One of my favourite history books – and books in general – of all time (which is why this review is so long), The Greatest Traitor turned Roger Mortimer from a surly footnote into a fully realised part of English history. It charts the incredible rise of a once respectable and loyal Marcher heir into the usurper of the English crown – king in all but name - and hands us a remarkable de-clutter of a bloodthirsty and turbulent time as it fills in the blanks of the where and how this man became so powerful and bitter.
Though Roger Mortimer was famed for being the rogue of the piece, he’s not a Disney villain who just emerges on the scene as instant bad guy. His family was chocker with fierce royalists, fighting on the side of the king and his son (future Edward I) against Simon de Montfort. He grew up in close quarters with the Prince of Wales (Edward II) alongside future favourites Roger Damory and Hugh Despenser, and of course the irrepressible Piers Gaveston. Roger comes across as a stable and intelligent ally, with a young family – he was married in a love match with at least one child by the time he met the prince - and eventually became a trusted and capable commander. Though on the periphery of Edward’s adult life – as his general he was obviously off fighting his wars – Roger was respected and likely feared by peers on his return to court, and remained entirely loyal to the crown. In fact, even through the reign of Despenser in Edward II’s life, Mortimer did as he was told and stuck by the royal side. The change came when he was not only betrayed by the king, but one of his closest family friends, who tricked him into surrender when he took arms against Despenser and had him locked in the Tower with his uncle, Roger Mortimer of Chirk. This, by and large, was the point Roger Mortimer’s patience cracked and he escaped the tower, being only the third person in its history to do so, and very possibly with assistance from Queen Isabella. His arrival in France and his receipt at the French court (and subsequent reunion with Isabella) is when the history books tend to pick him up, as if he was always the villain and had nothing else but villainy to do. As ever, it’s never so simple.
For me Roger Mortimer was well on his way to becoming one of the most revered generals in England, if not for the wayward king and his follies (Edward II is endeared to me for different reasons). He seemed both willing and able to stand at the royal side for the rest of his life as had his family, and live in the glory of his ancestors, including William Marshal, the most famed knight in history, beside the king. But it wasn’t to be, and instead he had his patience, loyalty and honour tested by someone who could not, nor ever would, return the favour. He’s a fascinating character who tried reverently to keep within the box of his expected behaviour, but instead ended up as the embodiment of everything he despised. Thus, he was only human, and even the noblest can only take so much (except maybe superman William Marshal...).
It’s a wonderful book, written, as all Ian Mortimer’s biographies are, in an informative and accessible style. It gives a new angle to many things in history that are usually glossed over or unexplained and is underpinned by loads of researchable evidence (I love a bibliography). Though written about a character that is presented as minor, the text is enlightening and an entirely welcome addition to 14th century history.
Interestingly, the story of Roger Mortimer was quite overshadowed on this book’s release due to Ian Mortimer’s theories on Edward IIs death – that it didn’t happen in 1327 as recorded. The uproar to the challenge from historians who claim to be experts on Edward IIs reign is rather laughable, considering the leaps and bounds history goes through every single day. It seems to them this one aspect (the poker/anus death rumour) is permanently static, never to be changed or questioned by anyone because we always bow to superior knowledge as lay historians. Well screw that. This was the first time I’d ever read a history book that had blown my mind clean out and got my heart racing for a part of the century that I had little interest in before, because it seemed nothing new ever came from it. Edward II was gay and killed with a poker in the anus, Isabella was a she-wolf, Roger Mortimer was Jafar etc. It’s as if these historians badly wanted Edward to have died in such a gruesome way so they could continuously write gratuitously about it and tell us all what a terrible time the Middle Ages was. I think it was an age where those in power had such a heightened sense and command of secrecy they were experts with it, and could weave the tales they wished others to hear just as well as modern governments. But though these books on Edward II have been getting more like bricks (I have most of them) – because they’re stuffed with all that new information –this single aspect of his reputed death is exactly the same with no explanation in the face of evidence to the contrary. All this evidence to the contrary is neatly bound in Ian Mortimer’s work ‘Medieval Intrigue’. Certainly, if you wonder why this paragraph makes such a fuss regarding this single aspect, it’s because it changes a huge amount of what is written as ‘accepted’ history – addressing some of the most flawed aspects of Edward IIs reign and tying up some loose ends that generally get swept away as fake - and I don’t particularly like historians acting like some kind of prophet for shit that’s already happened, like their information is so sacred we mere minions cannot question it. It gets on my nerves, and Ian Mortimer’s books (especially ones relating to Edward II) hand you a fully formed opposition to make the choice, and explore further if you wish.
I’m lucky to have met Ian Mortimer a couple of times – he is constantly informative, always willing to take the challenge of questions he may not have answered before, or about anything else really, and the first to say this is *his* view on the subject – he does not command your belief, he merely presents his findings. Show me the historians willing to question their own judgement and education in light of alternative evidence (or just evidence, generally) and these are the historians who will take history forward as an active subject rather than a passive one. Those are the books I want to read.