04 August, 2013

Roger Mortimer Escapes From The Tower, 1323

Yes, this post is somewhat late for the anniversary of Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower on 1 August 1323, but it's been a hectic (and very hot and humid!) week, and I had no time to write it before.  :-)  Then after I did write it, I accidentally pressed some key and the entire post disappeared, Blogger auto-saved a split-second later, and it was gone forever.  I felt like weeping.  So here it is again, considerably shorter than it was originally because I'll discuss the notion that Queen Isabella was involved in the escape in a second post soon.  I simply can't face writing it all again at the moment!

Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk were imprisoned in the Tower of London in February 1322 after taking part in the unsuccessful Contrariant rebellion against Edward II and the Despensers.  The two men surrendered to Edward at Shrewsbury in January 1322, supposedly, according to some chroniclers, after the earl of Pembroke and other earls loyal to the king lied to them and promised them that the king would grant them a pardon if they did so.  Well, maybe, but they would have had to have been pretty gullible and naive to think that they'd be offered a pardon after committing so many crimes: armed rebellion against the king, destroying lands and homes all over England and Wales in May 1321, forcing Edward to banish the two Hugh Despensers, destroying much of Gloucestershire when the king advanced on them in early 1322, and taking part in other Contrariant crimes such as homicide, assault, theft, false imprisonment and extortion.  I'm pretty sure Roger Mortimer wasn't that naive, and given that forces led by Edward II's ally Sir Gruffydd Llwyd had captured their castles and that the rebellion was collapsing around them, I don't really see what other choice they had but to surrender.

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 – were ordered to try the two Roger Mortimers, and on 2 August condemned them to be drawn for their treason and hanged for their arson, robberies, homicides and felonies.  Edward II had on 22 July, however, already commuted their sentence to life imprisonment, which would prove to be one of the worst mistakes he ever made and seems to defy explanation, unless he was remembering the Mortimer family's long service to himself and his family.  [1]  I looked recently at the possibility that Edward II, despite his decision of the previous year to spare the younger Mortimer's life, was planning to execute him in 1323, and that this is the reason why Mortimer escaped.  It's possible, but is a story which appears in some chronicles but not others and is not corroborated by any evidence in the chancery rolls or other government sources.  Roger Mortimer of Chirk died still imprisoned in the Tower of London on 3 August 1326, aged about seventy.  Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, future self-appointed earl of March and favourite of the queen, escaped from the Tower on 1 August 1323, and here's what we know about the event.

Mortimer escaped by feeding his guards sedatives in their wine, and made his way to the continent.  Gerard Alspaye, deputy constable of the Tower and a Mortimer sympathiser, fled with him, letting Mortimer out of his cell while the guards were incapacitated, taking him through the kitchens and over the wall with a rope ladder to the river, where more men were waiting with a boat.  They were the prominent Londoners John de Gisors, Richard de Bethune and Ralph de Bocton.  Five days after the escape, Stephen Segrave, constable of the Tower, was still seriously ill from the sedatives.  [2]  Edward II, at Kirkham in Yorkshire, heard the news 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.  [2]  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.  Hugh Despenser the Elder was also ordered "to capture the said Roger and his adherents; with power to punish all persons not aiding him by incarcerating them and seizing their lands and goods."  [3]  On 26 August, Edward told his brother the earl of Kent that he thought Mortimer was in Ireland, and was still ordering numerous bailiffs to search for Mortimer on 20 September.  By 1 October, had finally learned where Mortimer was: in Picardy, with his kinsmen the Fiennes brothers.  [4]  As early as mid-November 1323, Mortimer was allegedly inciting "aliens to enter the kingdom and to murder the king’s counsellors," which certainly meant the Despensers, and perhaps Mortimer’s detested cousin the earl of Arundel and the younger Despenser's protégé Robert Baldock, whom Edward had appointed as chancellor of England in August 1323. [5]

With Roger Mortimer on the continent beyond his reach, Edward II lashed out vindictively at his family. This was no doubt inspired at least in part by his frustration at being unable to re-capture his enemy, though as Mortimer had sent assassins to kill Edward's friends, it is hardly surprising that the king would retaliate, and Mortimer chose to flee the country in the full knowledge that he was leaving his family to Edward's not-so-tender mercies. I n March and April 1324, his wife Joan and her servants were moved from Southampton to Skipton-in-Craven, and three of their eight daughters – Margaret Berkeley, Joan and Isabella – were sent to separate convents and granted the pitifully small amounts of fifteen pence (Margaret) or twelve pence (Joan and Isabella) per week for their sustenance.  [6]  As far as I know, three of Mortimer's four sons also remained under guard, though Geoffrey was reunited with his father on the continent, about which much more in the second part of this post, soon.


1) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1321-1324, p. 249; Ibid. 1327-1330, pp. 141-143.  The judgement on the Mortimers is printed, in the original French, in James Conway Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II (1918), p. 565 (...pur les Tresons soiez treynez et pur les arsons roberies homicides et felonies soiez penduz).
2) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-1327, p. 13.
2) Ibid., p. 132.
3) Patent Rolls 1321-1324, p. 335.
4) Close Rolls 1323-1327, pp. 133, 137-138, 140-141.
5) Patent Rolls 1321-1324, p. 349.
6) Close Rolls 1323-1327, pp. 87-88, 106.


Sonetka said...

What do you know, the "drugging the guards' wine" trick actually happened in real life! I thought it was a handy staple of adventure novels but never knew of anyone who'd done it in real life and actually gotten away with it. I wonder what kind of sedatives he used -- opium, possibly?

Kathryn Warner said...

Sonetka, I wonder if Roger was the first one to do it? Well ahead of the cliché crowd, our Roger. :) I wish I knew what the sedatives were - that this had been recorded somewhere!

Anonymous said...

Great post ... would be interesting how Roger managed the drugging. Perhaps, an ally with access to the guards' food or drink? or, if it was anything like Tudor times, perhaps Roger had some of his own food ... which he could have drugged and then offered to the guards?


Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Esther, thanks! Perhaps it was the deputy constable Alspaye who procured the sedatives and fed them to his colleagues. When I first wrote the post it seemed to me that Roger and his guards were fraternising and drinking wine together, but now I'm not sure - if Alspaye was involved he might have been drinking with his colleagues and let Roger out later.

Anerje said...

I feel for you - losing your post!

Roger's escape - a staple for pro-Isabella novels - and even crops up in the odd history book - Isabella in the Tower at the same time, they become lovers, she helps him escape, etc, etc, etc. Tsk, tsk!

Maybe the drug was something like the Valerian herb, which with wine just put them in a drunken stupor?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje! I still giggle sometimes at the thought of those novels that have Isabella and Roger having hot sex in his cell without anyone ever noticing or suspecting, because she has a Magic Invisibility Hood. :-D

Valerian's a good suggestion! Plenty of it mixed with wine would surely have done the job.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post - I go with the suggestion that Gerald d'Alspaye procured the drug as it makes most sense to me. Great deed of derring-do however. It is really like something one would read in an adventue story or see in an action movie!
I believe though that something must have sparked Roger's escape - or was it just purely fortuitous that someone procured the drug and he decided to go - but I don't believe that really.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post and a great account of the escape. A wonderful deed of derring-do, almost like a Special OPs deed or something from an action movie.
I'm sure you'e right that it was Gerald d'Alspaye who procured the drug, whatever it was, it seems the most obvious means for Roger to acquire it.
Just a thought - it must have been psychologically difficult for Roger to join a rebellion as the Mortimers had been staunch supporters of various kings for a long time, Edward & Henry III at Evesham and John at Runnymede. I can't find any instances of Mortimers rebelling aside from some ancestors in Normandy before 1066?

Thank you for another fascinating blog.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Beata! I don't know the history of the Mortimers very well, but don't know offhand of any other royal rebellions they took part in.

I'm sure that the idea of permanent imprisonment was ample motivation for Roger to escape. Other Contrariants imprisoned by Edward II also escaped, only they weren't as influential and important so no-one dreamed up a story of impending execution to explain their escapes.

Anonymous said...

The only Mortimer rebellions I know of are in Normandy, with William and also during the William Rufus & Robert Curthose conflicts, eventually siding with William Rufus. Other than that they seem to have been fervent royalists!

I'm sure you're right and permanent imprisonment was a strong incentive for escape.....who knows, maybe he thought he could help his family more easily from outside a prison rather than in.

Kathryn Warner said...

His wife was being held under house arrest (with eight servants) at the time of his escape, and it seems that three of his four sons were too (I'm not totally sure, though). It was Roger's escape which prompted a renewed onslaught against his family a few months later. It's his fleeing the country that endangered his family far more than they had been while he was in prison, which he must have guessed would happen. I don't think very much at all of Roger's attitude towards his wife and family after 1322, actually.

Jerry Bennett said...

Thanks again for a very interesting post. Can I make some observations on this.

1. Edward decided to pardon the Mortimers on July 22nd, before the judges in London had passed sentence. Could this have been a deliberate decision on Edward's part, based on the realisation that he might just need Roger Mortimer's expertise as a soldier in the future.

The Scots had invaded England on July 1st, with Robert Bruce riding down the west coast via Egremont and Furness Abbey, while Douglas and Moray led a second army roughly down the line of the modern M6, with the two re-uniting at Lancaster. They continued to push another 40 miles south, almost as far as Wigan, before turning back, but on the 22nd they were still around Carlisle, destroying crops and burning out the area before crossing back into Scotland on the 24th. (Dates all taken from Colm McNamee, "The Wars of the Bruces"). If Edward's commanders, mustering their army less than 50 miles away at either York or Newcastle, could not intercept them in that 24 day period, that must have set Edward to wondering if Roger Mortimer could not have done better. He had a pretty decent track record for fighting the Scots in Ireland.

2. The Mortimer's were judged by citizens of London. Would that count as being judged by their peers, and did this play on Edward's conscience?

3. The escape involved Gerard Alspaye and three London citizens at least, and possibly more. How long would it have taken to plan? My guess would be at least a week, possibly longer, given that they had to acquire a boat and also arrange their own escapes beyond London. Could Alspaye have drugged the entire garrison of the tower, or did he have other accomplices on the inside, particularly within the kitchens? The whole thing appears to have been very well organised, which suggests a small, tight-knit team who managed to keep the enterprise secret from both servants and families. For this reason alone, I do not think Isabella was involved, as the team would have started to become unwieldy, and too many people might have known in advance. A couple of careless words, and the plan would have been discovered.

4. Edward may not have changed his mind about executing Roger Mortimer, but would Mortimer have any confidence in that. He must have had the execution of Llywellyn Bryn at the back of his mind, even though Bryn had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Ian Mortimer lays the guilt of Bryn's execution on Hugh Despenser, and if that was so, then Mortimer could not have been too confident of his own survival.

5. Why didn't he take his uncle with him? Was the older man already too ill?

Sorry Kathryn, it's all supposition again with precious little fact. But when I read articles like yours, I can't help but try to get inside the minds of both Edward and Roger Mortimer.

Kathryn Warner said...

Jerry, many thanks yet again for such a fantastic and thought-provoking comment! Have just come in, and will read your comment and ponder your thoughts as soon as possible ;)

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable read. I find it interesting to come across someone who likes the Plantagenets. I've generally found them to be a nasty lot, though they are apparently ancestors. I'm going to enjoy reading your blogs.

Carla said...

There was a drink called 'dwale' in medieval medicine, which was used as a general anaesthetic for surgery, 'to make a man sleep while men cut him'. The ingredients vary but involved things like hemlock, henbane and opium.
My money would be on that.

Kathryn Warner said...

Brilliant, thanks for the info, Carla!

Bryan Dunleavy said...

Jerry Bennett's observations are excellent and worthy of serious pondering. Sorry, no more to add at this point.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Great stuff once again! I bet when Edward heard of this he was, to say the least, fuming on all cylinders. But once again, despite what has been claimed, he did not act as harsh as he could have done. Some other ruler might have let some heads roll after this one.

Doreen Agutter said...

I have long known that Mortimer was helped by Gerard D'Alspaye which is the former name for the village of Meriden, West Midlands of which I am the published historian. Stephen Segrave was one of the major landowners in the village too which is how I assume Gerard got his post as deputy lieutenant. Assisteing Gerard was John Wyard a man at arms. Can anyone tell me the link between this Wyard and another John Wyard died 1404 who is commemorated in Meriden church and quite possibly his grandson. Why would Gerard help Mortimer? How did they know each other? D'Alspaye was a member of the Warwickshire gentry, quite insignificant in fact. I can see how Wyartd knew Mrortimer as his own land was held of one of Roger's cousins another Roger Mortimer.

Doreen Agutter said...

Roger was shut up in his cell with heavily padlocked door. D'Alspaye was the catalist who got help from the LOndon merchants and set up a help group outside the Tower to cross the river and get away very quickly. I am surprised that Edward2nd accepted Segrave's story; that he knew nothing about the escape and was drugged too but was he? Segrave's family was important in military terms during the last campaigns to Scotland. One of the great siege engines was called Segrave. When I first read this tale as a teenager living in the village I thought Segrave must have known and agreed to stay behind may be to allow the scent to go cold? Was his early death a result of this?

Carl pearson Rugby said...

After researching what sedative would have been used I really do think it would of been 1 called “great rest” which consisted of opium mandrake and henbane. I hope this helps. Carl Pearson from Rugby WARWICKSHIRE

Carl pearson Rugby said...

After researching what sedative would have been used I really do think it would of been 1 called “great rest” which consisted of opium mandrake and henbane. I hope this helps. Carl Pearson from Rugby WARWICKSHIRE

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Carl!

Mark Mortimer said...

I’m a descendant of Roger Mortimer. I’m fascinated with the history I am reading about him and the Mortimer family. Im trying to contact the Tower of London to arrange a appointment to gain more information

kitty said...

I am also a descendant of Roger Mortimer and a Trustee of the Mortimer History Society. We are collecting genealogical information and would love to hear from anyone who has Mortimer Ancestry. We are also holding an event at the Tower of London to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Roger Mortimer’s escape. You might like to join us!