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Text copyright © by Richard Williams
Photographs copyright © 1998 by Alison D. Martin
For many medieval generations the House of Marshal, headed by the earls of Pembroke, was one of the most powerful families serving the English crown. Indeed, William Marshal, a recipient of the earldom through marriage by the grace of Richard I, was the regent of England during the minority of Henry III, from 1216 until his death in 1219.
Rivalling these achievements, however, was another noble house. The family is more generally associated with the territory in and around the English/Welsh border, The March. However, it did hold sway in part of Pembrokeshire for a long period within its own ascendant years. The house in question was the house of Mortimer, and its part of the county was Narberth.
The Mortimers epitomised the Marcher Lordship. This class of Anglo-Norman nobility had been established by William the Conqueror and perpetuated by his successors, as a means of subduing the Welsh without the active participation of the sovereign and his armies.
In exchange for quelling any uprising on his behalf, the king conferred rights on the Marcher Lords not otherwise granted to the nobility of native England. They were allowed to build castles without royal grant, raise militia and to exact taxes for their own cause. Thus, while acting as a strategic buffer to their king they were also able to command a minor sovereignty within their estates.
As such, they were a powerful factor in the governance of greater England. Indeed, at the time of Edward I there were ten English Earls, of whom seven were Marcher Lords. In the case of the Mortimers and the measure of power that they held, when their earldom was created in 1327, Roger Mortimer became Earl of March. The implication of the region of this title being greater than a mere county is pretty obvious.
The Mortimers took their name from Mortimer-en-Brai, a lordship in Normandy, and they became established in England by Ralph, who, if he was not at (the Battle of) Hastings, certainly followed William (the Conqueror) across the Channel soon afterwards. The latter bestowed upon the family their role as Marcher Lords, and the township and castle of Wigmore, in north Herefordshire, was adopted by them as their seat.
Their span of influence lasted for the next four centuries. Their line ended with Edmund Mortimer, the fifth Earl of March, who died without issue. However, Edward IV was the grandson of Anne, Edmund's sister, so it could be said that a Mortimer did eventually become King of England.
While there were a couple of occasions when Mortimer power ebbed and all the house's lordships were confiscated by the crown, its story is generally one of looking for the "main chance" to expand their authority and territory. They did this by force, by expedient marriage arrangements and settlements, or by mixture of both.
Right: Roger Mortimer & Queen Isabella (foreground)
One such marriage was that by Roger, the same first Earl of March. The wife he took in October 1306 was Joan de Genville and the marriage contract brought the Mortimers the massive castle of Ludlow and half the surrounding lordship. It was this Roger Mortimer who, in 1327, became the de facto ruler of England in tandem with his paramour, Edward II's Queen Isabella, while murdering the king at Berkeley Castle in the process. With Wigmore remaining the family home, Ludlow took on the role of the Mortimer's administrative centre for their activities in The March.
It was marriage, too, that had brought them Narberth, nearly 60 years earlier, when Roger's grandfather of the same name married Matilda, granddaughter of William Marshal, that notable Earl of Pembroke. All of William's sons had died childless so the vast Marshal estates were divided between his five daughters. Thus, the husbands of these women were able to add significantly to their holdings as the various lordships were brought as dowries into their unions. This is how William de Braose, in marrying Eve Marshal, came to acquire Narberth, and, in turn, their daughter Matilda brought the lordship into her marriage with Roger, and into mortimer possession.
Together with Narberth, Matilda was also able to offer half of the lordship of St. Clears, all of Radnor, a large portion of Brecon, and other important lordships in England and Ireland. One commentator has hazarded the suggestion that, "At this point, the history of the House of Mortimer passes from the scope of a merely provincial record and becomes a feature in the annals of a nation."
Reflecting this powerful position in the land is the motto of the House of Mortimer. "Not we from kings but kings from us", says it all. In 1373, the inheritance gained by Edmund Mortimer, the third Earl of March, probably represented the peak of Mortimer territorial possession. Most of Denbighshire and Monmouthshire extended their control to eighteen lordships, all but two of these being in Edmund's ownership.
What of the other possessions beyond the March? The collection of Irish lordships held by the Mortimers would have satisfied most aspiring founders of dynasties. At times they included estates in Meath, Connaught and Ulster, the latter enabling Edmund to be styled Earl of Ulster as well as Earl of March.
Lordships were held by the Mortimers in virtually every county in southern England - from Gloucestershire to Berkshire. Today, some of these can be identified by town or village names which contain the name of the family. Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, is probably the largest settlement bearing the name, while a cluster of villages a few miles south of Reading, and straddling the Berkshire-Hampshire border, make an interesting study. They are sited within the environs of two Mortimer manors - Stratfield Mortimer and Mortimer West End, these names being retained by two of them, while the third is called Mortimer Common.
Leading west from the tiny conurbation is a road called Welshman's Road. The origin of this name could well be the fact that it formed the final approach of visitors to the two manors from the more western enclaves of the Mortimers. And the western-most of these lordships, on the mainland at least, was Narberth. This included the castle and its adjacent borough, together with Robeston Wathen, Templeton, Lampeter Velfrey, Llanddewi Velfrey, Molleston, Henllan Amgoed, Peulinog and Crinow, plus half of St. Clears.
Described by one observer as a "small but imposing medieval castle", built on a knoll to the south of the town, Narberth was of an irregular rectangular shape, with towers at each corner. The gatehouse was set into the shorter north wall and could well have been linked to the dominant north-east tower with its "great deep dungeon". Sadly, the structure has become progressively more derelict since the late 16th century.
The history of virtually every Welsh castle contains at least one episode which describes its fate during the Glyndwr Rebellion. While Narberth's position could have occasioned a threat from the Welsh at more than one stage of the uprising, it would appear that it remained throughout a bastion of English influence in the area.
This was, no doubt, due to the energies of the castellan, Thomas Carrewe, who, with a small garrison of men-at-arms and bowmen, kept it secure. For this, he was rewarded with the lordship in 1404. This favour had been in the hands of the crown since 1402, when it was forfeited by Sir Edmund Mortimer, younger brother of the fourth Earl, Roger, when the former had made common cause with Glyndwr after his capture in June of that year.
By courtesy of Henry V, the lordship of Narberth reverted to the Mortimers in the person of Edmund's nephew of the same name. This benefaction, for loyal service in the war against France, was rather ironic, as the young Mortimer was the true heir to the English throne having rightful, but unfulfilled precedence over the former Prince Hal who made the gift.
This Edmund also regained the earldom as its fifth holder, but became the last incumbent when he died childless in 1425. With the accession of his nephew's son as Edward IV, Narberth reverted into royal possession.
So ended the Narberth-Mortimer association. It had lasted virtually unbroken for almost two centuries. However important that link had been in the lives of some east Pembrokeshire retainers, though, throughout that period their patch was merely part of a larger fabric. The lordship of Narberth was just one of many in a much greater domain.
The Castles of Wales is honored to have been associated with the late Richard Williams. Mr. Williams was a free-lance lecturer and writer, specialising in the Medieval Welsh History of 1150 to 1450, including teaching courses for the Workers' Educational Association (Owian Glyndwr) and the Department of Continuing Education, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (The Two Llywelyns). His portfolio of lectures included such titles as Sir Edmund Mortimer - Traitor or Pragmatist, Owain Glyndwr, The Glyndwr Way, Owain Glyndwr - the Midlands Connection, The Two Llywelyns, and The Medieval Wedding.
As well as having articles published in such heritage magazines as "Country Quest" (UK), which covers Wales and The Borders, Mr. Williams' writing has also featured in "Ninnau" (US) and "Y Drych" (US). Some of his work on castles can also be visited on this site, and examples of his photographic output appear here and in other historical sources.
The Mortimers and Wigmore Castle
Other articles by Richard Williams
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