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Escape from the Tower of London


Just to ramp up the anticipation for Medieval Gower Stories, here is another story from the collection. If you want to see any more, you’ll have to buy the book! The ebook is available now on pre-order from Amazon and is half price for the first week. You can get the print book from me.

9 Escape Tower of London pixabay 300dpi

This story links to Gower in two places. William de Braose sold the inheritance of the Lordship of Gower to Baron Roger Mortimer to raise money in 1320. William’s daughter Alina and her husband John de Mowbray were supposed to inherit Gower and had even made a contract with William that guaranteed their succession. William actually sold the inheritance of Gower three times over, he was so desperate for money.

Realising the mess he had made, he eventually sold Gower outright to Hugh le Despenser the Younger, the favourite companion of King Edward II. Alina and John saw their Gower inheritance disappearing. John decided to take matters into his own hands, and took control of Swansea Castle. This probably didn’t involve force, but taking possession of the official seals. Whatever it took, Hugh was not going to accept it, and persuaded the king to get it back for him.

When the king got involved in the dispute between John and Hugh, the Marcher Lords and other barons who were not happy with the king’s favouritism, viewed this action as a challenge to their autonomy, and rose in revolt. Roger Mortimer was one of the barons that joined the rebellion.

Although the barons eventually succeeded in toppling Edward II from the throne, initially the rebellion failed. The leaders of the rebellion were executed, including John de Mowbray, and many of the barons were sent to the Tower of London, including Roger Mortimer. At his trial for treason, Roger was sentenced to life imprisonment. King Edward was sufficiently concerned to appoint a new keeper to the Tower, Stephen de Segrave, in February 1323, and bind him to the tune of £10,000 (over £5 million today) to keep his prisoners safely locked up.

The people were unhappy with the king’s weak rule, and more and more were on the side of the barons, so Edward planned to execute Roger, afraid that if he escaped it would have disastrous consequences. The king did not have too long to wait to discover how disastrous, for on the evening of 1st August 1323 Roger Mortimer did indeed escape. Very few people have ever escaped from the Tower, and many of those were caught soon after. But Roger got clean away.

He invited his jailers to dine with him, and his squire drugged their drinks. Roger clearly had friends on the inside and outside. Although the king punished Segrave, Roger had bribed one of his deputies, Gerard de Allspeth, who made a hole in the Tower’s kitchen wall so Roger could get out of the building. Allspeth also smuggled in an ingenious rope ladder which Mortimer used to scale the inner and outer wards, to be received by friends outside the walls. When Roger later came into power (see the next story) he pardoned Allspeth for his role in the escape. But to have had men waiting by the Thames suggests a wider conspiracy.

Roger had numerous powerful and important allies, and the key figure seems to have been Bishop Orleton. The king certainly mistrusted the bishop who was relentlessly pursued by royal justice in the following months. Two of Roger’s other friends were John de Patesmere, from whom Roger had rented warehouses, and a taverner, Ralph de Boclton.

An inquiry at Portsmouth on 10th August found that Boclton had commandeered a local boat with the help of Alice de Borhunte to row a group of men out to his boat which was at anchor off the coast. Roger made for Portsmouth, and the next day he was on the Continent. He joined his cousins John and Robert de Fienles in Picardy. King Edward wrote them an angry letter on 1st October 1323, in which he expressed his astonishment at their maintenance of Roger on their lands in Picardy. Maybe Roger’s mother, Margaret, had appealed to them for help.

His miraculous escape transformed Roger’s career. He became the focus for opposition to the growing oppression in the country. From his continental base he posed varied threats to the king’s position across the British Isles. Neither Wales nor Ireland could be counted as secure. The king undoubtedly feared Roger and the potential for an invasion.

King Edward was thrown into panic by Roger’s escape. He had no idea what the fugitive intended. He was unaware of Roger’s flight to France, for his first action was to commission Gruffydd Llwyd and Rhys ap Gruffydd to raise all the forces of Wales to pursue and arrest him. He also ordered the keepers of all ports and the sheriffs of counties in south-east England, as well as the Irish justiciar, to set spies and to inquire whether Roger had crossed the Channel, and who had aided him. On 10th August Hugh le Despenser’s father was chosen to head the mission to capture Roger and his adherents.

However, by 26th August information had reached the king that Roger had gone overseas and intended to go to Ireland. Three suspicious Irish ships had been spotted off the Kent coast and spies were set to ascertain their plans. Two days later the authorities of the major Irish towns, the justiciar, and most of the leaders of Anglo-Irish aristocratic society, were ordered to set spies and to pursue and arrest Roger if he came there. Ultimately, Roger made no attempt to go to Ireland. This does not, however, mean that nothing was afoot.

While in France, Queen Isabella met, and fell in love with, Roger Mortimer. Although for different reasons, they were both in opposition to the king, and both believed he was bad for England. They canvassed for support and gathered a growing band of men who were also disenchanted with the king and his administration. They began to raise an army to invade. In September 1326 Isabella and Roger landed in the south of England with 700 mercenaries. The army grew and grew as the disgruntled barons joined their forces to it instead of serving the king. King Edward and Hugh fled but were eventually caught in South Wales.

Edward was locked up and Hugh and his father were tried, convicted and executed. The king agreed to abdicate in favour of his son, if the people would agree to accept him. The abdication was registered on 24th January 1327, and the following day was declared the first day of the reign of Edward III, even though he was only fourteen. Roger and Isabella were appointed as regents. Roger also took the title Earl of March. From prisoner in the Tower to rebel in exile, Roger Mortimer had become effectively the king of England.

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at