A major fortress near the Welsh border, Wigmore Castle was originally built by the Earl of Hereford and was later granted to the Mortimer family who became powerful Marcher Lords. Wigmore became a key base for operations against the Welsh but the family also featured extensively in English politics.
Wigmore Castle was built in 1067 by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford. He constructed an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle over an existing settlement called Merestun which, according to the Domesday Book (1086), was "waste" (deliberately destroyed by the Normans). It was probably also William who founded the adjacent town. In 1071 he was killed whilst fighting on the continent and although his son, Roger de Breteuil, inherited the castle it was confiscated in 1075 after he participated in the Revolt of the Earls. King William I then granted it to the Mortimer family who used it as a platform for operations in Wales and, on occasion, for influencing English politics; Henry II besieged Wigmore Castle in 1155 when the then owner, Hugh de Mortimer, refused to cede Bridgnorth Castle to the Crown.
Wigmore Castle was rebuilt in stone in the early thirteenth century with further upgrades being made by Roger Mortimer (later Earl of March) in the 1320s. Concurrently Mortimer was involved in a power struggle; he had been responsible for deposing Edward II and, along with Queen Isabella, had tried to rule through Edward III. This included a visit with the (effectively captive) young King to Wigmore Castle in 1329. The following year saw Mortimer's downfall when Edward's loyal supporters raided Nottingham Castle, captured the Earl and sent him to London for imprisonment and execution. Wigmore Castle, along with the other Mortimer estates, was taken into Royal ownership and during this time hosted another visit by Edward III (in 1332). However, the Mortimers close family ties with the Royal family eventually led to a recovery in their fortunes; in 1342 Wigmore was restored to the grandson (Roger Mortimer, Second Earl of March) of the traitorous Earl. Roger became one of the founding members of the Order of the Garter the same year.
Roger was succeeded by Edmund Mortimer, Third Earl of March who married Philippa, daughter of Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Later, during the reign of Richard II (1377-99), this would become a problem for their son - Roger Mortimer, Fourth Earl of March – who was heralded as a potential heir for the King. Although Roger died in 1398, he was followed by his son – Edmund Mortimer, Fifth Earl of March. The issue came to a head in 1399 when Richard was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke who took the throne as Henry IV. He was the eldest child of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, but his claim was only valid if the line of succession excluded females. To secure his position the young Edmund was placed into custody and was predominantly held at Windsor, Berkhamsted and Pevensey castles.
Edmund’s claim however was support by his uncle – also called Edmund. In 1400, when the Welsh rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr erupted, the King had dispatched him to patrol the border. He probably operated, at least periodically, from Wigmore Castle but the campaign went awry and he was captured by the Welsh. The King was suspicious believing that he had deliberately defected and blocked attempts to raise a ransom. Whether Henry’s original concerns were well founded or not, Edmund now changed sides and proclaimed his young nephew King. He was supported by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry Hotspur but the impetus of their rebellion was lost when they were defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403).
Edmund Mortimer, Fifth Earl of March remained a prisoner until Henry IV died in 1413 but was then set free by his successor, Henry V. He went onto serve loyally in the continental wars of that King and betrayed the Southampton Plotters to the King. This was an alleged scheme, funded by France, to kill the Lancastrian King and replace him with Mortimer. The conspirators - Richard of Conisburgh, Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope, Baron Scrope of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey - were arrested and sent to Southampton for execution.
Edmund died in 1425 and Wigmore Castle passed through marriage to Richard, Duke of York. With his Royal connections, coupled with the weak and ineffective Government of Henry VI, he attempted to take the throne in what would later become known as the War of the Roses. He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield (1460) but his son, Edward of York continued to press the claim. He operated from Wigmore Castle before his decisive victories at the battles of Mortimer's Cross (1461) and Towton (1461) which enabled him to depose Henry VI and seize the throne as Edward IV.
In 1601 the castle was sold to a Sir Thomas Harley. In the Civil War of the 1640s he and his family were staunch Parliamentarians who, being unable to defend both Wigmore and their other property at Brampton Bryan, deliberately dismantled parts of the castle in 1643 to prevent its use by the King. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Today the castle is in the care of English Heritage but has been deliberately left as an overgrown wilderness; not only does this accurately represent what many of England's castles looked like prior to modern restoration, but it has also enabled preservation of the habitat for various unusual species such as the horseshoe bat.
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Wigmore Castle is a magnificent ruin that still leaves the visitor in no doubt this was once an imposing medieval fortress. The earthworks of the original Norman castle survive as does extensive masonry from the thirteenth century rebuild. The site is heavily overgrown (a decision by English Heritage to showcase a castle as so many would have appeared to Victorian visitors). Strong footwear is essential.
Gatehouse. Parts of the castle have sunk into the mud. The structure has not been excavated as the site has been deliberately left overgrown to preserve the habitat of the resident horseshoe bats.
The Mortimer Claim. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II whose reign had become tyrannical. However the legal custom that the claim to the throne could only be passed via the male line had not been firmly established and some argued that Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March had a better claim through descent from Lionel, Duke of Clarence.
View. The view from the castle's motte.
East Tower. The remains of the East Tower.
Motte. The motte dates from around 1067 is the earliest part of the castle.