Dutiful, Doomed Edmund of Kent
by Peggy M. Baker
Edmund, Earl of Kent, has a rare distinction. A younger son of Edward I, he became involved in the forced abdication of his brother Edward II, and was finally executed by his own nephew, Edward III.
How did Edmund, born so high, fall so low? From royal son and brother, to royal uncle, to royal victim is a steep and unfortunate path indeed!
Edmund is often referred to as “Edmund of Woodstock,” from his place of birth, 5 August 1301. His parents were the 62-year-old King Edward I and his second wife, 22-year-old Princess Margaret of France. Edmund grew up in the shadow of his older brother, the charismatic but erratic Edward II. When Edward II took the throne at his father’s death in 1307, he was 23. Edmund was 6.
Edmund was raised, as were all royal siblings, to steadfastly uphold the family dynasty. When Edmund turned 20, Edward II named him Earl of Kent and granted him lands to support his new title and position. Edmund advanced his brother’s policies in court and in diplomatic missions on the continent; he rode to battle on his brother’s behalf. Edmund’s loyalty was rewarded and he was given increasingly significant responsibilities.
In 1324, Edmund was entrusted with an important assignment. He was to negotiate on his brother’s behalf with Charles IV, King of France.
Edmund in France
By the 14th century, most of England’s territories in France, originally inherited or conquered by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been lost. Only the duchy of Gascony, a small part of the original duchy of Aquitaine, remained. The kings of England held Gascony as vassals of the French king. Each new English monarch owed homage for the territory.
Edward II delayed paying that homage, repeatedly, for over 15 years. Finally, in 1324, an exasperated King Charles confiscated the duchy.
Edmund’s mission was to negotiate with Charles and retrieve Gascony for England. Edmund failed. War with France threatened. Edward now appointed Edmund head of his forces in Gascony and charged him with defending the duchy. Edmund failed once again. Charles IV quickly overran the territory. Edmund was besieged in the walled town of La Reole and finally forced to surrender and agree to a truce.
Considerably embarrassed, Edmund chose not to return to England and his disappointed brother.
In the meantime, Edward II had sent a new representative to negotiate with Charles. That representative was Charles’ sister, Edward’s own mistreated wife, Queen Isabella. Charles and Isabella reached an agreement.
Edward II would invest his teenage son, the Lord Edward, as Duke of Aquitaine. The new young duke would then sail for France to pay the long-overdue homage for Gascony.
Once the new Duke Edward arrived in Paris, however, his mother renounced her unhappy marriage. She declared that she would not return to England until her husband’s favorites (her enemies) had been banished. She also took a lover, a rebellious and power-hungry English lord named Roger Mortimer.
Edmund, still skulking around France, decided to throw his lot in with Isabella and Mortimer.
In response, his irate brother Edward II confiscated all of Edmund’s English lands.
It is unlikely that Edmund had considered how the situation would inevitably escalate or the probable consequences if Isabella and Mortimer succeeded. As it was, he was part of their invasion of England.
Then, the unthinkable occurred. Edward II was imprisoned and forced to abdicate on 24 January 1327. Edmund acquiesced. On 1 February 1327, Edward’s teenage son was crowned as Edward III. Edmund acquiesced. He then became part of the council that supervised the administration of the realm during Edward III’s minority. It was, however, clear to all that Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer held the real power.
Then, on 22 September 1327, Edward II, still imprisoned, died. Or did he?
Questions and rumors arose almost immediately. Edward II’s death was far too convenient to be natural. But murder of an anointed king was an unthinkable offense against both man and God. Surely, it could not be! God could not allow it, would not allow it! Could the former king still be alive?
Edmund the Dutiful
Among the hopeful, hapless, believers in Edward’s miraculous, unexplained and inexplicable survival was Edmund, Earl of Kent. He had “discovered” that Edward II was not dead but was, instead, still imprisoned in Corfe Castle. The circumstances of Edward II’s supposed survival, and the method by which Edmund learned of it, were described at Edmund’s trial. They were unlikely in the extreme.
Edmund, however, undoubtedly ashamed of his betrayal of his brother, desperately wanted to believe. Conscience-stricken and struggling with a burden of guilt, he needed to believe. And so Edmund switched allegiance once again. And, once again, he did not fully consider the consequences.
Edmund set about plotting to release his brother from his supposed prison and return him to his throne. At the beginning of June 1329, he went to Avignon to visit Pope John XXII. He later claimed that he had received papal approval for his plans. He then proceeded to gather support in England. News of his activities spread. So did the stories of Edward II’s supposed survival, encouraged by those who were unhappy with Isabella and Mortimer’s unofficial regime.
England was becoming destabilized. Isabella and Mortimer, their power at risk, decided to put an end to the plotting by making an example of Edmund.
A Parliament had been scheduled for March 1330 for the express purpose of discussing how to resist the expected French take-over of England’s remaining continental territories. Roger Mortimer was on the defensive. His demands for more active military engagements, and for additional taxation to pay for them, were being resisted. He was accused of squandering the royal revenues, and a campaign was launched to investigate supposed illegal appropriations of crown lands and capital.
It was at this moment that the beleaguered Mortimer attacked Edmund.
Edmund the Doomed
On 13 March 1330, in the presence of Edward III and the lords assembled in the great hall at Winchester, Mortimer announced that he had arrested Edmund, Earl of Kent, the king’s uncle, on a charge of treason. He accused Edmund of being Edward III’s
“deadly enemy and a traitor and also a common enemy unto the realm; and that you [Edmund] have been about many a day to make privily deliverance of Sir Edward, sometime king of England, your brother, who was put down out of his royalty by common assent of all the lords of England” (as quoted in The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer, p. 78).
Mortimer then read aloud from a letter that Edmund had written to his brother Edward II, which two of the members of the Corfe Castle garrison had agreed to deliver. The two were actually Mortimer’s agents. Edmund had written
“Worshipful and dear brother, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison … Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armor, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before” (as quoted in The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer, p. 78-79).
Edmund confessed. The letter was his. The plot to release his brother Edward II from imprisonment was his.
Edmund had learned, he said, that Edward really wasn’t dead. He had met with a Dominican who had used magic to raise a demon. It was the demon that had told Edmund that his brother was alive and well, and still at Corfe Castle. Edmund had passed this information along (without revealing its demonic source) to a number of English lords and nobles. He had received their assurances of financial and military support for a plot to free Edward II and restore him to his throne.
He had been so sure that Edward II was alive, and that his plot would be successful! He wanted to let Edward know that he had not been forgotten and that his release was imminent. He had, therefore, sent him the fateful letter held now by Mortimer.
The sentence handed down to Edmund was not only the forfeiture of his title and estate, but
“The will of this court is that you shall lose both life and limb, and that your heirs shall be disinherited for evermore” (as quoted in The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer, p. 79).
Poor Edmund was shocked and disbelieving. How could it be treason to rescue a king from prison? He protested his innocence. He protested that he had no thought of harming his nephew Edward III, he had no thought of treason. His only concern was for his brother’s well being. He pleaded for his life. All for naught.
Edward III signed Edmund’s death warrant. Edmund was led out to be beheaded on 19 March 1330. None of the castle guard would agree to carry out the sentence. Mortimer eventually found a condemned man who was willing to execute Edmund in exchange for his own life.
Edmund’s death had two unexpected, significant consequences.
The shame of sending his well-meaning uncle to his death seems to have finally stirred Edward III into action against the rule of Mortimer.
Seven months later, on 19 October 1330, Edward forcibly took the reins of power into his own hands, unseating Isabella and imprisoning Mortimer. At a Parliament held at Westminster 26 November 1330, Mortimer was accused of fourteen crimes. Among them was luring the Earl of Kent into a treasonable plot and procuring his death.
At that same parliament, Edward III formally pardoned Edmund and reinstated Edmund’s young son to the title and estates of Earl of Kent. Edmund’s young daughter Joan was taken into the household of Edward’s queen, Philippa.
Roger Mortimer was hung. His one confession from the scaffold was that Edmund, Earl of Kent, had been the victim of a cruel conspiracy.
The other consequence was much longer term. In 1361, Edward “the Black Prince,” son and heir of King Edward III, made a love match with his cousin Joan, “the Fair Maid of Kent.” Joan was his first cousin once-removed, the daughter of the dutiful, doomed Edmund of Kent.
Joan and the prince had known each other since childhood. After Edmund’s execution, the regretful Edward III had brought 2-year-old Joan into his own household where she was raised by his queen, Philippa of Hainault. Joan’s position at court ultimately led to her very colorful romantic history and her marriage to the Black Prince.
NOTE: There are some historians who believe that Edward II was, in fact, still alive in 1330 (they do tend to discount the demon). Edward supposedly left Corfe Castle undetected, found his way to the continent and lived out his life as a monk. The evidence for his survival rests primarily on a document known as the “Fieschi letter.” The authenticity of the document has been much debated. If the letter is accepted not only as genuine but as accurate in its assertions, a circumstantial case can be made to support the thesis. A rather elaborate scenario can then be created around certain dates and actions taken by Edward III to add further credence. Paul Doherty and Ian Mortimer, among others, accept the Fieschi letter as genuine. A fuller explication can be found in their books, Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (by Paul Doherty) and The Greatest Traitor, and The Perfect King (by Ian Mortimer).