THE SECRET LIFE OF BLANCHE MORTIMER
(c1315 - 1347)

John Grove has had a life-long interest in the medieval history of the Mortimers and of the Marches. In 2009 he founded the Mortimer History Society to which he continues to make a considerable contribution, with undiminished enthusiasm.

In 2014 BBC television reported the discovery of the remains of Blanche Mortimer within her magnificent monument at St. Bartholomew's Church, Much Marcle in Herefordshire. This was a somewhat rare occurrence as bodies are rarely found in the space immediately beneath the effigy. Blanche's coffin had been revealed during the thorough conservation of the monument which has now been completed.
It has been said that little is known of Blanche's life, but a partial picture can be reconstructed from what is known of her family circumstances.

Ages 0 to 7 - A privileged infancy

Blanche was the twelfth child of the happy marriage of Joan de Geneville of Ludlow and Roger Mortimer, the marcher lord of Wigmore. When Joan, aged 15, married Roger, 14, at Pembridge, she was already heiress to the rich De Geneville lands in England and Ireland including Ludlow Castle. The home of Blanche, Ludlow Castle would have been comfortably domesticated with music, gardens, tapestries, and fine clothes. She would have been surrounded by siblings, and may have even attended the joint wedding of her older sisters, Margaret and Maud to the lords Berkeley and Charlton at Wigmore Abbey in 1319. Her father was involved in a successful period of service as Justiciar of Ireland, actively controlling the area from the family stronghold of Trim for his king, Edward II.

Ages 7 to 11 - A troubled childhood

In 1322 tragedy struck. Roger was taken to the Tower of London after rebelling against the Despensers and the King and, what was worse, Joan was under house arrest in Hampshire, later being moved to a cell at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire. Blanche's older sisters were sent to distant nunneries. Wigmore and Ludlow castles were stripped of possessions, and her childhood home was effectively gone.

With her other young sisters, Agnes, Catharine and Beatrice, she was probably cared for by her redoubtable grandmother Margaret de Fiennes at Radnor Castle. Her education as a noble lady would have continued there, but it would have been a sad time, deprived of both her parents and older sisters, and of her brothers who were captive at Windsor castle. News would have reached her of her father's escape to France, but the tension would have been unabated. She may have had the joy of seeing her aunts, Joan's sisters, who were nuns at Aconbury near Hereford.

Ages 11 to 15 - An exciting adolescence - Four Weddings and a Funeral

The return of her father in the company of Queen Isabella and young Edward, heir to the throne, was the beginning of a period of high drama. Roger, now regent in all but name, had Wigmore and Ludlow castles refurbished under Joan's supervision. The new large bedroom tower was built at Ludlow, and St. Peter's Chapel added as a thanksgiving for Roger's escape from the Tower.

Blanche may well have attended the coronation of Edward III at Westminster, where her brothers were knighted and incongruously dressed by their father as earls. She may have been at the royal wedding of Edward and Philippa at York in 1328. Her greatest memory however would have been the two magnificent double weddings of her sisters, the first at Hereford , where Katherine married the Earl of Warwick, and Joan married Lord Audley, in the presence of Roger, Joan, Queen Isabella and the young King Edward. The second double wedding was held at Wigmore Abbey. Agnes was married to the Earl of Pembroke and Beatrice to the Earl of Norfolk. Soon afterwards, Roger held an Arthurian Round Table, a magnificent display attended by many of the nobility and possibly by the Queen and her royal son. This overly-splendid occasion emphasised Roger's increasingly-overbearing ascendancy and his son named him 'the King of Folly'.

Blanche's own wedding to Sir Peter de Grandisson, a knight of Ashperton, was likely to have been a happy but low key affair. She brought to him the manor and castle of Much Marcle.

Reminders of mortality also abounded in the funeral in Gloucester Cathedral of King Edward II and the deaths of her brothers Roger and John, killed in a tournament at Shrewsbury. However her teenage happiness would have been shattered by the fall and execution of her father in December 1330. Fortunately, for reasons yet to be fully assessed, her mother and her family were protected by King Edward from the full consequences of Roger's fall from grace.

Ages 15 to 32 - A Stable Marriage

It could have been a quiet life as lady of the manor at Ashperton and Much Marcle with a husband 25 years older than herself. They had an able steward in Walter Hellyon whose stunning wooden effigy is also in Much Marcle church. Sir Peter inherited some of the lands of his father, and became an MP 1337 - 48. Though an active supporter of Roger Mortimer, he was nevertheless given some military responsibilities in later royal service.

Blanche enjoyed splendid visits to her mother, who continued to live at Ludlow until her death in 1356. She will have visited her sisters at Warwick, Berkeley, Abergavenny, and Norfolk. She especially basked in the friendship and lavish hospitality of her celebrity brother in law John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, a nationally known patron of the arts and re-builder of Exeter Cathedral. It is likely that Bishop John commissioned the magnificent tomb of Blanche, and also that of her husband at Hereford Cathedral.

There were several further funerals to attend. These included, in 1331 alone, her uncle Edmund, her sisters Margaret and Joan as well as her parents in law, William and Sybil Grandisson. Sadly Blanche herself died young in 1347 aged 32. Some sources record the birth in 1340 of one child, Isabella, but this needs further investigation. Her memory lives on. Maybe the effigy is conventional, but the sculptor conveys beauty, calmness, affluence and piety. The congregation at Much Marcle cares for her, and the Mortimer History Society preserves her story, and that of her wider and famous family. A model of Blanche's dress was recently recreated by the Society's Dress and Textiles group.

John Grove 2014