The fall of the Despensers was matched by the rise of the Mortimers. Roger Mortimer of Wigmore had returned to England with Queen Isabella in 1326. His family were marcher lords of the Welsh borders. After the Norman Conquest, Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore had created what was almost a private state with its own laws and regulations, and Roger Mortimer rose to his royal position from a family already well-established across the shires of Hereford and Worcester.
Under the reign of Edward II Roger had been captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1321, with forfeiture of his lands for high treason (the first time this sentence had been passed on a peer of the realm). But in 1323 Bishop Orleton of Hereford organised his escape to France.
The first act of the new Parliament of Edward III was to bring Mortimer to power as a royal favourite. He acquired the great Estates and Manors once so proudly the Despensers, and Queen Isabella added more land and wealth. In October 1328 he was given a new title which was destined to have a long history
– “Earl of March”. Unfortunately his own success was short-lived; in what was effectively a coup d’etat, Edward III entered Nottingham Castle on October 19th 1330, seized Roger Mortimer and had him hauled off to be tried for treason, and hung at Tyburn on November 29th. Roger’s son, Edmund, died in the following year, 1331.
However, his son Roger Mortimer was later knighted by the King when war with the French seemed imminent in 1346. Then in 1354 Edward III solemnly reversed the judgement made on Roger’s father and restored to him the title of Earl of March before his death in 1360.
In 1376 Edmund Mortimer I was impeached by Parliament, relieved of his office of Marshall of England, and arrested and imprisoned. However, in the following year, Parliament reversed the decision. He died in 1381, and our story comes closer to Martley.
It is at this point that the Martley branch of the Mortimers became connected to the Earls of March, with Roger Mortimer inheriting the Manor through marriage. What was reputedly called Mortimer’s Chapel” in St. Peter’s dated back to 1315 and covers the whole of this period.
The death of Roger Mortimer III, Earl of March, at Carlow, Ireland in 1398 moved the family lineage onto the young Edmund Mortimer III who had some claims to succession over Henry IV. Another Edmund Mortimer (an uncle) was captured by Owen Glendower in 1402. Glendower is reputed to have camped on Berrow Hill at the time of his uprising. With wisdom the better part of valour, uncle Edmund Mortimer married Glendower’s daughter and wrote to his friends at Christmas 1402 that he was going to put the Earl of March on the throne of England. Edmund’s aunt, Elizabeth, also married boldly – to Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’).
In a twist to our story, in 1404 Lady Despenser attempted to abduct the young Edmund Mortimer. But our Mortimer lived on and, when Henry V came to the throne in 1413 he granted Edmund full rights to his lands. The Earl was one of five in The Commons of the King’s Parliament of 1422. He died in 1425 with no direct heir. Anne Mortimer, his sister, married into royal bloodlines and was the grandmother of both Richard III and Edward IV.
And in St. Peter’s Church we meet the part of the Mortimer family story which weaves them into the same conflict of succession that started with Mortimer, Isabella and Edward II, and finished with The Wars of the Roses.The Mortimers were the most powerful family in these parts with lands from Cleobury Mortimer to Builth Wells. They were split into three branches – The Earls of March of Wigmore and nearby Ludlow Castles; the de Mortimers of Richards Castle and the Mortimers of Kyre Wyard and Martley. These two manors had come into Mortimer hands in 1397 through the marriage of Sir Hugh’s grandfather, Roger Mortimer, to a daughter of Sir John de Herle. Sir Hugh’s elder brother, Sir John, had inherited the title and the Lordships on the death of their father, also Sir John, in 1415. Hugh’s brother died as a minor in 1420. Sir Hugh then inherited. He was 7 years old and, until he reached his maturity (21) in 1434, the custody of the manors was granted to Roland Lenthall. Sir Hugh was 41 when he married the 23 year old Eleanor Cornwall (Cornewall). She was a descendant of King John. Her father, Sir Edmund Cornwall, Baron of Burford in Shopshire, died in Cologne but his heart-tomb in St. Mary’s, Burford, gives a detailed family tree. Sir Hugh and Eleanor were married for about six years and had just the two children, Elizabeth and John. Sir Hugh is credited with building St. Peter’s impressive tower in 1450. In 1455, the War of the Roses began and, with an infant son as heir, he wisely settled the manors on his wife. Sir Hugh died in 1460 aged 47. His baronetcy came to an end when his son died without issue. His daughter, Elizabeth, then became his heir. The War of the Roses (1455-85) was about whether a Lancastrian or a Mortimer should be King of England. In 1425 Mortimer 5th Earl of March died without issue. His title and property passed to his dead sister’s son, Richard Duke of York who, in 1455, started his campaign to save England from the incompetent government of the Lancastrian Henry VI who suffered bouts of insanity. York’s claim to the throne was because both his mother, Anne Mortimer, and his father, the Earl of Cambridge, were directly descended from Edward III. Henry’s Vi’s wife, Margaret, was determined to frustrate the Duke of York so that her only son would follow his father as King. Both sides had their supporters amongst the nobility but any Mortimer would have supported the House of York which, in 1461, succeeded when the Duke’s son, the 19 year old 7th Earl of March, was crowned as Edward IV On 21st December of the previous year, 1460, the Duke of York, accompanied by Sir Hugh Mortimer, a number of other nobles and an army of 5000, moved to the Duke’s castle at Sandal, about 3 miles south of Wakefield. The Duke believed the Lancastrian army was with Queen Margaret in Hull. In fact, a Lancastrian army of some 20,000 was at Pontefract Castle, 9 miles away. On the Duke’s arrival, this army was moved closer to Sandal but was kept hidden in the local woods.
On Tuesday 30th December 1460, a party left Sandal Castle to obtain extra provisions. As they returned they were attacked, as a bait, by a small number of Lancastrian soldiers. Although advised to wait for the extra Yorkist troops already on their way, the Duke gave the catastrophic order that all his troops should attack the Lancastrians. A Yorkist blood bath followed. The Duke of York surrendered only to be beheaded. His 16 year old second son, Edmund, Sir Hugh Mortimer and at least sixteen other nobles were killed, as were more than 2000 Yorkist troops who were buried in a mass grave.
The body of the Duke of York was taken to St. John’s Priory, Pontefract, but, on 22nd July 1466, Edward IV had his father’s and brother’s remains re-buried at the collegiate church of St. Mary of All Saints, Fotheringhay (to whose Abbot Henry V had given the Martley advowson). It is not known whether Sir Hugh Mortimer’s body was brought back to lie in his tomb-chest in St. Peter’s but there is no doubt if one believes a local story
Although, as it is now, Martley Court was not built in 1460, several owners and/or their relatives and friends have, while sleeping in a particular bedroom, experienced a sudden and dramatic fall in temperature followed by the sound of a body being dragged along the ground. The explanation has long since been that this is a mortally wounded Sir Hugh Mortimer dragging himself back from Wakefield to Martley.
Sir Hugh’s widow, Eleanor, married Sir Richard Croft, of Croft Castle near Leominster. In 1461 he had played a major role in the Yorkist victory at Mortimer’s Cross, two miles away.
By Sir Richard, Dame Eleanor had eight children. They, as did Sir Hugh’s daughter Elizabeth, married so well that on her father’s heart-tomb is written, “Dame Eleanor had such increase of children that seventeen score and odd people were descended from her body before she died”. Two of her direct descendants were Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet, and Robert, Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s favourite.
Sir Richard Croft held a number of high offices including that of Governor or Ludlow Castle where Dame Eleanor became the “Lady Governess” to the two little Princes, Edward (later Edward V) and Richard, Duke of York, who were to be murdered in The Tower of London.
Dame Eleanor outlived both her children by Sir Hugh Mortimer. She died aged nearly 90 in 1520. She is buried in the church alongside Croft Castle in a double effigy with her second husband, who died in 1509.