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The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer Review

Updated on January 22, 2013
The Arrest of Sir Roger Mortimer
The Arrest of Sir Roger Mortimer

One of my Xmas presents this year was a wonderful biography of Sir Roger Mortimer that I received from my parents-in-law. The story of Mortimer has links to where they live in Ludlow near the Welsh border in Shropshire, England.

Mortimer ruled England from 1327-1330 but originally hailed from the Welsh Marches and become the Earl of the Marches before his death. His wife lived at Ludlow castle and he spent many years in the region.

So it was a nice touch to receive a book on a local celebrity from the 14th century.

The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer

Ian Mortimer commences the biography with a review of the life of Roger covering:

  • His grandfathers dispute and murder of the Despenser’s and how this was to affect Mortimer in the future
  • The idyllic childhood of the future earl and his childhood friendship with the future King Edward II of England
  • His heroic and chivalric fighting of the Scots under King Edward I
  • The governorship of Ireland and the overthrow of the Scottish attempted Kingship of the Island

This was mainly a sidetrack in the book. The real story lays at the relationship between Mortimer and King Edward II. The Earl was a loyal servant of the King and of the Royal family in his early life, which under the circumstances would have been a trial. Edward was thought to be a homosexual, who even though he was married to Queen Isabella (thought to be the prettiest woman in Christendom) and he fathered some children with, with his closest relationships with male friends.

The first of these ‘friends’ was Gaveston, an impoverished knight from France who became the friend of the future King in childhood and who was most likely a close friend of Mortimer. Gaveston was exiled from England numerous times, but when Edward II was made King he became tyrannical and this eventually cost him his life.

The second ‘friend’ of the King was the grandchild of the Despenser’s who was also the mortal enemy of Mortimer. Despenser was greedy and became just like Gaveston. During this time Mortimer rebelled against the King and was forced into exile in France.

During the exile Mortimer met Queen Isabella and they become lovers! Imagine the scandal as the King of England became the cuckold of a lowly nobleman. Mortimer and Isabella eventually formed an invasion force and challenged the King and Despenser to battle. Mortimer won and thus started the dictatorship of England. As an aside Despenser was executed.

Mortimer’s Rule

At this point King Edward II abdicated and his son King Edward III became King. As Edward III was still only 14 Isabella and Mortimer had the real power behind the throne. Edward II was kept in a castle and then eventually executed, according by popular tradition, by having a red hot poker inserted into his intestines via his anus.

However, Mortimer did not have him executed, but kept secreted away so that he could advert any escape or release attempts and to consolidate power. Ian Mortimer spends considerable time exploring this theory within the book.

But as Edward III became older he developed power and as the power slipped Mortimer became more dictatorial and was eventually displaced in 1330 and executed.

Key Learnings

If I got one piece of learning from this history it was around strategic thinking. Mortimer was a highly strategic individual during his mid-life. He was a fine military strategist and could see the bigger picture 5 or more years out. King Edward II and his advisor, Despenser, where not strategic thinkers. Ian Mortimer says (and I quote):

“Hugh Despenser was adept only at amassing huge sums; he did not know how to spend money to his and the king’s best advantage. Roger, on the other hand, was adept at spending money strategically.”

In business today many managers have advisors that may help to make the business sound, but they lack strategic thinking or innovation to use this money to grow the business.

Another learning is that Mortimer had high ideals and he kept these morals and ethics in check throughout his life, including the early stages of his dictatorship. However, when the pressure came on he became a tyrant like so many of his predecessors. As Ian Mortimer says in the closing paragraph of the book:

“One can say little more damning about a historical character than that he knowingly acted in his own self-interest against what he believed was virtuous, just and right.”

I can highly recommend this book to you – The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer Ruler of England 1327-1330 by Ian Mortimer.

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      Michael Kromwyk 6 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Ater reading this book I can report that I am off to visit the Welsh Marches and Ludlow in July this year. I'll be in Ludlow to visit family during the festival including a castle visit and a Shakespeare play being performed on the castle grounds. A great chance to visit in the footsteps of Mortimer! Cheers Michael

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