A Good Night’s Work at Nottingham Castle

On the evening of October 19, 1330, William de Montacute (also spelled Montagu or Montague) and a couple of dozen men entered Nottingham Castle through an underground passageway. Their quarry: Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who with Queen Isabella was the effective ruler of England at the time.

The reign of Isabella and Mortimer had been a perfect illustration of the line from the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Isabella and Mortimer had proven to be as greedy for land and power as had been Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom they had executed in 1326. They had quickly alienated their former allies, most notably Henry, Earl of Lancaster, by shutting them out of decision-making during the young king’s minority. They had forced Edward III to agree to the execution of his own uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, earlier in 1330. Stupidly, instead of growing more deferential to the young king as he matured and gradually ceding power to him, Mortimer had grown more insolent in his behavior toward Edward III, even saying that his own orders were to be obeyed over those of the king. By October 1330, Edward III and his circle of loyal friends had had enough.

After a struggle in which a couple of Mortimer’s men died, Mortimer was seized and arrested. Edward III, as he proclaimed on October 20, 1330, would hereafter rule on his own. Mortimer was taken to the Tower of London, from which he had escaped in 1323. In November 1330, he was dragged to Tyburn, stripped of the black tunic he had worn at Edward II’s funeral, and hung.

William de Montacute remained a close friend of Edward III for the rest of his days (the story that Edward III attempted to seduce, or raped, his friend’s wife is regarded these days as a French slander). He was made Earl of Salisbury by Edward III in 1337. In January 1344, when Edward III formally announced his intention to form a Round Table of 300 knights, William de Montacute played a prominent part in the ceremony. The Round Table project never came to fruition; if it had, Montacute would not have lived to see it, for just days after the announcement, he was fatally injured while jousting at Windsor. He died on January 30, 1344, and was buried at Bisham Priory. He was about forty-three years old.

Medieval families often mended old wounds with Montague-Capulet marriages, and the Montacute/Montague family, appropriately enough, was a fertile source of these. William de Montacute’s eldest son, another William, married Joan of Kent, daughter of the Earl of Kent who had been executed in 1330. (Unfortunately, Joan of Kent had already secretly married Thomas Holland, or so they said, and the marriage with Montacute was dissolved in 1349.) Elizabeth de Montacute married Hugh le Despenser, eldest son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Sybil de Montacute married Edmund Fitzalan, whose paternal grandfather (Edmund Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel) and maternal grandfather (Hugh le Despenser the younger) had been executed within days of each other by Isabella and Mortimer. Philippa de Montacute married Roger Mortimer, namesake and grandson of the man her father had seized in 1330. He gained Edward III’s favor and eventually became the second Earl of March.

William de Montacute is a major character in Juliet Dymoke’s historical novel The Lion of Mortimer, and his daughter Elizabeth is the heroine of my own work-in-progress. Ian Mortimer in his biographies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III provides a gripping account of the coup at Nottingham.

So raise a glass (as it’s morning, I’m raising a can of Coca-Cola), to William de Montacute, first Earl of Salisbury, friend of Edward III and nemesis of Roger Mortimer.

13 thoughts on “A Good Night’s Work at Nottingham Castle”

  1. I wonder, is the date you refer to the modern adaptation after the calendarial reform? For else, it would be ten days too early. 😉

    But I salute with a cup of cappuccino, nevertheless. *grin*

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    I’m using the date given by modern historians, so I’m assuming they’ve done the calculations, because I sure ain’t!

  3. Love the post!

    I often wonder (because I spend far too much time thinking about such things) what the heck was going on in Mortimer and Isabella’s heads, 1327-1330. Why on earth did they think anyone would put up with them behaving worse than the Despensers ever had – when they’d invaded England to ‘liberate’ the people from the Despensers’ tyranny?

    I didn’t realise Roger Mortimer (the grandson) was married to a Montacute. Was Philippa the niece of Elizabeth and Sybil?

    [Hope this appears – Blogger seems to be having one of its frequent snits.]

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks! Philippa was Elizabeth and Sybil’s sister. According to Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online, there was another sister, Agnes, who married a John Grey (heir to Roger, Lord Grey of Ruthin), and another brother, John, who married Margaret de Monthermer.

    I too wonder what was going through Isabella and Mortimer’s heads, and how they would be remembered today if they’d just sat back and left the driving to Edward III and his council.

  5. Was John Grey related to the John Grey who tried to marry Eleanor de Clare? And presumably Margaret de Monthermer was the daughter of Thomas or Edward? I didn’t know either of them had children.

    It seems that the modern historians and novelists who are keen to portray Isabella as a strong, powerful woman, a kind of feminist heroine, draw a convenient veil over her rather foolish, self-serving behaviour during her regency.

    Another thing I wonder about is what Isabella and Mortimer thought would happen when Ed III reached his majority and wouldn’t need them any more.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    I don’t think the John Greys were related–Eleanor’s John Grey was of Rotherfield. (Would it have killed one of those families to name their kid “Steve” or “JimBob”? I think not.) Margaret was Thomas de Monthermer’s heiress, according to Oxford DNB; don’t know much more about her.

    It does seem that some writers are very soft on Isabella, especially since she had put herself into a position of having to choose between Mortimer and Edward III, and her behavior up until her downfall suggests that she was choosing Mortimer. If she was so enamored of Mortimer that she couldn’t think straight about the future, it hardly fits in with the idea of her as some feminist icon!

    It would be interesting to know what the pair thought would happen when Edward III reached his majority. Maybe they were living entirely for the moment, or they misstook Edward III’s character entirely and thought that he would be theirs to manipulate even after he came of age. (Of course, I also have the theory that Mortimer might have been planning some fatal “accident” for Edward III, which would have allowed him to advise his son for a long time.)

  7. I often wonder what the heck was going on in Mortimer and Isabella’s heads, 1327-1330

    Hm, seems what was going on was located in their loins. 🙂

  8. Mortimer and Isabella were drunk with power…and more, as they were actually raising wine glasses in the morning.

  9. Fascinating post, Susan, thanks. Maybe Isabella and Mortimer believed their own propaganda and thought either that no-one would dare challenge them or that they would easily beat anyone who did. You see the same sort of disconnection from reality today in some politicians and company CEOs, who seem to really believe they are invincible, always right and can do what they like – until someone (metaphorically) stabs them in the back. “Drunk with power” is a good description.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top