Life in the time of Elizabeth Mortimer and Sir Henry (Hotspur) Percy
By Anne O’Brien
Elizabeth Mortimer was one of the powerful medieval Mortimer family that dominated the Welsh Marches where I now live, surrounded by Mortimer castles. Daughter of Edmund Mortimer, third Earl of March, and Philippa of Clarence, Elizabeth and her family have become an interest to me since I moved to live in Herefordshire fifteen years ago.
History has little to say about Elizabeth. She is no more than a footnote in the history of her Mortimer menfolk, so why would I choose to write about her. What would life have been like for this woman of so notable a family during the first decade of the fifteenth century?
During Elizabeth's lifetime England underwent a period of great upheaval. King Richard II was deposed from the English throne in 1399 by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, who took the throne as King Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian Kings. Although Richard was soon conveniently dead, it did not prove to be a peaceful reign for Henry. Supporters of Richard, claiming that he was still alive, led plots and insurrection in England, while in Wales the mighty Owain Glyn Dwr was bidding to become Prince of Wales. With a major battle on English soil at Shrewsbury in 1403, it was a time of bloody civil war.
Where did Elizabeth fit into this? What is it that makes her a worthy protagonist for Queen of the North?
|Wigmore Castle, originally the main base of Mortimer power in the Welsh March.
Great-grand-daughter of King Edward III, Elizabeth inherited royal Plantagenet blood through her mother Philippa, daughter of Lionel Duke of Clarence, King Edward III's second surviving son. Because of this royal connection, the Mortimer family had a viable claim to the English throne even though it came through a female line which had been disinherited by Edward III in his final days. This placed Elizabeth in the very centre of the struggle for power after the death of Richard II.
As descendents of Edward III's second son, the Mortimers claimed to take pre-eminence over King Henry IV, descended from the third son, John of Gaunt. The young boy Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, with the strongest claim was Elizabeth's nephew. King Henry, well aware of the boy's dangerous bloodline, kept him and his younger brother in captivity in Windsor Castle. What a compelling family saga of power and treason, of betrayal and death this promised to be.
|Following in Elizabeth's footsteps: Ludlow Castle's main gateway and the Gatehouse Keep.
To make Elizabeth's life even more dynamic, her husband was Sir Henry Percy known to history as Hotspur. I first met them in Shakespeare's Henry IV where he writes two marvellous scenes for them. It is a relationship full of conflict of personality but also of wit and love and respect. Elizabeth and Hotspur are a very appealing couple and dominate the scenes in which they appear. I could not resist writing about them. Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, was such a mercurial and glamorous figure in our history. The perfect hero, brave and courageous, winning glory on the battlefield, he was also flawed, bringing his own downfall. He was more than tempting to write about.
So what was it that threatened to destroy the tranquillity of Elizabeth's life? The Percys regarded themselves as Kings in the North, ruling the northern March between England and Scotland, snatching territory from the Scots whenever possible. At first Hotspur strongly supported King Henry, which put Elizabeth and her husband on opposite sides, until King and Percys came to blows over Henry's interference in Percy authority in the north and his inability to pay the Percys for their service in providing troops. This resulted in a showdown between Henry and Hotspur of major proportions, after which there was no going back.
And as if this would not make Elizabeth's life complicated enough, her brother Sir Edmund Mortimer, adult head of the Mortimers in the Welsh March, was taken captive in battle by Owain Glyn Dwr's troops. Kept prisoner, Sir Edmund married one of Glyn Dwr's daughters, changing sides to become one of the rebels.
|Picture of Ludlow Castle which Elizabeth Mortimer would have known very well.
Imagine how difficult it must have been for Elizabeth in the midst of such a keen rivalry for power as she and Hotspur were drawn deeper into the maelstrom of high politics and betrayal, further complicated by Glyn Dwr's struggle for hegemony in Wales. All coming to a tragic denouement at the battle of Shrewsbury where Hotspur and King Henry met in the field. Nor was this the end for Elizabeth. As a Mortimer and a traitor's widow, it would not be in King Henry's interests to allow her freedom to instigate further rebellion. Elizabeth was left to pay the price for her treachery.
So why was I compelled to write about Elizabeth? She was a woman who deliberately took on the role of traitor to the crown in support of her Mortimer nephew. She would know at first hand the resulting struggle between family loyalty and a desire to pursue what she saw as the rightful claim to the crown of England, despite all the pain it would bring her. She would also learn the ultimate constraints on her freedom, common to all medieval women.
Queen of the North tells a marvellous story, of loss and acceptance, of love and tragedy.
Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.
She now lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales, where she writes historical novels. The perfect place in which to bring medieval women back to life.
The Queen of the North
To those around her she was a loyal subject.
In her heart she was a traitor.
1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.
For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.
But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.
To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.
To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.
This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.
*A word from Mary Anne ~ you can read my review Of Queen of the North here. I Highly Recommend.*