30 May, 2014

My articles and a BBC documentary

BBC History Magazine asked me to write a profile of Edward II, and here it is on their website!  I'd just like to point out that I didn't write the bullet points, by the way - only the text beginning 'Life' is mine.  Great to see myself in BBC History Magazine. ;)  I'm not sure if the profile will also appear in the printed edition - if so, maybe in the next issue, in July.

And I've also had an article about Edward published on the History Vault website. Hoping to write more for them soon!

Coming soon: a two-part, two-hour documentary on BBC 2 to mark the 700th anniversary this year of the great battle of 23/24 June 1314, called The Quest for Bannockburn, for which I was interviewed by Neil Oliver about Edward II.  I'll appear in part two. :)  The documentary will be broadcast at 9pm next Monday and the following Monday, 2 and 9 June, in Scotland, and sometime in late June in the rest of the UK - will let you know the date when I get it.  Here's lots of info about the programme on BBC iPlayer.  I met Neil and the crew in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire last summer, and they filmed Neil interviewing me while rowing me up and down the River Nidd (with a few people watching us from the bank and recording us on their mobiles!) and then more filming at the castle, which once belonged to Piers Gaveston.  It was a lovely warm sunny day and it was just a spectacularly awesome experience - famous TV presenter rowing me up and down a river for over an hour, ohhh my!  I cannot for the life of me remember now anything I said about Edward, except that we talked about Braveheart at one point.  :-)  I know I focused on personal aspects, Edward's personality, abilities (or not), relationship with Piers Gaveston and so on.  The only other person interviewed about Edward for the documentary was Professor Michael Prestwich, who talked more about political issues.

More information coming when I have it!  And here's a pic of Neil Oliver and me, after we finished the river section and had lunch with the crew before moving up to the castle.  I also had to wear a red life-vest on the boat, which clashed hideously with my bright pink jacket. :-D

23 May, 2014

Women of Edward II's Reign: Isabel, Lady Hastings (née Depenser)

A post about Hugh Despenser the Younger's sister Isabel Hastings, following on from a previous post about their elder sister Aline Burnell.  Isabel was the second Despenser daughter, and presumably named after her mother Isabel Beauchamp, daughter of the earl of Warwick (see the Aline post linked above for information about the Despenser parents and background).  She was probably a bit younger than her brother Hugh, and the third Despenser child, born perhaps at the end of the 1280s or early 1290s.

Isabel married three times.  Her first husband was Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, born in Limerick, Ireland on 3 February 1281.  Gilbert's father Thomas (c. 1245 - 29 August 1287) was a younger brother of Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester (1243-1295), and is probably most famous for his role in helping the future Edward I escape from Simon de Montfort's custody in 1265.  Gilbert, the one born in 1281, was the first cousin and namesake of Edward II's nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester (1291-1314), son and heir of Gilbert the Red, and his existence has confused a lot of writers.  Gilbert born in 1281 was in Edward of Caernarfon's household before he acceded to the throne, and evidently was close to the future king: in 1305 he was, with Piers Gaveston, removed from Edward's household on the orders of Edward's father the king, and Edward wrote to his stepmother Queen Marguerite and his sister Elizabeth on 4 August 1305 asking them to intercede with Edward I to have Piers and Gilbert returned to him.  This has often been misunderstood by modern writers to mean Edward's nephew, the Gilbert born in 1291.  Edward wrote to Marguerite and Elizabeth, rather melodramatically, "If we had those two, along with the others whom we have, we would be much unburdened from the anguish we have endured, and still suffer from one day to the next."  [1]

The date of Isabel Despenser and Gilbert de Clare of Thomond's wedding is not recorded, but may well have taken place in 1306, the year Isabel's brother Hugh Despenser the Younger married Gilbert's first cousin Eleanor de Clare, Edward of Caernarfon's niece, in a double Despenser-de Clare marriage alliance.  Gilbert was twenty-five in 1306, Isabel perhaps fifteen or sixteen, and I hope that Edward of Caernarfon attended their wedding, given his affection for Gilbert.  Edward I "of his special grace" allowed Gilbert custody of his lands in Ireland on 18 September 1299, even though he was well underage at the time, only eighteen.  [2]  On 15 July 1302, Gilbert was said to be staying in England for two years, and appointed attorneys to act on his behalf in England; this was repeated on 29 June 1304.  [3]  This may mean that Isabel never saw Ireland, that she and her husband spent their brief married life in England, but I'm really not sure.  It's almost impossible to discover any details about their life together.  On 22 March 1307 Gilbert was one of the men, with his father-in-law Hugh Despenser the Elder, the earls of Lincoln, Warwick and Richmond, the bishops of Worcester and Coventry and Lichfield, and others, who were summoned to London to join Edward of Caernafon on 22 May and travel with him to France to meet Philip IV, a meeting which was cancelled.  [4]  Gilbert, sadly, did not live much longer: he died at the age of twenty-six shortly before 16 November 1307, only four months into Edward II's reign, when the escheators in Ireland and southern England were ordered to "take into the king's hands the lands late of Gilbert son of Thomas de Clare, deceased, tenant in chief."  [5]  Gilbert's heir was his brother Richard, who was to be killed in Ireland in 1318, leaving a young son Thomas, who himself died while still a child in 1321. Gilbert's ultimate heirs therefore were his sisters Maud, Lady Clifford and Margaret, Lady Badlesmere.  His widow Isabel, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen, and childless, received her dower on or before 30 January 1308.  [6]

Isabel married her second husband John, Lord Hastings probably in 1308, and used his name for the rest of her life.  He was many years her senior, born on 6 May 1262, so almost thirty years her senior, in fact, and only fourteen months younger than her father Hugh Despenser the Elder (who was born on 1 March 1261).  With his first wife Isabel de Valence (died 1305), sister of Aymer, earl of Pembroke, John had a son and heir, also John, born on 29 September 1286; a younger son Edmund; and a daughter Elizabeth (his eldest son William, born in 1282, died in 1311).  Isabel Despenser therefore had stepchildren who were a few years older than she herself.  John Hastings had been a Competitor for the throne of Scotland in the early 1290s, and had the third best claim behind John Balliol and Robert Bruce, as the grandson of David of Scotland, earl of Huntingdon's third daughter: Balliol, chosen as king as 1292, was grandson of the eldest daughter, Bruce son of the second.  (The Robert Bruce who became king in 1306 was the grandson of this Robert Bruce, incidentally.)

Isabel Despenser and John Hastings had three children together, Thomas, Hugh and Margaret, born between about 1309 and 1313.  Hugh, the younger son, must have been named after Isabel's father Hugh Despenser the Elder, and became his mother's heir when his elder brother Thomas died without issue in 1331.  Margaret Hastings married Sir Robert Wateville, retainer of Edward II and of Margaret's uncle Hugh Despenser the Younger, at Marlborough on 19 May 1326, in the presence of both the king and Hugh.  (Edward II evidently enjoyed himself, as he gave a pound to Isabel's valet Will Muleward "who was for some time with the king and made him laugh greatly.")  Hugh Hastings married Margery Foliot, co-heir of her brother Sir Richard Foliot, and had three children with her.  Hugh's tomb in the church of Elsing, Norfolk (which he founded), was opened in 1978 and he was found to have been five feet ten inches tall.  [7]  His commemorative brass still exists.

John, Lord Hastings was appointed steward of Gascony by Edward II on 24 October 1309 and held the position until January 1312.  [8]  He was accompanied there by his sons William (died 1311) and John, and by his wife Isabel.  Some or all of her three children may have been born in Gascony.  John Hastings died at the age of fifty shortly before 28 February 1313, on which date the escheator was ordered to take his lands into the king's hands. [9]  Isabel, widowed for a second time, was probably still only in her early twenties, no more than twenty-three or thereabouts.  John's heir was his eldest surviving son John, then twenty-six, who later married the heiress Juliana Leyburne and had a son, Laurence.  John Hastings born in 1286 was the nephew and co-heir (with his cousins Joan and Elizabeth Comyn) of Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, and his son Laurence Hastings, born in 1320, inherited the earldom. There is considerable confusion about the Hastings family, not least in Natalie Fryde's The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326, thanks to the two families of John, Lord Hastings (1262-1313) and the considerable age gap between them.  John born in 1286 (son of Isabel de Valence) was the much older half-brother of Hugh Hastings, born around 1310 or 1312 (son of Isabel Despenser).  Fryde assumes that Isabel Despenser married the younger John and was the mother of Laurence Hastings, and thus that Hugh Despenser the Elder was Laurence's grandfather.  In fact, Isabel was Laurence's step-grandmother, though she was only about thirty years older than him.

Isabel was assigned her Hastings dower on 11 April 1313, in Suffolk, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. [10]  With dower lands from two wealthy, influential noblemen, she was an attractive marriage proposition, and sometime before 20 November 1318, married her third and last husband, Ralph Monthermer.  He was a man also many years her senior, like John Hastings born in or about 1262.  Ralph was an unknown squire of unknown parentage, who may have been illegitimate, who in early 1297 married Edward I's widowed daughter Joan of Acre, countess of Gloucester.  Edward I's reaction to this was to throw Ralph in prison, but ultimately there was little he could do about it, and Ralph had four children with Joan, Edward II's nieces and nephews Mary, countess of Fife, Joan, a nun, and Thomas and Edward.  Joan of Acre died in April 1307, and Ralph lived as a widower for eleven years.  He must have had something very special about him, as he persuaded two noble ladies to marry him secretly; Edward II fined Ralph and Isabel 1000 marks and seized their lands on 20 November 1318 for marrying without his permission, though later respited the fine.  [11]

Edward II put Isabel Hastings in charge of the household of his two daughters Eleanor of Woodstock (born June 1318) and Joan of the Tower (born July 1321) sometime in or before February 1325. [12]  They lived at Marlborough Castle.  It is a common and often-repeated modern myth, invented in the late 1970s, that Edward was thereby 'removing' Queen Isabella's children from her as a way of cruelly punishing her.  This is a decidedly odd way of looking at matters, which I've written a post about.  I suppose that if Edward was deliberately being cruel to Isabella by setting up a household for their daughters, Edward III must have also have been deliberately cruel to Queen Philippa in the summer of 1340 when he set up a household for their younger children under the care of the lady de la Mote, even including the baby John of Gaunt, though oddly enough that never seems to occur to anyone.  Nor does anyone think that Edward I was being cruel to his second queen Marguerite of France when he set up a household for their sons Thomas and Edmund in 1301 even though they were both only babies, or being cruel to his daughter Joan of Acre the same year by sending Joan's son Gilbert to live in Marguerite's household.  Funny, that.  Funny, the way Edward II is judged so differently and so harshly from other kings for doing something entirely normal.

Isabel Hastings seems to have been a trustworthy maternal type, as in December 1327 when Edward II's niece Elizabeth de Burgh (née de Clare) attended his funeral, she left her two young daughters in Isabel's care - and this despite the fact that Isabel's brother Hugh Despenser the Younger had treated Elizabeth appallingly.  I cannot possibly see how Isabel was an inappropriate carer for the king's daughters: she was a highborn noblewoman, daughter, granddaughter and niece of earls, lady of Thomond, Lady Hastings.  She was replaced as the royal daughters' mestresse in February 1326, by Joan Jermy, sister of Edward II's sister-in-law Alice Hailes, countess of Norfolk.  Isabel, however, remained in Edward II's favour: he spent time with her at her daughter Margaret's wedding on 19 May 1326, and dined privately with her on or just before 8 August 1326.  He and Hugh the Younger wrote to her from Otford in Kent in late May 1326, and there are various entries in the chancery rolls in the 1320s of petitions being granted at Isabel's request.

Isabel was widowed for the third time in early April 1325 when Ralph Monthermer died, when she was probably still only in her mid-thirties.  Sadly, though inevitably, her reaction to the downfall and brutal executions of her father Hugh Despenser the Elder, earl of Winchester, and her brother Hugh Despenser the Younger, is unrecorded.  To their credit, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer left her alone during their regime of 1327, despite their hatred of the Despenser family.  Isabel did acknowledge a debt of just under £300 to the queen in June 1328, but there doesn't seem to have been anything untoward about this.  [13]

Isabel died on 4 or 5 December 1334, in her early or mid-forties, and her lands in numerous counties were taken into the king's hands on 18 December.  [14]  Her heir was her second but only surviving son Hugh, said in her inquisitions in Suffolk and Hampshire to be "aged 24 years and more" (so born in about 1310).  The dower lands she held from her marriage to John, Lord Hastings passed ultimately to his grandson Laurence Hastings, future earl of Pembroke.  Isabel Hastings née Despenser was close to some of the people also close to Edward II: sister of the king's powerful 'favourite' and chamberlain Hugh the Younger, married to the king's former brother-in-law and stepmother to his nieces and nephews, married firstly as a young girl to one of Edward's favourite companions before his accession, wife of one of the men Edward appointed as his steward of Gascony, chosen to look after the king's two daughters.  Edward II seems to have been very fond of Isabel and to have trusted her.


1) Letters of Edward Prince of Wales, 1304-1305, ed. Hilda Johnstone, p. 70.
2) Calendar of Close Rolls 1296-1302, pp. 272, 366; Ibid. 1302-1307, p. 17; Calendar of Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 427.
3) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1301-1307, pp. 43, 237.
4) Close Rolls 1302-1307, pp. 530-531.  See Seymour Phillips, Edward II (2010), pp. 116-118.
5) Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1307-1327, p. 13; Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, pp. 8, 10.
6) Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 13.
7) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
8) Foedera 1307-1327, p. 95; Close Rolls 1307-13, p. 185; Patent Rolls 1307-13, pp. 196, 273, 280, 305, 330.
9) Fine Rolls 1307-19, pp. 164-165.
10) Cal Inq Post Mortem 1307-1327, p. 232; Close Rolls 1307-13, p. 525.
11) Fine Rolls 1307-19, 380, 388, 394; Patent Rolls 1317-21, 387, 582.
12) Close Rolls 1323-7, p. 260; Patent Rolls 1324-7, pp. 88, 157, 243; SAL MS 122, p. 81.
13) Close Rolls 1327-30, p. 394.
14) Cal Inq Post Mortem 1327-36, p. 447; Fine Rolls 1327-37, pp. 427ff.

16 May, 2014

Busting The Myth That Edward II Was Stupid

If I tell you that I read German and French fluently (which is true), but if I have to read a letter or legal document in either language which is vital for me to understand fully and accurately, I'd much rather read an English translation if there's one available, would your first reaction be 'Oh my goodness, what a stupid, uneducated, lazy and illiterate woman!'  Or if I have to take an oath and I decide to say it in English rather than in Latin, because using my native language makes the oath feel more real to me and because all the hundreds of spectators understand English but not necessarily Latin, would you roll your eyes and think 'Ugh, what a thicko!' about me?

I'm guessing you wouldn't.  I wouldn't either; I'd think it was entirely normal to prefer to read complicated texts in your own language, or to speak the most important oath you're ever going to give in your life likewise.  Yet this is precisely how some historians have reacted to Edward II's choice in February 1308 to give the responses to his coronation oath in French, rather than Latin.  We get sneering comments like "It was stupidity or laziness, and not want of opportunity to learn Latin, that made it necessary for Edward II to take his coronation oath in French."  There are other very similar statements, including that he was illiterate.  We have no direct evidence of Edward's ability to read or write, but it is extremely unlikely that he was illiterate.  Most probably he couldn't write Latin particularly well, but then, I can't write French that well either, not nearly as well as I can read it, and no-one's ever thought that makes me illiterate.  Given that speaking his responses to the coronation oath in Latin would have meant learning only about six words, assuming Edward didn't know them already (which I really doubt), 'laziness' or 'stupidity' is a very, very bad and unlikely explanation. It's far more likely that Edward wanted to ensure that everyone present understood what was happening, including his twelve-year-old French queen, by having the oath spoken and responding to it in French. But oh no, a common sense explanation is never good enough for historians desperate to criticise every single thing Edward II ever did. So there we go, he was stupid and lazy. That's all there is to it. Funnily enough, Edward's son Edward III and great-grandson Richard II also used French at their coronations in 1327 and 1377, and no-one has ever called them 'stupid' and 'lazy' because of it. Edward I may also have given his oath in French at his coronation in 1274; we don't know as the records are missing. Is he guilty of stupidity and laziness in historians' eyes? Take a wild guess.

In 1317, Pope John XXII thanked the archbishop of Canterbury Walter Reynolds for translating one of his (the pope's) letters from Latin into French for Edward.  You won't be surprised to learn that this has also been taken as evidence of Edward's stupidity, laziness and illiteracy.  Papal letters were, however, written in very complex Latin which even scholars find hard to follow.  In 1317, Edward II was thirty-three and it must have been at least fifteen years or more since he'd last learnt Latin.  How many people would be able or willing to read a very complex text, containing sentences the length of paragraphs with numerous sub-clauses, in a language they'd had no contact with since school?  Especially if it was a very important letter, and it was vital that they understood it in full and absolutely correctly?  Very few, I bet.  It makes far more sense to have the text translated into your native tongue rather than struggling for ages trying to grasp the meaning of a foreign language.  Who wouldn't?  I've seen highly specialised technical texts in German which I've tried to grasp, failed to understand one word in three, think I've understood something then seen a long additional sub-clause and thrown my hands in the air in despair, and given up.  But common sense is lacking in our Edward II detractors, not to mention compassion for anyone who struggles to comprehend a long complex text in a foreign language.  He was unable to read a complicated letter in Latin and that's enough evidence to condemn him as 'stupid' and badly educated.  Never mind the fact that Edward's brother-in-law Charles IV of France was reprimanded by the pope in 1323 for writing to him in French rather than Latin, never mind that this demonstrates that Charles was, obviously, also more comfortable in his native language than in Latin.  Charles IV wasn't stupid because of this, but Edward II was.  Good to know.

Edward II may not have been a great scholar (he wasn't raised or trained to be one anyway), but his interest in learning is evident.  He owned plenty of books.  He is one of only a tiny handful of people throughout history to found colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, and has an important place in the history of Cambridge University particularly.  He encouraged the archbishop of Dublin to found a university there.  None of this indicates a stupid, ignorant man unconcerned with learning.  How many of us struggled at school with Latin conjugations and declensions and the ablative and translating De Bello Gallico and what have you?  I was hilariously rubbish at maths at school, and I'm far from being the only one.  How unpleasant and unfair to think that this would be used to condemn us as stupid, uneducated, lazy and illiterate nearly 700 years later.

11 May, 2014

Chaos in Castile and the Battle of Vega de Granada, June 1319

Two of Edward II's cousins died at the little-known battle of Vega de Granada on 25 June 1319, one of the many battles in the centuries-long Reconquista of Andalusia.  Here's some information about it and about the situation in southern Spain around the time of the battle.

Most of al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian peninsula, had been re-conquered by the Christian kingdoms well before Edward II's time; Edward's grandfather Fernando III of Castile and Leon swept through it in the 1230s and 1240s, recapturing Cordoba, Seville, Jaen and numerous other towns, and Jaime I of Aragon and Afonso III of Portugal also gained lands formerly held by the Almohad rulers. The only area remaining under Muslim control in the early fourteenth century, and until it too fell to los Reyes Católicos Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, was the sultanate of Granada, a taifa or tributary state of the Crown of Castile.  From the early 1200s, Granada was ruled by the Nasrid dynasty, who rose to power after the massive defeat of their predecessors the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.  The sultan of Granada from 1314 was Ismail I, who deposed his uncle Nasr that year and in 1315 unsuccessfully tried to recapture Gibraltar, which had fallen to Fernando IV of Castile in 1309.

Following the long and successful reigns of Edward II's grandfather Fernando III (died 1252) and uncle Alfonso X (died 1284), the kingdom of Castile remained in turmoil for many decades.  Alfonso's second son Sancho IV took the throne on Alfonso's death, ignoring the superior rights of his (Sancho's) two nephews the de la Cerda brothers, sons of Alfonso's dead eldest son Fernando de la Cerda: an act for which Alfonso cursed Sancho on his deathbed.  The sudden death of Sancho IV himself in 1295 in his late thirties, leaving a nine-year-old son Fernando IV as his heir, opened Castile up to invasion by its opportunistic neighbours Aragon and Portugal, and Sancho's brother Infante don Juan claimed the Castilian throne in place of his nephew Fernando on the grounds that Sancho's marriage to his queen Maria de Molina had been invalid.  The heroic efforts of Queen Maria, one of the great women of the age, saved her son's birthright, but when Fernando IV himself died suddenly in September 1312, not yet twenty-seven, he left as his heir a son, Alfonso XI, who was only eleven months old.  Yet more crises and threats of invasion loomed as the kingdom faced a very long minority.

Internally, Castile was riven by conflict.  The three most powerful people in the country battling for control of the baby king's realm were the dowager queen Maria de Molina, Alfonso XI's grandmother (Alfonso's mother Constanca of Portugal died in November 1313); Infante don Juan, born in 1262 or 1264, lord of Biscay, son of Alfonso X, brother of Sancho IV and Alfonso XI's great-uncle (who had claimed the throne in 1295); and Infante don Pedro, born in 1290, son of Sancho IV, brother of Fernando IV and the young king's uncle.  (There were many others.)  In 1315, the two infantes finally agreed to share the regency with Queen Maria, with Pedro taking control in the south and Juan in the north.  The squabbling over power left Castile vulnerable not only to invasion by their Christian neighbours, but to possible renewed attacks by the Nasrids of Granada.

In 1316 and 1317, however, came temporary success for Castile: Pedro led an army to Granada and won a victory over a Nasrid army, seized a castle (though failed to capture two others), and repelled another siege of Gibraltar.  In his absence, his uncle Juan tried to have himself named as sole regent of Castile, so Pedro hastily returned to deal with this situation.  In early 1319, the two infantes managed to work together for once and raised an army to go against the Nasrids. On the day after the Nativity of St John the Baptist, 25 June 1319, near the hill of Sierra de Elvira, a Nasrid force surrounded and attacked the army. In appalling heat, the thirsty and exhausted Castilian army, which the two infantes had allowed to become separated, put up little resistance.  Pedro was thrown from his horse and killed, either when leading a charge or as a result of fighting with some of his nobles over battle tactics. Juan fled the battlefield but died soon afterwards, presumably of his wounds, though a chronicle says he died of sorrow.  Supposedly 50,000 men fell at the battle, though as always it's not recommended to give much credence to medieval chroniclers' figures, and it was claimed that the captured body of Infante don Pedro was skinned and stuffed.  The force thus routed, the countryside was widely plundered in the aftermath of the battle, and the southern frontier of Castile was left open to further attack.

The most powerful regents of Castile in the aftermath of the battle were Queen Maria, until her death in July 1321; Edward II's first cousin don Juan Manuel, duke of Penafiel, a grandson of Fernando III and one of the most famous Spanish writers of the Middle Ages; Queen Maria's son don Felipe, another brother of Fernando IV and uncle of Alfonso XI; Maria Diaz de Haro, lady of Biscay, widow of don Juan who fell at Vega de Granada, and her son Juan el Tuerto, 'the one-eyed'.  Two of Edward II's children were betrothed into Castile in 1324/25: Edward's elder daughter Eleanor of Woodstock (born 1318) would marry Alfonso XI, and his elder son Edward of Windsor, the future Edward III, would marry Alfonso's sister Leonor, who was some years his senior.  The letters of the half-Castilian Edward II to the regents of Castile demonstrate his enthusiasm at the prospect of his children marrying into Castile, though because of his deposition, the marriages did not go ahead.  Alfonso XI instead married Maria of Portugal, his first cousin on both sides (his father and her mother were brother and sister; his mother and her father were brother and sister), and they were the parents of Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile.  (Maria had formerly been offered to Edward of Windsor as a bride by her father Afonso IV of Portugal, which offer Edward II politely rejected.)  Alfonso XI became the only European monarch to die of the Black Death, in 1350.  His son Pedro was killed in 1369 by his half-brother Enrique of Trastamara, one of Alfonso's sons with his mistress Leonor de Guzman, who made himself king of Castile.  Pedro's daughters Constanza and Isabel married Edward II's grandsons John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and Edmund of Langley, duke of York.  Pedro himself had been betrothed to John and Edmund's sister Joan, but she died of plague in 1348 on her way to marry him.  It's all rather confusing.  :-)

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.