When Roger returned to England – arriving in July, many things had changed, and not for the better as far as he was concerned. Edward had three new favourites – Roger Damory, Hugh Audley and William Montacute, who some were already saying were worse than Gaveston had ever been. But what must have been of greater personal concern to Roger was that his enemy and rival, Hugh Despenser the younger had not only inherited Glamorgan, the larger portion of the earl of Gloucester’s estate through his wife, but he had also recently been appointed as Edward’s chamberlain.
The feud between the two men was rooted in a conflict before they were born. At the battle of Evesham in 1265, Roger’s grandfather, fighting for the royalist forces had defeated Simon de Montfort’s rebel army and slain Hugh’s grandfather (also another Hugh). According to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Hugh the younger had vowed to avenge his grandfather’s death on the younger Roger de Mortimer and to despoil his lands. In addition, it was Hugh who had been responsible for taking Llywelyn Bren (who had been Roger’s prisoner and to whom Roger had promised a stay of execution) from the Tower of London and executing him in Cardiff. Hugh had also shown himself to be aggressive in claiming new lands for himself too, as his attempted annexation of his brother-in-law Audley’s land of Gwynllwg had shown.
Damory and Audley, Edward’s new favourites were causing all sorts of problems at court in 1318. His generous treatment of them was causing huge problems with his cousin Thomas of Lancaster who was threatening open rebellion if they were not banished from court. And having such a powerful earl with an enormous army at his back as an enemy was a very bad thing indeed. One of the reasons Roger had been summoned back was to negotiate with Lancaster on behalf of the king. An accord which started in April (while Roger was still in Ireland), concluded at the Treaty of Leake in July, and finally ratified at the parliament at York in November saw an uneasy truce at long last between Edward and his cantankerous cousin – even if it was to be short-lived.
In March 1319, Roger was once more (and for the last time) appointed to the governorship of Ireland. Edward the Bruce was no longer a threat as he had been killed in October 1318 and most of his army destroyed at the battle of Faughart. Thence his time in Ireland was spent largely peaceably – restoring order and rebuilding what had been damaged or destroyed during the conflicts of the previous years. Coinciding as it did with the end of the famine years, Roger’s administration seems to have been both successful and popular and when he left Ireland again in October 1320, for the last time, he could at last feel reassured that his Irish estates were safe and the land was peaceful under the authority of his deputy, the earl of Kildare.
In his absence from England, it was clear that Despenser had grown ever more powerful. With Damory and Audley now displaced from the King’s affections and Montacute dead, Despenser had taken their place as his favourite and was proving to be far more dangerous and clever than any of his predecessors. As chamberlain, he, together with his father now controlled all access to the king and seemed to have taken on most of the administration of the country. Edward was devoted to him and it must have looked as though what Despenser wanted, Despenser got. And what Despenser wanted was land – particularly the land belonging to the estate of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To achieve his ends he mounted a clever and entirely ruthless campaign against his brothers-in-law, the inheritors of the lands he coveted. Now Gwynllwg had finally been given to him – and so had the lordship of Gower – against the laws of the Marches and to the anger of the Marcher barons. Roger, of course, was also one of the barons and, like them, he must have been alarmed to see Despenser gain so much land on his borders so quickly. Ironically, just as his Irish lands had become safe, his Marcher ones were now under threat.
An anti-Despenser coalition soon formed, led by Roger and the earl of Hereford and supported by the earl of Lancaster. In 1321, their anger boiled over and the rebel army marched south, towards London, burning and despoiling all of the lands of both Despensers and their adherents in what became known as the Despenser Wars. Edward, seeing London surrounded and most of his barons up in arms against him soon found that he had no choice but to submit to their demands and to exile both Despenser the son and the father. Once again, the anger of many of the aristocracy had proved too great a force for Edward to resist.
However, with the object of their anger now gone (or sort of, as Hugh the younger was still hovering around the Cinque ports and the English channel in his new career as a pirate), the coalition lost its cohesion and the barons’ little clique started to fall apart. In contrast, the King suddenly found himself in a much stronger position, and, fuelled with the desire for revenge against those who had humiliated him and his favourites, he sought to bring them down. Summoning those forces still loyal to him, he started to move against the rebel barons, starting with Bartholomew Badlesmere, whose wife had refused Queen Isabella entry to the Badlesmere castle of Leeds. Hereford and Roger started to move their forces to go to Badlesmere’s aid but were halted by an order from Lancaster, who happened to have an intense hatred of the man.
Unsurprisingly, Leeds Castle fell to Edward’s besiegers and 12 of the garrison were hanged. Roger and Hereford were forced northwards, aiming to link with Lancaster’s forces and form a defence against the royalist army. Edward determined to follow them, mustering his army and demanding that the rebels surrender. In addition, he removed Roger from his position as Justiciar of Ireland and his uncle from being Justiciar of Wales. The two Mortimers though, resolved to stand their ground. After all, they had assurances from Lancaster that he would send them military support. In the event though, Lancaster, true to form, did not appear and uncle and nephew, in the words of the Vita ‘deserted their allies, and threw themselves on the lord king’s Mercy’.
The surrender was not without issue. The earl of Pembroke had given them terms which meant that, in turn for their capitulation, their lives would be spared and they would be pardoned. However, this was half lie for, upon their arrest, they were not pardoned but were sent to the Tower of London in chains. It did seem though, that for the time being at least, their lives were to be spared.
Hereford had already fled further north, meeting with Lancaster’s forces at Tutbury Castle. Between them they had a considerable force of men, but now the King had even greater numbers, and worse – the Despensers had rejoined him from exile. They decided that it would be folly to stand and face the king and therefore would flee even further north – maybe hoping to garner some help from their erstwhile enemies, the Scots. However, Edward’s army eventually caught up with them and at what would become known as the Battle of Boroughbridge they were completely defeated. It seemed as if any opposition to Edward and Hugh’s regime had now been completely annihilated.
The Vita Edwardi Secundi – edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs
The Greatest Traitor – Ian Mortimer