19 March, 2013

19 March 1330: Execution of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent

Just a quick post, but I couldn't let today pass without a mention of Edward II's courageous and principled half-brother Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, who was beheaded in Winchester on 19 March 1330 for the 'crime' of trying to free the former king from Corfe Castle, two and a half years after Edward's supposed death at Berkeley Castle.  Edmund was the son of Marguerite of France and the youngest son of Edward I, who was sixty-two when Edmund was born on 5 August 1301.  Edmund was twenty-eight at the time of his death, and left his heavily pregnant widow, Margaret Wake, who gave birth to their son John on 7 April 1330, and their children Edmund, Margaret and Joan, the latter to become Richard II's mother in 1367.  I've written about Edmund's plot to free Edward of Caernarfon and the men who helped him here, and far more extensively in my 14,000-word article published in the English Historical Review in 2011.  See also Ian Mortimer's article about Edmund's plot in his Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies (2010), and his 'Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle' in the same volume, which also discusses it.  Dr Mortimer focuses on the timeline of the conspiracy, I on the many dozens of men who joined and aided the earl, to demonstrate that the usual modern explanation for his plot - that Edmund was a stupid gullible fool tricked into trying to free a dead man to provide an excuse for (Edmund's first cousin) Isabella of France and (his wife Margaret Wake's first cousin) Roger Mortimer to execute him - are untenable.  That Edmund was 'stupid' is an invention of the twentieth century, by commentators unable otherwise to explain why he was so utterly convinced that his half-brother was alive in 1330 despite having attended his funeral in December 1327, and is based on no contemporary evidence. Furthermore, it uses a circular logic: Edmund only believed that Edward II was alive because he was stupid and gullible; and how do we know he was stupid and gullible - because he believed that Edward II was still alive.  Ian Mortimer explains in his two articles cited above how Edmund's actions have been twisted to provide 'evidence' for his alleged stupidity and demonstrates that Edmund began trying to free Edward of Caernarfon shortly after he and his brother the earl of Norfolk had been reconciled to Isabella and Roger Mortimer following their brief participation in the earl of Lancaster's rebellion against them.  This gives the lie to the frequent modern explanation that the plot should be seen in the light of the participants' dissatisfaction with the Mortimer and Isabella regime rather than in any belief that Edward II was alive.  I provide detailed backgrounds and allegiances for Edmund's many dozens of co-conspirators and show how many of them had been loyal to Edward II before, during and in many cases even after the revolution of 1326/27.  The many men who joined Kent are usually either ignored altogether or dismissed as a handful of disaffected clerics.  Furthermore, I point out the contradictions in the usual modern explanation for Edmund's actions in 1329/30 by writers convinced that Edward II did indeed die at Berkeley Castle in September 1327 who interpret the plot in that light: at one and the same time, Edmund is said to have been stupid, gullible, unstable and politically insignificant, yet to have represented such a danger to Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella's position and political survival that they were forced to manufacture a reason to execute him in order to protect themselves.  And therefore, they decided to spread rumours all around the country that Edward of Caernarfon was alive, intending that Kent would hear the rumours, try to free his brother and thus commit treason against his young nephew Edward III.

RIP, Edmund of Woodstock, a brave man who tried to do the right thing and help his brother and suffered the ultimate penalty for it, and has seen his posthumous reputation unfairly trashed in the last few decades.

10 comments:

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

I didn't know that the Fair Maid of Kent was Edward II's- correct me if I'm wrong- half-niece. It means that she was Edward III's half-cousin and that she was closely related to her own husband. Hope I haven't mixed it all:-)

I also didn't know that Edmund was so young at the time of his death. He was the same age as the Young Henry.

Edmund and all his fellow conspirators must have been certain that Edward was still alive and I too believe he was. There's no other way of interpreting the events of 1330.

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, yes, you're exactly right about the relationships! :-)

I absolutely agree - I just don't see how Edmund's plot and the reaction to it makes sense unless Edward II was still alive.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I understand that Edmund of Woodstock held some high office in Gascony, but his work there was subject to criticism. Even if he wasn't the world's most competent official, I still doubt that such an office would be given to someone known to be a gullible fool -- and I doubt that a gullible idiot could hide the fact for any significant length of time.

Esther

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther! Edmund was sent to France as an envoy in 1324 and then to Gascony as Edward II's lieutenant. He certainly wasn't the most competent diplomat, and was out-manoeuvred in Gascony by Charles de Valois (who was his uncle as well as Charles IV's), but this is hardly evidence of stupidity - he only turned 23 in August 1324, so was most likely just inexperienced, perhaps slightly naive in assuming his own uncle wouldn't try to trick him. As Ian Mortimer points out, Edmund's name was used in Isabella and Mortimer's proclamations after they arrived in England in 1326 and was clearly considered an asset. It seems rather to have been Edmund's older brother Thomas, earl of Norfolk, who was considered a liability, as Edward II preferred Kent over him on several occasions. No-one at the time seems to have thought that Edmund was stupid or gullible or unreliable or unstable.

Anonymous said...

But wasn't Charles de Valois himself considered "of moderate intelligence"?

Kathryn Warner said...

Possibly, Anonymouse, but we're talking about military commanders and their actions during a war, not nominating Edmund or Charles for Mensa membership.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I find it very curious indeed why it is still the official canon that Edward II was dead by 1330.

I find it even more curious that a man who had known Edward II and had attented his alledged funeral did believe he was still alive and tried to release him from captivity.

And even more curious is that this man was executed for his attempt to release a dead man by that dead mans own wife and his buddy.

It is very clear that the whole episode was about something else than Edmund of Woodstock being dumb simpleton who wanted to free a corpse.

Kathryn Warner said...

I so agree, Sami! The refusal by most commentators to engage properly with the argument and the evidence, and the determination to cling stubbornly to orthodoxy, is becoming baffling. I was looking through Thirteenth Century England X not long ago, which includes an article about Edward II in Italy by Seymour Phillips, and the editors wrote in the preface "It may be too much to hope that his paper will put an end to speculation that the king survived his supposed murder in September 1327...". Honestly!

Sami Parkkonen said...

Yes indeed.

Perhaps too many a historian have staked their careers on this one so they have to stick with it to the end, instead of saying, like a decent historian would, that hey, we got new evidence which makes the whole story completely different light!

But I guess, science is no longer a search for the truth but what appears to be suitable.

Perhaps that one nobelist was right some twentyfive years ago when he predicted that societies are going to be like in medieval times: rich live in castles and walled estates, poor trodd the streets of dirty cities and country side, and science becomes more about belief than science.

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