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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

Edward II: England's Most Misunderstood King?

Born at Caernarfon Castle in 25th April 1284, Edward was set up to be the new King Arthur, leading England into to 14th century to continue his father's work in restoring the lands of their forbears. Edward would never live up to those expectations, instead becoming one of the most forgetful and somewhat disliked king, known for his gentle nature and questionable relationships, rather than his military exploits and kingly abilities.

portrait of Edward II, Artist unknown SOURCE: National Portrait Gallery

Great expectations

By the time of his father's death in 1307, Edward was the oldest surviving male and heir to the throne of England and with that, came great expectations. Edward I had spent the best part of three decades expanding his borders into Wales and Scotland and the lords of England assumed that his son would continue to do this but, Edward of Caernarfon was nothing like his warlord father. A pleasant gentle man, Edward grew up like many other princes of the time, hunting and horse riding but, Edward also liked to mix with the lower orders of society, a fact that unnerved his contemporaries as it showed a potential sign of weakness.

Upon his father's death, Edward was crowned on February of 1308, adding king of England to his already illustrious list of titles including, Prince of Wales and Duke of Aquitaine and with a great marriage to Isabella of France in the works, all things were looking up for Edward but, a lesser known Gascon nobleman would soon ruin everything.

Piers Gaveston and the Ordinances of 1311

Piers Gaveston was born sometime around 1284 to a knight in the army of Edward I. His father’s service saw the Gaveston family well looked after by the English crown, and young piers quickly established himself at court. Piers was a handsome, intelligent man with charisma coming out of his ears and quickly attached himself to the then Prince of Wales, and a genuine friendship blossomed between the two teenagers with many at the time and many since, implied that the relationship was more than platonic and had a romantic element to it.

A painting of Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston by Marcus Stone. The painting shows courtiers gazing at the prince and his supposed lover in disgust. SOURCE: Public Domain

Since 1300, Gaveston had been a member of the royal court and a favourite of Edward’s. Edward I had already him banished in 1307, but after his death, he was quickly returned to court by the new king and began to acquire wealth and titles. Gaveston was Made 1st earl of Cornwall and married to Edwards niece Margaret de Claire.

Less than one year after Gaveston returning to court, he was once again exiled, this time to Ireland where the leading lords believed he wouldn't be able to manipulate the young king, who had been showing his favourite with gifts and lands bleeding the treasury dry. Unfortunately for England, Gaveston was soon back parading himself around with arrogant splendour, forcing a group of disgruntled noblemen led by the Kings Cousin, Thomas 2nd Earl of Lancaster to come up with a list of 'ordinances' limiting Edward's spending and ability to appoint royal ministers who they deemed 'evil' (mainly aimed at Gaveston.) As well as this, the lords believed Edward was dealing with the war in Scotland poorly and too much of their newly acquired land had been taken by the Scots. Edward was reluctant to accept the demands of the Ordainers as he saw them as further limits to the king’s power over government. Moreover, his friend and favourite Gaveston was again, being threatened with exile and he couldn’t stand the thought of living without him and would do virtually anything to protect him.

Potentially having flashbacks to his great grandfather John's reign, Edward reluctantly agreed to the terms of the Ordinances and avoided civil war. Gaveston was once again exiled, this time to Flanders but, by late 1311 Edward had his favourite secretly returned to England and restored all of his land and wealth pushing Lancaster and the other disgruntled lords over the edge. Not in the mood to parley, the Earl of Pembroke tracked down Gaveston at Scarborough Castle and arrested him, intending on taking him to London for trial.

A modern photograph of the ruins of Scarborough Castle SOURCE:

Whilst been held in Oxfordshire on his way down south, he was seized by Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and quickly taken to his castle at Warwick. Gaveston was accused of being a traitor and an apparent sodomite both of which were punishable by death in the 14th century and on 19th June 1312, he was beheaded on Blacklow Hill near Warwick Castle and a great weight had been lifted from the shoulders of England.

Jealousy and homophobia most likely led to the execution of Gaveston but that doesn’t take away from the absolute manipulation carried out on the King. Edward's massive spending and questionable relationship lead to the Ordinances of 1311 and almost caused a civil war, with Gaveston controlling Edward and all that he did. The death of Gaveston effected Edward profoundly and it is unlikely that he ever truly got over the loss but, he was unable to bury his friend until 1315 which he did with great pomp and ceremony at Kings Langley.

A Scottish disaster

After the disastrous first few years of Edward II's reign, Scotland and Robert Bruce were once again, on the war path. Unsuccessful campaign attempts had been made in 1309 and 1310 but by 1314, Edward had gathered a force of over 13,000 men to take the fight to the Scots. The Scottish forces were led by Edward Bruce, brother to the Scottish king Robert I and in an attempt to slow down Edward and, pick a favourable battle site, the Scottish force chevauchee'd there way through lowland Scotland unit they arrived at the small village of Bannock

On the morning of 23rd June 1314, Robert Bruce, who had met up with his brother, ordered his men to start Digging trenches and had his men array in tightly packed units called Schiltrons. Bruce had his army of only 7,000 men, mainly spearmen, form up on the edge of a forest, ready to defend against thousands of heavily armoured knights and men-at-arms that made up the bulk of the English army. Seeing the apparent weak and outnumbered Scottish forces, the English cavalry that had arrived that morning, was order to charge at the Scottish lines. Led by the Earl of Hereford, the Calvary was first trapped in the multitude of hole and ditches that had been dug, funnelling them into the awaiting wall of spears. Able to cut down the knights in their desperate attempt to retreat, the Scottish were able to force the English to fall back beyond the Bannockburn river and set in for the night.

The first days losses were hard for Edward and the English to handle, serving as a massive moral hit that they were keen to fix on day two of the battle. Even though the previous day had been a disaster, an all out cavalry charge was planned to beat the lines of the Scots, with the Earl of Gloucester leading. with Bruce's Schiltrons now advancing, Gloucester ordered his men to charge

with disastrous results, Gloucester and his men were quickly killed and the schiltrons continued to move forward. Over the next few hours, the two armies became locked in a struggle to the death, with more and more men throwing themselves into the battle and just as the battle started to turn for Edward, when his few longbowmen started to fire at the now exhausted men of Bruce's army, the Scottish archers returned fire and the few remaining men from Bruce's army joined the fight, pushing the English into a full retreat.

A modern depiction of the Battle fo Bannockburn SOURCE : Public Domain

The defeat at Bannockburn would have disastrous effects on Edward and his kingdom. Edward continued to spend lavishly and with perhaps the greatest defeat of an English army under his direct command, wasn't exactly popular with his leading lords. His troublesome cousin Thomas Earl of Lancaster was once again in open opposition but, was unable to capitalise on his position as the most powerful nobleman in the kingdom.

Civil war and Hugh de Spenser

By the 1320's Edward and his rebellious cousin were somewhat reconciled, with the more moderate lords in the kingdom taking charge of government but, after years of famine (starting in 1314 lasting until 1321) and disastrous campaigns in Scotland, Edward and his barons were at breaking point. The long threatened civil war finally broke out in 1321 with the new royal favourite Hugh de Spenser the younger on one side and Lancaster on the other.

Hugh de Spenser the younger and his father of the same name had served the royal family for years, and Edward II saw fit to reward them with castles and land in Wales. The only issue with this was that de Spenser was an awful, manipulative man who took advantage even more so than Gaveston, taking land from the other marcher lords including Lancaster and Edward’s Lord of Ireland, Roger Mortimer.

the Coat of Arms of Hugh de Spenser SOURCE: AlexD CC BY-SA 3.0

Roger Mortimer and Lancaster were pitched against Edward and his new favourites in a conflict that further alienated Edward's poor French wife, Isabella and the moderate lords, just wanting peace and a return to relatively good government but, after almost a year of fighting, the moderates at court were able to convince Edward to exile the Despensers and reissues the Ordinances. Just like with Gaveston though, Edward quickly had his favourites returned, taking advantage after the queen was attacked by supporters of the rebellion leading to more support for the king that created a wedge between the rebellious barons. Rushing to Wales, Edward was able to quickly defeat Mortimer, having him imprisoned in the Tower of London before turning north, to face his cousin Lancaster. On the 16th March 1322, he defeated Thomas of Lancaster at the battle of Boroughbridge which led to his capture and execution, and an end to the war.

The death of Thomas of Lancaster and the imprisonment in the tower of Mortimer was a great victory for the king and the Despensers and it allowed the king to reclaim his prerogatives that he lost in 1311 and he and Hugh the younger, ruled virtually as co-kings which further alienated the queen. Understandably, Queen Isabella was moving further and further away from her husband the king, both emotionality and politically as he continued to shower Hugh the younger with land and money regardless of anyone else and by 1325, she was in cahoots with her brother Charles IV of France.

A royal betrayal

With tensions rising between England and France over England’s positions in Gascony, Isabella was sent by the king to protect the peace between the two kingdoms. As a guarantee of the peace, Edwards son also called Edward was sent with his mother as Edward was unable to make the trip himself. Whilst back in her home land, Isabella met up with a familiar face, Roger Mortimer who had recently escaped from the tower of London (one of only a handful to do this successfully) was in exile in France and would offer the queen a well needed way out. Both Isabella and Mortimer wanted the Despensers out and set about gathering an army to invade England.

Mortimer was everything that Edward wasn’t, he was a head strong, arrogant man who knew how to get things done so If Isabella fancied him a bit, who could blame her? A popular rumour both at the time and today is that mortimer and the queen became lovers, earning Isabella the nickname ‘she wolf’. By 1326 Isabella and her new friend, mortimer had gathered a small army and set out from the low countries to have Hugh the younger removed and his control over the king ended. Upon anding back in England, the masses flocked to Isabella forcing Edward to flee with De Spenser. The power couple of mortimer and the queen quickly took control of the country and, once captured, forced her husband to abdicate the throne in favour of their son, who would be crowned in 1327 as Edward III.

A painting showing Isabella returning to England with her son Edward SOURCE: Public Domain

Edward's downfall was swift and painful, watching his wife in the arms of another man, his son on his throne and his favourite Hugh de Spenser suspended from a ladder whilst his genitals were cut off, Edward was likely in a depressed state. Edward was taken to Berkeley Castle and this is where he would live out the rest of his life, dying in September of 1327 supposedly of 'natural causes' at the age of 43. Most scholars believe that Edward was murdered at the request of Roger Mortimer with some of the more depraved stories stating that Edward was killed when a red hot poker was thrust into his anus, a punishment likely in response to the kings apparent homosexuality.

It is impossible when discussing the reign of Edward II, to not mention his sexuality or at least his supposed sexual habits. A point worth raising is if Edward was alive in the 21st century rather than the 14th, he would be judged very differently due to the fact, quite rightly, a man or women sexual preference has no baring on their abilities to perform any task or do any job but, judging Edward without this would be ignorant to the period and an incorrect telling of history.

Edward my have been born to be king but his temperament and personality were not well suited for the crown, he was a mild mannered man with friends in low places, not the qualities of a king in the 1300’s and he had a tendency to make very poor decisions when it came to who he politically and personally aligned with. Edward was most likely a pleasant man, taking a great interest in the lower levels of society and his lack of a stomach for war, two characteristics that did not make him many friends in medieval England.

Edward will go down in history as one of the worst kings in English history but, not because he was a bad man like King John was. Edward suffered greatly from his naivety and loyalty to the wrong people, leaving the door wide open for young, charismatic men to come into his life and take it apart.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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