02 May, 2014

The Earl of Kent's Plot of 1329/30 Revisited

Because it's much on my mind at the moment, here's another (very long and very snarky) post about the plot of Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, to free his half-brother the former King Edward II from captivity in 1329/30, over two years after Edward's supposed death at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327 and funeral in Gloucester on 20 December. My previous posts are here and here, and also see my article 'The Adherents of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent, in March 1330' in the 2011 English Historical Review and Ian Mortimer's 'The Plot of the Earl of Kent, 1328-30' in his Medieval Intrigue.

Most historians have assumed that Edward II had certainly been dead for two and a half years at the time of Kent's execution on 19 March 1330, and have forced their discussion of Kent's plans to free him fit into that 'fact', rather than trying to look at the plot with an open mind and wondering why on earth the non-crime of trying to free a dead man merited execution. Here are some of the explanations they have come up with, which are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, and my reaction to them.

Kent was a stupid, gullible, unstable fool: Pure invention by historians of the twentieth century unable otherwise to explain Kent's belief in Edward's survival. There is not a shred of evidence in any fourteenth-century source to show that any of Kent's contemporaries thought he was stupid, gullible, emotionally unstable or unusually credulous. The idea basically goes "Oh, he only believed his brother was alive because he was stupid, so we don't have to take him and his plot seriously, and that means we don't have to examine it in detail or explore the notion that he might have been correct, because obviously 700 years later we know better than Kent whether his brother was alive or not. And how do we know Kent was stupid? Because he believed his brother was alive, of course! Keep up at the back!" Nice circular argument there. Kent's entire career is then examined on the false basis of his supposed stupidity, and, with some of the most blatant confirmation bias you'll ever see, we get "Ta-daa! Amazingly enough, we've discovered that he really was stupid! Look, he allowed his uncle Valois who was more than thirty years his senior to out-manoeuvre him militarily in 1324! No no, that's not evidence of inexperience in a man then only in his early twenties who'd never held military command before, and naivety in thinking his own uncle wouldn't try to trick him! He was stooooooopid!" Kent's entirely rational and explicable changes of allegiance in the 1320s are also used to condemn him as emotionally unstable, conveniently ignoring the fact that pretty well everyone switched sides all the time in Edward II's turbulent reign, that the men who didn't ended up dead or in prison or in exile, and that other people who switched sides at the right time are lauded for their political shrewdness, not condemned as mentally unsound. See Ian Mortimer's Medieval Intrigue, which does a great job demolishing the false allegation of stupidity.

Also, very importantly, Kent did not act alone in 1329/30. I myself have found more than seventy named men helping and supporting him, and these are just the ones whose involvement was discovered. There may well have been many more. We know from the evidence of Archbishop William Melton's letter of 14 January 1330 declaring that Edward of Caernarfon was then alive and healthy that the mayor of London, Simon Swanland, was involved in the plot, but this was never discovered and Swanland was never implicated or apparently even suspected (Melton and William Cliff, his messenger to Swanland, were both arrested, but kept quiet about Swanland). Additionally, there are entries in the chancery rolls and statements in chronicles which tell us that:
Kent's followers were thought to be particularly numerous in East Anglia; many people in Wales were "of the confederacy" of Rhys ap Gruffydd, one of Kent's most enthusiastic supporters and a very loyal ally of Edward II who had attempted to free him from Berkeley in 1327; that proclamations were issued threatening anyone who said Edward II was still alive with arrest; that Kent had made "confederacies and alliances of men-at-arms and others" in furtherance of his attempt to free his brother; that some of Kent's adherents were gathering in Brabant (where Edward II's nephew John III was duke) and "propose to enter the realm with a multitude of armed men"; that Kent visited Pope John XXII in Avignon in about June 1329 to "see what thing might best be done touching his [Edward's] deliverance"; that within days of Kent's execution, inquisitions were ordered in five southern counties "to discover the adherents of Edmund of Woodstock, late earl of Kent." And so on.

I strongly suspect that we're talking about, at the very least, a good few hundred men supporting Kent in his attempt to free Edward of Caernarfon, maybe a lot more. But yeah, ignore all this wealth of evidence that's in plain view and tell me again how 'stupid' Kent was and how this means that his entire plot was nonsense and simply 'bizarre', and express again your personal incredulity that it could have been real, as though your inability to grasp it is a compelling argument against it. It's very easy to smear one man as 'stupid', 'gullible' and 'credulous' for believing that Edward of Caernarfon was alive in 1329/30, but when there are certainly at least seventy and very possibly many hundreds of people who believed the same thing, among them the highly astute archbishop of York, the bishop and mayor of London, the earls of Mar and Buchan, numerous lords, sheriffs, knights, merchants, clerks, friars, squires...how do you explain away their involvement? Generally, by pretending they didn't exist, or wrongly dismissing them as a mere handful of clerics, or assuming that they were 'misled' or 'deceived' into believing in Edward's survival without bothering to explain or even speculate how or why this deception might have occurred, and thus assume that the men risked imprisonment or exile and forfeiture of all their lands and goods without thoroughly checking the information that Edward was alive. As though all these men, some of whom were in their fifties or more, some of whom were very wealthy and influential indeed, were nothing more than a bunch of obedient robots, who heard the earl of Kent say "Guess what, Edward of Caernarfon is alive!" and immediately gasped "Wow, amazing! Even though I went to his funeral, I believe you instantly without a shred of proof! Let me help you free this dead man! Yes, of course I'll risk forfeiture, imprisonment, exile, maybe even execution, simply on the basis of a story you've told me without ever asking you for proper evidence, even though everyone knows you're a gullible stupid idiot who makes up wildly implausible tales and can't be trusted!"

Kent was a dangerous enemy who had to be lured into treason and eliminated in order for Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella to protect their position: The theory goes that Mortimer and Isabella invented the notion of Edward II still being alive and spread rumours widely to this effect, their intention being that the earl of Kent would hear them, try to help Edward and thus commit treason against his nephew Edward III, which would give them a solid excuse to have him executed. His immediate death was apparently necessary because he was threatening their continued political survival. This, of course, as you will have already noticed, directly contradicts the equally widely accepted theory that Kent was a fool. If he was a fool, why was it necessary for Isabella and Mortimer to entrap and execute him? I've seen statements that Kent was stupid and weak and gullible and foolish and credulous and unstable, and, sometimes in the very same paragraph, that he was also so dangerous to Mortimer and Isabella that they just had to kill him before he destroyed them. One of Edward II's academic biographers has described Kent as "easily duped and politically ineffectual." Because obviously, unstable, stupid and politically ineffectual people can bring down a government simply by stretching out their hand, and obviously, people like the archbishop of York and the bishop of London and the lords and knights et tous les autres would be entirely willing to follow a man they knew was a gullible fool into treason and imprisonment. Which just proves why Kent had to die and Mortimer and Isabella had to make up rumours about the former king still being alive, because Kent was at one and the same time politically ineffectual and the biggest most gullible idiot in the country, and also the one man who was so politically powerful he could bring them down and whom they therefore had no choice but to entrap with a silly story because he was just soooo dangerous to them and they'd be in the direst of dire straits unless he was dead as soon as possible. Or something. Nope, it makes absolutely no sense to me either.

Kent only acted as he did because he felt guilty about his abandonment of his half-brother in 1326/27: That Kent felt guilty may well be true, but would guilt alone explain his belief that Edward was still alive? If he'd felt guilt, the obvious thing to do in the fourteenth century would have been to patronise Gloucester Abbey where Edward was buried, promote it as a place of pilgrimage, and encourage the cult of Edward II (yes, many people believed he was a saint and performed miracles, which makes me fall off my chair laughing), have prayers and masses said for his soul, and so on. This is precisely what Kent did with regard to his executed cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster: visited the pope to see about the possibility of Thomas's canonisation. When people feel guilt over their betrayal of a dead loved one, do they normally react by coming to the conclusion that the loved one is in fact still alive, telling other people and making plans to have the dead person freed from captivity? How does that even make sense?

Kent and/or his supporters didn't really believe Edward was alive but were engaging in wishful thinking: I don't know about you, but pretty often when someone is dead, I pretend years later that I think the person is actually still alive because I miss him and wish he was still alive, to the extent of making plans to free him from the castle where my imagination tells me a dead man would be held and buying him clothes and writing him letters and stuff, even with the threat of being convicted of treason and being executed or imprisoned or exiled from my homeland and losing all my lands and goods except the clothes I stand up in, becoming homeless, losing my income and seeing my family become homeless too. Oh no, wait, I was confused, I don't actually do that. And I'd be very surprised if anyone else on the planet ever did either. 

Mortimer and Isabella were using Kent as a cat's paw to flush out their enemies: One of those motives that sounds superficially plausible until you actually think about it: "Let's tell half the country that Edward of Caernarfon is still alive so that Kent tries to free him, then we'll be able to see who supports him and thus discover who our enemies are!"  "OK, good idea. Wait, WHAT?"  Although in the end it never came about, some of Kent's supporters escaped the country and gathered in Brabant, and plotted an invasion of England. So what Mortimer in fact achieved with this supposed 'flushing out' of his enemies was to ensure that some of the most dangerous among them slipped out of his control and threatened him far more than they would have done if he'd let them remain in England and kept a nice quiet eye on them. Yeah. I really don't think Roger Mortimer was that stupid. "Damn, I now know who my enemies are, but I've caused lots of them to flee to another country where I can't reach them! Wait, what's that you're telling me? They're plotting an invasion of England? Oh, crap. How could I possibly have seen that coming when I once did the same thing to Edward II?"

Many of the men ordered to be arrested between March and August 1330 for aiding the earl of Kent were released from prison before Mortimer and Isabella's fall from power in October 1330, which hardly indicates that they were making all this stuff up as an excuse to keep dangerous enemies locked away. Besides, quite a few of Kent's adherents were squires, grooms, ushers, confessors, friars, merchants, clerks, monks, chaplains, some men so obscure I can't even find them on record before March 1330. How on earth could such landless, powerless men possibly pose any threat to Mortimer and Isabella? Why did the pair need to go to such elaborate pretence, pretending that the former king was alive, in order to catch such men? Can you imagine that conversation between the two?  "So, Izzy, honey, there's this glover in London, and some bloke from Cornwall, and a tailor, and a few squires, oh, and some Dominicans and that Carmelite guy Richard Something and a monk and and a chaplain and some clerks whose names escape me, and all of them are intolerably threatening to our position. Tailors and glovers and chaplains being so famous for their ability to bring down governments whenever they feel like it and all. We desperately need them in prison where they can't touch us any more, but I just can't think of any reason to put them there. Racking my brains here!"  "Rog, you're losing your touch! The answer's totally obvious. We pretend my husband is still alive, spread rumours about it all over the country, and these massively powerful and dangerous men are absolutely bound to try and help him, in which case we can accuse them of treason and have them arrested and imprisoned. Duuuuh!"  *Roger smacks forehead*  "Of course, how did I not think of that?  It's the only possible way!"

And the same caveat applies: if people knew Kent to be a credulous fool, as is so often claimed nowadays, why did Mortimer and Isabella think anyone would believe him when he said Edward II was still alive? Why would anyone follow a gullible and mentally unsound fool who, hahaha, goes around claiming that the former king is alive, and think he was a plausible leader of the opposition to the ruling pair?

The other plotters didn't believe that Edward was alive, but used it as an excuse to express their dissatisfaction with and rebel against the regime of Mortimer and Isabella: There may be an element of truth in this. There's no way of knowing if all of Kent's followers truly believed that Edward was alive, though clearly many of them did. But they hardly needed to use Edward II's name as an excuse to rebel against Mortimer and Isabella. The earl of Lancaster did it in late 1328, and Richard of Arundel in the early summer of 1330, and neither of them felt the need to use Edward's name. And if everyone knew for sure that Edward II was dead, how was invoking his name years after his death and pretending that he was alive supposed to threaten Mortimer and Isabella? Threaten them to the extent that they had one of the greatest magnates of the realm hastily tried and executed for a plan to free a dead man? The earl of Lancaster wasn't executed or imprisoned for raising an army against the Crown in 1328/29, so what made the earl of Kent's plot so different that he had to be 'tried' and executed, or rather judicially murdered, as hastily as possible?

William Melton's letter of 14 January 1330 stating that Edward of Caernarfon was then alive is not evidence that Edward of Caernarfon was then alive: Admittedly the letter is only evidence that Melton strongly believed that Edward was alive, not that he certainly was, but given that highly intelligent, highly experienced and and highly regarded archbishops in their fifties don't generally a) buy clothes, shoes and other provisions for, b) procure a sum of money of gold for, and c) offer to sell all their possessions to help, a dead man, it's a pretty safe assumption that Melton had compelling evidence for Edward's survival, which he didn't commit to the letter. It's clear from the entire letter, in fact, that Melton must have told his messenger William Cliff to inform the recipient, Simon Swanland, mayor of London, quite a few things orally. It's pretty insulting to Melton, who's often considered one of the greatest archbishops in English history, to assume that he was 'easily convinced' and 'deceived' and 'misled' into thinking Edward was alive when you don't have a shred of evidence for this alleged deception. (Who? Why? How?) This theory makes Melton look kind of stupid, doesn't it? Making him look as though he was as credulous as you claim the earl of Kent was. Oh, but Melton really wasn't stupid and credulous. See the pattern here: explain away the whole plot of 1330 by painting those who took part in it as foolish, gullible and easily deceived, their heads in the clouds and away with the fairies with their silly wishful thinking. We in the twenty-first century know and understand the reality of what happened in 1329/30 far better than the men who actually took part in the damn plot, of course we do! I wonder what, if anything, would make modern historians take the notion that Edward was alive past 1327 seriously? A piece of parchment saying 'Dear all, I am still alive at Corfe. Love, Edward of Caernarfon'?

Actually, I don't think that anything at all would convince most historians that Edward was alive past September 1327. When you've spent your entire career stating without reservation that Edward was murdered at Berkeley Castle and that this is as certain a fact as Edward I dying in July 1307 or Edward III dying in June 1377, it becomes rather tricky to say 'Wellllll, actually...'. And so you have to retreat into untenable positions such as claiming that Kent was stupid, and that his followers were no more than a handful of clerics, and all the rest. Ah dear.


Anonymous said...

Great post. To play devil's advocate ... I don't think the "Kent was gullible" theory is completely inconsistent with the "Kent was dangerous to Roger and Isabella" theory; it has been said that the best con artists believe their own stories. So, it is possible that Kent was able to persuade so many to join him (making him dangerous to Isabella and co.) precisely because his alleged gullibility made him believe strongly in his claim that Edward II was alive. I do agree, though, that the numbers of followers and the participa- tion of men like Melton indicate that Kent's theory had to have some substance to it. BTW, we know something about Melton's capability; do we know anything about the other activities of Swanland while he was mayor of London?


Kathryn Warner said...

True, though I still really can't see so many men following Kent into treason, exile, forfeiture and so on simply because he told a convincing story. With the stakes as high as they possibly could be, they needed a lot more than that, especially as some or even many of the men who joined him must have attended Edward's funeral. Melton had a different information source, anyway, as he told King's Bench after his arrest.

Swanland was a draper, and I know more about him in that capacity than as mayor, as he often supplied cloth to Edward II's household. I strongly suspect that in 1330 he used his influence to protect fellow plotters who came from London, one of whom had himself been a sheriff of the city in 1328.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I think there was a pretty good reason why Edward was "socially dead" but alive anyways. Isabella particulary had to think about his son. What would he do when he would assume the throne if his father was really killed by the orders of his mother? So it was enough to make the son believe it when he was young so that later on he could not reveal the truth even if he knew it.

One thing few historians or people in general understand today is the very old concept of social death. This practise was still in use in Finland in late 1800's. If a young girl became pregnant she dissapeared from her home. The patent story was that "she walked into a lake/pond/rapids" etc. In realoity most of these girls did not commit suicide which was a mortal sin. They were simply wisked away to another side of the land, to big cities with small amount of money. In their home turf they were dead but in their new enviroment they could try to start again. This was the social death, an ancient practise.

The main thing from the point of Isabella and Mortimer was that Edward became dead in social sense, he was gone for all the practicalioty. They did not need to kill him for real. That was the main thing and I assume the son knew later on that his father was not really dead, physically, but socially he was. And that was fine with Edward III.

Anerje said...

I really enjoyed your article about this in EHR. It's such a complex issue and you've argued your points really well. I feel the greatest injustice to Kent was the accusation he was 'stupid'.

Ian Mortimer said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this Kathryn. Refreshing. I spent years having to answer all these superficial arguments (and more) and it became so tedious. To turn it to humour is brilliant. All the best, Ian

Kathryn Warner said...

Sami, well said - thanks for the insight!

Thanks, Anerje!

Thanks, Ian! I was hoping you'd enjoy it :-)

Anonymous said...

Dear Kathryn,
Thanks for yet another interesting piece.
Can you speculate on the motives of these 70 or more followers, I wonder? You have said that Archbishop Melton is clearly a loyalist with regard to Edward II, but had some of the others either abandoned or not actively supported Edward during the 1326/7? For some, were factors other than loyalty present in the mix, do you think?
I hope it is OK to have a second devil’s advocate in this set of comments! I wondered if it might be more a case of “calculating Kent” than “stupid Kent”. Was he aiming to become a power behind the throne? Maybe a parallel could be drawn with Warwick the Kingmaker putting Henry VI back on the throne in 1470/71, or John de la Pole Earl of Lincoln organizing a rebellion on behalf of the pretender, Lambert Simnel in 1487(despite his own potential claim to the throne). Wasn’t the future Black Prince on the way at the time of Kent’s plot? Having his brother (either the real one or a fake version) back on the throne could be beneficial to a royal uncle who would otherwise get bumped down the line of succession one place at a time by each new royal baby. Do you think there is any mileage in such an interpretation? If not, I will have to apologize to the Earl of Kent for casting him in such a cynical light! Best wishes, Henry

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Henry, thanks for the comment! I go into the backgrounds of Kent's adherents in detail in my EHR article - briefly, the majority had once been members of Edward's household or of the Despensers. A handful hadn't and may have had other reasons to join the plot, such as Thomas Wake who played an important role in the capture and execution of the Despensers and Edward's deposition. He joined the earl of Lancaster's rebellion in 1328/29 too.

Kent was way down the list of heirs to the throne, behind: the impending Black Prince; Edward II's younger son John of Eltham; Edward II's two daughters; Kent's older brother Norfolk; and Norfolk's son Edward. So no, I really doubt that had anything to do with it. The major difference with 1470/71 is that everyone knew Henry VI was still alive. In 1328/30, a lot of these men had attended Edward II's funeral! A major difference with Lambert Simnel is that the latter was very young; Edward II in 1329/30 was in his mid-forties, and although surely he would have rewarded Kent enormously if he'd made him king again, Kent could never have become a 'power behind the throne' in the same way. I don't think there are other parallels in English history to Kent's plot.

And finally, Kent and Melton's plan, in fact, was to have Edward taken abroad, not restore him to the throne.

Anonymous said...

Thank for the detailed answer, Kathryn.
Looks like the two things I need to do are read your EHR article (I have seen the link, and I look forward to reading it!) and apologize to the Earl of Kent for comparing him to the Earl of Warwick (not so easy; there does not seem to be a link for that!).

It is fascinating to think what the aftermath of a successful plot would have been like (assuming that Edward was alive in Corfe). I guess that the Earl and his supporters must have had a plan to protect themselves from any reprisals, but there would severe consequences for someone, I would wager.

Kathryn Warner said...

Let me know at edwardofcaernarfon(at)yahoo(dot)com if you have any problems accessing the article, and I'll gladly send you a copy via email :-)

chris y said...

And finally, Kent and Melton's plan, in fact, was to have Edward taken abroad, not restore him to the throne.

This is certainly fairly conclusive, but it does raise the question of what Kent expected to do next. Having stashed Edward comfortably in Burgundy or some other friendly state, he could hardly expect to go home and put his feet up without getting a visit from the Friends of Roger Mortimer Society. Nor indeed could his fellow plotters, who comprised a significant proportion of the ruling elite.

They must had a part 2 in mind, even if it was implicit, and if it didn't involve becoming the powers behind the throne of Edward II, was it perhaps to be the powers behind the throne of Edward III, having disposed of the Mortimer/Isabella faction and relying on the boy's gratitude for doing the right thing by his dear old dad?