Sir Roger Mortimer: Who was the "Greatest Traitor?"

Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff you Missed in History Class," from How Stuff Works dot com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy. And Katie, here's a tip in case you're ever trying to seize the crown of England, or I guess, if you were -

Katie Lambert: It's on my; to do list.

Sarah Dowdy: If you were trying to seize it several hundred years ago. The Plantagenets are really, really not okay with each other. They fight all the time, and it's not too hard to set them off.

Katie Lambert: Well, and we've seen this so many times in our Eleanor of Aquatane episode. We've got wife against husband, son against father, and brother against brother. And in our more recent episode on Eleanor's son, Richard the Lion Heart, there's more brother against brother followed by some begging pleading and patronizing forgiveness.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, I would say that it's definitely a trait of the family. And it's a useful trait for a would be traitor. And in this episode, we're going to be talking about one of those traitors in particular, Roger Mortimer. And his abuse of the Plantagenet's greatest weakness, plus his superb battle skills, end up earning him a brief dictatorship in England! And some people call it the Age of Treason if that gives you an idea how it's going to go.

Katie Lambert: Not quite as the Age of Reason.

Sarah Dowdy: No.

Katie Lambert: But what makes him the greatest traitor? That's what we're going to talk about today?

Sarah Dowdy: So who is Roger Mortimer? He's the descendent of Norman knights who came over with William the Conqueror. But he was born in 1287 during the reign of Edward the First of England. I think Edward has possibly the best King's nickname ever - Edward Longshanks.

Katie Lambert: I love that one.

Sarah Dowdy: It's really good. So the Mortimers are really close to Edward the First and the Royal family. Roger's grandfather is a good friend of the King's and a close ally, and Roger's mother is a relative of the queen. So the Mortimers and the crown are pretty tight with each other.

Katie Lambert: Well, and they're also quite wealthy, which is a nice combination. At age 14, Roger marries. And that combines his very extensive lands with those of another rich girl, Joan de Jean Vielle, and they form this super estate on the English Welsh border. And in 1304, Roger's father is killed in battle. And even though Roger is 17, married and has several children, he becomes the ward of a royal favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Sarah Dowdy: Which I just think that's so strange that you're not quite of age yet, even though you're off fighting, you're married, you have kids.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, I don't know what the criteria was then.

Sarah Dowdy: It's bizarre. I guess it's just a patronage system. But anyways, Roger goes about building up quite a reputation for a medieval baron at least - soldiering and adding lands to his already extensive holdings, and fighting. And according to Ian Mortimer, who is a biographer of Roger's, but no relation, Roger becomes one of the most experienced soldiers of his age, with a particular penchant for the joust. So I think we have a pretty good picture of Roger going into this episode.

Katie Lambert: But we have some changes at the top. In the meantime, we've gotten a new king. In 1307, Longshanks dies, and his son, Edward the Second, takes the throne. And he looks like a king according to contemporary accounts. He's very handsome and very tall. But he's also very weak, and very easy to manipulate. And luckily, we have a manipulator ready in the wings. Pies Gaveston, who is a friend of Edward the Second's and possibly now his lover. And the politics of this relationship get very nasty. Edward pours favors on Gaveston - land, money, titles. He even gives him the regenc y when he travels abroad to marry Isabella of France. But unsurprisingly, because barons don't like anything, the barons don't like this.

Sarah Dowdy: Good lesson.

Katie Lambert: And in 1311, a 21 member baronial committee drafts a document called The Ordinances, demanding that Edward relinquish some of his powers and that Gaveston be banished. Got to throw that in there!

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so Edward makes like he'll do it. He banishes Gaveston. And then allows him to come back. And the barons aren't going to play that way. They're not going to have a sort of a half concession to their demands.

Katie Lambert: No, be a man of your word.

Sarah Dowdy: So they seize Gaveston and they execute him. So that's one possible lover down for Edward the Second already. But Edward just doesn't take the hint that maybe he at least needs to play it cool with his favorites a little bit. He takes a new favorite. This time Hugh Despenser. And Hugh has pretty impressive connections of his own too. He's married to Eleanor de Claire, and she happens to be Edward the First's granddaughter. So more royal connections there! And after hooking up with the king, Hugh Despenser starts to add to his land and influence, of course getting all sorts of favors.

Katie Lambert: Meanwhile, Edward is losing his own influence. He's defeated in 1314 by Robert the Bruce, and if you're trying to place this in your mental time line, this is around the Brave Heart period. And it looks like Scotland will be free.

Sarah Dowdy: But he's got bigger problems than just Robert the Bruce. It looks like the barons are at it again. But not Mortimer, right? Because Mortimer is a good ally to the throne! He's got all these old connections, right?

Katie Lambert: No, no, Sarah. Not anymore.

Sarah Dowdy: Not any more.

Katie Lambert: Because he really doesn't like Hugh Despenser. And in fact, the Despensers' land backs up to the Mortimer's' lands! And of course during this time, as we've seen so many times, it is all about land. So they're like the Hatfield's and McCoy's of old England.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, just feuding and not getting along at all. So when Hugh starts to get a little pushy and trying to move into South Wales, in Mortimer's territory, Roger Mortimer decides that he would rather defend his own interests, the interests of his family, the interests of his land, rather than support his king. So he joins the earls of Hereford, Lancaster, and Pembroke, who are also sort of antsy with Edward the Second giving out all his favors, and all that. So they all join in rebellion. And they have another really good name choice here. They call themselves the Contrariants. And in August 1321, they march to London, and make Edward banish some of the favorites.

Katie Lambert: Oh that sounds really familiar.

Sarah Dowdy: It does sound familiar because it's exactly what happened just a few years earlier with Piers. But Edward isn't willing to just get bossed around by the barons. So he rounds up an army - the Royal Army plus the Despensers obviously - and marches to confront the Contrariants. But Roger's allies leave him, so he's stuck there alone, and he has to surrender to Edward January 1322.

Katie Lambert: Mortimer goes to the Tower for two years. And if you think that's the end of our great rebellion, it is not. He drugs his jailors, escapes his cell, uses a chimney to shimmy out of the tower, and crosses the Thames in a boat that's waiting for him. And from there, it's off to Dover and France because of course the French kling, Charles the Fourth, is no friend of Edward's. So welcome, enemy of my enemy. I was saying to Sarah earlier, Red Rover Red Rover -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, let Mortimer come over. So we have Mortimer at the French Court, in exile, living pretty nicely, pretty comfortably. Guess who joins the French Court a year later? Isabella, who is Edward's wife, along with her son, an heir also named Edward. This is going to get kind of confusing. There are three Edwards - Edward the First, Second, and Third.

Katie Lambert: Edward the First is already dead.

Sarah Dowdy: Edward the First is out of this podcast. So Isabella and her son Edward arrive at the French Court. And that's because Isabella is paying a diplomatic visit to her brother, who is the King of France, trying to sort of work out a deal between her brother and her husband over French land disputes. And she's successful. She does the job. She protects the English interests. But then she doesn't go home.

Katie Lambert: Because of course, she's scared that Hugh Despenser wants her dead. And it's not a far-fetched idea because since marrying Edward the Second at age 12, she's been very seriously sidelined, even for a medieval queen, Sarah was saying earlier.

Sarah Dowdy: Since Day 1 - literally almost since Day 1 - Piers Gaveston got all her wedding gifts. So when her father, the King of France lavishes presents on this international marriage, instead of -

Katie Lambert: It's really to Piers.

Sarah Dowdy: - taking those home, yeah, Piers gets them all. And some of her husband's other favorite's end of taking her English land. So she's being really majorly neglected by her husband, and abused by his supporters. And when she's pregnant with her fourth child, she even briefly convinces Edward to exile Hugh and his father, only to have them called back to England a year later. So she certainly knows that Hugh is no longer a friend of hers, not that he ever was.

Katie Lambert: Well and another reason that she doesn't want to go back is she has a new boyfriend. Perhaps you've heard of him, the exiled Roger Mortimer. And maybe they've bonded over their shared hate.

Sarah Dowdy: One can only imagine.

Katie Lambert: Of Hugh Despenser. But they become lovers and start to plan a rebellion. And remember that they are in possession of Edward's heir.

Sarah Dowdy: Who's a young teenager at the time? So in 1326, they formed an army - Mortimer and Isabella. And they cross the channel and surprise the Despensers in England. And from there, the tides turn pretty quickly for this long favored family. Despenser's father, also named Hugh Despenser is hanged and beheaded. Hugh does -

Katie Lambert: Oh, it's grizzly.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, it's very grizzly. He is dragged behind four horses. He is hanged and cut down just before death. He's tied to a ladder, and his genitals are mutilated. And then while he's still alive, his abdomen is cut open and his entrails are cut out. Then - I mean, he's got to be dead by this point.

Katie Lambert: And then his heart.

Sarah Dowdy: Because his heart is cut out next. And then his head is chopped off. And then he's quartered. So I would call that overkill.

Katie Lambert: It's very thorough.

Sarah Dowdy: But they really didn't like him. Hugh Despenser was super unpopular. So one month after routing the Despensers, the defenseless and abandoned Edward the Second is captured in South Wales. So what are we going to do with the king?

Katie Lambert: Well Edward the Second is forced to abdicate in favor of his son, and technically Edward the Third, as he is, is king now, but he is a young teen, and supposedly he can't even hold the crown up at his own coronation. And in reality, it's really Mortimer ruling with Isabella. He's just - Edward the Third is just a puppet.

Sarah Dowdy: Puppet king.

Katie Lambert: And they last for nearly four years, giving out titles and lands to friends and favorites because that went -

Sarah Dowdy: They didn't learn.

Katie Lamb ert: - so well all of the other times.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And the deposed king is whisked off to a Mortimer family member's castle. It's called the Berkeley Castle. And it's there that he is believed to have been murdered. And this is also really grizzly. Sorry to be the gross out episode here, but chronicles later recount that the murder is done by a red-hot poker of the anus. Although that recent Mortimer book that I mentioned suggests that this theory is probably wrong. It's probably just been something that's wrong and passed down through histories and passed down through chronicles. Maybe it was invented by the supporters of Edward the Second - people who wanted to make him out to be something of a -

Katie Lambert: A monster, yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: No, something of a martyr. Although I don't know why you would want your martyr dying such a terrible, terrible death. But another fairly recent theory is that Edward wasn't killed at all. And that maybe he lived for decades in obscurity or prison. And who knows. But for our story, he's out of the picture.

Katie Lambert: People also like to believe that their deposed kings are somewhere.

Sarah Dowdy: Still off somewhere.

Katie Lambert: Living kingly lives. But the barons are not pleased with Mortimer's takeover, and his behavior. They think he's very greedy, and arrogant. He has unpopular policies regarding Scotland. Everyone hates him, as Sarah wrote in her outline. And knowing full well the kind of stunts that traitors pull - after all, he had Edward the Second killed - he keeps a bodyguard at all times and watches his back. But you would think that because he is so unpopular would try to make nice.

Sarah Dowdy: Tone things down a little at least.

Katie Lambert: No, and in 1330, he orders the execution of Edmund, Earl of Kent, who is Edward's uncle, and very popular.

Sarah Dowdy: So a lot of the barons take this as a sign that he is starting to neutralize the Royal Family, and that maybe he's about to go for the crown himself. So the Earl of Lancaster, who used to be Mortimer's ally, remember, and a few other barons, encourage Edward the Third - who has grown up in the meantime of course, from a young teen to a young man - they encourage him to fight for his rights as king. And he's 17 by now. He's ready to be unshackled. Ready to stop being this sort of embarrassing puppet king, and ready to claim his real crown! So when the royal household is at residence, in Nottingham Castle in October 1330, he makes his move. He gets together a gang of supporters, and they sneak in to the castle led by a couple members of the household.

Katie Lambert: And they have a tunnel.

Sarah Dowdy: They have a tunnel because of course Mortimer has this bodyguard, so you can't just face him upfront. They go through a tunnel which is actually still called Mortimer's Hole, and they catch Roger and Isabella in her bedroom. And from there, Roger is arrested, taken to the Tower, and quickly sentenced to death without a trial.

Katie Lambert: He is executed November 29, 1330 in Tyburn. And he's stripped and hanged, which wasn't a nobleman's death.

Sarah Dowdy: Well gosh, it doesn't sound as bad as Hugh Despenser.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. I'd rather have anything but that. And the execution reads Psalm 52, "The tongue devises mischiefs like a sharp razor working deceitfully. You love evil more than good, and lies more than honesty." And his own son, Geoffrey, calls him the King of Folly.

Sarah Dowdy: So that's it for our Greatest Traitor, but we have to catch up with Edward the Third too. And you certainly wonder what does he do to his mother? Because she's certainly implicated in all of this, but on the other hand, maybe he could partially understand how wronged she had been. So Edward the Third must have been okay with her to a certain extent. He allows her to retire into the country, just sort of politely ignoring the fact that she was lovers with the traitor who killed his father. And she lives in the country for three decades. She's got plenty of money. She's got her titles. She's the Queen Dowager in every sense.

Katie Lambert: And he comes into his own and works to make England powerful again. His reign kicks off th e Hundred Years War with France. And also indirectly, the Wars of the Roses, as the descendents of his seven sons and five daughters duke it out for generations starting in the 15th century.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so that's it for this brief Age of Treason. I think it's interesting the last rebellion we talked about, the Chung sisters. That lasted about three years too. I guess that's the going rate for your average rebellion.

Katie Lambert: But this is far gorier than our Chung sisters' episode.

Sarah Dowdy: I think so. So while I was researching this podcast, I actually spent a little time on the Berkeley Castle's website, which is still existant. It's nice and thick stuff. And they host weddings and private events. But I think it is funny, they mention pretty early on in their website literature, that it is the death site of Edward the Second.

Katie Lambert: It must have been a nice alternative to reading about all this gross stuff - to look at a castle website.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, just look at some castles and nice landscaping.

Katie Lambert: But if you'd like to learn more about castles, we have a great article on it, "How Castles Work." You can search for it on our homepage, at We also have a Twitter feed at Missed in History, and a Facebook fan page. So come and find us.

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