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Wigmore Castle

in the town of Wigmore, Herefordshire, England,
SO 408 693

Map link for Wigmore Castle

Text copyright 1997 by Richard Williams
Photographs copyright 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

igmore Castle (O.S. Map 137, 407693) lies in a northern corner of Herefordshire, together with the ancient village bearing the same name. Its topographical prospect is one of straddling the south-eastern edge of a spur, with marshland to its diagonal north and having a backdrop of thick forest. By toady, this marsh, together with its accompanying lake, lies well-drained, the result of the need of later generations of owners and tenants to extend land suitable for cultivation. In the castle's hey-day, however, this wetland provided the castle's inhabitants with ample supplies of fish and game, as did the forest on the remote side of the spur.

 

 

Centuries of decay, neglect and attackers' efforts have now left the castle as a scattering of ruins with features such as towers, curtain walls and a gatehouse barely discernable (above left), jointly due to their deterioration and the growth of heavy vegetation. Things should not get any worse, however, as the current owner, Mr. John Gaunt, has handed over the acre or so which defines Wigmore, in guardianship to English Heritage, the national agency with the responsibility for the conservation of historical sites. Work, of both research and a securing nature, is currently in progress.

The impregnability of the castle was enhanced by its siting and this was enhanced by the construction of lateral ditches across the spur and between which the castle was built. These acted as moats with the north-western one abutting a motte. This mound was fortified, probably originally a wooden palisade, but later by a stone keep (shown right). From the most next to the south-east of the keep, two or three baileys stretched to where the spur descended to the surrounding levels.

 

 

In historical terms we can go back to the Domesday Book for the first clear reference to Wigmore Castle. The relevant entry read "Ralph de Mortimer holds Wigmore Castle", but he was not the nobleman to whom we can attribute the building of the stronghold. That honor goes to William Fitzosbern, but this Norman, one of the Conqueror's captains, incurred William's wrath in 1075 with an act of treachery and he was replaced as castellan by Mortimer. Thus started the Mortimer association with Wigmore which was to last the best part of four centuries. Adopting the name of the Normandy castle and village of Mortemer en Brai, the House of Mortimer was to become one of the most powerful families in England. Indeed, at one time, early in the reign of Edward III, it's head, Roger, was for a while the de facto ruler of the country.

The Mortimers were archetypal Marcher Lords. The latter were a class of noblemen established by the Norman kings of England to police The Marches, which were their Welsh, and to a lesser degree, Scottish border. In return for this service the lords were allotted vast tracts of territory in these regions. More than that, though, they were afforded wide ranging powers not available in English-based counterparts - these in return for providing a defensive cushion between the rebellious Welsh and the shires adjacent to Wales. For example, they were allowed to raise their own armies, exact taxes and build castles without the sovereign's consent. Marcher Lords were acquisitive by nature and took every opportunity to enlarge upon their dominions. This process took the form of either taking possession by force or by engaging themselves or their offspring in marriages made profitable by handsome dowries of land and property.

 

Below: View of the keep from the bailey of the castle

 

The names given to successive male members of the Mortimer family were somewhat repetitive, as was the custom in those times, with Roger, Ralph and Hugh dominating. Later the name Edmund came to be featured. Although there were a couple of setbacks in the family's fortunes during the 12th and 13th centuries, overall it was a story of gradual expansion of territory and power. Some of the inter-marrying overlapped the border, with links being forged between the House of Mortimer and that of Gwynedd. Inevitably, this brought a spread of territorial gain to a more westward extent than before.

The most significant dowry gain came to Roger who married in 1301. His bride was Joan Geneville whose family owned Ludlow and its castle in neighboring Shropshire. The fortress and half the borough now came within the Mortimer ambit and as a result of this acquisition Roger became a true magnate. Mortimer lordships were now to be found in a swathe across southern England and Wales, from Essex to Pembrokeshire. In 1328 Roger's barony was raised to an earldom, with its title, Earl of March indicative of its significance. No mere county, this, but a whole border region. "Ulster" was later added to the title, a measure of the extent of the family's Irish interests and possessions.

While Ludlow now assumed the role of the administrative centre of Mortimer affairs, it was the smaller castle eight miles to the west that was the real hub of the house's activities. Wigmore was the family seat, a role reinforced by the endowment of Wigmore Abbey across the lake and less than two miles from the castle. Although now absorbed into the structure of a large farmhouse, the outline of the abbey is still delineated. That it remained a vital component of the affairs of the Mortimers almost to the end of their dynasty is evidenced by the fact that it was the resting place of the third Earl of March, Edmund, and his wife Philippa, they joining many earlier principals of the family.

The aforementioned Roger, though, was not one to stand still where his amorous advances and extension of power were concerned. He successfully set his cap at Queen Isabella, the consort of the weak Edward II. The pair then set about disposing of the king, eventually causing him to be cruelly put to death at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Thus, the head of the House of Mortimer became ruler of England, albeit briefly and not formally as king. The devious duo acted as regents for the young Edward III but this was not to last very long. A seemingly ungrateful Edward, acting in tandem with barons envious and nervous of Roger's power, conspired to execute the earl and banish his paramour (the queen) from the land.

However, as on previous occasions when the Mortimers had incurred the wrath of their masters and had lost influence and property, virtually all of their original lordships were restored to the house in the name of its new head, Roger's grandson of the same name - this between 1342 and 1346 with Wigmore coming to him in 1343. This latest Roger was also recognized as the second Earl of March by King Edward.

Between this decade and the last one of the 14th century, the house of mortimer prospered. By then the Earl of March was the fourth, in the person of yet another Roger. This incumbent became a favorite of Richard II but he was more than a sycophant - he was also conscientious in his service to the throne. His chief involvement as the sovereign's representative was in Irish affairs, and it was during this engagement that he died in 1399. Well before his demise he had been named by the childless Richard as his heir, the Mortimer lineage making this a realistic designation.

 

 

On Roger's death the heirdom passed to his youngest son, Edmund, who affairs were to be managed by his uncle, also an Edmund. By this time though, Henry Bolingbroke had usurped the Crown from Richard and had plans of succession centered around his own son, Prince Hal, the Future Henry V. Thus, the younger Edmund was secreted at Windsor under royal wardship and, by this means, was kept out of circulation where succession was concerned. Meanwhile, Edmund the uncle, was commissioned to police the March against the forces of Owain Glyndwr, who, since 1400, had been in rebellion against the Crown seeking Welsh independence.

In attempting to counter a summer campaign by Owain in mid-Wales, the elder Edmund was captured by the Welsh prince. The knight would have probably called at Wigmore for reinforcements to his force on his way from Ludlow, where he was currently stationed. As the only one who could realistically promote any future claim by his nephew to the English throne, Edmund was considered by Henry to be well out of the way as a Welsh captive. To reinforce his position, the king confiscated all of the Mortimer plate and jewellery and prohibited anyone from acting as Edmund's agent in procuring a ransom. Understandably, the young man was aggrieved by this neglect by his king, and in the summer of 1402, he declared his alliance with Glyndwr. As if to consolidate this stance, on the last day of November of that year, he married Owain's daughter, Catrin. He served the Glyndwr cause faithfully until he died at the fall of Harlech Castle, which was the precursor to the end of resistance by the Welsh.

 

     

 

Edmund's nephew lived to serve Henry V as his king, for which he was rewarded with the return of the earldom of March. He was to demise without issue and with him formally died the House of Mortimer, all of its possessions reverting to the Crown.

Despite not being in a premier league in terms of size where medieval castles are concerned, Wigmore was an edifice graced with a significant degree of splendour for those years of Mortimer ascendancy, particularly in its latter two centuries. This importance was not diminished by its distance from royal courts. It's barbican saw a whole aristocracy pass through it, and not just that of England. Welsh, Scottish and Irish nobles would have variously have been visitors, probably combining political business with pleasure. Guests would also have included the envoys of many a Western European court, engaged in similar duties and celebration.

 

 

The manner in which these noble guests were hosted would have been sumptuous. There would have been no fear, on the incumbent family's part, of the welcome offered not being to the level to which the guests were accustomed. The castle's environs provided all that was required in ordinary fare, and the family was rich enough to import the more exquisite items of the hall's board. The same would have applied to the furnishings and decor, and also to the service that the family would be offering to the aristocratic arrivals. Entertainment too was varied, particularly in the field of tournament. Here, events were on a massive scale - on one occasion the grandfather of the infamous Roger, of the same name, provided such a spectacular participation and viewing for a hundred knights and their consorts for three days.

Some idea of the shape and prospect of the castle is obtained from the engraving of Samuel Buck - he and his brother Nathaniel produced over 400 such illustrations in the middle part of the 18th century. However, by today, covered as the castle is with Nature's green revenge and the ravages of time, there is little or no suggestion of Wigmore's splendour. Typical of this is the gatehouse and it's portal (shown at right). The latter is all but submerged under a mass of debris. No longer the point of welcome for a distinguished array of visitors, but if its stones could only talk, what a story they could tell of splendid days long past.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional photos of Wigmore Castle
Follow this link for a report on the restoration of Wigmore Castle
Follow this link to view a historical time-line for Wigmore Castle
Buck's engraving of Wigmore Castle
Additional articles by Richard Williams
Learn more about the Welsh Marches

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas