It occurred to me that I haven't written a purely educational post for quite a while, so here's an essay on the high-born ruffians who comprised the top rank of the English nobility in Edward II's reign (there were no dukes in England till 1337, except that the king was Duke of Aquitaine). Be warned: it's very long! :)
1) The premier earl at this time was Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Salisbury, Steward of England. Born circa 1277/80, his ancestry was impeccable. His father was Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), younger brother of Edward I, and his mother was Blanche of Artois (died 1302), niece of Louis IX. Blanche's first marriage was to Enrique, King of Navarre (died 1274); the only child of this marriage was Jeanne, Queen of Navarre in her own right, who married Philippe IV of France and was the mother of Queen Isabella, Louis X, Phillipe V and Charles IV. Thomas was thus grandson of Henry III, nephew of Edward I and first cousin of Edward II, as well as brother-in-law of Philippe IV and uncle of Queen Isabella and three kings of France.
In 1294 he was married to Alice, only child and heiress of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury. When Henry died in February 1311, Thomas inherited the two earldoms, in addition to the three he had inherited from his father. He was by far the richest man in England after the king, with an annual income of about 11,000 pounds. His marriage to Alice was childless, and disastrous: she left him in 1317 (or possibly was abducted) which precipitated a private war between Thomas and the Earl of Surrey, who had helped Alice escape. Thomas consoled himself with a host of mistresses, by whom he had two illegitimate sons, John and Thomas of Lancaster.
Thomas was originally loyal to his cousin Edward II. For the first sixteen months of Edward's reign, Thomas was in constant attendance on him, and in February 1308 even offered to defend the king in battle against the other earls, if need be. However, something went badly wrong between them, and in November 1308, Thomas abruptly left court. He then slowly moved into a position of opposition to Edward, which he held till his death. Edward was unable to reconcile him, but Thomas was far too rich and powerful to ignore, and for many years, English political life was poisoned by the enmity between the cousins. Thomas's execution/murder of Edward's beloved Piers Gaveston in June 1312 destroyed any chance of reconciliation, and from then on their relationship continually deteriorated. For several years, they moved around the country with large bands of armed retainers, ostentatiously avoiding each other.
Edward's defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 put him at Thomas's mercy, and until 1318, Thomas was all-powerful in England. Unfortunately, he had no more skill for ruling than did his cousin, and was only interested in thwarting Edward - which led to a situation of total stalemate in the governement, with neither Edward nor Thomas able to either overthrow the other or achieve anything. In 1318, a group of barons known to historians as the 'Middle Party' finally managed to manoeuvre Thomas out of power, and he retired sulkily to his favourite castle of Pontefract.
In 1321/22, Thomas again became the leader of the opposition to Edward following the 'Despenser War', when Hugh Despenser's overweening ambition in South Wales pushed England close to civil war. The Despensers were exiled, but the opposition failed to unite, and Edward moved against them in an intelligent policy of 'divide and conquer'. Thomas was defeated at the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322, given a mock trial in the great hall of his own castle of Pontefract, and beheaded. If you don't include Piers Gaveston - who technically wasn't Earl of Cornwall at the time of his death, having been stripped of the title - Thomas was the first English earl to be executed since Waltheof in 1076.
2) Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford. Born 1291, only son of Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare (1243-1295) and Joan of Acre (1272-1307), one of Edward I's daughters. Gilbert was the eldest grandchild of Edward I and nephew of Edward II, only 7 years younger than his uncle. Edward II, desperate for allies, allowed him possession of his lands in 1307 at the age of only 16 - and the Gloucester earldom was the single richest lordship in the country, giving Gilbert an annual income of around 6000 pounds. Gilbert was for the most part a loyal ally of his uncle, although he didn't intervene to help Piers Gaveston in 1312 when the Earl of Pembroke begged him to.
Gilbert was killed at Bannockburn in 1314, at the age of only 23. Apparently, he didn't stop to put on the surcoat bearing his arms, which would have identified him and saved his life; had the Scots known he was the Earl of Gloucester, they would have taken him hostage rather than killing him (as happened to the Earl of Hereford). Gilbert's death not only deprived Edward II of a useful ally, but allowed the dramatic rise to power of his brother-in-law, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Hugh's inheritance of part of the Gloucester fortune catapulted him to the forefront of English politics, and - ultimately - destroyed Edward II. Hugh became Edward's chamberlain in 1318 and used his position to make Edward infatuated with him, until Hugh was king of England in all but name and used his power to run the country as he liked and enrich himself enormously. If Gilbert had put on his surcoat and survived Bannockburn, Hugh would have remained a rather obscure nobleman and Edward II, perhaps, would not have been deposed. History turns on these little events.
Please note, Hugh Despenser the Younger did NOT succeed Gilbert as Earl of Gloucester, as is often reported. The earldom was in abeyance until 1337.
3) Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall. Born circa 1281/83. Although of noble birth and far from being the peasant he is sometimes depicted as, he obviously owed all his wealth and influence to his close personal relationship with Edward II. Exiled by Edward I a few months before the old king's death, he was recalled as soon as Edward II became king, made Earl of Cornwall and married to the king's niece Margaret de Clare. There's a lot of information on Piers out there, so I'll keep this brief. He managed to annoy all the other earls with his sharp tongue, jousting skills and monopoly of royal patronage, and paid for it with his life in June 1312.
4) Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. Born circa 1268/70. His father William was the half-brother of Henry III, making Aymer the first cousin once removed of Edward II and the Earl of Lancaster. By far the best of the English earls of this period, Aymer was a talented diplomat and negotiator, and - apart from a brief period 1311-12 - staunchly loyal to Edward. On many occasions Aymer saved Edward from his own folly and was the key member of the 'Middle Party' which ousted the Earl of Lancaster and restored royal power.
Aymer lost a lot of influence after 1321, as he made himself an enemy of the Despensers by begging Edward to exile them. Still, he was an obvious choice for Edward to send to France in 1324 in an attempt to solve the growing conflict between England and France over Gascony. Aymer died as soon as he arrived in Paris, in June 1324. It's possible that he was murdered - but by whom? The Despensers, who enriched themselves after his death? I feel a good conspiracy theory coming on. :) It's my firm belief that the events of 1325-26 would have been drastically different if Earl Aymer had still been alive. He was the only man who could have negotiated between Edward and Despenser on one hand, and Isabella and Mortimer. As it was, nobody else was willing or able to do it, and violent conflict was the inevitable outcome. I don't know if he could have saved Edward's throne, but I'm convinced that events would have been much more peaceful.
Aymer was childless and the earldom eventually passed to Laurence Hastings, his sister's grandson. His second wife Marie de St Pol, only about 20 at the time of his death, outlived him by an astonishing 53 years, and never re-married. In 1347 she founded Pembroke College, Cambridge in his memory.
5) Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Born circa 1272. The only earl in permanent opposition to Edward II, and a close ally of the Earl of Lancaster. His elder sister Isabel was the mother of Hugh Despenser the Younger. Guy was an interesting character, intelligent and cultured, but a real ruffian, who abducted Piers Gaveston from the care of the Earl of Pembroke in 1312 (and then refused to attend the execution). Gaveston called him 'the Black Hound of Arden' and supposedly Guy retaliated by threatening Piers that the hound would bite him. Earl Guy died quite young in the summer of 1315. There were rumours that he was poisoned by friends of Piers Gaveston, which I don't believe.
6) Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex. Born 1276. In November 1302, he married the widowed Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Edward I, and was thus Edward II's brother-in-law. Despite this, he was one of the killers of Piers Gaveston, though Edward apparently forgave him for this and they were reconciled. Humphrey was a member of the Middle Party, though remained sympathetic to Lancaster. The death of Elizabeth in childbirth in 1316 possibly weakened his relationship with Edward, and the 'Despenser War' of 1321-22 pushed Humphrey into rebellion again. He died a horrible death at the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322, fighting against the royal army - a pike skewered him in the anus as he fought on the bridge.
7) John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Born 1286. When he was a few months old, his father William was killed in a tournament, and he succeeded his grandfather as Earl in 1304. In 1306, he was married to Edward I's granddaughter Jeanne de Bar and was thus Edward II's nephew by marriage, though only 2 years his junior. The marriage was disastrous in the extreme, and John spent many years trying to get a divorce - he never succeeded. One of his attempts was hilarious - he claimed to have had an affair with his wife's aunt Mary (Edward II's sister), a nun and 7 years his senior! Needless to say, this didn't work, but he was excommunicated in 1316 for deserting his wife and openly keeping a mistress - Maude de Nerford, by whom he had several children.
Once part of the Earl of Lancaster's retinue, the two men later became enemies and John was one of the earls who condemned Lancaster to death in 1322. John switched sides even more than the other earls did, though he was loyal to the king more often than not. He stayed loyal to Edward in 1326, and somehow survived Isabella and Mortimer's vengeance. I don't know why - perhaps he paid a huge fine, or perhaps his marriage to Jeanne saved him. She was a great friend of Queen Isabella, and as John's wife, would have lost her lands and income if he was found guilty of treason. It would be extremely ironic if John's marriage saved his life, given his strenuous efforts to get a divorce. John died in 1347, the last of the Warenne earls of Surrey.
8) Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. Born 1285. Married to the Earl of Surrey's sister Alice. Edmund's career is interesting, to say the least: he was present at Gaveston's death and also refused to fight for the king at Bannockburn, but later did a complete about-turn and became a faithful supporter of Edward and Hugh Despenser. In 1321, he married his son Richard (aged 7) to Hugh Despenser's eldest daughter Isabel (aged 8) and in 1322 was another of the men who condemned Lancaster to death (Kent, Pembroke and Richmond were the other earls present at Lancaster's 'trial').
Earl Edmund remained loyal to Edward in 1326. On 17 November 1326, he was beheaded at Shrewsbury on the orders of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, who didn't bother giving him even a show trial. Also executed were Edmund's supporters John Daniel and Thomas de Micheldever, who hadn't done anything wrong. It's interesting how few historians condemn these illegal acts - the same historians who are quick to pile criticism on Edward and Despenser but are willing to forgive anything their precious Isabella did. Another example of this is the execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger's friend Simon de Reading, a week later. I've seen Simon described as Hugh's 'henchman' (which makes him sound pretty sinister, doesn't it?) but I've never seen anyone describe his death as the act of tyranny it was. Apparently Simon 'insulted' Isabella in some way, and he remained loyal to Hugh and Edward. Oh well then, obviously he was begging to be hanged, drawn and quartered, by the very same people who were 'saving' England from the tyrannical regime of Hugh and Edward. Hmm.
The Earl of Surrey supported his widowed sister Alice and her children, as all of Arundel's lands and wealth were forfeit to the Crown. After Edward III overthrew Isabella and Mortimer in 1330, one of his first acts was to restore Edmund's son Richard to the Arundel earldom. Richard was probably the richest man in England in the 14th century.
9) John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond. Born 1266. The son of Edward I's sister Beatrice and the first cousin of Edward II and the Earl of Lancaster. However, as a Breton he was of little importance to English politics. He was a faithful supporter of Edward until 1322, when he was taken prisoner by the Scots. Edward didn't bother paying the ransom and Richmond remained in captivity until 1324. Understandably angry at this shabby treatment, Richmond went to France and later joined forces with Isabella and Mortimer, ignoring Edward's letters ordering him back to England.
10) Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk. Born 1300. The elder of Edward I's sons by Marguerite of France, and Edward II's half-brother. I don't know that much about him - he seems very obscure, somehow. By the time he was old enough to be any use to Edward II politically, Hugh Despenser was all-powerful at court, which might account for Thomas's marginalisation. And yet - his younger brother Kent (see below) played much more of a role, so Hugh Despenser can't be the only reason for Thomas's obscurity. His marriage is really odd. He was the son of Edward I, and the nephew of Philippe IV - yet he married Alice Hales, a coroner's daughter! The marriage can't be dated any closer than '1316-1320'.
Thomas supported Isabella and Mortimer in 1326/7, probably disgusted at Hugh Despenser's dominance over his brother. His son Edward later married one of Mortimer's daughters, though he died young and childless. Thomas died in 1338. His daughter Margaret lived till 1399 and was made Duchess of Norfolk in her own right in 1397.
11) Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent. Born 1301. Youngest son of Edward I. He played more of a role in Edward II's reign than his brother Norfolk - for example, he was head of the English forces in Gascony in 1324-25. Often unfairly described as an idiot or a gullible fool, because of his changes of side (which actually make perfect sense), his military loss to his uncle Charles de Valois in 1325, and his attempts to restore his half-brother Edward II to the throne.
Earl Edmund joined Isabella and Mortimer in Paris in 1325, possibly because he was too afraid or reluctant to return to an England where Hugh Despenser seemed untouchable. He married Mortimer's cousin Margaret Wake in late 1325 to cement their alliance. However, he also sent letters to Edward II, assuring him that he wasn't working against Edward's interests. I'm not sure when Isabella and Mortimer and their allies took the decision to depose Edward II - possibly that had always been their aim, though publically they stated that they only wanted the Despensers to leave court. Although I think Edmund shared this anti-Despenser sentiment, I'm not sure that he realised his brother would be deposed. He joined Henry of Lancaster's rebellion in 1328-29, though soon abandoned him, and tried to restore Edward II in 1329-30 - a bizarre episode I'll come back to sometime, as I don't have the time to do it here.
Edmund was judicially murdered by Mortimer and Isabella in March 1330, and his 9-months-pregnant wife (Mortimer's cousin) and children were imprisoned until released a few months later by Edward III. Anyone who thinks that Queen Isabella was 'nice' should bear that in mind. Edmund's daughter Joan, the 'Fair Maid of Kent', was the mother of Richard II.
12) Hugh Despenser the Elder, Earl of Winchester. Born 1261/2. A loyal royal servant all his life, and the only English nobleman who was faithful to Edward II from beginning to end. He was rewarded with the earldom of Winchester in 1322, after the Despensers' triumphant return from exile - an ephemeral triumph, as it proved, ands Hugh was closely implicated in the tyranny of his son. He was given a mock trial by Mortimer, Isabella, Henry of Lancaster and a few others at Bristol Castle in October 1326, in what was clearly intended as a parody of Thomas of Lancaster's trial. He was hanged in his armour, his head was sent to Winchester on a spear, and his body was cut up and fed to dogs.
13) Andrew Harclay or Hartley, Earl of Carlisle. Born ? An obscure man who was Edward II's Sheriff of Cumberland. He defeated Lancaster at Boroughbridge and rewarded with an earldom, which he didn't have long to enjoy: he was executed for treason in March 1323 after trying to negotiate peace terms with Robert Bruce, King of Scotland. Shortly afterwards, Edward II was forced to come to the same terms with Robert.
14) Henry of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester. Born circa 1281. The younger brother of Thomas Earl of Lancaster, he wasn't implicated in his brother's treason in 1322 and was allowed to succeed to the earldom of Leicester in 1324. His wife Maud Chaworth was the half-sister of Hugh Despenser the Younger, which may have helped save him. He had to wait till the regency of Mortimer and Isabella (his niece) to inherit all his brother's lands, minus a few that Isabella, never one to give up the chance to increase her estates, kept for herself. He rebelled against Mortimer and Isabella in 1328-29, lost, but may have helped Edward III in his coup d'etat in 1330. He went blind around 1328-30 and died peacefully in 1345. His granddaughter Blanche married Edward III's son John of Gaunt.
15) The Earl of Oxford. One of the de Veres, so obscure that I don't even know what his first name was (Hugh??) or anything about him. He played no role at all in Edward II's reign.
16) Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Born 1287. Technically he doesn't belong here as he was awarded (or rather, awarded himself) the earldom in 1328, but as the years 1327-30 are politically more of a continuation of Edward II's reign than part of Edward III's reign, I've decided to include him here. His story is also well-known, so I'll keep this short. Loyal to Edward II until Hugh Despenser pushed him into opposition, he escaped from the Tower in 1323 and successfully invaded England with his lover Queen Isabella in 1326. He and Isabella ruled England till their overthrow in 1330; Roger took the chance to marry off his many daughters as advantageously as possible, and enriched himself even more than Hugh Despenser had done. Roger was dragged to his execution in November 1330 wearing the black tunic he'd worn to Edward II's funeral, and was hanged as a common criminal at Tyburn. Edward III, that amazingly non-vindictive son of vindictive parents, allowed Roger's grandson to succeed to the earldom in the 1350s.