History of the Mortimer family


The Medieval Mortimer Family

There is always doubt about the origins of names. Never believe any book which says simply the name comes from... No subject is as often oversimplified. For example, most surnames in use today in England are English, and became hereditary in the fourteenth century. But how does one determine when an epithet such as Brown or Beard became a hereditary name? Are all those with the surname Birmingham related or just all descended from people who have migrated from Birmingham? In some Norman households, servants took their name from their lord - how does one determine in such cases with whom the name begins? Was Churchill's remote ancestor the only man in England to take his name from a place with a church on a hill? I think not.

Having said this, Mortimer is one of the easier surnames to account for. It is one of the handful of names which became hereditary in the eleventh century. The first to be so called, Roger, was seigneur of the castle and township of Mortemer sur Eaulne, a place situated on a hill which had at some point been surrounded by an ox- bow lake of the River Eaulne. This stagnant water (the name means 'dead sea' or 'dead pool') around the town gave the place - and the family - its name. It may romantic to think, as the Victorians did, that the name was brought to England by a returning crusader who had visited the shores of the Dead Sea, but the family is actually named after a large, smelly puddle in France.

In 1054 there was an important battle at Mortemer, known afterwards as the battle of Mortemer en Brai. Roger found himself fighting for his lord, Duke William of Normandy, against an army of Frenchmen. Duke William won. Unfortunately for Roger, he had previously sworn allegiance to one of the Duke's prisoners, the Count of Montdidier, who was entrusted to his custody. By feudal law and the oaths he had sworn Roger was bound to release him. When Duke William found out that Ralph de Montdidier had been set free he was justifiably angry. The lordship of Mortemer was confiscated and given to Roger's relation, Ralph de Warrenne.

Despite this early loss of their seat, the name of Mortimer stuck. Roger's heir Ralph came to England and took a conspicuous part with Roger de Montgomery in the defeat of Wild Edric of Shrewsbury at Wigmore Castle in 1074. As a result of his service he was rewarded with many of the manors of the late Earl of Hereford, who had also taken part in the rebellion. At the time of Domesday (1086) Ralph found himself lord not only of Wigmore Castle but also of many other manors stretching across twelve counties, with no fewer than nineteen manors in Shropshire alone. The basis of the medieval English dynasty had been laid.

A number of English noble families carried the name Mortimer and it is probable that they were all descended from Ralph. The lords of Attleborough in Norfolk and the lords of Richard's Castle in Herefordshire were two families which were connected and probably descend from the Mortimers of Wigmore, although it cannot be proved. From the Mortimers of Richard's Castle sprang the barony of Mortimer of Zouche. At an early date Alan de Mortuo Mari (the Latin spelling of the name which normally occurs in medieval documents) took the bold step of adventuring into Scotland, marrying the heiress of the de Vipont family and thereby aquiring the castle of Aberdour. From the main branch of the family sprang Mortimer of Chirk and the Mortimer lords of Chelmarsh. Thus within a short time - two centuries - the family had bred and spread across the country like Norman rabbits.

Most famous of all the families to bear the name Mortimer was that of the heirs of Ralph. This was the Mortimer family of Wigmore, later Earls of March. They made their mark upon English history by marrying well, sometimes spectacularly well, fighting well, never failing in the male line (until 1425) and being prepared to exploit their position on the Welsh march to the full. By the end of the fourteenth century they had risen to be heirs to the throne and were among the richest families in England.

Which highlights shall I pick out to illustrate the rise of the family? In Norman times they were relatively lowly lords, their manors securing for them a place in the third or perhaps lower second tier of the nobility. In the early twelfth century they conquered a large swathe of mid-Wales, Maelienydd, which they ruled as magnates thereafter. They regularly killed or blinded Welsh princes caught in battle and maintained the border by sheer force. Diplomacy was not beyond them, however, and a great success was acheived when one of the most warring Mortimers, Roger (d1215), settled the ownership of Maelienydd for good with Llywelyn the Great. This Roger's second son, Ralph, who inherited Wigmore on the death of his brother, pulled off an even bigger coup in marrying Llywelyn's daughter, Gladys the Dark. Being half Welsh did not stop the next heir, another Roger (1232-1282) from fighting his cousin Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last free prince of Wales, until Wales was a spent force. In 1282 it was Roger's four sons who tracked down Llywelyn, killed him and carried his head to London.

The Mortimers played their part in English politics as well as Welsh. They fought for William Rufus against Robert Curthose, resisted Henry II's rule in the mid twelfth century and supported King John vigorously in the early thirteenth. When Simon de Montfort took arms against the King, Roger Mortimer at first backed him but then changed sides. At the Battle of Lewes in 1260 Roger supported the King and consequently lost his five hundred men-at-arms in the ensuing rout. Roger himself barely got away that day. Afterwards he proved a loyal servant to King Henry, rescuing the heir to the throne (the future King Edward I) from captivity in Hereford Castle. Finally, at the battle of Evesham, Roger Mortimer took command of the vanguard. At the end of the battle, de Montfort's head was cut off and sent as a present to Lady Mortimer at Wigmore. Delightful.

The above mentioned Roger Mortimer (1232-1282) raised the family to new heights in his wars against Llywelyn and de Montfort. Indeed, he was made Regent of England on one occasion and gathered many more estates to his credit. But the most remarkable of all the lords of Wigmore was yet to come. Roger's grandson, another Roger, inherited wide estates in England, Wales and Ireland, married well, became a succesful soldier in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France and staged a revolt against the king. He was betrayed, forced to surrender, sentenced to death, reprieved, and locked up in the Tower of London. Hearing of a plot to murder him in the Tower, he escaped over the walls, fled to France and there seduced (or was seduced by) the Queen of England, Isabella. Together they travelled to Holland and bartered the hand in marriage of the future King Edward III (then fourteen years old) for a small army. Then they returned to England, routed King Edward II and forced him to abdicate. Roger probably ordered the King's fake death to be announced in September 1327. Through his kinsman Thomas Berkeley and his old comrade-in-arms, Sir John Maltravers, he then kept the old King alive as a political prisoner for the next three years (for the scholarly argument underlying this, see 'The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle', English Historical Review, vol. 120, no. 489 (2005)). During this time he forced the young king to recognise the independence of Scotland, sacrifice his claim on the throne of France, executed the Earl of Kent (Edward II's brother) for trying to rescue the ex-King from Corfe Castle and demanded for himself the premier earldom in the country: becoming Earl of March in 1328. He also continued his illicit affair with Queen Isabella, and may have had an illegitimate child by her. He was finally arrested at Nottingham Castle by Edward III on 19 October 1330, and hanged 'like a common criminal' at Tyburn six weeks later. You can say many things about Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, but one thing he was not was a common criminal.

You can say many things about Edward III too but one thing he was not was the bearer of a grudge. Although he confiscated all the Mortimer estates on the execution of the 1st Earl of March, he restored the last of them, as well as the earldom, in 1356 to the earl's grandson, another Roger. He even restored some of the lands which the 1st Earl had stolen. The second Earl fought dutifully, being knighted alongside the Black Prince on the field at Crécy in 1346. Unfortunately he succumbed to a sudden illness while fighting at Rouvray in 1360. His son, Edmund, thus became the 3rd Earl. Edward III showed even greater favour to this descendant of his father's murderer by allowing him to marry his granddaughter Philippa, daughter of his second son Lionel. This brought the Mortimer family the further earldom of Ulster and Connaught. Moreover, after it transpired that the blood line of the Black Prince would go no further than Richard II, it meant that the Mortimers were now the heirs to the throne.

Being the heir to the throne in the fourteenth century was dangerous. One was not just handed a poisoned a chalice, one was forced to drink from it regularly. After the 3rd Earl (known in his lifetime as the Good Earl) was killed in Ireland, his son took on the mantle of heir. He spent his life being hounded and living in closely guarded captivity. In the end he was killed in Ireland, just as his father had been, leaving his seven year-old son all his titles and the responsibility of succeeding to the throne. But Richard II was deposed the following year and Henry IV took power. There were many who wanted to see Henry IV replaced with young Edmund Mortimer, but Edmund knew which side his bread was buttered and told Henry of any strategy he discovered to make him king. Even his own uncle, another Edmund Mortimer, plotted to put the young 5th Earl of March on the throne. This Edmund was starved to death in Harlech Castle and his wife and daughters murdered. Such were the times.

Edmund himself never had any children. Although Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for many years he resisted the obligation to go there, where his father and grandfather had died. He was right to be suspicious. In 1424 he was ordered to put down an Irish rebellion - and when his representative proved incapable of so doing, he was ordered there in person. Thus he too perished in Ireland. With him died the last of the male line of the Mortimers. His sister Anne, who had married the Earl of Cambridge, became heiress to all the estates of the Mortimer family and their titles. In turn these passed to her son, Richard, Duke of York. He took up arms against Henry VI and, with the help of the Earl of Warwick, led the Yorkist faction at the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses. After his death at the battle of Wakefield, his son carried on the fight against the Lancastrians, being victorious at the battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461 (a mile or so from Wigmore Castle) and securing the crown for himself as Edward IV. Thus all the family estates and titles were subsumed in those of the new royal family.

Last updated 20 September 2005