Edward II, son of the fearsome “Hammer of the Scots,” was a frivolous and self-serving king. Winston Churchill calls his kingship a “melancholy appendix to his father’s” reign (132). Like his father, Edward II was tall in stature, but unlike his father, Edward II was more interested in artistic pursuits and hobbies like music, rowing, poetry, and swimming, rather than hunting, war, or even the serious governance of his kingdom. Edward II was the fourth son of Edward I and Eleanor, the only son to survive into adulthood. Edward I had blamed his weak son’s disposition on a close friendship (and possible romance) with a Gascon knight named Piers Gaveston (Gascony was the embattled region of France disputed during Edward I’s reign). When Edward II begged his father for an earldom for Gaveston, Edward I famously responded in disgust by simply banishing Gaveston. However, upon assuming the Crown, Edward II quickly re-instated Gaveston as earl of Cornwall.
Edward II was crowned King of England in February 1308 at Westminster Abbey. Shortly thereafter, he abandoned his father’s campaign in Scotland and married Isabella (“the she-wolf of France”), daughter of King Philip IV of France in 1308. Meanwhile, things only got worse in Scotland as Robert Bruce gained back much of the land and castles ceded to England under the rule of Edward “Longshanks.” Eventually, all that was left in English hands was the Castle at Stirling which was beset by Scottish forces. Amidst desperate cries for reinforcements, Edward II finally sent a disorganized army north in 1314 to face the Scots for the Battle of Bannockburn, a brutal and bloody conflict. Scotland ultimately proved victorious over England’s haphazard army. The loss was crushing. Edward retreated back south, defeated and humiliated, with his kingship now in question. The Battle of Bannockburn was to have lasting consequences for unification efforts in Scotland and Ireland – both ancient conflicts which continue to touch us in the present-day.
In addition to his failures abroad, particularly in Scotland and France, Edward II also faced domestic turmoil. His rocky relationship with the barons threatened further instability. They had previously mistrusted his father, but they greatly resented Edward II’s appointment of his friend and possible lover, Piers Gaveston, to an earldom. In addition, Queen Isabella resented Gaveston’s privileged relationship with the king (at their wedding ceremony Edward demanded to be seated beside Gaveston rather than beside his own bride). At any rate, in an effort to oversee their interests, the barons established a “Lords Ordainers” committee as part of the new Parliament. They forced Gaveston into exile again, causing a split faction among the barons. During the course of the fight, Edward abandoned his pregnant wife, Queen Isabella, for a disastrous battle which forced him to retreat again and leave Gaveston at Scarborough Castle. Gaveston was soon captured and promptly executed in 1312. After the demise of Gaveston Edward II maintained several other “favorites” at his court including the unpopular Hugh Despenser “The Younger,” an English noblemen whom the historian Jean Friossart describes as widely resented among the barons and a “sodomite.”
The barons drew up new ordinances (“The Ordinances of 1311”) which restricted the king’s ability to travel and wage war, among many other things. In 1322, a faction of the barons revolted but it quickly ended only to be revived again when Queen Isabella visited France on a supposedly diplomatic mission. While in France she took a new lover, Roger Mortimer, one of Edward’s baronial opponents in the rebellion. Mortimer had been captured by Edward II in the conflict but had escaped and fled to France. Together Mortimer and Isabella returned and invaded England in 1326 where they swiftly toppled Edward’s administration. Edward II was captured while the “Despensers” were all hanged (the loyalists to the king were so-named “Despensers” in honor of Hugh Despenser). Edward was taken prisoner, his fate was to be decided by Parliament: his son Edward III, would soon be crowned king.
In the end, Edward II became the victim of regicide. He was murdered while imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in 1327. Rumors abound as to the manner of his death, most of them perpetuated by chroniclers such as Ranulf Higden. As the story goes, boiling hot irons were shoved through his rear end, burning his insides while leaving his body without a blemish. Edward’s horrifying screams could be heard echoing outside the castle walls while he died in great agony. It was a reciprocal punishment for his perceived homosexuality (most notably with Piers Gaveston, but perhaps also with Hugh Despenser who was also butchered in a most grisly manner). Another theory is that Edward was pressed by weights and suffocated to death. Regardless, the new regime under Isabella and Mortimer likely gave the order for the king’s murder. Queen Isabella then ruled as Regent of England, since her young son, Edward III, was only 14 years old at the time of his father’s death.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, the writings of Ranulf Higden, a contemporaneous biographer of Edward II, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1592).
The English monarchy abounds with horrid stories!