Cleobury Mortimer through the Ages



A Parish Portrait
(circa 1986)

I have always enjoyed driving through the town of Cleobury Mortimer on what have been rather infrequent visits to that part of the county in the past. It is a pleasant town, set on the side of a hill close to the River Rea. On a recent visit, my reason was purely to walk its streets, and it says something for this south Shropshire town that, despite the persistent drizzle, I found the walk most rewarding.

Prior to walking through the town, however, I took a drive around the parish. To the east of Cleobury Mortimer, across the river and up Hungry Hill, towards the Shropshire/Worcestershire border, the land becomes wooded and is part of the Wyre forest. On the eastern bank of the river, and standing on the lower slopes of the hill is Mawley Hall, an 18th-century red-brick building with a splendid interior apparently designed with imagination and little regard for cost. Nearer to the town, close to where the A4117 and B4363 join, is Castle Toot, a place possessing, if nothing else a rather amusing name. It is, in fact, the site of an ancient earthwork which takes advantage of the steep hillside and river to help form its defences.

To the south of Cleobury Mortimer the land continues to drop away to Rowley Brook before climbing again towards the Herefordshire border. Further to the west are the farming hamlets of Upper and Lower Dudnil and Bransley, both rather pleasant places.

In reality, Cleobury Mortimer is barely a town, but I feel its history and, perhaps surprisingly, its industrial past, combined with a magnificent church, give it the right to be called a small town rather than being a large village. Today, in this quiet town, it is hard to believe that it has been the scene of savage strife and blood-shed.

The history of Cleobury Mortimer goes back a long time before the Norman Conquest, as the Castle Toot shows. At the time of the Conquest, Cleobury Mortimer was held by Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, and after the Conquest it was held by Ralph de Mortimer.
Ralph de Mortimer came with the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the chiefs at the Battle of Hastings. Later, he was sent to subdue Edric, Earl of Shrewsbury, and in doing so received the grant of Edric's estates. He made Cleobury his principle residence and ultimately gave his name to the town. For the next four centuries the name Mortimer was well known and possessions grew. Their history has been well documented and they seemed to have been a family dedicated to causes, although the record shows that on occasion their cause was perhaps the wrong one.

Hugh Mortimer, son and heir of Ralph, refused to pay homage to Henry II on the death of Stephen, and fortified his three castles at Cleobury, Bridgnorth and Wigmore in defiance of the king. His defiance was short-lived, and his castle at Cleobury fell in 1154, and Bridgnorth the following year. He was also a man who did not get on well with his neighbours, namely, the Lord of Ludlow who, whenever he was abroad, was in fear of being taken by Mortimer's men, although it was eventually Hugh Mortimer himself who was captured and held to ransom in Ludlow.

In 1181, Roger succeeded his father, and, like his father, was for ever at odds with his neighbours, but this time choosing Hugh de Saye (of Stokesay).
Roger's son, another Hugh, was a great supporter of King John in his baronial war (1215). He eventually died of wounds received in a tournament and was succeeded by his brother, Ralph, in 1227.
Ralph was yet another who delighted in knocking lumps out of his neighbours, and his talents were directed by the king towards Llewelyn the Great. So successful was he that Llewelyn gave him his daughter in marriage. Without being too unkind about the lady, and not wishing to cast aspersions against the Welsh in general, I wonder whether Llewelyn thought of the gift as a peace offering or as revenge. Ralph's son, Roger, who succeeded him, was said to have been something on an autocrat. But, there again, he was living in a lawless age when, perhaps, autocracy was the only means of survival. It was Roger de Mortimer who added Ludlow Castle to his vast holdings by marrying into the Ludlow family. He had succeeded his father when only eighteen. But he made the mistake of helping Queen Isabella against her husband, Edward II, and was subsequently hanged for treason in 1330.

There then followed some rather youthful lords of Cleobury Mortimer. Roger, who was only three; and Edward, only seven, when their respective fathers died. Edmund, when aged sixteen, married Phillippa Plantagenet (aged thirteen) in 1136, creating another Royal link which was ultimately to result in Richard, Duke of York's claim to the throne of England.
But, already, the scene was shifting, and Cleobury Mortimer was becoming less important in the affairs of the Mortimer family. Their castle at Ludlow was much more substantial than what was left of the castle at Cleobury Mortimer, and by the mid-15th century the Lords of Cleobury Mortimer were no longer Mortimer by name.

Although the political (or military) significance of Cleobury Mortimer had waned, the place, even by the 14th century, had some justifiable claims to industrial importance. In particular, its fulling mills were of importance, as was its wood industry, and Cleobury Mortimer became an exporter of wooden bowls, dishes and cups in an age when other materials were scarce. Records show that single orders for as many as one-thousand dishes and bowls were fulfilled by the Cleobury craftsmen.

Being on the eastern slopes of Titterstone Clee Hill, minerals such as coal and iron, as well as stone for building, were available, and over the years the prosperity of Cleobury Mortimer grew from the talents of its citizens rather than from the influence of its lords.
Later industries included paper making as well as its mining industry. The list of trades and professions of people in Cleobury Mortimer in the mid-19th century, considerng the population was only 1,619, is as comprehensive as the list for many places twice its size. Even today, despite the changes time has brought, the HIgh Street has most items a resident would require.

The focal point in the town is the Church of the Virgin Mary. which stands on a grassy plinth where the main road dips and turns around the churchyard wall. It is possible that the founding of this church dates back to Queen Edith in those pre-Norman times. The present church dates back to the 12th-century, and its most striking feature is its crooked spire, the result of its oak beams warped by wind, rain and time.
In the church is a window in recognition that Cleobury was the birthplace of William Langland, an important contemporary of Chaucer and author of 'The Vision of Piers the Plowman'. The window was placed there in 1875, although there are as many who believe that Cleobury was not his birthplace as there are those who do.

The main street has some interesting buildings although little of great architectural interest. But it is buildings like the Talbot Hotel and other Victorian structures, as well as red-brick shops like the general ironmongers whose windows and pavement are its showcases for all that is needed, from grow-bags to tap-washers, for the folk of Cleobury Mortimer.

The Shropshire Rambler