Because you so often read exaggerated numbers of men executed by Edward II in March and April 1322 after his successful campaign against the Marcher lords and the Lancastrian faction - the Contrariants, as Edward called them - here's an accurate list of the executions. Fourteenth-century chronicles are consistent in recording the names; some modern writers have inflated the numbers, saying that men were 'hunted down and slaughtered', that bodily remains decorated the walls of every town in England, that a veritable 'bloodbath' took place. Given the highly emotive way the executions are described in some secondary sources, I'd always assumed that many dozens or even hundreds of men were executed and/or murdered, then when I researched them, discovered there were in fact between 19 and 22 executions of lords and knights, plus one knight killed by Edward II's supporters without the king's prior knowledge. That's a heck of a lot, obviously, but hardly seems to meet the requirements for a 'bloodbath' or to justify the frequent statements about men being hunted down and murdered in cold blood on Edward or the Despensers' orders. I also include information about men who were killed at the battle of Boroughbridge, but whose names are often incorrectly included on the list of executions by writers too lazy or sloppy to check primary sources.
Talking of sloppy research: you often seen in books that Edward II had the 'elderly' countess of Lincoln, the earl of Lancaster's mother-in-law, imprisoned in 1322. Oh, the pathos! Oh, the opportunities for bewailing Edward's dreadful cruelty! Natalie Fryde, for example, writes in The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 "One wonders whether the aged countess of Lincoln, mother of Alice, countess of Lancaster, could have done much harm. She was carried off to prison..." Well, that would really be something, given that Countess Margaret had been dead for about fifteen years in March 1322. But who cares about such minor details when you can bash Edward II?
What is difficult to comprehend about Edward II's actions in 1322 is the way he had some men executed but others merely imprisoned, and the executions come across as extremely arbitrary and capricious. Having said that, the Vita Edwardi Secundi says that in 1322 the Contrariants "killed those who opposed them, [and] plundered those who offered no resistance, sparing no one," a quote mysteriously missing from every book I've ever read on the subject. It is apparent from numerous petitions and inquisitions that the Contrariants committed homicide, assault, theft, false imprisonment and extortion on non-combatants and bystanders, burned and vandalised towns and the countryside - not only Despenser lands - and committed treason by asking Robert Bruce and his adherents to come to England and ride with them against their king. Not that you'd ever guess it from most secondary sources, which usually ignore the Contrariants' numerous crimes and make out that the fault was all on Edward II's side. Edward did push these men into rebellion by his stupid favouritism towards Hugh Despenser, but the Contrariants were a very long way from being the snowy-white innocent victims of That Nasty Edward II And His Appalling Favourite and the glorious freedom fighters against royal tyranny of legend. Contrary to popular report, there was wrong on both sides: Edward threatened his magnates by favouring Despenser, and had no ability whatsoever to learn from past mistakes; the Contrariants took out their anger and frustration on innocents. Seeing the situation of 1321/22 in shades of black and white, as it so often is (Edward and the Despensers = Bad! Contrariants = Good!) is ludicrously simplistic.
To give a handful of examples of the Contrariants' actions in 1321/22 (there are many more): John Mowbray, Jocelyn Deyville and Stephen Baret stole goods from the townspeople of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire, even robbing the church, and took the goods to Mowbray's manor of Axholme. Roger Mortimer and his adherents stole wheat, grain, livestock and other goods worth over £140 from villagers in Herefordshire. Lord Berkeley told the villagers of Lydney in Gloucestershire that he would burn the village unless they gave him three pounds. Unsurprisingly, they sent the money. Other Marchers travelled through Gloucestershire seizing goods and selling them to raise funds. Roger Mortimer of Chirk "violently ejected" William la Zouche from his manor and stole goods worth 100 marks from him, because Zouche refused to join the rebels. A group of John Mowbray’s adherents stole provisions worth forty pounds from a boat belonging to a Grantham merchant. The earl of Lancaster's adherent Robert Holland chased the 'poor people' of Loughborough from their homes, and they dared not return for three months. When fleeing from Edward II in late 1321, because they didn't want to face him in battle - although their army was nearly four times larger than his - the Contrariants burned and devastated the Gloucestershire countryside behind them. The earl of Hereford and the two Roger Mortimers arrived in the town of Bridgnorth in January 1322 and, in an attempt to prevent Edward's army crossing the Severn, the Vita says that they "burned a great part of the town and killed very many of the king’s servants." They killed, beat up and wounded townspeople, stole "garments, jewels, beasts and other goods," and imprisoned people "until they made grievous ransoms." For all the Contrariants' grievances -and I'm not at all denying that they had plenty and that Edward provoked them into rebellion - they could always have tried, you know, not killing, wounding, imprisoning and impoverishing bystanders. The two Hugh Despensers were the targets of the Contrariants' ire, but it was the innocent who suffered most from their brutality and vindictiveness.
All the English earls alive in 1322 except Lancaster, Hereford and maybe the obscure and insignificant Oxford (and Edward II's son the earl of Chester, who was only nine) supported the king both before the executions and after, as did numerous other lords and knights and three Scottish earls (Atholl, Angus and Mar), which is hard to explain if they thought Edward was behaving like a blood-soaked, power-crazed despot. The inconvenient fact that Edward enjoyed the support of a very large part of the English nobility in 1322 is often ignored, as is the fact that no fewer than seven earls - Kent, Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey, Arundel, Atholl and Angus - condemned the earl of Lancaster to death, an execution blamed solely on the Despensers in 1326 and used as an example of Edward II's tyranny ever since.
The abbreviation 'JYD' means 'Judgement on the Younger Despenser', a transcript of the charges against Hugh Despenser at his trial in November 1326, when he was accused of the deaths of nineteen men in 1322. The abbreviation 'CCW' means 'A Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II', ed. G. L. Haskins (Speculum, 14, 1939), a short and unnamed chronicle which covers some of the events of Edward's reign. I've added the sources for each execution in brackets.
Men certainly executed:
1) Thomas, earl of Lancaster, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Salisbury, beheaded at Pontefract on 22 March 1322. [Sources: Foedera, JYD and every contemporary or near-contemporary chronicle.]
Off-topic here, but interesting: secondary sources often say that Queen Isabella remained in the south and only joined her husband in Yorkshire after the execution of Lancaster, her uncle. In fact, she had evidently joined him before, as Edward's squire Oliver de Bordeaux told the earl of Richmond that the king and queen "were well and hearty, thank God" when he saw them on St Cuthbert's Day, 20 March 1322, two days before the execution. The wording implies that Oliver saw them together. [Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland] Edward arrived at Pontefract on 19 March and stayed until the 25th.
2-7) Six of Lancaster's knights were hanged at Pontefract around the same time: William Cheyne or Cheney, Warin Lisle, Henry Bradbourne, William Fitzwilliam, Thomas Mauduit and William Tuchet. The Flores Historiarum says that Lancaster was tormented by being forced to watch nine of his knights executed before him, but the official indictment in Foedera and the 1326 judgement on Hugh Despenser give six. The names of the three other knights the Flores thinks were executed appear in no source, not even the Flores. Lanercost says that eight barons of Lancaster's affinity were executed; other chronicles correctly give six. [Foedera, JYD, CCW, Anonimalle, Croniques de London, Brut, Lanercost, Livere de Reis, Adam Murimuth, Bridlington, Annales Paulini]
8) Bartholomew, Lord Badlesmere, formely Edward II's steward, suffered the traitor's death at Canterbury. [Livere de Reis, Brut, Flores, Croniques de London, Lanercost, Adam Murimuth, CCW, JYD]
9-11) Roger, Lord Clifford and the church-robbing John, Lord Mowbray were hanged in York. Sir Jocelyn Deyville, whom the Lanercost chronicler calls "a knight notorious for his misdeeds," was also hanged there. [Lanercost, Bridlington, Flores, Brut, Anonimalle, Croniques de London, Adam Murimuth, Scalacronica, CCW, JYD, Livere de Reis, Bridlington, Annales Paulini]
12-13) Sir Henry Montfort and Sir Henry Wilington were hanged in Bristol. [Foedera, Flores, Brut, CCW, JYD, Anonimalle, Croniques de London; Adam Murimuth names Wilington]
14-17) Sir Henry Tyes was hanged in London, Sir Thomas Culpepper in Winchelsea, Sir Francis Aldham in Windsor, and Sir Bartholomew Ashburnham in Canterbury. [Annales Paulini, Anonimalle, Adam Murimuth, Croniques de London, Lanercost, Livere de Reis, Flores, Brut, CCW, JYD]
18-19) Sir Roger Elmbridge and John, Lord Giffard of Brimpsfield were hanged in Gloucester. [Flores, Anonimalle, Croniques de London, CCW, JYD, Adam Murimuth, Bridlington, Brut; the Vita Edwardi Secundi names Elmbridge]
Men probably executed:
20) Three chronicles (Croniques de London, CCW and Flores) say that Sir Stephen Baret was hanged; Croniques gives the location as 'Collyere', probably Swansea. This is probably correct, although Baret is not mentioned in the judgement on Despenser. He was certainly dead by 1327, when his brother and heir David petitioned for the restoration of his inheritance. [Close Rolls] Edward II ordered on 26 March 1322 that Baret be taken to Swansea "to be there delivered as they are more fully instructed" by three men of his (Edward's) household, one of whom, Guy Amalvini, had been captured by the Marchers in South Wales in May 1321 when they were attacking Hugh Despenser's lands. [Patent Rolls, wardrobe accounts]
21) Sir William Fleming was probably hanged in Cardiff, though he is also not mentioned in the judgement on Despenser. [CCW, Flores, Brut, Croniques de London] Edward sent John Inge and Thomas de Marlebergh, Despenser adherents, to pronounce judgement on Fleming on 26 March 1322, at the same time as he sent men to try the other Contrariants. [Patent Rolls]
22) Two chronicles (Brut, Flores) say that the earl of Lancaster's squire John Page was also executed. This is probable: an entry on the Close Roll of 1323 says that a John Page "underwent the punishment of death by consideration of the king’s court for being a rebel." However, there are two references to a man of this name imprisoned in the Tower of London in February 1323 and June 1324 (Close Rolls, records of King's Bench), and the judgement on Despenser does not name Page among those executed. Something of the confusion over Page's possible execution is apparent in Natalie Fryde's The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326, where Mrs Fryde says twice (pp. 63, 160) that Page was imprisoned after 1322, and once (p. 61) that he was executed.
Men definitely not executed
- Men who have frequently been named among those executed who were certainly not were Sir Ralph Eplington or Ellington, Sir William Sully and Sir Roger Burghfield, Bromsfield or Bernesfield. They were killed at the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322. [Annales Paulini, Anonimalle, Brut, CCW, JYD, Parliamentary Writs, SC 8/47/2305, SC 8/95/4719] Natalie Fryde's Tyranny and Fall of Edward II of 1979 was the first work to say that these men were executed, and this totally wrong 'fact' has been copied in later books, which does at least usefully demonstrate which writers didn't bother to do their own research into primary sources.
- Mrs Fryde also claims that Hugh Lovel and his three squires were executed. Hugh Lovel, a Scottish knight imprisoned at Gloucester Castle between 1307 and 1311, was in fact also killed at the battle of Boroughbridge, with said three squires. [Parl Writs] Not one of the sources cited here and in Tyranny and Fall says that Lovel, Sully, Eplington and the others were executed, so I can't imagine why Mrs Fryde thought they were, and she cites Parliamentary Writs and various other sources that clearly state they were killed at Boroughbridge. For example, a petition of c. 1322/1327 begins "Joan, widow of Roger de Burghfeld, who died at Boroughbridge, requests her dower," the Anonimalle Chronicle says "There on the bridge of the said town [Boroughbridge] the noble earl of Hereford was killed, and Sir William de Sule, Sir Roger de Bromsfeld and Sir Rauf de Elpingdon were also killed," and the Brut says "Sire William of Sulley and Sire Roger of Bernesfelde were slain in that battle." The 1326 judgement on Despenser also names Sully and Burghfield with the earl of Hereford at Boroughbridge, not in the list of the men executed. Oh dear, Mrs Fryde. That's seriously sloppy work in what has become a standard textbook on Edward II's reign.
- The chronicles Livere de Reis, Lanercost and Flores say that the Lancastrian knight Sir John Eure was executed at Bishop's Auckland. From various entries on the Close and Patent Rolls, however, it is apparent that Eure was captured and beheaded by fourteen of Edward II's supporters without Edward's prior knowledge or consent. Edward named the men responsible for the murder as 'malefactors' and said that they had killed Eure "while he was in the king's peace" and had "declared that he was the king's enemy, which he was not." (He did pardon them, though.)
In March 1324, at the request of the bishops - not Queen Isabella, as some writers believe - Edward ordered the sheriffs of London, Middlesex, Kent, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire to take down the bodies of the twentyish executed men and have them buried. Yes, that's only six counties. [Close Rolls, Foedera, Adam Murimuth, Annales Paulini]. I've seen it stated, without a reference, that Pope John XXII begged Edward to show restraint over the executions. Having trawled through the papal letters, the only reference John made to events of March/April 1322 that I can find is his advice to Edward to ascribe his victory over the Contrariants to God. Far from sympathising with Edward's opponents or wailing over their deaths, John in fact excommunicated "those nobles and magnates who attack the king and his realm." [Papal Letters 1305-1342]
The executions of, at most, 22 men and the murder of one knight were capricious and vengeful and some contemporary chroniclers were shocked by them, but they were hardly the indiscriminate and cold-blooded slaughter of innocents ordered by a despotic king and his nasty favourite, the appalling bloodbath and the pitiful sight of bodies hanging in every English town that some modern writers seem to think.