Coffee Pot Blog Tour: Betrayal
Welcome Readers to this stop on the Coffee Pot Blog Tour for Betrayal! I am so excited to be hosting this book with a fascinating guest post by Anna Belfrage, one of the many authors, the Historical Fictioneers, who contributed to this anthology. We have a lot going on today so lets dive in.
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SPECIAL GUEST POST
The deadly desserts of treason – of the short life of a royal earl
by Anna Belfrage
In March of 1330, a parliament was held at Winchester. As always since 1327, the young king Edward III officially presided, but the real power lay with his regents: his mother, Queen Isabella, and her favourite and purported lover, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. The men assembling in Winchester fell into two categories: those who supported the regents and those who didn’t. The king himself belonged among the latter, but as things stood, our seventeen-year-old king had no option but to smoulder and bear it—for now.
Among Mortimer’s more vociferous enemies were Henry of Lancaster, cousin to the king, and Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent and the king’s uncle. When the Winchester parliament opened, Edmund was not among those present. He was under arrest—for treason.
Let us take a few steps back: Edmund of Woodstock was born in 1301, the second son in Edward I’s second marriage. When Edward I died in 1307, Edmund’s half-brother, Edward II, became king. The age-gap between the new king and his much younger brothers was such that we can assume their relationship was somewhat distant, but while Edward may have invested his beloved favourite Piers Galveston with an earldom intended for of his younger brothers, he did ensure both Edmund and his other half/brother, Thomas of Brotherton, had sufficient means to keep them in style.
Where Thomas of Brotherton rarely emerges from the shadows in what documents we have, Edmund has left a substantial impression. During those tumultuous years when Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster led the baronial revolt against Edward II in 1321-22. Edmund was in the thick of things—all the way from the initial conflict at Leeds Castle to the signing of the execution order for the captured Thomas of Lancaster.
The baronial rebellion was quashed, Mortimer was thrown in the Tower, and Edward was very pleased with his young brother, who emerged from the fray as the Earl of Kent and holder of substantial lands in the Welsh Marches. Our Edmund had every reason to be grateful to his royal brother—except, of course, that where Edmund got some land, Edward’s new favourite, Hugh Despenser, got much, much more land. In fact, so generous was the king to Hugh that he had an annual income almost four times higher than Edmund’s. Not something that pleased Edmund—or anyone else, to be honest, seeing as the English barons were getting very tired of the grasping Despenser.
In the aftermath of the baronial rebellion, Edward II, together with his trusted advisors Bishop Stapledon and Hugh Despenser, implemented what is best described as a dictatorship. Their paranoia increased tenfold when Mortimer managed to escape from the Tower and flee to France. Suddenly, the baronial opposition had a leader again, and the more heavy-handed Edward II and Despenser became, the more attractive the option of joining Mortimer became.
Not only did Edward manage to aggravate his barons. He also alienated his wife when he deprived Queen Isabella of her dower lands, saying he needed her income to pursue his war against France and the dastardly French who were once again trying to reclaim Gascony from the English. Isabella was French. As Edmund was Isabella’s first cousin, he too had French blood which might be why Edward II sent him off on a diplomatic mission to France. Edmund’s mission failed, and instead he was put in charge of defending Gascony, an almost impossible task seeing as Edmund lacked both men and means. But he did his best, holding out until late September of 1324 before he was forced to surrender and agree to a six-month truce.
Edmund was still in France when Isabella arrived in March of 1325, charged by her husband with the delicate task of negotiating a permanent truce between him and his French counterpart, Charles IV.
How Isabella had managed to convince Edward to entrust his alienated wife with this mission is unknown, but I suppose Isabella was smart enough to hide her anger and humiliation at being deprived of all her income while promising herself she would have revenge—some day. Whatever her feelings, she successfully negotiated a treaty with her brother Charles. All Edward II had to do was to come to France and do homage for his French lands and everything would be peachy-pie.
Except that Edward II didn’t want to come to France—or rather, Hugh Despenser didn’t want him to go, worried that the moment the king left the country, the baronage would rise in rebellion and kill poor Hugh. Probably a correct assessment of the sentiments of the time, and apparently Edward agreed. Instead of going himself, he sent his young son and heir, Edward of Windsor. Unwittingly, he had thereby handed Isabella the weapon with which to destroy him.
Young Edward came to France, young Edward did homage, young Edward did not go straight back home as instructed by his father. Isabella made sure of that, saying she could not bear to let him go. Isabella had collected several disgruntled English noblemen as her admirers, including Edmund of Woodstock. I imagine there were already whispers of invasions, of doing something to oust that despicable Despenser. When Roger Mortimer rode in to present himself to Isabella, the invasion had found its leaders: the extremely capable and ruthless combo of Isabella and Mortimer.
Mortimer’s and Isabella’s invasion of England in 1326 was a resounding success. Soon enough, Hugh Despenser was dead and Edward II was locked up in Kenilworth, his son crowned as Edward III in his stead. Edmund expected to be part of the inner circle that guided his young nephew, but neither Isabella nor Mortimer were all that interested in sharing their power. This did not go down well with Edmund, who was also struggling with feelings of guilt related to his deposed brother. That guilt became a crushing burden when it was announced in 1327 that their former king, Edward of Caernarvon, had died while in captivity.
In 1328, Edmund joined Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against the regents, demanding that Mortimer be set aside in favour of the true peers of the realm. Mortimer acted with speed and determination. Edmund, knowing just how efficient Mortimer could be, abandoned Lancaster’s cause and returned to the royal fold just before Lancaster’s final humiliation.
By now, Edmund had acquired the reputation of being a weather-vane: first he’d supported his royal brother, then he’d joined Mortimer and Isabella, then he’d thrown his lot in with Lancaster only to change his colours yet again when things got sticky. Whatever his reputation, Edmund was concerned with other matters: there were rumours that his deposed brother was still alive and held at Corfe Castle. Disenchanted with Isabella’s and Mortimer’s continued rule, Edmund chose to investigate further. One little piece here, another there, and soon enough Edmund was convinced his brother was alive. If so, what better way to right the wrongs he’d done his royal brother than to spring him from his prison and help him retake his throne?
This was the plot Mortimer uncovered early in 1330, his agents presenting him with a letter Edmund’s wife had written on his behalf to the imprisoned king. Being somewhat gullible, Edmund had handed the sealed missive to an intermediary who’d promised to smuggle it into Corfe and hand it to the unhappy erstwhile king. Instead, the rascal gave it to Mortimer, and so Edmund was arrested and brought before parliament where his confession was read out loud.
There was only one verdict: death. Appalled, Edmund threw himself on his nephew’s mercy, begging piteously for his life. He’d do anything—anything!—to prove his loyalty. He’d even walk all the way to London with a noose round his neck to atone for his actions. But there was nothing Edward III could do. Mortimer had seen to that, making it impossible for Edward to pardon his uncle without implicitly admitting there could be some truth in Edmund’s assertions that the former king was alive.
Whether or not Edward II was alive is, according to some historians, an open question. We will never know if he was. It does, however, seem probable that it was Mortimer who fed Edmund the little bits and pieces that convinced him his brother was alive, thereby luring the earl into treason. Ultimately, Mortimer’s behaviour in this matter would lead to his own death: the king, disgusted at having been duped into signing away his uncle’s life did not forgive. Or forget.
On a cold March morning in 1330, Edmund of Woodstock was led out to meet his maker. The executioner had done a runner, refusing to soil his hands with the blood of a man condemned for trying to help his brother. None of the assembled men-at-arms volunteered in his stead, neither did their captains. Poor Edmund shivered in only his shirt as the hours passed and no one was found willing to strike off his head. At long last, a condemned man undertook the task in exchange for a reprieve. The earl knelt. The axe fell. The severed head was held aloft, accompanied by the traditional cry of “behold the death of a traitor.” Usually, the crowd would cheer. This time, no one did.
1. King Edward II: National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Queen Isabella with the captive Hugh Despenser the Elder and the Earl of Arundel. From a 15th-century manuscript. Via Wikimedia Commons: By Anonymous - http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-07846477&E=JPEG&Deb=1&Fin=1&Param=C, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9469913
3. Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent via Wikimedia Commons: By Anonymous - http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_14_b_vi_f001r - Royal MS 14 B VI, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65390520