19 March, 2014

19 March 1330: Execution of the Earl of Kent

684 years ago today on 19 March 1330, Edward of Caernarfon's twenty-eight-year-old half-brother Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, was beheaded for treason against his young nephew Edward III in Winchester.  The executioner was unwilling to take part in the judicial murder of a king's son and fled, and so the unfortunate Kent had to wait around in his shirt for many hours until a common felon under sentence of death was offered his freedom if he agreed to wield the axe.  Kent's heavily pregnant wife Margaret Wake and their three small children (including Joan of Kent, mother of Richard II) were ordered to be imprisoned with two attendants in Salisbury Castle on 14 March, with a mark, i.e. thirteen shillings and four pence, per day granted for their sustenance (Close Rolls 1330-33, p. 14; Patent Rolls 1327-30, p. 499).

The earl of Kent's 'crime' was attempting to free Edward of Caernarfon from captivity at Corfe Castle.  Edward's death at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327 had been publicly announced at parliament in Lincoln a few days afterwards, and Kent himself attended the former king's funeral in Gloucester on 20 December (Close Rolls 1330-33, p. 132).  Yet somehow in the two and a half years between Edward of Caernarfon's supposed death and Kent's own execution, Kent became convinced that Edward was in fact still alive.

As I point out in my article about his plot in the 2011 English Historical Review, Kent certainly did not act alone in 1329/30: he had at least seventy supporters whom I have been able to find, including the archbishop of York, the bishop of London, the mayor of London, the earls of Mar and Buchan, two of Edward II's and Kent's nephews, former and future sheriffs of Kent, numerous lords and knights in England and Wales, many former members of Edward II's household, and former adherents of the Despensers.  This is important because the tendency in modern times has long been to claim that Kent was acting more or less alone, or at the very least in conjunction only with a small handful of disaffected clerics, and then condemn him as stupid, naive and gullible for his belief that his half-brother could possibly still be alive.  This is the only way the vast majority of modern historians have been able to explain Kent's belief that Edward II was still alive well over two years after his supposed death, and fit his plot into their utter conviction that Edward died at Berkeley in September 1327.  This is unfair.  The earl of Kent was emphatically not 'stupid', and in fact was a brave man trying his best to do the right thing, who suffered the ultimate penalty for it.  It annoys me greatly that rather than trying to look at his plot without bias and without the preconceived notion that Edward was certainly dead, most modern writers have taken the easy route of assuming that Kent was wrong and that the only reason he believed his brother was alive was his own 'stupidity' and 'gullibility'.  It's a comfortable pretence, but it isn't true, and there is no evidence that Kent was indeed stupid or that any of his contemporaries thought he was.

There is a massive contradiction in most modern writers' take on the issue: on the one hand, they say that Kent only believed in Edward II's survival because he was stupid, and also condemn him as credulous, weak, feeble and a political nonentity, but on the other hand declare that he was such a threat to Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer's continued political survival (as rulers of the underage Edward III's kingdom) that the pair were forced to manufacture a reason to execute him and thereby protect themselves from him, and managed to force him into treason by pretending that the former king was still alive.  See for example May McKisack's The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399, in the classic Oxford History of England series, p. 100, where it is claimed within the space of a few lines that Kent was both 'foolish' and guilty of 'weakness', yet was also 'dangerous' to Isabella and Mortimer.  In this take on history, Kent is at one and the same time a gullible naive fool who can easily be duped into believing that a dead man still lives, yet is somehow also the leader of the burgeoning opposition to the ruling pair and such a huge risk to them that he has to be executed, or rather judicially murdered.  Isabella and Mortimer are so desperate to rid themselves of this dangerous person that they forge letters and convince half the country as well as Kent that Isabella's husband is still alive.  Hmmmmm, convincing.  This theory is so full of holes you could use it as a colander.

The fact that Kent's ally William Melton, archbishop of York, told his kinsman the mayor of London in January 1330 that "our liege lord Edward of Caernarfon is alive and in good health of body" is also mostly ignored, as Melton, an astute man then probably in his fifties and generally considered to be one of the greatest archbishops in English history, cannot lightly be dismissed as a credulous fool the way Kent so often has been.  Edward of Caernarfon's great friend Donald, earl of Mar, nephew of Robert Bruce, told William Melton in 1329 that he would come to England with an army of 40,000 men in order to effect Edward's release from captivity, and Melton himself - as well as committing the dangerous statement that Edward was alive to parchment - pledged 5000 pounds to the plot to release the former king.  The more you read about the plot of 1330, and see how many influential people were involved who risked their lives and livelihoods in its cause, the more you realise that the pretence of Kent's stupidity as the only explanation for it cannot be sustained.  It is evident that large numbers of people in 1330 firmly believed that Edward II was still alive.  It is not, however, the case that the people arrested or ordered to be arrested for taking part in the plot were simply enemies of Isabella and Mortimer, whom the latter were keen to get out of the way on trumped-up charges.  Very few of Kent's adherents in 1329/30 had previously shown any hostility whatsoever to the ruling pair.

Within days of the earl of Kent's execution, inquisitions were ordered in a number of counties "to discover the adherents of Edmund, late earl of Kent" (Patent Rolls 1327-30, pp. 556-7, 571).  His supporters were believed to be particularly numerous in Norfolk and Suffolk, and many men in Wales were said to have joined his adherent Rhys ap Gruffydd (who had fled to Scotland in 1327 after plotting to free Edward of Caernarfon from Berkeley Castle).  It was publicly proclaimed on 13 April 1330 that "all persons who...say that the king's father is yet alive" would be arrested and imprisoned (Patent Rolls, p. 557).

For more info about Kent's plot, here are my posts about it and the supporters who joined him, though I wrote them way back in 2007: part 1part 2part 3part 4.  Ian Mortimer's 2010 book Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies contains much information about Kent's plot and throws a lot of fascinating light on the timing of events, and is highly recommended.  And if you'd like to read my article in the English Historical Review but are unable to access it, please do feel free to email me for a copy (address at the top of the page under 'Contact').  The plot was advanced enough in March 1330 that arrangements had been made for Edward's removal from Corfe Castle in Dorset to the earl of Kent's castle at Arundel in Sussex with a ship provided by one John Gymmynges, a former valet of Edward II's household.  To judge from William Melton's letter of January 1330 to his kinsman Simon Swanland, mayor of London - whose involvement in the plot was never discovered - the plan was then to take Edward abroad, as the letter mentions that Swanland should procure £200 gold for the former king, which he could have used on the continent.

To my mind, the 1329/30 plot of the earl of Kent and his many followers demonstrates that Edward II was indeed still alive.  It makes no sense to me otherwise.


Sami Parkkonen said...

This is another thing that also makes me believe that Edward II was indeed alive at this time and later on.

For me the event which sort of confirms his survival was the meeting between Edward III and the mysterious William de Galles later on in Brabant, if my memory does not fail me here.

This mystery man William claimed to be king Edward III's father and was allowed to meet the king, who entertained him for couple a days, introduced him to his personal family, and gave him 80 pounds pocket money when he departed.

Now, based on what we know of Edward III and the practises of the times, anyone who made a claim to be the real father of any king, let alone Edward III, would be beheaded pretty quickly if it was not so.

So who was this William chap, why he was received by the king, why he spent few days with the royal family and why king gave him quite a sum of cash once he departed?

The Earl of Kent would have known the answer to those questions.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I am curious, though, about a few things. First, would it have been feasible to declare that Kent was insane, instead of executing him? Second, was Edward II significantly taller and/or more strongly built than average, such that it may be difficult in finding a suitable person to provide the substitute corpse that was buried?

I am sure that Edward III doubted that his father was murdered; I can't imagine him reinstating the inheritance of Mortimer's son and letting his grandson marry into the royal family if he was sure that Mortimer had his dad murdered. After all, I think Edward III was fond of his father -- he refused the crown unless Edward II consented, IIRC. However, I doubt that William was Edward II ... I think Edward III would have brought him home for a visit if he was (especially on the idea that Edward II contendedly became a monk). Edward III didn't take as a result of his father's death, but of his forced abdication, so the right to the throne wouldn't be affected ... and showing that his mother wasn't a murderess would burnish his claim to the French throne.


Anonymous said...

Bringing the elder Edward to England might have had far too many hazards. While Edward II might have been content with monkhood, and exile, a whisper of his presence in England could have been the disaster that Edward had gone to extremes to avoid. Secrecy is very difficult to maintain.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I think Edward III would have not brought his father to England in any case, the declaration of his death had been made in his name after all (by his mother and Mortimer naturally but on his name), so if Edward II would have appeared from the death in England, not matter as a monk or a fisherman, the whole realm would have fallen into chaos.

I think it was highly important for Edward III to keep his father away and hidden and that might have been the reason he received him, to get things straightened out between them, to make sure his father would remain hidden and was not going to stage a comeback.

BUT if this William was not his father, how do we explain what happened? I mean, here we have a man claiming to be the father of the medieval king here. Any commoner or noble man making that kind of statement would have been guilty for treason, unless that was the case.

Undermining the crown or its family line was not a Facebook question in those days. Family line was the cause for wars, actually the basis for the Hundered years war was family tree which gave the english kings a claim to the french crown.

So when someone pops out from nowhere and says: "I am the kings father." he better be right. Otherwise he will be killed very quickly. Was this William killed?

No. He was kings guest for few days. At kings expence. He met the queen and the children of the king. King was his personal host. And when he left, king gave him a load of money. Big time cash. Why?

I think Eral of Kent and all those other men knew why.

Caroline said...

You have to remember what Edbward III was doing in Brabant. At the time he was gathering an alliance for a war against Philip of Valois, King of France, and having major difficulties as he was very short of money. In fact he didn't return to England for another eighteen months and then had to flee in secret to avoid his creditors leaving his wife ( who was heavily pregnant) and baby son behind. He may or may not have been overjoyed to see this man who may have been his father but he could hardly swan off back home ruining what he saw as a good prospect of defeating Philip. In fact it took him another six years to achieve his victory but that's a story for another day.

Wonderful post as usual Kathryn. You keep us informed, educated nd entertained in equal measure.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you everyone for the comments! Just a couple of quick points: I really doubt Kent could have been declared insane, and executing him was the only way to stop the plot in its tracks. Yes, Edward II was very tall and well-built, which does make me wonder where on earth they would have found a body that resembled him enough to fool people (even though the chronicle of Adam Murimuth says that only a few people saw the body at Berkeley, and only 'superficialiter').

Anerje said...

I've enjoyed all your posts relating to the Earl of Kent - it's an extraordinary story with lots of contradictions - I feel such sympathy for Kent.

Sami Parkkonen said...

But did the body fool people? There might have been someone among the people who saw the body, which was already prepared if I remember correctly, who had doubts.

If someone who saw it was not convinced, that might have started the whole thing. We do not know when the Kents plot began, it might have been in the works for some time before it was revealed or exposed.

Someone might have passed a word that Edward was not the body he saw and that started the search of his hiding place. Once the conspirators became convinced he was held in Cofre, they started to plan the release, and once the talk began to take a shape of a real plan, Isabella and Mortimer caught the whiff of it.

So many influential people were so sure he was not dead after all that it is quite hard to believe they were all just bunch of simple fools, particulary when they were collecting money for Edward etc.

Granted, this is all speculation, but there is certainly something fishy here.

As for Brabant and Edward III, yes, the situation was not that simple at that time and if this William chap was his real father, he could only be very happy if he came to tell his son that he would not ressurect or resurface from the beyond. That would explain why he was treated the way he was and not executed on the spot.

Edward III was after all on war path at that time and had no time for fools or pretenders. So if this man would have been just a pretender, he would have executed him right there and then. If he was Edward II, he was only happy to see that the old man went away quietly.

Kathryn Warner said...

That's an excellent point, actually. Kent might have been suspicious for years, even before his brother's funeral, and yes, maybe someone who 'saw' Edward's body at Berkeley gave him some information. He had a large number of followers in 1330, after all, and it must have taken a good long while to gather them. And he must have had convincing reasons/proof for his strong belief that Edward was still alive, which he communicated to others.

Caroline said...

It's possible that information came via the embalming woman who was taken to see the king (Edward III) and Isabella at Worcester. She would hardly have said that it wasn't Edward II as she wouldn't have known him except by reputation but she might have made some comment which planted a seed of suspicion in someone's mind. We don't know who was with either the king or Isabella during the interview but there could well have been others present.

When the body was viewed "superficially" it is possible in was already re-clothed as well as wrapped in cere cloth and that could hide a multitude of sins and it might be difficult to judge a mans height if he was lying prone on a bier. It's possible the only people apart from the embalming woman who saw the actual unclothed body were William Beaukaire the royal sergeant at arms who we assume was Mortimers man and one or two others who were probably henchmen of Mortimer or Thomas Berkeley. The worthies came later.

A pity we can't turn to the last page and find out whodunit!

Kathryn Warner said...

Great comment, Caroline! William Beaukaire's involvement in this intrigues me, as just six months earlier he'd been pardoned for holding out at Caerphilly Castle with dozens of Despenser adherents, Hugh the Younger's son Hugh, and a few of the men who joined the Dunheveds in their attack on Berkeley in the summer of 1327. How does a presumed Despenser adherent come to be acting for Roger Mortimer at Berkeley in September 1327? Hmmmmmm.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Also, we have to keep in mind the old saying: three can keep a secret if two are dead. That goes with both the body and the Kents conspiracy.

If there were only handful of those who actually saw the body, one of them might have spilled the beans, sort of, or let it slip somewhere that it really was not the real deal.

Also, once Kents conspiracy began to form and more and more people got involved, the word also spread around. He might have been planning it with couple others for some time before it was exposed. Also, how many of the plotters were actually caught and how many got away?

Kathryn Warner said...

A few fled the country, some were arrested and temporarily imprisoned, and either released by Isabella and Mortimer or Edward III when he took power a few months later. A largish group of Kent's adherents gathered in Brabant (where Edward II's nephew was duke, and his sister was still alive) and plotted an invasion of England in the summer of 1330.

Anonymous said...

It is so unclear that this William le Galles was Edward II - though I feel inclined to think so. It certainly put Edward iii in an awful situation. Poor Kent! (Yes, other monarchs did execute "pretenders" or challengers.) William le Galles (various spellings there) appeared not to have become a sufficiently strong rumour at the time that Edward iii was unable to manage it.

chris y said...

It must be admitted that lots of people believing a thing to be true doesn't necessarily make it so. Lots of people believe that President Obama was born outside the United States. Lots of people believe that an alien spaceship crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

To me, the fact that lots of people believed that Edward II was alive in 1330 becomes much more persuasive evidence of his being so when it's taken together with all the other hints to that effect that have been documented here over the last few years, not least the curious incident of William de Galles. A case is assembled, bit by bit, and ultimately it's a strong one.

GeorgeD said...

Please do not think me a spoilsport. I really want to think that Edward II survived 1327. But I can't wholeheartedly see this William de Galles as a proof for one thing or another. In one respect, Edward III's treatment of him may indeed show that Edward III recognized and accepted him as his father. However, what could Edward III do if he perceived "William de Galles" to be an imposter? Hang him? I doubt it. Edward II hanging a bloke who claimed to be his brother, is one thing; Edward III, with all the violence, unrest and doubt surrounding his accession, hanging someone who claimed to be his father, is quite another. In this question, Edward III was an easy prey to every brazen blackmailer.

Would Edward III, whose great exploits lay still ahead in time, really risk to go down in public opinion, and, perhaps, in history, too, as the guy who hanged his own father, (a crowned and annointed king, on top -- which counted more than we can imagine today, in the medieval weltanschauung), because of motives that would be deemed utterly black in his contemporaries' eyes? Even if he knew the man to be a pretender, it would have been a wise, judicious and admirably diplomatic solution to entertain him, disprove him quietly, and send him on his way with a generous gift of money as a reward for a promise to keep quiet in the future.

After all, this was a great epoch for pretenders. Did you ever hear of the "False Waldemar" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_Waldemar)?
I'm sorry to say the English article leaves a lot to be desired, but at least it shows how easy it could be for such frauds to gather a lot of followers and support, and to decide the future of a country. It seems possible that Edward III, in the situation he was in when he received "William de Galles", just didn't want or couldn't afford to struggle with any further complications, and tried -- successfully -- to make this one go away quietly.

Well, I really think they should open Edward II's grave to finally set the question at rest!

Kathryn Warner said...

It's interesting that so many of the comments are talking about William le Galeys, whom I didn't even mention in the post! I've never said that I certainly believe William was Edward II. and I'm still not sure about it - as Chris said, the whole thing becomes more plausible when you take all the evidence together, that lots of people believed in 1330 that Edward was alive, that an Italian bishop told Edward III how his father escaped from Berkeley, William le Galeys, the oddities in the narrative of Edward's death in 1327 and its aftermath. Every piece of evidence individually can be dismissed on various grounds, but together, it builds up a strong picture.

For the record, there was a man called Richard de Neueby who on 22 May 1313 (the day before Edward II left for a visit to France) appeared at court and claimed to be Edward's brother. He wasn't executed either, and was given the large sum of £13 by Edward.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Sorry, I brought this William character up. But taken in the context I think he was what was said. Now, why would not had Edward III have him excuted if he was not what he said he was?

There were men hanged already in the english troops for breaking the royal orders in Brabant. Edward III was not the "humanist" he father had been, "man of the people", but pretty HC medieval royal.

If we look at the Kent conspiracy, this mysterious man, the viewing of the body, the whole mess at Berkley, what happened later on etc. I think the pieces fit too well together just to be imagination.

Thanks to Kathryn and others who have wallowed trough the original sources we have much better understanding what was really said and when and by whom surrounding the events. And like I said before: there is something fishy going on here.

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

The country must have been in growing unrest, if it was publicly proclaimed that anyone saying that Edward was still was to be imprisoned. My quesry will probably sound silly, but did Edward III himself could proclaim such thing? It says "the king's father". It would suggest that it was done on Mortimer's orders, but perhaps...?

PS Kathryn, have my two e-mails safely reached your e-mail box? I just want to make sure, for my computer is getting naughty yet again and refuses to send my messages :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

I got the emails, Kasia, thanks! :-) I don't recall Edward III himself having that proclaimed, though he was extremely keen at the November 1330 parliament to have it announced over and over that his father was definitely, certainly, emphatically dead ;-)

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

I meant whether Edward was in a postion to do such thing at the time? Did he have anything to say in the matters of state or was he forced to obey his mother and Mortimer in everything?

Kathryn Warner said...

No, Edward III himself wasn't in a position to act independently or issue proclamations until he took control of the kingdom on 19 October 1330.

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Thank you, Kathryn. I have also discovered this (it's one of the blogs I follow)


I had no idea that Thomas was canonized. I've always considered him a villain in the story :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

He is the villain of the story, hehehe ;) Thomas was never canonised, though there was a strong movement in the 14th century to persuade the pope to do so, and it seems that he was seen as an unofficial saint by some people in England until the Reformation. I wrote a post about it here: http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.com/2010/05/saint-thomas-of-lancaster.html

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

I will certainly take a look at it :-) Forgive me for bombarding you with so many questions on Sunday, of all days. Hope you have a lovely day :-)
What's the weather like in Germany? Here we have a lovely spring.

Kathryn Warner said...

This weekend is slightly chilly and a bit damp with sunny periods, but this week we've had days when it was over 20 degrees, woo-hoo! Really feels like spring is coming! :-)

Anonymous said...

Great article. Thanks!

Re Edmund's supposed gullibility as seen by many historians. CS Lewis had a great phrase for this type of thing - something like 'chronological snobbery / superiority' I think. It's that temptation to think we are more clever / intelligent than medieval people and to be too quick to assume their stupidity.
I think Edward also suffers from this prejudice in some respects.


Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Jo, welcome to the blog and thanks for the great comment! I totally agree with you that there's often a kind of superiority apparent. Kent's alleged 'stupidity' is really based on nothing more than historians' knowledge of his uncle Charles de Valois outmanoeuvring him in Gascony in 1324, as though a man in his 50s knowing more military strategy than a man in his early 20s is somehow evidence of the latter's stupidity (rather than inexperience and perhaps naivety).