Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, was beheaded in Winchester on 19 March 1330 for the crime of trying to free his half-brother Edward II from Corfe Castle in Dorset. As most readers will know, this is two and a half years after Edward's death was announced...
So what the heck was going on? Was Kent utterly deluded? Or was Edward II really alive and at Corfe? Most historians, assuming that Edward II had indeed been dead for several years, are unable to explain Kent's plot except by assuming that he was stupid, gullible and unstable. However, there is plenty of evidence that Kent was none of these things, and there are contradictions in the traditional narrative, such as: if he was a fool and deluded, why was it so important to execute him? If he was a fool and politically ineffectual, then how did he persuade so many high-ranking laymen and clerics to help him?
At the very least, Kent’s plot surely means that he had not seen his brother's face clearly at his funeral on 20 December 1327. Kent did not see Edward's body before the funeral, and neither did his brother Norfolk, their cousin Lancaster, or any other members of Edward's family. Even if we assume that Kent was stupid and gullible, which I’m sure he wasn't, he’d hardly have been convinced that Edward was alive in 1330 if he’d had a good look at Edward’s exposed face during or before his funeral. I’ll look at Edward’s funeral in a future post, but the historian Ernst Kantorowicz’s study The King’s Two Bodies states that Edward II’s funeral is the first known occasion in Western Europe when a wooden mannequin or effigy was displayed in public during a royal funeral, in place of the royal corpse.
Assuming for a moment that Edward II really had been dead since September 1327, why did Kent come to believe that he was alive? There's a story in the chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker that the garrison at Corfe Castle put on a show for Kent, with an Edward II lookalike sitting in the hall, feasting and generally partying fourteenth-century style. But le Baker had a great talent for embroidering his stories, and can’t always be trusted. According to le Baker, Kent, watching from a distance, was fooled into thinking this was his brother. However, I’m certain that this story is not true. Ian Mortimer has drawn attention to the role of Sir John Pecche, constable of Corfe, in informing Kent of Edward II’s possible survival (in my next post).
Anyway, Kent wrote three letters (or rather, his wife did) to Edward II, and gave one to John Deveril of the Corfe garrison. Deveril promptly sent it to Roger Mortimer. The near-contemporary Brut chronicle gives the letter, which would have been in French in the original, but the Brut was written in English, in modernised spelling here:
"Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book."
[In November 1330, John Deveril was sentenced to death for his part in entrapping Kent, at the same Parliament that condemned Roger Mortimer to death. A reward of 100 marks (66 pounds) was offered for taking him alive to the king, and 40 marks for his head. "q' qi purra prendre le dit Johan vif, et mesne au Roi, auera C Marcz, et qi q' port la Teste, auera xl du Doun le Roi." Deveril fled, and in the summer of 1331, was thought to be hiding in the Dorset/Somerset area. One of the men appointed to arrest him was John Maltravers Senior, father of John Maltravers Junior, who had also been sentenced to death for entrapping Kent.]
The ‘assent of almost all the great lords of England’ is interesting, especially the reference to earls, as none of the other English earls of the time can be proved to have taken part in the plot. Was that true, or was Kent exaggerating?
Kent’s trial, if it may be dignified by the name, took place at the Winchester Parliament of March 1330. Roger Mortimer, who had appointed himself prosecutor and announced to all the gathered lords at Parliament that he had had Kent arrested, read out Kent’s letter to Edward II, and stated:
"...that you are his [Edward III’s] deadly enemy and a traitor and also a common enemy to the realm; and that have been about many a day to make privily deliverance of Sir Edward [II], sometime King of England, your brother, who was put down out of his royalty by common assent of all the lords of England, and in impairing of our lord the king’s estate, and also of his realm."
Robert Howel, coroner of Edward III’s household, who was presiding over the trial, stated:
"The tenor of your letter is that you were on the point of rescuing that worshipful knight Sir Edward, sometime king of England, your brother, and to help him become king again, and to govern his people again as he was wont to do beforehand, thus impairing the state of our liege lord the king [Edward III]."
The charge against Kent does not say anywhere that Edward II was dead, and in fact, sounds as though Kent really was on the verge of freeing Edward. And, as I pointed out in a previous post, the parliamentary records of March 1330 are missing. Even in the Parliament of November 1330, when the charges against Kent were reversed, the charges were not read out again – which is extremely unusual. Our source for the proceedings is the Brut chronicle, which is extremely detailed and almost certainly based on a newsletter written by an eyewitness.
The sentence against Kent was as follows:
"The will of this court is that you shall lose both life and limb, and that your heirs shall be disinherited for evermore, save the grace of our lord the king."
Edward III didn't save Kent, either because Isabella and Mortimer gave him no chance to, or because he knew that his father really was alive and that his uncle’s plot was a genuine one. Assuming that Edward II was alive, the last thing Edward III would have wanted was for him to be restored to the throne, which would have resulted in his mother Isabella’s being sent to a convent and, possibly, Edward’s being accused of treason by his own father.
On 16 March, Kent’s confession was read out to Parliament, which named many of his co-conspirators – I’ll look at them in another post.
Isabella’s own role in the entrapment and execution of Kent – her brother-in-law and first cousin – is certain, whatever Allocco, author of the "Canonise Perfect Isabella Now!!" tract masquerading as a PhD thesis thinks ("I do not believe that Isabella was responsible for Kent’s disgrace and death…Isabella had no reason to kill Kent.") Isabella swore on her father’s soul that she ‘would have justice’ against Kent. But justice for what? She also told her son Edward III that "he should be avenged upon him as upon his deadly enemy."
Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, offered to walk from Winchester to London (70 miles) barefoot, with a halter around his neck, by way of atonement. But this was refused. Ian Mortimer describes him as "a sincerely contrite, terrified human being, begging for forgiveness with all his heart, not fully able to grasp that he was to be executed for trying to free his brother."
Kent was taken out to the scaffold, in his shirt, where he had to wait many hours until someone willing to lop his head off could be found. The official executioner had fled, no doubt unwilling to behead someone who a) was a king’s son and b) was the victim of what was basically judicial murder. Finally, a latrine cleaner, under sentence of death himself, agreed to wield the axe in exchange for his life.
Kent, youngest son of Edward I and nephew of Philip IV of France, son of one king, half-brother of another, uncle of a third, and grandfather of a fourth, was twenty-eight years old at the time of his death (born 5 August 1301). A writ to arrest his wife Margaret Wake and imprison her at Salisbury Castle, with her three young children and only two damsels to attend them, was issued five days before Kent’s execution. The countess gave birth to her son John on 7 April, which means she was almost nine months pregnant when she was arrested and imprisoned. A great deal more interest was shown in her jewels than in Countess Margaret’s welfare. Through her mother Joan Fiennes, she was the first cousin of Roger Mortimer, son of Margaret Fiennes.
[14 March 1330: Writ of aid for Nicholas de Langeford and John Payn, king's yeomen at arms, appointed to take the countess of Kent and her children to Salisbury Castle, and there to deliver them to the custody of the sheriff, until further orders, to deliver the jewels and other goods of the countess in Arundell Castle and elsewhere to William de Holyns, king's clerk, and Roger atte Asshe, king's yeoman, and to enquire as to jewels and other goods of the countess taken away. Mandate to the said Nicholas and John to deliver the jewels to the custody of the said William and Roger by indenture. The countess is to be accompanied on the way by only two damsels and her children.]
Kent’s lands were seized, and his adherents ordered to be tracked down and arrested. Roger Mortimer, labouring under the delusion that Kent’s lands had been forfeited to him personally and not to the Crown, granted the lands to himself, his son Geoffrey (who had mockingly called him ‘the King of Folly’ for his tyranny, greed and presumption not long before), and several of his supporters, including Lord Berkeley, John Maltravers, Simon Bereford and Oliver Ingham. [21 March, two days after Kent’s execution: Commission to John Maltravers, Oliver Ingham [four other men also named] to discover the adherents of Edmund de Wodestok, late earl of Kent…]
Kent’s ultimate heir was his daughter Joan, the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’, who was just eighteen months old at the time of his death. She married Edward III’s eldest son and became the mother of Richard II.
I’ll be looking at Kent’s plot in great detail in the next few posts, his co-conspirators – in particular the role played by Sir John Pecche – and reasons why the plot may or may not have been genuine.