The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer – Ian Mortimer

The title is eye-catching, the opening scene of the escape from the Tower of London tense and dramatic, the central narrative compelling and fast moving, the conclusion measured and considered: “The Greatest Traitor” is at the same time a fascinating biography of one man, Sir Roger Mortimer, but with considerable emphasis on the lives and influence of the two other main protagonists, Edward II and his Queen, Isabella “the Fair”. It offers an engrossing insight in to the social and military life and the political intrigue of Plantagenet England whilst taking the form of an action adventure and a mystery story.

Whilst necessary explanation is given by reference to events beyond the central text in both historical and geographical terms, the focus of  the main outline  follows a time-line of approximately 40 years, from the later years of the reign of Edward I, the so-called “Hammer of the Scots”, through the disastrous reign of Edward II with the loss of influence in present day France and  military capitulation against the Scots, as at Bannockburn,  and the  influence of favourites such as Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, the deposition of Edward II in 1327, to the early years of the reign of Edward III where the young monarch was virtually a pawn in the hands of his mother, Queen Isabella and her lover, Sir Roger Mortimer. The narrative concludes with the death of Mortimer and the emergence of Edward III as a strong ruler in his own right.

So much for the outline. Dr Ian Mortimer’s study – he does not claim to be related to his central character – offers the reader so much more. Whilst source material from this period of English history may not abound, he uses his sources to great effect in his analysis of relationships and motive. Whilst the author of necessity has to resort to conjecture on occasions, this is invariably based on the evidence to hand and possible alternative reasons for actions followed. Consequently all of the central characters, including the Earls of Lancaster and Kent, and many of the subsidiary players are presented as credible human beings and not two-dimensional “walk-on” characters as in a historical drama on the stage.

The research which lies behind this work is very impressive. The footnote section, which links to many of the sources, is exhaustive. Most helpful is the first appendix, which gives the itinerary followed by Sir Roger Mortimer 1306 – 1330. The bibliography is comprehensive and the six genealogical tables are indispensible, given the complexity of the relationships between families.

Dr Mortimer provides us with two engaging puzzles. Of lesser significance, but nonetheless intriguing, is the question of whether Mortimer and Isabella had a child. Whilst there is no definitive answer to this question and there is much interesting comment relating to the mores of the time,  the inference would appear that the author is inclined to believe that Isabella did in fact give birth to Mortimer’s child. The book however poses a much more fundamental question as to whether the traditionally held view that Edward II met a gruesome death at Berkeley Castle in 1327 is accurate. Dr Mortimer argues cogently and convincingly that this was not the case; whilst other historians might disagree with his conclusion, it is not the intention of this reviewer to take sides. However, the author presents his case with the careful use of evidence and a persuasive style!

Apart from those familiar with Ludlow Castle or the tunnels beneath of the rock on which the former mighty Nottingham Castle stood, few will have granted Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, much historical significance. Even in Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” he appears as a relatively minor character. Given the fact that he was in all but name ruler of England for three years, he deserves a higher profile which hopefully this extremely readable study can help to promote. The title however stakes an extraordinary claim – “The Greatest Traitor”! Whilst an individual’s definition of such a title must depend on factors such as the climate of the age or political or even religious adherence – one wonders where Judas Iscariot might fit in to such a hierarchy for example – it might appear a somewhat exaggerated claim. For much of the book the author seems sympathetic to his main protagonist – almost always simply calling him “Roger”. In his “Afterword” , whilst not denying many of the brutal, murderous acts he committed and his treachery towards the anointed King and his family, he reminds the reader that for much of his earlier life his motives could be said to be those of political expediency rather than personal gain.

Whatever one’s view of the justification behind the title or the author’s analysis of the evidence available concerning the death of Edward II, this book is extremely enjoyable. It moves with speed, it captures the imagination, it stimulates debate – and is thoroughly recommended!

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz.

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