splendid affair where Roger appeared in the guise of King Arthur himself. The symbolism was not lost on many of the attendees who began whispering that Roger was hankering after the crown for himself. But soon clearer evidence would became available of the ambition of the new Earl of March.
Edmund of Woodstock, the Earl of Kent, had become convinced that his brother was still alive and being held at Corfe Castle. He made a number of attempts to gain access to the castle and made contact with two men by the name of Bogo de Bayeux and John Deveril. They agreed to pass a letter to the former king, and so Edmund's wife Margaret penned the letter in which Edmund set out his plans to release the king and restore him to the throne.
Unfortunately for Edmund these two men were agents of Roger Mortimer who simply handed the letter to their master. Thus when the Earl of Kent turned up at the the Winchester parliament in March 1330 he found himself arrested and charged with treason for seeking to depose the lawful king Edward III. It was a shocking surprise to many to see that Roger Mortimer now insisted that no leniency be shown to Edmund despite his royal blood and he was executed on the 19th March 1330.
However before he died Edmund had signed a confession implicating another forty names in the conspiracy including the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London. Naturally most of those named by Edmund now took the hint and fled the country, thus saving their lives if not their estates which were now expropriated. Such lands were now shared out between Roger Mortimer and his supporters, providing yet another inspiration for the growing opposition movement. In June 1330 a planned rebellion by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel was thwarted and the earl arrested; there were indications that the exiles were beginning to plan their own revolution, were it not for the fact that Henry of Lancaster was losing his sight, disabling the natural leader of the opposition, matters might well have been more serious. As it was Roger and Isabella continued in power throughout the summer of 1330.
The October Coup
The death of Edmund of Woodstock clearly demonstrated that no one was safe should they fall foul of Roger and Isabella, whose government was now threatening to be as tyrannical and dictatorial as its predecessor. Indeed
Edward III, now almost eighteen2, was now making plans to free himself from the domination of his mother and her lover. He had already employed one William Montagu as his confidential agent to make contact with the papacy and had quietly been replacing Mortimer's appointees with his own men as the opportunity arose.
It is quite possible that it had already occured to Edward that since the regime of Roger and Isabella was responsible for the death of both his father and uncle, that he might be next3
In any case it was William Montagu that now urged the king to take action with the famous advice that "it was better to eat the dog than be eaten by the dog
Parliament had been summoned to meet at Northampton in the October of 1330 and the royal party including Roger and Isabella had taken up residence at Northampton Castle. Here was the location chosen for the coup, as William Montagu had made the acquaintance of local named William Eland who was aware of the existence of a secret passage into Northampton Castle. So on the 19th October, the young Edward feigned illness in order to be able to absent himself and went to unlock the door of the passage. Two dozen men led by Montagu rushed into the castle. There was a brief fight during which two of Mortimer's henchmen, a Hugh Turplington and a Richard Monmouth were killed, after which Roger Mortimer himself was seized and placed in custody.
Although Edward's immediate intention was to hang Roger Mortimer then and there, he was persuaded by Henry of Lancaster to at least allow some semblance of due process. Thus Roger was taken from Northampton to the Tower of London whilst on the 20th October Edward III issued a proclamation announcing that he had taken the government of England into his own hands. The parliament due to meet at Northampton was prorogued to Westminster, where it duly gathered in the following month with its main business being the trial of Roger Mortimer.
On the 26th November 1330 Roger stood before his peers, charged with fourteen specific offenses including the murder of Edward II, procuring the death of Edmund of Woostock, unjustly enriching himself at the nation's expense and interfering in the proper exercise of the government of the realm. The Earl of March was not permitted any defence or to speak in reply to these charges; he was simply pronounced guilty and sentenced as "a traitor and enemy of the king and the realm, to be drawn and hanged".
Three days later on the 29th November Roger Mortimer was taken from the Tower of London to Tyburn Hill. Although he was dragged all the way there, he was merely hanged at Tyburn, the normal traitor's fate of disembowelling and quartering being omitted on this occasion. Although one of Roger's key supporters Simon Bereford, suffered the same fate and warrants were issued for the arrest of three others implicated in Edward II's murder but many like Oliver Ingham and Thomas Berkeley were pardoned.
As to Roger's partner in government Isabella, although she was stripped of most of the estates that she awarded herself, and placed in secure custody at Windsor Castle. In March 1332 her son Edward permitted her to retire to Castle Rising in Norfolk where she quietly spent the remainder of her life until her death in 1358.
In this manner the reign of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March and Isabella of France came to an end and the reign of Edward III began.
1 Henry was suspicious that the death of the former king Edward II was not, as the public announcement of the 28th September 1327 had stated, entirely due to natural causes. After all it was Henry who had been responsible for the capture of Edward II, and for his safe custody at Kenilworth Castle, until Roger and Isabella had snatched the former king from his grasp a few months before his death. He was no doubt of the opinion that the king had been quite healthy when he had been in his custody.
2 His eighteenth birthday was on the 13th November 1330. He was fourteen when he first became king. Those four years made a big difference.
3 There is a possibility that Isabella gave birth to a son by Roger Mortimer towards the end of 1329. Froissart stated in his chronicle that she did, although no clear evidence in support of this contention has ever emerged. The existence of such a son may well have been interpreted at the time as a threat by Edward II. But if there was such a son, he died very young.
4 Actually the accounts differ on this point; some say that William Eland was the actual constable of the castle whilst others name a Robert Eland as the constable. The point was that there was a route into the castle unbeknown to Roger Mortimer.
- T. F. Tout The History Of England From The Accession Of Henry III To The Death Of Edward III (1216-1317) (Longmans Green and Co. 1905)
- Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
- Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (Plimlico 2004)
- Paul Doherty Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II(Robinson 2004)
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)