684 years ago today on 19 March 1330, Edward of Caernarfon's twenty-eight-year-old half-brother Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, was beheaded for treason against his young nephew Edward III in Winchester. The executioner was unwilling to take part in the judicial murder of a king's son and fled, and so the unfortunate Kent had to wait around in his shirt for many hours until a common felon under sentence of death was offered his freedom if he agreed to wield the axe. Kent's heavily pregnant wife Margaret Wake and their three small children (including Joan of Kent, mother of Richard II) were ordered to be imprisoned with two attendants in Salisbury Castle on 14 March, with a mark, i.e. thirteen shillings and four pence, per day granted for their sustenance (Close Rolls 1330-33, p. 14; Patent Rolls 1327-30, p. 499).
The earl of Kent's 'crime' was attempting to free Edward of Caernarfon from captivity at Corfe Castle. Edward's death at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327 had been publicly announced at parliament in Lincoln a few days afterwards, and Kent himself attended the former king's funeral in Gloucester on 21 December (Close Rolls 1330-33, p. 132). Yet somehow in the two and a half years between Edward of Caernarfon's supposed death and Kent's own execution, Kent became convinced that Edward was in fact still alive.
As I point out in my article about his plot in the 2011 English Historical Review, Kent certainly did not act alone in 1329/30: he had at least seventy supporters whom I have been able to find, including the archbishop of York, the bishop of London, the mayor of London, the earls of Mar and Buchan, two of Edward II's and Kent's nephews, former and future sheriffs of Kent, numerous lords and knights in England and Wales, many former members of Edward II's household, and former adherents of the Despensers. This is important because the tendency in modern times has long been to claim that Kent was acting more or less alone, or at the very least in conjunction only with a small handful of disaffected clerics, and then condemn him as stupid, naive and gullible for his belief that his half-brother could possibly still be alive. This is the only way the vast majority of modern historians have been able to explain Kent's belief that Edward II was still alive well over two years after his supposed death, and fit his plot into their utter conviction that Edward died at Berkeley in September 1327. This is unfair. The earl of Kent was emphatically not 'stupid', and in fact was a brave man trying his best to do the right thing, who suffered the ultimate penalty for it. It annoys me greatly that rather than trying to look at his plot without bias and without the preconceived notion that Edward was certainly dead, most modern writers have taken the easy route of assuming that Kent was wrong and that the only reason he believed his brother was alive was his own 'stupidity' and 'gullibility'. It's a comfortable pretence, but it isn't true, and there is no evidence that Kent was indeed stupid or that any of his contemporaries thought he was.
There is a massive contradiction in most modern writers' take on the issue: on the one hand, they say that Kent only believed in Edward II's survival because he was stupid, and also condemn him as credulous, weak, feeble and a political nonentity, but on the other hand declare that he was such a threat to Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer's continued political survival (as rulers of the underage Edward III's kingdom) that the pair were forced to manufacture a reason to execute him and thereby protect themselves from him, and managed to force him into treason by pretending that the former king was still alive. See for example May McKisack's The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399, in the classic Oxford History of England series, p. 100, where it is claimed within the space of a few lines that Kent was both 'foolish' and guilty of 'weakness', yet was also 'dangerous' to Isabella and Mortimer. In this take on history, Kent is at one and the same time a gullible naive fool who can easily be duped into believing that a dead man still lives, yet is somehow also the leader of the burgeoning opposition to the ruling pair and such a huge risk to them that he has to be executed, or rather judicially murdered. Isabella and Mortimer are so desperate to rid themselves of this dangerous person that they forge letters and convince half the country as well as Kent that Isabella's husband is still alive. Hmmmmm, convincing. This theory is so full of holes you could use it as a colander.
The fact that Kent's ally William Melton, archbishop of York, told his kinsman the mayor of London in January 1330 that "our liege lord Edward of Caernarfon is alive and in good health of body" is also mostly ignored, as Melton, an astute man then probably in his fifties and generally considered to be one of the greatest archbishops in English history, cannot lightly be dismissed as a credulous fool the way Kent so often has been. Edward of Caernarfon's great friend Donald, earl of Mar, nephew of Robert Bruce, told William Melton in 1329 that he would come to England with an army of 40,000 men in order to effect Edward's release from captivity, and Melton himself - as well as committing the dangerous statement that Edward was alive to parchment - pledged 5000 pounds to the plot to release the former king. The more you read about the plot of 1330, and see how many influential people were involved who risked their lives and livelihoods in its cause, the more you realise that the pretence of Kent's stupidity as the only explanation for it cannot be sustained. It is evident that large numbers of people in 1330 firmly believed that Edward II was still alive. It is not, however, the case that the people arrested or ordered to be arrested for taking part in the plot were simply enemies of Isabella and Mortimer, whom the latter were keen to get out of the way on trumped-up charges. Very few of Kent's adherents in 1329/30 had previously shown any hostility whatsoever to the ruling pair.
Within days of the earl of Kent's execution, inquisitions were ordered in a number of counties "to discover the adherents of Edmund, late earl of Kent" (Patent Rolls 1327-30, pp. 556-7, 571). His supporters were believed to be particularly numerous in Norfolk and Suffolk, and many men in Wales were said to have joined his adherent Rhys ap Gruffydd (who had fled to Scotland in 1327 after plotting to free Edward of Caernarfon from Berkeley Castle). It was publicly proclaimed on 13 April 1330 that "all persons who...say that the king's father is yet alive" would be arrested and imprisoned (Patent Rolls, p. 557).
For more info about Kent's plot, here are my posts about it and the supporters who joined him, though I wrote them way back in 2007: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Ian Mortimer's 2010 book Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies contains much information about Kent's plot and throws a lot of fascinating light on the timing of events, and is highly recommended. And if you'd like to read my article in the English Historical Review but are unable to access it, please do feel free to email me for a copy (address at the top of the page under 'Contact'). The plot was advanced enough in March 1330 that arrangements had been made for Edward's removal from Corfe Castle in Dorset to the earl of Kent's castle at Arundel in Sussex with a ship provided by one John Gymmynges, a former valet of Edward II's household. To judge from William Melton's letter of January 1330 to his kinsman Simon Swanland, mayor of London - whose involvement in the plot was never discovered - the plan was then to take Edward abroad, as the letter mentions that Swanland should procure £200 gold for the former king, which he could have used on the continent.
To my mind, the 1329/30 plot of the earl of Kent and his many followers demonstrates that Edward II was indeed still alive. It makes no sense to me otherwise.