On the evening of October 19, 1330, William de Montacute (also spelled Montagu or Montague) and a couple of dozen men entered Nottingham Castle through an underground passageway. Their quarry: Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who with Queen Isabella was the effective ruler of England at the time.
The reign of Isabella and Mortimer had been a perfect illustration of the line from the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Isabella and Mortimer had proven to be as greedy for land and power as had been Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom they had executed in 1326. They had quickly alienated their former allies, most notably Henry, Earl of Lancaster, by shutting them out of decision-making during the young king’s minority. They had forced Edward III to agree to the execution of his own uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, earlier in 1330. Stupidly, instead of growing more deferential to the young king as he matured and gradually ceding power to him, Mortimer had grown more insolent in his behavior toward Edward III, even saying that his own orders were to be obeyed over those of the king. By October 1330, Edward III and his circle of loyal friends had had enough.
After a struggle in which a couple of Mortimer’s men died, Mortimer was seized and arrested. Edward III, as he proclaimed on October 20, 1330, would hereafter rule on his own. Mortimer was taken to the Tower of London, from which he had escaped in 1323. In November 1330, he was dragged to Tyburn, stripped of the black tunic he had worn at Edward II’s funeral, and hung.
William de Montacute remained a close friend of Edward III for the rest of his days (the story that Edward III attempted to seduce, or raped, his friend’s wife is regarded these days as a French slander). He was made Earl of Salisbury by Edward III in 1337. In January 1344, when Edward III formally announced his intention to form a Round Table of 300 knights, William de Montacute played a prominent part in the ceremony. The Round Table project never came to fruition; if it had, Montacute would not have lived to see it, for just days after the announcement, he was fatally injured while jousting at Windsor. He died on January 30, 1344, and was buried at Bisham Priory. He was about forty-three years old.
Medieval families often mended old wounds with Montague-Capulet marriages, and the Montacute/Montague family, appropriately enough, was a fertile source of these. William de Montacute’s eldest son, another William, married Joan of Kent, daughter of the Earl of Kent who had been executed in 1330. (Unfortunately, Joan of Kent had already secretly married Thomas Holland, or so they said, and the marriage with Montacute was dissolved in 1349.) Elizabeth de Montacute married Hugh le Despenser, eldest son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Sybil de Montacute married Edmund Fitzalan, whose paternal grandfather (Edmund Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel) and maternal grandfather (Hugh le Despenser the younger) had been executed within days of each other by Isabella and Mortimer. Philippa de Montacute married Roger Mortimer, namesake and grandson of the man her father had seized in 1330. He gained Edward III’s favor and eventually became the second Earl of March.
William de Montacute is a major character in Juliet Dymoke’s historical novel The Lion of Mortimer, and his daughter Elizabeth is the heroine of my own work-in-progress. Ian Mortimer in his biographies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III provides a gripping account of the coup at Nottingham.
So raise a glass (as it’s morning, I’m raising a can of Coca-Cola), to William de Montacute, first Earl of Salisbury, friend of Edward III and nemesis of Roger Mortimer.