Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March

Born: November 6, 1391

New Forest, Hampshire, England

Died: January 18, 1425

Trim, County Meath, Ireland (Age 33)

Mortimer in History

Edmund Mortimer was a member of the prestigious Mortimer family of the Welsh marshes. The Mortimers had been powerful lords on the English-Welsh border for many years, and Edmund's great-great-grandfather Roger Mortimer was King of England in all but name during the minority reign of Edward III. Edmund inherited the Earldom of March in 1398 upon the murder of his father by Irish rebels. More importantly, the seven-year-old Edmund was now considered to be heir to childless King Richard II. Edmund's father Roger was the son of Phillipa, the only child of Lionel of Antwerp, second surviving son of Edward III (Richard II was the son of the Black Prince, Edward III's first son). The claim was considerably weakened by the fact that the succession was through the female line, but Roger, and then Edmund, were (apparently) both named heir to the throne by the king himself. In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke (the eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt, Edward III's third surviving son) deposed Richard and placed himself on the throne, disinheriting the young Earl of March. If succession was only valid through the male line, then Bolingbroke was the rightful heir to Richard's throne. Unfortunately, the rules of succession were vague at best in those times, and the new Henry IV and his heirs would have to deal with the issue on numerous occasions.

Throughout the reign of Henry IV, Edmund and his younger brother Roger were kept in semi-captivity in the royal palaces under the watchful eye of the king, though there is no evidence that the boys were treated unkindly. In 1402, March's uncle, also named Edmund, was captured by the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower. Shortly after his capture, the elder Edmund formed a truce with Glendower and married his daughter, greatly angering the king, who refused to ransom a man who he felt had betrayed him. The king's refusal to ransom Mortimer, in turn, angered Henry "Hotspur" Percy (who was married to Anne Mortimer and was therefore an uncle to the young March), a man whose family had been instrumental in putting Henry on the throne. This event, combined with several others, pushed the Percy family into rebellion. Hotspur, his father Northumberland and his uncle Worcester joined forces with Glendower and the Scots in a rebellion to depose Henry and place the young March on the throne, most likely believing that they could manipulate the young earl to their ways more easily than Henry.

The rebellion failed when the king was able to isolate the forces of Hotspur and Worcester at Shrewsbury. A battle erupted that saw the death of Hotspur and the capture and subsequent execution of Worcester. In 1405, another rebellion broke out involving Hotspur's father Northumberland, Glendower, Archbishop of York Richard Scope and Earl Marshal Thomas Mowbray. The plan was to divide the kingdom into three with Northumberland, Glendower and March all getting there own sections. Unfortunately, the rebellion of the Archbishop and Earl Marshal was quickly put down, forcing the other rebels to flee. Northumberland died fighting in 1408, and Glendower's rebellion was put down soon after with March's uncle Edmund dying at the siege of Harlech Castle. It appeared that support to crown March was running out, and Henry IV was certainly less strict with the earl after the rebellions stopped. After the death of Henry IV and the accession of Henry V in 1413, March would live a much more comfortable life.

Under the new king March was restored to his estates and released from royal custody. In 1415, however, three men (Sir Thomas Grey, Henry Scrope and March's brother-in-law Richard, Earl of Cambridge) plotted to murder King Henry and his brothers at Southampton and place March on the throne. When first informed about this plan, March seems to have been responsive. Soon after, though, he had a change of heart and revealed the entire plot to the king, saving his own life in the process. March received a full pardon, but the three conspirators were promptly executed. It is not known exactly why March decided to inform the king of a plot that would have been so beneficial to him. Perhaps he felt he could not handle the large responsibility of being king, or, perhaps he simply felt the plot was doomed and he would lose his life along with the others in the end; Henry V, after all, was a formidable ruler.

With the Southampton Plot now over March journeyed with the king to France to continue the Hundred Years War. March was present at the siege of Harfleur but contracted dysentery and did not participate in the Battle of Agincourt. March remained a loyal subject to the king for the remainder of his reign, participating in a number of battles in France. He was present at Meaux when Henry V died and was made a counselor on the committee created for the minority reign of the new King Henry VI, who had succeeded his father as king at the age of nine months in 1422. Many members of the minority council were leery of March's status (and the fact that he was a legitimate claimant to the throne). For this reason, March was given the position of lieutenant of Ireland, a difficult job to say the least and one that had gotten his father killed. March left for Ireland in 1424. By January of 1425, he was dead at the age of thirty-three. The most likely cause of death was the plague. Since March did not have any children, his estates were inherited by his young nephew Richard, son of the late Earl of Cambridge, a man whose death March had been at least party responsible for. Richard would go on to renew the Mortimer claim to the throne during the later reign of Henry VI, and although he was killed before he could fully pursue this claim, two of his sons sat on England's throne as Edward IV and Richard III. Although the Earl of March seems to be a minor historical personage at best, it would be difficult to argue against the fact that his descent from Lionel of Antwerp made him a very dangerous figure to the Lancastrians. Henry IV knew this and kept him close at all times. Despite being heirs to the throne at one point, Edmund Mortimer and his father Roger were both sadly brought down by Ireland, a land England could never seem to control.

Mortimer in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VI, Part 1

As stated in the description of the Edmund Mortimer in 1 Henry IV, the figure of Edmund Mortimer is highly complex within Shakespeare. The figure that Shakespeare refers to as both the Earl of March and closest heir to the throne in 1 Henry IV was actually neither (though the elder Edmund did have a claim after his two nephews). This figure, who married Owen Glendower's daughter, is the elder Edmund Mortimer, uncle to the young Earl of March. The figure that we are to believe is the Earl of March (though he is never referred to by his title) appears in a single scene of 1 Henry VI. In this scene Mortimer is portrayed as a dying old man who has been kept in prison ever since the days of Henry V. He is visited by his nephew Richard Plantagenet, to whom he explains that he is the rightful heir to the throne and, for this reason, has been imprisoned by the Lancastrians. In his last breath, he leaves Richard his inheritance (aka, the throne of England) and passes away.

Although Shakespeare frequently changes history (sometimes to an extreme extent) in order to create better drama, this scene is particularly full of holes. Firstly, March was never put in prison by Henry V. In fact, he was actually released from custody by the king upon his accession in accordance with his policy of reconciliation of men who had been looked at with hostility by his father. Secondly, March died in 1425, merely three years into the reign of Henry VI and did so in Ireland. In addition, he was only thirty-three years of age at the time of his death, still a young man even by medieval standards. Finally, at the time of March's death in 1425, his nephew Richard was a mere thirteen-years-old, and it is unlikely, knowing March (and that he was no leader), that any conversation such as this ever occurred between the two of them. The most logical explanation for Shakespeare putting this scene in his play is most likely to fully (and powerfully) explain March's claim to the throne that is now being passes to Richard. It also makes one sympathize more with the Yorkists, a dynasty that has been disinherited by usurpers and whose leading claimant has been unjustly imprisoned. One other possibility is that the Mortimer in 1 Henry VI is, like his counterpart in 1 Henry IV, a composite figure combining the Earl of March and his uncle and namesake. The elder Edmund, who died in 1409, would have been forty-nine in 1425, most certainly considered a fairly aged man in the fifteenth century.


Griffiths, R. A.  ‘Mortimer, Edmund (V), fifth earl of March and seventh earl of Ulster (1391–1425)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19344, accessed 19 Nov 2009]

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