by Frank E Earp
Nottingham and its County like most big Cities abounds with famous ghosts, that is, the ghosts of the famous and the infamous and those ghosts famous for their persistent hauntings. Perhaps the most famous, in all aspects, of these is the female spirit which haunts Nottingham Castle. The haunting takes the form of a woman’s screams and a pitiful cry in Norman French of; “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer.” The voice is believed to be that of the ghost of ‘Isabella of France’, wife of King Edward II. If it is real, then the haunting takes us back in the history of the Castle, to a moment in time nearly 700 years ago. This however, is not a just another ghost story but rather ‘the story behind the story’ and the part Nottingham and its Castle played in an infamous event in history.
Troubled King: The story begins with Edward II, an unpopular king who ruled England for 20 troubled year between 1307 and 1327. Edward the second son of Edward I, became heir apparent following the death of his elder brother Alphonso and ascended the throne after his father’s death. His troubled reign was in no small way caused by his relationship with a member of his personnel household, Piers Gaveston. Gaveston had been introduced to Court by Edward’s father in 1300 but later banished and exiled due to his bad influence on the then Prince Edward. Following his father’s death, Edward recalled Gaveston from exile and after his Coronation made him 1st Earl of Cornwall, – an appointment later to be confined strictly to royalty. The true nature of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston continues to be the subject of debate. Whatever that relationship, Gaveston’s power and influence over the King was greatly resented by the Barons. Such was the feeling against Gaveston that within months the young king was again forced to send him into a kind of muted exile, but this time Edward softened the blow by appointing him as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. We will leave Gaveston here for a while and return to our ghost, Isabella of France.
She Wolf: In an effort to alleviate tensions between France and England, in 1308 Edward married Isabella of France the daughter of King Philip IV. Isabella’s reputation and nature is best described by the ‘nickname,’ – ‘The She-Wolf of France’. Again, what ever the nature of the King’s relationship with Piers Gaveston, sexual or not, it had an impact on the Queen who like the Barons, began to despise him. Like so many other royal marriages then and since, this was primarily a political union. It was however a marriage intended for the production of an heir to the throne. In that it was successful and the future King Edward III was born at Windsor Castle on the 13th Aug. 1312. For a time, the royal birth brought the King back in favour with both the Queen and the Barons, but with Gaveston around this was something that could not last.
Brink of War and Gaveston’s death: Gaveston’s time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was a successful one and it may have been this that allowed the King to persuade the Barons that he should be allowed to return to England in 1309 after just a year away. However, on his return to Court Gaveston’s personnel behaviour became so extreme and offensive to the Barons that they were forced to take action against him bringing the Country to the brink of Civil War. In 1311 the peerage and clergy of the ‘Kingdom of England’ imposed upon the King in the form of an Ordinance, a series of regulations which restricted his powers. One of the many stipulations addenda to the Ordinance was the exile upon pain of death, the exile of Piers Gaveston. So it was that Gaveston left the Country for the third and final time. Even the threat of certain death could not keep him away and once again, either through arrogance or stupidity, Gaveston returned to England in 1312. This time however, his enemies had the advantage, the King had signed a legal document ordering his death if he should brake his exile. Led by Thomas of Lancaster and Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, Gaveston was ‘hunted down’ and put to death by the sword on Blacklow Hill near Warwick on the 12th June 1312.
Isabella in Nottingham: With Gaveston gone we might think that the troubled King would have been reconciled with both his wife and his Barons. However, this was not to be the case. Edward had inherited from his father an ongoing war with Scotland and things came to a head in 1314 when the hard pushed Royal army was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce. Isabella, who was in York at the time, was forced to flee back to Nottingham Castle. The Castle was not only one of the strongest Royal fortresses in the Country, but also provided some of the best accommodation in its fine apartments.
The Despensers: It was Edward who took the full blame for the mismanagement of the Scottish Wars and once again his relationship with the Barons was on a knife-edge. But it was not only the nobles who were aggrieved with the King. His constant feuding and general mismanagement of the Nation led to a period of hardship and famine for the general population. The King however took little interest in the plight of the ‘common man’ and with Gaveston gone his new favourites at Court were the Despensers. Hugh Le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, was elevated to the ‘peerage’ by Edward I in 1295 and fought alongside the King in France and Scotland and so gained a prominent place in the Royal Court. Together with his eldest son, also Hugh, he was one of only a few supporters of Gavaston, thus making himself an enemy of the Earl of Lancaster. Following Gavaston’s execution became the King’s chief advisor a position he used to promote both his own and his son’s interests.
If anything, the Despensers abused their position of power even more than the hated Gavaston. Together father and son had amassed a vast fortune and were protected by a private army, for all the World like latter-day gangsters. In 1315 political opposition led by Lancaster brought about Hugh’s dismissal from both Parliament and Court. However, this did not stop him promoting family interest and in 1318, through father’s efforts, the young Despenser was promoted by Edward to the position of King’s Chamberlain in 1318. Again it was Lancaster who became the Despenser’s chief opposition and together with a coalition of his fellow Baron’s forced the King to disinherit and exile both father and son. Hugh Despenser, probably without grace, excepted his exile and move to the Continent. However, his son, Hugh the younger moved no further than the coasts of Kent and Essex where he became a Pirate operating against the Cinque Ports.
We have reached a point in history where Sir Roger de Mortimer, 3rd Baron Mortimer, 1st Earl of March enters our story. For a time Mortimer’s name would become ceremonious with Nottingham Castle, a legacy which still exists today.
Queen Isabella, ‘The She Wolf of France’. Is this the face of the ghost which so passionately haunts Nottingham Castle?
Sir Roger Mortimer: Lover of the Queen and ‘de facto’ King of England.
This article is telling the story of the rich and fascinating history behind one of Nottingham Castle’s most famous features, a long passage-cave known as Mortimer’s Hole. It also tells the story behind what is possibly the Castle’s most famous haunting, the ghost of Queen Isabella. We have now reached the point in time within the story, where we are introduced to the second principle character, Roger Mortimer.
Roger Mortimer: Roger de Mortimer, Lord of Wigmore, 3rd Baron Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, born 1287, was of ‘Royal Blood’ being the second cousin twice removed of King Edward II and fourth cousin once removed, of Queen Isabella. By one of those strange twist of fate Mortimer was born on the 25th April, the same day as the King but three years later. This family relationship and shared birthday was one of the factors which endeared him to the King.
Mortimer, as 1st Earl of the March, was one of the powerful Marcher Lords. These were English Nobles given lands in Wales and the border country (The Welsh Marches) by the King, to subjugate the Welsh and protect England from attack. Mortimer had gained his many estates in the Welsh Marches, – and hence his title, – through an extremely advantageous marriage to the wealthy heiress Joan de Geneville, 2nd Baroness Geneville.
Like so many of the English Nobles of the time, Mortimer was one of the Lords who opposed Edward’s relationship with the hated Gaveston. However, his opposition does not appear to have effected his relationship with the King. After Gaveston’s assassination, Mortimer was, in 1313, appointed to Gaveston’s former roll of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Royal Cousins: It goes without saying that Mortimer had gained a hatred for father and son the Despencers, during their time of support for Edward’s allegiance to Gaveston. Mortimer’s hatred of the Despencers was a personnel one and much greater than the mire fact they were supporters of Gaveston. The Despencer began their rise to power during the reign of the King’s father Edward I. The young Hugh Despencer was Knighted early in 1306, gaining Hanley Castle in Worcestershire. Later that summer he married Eleanor de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 9th Lord of Clare and 7th Earl of Hertford. Eleanor was herself of Royal Blood, being the granddaughter of Edward I and King Edward II’s cousin. The marriage appears to have been an arranged one, being the settlement of a debt of 2,000 marks (around £1,000,000 in today’s money) owed by her grandfather to Hugh’s father, Hugh le Despencer, Earl of Winchester (Hugh the elder).
One year after the marriage, in 1307, Edward II came to the Throne and continued his father’s war against Scotland. When in 1314, Eleanor’s brother Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and 7th Earl of Hertford, died fighting alongside Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn, together with her two younger sisters, she became unexpected joint heiress to his vast estate in both England and Wales. Almost immediately, Hugh as her husband went from being a landless knight to one of the most powerful men in England. Of all the lands, castles and titles given to Hugh, perhaps the most galling to Mortimer and his family was that of the Lordship of Glamorgan which gave him possession of Cardiff Castle. Following his appointment as the King’s Chamberlain in 1318 Hugh’s greed and ambition went into ‘over-drive’ and he ceased the lands in Wales belonging to his sisters-in-law.
The Tyranny: This part of the article has told a parallel story to the first and we have now reached a point where the two parts come together. By 1320 the Despensers had become the most hated men in the land. In 1321 with some support from Queen Isabella, led by the Earl of Lancaster, the Barons forced the King to send the Despensers into exile. However, Hugh the younger’s reign as the ‘Monster of the Sea’s’ (Pirate off the Kent coast) and his fathers exile in Bordeaux, lasted a matter of weeks. With the Despensers gone, the Barons began to fall out amongst themselves and the King took advantage of the infighting to recall both father and son from exile. This brief interlude did nothing to slacken their greed and avarice and this period in time is often known by historians as ‘The Tyranny’.
The Despenser Wars: Edward and the Despensers now took direct action to re-establish Royal authority and after some minor skirmishes, Mortimer was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. One by one the Marcher Lords and their allies surrender to the King. Lancaster was forced to flee north where in early 1322 his army was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. This brought to a close the first part of what became known as the Despencer Wars. Lancaster, – again another blood cousin of the King, – was taken prisoner and later ‘hung-drawn-and quartered’ for treason.
Mortimer escapes: For some reason, despite repeated pressure from the Despensers, Roger Mortimer was not executed and remained in the Tower, condemned to a sentence of ‘life in prison’. This mistake on the King’s part was to lead to his downfall. After two years, Mortimer, possibly with inside help, managed to engineer his escape to France.
The Queen’s Lover: With Lancaster defeated and Mortimer in self imposed exile, Edward must have thought that his absolute authority had been restored. However, he had overlook the fact that his marriage to Isabella was at breaking point. Whatever the internal situation in the Kingdom, International Politics continue, and in 1325 Isabella was sent together with her young son, the future Edward III, on a diplomatic mission to France. Here she met the handsome Roger Mortimer and the two became lovers. Perhaps it was their mutual hatred for Hugh Despencer and his father that first drew them together, but it was certainly this hatred that led to their plot to return to England at the head of a mercenary army.
Fall of the King and the Despensers: The plotted invasion of England took place in 1326. Mortimer and the Queen’s small army moved rapidly across the country gaining support along the way. Edward was taken completely by surpriseand he was forced to flee as his own supporters deserted him. After several action in both England and Wales the King and Hugh Despencers the younger were betrayed and captured north of Caerphilly on the 16th November, whilst trying to escape to Ireland. Edward was taken to Monmouth Castle and from there back to England where he was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle. Despenser was taken to Hereford and on the 24th November and put on trial before Mortimer and the Queen. He was found guilty of all charges: For the charge of ‘thief’ he was sentence to hanging, for being a ‘traitor’ he was sentenced to be drawn and quartered and for “having procured discord between the King and Queen” to be beheaded. For an additional charge of returning to England after having been banished, he was sentenced to be disembowelled. Immediately after he had been condemned, he was dragged behind four horses to the place of execution. Here the full sentence was carried out all witnessed by Mortimer and the Queen who feasted with their supporters whilst they looked on. An account claims that at the final moment of death Hugh ‘let out a ghastly inhuman howl’.
The execution of Hugh le Dispenser. The grisly end of Hugh le Dispenser took-place before the Queen and assembled Lords.
A 15th Century illustration of the Queen’s capture of the King.
Having successfully conquered the country in a short military campaign, Isabella and Mortimer now set about establishing and consolidating their political hold on power. Isabella quickly declared herself ‘Regent’ on behalf of her 12 year old son Prince Edward. Edward accompanied by the King’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock had been with the invasion force when it landed, thus legitimising the rebel cause. However, as there was no established procedure to remove a lawful monarch, although imprisoned at Kenilworth, Edward II was still in principle King of England.
The King abdicates: Isabella now showed why she had been given the nick-name the She Wolf. Her shrewd mine swung into action. Most of the Kings administration had been imprisoned or executed, now she needed to prove to the Barons, the Church, and Parliament that her husband was an unfit King. On her behalf, the loyal Bishop of Hereford, Adam Orleton, made a series of public allegation against Edward’s conduct as King. In January 1327 a Parliament was convened at Westminster to raise the question of Edward’s future. Edward stubbornly refused to attend. Whilst Parliament dithered over the matter, outside the hall the London crowd made the people’s feelings clear by calling for the young Prince Edward to take the Throne. By the 12th January Parliament had sided with the people and declared that Edward’s personal faults and weak leadership had led the Kingdom to disaster and he was unfit to continue his rule. However, this was not enough to depose a lawful King and Edward needed to be forced to abdicate. To this effect The Bishops of Winchester and Lincoln were sent to Kenilworth Castle where they informed Edward that if he resign as monarch his son Prince Edward, would succeed him. If however, he failed, such was the situation, there was a danger that the Crown would go to another. It is said that Edward was reduced to a flood of tears and declared that he would abdicate. A proclamation was sent to London announcing that the King, henceforth to be known as Edward of Caernarvon, had of his own freewill, resigned his kingdom in favour of his son Prince Edward. Edward III’s Coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 2nd February 1327.
New King: The Coronation of the new King had the seal of approval of the people and they must have felt relieved that the torrid and disastrous reign of his father was finally over. However despite having the backing of the Nation the young Edward was King in name only. Barely a teenager Edward was legally obligated to rule through the guidance of a Regent until he reached his majority. That Regent of course, was officially his mother Queen Isabella, but the real power behind the Throne, as everyone knew lay in the hands of Roger Mortimer.
The old King at Berkeley: Although he had abdicated, Edward II was still a danger to Mortimer’s new regime. He quickly recognised the fact that there was those amongst the ruling class who would see his restoration. In April 1327 Mortimer moved the ex-king into the more secure accommodation of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, home of his brother-in law Thomas Berkeley. Here, Berkeley and another man John Maltravers, were given £5 a day (current purchasing power of around £4,000) to supposedly keep Edward in a state befitting his Royal status. From the records of the time there is evidence that luxury goods were bought to the castle on his behalf, but there is also evidence that Edward was mistreated and kept in appalling condition. Could it be that this extraordinary sum was paid to Edward’s jailers to buy their loyalty? By the late summer of 1327 rumours of plots to free Edward were rife. At least one attempt had already been made, getting as far as actually breaking into the room he occupied. With concerns growing, Mortimer secretly had Edward moved to different locations. However, this proved a logistical nightmare and by September Edward was back in Berkeley Castle.
Murder?: On the 23rd September 1327, news reached the young King Edward III that his father had “died of natural causes” during the night of September 21st. The story of Edward II’s demise is one of the most notorious and debated deaths of any English Monarch. At the time it was widely believed that Edward had died of natural causes, from a disease brought on by grief and despair. Although some might have had their suspicions, accusations of murder did not begin to ‘openly circulate’ until Mortimer’s trial for treason in 1330. It is not until 13 years later, written in the chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, that we find the most infamous account of Edward’s captivity and death: “He was held in a cell above the rotting corpses of animals, in an attempt to kill him indirectly. But Edward was extremely strong, fit and healthy, and survived the treatment, until on the night of 21 September 1327, he was held down and a red-hot poker pushed into his anus through a drenching-horn. His screams could be heard for miles around”.
Funeral: Edward’s body was embalmed at Berkeley where it remained until 21st October when it was sent to Gloucester Abbey. The funeral which was a lavish affair costing £351 (over 2.5 million pounds today), took place on 20th December. It has been said that the long delay between Edward’s death and interment was to allow the young King Edward III time to grieve his fathers death and attend the funeral in person. We do not know if, when news of Edward’s death reached the people, the Nation mourned his passing, but ornate oak barriers were erected around the Abbey to manage the anticipated crowds. The chroniclers do not record if the expected crowds turned up, but there is one surprising thing that happened long after Edward was laid to rest. Edward’s tomb became a popular shrine. For many years thousands of pilgrims visited to pay their respects to the late King.
‘De facto’ King of England: It is clear that Edward II funeral had been carefully ‘stage-managed’ to demonstrate once and for-all that his reign was over. Although guided by the hand of his Regent, the (now) Dowager Queen Isabella, Edward III was now undisputed King of England. The reality of the situation was somewhat different. From the very outset Mortimer had looked after his own interests. His first action was to have Edward restore his lands in England and Wales and create him 1st Earl of the March. From this position of power he increasingly exercised his control over Isabella and thus over Edward. As his power grew so did his arrogance and open disdain for Edward. Mortimer was now King in all but name. Once again the Realm began to split into two factions, supporters of Mortimer and supporters of the Edward. Chief amongst the latter was Henry, Earl of Lancaster the son of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who had been his ally in the Despenser Wars. The two men were now set on a collision course which would lead to Mortimer’s down-fall. The first impact of that collision would be at Nottingham Castle.
Berkeley Castle. The covered walkway leading to the King’s cell.
The Tomb of Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral. Although he was an unpopular King, Edward’s tomb became an important pilgrimage site.
Roger Mortimer and Isabella had first become lovers in 1325, whilst she was on a diplomatic mission to France on-behalf of her husband King Edward II. The King had been faced with a demand from the French to ‘pay homage’ for to their king, Charles IV, for English lands in France, – The Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward however had more pressing matters at home and was reluctant to leave the Country. In a statesman like move Edward created his 12 year old son Duke of Aquitaine and together with his mother Isabella, – who was Charles’ sister, – promptly despatched them to France in his place. It was whilst in France that Isabella and Mortimer first conspired to overthrow Edward II. As a part of this conspiracy to gain French support for their cause, Isabella had the young Prince Edward engaged to a girl of the same age, Philippa of Hainault. Hainault was a small independent province of what is today Holland and was governed by Philippa’s father. In 1326 on the Princes’ behalf Isabella promised that they would be married within the next two years.
Heir to the Throne: In October 1327 the Bishop of Coventry was sent to Philippa in Hainault on Edward’s behalf “to marry her in his name”. This kind of ‘wedding by proxy’ was not unusual at this time. The full marriage ceremony took place in York Minster on 24th January 1328 just under a year after Edward’s Coronation. Philippa’s own Coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on the 4th March 1330. England now had a King and a Queen and was soon to have an heir to the Throne. It was soon to have a heir to the Throne. On the 15th June 1330, Philippa gave birth to the first of the couples 13 children. Christened Edward, later to become known as the Black Prince, as Edward IV, it was his descendants who were to fight for the Throne of England in the bloody conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.
The end-game: Despite his marriage and the production of an heir, Edward was still King in name only. Roger Mortimer effectively still ruled England. In Edward’s name Mortimer had continued the war against Scotland only to be met by crushing defeats and an enforced peace treaty. This embarrassment for the Nation, more than anything, stirred his fellow nobles into taking action. It was Henry, Earl of Lancaster who made the first move against Mortimer but without support from the young King, this was unsuccessful. Mortimer must have felt that his grip on power was loosening. His retaliation was through plot and subterfuge to weaken the King’s position. There were those at Court who firmly believed that Edward II was still alive and in hiding, having contrived his a fake death for the sake of his son’s reign. Chief among the believers in this rumour was his half brother Edmund, Earl of Kent and even, as it now seems, the young King himself. Mortimer further encouraged the rumour prompting Edmund into open support for the idea and thus exposing him to the charge of treason. In March 1330, Mortimer had Edmund arrested, tried and executed. Lancaster, realising Mortimer’s plot, explained the consequences of his uncle’s execution to the King. This time Edward listened and took action.
A ‘Band of Brothers’: Mortimer had many spies in the Royal Court and the King could do little without his knowledge. Certainly it would have been impossible to have raised any sort of military force against him. Perhaps it was that the young Edmund, – just short of his 18th birthday, – had seen to much of the consequences of open warfare. What ever the facts, it would seem that he had been planning a subtle coup d’état against Mortimer and his feckless mother Isabella for a long time. Together with a personnel friend, Sir William Montagu, Edward had gathered around him a group of 20 or so young men whom he had created knights. All had been hand picked by Edward for their fierce loyalty. What was now needed was a time and a place to make his move. Surprisingly it was Mortimer himself who provided both venue and opportunity.
Parliament at Nottingham: In October 1330, Mortimer, in the King’s name, summoned Parliament to attend him at Nottingham. Safely ensconced with Isabella in the Castle, one of the Country’s most comfortable and secure Royal residences, Mortimer must have felt invincible. When the King, Royal Court and the Barons with their retinues arrived, the Town must have been bursting at the seams. Although Edward found comfortable accommodation in the Castle with Isabella and Mortimer, the rest were forced to camp within the grounds, most likely the area now occupied by the Park Estate. To all concerned, this must have seemed like a siege situation. The siege was broken on the night of the 19th October.
Mortimer’s Hole: At what was clearly a prearranged time, Montagu and Edward’s loyal Knights were conducted by William Elan (Constable of the Castle) into a secret underground passage leading up through the rock. At the top of the passage the locked door was opened by someone from within, possible Edward himself or a trusted servant. Contrary to popular myth and the romance that surrounds Mortimer and Isabella, the passage led out into the Inner Bailey of the Castle and not the couples bedchamber.
Smashing the myth: The true account of what followed next, again smashes the romantic legend. The King and his knights did not burst into the room and snatch Mortimer from his bed and the arms of his lover. We certainly have no evidence that she pleaded with her son to ‘have pity on gentle Mortimer’. According to contemporary accounts Mortimer and Isabella were at the time, sat around a table in conference with several others. Mortimer and his men put up a desperate fight in which one, Sir Hugh Turplington, was killed. In almost a comic touch to the story, the cowardly Henry Burghersh, Bishop of Lincoln was captured whilst trying to escape down a ‘privy shaft’. Mortimer himself was overpowered and arrested whilst Isabella was placed under armed guard. Legend has it that Mortimer, bound and gagged was taken back down the secret tunnel, – perhaps to be displayed before the Barons. It is said to be Mortimer’s shuffling footsteps that still haunt the passage to this day. What ever the truth, it is said that Lancaster threw his cap in the air when he heard the new of the arrest.
A King begins his reign at Nottingham: The next morning Edward declared that the usurper Mortimer’s reign as de’ facto king was over. In a proclamation sent to London, Edward announced that he would hence-forth rule the realm himself, in a just manner and in accordance to the laws and constitutions of the land. It would have been the people of Nottingham who would have been the first here this welcome news. Perhaps in the heat of the moment Edward wanted to have Mortimer executed immediately. However, Lancaster persuaded him that this might not be a good way to begin his reign. Instead he was first taken to Leicester and then to the Tower of London where he was held until his trial before Parliament at Westminster on the 26th November.
‘The King’s men enter the Castle via a secret tunnel’. Romantic version of the story of Mortimer’s Hole.
“Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer.” In this 19th century image Isabella pleads with her son for Mortimer’s life.
Edward III’s independent reign began at Nottingham Castle with a coup d’état and It was from the Castle that he announce to the waiting Nation that he would be a true and good King. Edward went on to rule the Country for just over 50 years, making him England’s second longest reigning medieval monarch, (Edward’s great grandfather, Henry III reigned for 56 years). His reign saw many important changes including Parliament separated in to two Houses, Commons and Lords. It also saw the start of histories longest running war, the conflict with France known as the Hundred Years War. The darkest year in the King’s reign was 1338 when the bubonic pandemic known as the ‘Black Death’ reach the shores of England. Between June of that year and December of the following year, when the disease began to decline, it is estimated to have killed around half of the County’s population. But in November 1330 all of this was yet to come. Roger le Mortimer 1st Earl of the March still had to pay for the consequences of his treason against both State and Monarch.
Trial: The 43 year old Roger Mortimer, Lord of Wigmore, 1st Earl of March, was brought to trial before Parliament at Westminster on the 26th November 1330. He was arraigned on 14 charges including the murders of Edward III, procuring the judicial murder of Edward’s half-brother Edmund of Kent and unlawfully using royal power to enrich himself, his children and his followers. In keeping with trails of the day, Mortimer was forbidden to speak in his own defence. To further prevent him doing so he was gagged and bound with ropes or chains. There was little doubt in the outcome of the trial. Mortimer was found guilty on all 14 counts and many more, by ‘notoriety’; his crimes were notorious and known for their truth by all the realm. As all of his crimes were against the King and his Realm he was sentenced to a traitor’s death, to be hung drawn and quartered. However, in a much debated act of clemency, the King commuted the sentence to one of being ‘hung by the neck until dead’.
Execution: On the morning of the 29th November, Mortimer was forced to put on the black tunic he had worn at Edward II funeral. This was perhaps meant as a veiled reference to his hypocrisy. Taken from his cell in the Tower of London, he was dragged behind two horses to the village of Tyburn. Here was London’s most famous place of execution, a three-sided gibbert known as the Tyburn Tree, which stood on a site close to the Marble Arch in present-day London. It is often wrongly stated that Mortimer was the first person to be hanged at Tyburn, but executions had taken place here for at least 200 years. However, Mortimer does have the dubious honour of being the first Nobleman to be hung at Tyburn as a common criminal for his crimes, rather than being beheaded. Before the rope was put about his neck his cloths were stripped from him so that he died naked. Verses from the 52nd Psalm, beginning with the words ‘Why do you glory in mischief?’ were read aloud within his hearing. Before the end came, he was allowed to say a few words to the gathered crowds. Although he admitted his part in the death of the Earl of Kent, Mortimer made no reference to the King, Edward II or his one time lover Isabella.
Although he was spared the full horrors of a traitor’s death, medieval hangings were often slow and victims could take hours to die. For Mortimer however, mercifully the end came within a few minutes. From the details his trial and execution, it is clear that both were carefully staged to reduce the once proud Marcher Lord and De Facto King of England to a ‘common man’.
Burial: It was Franciscan monks or ‘Grey Friars’ who took charge of Mortimer’s mortal remains. Records show that his body was taken by the Friars for burial at Greyfriars Monastery in Coventry, although it may have briefly rested in their little church in London. A year after his execution, Mortimer’s widow, Joan de Geneville petitioned Edward to have his body brought home to his former Manor at Wigmore, Herefordshire. At first the King refused the request but later relented and his body was moved to the nearby Wigmore Abbey. Mortimer’s grave site is now lost, but his memory is still honoured in Coventry.
Isabella after Mortimer: Although arrested with Mortimer that night in Nottingham Castle, Isabella was never charged or implicated in any act of treason or murder. In the days following the coup she was initially conducted under guard to Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire. She was later transferred to Windsor Castle where she was placed under house-arrest. However, this was not as bad as it sounds. It is recorded that Isabella spent Christmas 1330 with her daughter-in-law and new grandson. In 1332 she return to her own home at Castle Rising in Norfolk where she was permitted to live a life befitting her royal status until her death on the 22nd Aug. 1358. Like Mortimer, it was the Franciscans who took charge of her mortal remains. She was given a royal funeral at Christ Church Greyfriars, Newgate in London, – also know as simply Greyfriars Church. In a mark of love and respect for her husband, Edward II, Isabella was buried wearing her wedding dress and a casket containing Edwards heart was placed upon her chest.
Romantic legend of Isabella and Mortimer: Mainly based on Victorian writers, a romantic legend has grow-up around the historic Isabella and Mortimer. This story has Edward and his men entering the bedchamber of the couple in Nottingham Castle through a secret and mysterious underground tunnel. Here he is dragged from the bed whilst Isabella pleads to her son for his life. It goes on to tell how the young King mistreated his mother, blaming her for his fathers death. It is further stated that following Mortimer’s execution, Isabella for a time went insane with grief. At the end of her life she supposedly took to wearing the habit of the Holy Orders of The Poor Clares. At her death she chose to be buried alongside her lover in Greyfriars Church. Many writers on the subject still persist in wrongly stating that Mortimer was buried in Greyfriers Church London. Given the real history of events we can see how this tragic tale has come to be.
Ghosts: In the legend Mortimer is ‘spirited away’ from Isabella back along the secret tunnel through which Edward and his men entered the Castle. It is his shuffling footsteps which are said to echo through the passage to this day. If we believe that ghosts are really the spirits of the dead trapped by tragic events in this World, then Isabella is a very busy lady in the afterlife. Not only does her tragic shade still sometimes plead for Mortimer’s life in Nottingham Castle, her deranged spirit is said to haunt Castle Rising, whilst her tragic ghost still weeps for her lover in Greyfriars Church.
Castle Rising. The upper rooms and corridors of the Castle are said to be haunted by the ‘cackling and hysterical ghost of Isabella.
Victorian image of Greyfriars Church London. No memorial to Isabella exists in the Church, but in the twilight of evening, her ghost, clutching the still beating heart of Edward II, is said to flit between the trees and bushes of the churchyard.