The turbulent reign of Edward II and its immediate aftermath - the first few years of his son's reign, before he took over the governance of his kingdom himself - saw no fewer than six earls executed in eighteen years. This is especially astonishing given that the last English earl executed before Edward II's time was Waltheof, way back in 1076 - although the Scottish earl of Atholl, John de Strathbogie, was executed in London in November 1306, near the end of Edward I's reign.
The six earls were:
- Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall at the time of his death on 19 June 1312 (at least, Edward II thought he was). Run through with a sword then beheaded on Blacklow Hill after his third return from exile. He was about twenty-nine or thirty.
- Thomas of Lancaster, earl of Lancaster, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Salisbury, executed on 22 March 1322, officially for treason - or for killing Piers Gaveston ten years earlier, depending on your point of view. He was taken out of his castle of Pontefract on a horse described as a "lean white jade without bridle" to a hill nearby - apparently because Edward II was deliberately arranging his execution as a parody of Gaveston's - and pelted with snowballs by a jeering crowd. He was made to kneel facing Scotland, as he'd been accused of treacherously conspiring with the Scots, and beheaded, Edward having respited the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering in consideration of his royal blood. He was about forty-three or forty-four.
- Andrew Harclay, earl of Carlisle, hanged, drawn and quartered at Carlisle on 3 March 1323, for overstepping his authority by agreeing peace terms with Robert Bruce. Previously, he had been stripped of his earldom by having his sword ungirded and his spurs cut from his heels. His head was sent to Edward II at Knaresborough for inspection, then placed on London Bridge, while the quarters of his body were displayed in Carlisle, Newcastle, Bristol and Shrewsbury. In 1328, his sister finally received permission to bury his remains. The earldom of Carlisle, which Harclay had been granted slightly less than a year before his death, lay dormant until 1622. He was probably in his early fifties.
- Hugh Despenser the Elder, earl of Winchester, hanged, drawn and quartered at Bristol on 26 October 1326 at the orders of Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella, Henry of Lancaster, and others. One of his crimes was complicity in the earl of Lancaster's execution; the fact that the earl of Kent, one of his judges, had also condemned Lancaster to death doesn't seem to have bothered anybody. His head was sent to Winchester, "where you were earl against law and reason," and his body thrown to dogs. He was sixty-five.
- Edmund Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, beheaded in Hereford on 17 November 1326 on the orders of Roger Mortimer, evidently without a trial. According to the Llandaff chronicle, a "worthless wretch" wielded the axe, and took twenty-two strokes to sever his head. Arundel's body was later moved to Haughmond Abbey near Shrewsbury, to lie with his ancestors, and his son restored to the inheritance by Edward III in late 1330. He was forty-one.
- Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, beheaded on 19 March 1330 at Winchester for attempting to rescue his half-brother Edward II from prison. He was kept around waiting all day, as the executioner fled, and nobody willing to perform the sentence on a king's son whose execution was nothing more than judicial murder could be found. Finally, a latrine cleaner under sentence of death himself beheaded him in exchange for his own freedom. Kent was twenty-eight.
- Roger Mortimer, earl of March, dragged from the Tower to Tyburn and hanged naked on 29 November 1330, having been accused of numerous crimes by Edward III. He was forty-three.
In addition to these six earls, two others died in battle: Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, who fell at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, and Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex, who died a terrible death at Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322.
The earls of Edward II's reign who died a natural death, at least as far as we know - Lincoln in 1311, Warwick in 1315, Pembroke in 1324, Norfolk in 1338, Henry, earl of Lancaster and Leicester in 1345, Surrey in 1347 - could count their blessings!