13 February, 2013

Was Edward II planning to execute Roger Mortimer in 1323?

It is indeed possible that Edward II was intending to execute Roger Mortimer in 1323; it's just nowhere near as certain a fact as is often stated nowadays.  Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower of London on 1 August 1323 and made his way to the continent to his relatives the Fiennes brothers, who gave him refuge, and remained on the continent until he and Queen Isabella launched their invasion of her husband's kingdom in September 1326.  He and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk had been imprisoned in the Tower since 13 February 1322 (yes, today is the anniversary), three weeks after they surrendered to Edward II at Shrewsbury during the Contrariant rebellion.  Mortimer of Chirk died in the Tower on 3 August 1326, just a few weeks before his nephew's invasion of England, but I very much doubt that we should assume vengeful foul play on the part of Edward II or the Despensers; Chirk had played an important role in Edward I's Welsh wars of the early 1280s and must have been about seventy in August 1326, and had outlived all his siblings by decades.  The 'community of Wales' presented a petition to Edward II sometime in 1322, saying that they had heard the two Roger Mortimers' lands would be restored to them, and because of the threats the two men had made against them, the Welshmen would be ruined and no longer able to live on their lands if this were true. They asked the king not to give the Mortimers their lands and lordships back, or the Welshmen would defend themselves against them if necessary.  Edward assured them that the Mortimers would remain in his keeping and that he would "ordain what is to the benefit of his subjects."  [1]  On 14 July 1322, five men – the mayor of London, three justices of the court of Common Pleas and the chief baron of the exchequer – condemned Roger Mortimer and his uncle Mortimer of Chirk to death.  Eight days later, Edward II commuted their sentence to life imprisonment, which would prove in 1326 to have been one of the worst mistakes he ever made.  [2]  It's a fascinating 'what if': if Roger Mortimer had been executed in 1322, who if anyone would have rebelled against Edward in his place, and would Edward ever have been forced to abdicate or would his reign have continued for a few more troubled years?

Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower of London by feeding his guards sedatives in their wine one night; five days after the escape, Stephen Segrave, constable of the Tower, was still seriously ill from the sedatives. [3] Edward II, 225 miles away at Kirkham in Yorkshire, heard the news five days later on 6 August, and ordered all the sheriffs and keepers of the peace in England and the bailiffs of fifteen ports to pursue Mortimer with hue and cry and take him dead or alive. [4]  For a long time, he had no idea where Mortimer had gone, and assuming that he had fled to Wales, ordered the loyal Welshmen Rhys ap Gruffudd and Gruffudd Llwyd to search for him there. [5]  On 26 August, he told his half-brother the earl of Kent that he thought Mortimer was in Ireland, and, afraid that Mortimer's escape was only the first of many Contrariants breaking prison - Lord Berkeley and Hugh Audley the Elder had almost escaped from Wallingford Castle earlier in 1323 - also told the constables of no fewer than eighty castles to guard their charges safely.  [6]

Several fourteenth-century chronicles claim that Edward had been intending to execute Roger Mortimer, who was therefore compelled to escape days before the sentence was due to be carried out, while others do not mention an impending execution.  The account in the Westminster chronicle Flores Historiarum (which was viciously hostile to Edward II) of Roger Mortimer's deliverance from the Tower owes little to reality and everything to the Bible: by happy coincidence Roger escaped on the feast day of St Peter in Chains, the day on which St Peter was rescued from Herod's prison by an angel, and the chronicler does little more than copy various verses of Acts of the Apostles relating to this event into his chronicle: "The king sent his detestable cruel officials to the Tower of London, intending to bring forth the younger Roger after a few days to the people and condemn him to a violent death. And when the king would have brought him forth, behold on the night of St Peter ad Vincula, the Holy Ghost came…and raised him up.  And Roger, leaving, followed him, which was done by Christ...".  [7]   This can hardly be taken seriously as a realistic narrative of what happened in August 1323 or as evidence that Edward II was genuinely intending to put Roger Mortimer to death.

Whether the king really did intend Roger's death, or if this was merely a rumour that found its way into several chronicles or was an invention to explain his dramatic escape and make it even more dramatic, is not clear; the Brut chronicle, somewhat implausibly, has Mortimer fleeing the day before his execution was due to be carried out. (This chronicle does include the detail that the constable Stephen Segrave and his men were given sedatives in their drink and says that they slept for two days and two nights while Mortimer escaped over the river Thames, though it gets the date of Mortimer's escape wrong by a week.) [8] Unfortunately, a leaf of the very well-informed Vita Edwardi Secundi is missing where the author might have discussed the escape. Adam Murimuth, a royal clerk and chronicler who must have come to know Mortimer well after 1326, says only that he escaped and fled to France and does not mention an impending execution. [9] The Scalacronica says only that he escaped; Lanercost says that Roger was "a baron of the king of England, who had fled from him previously to France to save his life", so evidently had heard the story of a possible execution; the Sempringham annalist does not mention an execution, stating correctly that Roger (oddly called 'Sir Roger Mortimer, the father') escaped on 1 August at night, crossed the Thames and fled to France; the Annales Paulini also does not mention an execution when describing Mortimer's escape.  [10]  The Anonimalle, a contination of the Brut which includes the story that Roger was to be executed, reports a rumour that Edward had sent letters declaring that Roger was due to have been drawn and hanged (traigne et pendu) a few days after his escape. [11]

So evidently some chroniclers had never heard a story of an impending execution, and of the ones who had, it is not clear what their source was.  There is nothing in any official record to confirm that Edward was planning Roger's death; the letters mentioned in the Anonimalle that he was demanding Roger's execution have not survived (if indeed they ever existed) and there is nothing at all in the chancery rolls or other government documents to suggest any renewed legal process against Roger Mortimer that might have led to his hanging or any desire on the king's part to have him dead. Historians have wondered whether Queen Isabella had anything to do with Mortimer's escape, but the first people to suggest that she did – indeed, the first people to suggest that she had any kind of relationship with Mortimer before late 1325 – were the dramatists Christopher Marlowe and Michael Drayton in the 1590s. [12]  Isabella was not in or near the Tower of London at the time that Mortimer escaped, as is sometimes stated; she was probably with her husband in Yorkshire at the time, and if she had been involved in Mortimer’s escape in some way, she would hardly have been so stupid as to be anywhere nearby. Certainly it never occurred to Edward that she might be involved, and although Isabella was no doubt capable of deceiving her husband, given the extremely thorough investigation conducted after the escape it seems highly unlikely that she could have been involved without this fact being discovered.  It is in my opinion extremely unlikely (though not impossible) that Queen Isabella had anything to do with Roger Mortimer's escape, which is a theory based solely on knowledge of their later relationship with the benefit of several centuries' hindsight.

It is of course possible that in 1323 Edward II (and the Despensers) decided that Roger Mortimer was too dangerous to be allowed to live any longer, especially after the near-escape of Lord Berkeley and Hugh Audley the Elder some months previously.  But no official sources confirm it, and it is not a certain fact that Roger would have been executed had he not escaped but rather, unsubstantiated gossip reported in some chronicles but not others.  I'm not sure if I believe the story or not, and I do wonder if it's something else based on hindsight, on chroniclers' knowledge that Roger Mortimer was the man who was to bring down Edward II several years later.  (This is one reason why it's such a shame that a leaf of the Vita Edwardi Secundi is missing at this point, as it ends abruptly in late 1325 and the author didn't know that Mortimer would lead an invasion of England some months later.)  It's apparent from Edward II's reaction in August 1323 that he was desperate to recapture Mortimer, but neither he nor anyone else at the time could have guessed just how dangerous the lord of Wigmore would be to him three years later.  Whatever the truth of the situation and whatever Edward II's intentions towards Roger Mortimer in 1323, it's a reminder that much of what we believe we know about Edward's reign turns out not to be certain fact at all when closely examined.


1) The National Archives SC 8/6/255.
2) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1321-1324, p. 249.  The judgement against the Mortimers is printed (in the original French) in James Conway Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II: Its Character and Policy (1918), p. 565.
3) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-1327, p. 13.  This entry says that Segrave and "many others" in the Tower had been "poisoned by artifice."
4) Ibid., p. 132.
5) Patent Rolls 1321-1324, p. 335.
6) Close Rolls 1323-1327, p. 133.
7) Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England II: c. 1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (1982), p. 20, citing Flores Historiarum, ed. H. R. Luard, vol. iii (1890), p. 217.
8) The Brut or the Chronicles of England, ed. F. W. D. Brie (1906), p. 231.
9) Adae Murimuth Continuatio Chronicarum, ed. E. M. Thompson (1889), p. 40.
10) Scalacronica: The Reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III as Recorded by Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, knight, ed. Herbert Maxwell (1907) p. 72; The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346, ed. Herbert Maxwell (1913), p. 251; Le Livere de Reis de Britanie e le Livere de Reis de Engletere, ed. John Glover (1865), p. 349; Annales Paulini 1307-1340 in W. Stubbs, ed., Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, vol. 1 (1882), pp. 3-5-306.
11) The Anonimalle Chronicle 1307-41, from Brotherton Collection MS 29, ed. W. R. Childs and J. Taylor (1991), p. 116.
12) F.D. Blackley, 'Isabella and the Bishop of Exeter', in T.A. Sandqvist and M.R. Powicke, eds., Essays in Medieval History Presented to Bertie Wilkinson (1969), p. 221.


Anerje said...

It certainly does beg the question 'what if?' But then if we question the nature of Mortimer and Isabella's relationship, there may well have been someone else who would help her depose her husband. And of course, certain novelists have Isabella in the Tower aiding Mortimer!

Kathryn Warner said...

And of course having hot sex with him with the aid of her magic invisibility hood :D

Jules Frusher said...

I think it is also puzzling why Edward commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment when Mortimer was so high-placed in the rebellion. Other lords were executed without a blink of the royal eye. If anything, with the bloodfeiud still running between Despenser and Mortimer and with Despenser so say having the king's ear, it would be a plausible speculation that Despenser may indeed have argued for the sentence to be carried out (and the lands probably redistributed to him and his father, as with so many of the rebels).

So, Edward, for some reason of his own decided to keep the Mortimers alive when there was every reason to want them dead. And then, if it was decided in 1323 to carry out the execution, which, as you rightly say, there is no evidence for, what could have triggered it? That missing page of the Vita is one of the biggest teases in the story of Edward's reign. Bah!

Kathryn Warner said...

Jules, I'd also dearly love to know what was going on in Edward's mind when he commuted the Mortimers' death sentence, and how Hugh felt about it. Did he remember that Roger had been a faithful ally once? A very puzzling decision.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I am impressed indeed K. You are wonder woman of history.

Kathryn Warner said...

Awww, thank you, Sami! :)

Carla said...

Is it possible that the chroniclers who mention an impending execution were thinking of the court sentence you mention from 14 July 1322? That court had sentenced Roger Mortimer to death, and it might be easy for the details to get muddled up. Or possibly there could have been confusion over the order to recapture Mortimer 'dead or alive'; could that have been the source for an assumption that Mortimer was facing execution?

One thing that intrigues me is where Roger Mortimer got the sedatives from. Is that known?

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Hi, Kathryn! A fascinating post, yet again :-) The account of Roger's escape in Flores reminds me of a similar episode in Henry the Young King's afterlife. The miracles that began to occur when his body was being carried from Martel to Rouen and were said to be Hanry's doing (:-)) all resembled the miracles performed by Christ and described in the New Testament.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla, the chroniclers who do mention the execution connect it quite strongly with his escape, but that's a really interesting point that hadn't occurred to me, that maybe they got it confused with the sentence of the year before or with the 'dead or alive' order - thank you! I wish I knew what the sedatives were. It seems that a group of Londoners was helping Mortimer and must have smuggled them in somehow.

Hi Kasia, and thank you! :) Ah, I didn't know that about Henry's miracles! Fascinating. When Edward II's cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster was executed in 1322, miracles of his doing were also reported.

Anonymous said...

Great article ... and it is interesting why Edward commuted the sentence (I'm sure certain fiction writers have Isabella securing that favor). Was there anything that could stop Edward from changing his mind and have Roger executed anyway?


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther! I'm not entirely sure how it would have worked legally, but given that Edward had commuted the death sentence it seems highly unlikely that he could have changed his mind and subsequently had Mortimer executed without further legal process, for which there's no evidence at all.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Well, I think it is simply wise to try to escape under the situation, regardless of any intentions to execute him. He must have known that he COULD be executed at any time if the king decides so, so Mortimer escaped. Was Edward II planning his execution, it really does not matter I my eyes. He could order it at any gioen time and that was propably enough for Roger Mortimer.

Gabriele C. said...

Kathryn Warner said...
"And of course having hot sex with him with the aid of her magic invisibility hood :D"

Ah, that's explains the route of his escape, too. Per train to Hogwarts and then on a Nimbus 3000 to France. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Sami, a lifetime prison sentence doesn't sound fun at all (not even for a nobleman in the Tower likely living under decent conditions) so he might have planned an escape anyway. And once out, the next logical step was to try to get his lands back. Ed got a bit in the way of that one. ;-) The full out rebellion may have been some time in entering his mind.