King, but not ruling
Edward III’s reign officially began on 25th January 1327 following the abdication of his father, Edward II. Edward II had been forced to abdicate by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, following their invasion of England in September of the previous year.
Edward III was only thirteen when he became king and Isabella and Mortimer were the de facto rulers of England. Mortimer surrounded the king with spies so that Edward’s actions were constrained. Edward even had to agree a secret code with the pope so that the latter would know which letters purporting to come from the king really were from him.
By October 1330 a few things had happened which would have made the young king worry about his personal safety. Edward II had been notoriously healthy, yet he died in September 1427 after only eight months of imprisonment and his body, contrary to custom, was not displayed before it was buried. This led many to believe that he had been murdered on Mortimer’s orders.
In March 1330 Edward III had been forced to acquiesce to the execution of his uncle, the Earl of Kent, an event so terrible and unexpected that it proved difficult to find someone willing to carry out the execution.
On 15th June 1330 Edward of Woodstock, Edward III’s first son, was born. This did not necessarily increase Edward’s immediate danger. It was not unusual for children, even the children of kings, to die very young. Of Edward’s thirteen children, four lived no more than a few of days and only six reached their twenties. If Mortimer wanted a boy he could manipulate until he was of an age to rule in his own right, they would have to make sure they chose the right one before they disposed of Edward.
What did present an immediate danger to Edward was the rumour that his mother was pregnant. During the previous four years Mortimer had been behaving as if he were the king, even taking precedence over the king at public events. If he were to have a son by Isabella, his ambition was such that he might depose (and kill) Edward in his son’s favour. He had many supporters, so such a possibly would not have been unthinkable to a man who had already deposed a king.
The big question mark in all of this is how far Isabella would have gone along with her lover. She was close to her son and it’s difficult to imagine her agreeing either to his deposition or his murder, even if she was carrying Mortimer’s child. This in turn raises the question of how much influence she had over Mortimer by this stage.
The king takes action
Regardless of whether he thought his mother could prevent his being killed or not, Edward was sufficiently concerned to lead a few trusted men against Mortimer on the evening of 19th October 1330. Mortimer had been alerted by his spies that something was being planned, but they didn’t know the details. Mortimer did everything he could to ensure his own safety. Many of the king’s closest companions had been questioned. Edward’s supporters were not permitted to lodge in Nottingham Castle, where the king, Mortimer and Queen Isabella were staying. The castle guards were told to obey Mortimer’s orders, not those of the king, and Queen Isabella held the keys to the castle. All of these things were, of course, an insult to the king.
The king’s friends, led by William Montague, rode out of Nottingham Castle very conspicuously and re-entered the castle secretly through a small gate which had been left open for them. They joined the king, and Mortimer was arrested. Edward wanted to kill him there and then, but cooler heads prevailed and Mortimer was taken away to London where he was tried. He was hanged just over a month after his arrest.