The fourteenth-century English king, Edward I was “afflicted” with a son who did not live up to the manly expectations he had for him; his son, Edward, liked gardening and shoeing horses more than jousting. Modern sensibilities aside, in the world of medieval royalty, such unmanly pursuits were simply unworthy of a future king. To clear up the problem, Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks, “The Hammer of the Scots”) appointed him a wildly charismatic squire named Piers Gaveston from Gascony. The hope was that this successful, talented young man might rub off on young Edward. The two got on famously. A bit too famously:
…and when the King’s son saw him he fell so much in love that he entered upon an enduring compact with him, and chose and determined to knit an indissoluble bond with him, before all other mortals.
Other chroniclers note that the King feared Gaveston “loved his son inordinately,” that the younger Edward “had an inordinate affection for a certain Gascon knight,” and that the Gascon might find himself in trouble “on account of the undue intimacy which the young Lord Edward had adopted towards him.”
Before long, the King was looking for excuses to keep the two apart. The youngsters had gotten into trouble by trespassing onto the Bishop of Coventry’s property and poaching the Bishop’s deer, and the King seized upon this incident as an opportunity to separate them for a few months. However, rather than send away the squire, Edward removed his own son (their relationship was, admittedly, chilly). Young Edward was absent from court for the summer of 1305, and Gaveston was left without a playmate.
The happy pair couldn’t be kept apart forever. Edward returned to court, and before long he was bestowing gifts, titles and land on Gaveston. In one particularly bold move in April of 1307 he asked his father Edward I to make Gaveston the Count of Ponthieu, which was a pretty modest title but did include a fair bit of land. King Edward, who’d spent a lot of his time battling the Scots (and would later leave his son in rather a poor position there), would have none of it:
You baseborn whoreson! Do you want to give lands away now, you who never gained any? As the Lord lives, if it were not for fear of breaking up the kingdom you should never enjoy your inheritance!
King Edward reached forward and grabbed a handful of his son’s hair, and yanked it clean out. Gaveston was banished from England entirely, but Prince Edward followed him out, showering him with tapestries, quilts, assorted other presents and easy money. This banishment only lasted about three months, because Edward I died on July 7. This left Prince Edward, now Edward II, free to indulge himself.
The Reign of Edward II
As such, the first thing Edward II did was recall Gaveston and appoint the man earl of Cornwall and give him tons of money. Gaveston was also immediately slated to marry Edward’s niece, even though his taste in girls was, well, somewhat questionable. The new king also stripped the bishop of Coventry (he of the poached deer) of his title and imprisoned the bishop in the Tower of London. Things went downhill from there.
At Gaveston’s wedding, Edward called for games and jousting, at which the young groom and his coterie excelled. This tweaked the old baronial guard to no end. Those nobles who enjoyed power during Edward I’s reign were now second-fiddle to the dashing young king, and a newcomer at that. To make matters worse, when out making arrangements for his royal marriage, Edward made Gaveston regent rather than any of the other more experienced, highly-placed barons. Edward had also been efficiently depleting the crown’s coffers by bestowing outrageous gifts on his friend. As contemporary chroniclers wrote,
Our King… was incapable of moderate favor, and on account of [Gaveston] was said to forget himself, and so [Gaveston] was accounted a sorcerer.
When Edward returned with his new bride Isabella, Gaveston met them toting so much jewelry he “quite eclipsed the king.” The king ditched his bride and ran to Gaveston, embracing him tightly, crying, “Brother, brother!” Isabella’s father, King Philip IV of France, had given Edward some fancy jewelry which was found to be hanging on Gaveston’s neck the very next day. This angered many of the nobles, and it was simply bad form for someone else to shows up wearing your wedding presents a few days after the ceremony.
English Nobles and Their Hatred of Gaveston
Several contemporary sources criticized Edward’s seeming infatuation with Piers Gaveston, to the extent that he ignored and humiliated his wife. Chroniclers called the relationship excessive, immoderate, beyond measure and reason and criticized his desire for wicked and forbidden sex. The Westminster chronicler claimed that Gaveston had led Edward to reject the sweet embraces of his wife; while the Meaux Chronicle (written several decades later) took concern further and complained that, Edward took too much delight in sodomy. While such sources do not, in themselves, prove that Edward and Gaveston were lovers, they at least show that some contemporaries and later writers thought strongly that this might be the case.
Gaveston was considered to be athletic and handsome; he was a few years older than Edward and had seen military service in Flanders before becoming Edward’s close companion. He was known to have a quick, biting wit, and his fortunes continued to ascend as Edward obtained more honors for him, including the Earldom of Cornwall. Earlier, Edward I had attempted to control the situation by exiling Gaveston from England. However, upon the elder king’s death in 1307, Edward II immediately recalled him. Isabella’s marriage to Edward subsequently took place in 1308. Almost immediately, she wrote to her father, Philip the Fair, complaining of Edward’s behavior.
Gaveston the upstart was proving to be such a pain that a group of nobles threatened to boycott the coronation unless he wasn’t allowed to be there. Diplomatic Edward assured them he wouldn’t. Of course, he showed up anyway. Not only did he show up, but he was in the processional line carrying the crown, dressed in royal purple sewn with pearls, “so decked out that he more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal.” Barons scrambled to throw him out or kill him outright, but, with some effort, calmed themselves.
As it turned out, Gaveston had also insisted upon coordinating the entire event, and he flubbed it completely. The ceremony ran over by three full hours and was short of seats, forcing nobility to stand. Standing room in the back was so crowded that a knight was suffocated underfoot. Even with the extra time, the banquet wasn’t ready when it finished. Food was poorly cooked and service was reportedly very poor. The ceremony was a complete disaster, and only because a certain Gascon had worked his way deeply in the king’s favor. It wasn’t long before Queen Isabella, by all accounts a charming, beautiful person, was writing her father that “I am the most wretched of wives,” and that Edward was “an entire stranger in my bed.”
Earls to Swine
Clearly, this situation couldn’t last. An overwhelming majority of barons got together and announced that this had gone far enough, and that Gaveston had to go. To be sure, Edward would not be the first or last English king to whore around the kingdom but, medieval attitudes towards homosexuality being seen as sinful and blasphemous, something bad was eventually bound to happen. Edward, surrounded by powerful, strong-willed men, capitulated, stripped Gaveston of his titles and land, and sent him off to Ireland. To make sure he wasn’t coming back, the bishops announced that the Gaveston would be excommunicated if he ever set foot back in England. However, before long, he lobbied the pope strongly and got the excommunication threat removed. He returned, and Edward obligingly appointed him to be the earl of Cornwall again. Three years later, the barons again united in disgust and threw Gaveston out. To reign in the king’s expenses they also took over his finances, in his words, “as one would provide for an idiot.”
Gaveston was back before long, associating openly with Edward, who made him earl of Cornwall for the third time. The bishops excommunicated Gaveston; the lords prepared for civil war. The king and his favorite fled to Scotland, hoping to secure safety there, but to no avail. As armies commanded by the Ordainers approached the couple in Newcastle, they fled, leaving behind not only household servants, furniture, and treasure, but Edward’s long-suffering wife Isabella. She was three months pregnant. If nothing else, she enjoyed a modicum of popular support, having been yanked around the country by her husband and his lover and, heavy with child, abandoned to advancing armies.
As the forces got closer to the couple, Edward was forced to dump Gaveston off and tried to stir up support for himself in any number of English cities. It didn’t work; Gaveston was captured by the earl of Pembroke, who promised to deliver him to the king and barons for suitable punishment. However, on the way back, the good Pembroke passed within a few miles of his own castle. He had been away for some time, and took this opportunity to slip by and freshen up the wife. The one night he was gone a renegade group of disgruntled barons swept over Gaveston and ransacked his room. And if they weren’t pissed enough, they found him in possession of some of the crown jewels. Gaveston’s weakness for jewelry and baubles had proved urgent enough for him to convince King Edward to loan them out. While Gaveston’s motives for “borrowing” the crown jewels were probably vanity rather than theft, the presence of such sacred items on his person was more than enough to get him in trouble. He was marched some miles on bare feet and thrown into a nearby dungeon.
To his credit, Pembroke was upset. He didn’t harbor kinder feelings for Gaveston than anybody else, but he had given his word that the prancer would make it back to Edward. He asked a variety of barons and other officials to intervene on his behalf so as not to lose face, but nobody wanted to rescue Gaveston — in the hands of barons, he was truly friendless.
An Untidy End
Finally, one of them took some initiative. Gaveston was marched outside, up a hill, and forced to lie his head on a stump, whereupon it was neatly removed. There was then some consternation about who exactly ought to grab the head and take responsibility for the deed; once that was settled they were stuck with the headless body of Gaveston and had to do something with it. The corpse was carried to the castle of one of Gaveston’s enemies, the earl of Warwick, but he turned it away at the door. It was accepted by some nuns in Oxford, but they couldn’t bury it because Gaveston had died an excommunicate.
While Gavseton had riled up enough nobility to instigate a civil war, his sudden death split their union and the kingdom drifted back to internal squabbling rather than armed conflict. However, Edward was inconsolable: “By God’s Soul, he acted as a fool. If he had taken my advice he would never have fallen into the hands of the earls,” he wept. Fortunately for his troubled psyche, Isabella gave birth to the future Edward III just in time to distract him. The king cooed over his child. Isabella had been patient with him during this dalliance, and their relationship improved. For a little while, anyway. And then, it soured. Precipitously.
Following Gaveston’s death, the king increased favor to his nephew-by-marriage (who was also Gaveston’s brother-in-law), Hugh Despenser the Younger. But, as with Gaveston, the barons were indignant at the privileges Edward lavished upon the Despenser father and son, especially when the younger Despenser began in 1318 to strive to procure for himself the earldom of Gloucester and its associated lands.
With Hugh Despenser, the situation grew worse. Edward II made similar mistakes with Despenser and his reign was challenged by the pretender John Deydras. Deydras was eventually executed but not before Edward II’s unpopularity for his actions became even more apparent. Eventually, Despenser was banished, but unlike Gaveston, he was not to return. Queen Isabella had enough, and left Edward II for another lover – Mortimer. Despenser was eventually tracked down and executed – he had his genitals cut off and burnt in a fire before his eyes.
In 1327, Edward II was imprisoned, and Isabella and her lover, Mortimer seized control of the kingdom. After trying to escape, Mortimer eventually ordered Edward’s death.
The government of Isabella and Mortimer was so precarious that they dared not leave the deposed king in the hands of their political enemies. On 3 April, Edward II was removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two subordinates of Mortimer, then later imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where, it was generally believed, he was murdered by an agent of Isabella and Mortimer on 11 October 1327.
On the night of 11 October while lying on a bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress… weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber’s iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his anus so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines. — Thomas de la Moore.
It was said that the screams of the king were so loud that they could be heard miles away.
Edward III finally asserted his independence. In October 1330, a Parliament was called in Nottingham, just days before Edward’s eighteenth birthday, and Mortimer and Isabella were seized by Edward and his companions from inside Nottingham Castle. In spite of Isabella’s entreaty to her son, “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer,” Mortimer was conveyed to the Tower.
Accused of assuming royal power and of various other high misdemeanors, he was condemned without trial and ignominiously hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330, his vast estates being forfeited to the crown. Mortimer’s widow, Joan, received a pardon in 1336 and survived till 1356. She was buried beside Mortimer at Wigmore, but the site was later destroyed.
Cultural depictions of Edward II of England
Edward II of England has been portrayed in popular culture a number of times. The most famous fictional account of Edward II’s reign is Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (c. 1592). It depicts Edward’s reign as a single narrative, and does not include Bannockburn.
In 1991 English filmmaker Derek Jarman adapted the Christopher Marlowe play into a film featuring Tilda Swinton, Steven Waddington, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry, and Annie Lennox. The film specifically portrays a homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston.
Edward II was portrayed as an effeminate homosexual in Braveheart. Edward II’s death and sexuality are mentioned a number of times in Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline
A major new biography of Edward II by Seymour Phillips was published in 2010.