Half-Brother to the King: Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent

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Edmund of Woodstock’s trajectory would likely have been familiar terrain to the more famous Beaufort clan of the Wars of the Roses. Brother to a king, Edmund’s fortunes were tied to his relationship with the throne and, as a younger son, he was dependent on his own performance, ability and strategic marital alliance. In many ways, Edmund had the makings of an ideal Medieval prince and his brother, Edward II, was lucky to have him. Unfortunately for Edmund, the same couldn’t be said for the King, who was mercurial, self-interested and failed to understand the enormity of his position.

Loyal to the crown for the vast majority of his life, Edmund’s eventual defection to the coup that would bring his brother down speaks less to his own personal feelings and more to what he believed necessary to maintain England. That he wavered in his last years is tragic and his eventual arrest and execution mark one of the first instances a prince of the blood was put to death on the orders of a family member – its legacy can most closely be seen by the death of George, Duke of Clarence when Edward IV was on the throne and by the arrest of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester by Henry VI.

Edmund’s father was King Edward I and his mother Marguerite of France, daughter of King Philip III. His father had been happily married for 36 years to his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, who had given birth to five sons, all of whom would predecease their father, save one. That son would grow up to be Edward II, arguably the single most important person in Edmund’s life.

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Shortly before Edmund’s sixth birthday his father died and his brother ascended the throne. The year before, Edward I had attempted to provide for his younger sons by assigning them valuable lands and titles that would provide a steady income, however, as the Royal Family and, indeed, the rest of England would soon find out, Edward II wasn’t particularly interested in doing what was expected of him.

Edward, likely homosexual, had formed an attachment to an ambitious young courtier, Piers Gaveston. The relationship had originally been approved of by the late king, but in short order the nature of their friendship came under suspicion and Gaveston’s ambition and greed made him enemies at court. The situation only worsened once Edward took the throne, at which point he was free to gift his favorite whatever he desired, including the the earldom of Cornwall, which his father had meant for Edmund. The “insult” was very much noted at the time, however the outrage understandably stemmed more from what it signified and less for the actual honor of the King’s younger brother.

As Edmund came of age, he and his brother Thomas were welcomed within the royal enclave that surrounded Edward, but there is evidence that Edmund was sympathetic to his brother’s detractors. After Gaveston came the more politically potent Hugh Despenser the Younger and his ambitious family, who (apparently) thought nothing of alienating the rest of the English magnates. Edmund wasn’t a fan, and in the Parliament of July 1321, during which he was made Earl of Kent, he made his first step against Edward by briefly siding with his brother’s enemies, who wanted the Despenser clan banished. The act didn’t stick and he would quickly fall back in line, sitting on the council that autumn that welcomed the exiles back into England.

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Edward II and Edward I

Even more, he would play a crucial role in the rebellion led by Thomas of Lancaster. On March 17, 1322, Lancaster was captured after the Battle of Boroughbridge, tried and condemned to death. For this and other successes that helped Edward keep his throne during the civil war that broke out in 1321-1322, Edmund was given significant Welsh land that had previously been held by the powerful Marcher lord, Roger Mortimer.

Three years later and Edward was still hanging on, albeit by a thread. He refused to give Despenser up; instead, he and his wife, Isabelle of France, were effectively separated while Despenser led the royal court by his side. In March 1325, Isabelle was sent to France with her eldest son, Prince Edward, to help negotiate the terms under which England held the duchy of Aquitaine, and she was joined by Edmund that fall. By this time Isabelle had begun an affair with Mortimer and together they hatched a plan to invade England, depose Edward and set up the still-minor prince as king while they ruled through him as regents. Surprisingly, Edmund agreed to help them.

His motivations were likely not prompted by much, if any, affection for Isabelle, and he was known to personally dislike Mortimer. Instead, he probably saw that the continuation of Edward’s reign was untenable – it foretold only continued civil war and, in a worst case scenario, intervention from France. It’s possible, too, that he saw a political future himself in the regency government of his nephew, though there is no evidence that he meant to go so far as to depose the Prince for himself or his brother, Thomas. But primarily, like most of England, he hated the Despensers and was willing to take whatever steps necessary to get rid of them.

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The landing of Isabelle of France and Prince Edward in England

The invasion of Isabelle and Mortimer was successful and Edmund was rewarded handsomely for the role he played in it. In January 1327 Edward was forced to abdicate and by that September he was declared dead, likely on the orders of Mortimer. It seems to have been this event that triggered something akin to buyer’s remorse in Edmund, though it’s difficult to fathom what else he thought would happen. Certainly, too, he was resentful of the prominence of Mortimer instead of himself, the new King Edward III’s uncle, but given Mortimer’s relationship with Isabelle that also can hardly have been surprising.

In any event, in the autumn of 1328 Edmund and Thomas joined forces with their former foe, Henry of Lancaster, to depose the Queen Mother and her lover. The rebellion never got off the ground, and though Edmund was forgiven, he lost his prominence.

What happened next is still not wholly clear, but it appears that Mortimer began to plant the seeds of doubt in early 1330 as to whether Edward II was actually dead. Edmund, apparently still guilty for the role he played in his brother’s deposition, took the bait and hatched another plot against the regency government which was quickly found out.

In March 1330, Edmund was tried and condemned to death. Not believing a prince of the blood would actually be executed, he went to his 17-year-old nephew and begged that he be allowed to do public penance instead, an offer which was refused. The next hurdle was finding someone willing to perform the execution, given Edmund’s position. They finally landed on a murderer still in prison who offered to perform the act in exchange for a pardon. Edmund was executed at Winchester Cathedral on this day in 1330.

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The Great Hall at Winchester Castle (Image: Graham Horn, CC BY-SA 2.0)

What makes Edmund’s death all the more tragic is how close he came to seeing the regency topple without his own treason. Edward III had long since grown resentful of Mortimer and just seven months later, galvanized by the birth of his eldest son, he staged a coup and had Mortimer arrested and executed. Because of that, it’s entirely plausible that Edward III didn’t personally want his uncle put to death, however the trap Mortimer set was smart: If Edward showed mercy on the premise that his father was still alive, a thing he knew with certainty wasn’t true, then he opened up the possibility of further plots taking roots which would be detrimental to his own hold on the crown. Indeed, just think of the pretenders that came out of the woodwork claiming to be Edward V or his brother, the Duke of York, during Henry VII’s reign because their deaths were never firmly established.

Edmund hasn’t received much praise from history; his shifting allegiances took care of that, but it’s still worth noting his loyalty to his brother for the vast majority of his reign. And certainly, Edward II wasn’t a king to whom much loyalty was warranted. Edmund’s was of a personal nature, and I think there’s a strong argument to be made that his eventual defection was a form of public service that cost him quite a bit.

When Edmund died he left behind a widow, Lady Margaret Wake, and four young children. The earldom of Kent would pass to his eldest son, Edmund, and then to his younger son, John. When John died in 1352 the title passed to Edmund’s daughter, Joan, who would, rather scandalously, marry Edward III’s eldest son, Prince Edward of Wales, and become the mother of Richard II.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor

 

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