The Mortimers and Wigmore Castle – A Bloody Heyday
An article by David Swatton, resident of Wigmore.
On a balmy August evening in 1265 the Lady Maud de Braose, Baroness Mortimer, held a feast in the great hall of Wigmore Castle. Raised high in the centre of the room for all to see was the head of Simon de Montfort impaled on a lance, his severed genitals stuffed in his gaping mouth. It was the final ignominy for the man who had once been the king’s favourite but whose hubris had eventually led to civil war, his imprisonment of the king and his ultimate destruction on the battlefield of Evesham, killed in battle by Roger Mortimer, the Lady Maud’s husband. It was Roger who had dispatched the grisly trophy to his wife to mark the victory of Prince Edward and his royalist allies over de Montfort and his rebel army.
The episode was central to a period spanning just sixty or so years when Wigmore Castle became one of the most significant sites in England and its owners, the Marcher lords, the Mortimers, became the most powerful family in the land.
By this time, Wigmore Castle, in the heart of the wild Marches, was already 200 years old and had been in the ownership of the Mortimers since it was given to Ralph de Mortimer in 1075 and was as close to an impregnable fortress as any in England, built high on a steep hill and ringed by ditches and a marshy lake, all incorporated into the defences.
Roger, 1st Baron Mortimer, came into his inheritance in about 1246, with widespread lands in Herefordshire and Shropshire, but his marriage to Maud enhanced his power considerably. She was a wealthy landowner in her own right and a sharp customer, described at the time as beautiful and nimble-witted. It was she who masterminded the escape of Prince Edward, the future king Edward I, from his captors in Hereford where he had been held on the orders of Simon de Montfort since his capture at the Battle of Lewes a year earlier. The prince, having gained the confidence of his captors, was allowed out of Hereford to ride in the surrounding countryside. One such day, at a signal agreed with his rescuers, he managed to gallop away from his guards and join up with a band of men sent down from Wigmore to escort him to safety. Together they hastened back to the castle where Maud was waiting.
With Edward on the throne after the death of his father, Henry III, the Mortimers further cemented their loyalty to the crown through the actions of Edmund and Roger, sons of the 1st Baron and Lady Maud. Edmund, the second son had initially been intended for the church but had inherited the title on the death of his father, his elder brother Ralph having already died in 1274. With his younger brother Roger (Baron of Chirk) he managed to outwit Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who was in rebellion against Edward I. In December 1282 their forces defeated Llywelyn at the Battle of Orewin Bridge. The Welsh rebel was decapitated and his head was sent by Edmund to the king who had it displayed on London Bridge. In return for his services Edmund was knighted by the king in a ceremony at Winchester in 1283.
Two years later Edmund married Margaret de Fiennes with whom he had eight children, the first born in 1285 at Wigmore Castle. He was yet another Roger who would go on to become the most notorious of the Mortimers. Under his leadership the family would reach the pinnacle of their power but he would also be the architect of their spectacular fall from grace.
Roger became Baron in 1304 when his father was mortally wounded in a skirmish near Builth. Thereafter, he began his own military experiences in Ireland where he spent ten years campaigning. On his return to England in 1318 he was engaged in various baronial disputes on the Welsh border. During this time Mortimer grew gradually more disaffected with the king, Edward II, who had succeeded his father to the throne in 1307. The blatant favouritism shown by the king towards the Despenser family finally pushed Mortimer over the edge when in 1321 the king arbitrarily granted lands belonging to Mortimer to the younger Despenser. In the rebellion he subsequently led, fortunes swayed back and forth between Mortimer and the king, but in January 1322 Mortimer was forced to surrender at Shrewsbury and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. However, eighteen months later he managed to escape and fled to exile in France.
Two years later, with relations between England and France having deteriorated, Edward sent his wife Isabella to Paris to use her influence with her brother, the French king, to help broker a peace agreement. There, Isabella and Roger Mortimer became lovers (though some scholars suggest they had been lovers already back in England before Mortimer’s imprisonment).
In September 1326 the lovers, with Prince Edward, Isabella’s eldest son and heir to the English crown, and a small force of Flemish mercenaries sailed for England. Their plan was to overthrow Edward II and it was a huge gamble, but when they landed the disaffected nobility flocked to their banner. By the middle of November the king was a prisoner and was forced to abdicate in favour of his son. Edward II was later murdered in Berkeley Castle. Though his son was duly crowned as Edward III in January 1327 the country was effectively ruled by Mortimer and Isabella, and Roger took full and blatant advantage.
He was created Earl of March, made constable of Wallingford Castle and took over the lordships of Denbigh, Oswestry, Clun and Montgomery. Needless to say, this self-aggrandizement aroused the anger and jealousy of many nobles. But it was in spring 1330 when Mortimer ordered the execution of Edmund, Earl of Kent, the old king’s step-brother, that he overstepped the mark. The young king, just shy of his eighteenth birthday, with companions loyal only to him, seized Mortimer and Isabella at Nottingham Castle in October.
Despite the entreaties of his mother Edward had Mortimer condemned without trial and he was hanged like a common criminal at Tyburn on 29 November 1330. His vast estates were forfeited to the crown.
Though Edward III restored the title of earl of March and much of the family lands around Wigmore to Roger Mortimer’s grandson, the Mortimer family would never wield such power in the land again and Wigmore Castle, once the base of the most powerful family in England, would slide slowly into obscurity.
Today it is but an evocative ruin as shown in the photographs but when one stands where the keep once dominated the hill it is easy to imagine the Mortimers and their retinue riding out through the great gates to meet their foes.
To read more about the Mortimers click on the coat of arms below to go to the Mortimer Historical Society.