Relation to me: 19th Great Grandfather
Edward was King of England in 1307 until he was deposed in January of 1327. Also known as Edward of Caernarfon, he was the fourth son of Edward I, becoming heir to the throne after this elder brother, Alphonso. In 1300, Edward began accompanying his father on campaigns to calm Scotland. Six years later, Edward would be knighted in a grand ceremony at Westminster Abbey. In 1307 he succeeded to throne after his father passed away. In the following year, Edward married Isabella of France. She was the daughter of the powerful King Philip IV, and as a part of a long-running effort to resolve tensions between the English and French crowns.
Edward had a very close relationship with Piers Gaveston, who became a part of his household in 1300. The exact nature of their relationship is uncertain. They may have been friends, lovers, or sworn brothers. Gaveston’s arrogance and power as Edward’s favorite provoked discontent, among both the barons and French royal family. Edward was then forced to exile him, but upon his return, the barons pressured the King into agreeing to a wide-range of reforms called the Ordinances of 1311. The newly empowered barons again exiled Gaveston, to which Edward responded by revoking reforms and recalling his favorite. Edward’s cousin, who led this group, including the Earl of Lancaster and a group of barons seized and executed Gaveston in 1312, which next started several years of armed confrontation.
English forces were pushed back in Scotland, where Edward was defeated decisively by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Widespread famine followed and criticism of the King’s reign began to mount. The Despenser family, particularly Hugh Despenser the Younger, became close friends and advisers to Edward, but in 1321, Lancaster and many of the barons seized Despensers’ lands and forced the King to exile them. Edward responded by leading a short military campaign, capturing and executing Lancaster. Both Edward and the Despensers strengthened their grip on their power by revoking the 1311 reforms, executing their enemies and confiscating estates. Not making any progress in Scotland, Edward finally signed a truce with Robert. Opposition to the regime grew when Isabella was sent to France to negotiate a peace treaty in 1325. She turned against Edward and refused to return, allying herself with the exiled Roger Mortimer. They would invade England with a small army in 1326. Edward’s regime would collapse and then fled into Wales, where Edward was captured in November.
The King was forced to relinquish his crown in January of 1327, giving it to his fourteen year old son, Edward III. King Edward II died at Berkeley Castle on the 21st of September, probably being murdered on the orders of the new regime. Edward’s contemporaries criticized his performance as king. They noted his failures in Scotland and the oppressive regime of his later years. However, in the 19th century academics argued that the growth of parliamentary institutions during his reign was a positive development for England over the long term. The debate still continues into the 21st century as to whether Edward was a lazy and incompetent king, or just simply a reluctant and overall unsuccessful ruler.
Where Did Edward Come From?
Edward II was the fourth son of Edward I and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. His father was the King of England and had also inherited Gascony, located in southwestern France. Edward I would hold Gascony as feudal vassal of the King of France. He was also Lord of Ireland and proved to be a successful military leader. Edward I would lead a suppression of the baronial revolts in the 1260s and also joined the 9th Crusade. Through the 1280s he would conquer North Wales and removed the native Welsh princes from power. In the 1290s, he would intervene in Scotland’s civil war, claiming suzerainty over the country. Considered an extremely successful ruler by contemporaries, Edward I was largely able to control powerful earls that had been formed by the senior ranks of the English nobility. Historian Michael Prestwich describes Edward I as having been “a king to inspire fear and respect”, another historian, John Gillingham, characterizes him as an efficient bully.
Edward II’s mother was from a Castilian royal family. She’d hold the County of Ponthieu in northern France. Despite Edward’s father’s successes, when he died in 1307, he left a range of challenges for his son to fix. One of the most critical of these was the problem of English rule in Scotland. This was where Edward’s long, but ultimately inconclusive, military campaign was ongoing when he died. His control in Gascony created tension between himself and the French kings. They had insisted that the English kings should give homage to them for their lands. This problem would remain unresolved. Edward I also faced increasing opposition from his barons over taxation and requisitions required to resource his wars. He left his son debts of around 200,000 pounds when he died.
His Early Life
Born at Caernarfon Castle in North Wales on the 25th of April 1284, he was less than one year old after Edward I had conquered the region. As a result, Edward also became known as Edward of Caernarfon. The king probably deliberately chose the castle as the location of his birth. The castle was an important symbolic location for the native Welsh, being that it was associated with Roman imperial history, and formed the center of the new royal administration of North Wales. Along with his birth came predictions of greatness from contemporary prophets, who had believed that the last days of the world were upon them. They would declare Edward II as a new King Arthur, who would lead England to glory. David Powell, a sixteenth century clergyman, suggests that baby Edward was offered to the Welsh as a prince “that was borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English”, but there’s no evidence to support this account.
Edward’s name was English in origin, being linked to the Anglo-Saxon saint, Edward the Confessor. His name was chosen by his father instead of the more traditional Norman and Castilian names that were selected for his brothers. He had three elder brothers: John, Henry who died before Edward was born, and Alphonso who died in August of 1284, leaving Edward as the heir to the throne. Although Edward was relatively healthy as a child there were concerns through his early years that he too may die and leave his father without a male heir. After his birth, Edward was looked after by a wet-nurse, her name being either Mariota or Mary Maunsel. She took care of him for a few months until she got sick, then Alice de Leygrave became his foster mother. Edward would have barely known his natural mother, Eleanor. She was in Gascony with his father for his earliest years. An official household, complete with staff, was created for baby Edward under the direction of a clerk by the name of Giles of Oudenarde.
Edward’s Childhood, Personality and Appearance
The spending on Edward’s personal household had increased as he grew older. In 1293, William of Blyborough had taken over as the household’s administrator. Edward was probably given a religious education by Dominican Friars that his mother invited into his household in 1290. He was assigned one of his grandmother’s followers, Guy Ferre as his magister. Guy was responsible for Edward’s discipline, training him in riding and military skills. It’s not certain how well educated Edward was and there is very little evidence for his ability to read and write, even though his mother was keen that her other children were well educated. Guy was a relatively educated man for the time. In his daily life, Edward had likely spoke Anglo-Norman French, in addition to some English and possibly Latin.
He had a normal upbringing for a member of a royal family. The young prince was interested in horses and horse breeding and thus became a good rider. He also liked dogs, particularly the greyhound breed. In his letters he shows a quirky sense of humor, joking about sending unsatisfactory animals to his friends, such as horses who didn’t like carrying riders and lazy hunting dogs that were too slow to catch rabbits. He was not particularly fond of hunting or falconry, which were both popular activities during the 14th century. Edward did enjoy music, including Welsh music and the newly invented crwth instrument, as well as musical organs. He didn’t take part in jousting, either because he lacked aptitude or because he had been banned from participating for his personal safety, but he was supportive of the sport.
Edward grew up to be a tall and muscular man and was considered good looking by the standards of the time. He had a reputation for being a competent public speaker and was known for his generosity towards his household staff. A bit more out of the usual, Edward also enjoyed rowing, hedging and ditching as well as associating with laborers and other lower-class workers. This behavior wasn’t considered normal for the nobility then and attracted criticism from contemporaries.
During 1290, Edward’s father had confirmed the Treaty of Birgham in which he had promised to marry his six-year-old son to young Margaret of Norway, who had a potential claim to the crown of Scotland. Margaret passed away later that year, which brought an end to the plan. His mother, Eleanor also died shortly after, followed by his grandmother, Eleanor of Provence. Edward was distraught over his wife’s death and held a huge funeral for her. His son would inherit the County of Ponthieu from Eleanor when she passed away. A French marriage was next considered for the young Edward, one to help secure lasting peace with France, but war broke out in 1294. The idea was replaced with the proposal of marriage to the daughter of the Count of Flanders, this also failed when it was blocked by King Philip IV of France.
Early Campaigns in Scotland
From 1297 through 1298, Edward was left as regent in charge of England while the King campaigned in
Flanders against Philip IV, who had occupied part of the English King’s lands in Gascony. On his return, Edward I signed a peace treaty, under which he had taken Philip’s sister, Margaret, as his wife, agreeing that Prince Edward would, in time, marry Philip’s daughter Isabella. Isabella was just two years old at the time of the treaty. In theory, the marriage would mean that the disputed Duchy of Gascony would be inherited by the descendant of both Edward and Philip, providing a possible end to the long-running tensions. The young Edward seems to have got along with his new stepmother, who had given birth to Edward’s two half-brothers, Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock. As king, Edward would later provide his brothers with financial support and titles.
Edward I would go back to Scotland again in 1300, this time taking his son with him. He made his son the commander of the rearguard at siege of Caerlaverock. In the Spring of 1301, the king declared Edward the Prince of Wales, granting him the earldom of Chester and lands across North Wales. He seems to have hoped that doing such would help pacify the region, and that it would give his son some financial independence. Edward received homage from his Welsh subjects and then joined his father for his 1301 Scottish campaign, during of which he would besiege Brechin Castle, deploying his own siege engine in the operation. Through the Spring of 1304, Edward conducted negotiations with rebel Scottish leaders on the King’s behalf. When this had failed, he joined his father for the siege of Stirling Castle.
In the following year, Edward and his father quarreled, probably over the issue of money. The Prince had an altercation with Bishop Walter Langton, who had served as the royal treasurer, apparently over the amount of financial support Edward had received from the Crown. Edward I defended his treasurer and banished his son and companions from his court, receiving a cut of their financial support. After some negotiations involving family members and friends the two men were reconciled.
When the Scottish conflict flared up again in 1306, Robert the Bruce killed his rival John Comyn and declared himself the King of Scots. Edward I mobilized a fresh army, but decided that, this time, his son would be formally in charge of the expedition. Prince Edward was made the Duke of Aquitaine, then along with many other young men, he was knighted in a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey during what was called the Feast of the Swans. Amid a huge feast in a neighboring hall, reminiscent of Arthurian legends and crusading events, the assembly took a collective oath to defeat Bruce. It’s not clear what role Prince Edward’s forces had played in the campaign that summer, but under the orders of Edward I, they saw a punitive, brutal retaliation against Bruce’s faction in Scotland. Edward would return to England in September, where diplomatic negotiations to finalize a date for his marriage to Isabella had continued.
Piers Gaveston and Sexuality
At this same time, Edward had become close with Piers Gaveston, the son of one of the King’s household knights. His lands were adjacent to Gascony and he had joined Prince Edward’s household in 1300, possibly on Edward I’s instruction. Edward II and Piers got along well and he would become a squire of Edward II. Piers would soon be referred to as a close companion of Edward, before he was knighted by the King during the Feast of Swans in 1306.
King Edward I then exiled Gaveston to Gascony in 1307, for reasons that still remain unclear. According to one chronicler, Edward had asked his father to allow him to give Gaveston the County of Ponthieu. The king was furious, pulling his son’s hair out in large handfuls, before exiling Gaveston. Official court records, however, show that Gaveston was only temporarily exiled and was supported during the time by a comfortable stipening. There is no reason given for the order of exile, suggesting that it may have been an act that was aimed at punishing Prince Edward in some way.
The possibility that Edward had a sexual relationship with Gaveston or his later favorites has been greatly discussed by historians, whose views are complicated by the paucity of surviving evidence to determine for certain the details of their relationship. Homosexuality was fiercely condemned by the Church during the 14th-century in England, equating it with heresy, but engaging in sex with another man hadn’t necessarily defined an individual’s personal identity in the same way that it may in the 21st-century. Edward and Piers both had sexual relationships with their wives, who also bore them children. Edward also had an illegitimate son, and may have had an affair with his niece, Eleanor de Clare.
Contemporary evidence supporting their homosexual relationship comes primarily from an anonymous chronicler in the 1320s. This person described how Edward had “felt such love” for Gaveston that “he entered into a convent of constancy, and bound himself with him before all other mortals with a bond of indissoluble love, firmly drawn up and fastened with a knot”. The first specific suggestion of Edward engaging in sexual relations with men was recorded in 1334. Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Winchester, was accused of having said in 1326 that Edward was a “sodomite”. Although Orleton had defended himself by arguing that he had meant that Edward’s advisor, Hugh Despenser the Younger, was a sodomite, rather than the late king. The Meaux Chronicle from the 1390s simply states that Edward had given himself “too much to the vice of sodomy”.
Alternatively, Edward and Piers may have just been friends with a close working relationship. Comments from contemporary chroniclers are vaguely worded. Orleton’s allegations were at least somewhat politically motivated and are very similar to the highly politicized sodomy allegations that were made against Pope Boniface VIII and the Knights Templar in 1303 and 1308. Other, later accounts, by chroniclers of Edward’s activities may trace back to Orleton’s original allegations and were definitely adversely colored by events at the end of Edward’s reign. Such historians as Michael Prestwich and Seymour Philips have argued that the public nature of the English royal court would have made it unlikely that any homosexual affairs would’ve remained discreet. Neither the contemporary Church, Edward’s father, or his father-in-law appear to have made any adverse comments about his sexual behavior.
A more recent theory, that was proposed by historian Pierre Chaplais, suggests that Edward and Piers had entered into a bond of adoptive brotherhood. This type of compact, in which participants would pledge to support each other in a form of “brotherhood-in-arms” were not unknown between close male friends in the Middle Ages. Many chroniclers described Edward and Piers’ relationship as one of brotherhood, and one explicitly noted that Edward had taken Piers as his adopted brother. Chaplais argues that the pair may have made a formal compact in either 1300 or 1301, and that they would have seen any later promises they made to separate or to leave each other as having been made under duress and thus was invalid. Such a compact though, may not have excluded their relationship from having a sexual dimension as well.
Edward’s Coronation and Marriage
Edward I mobilized another army for the Scottish campaign in 1307, which Prince Edward was due to join in that summer. However, the elderly King had been increasingly unwell and passed away on the 7th of July at Burgh by Sands. His son would travel from London immediately after the news of his father’s illness reached him. On the 20th of July he would be proclaimed king himself. Edward II continued towards the north into Scotland and on the 4th of August he received homage from his Scottish supporters at Dumfries, before he abandoned the campaign and returned to the south. He quickly recalled Piers Gaveston, who was then in exile, and appointed him to be Earl of Cornwall, before he arranged his marriage to the wealthy Margaret de Clare. Edward also arrested his old adversary, Bishop Langton, and dismissed him from his post as treasurer. His father’s body was kept at Waltham Abbey for several months before he was taken for burial to Westminster, where Edward would erect a simple marble tomb for his father.
During 1308, Edward’s marriage to Isabella of France proceeded. He crossed the English Channel to France in January, leaving Gaveston as his custos regni, in charge of the kingdom in his absence. This arrangement was quite unusual and involved unprecedented powers being delegated to Gaveston, backed by a specially engraved Great Seal. Edward II had probably hoped that the marriage to Isabella would strengthen his position in Gascony and bring him much needed funds. Final negotiations, however, would prove to be challenging. Edward and Philip IV didn’t like one another and the French King drove a hard bargain over the size of Isabella’s dowry and the details of the administration of Edward’s lands in France. As part of the agreement that they worked out, Edward would have to give homage to Philip for the Duchy of Aquitaine, and also would agree to a commission to complete the implementation of the 1303 Treaty of Paris.
Isabella and Edward were married in Boulogne on the 25th of January. He would give Isabella a psalter as a wedding gift. Her father gave Isabella gifts worth over 21,000 livres and a fragment of the True Cross. The couple returned to England in February, where Edward would order Westminster Palace to be lavishly restored in readiness for their coronation and wedding feast. The feat would be complete with marble tables, forty ovens and a fountain that would produce wine and pimento, a spiced medieval drink. After some delays, the ceremony went ahead on the 25th of February, under the guidance of Robert Winchelsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a part of the coronation, Edward swore to uphold “the rightful laws and customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen”. It’s not quite certain what this actually meant. It might have been inserted to force Edward to accept future legislation, or may have been inserted to prevent him from overturning any future vows he might take. Another option is that it may have been an attempt by the King to ingratiate himself with the barons. The event would be marred by large crowds of eager spectators who surged into the palace. They would even knock down a wall and force Edward to flee out the back door.
Edward’s new wife, Isabella, was just twelve-years-old at the time of their wedding, this was even young by the standards of that time. Edward had probably had sexual relations with some mistresses during their first few years together. During this time he had fathered an illegitimate son, Adam, who was born as early as 1307. Edward and Isabella’s first son, the future Edward III, was born in 1312 amid great celebrations. The couple would have three more children together after the king’s heir. Their son John was born in 1316, daughter Eleanor in 1318 and another daughter, Joan in 1321.
Tensions Mount Over Gaveston
In 1307, when Gaveston returned from exile, his arrival was accepted by the barons, but opposition quickly grew. He appeared to have an excessive influence on royal policy, which lead to complaints from one chronicler that there were “two kings reigning in one kingdom, the one in name and the other in deed”. Accusations, of which were probably untrue, were aimed at Gaveston, stating that he had stolen royal funds and had purloined Isabella’s wedding presents. Piers would play a key role at Edward’s coronation, provoking fury from both the English and French contingents about the earl’s ceremonial precedence and magnificent clothes, as well as Edward’s apparent preference for Gaveston’s company over that of Isabella’s at the feast.
During February of 1308, Parliament gathered in a heated atmosphere. Edward was eager to discuss the potential for governmental reform, but the barons weren’t willing to begin any such debate until the problem of Gaveston had been resolved. Violence seemed likely, but the situation was resolved through the mediation of moderate Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln, who had convinced the barons to back down. A fresh parliament was then held in April, where the barons had once again criticized Gaveston, demanding his exile and this time they were backed by Isabella and the French monarchy. Edward still resisted, but had finally acquiesced, agreeing to send his friend to Aquitaine, under the threat of excommunication by the Archbishop of Canterbury should he return. At the last minute, Edward changed his mind and instead he sent Gaveston to Dublin and appointed him as Lieutenant of Ireland.
King Edward would call for a fresh military campaign for Scotland. The idea was quietly abandoned, and instead the King and barons met in August of 1308 to discuss a reform. Behind the scenes, Edward opened negotiations to convince both Pope Clement V and Philip IV to allow Gaveston to return to England, offering in exchange to suppress the Knights Templar in England and release the Bishop Langton from prison. Edward called for a new meeting of members of the Church and key barons in January of 1309. The leading earls then gathered in March and April, possibly under the leadership of the Earl of Lancaster, Thomas. Yet another parliament would follow, which would refuse to allow Piers Gaveston to return to England, but had offered to grant Edward additional taxes if he had agreed to a program of reform.
Edward II sent assurances to the Pope that the conflict surrounding Gaveston’s role was at an end. On the basis of these promises, as well as procedural concerns about how the original decision had been taken, the Pope agreed to annul the Archbishop’s threat to excommunicate Gaveston, thus opening the possibility of Gaveston returning. He would in fact return to England in June, where he was met by his good friend. At parliament in the following month, Edward made a range of concessions to locate those that were opposed to Gaveston, including the agreement to limit the powers of the royal steward and the marshal of the royal household, as well as to regulate the Crown’s unpopular powers of purveyance and to abandon the recently enacted customs legislation. In return, parliament agreed to fresh taxes for the war in Scotland. However, temporarily, at least, Edward and the barons had appeared to have come to a successful compromise.
Ordinances of 1311
Upon his return, Piers Gaveston’s relationship with the major barons became increasingly difficult. He was considered to have been arrogant and took to referring to the earls by offensive names, including calling one of the more powerful members the “dog of Warwick”. The Earl of Lancaster and Gaveston’s enemies refused to attend the parliament in 1310 since Gaveston was present. Edward was facing increasing financial problems, owing 22,000 pounds to his Frescobaldi Italian bankers, and faced protests over how he was using his right of prises to acquire supplies for war in Scotland. Edward’s attempts to raise an army for Scotland would collapse and the earls suspended the collection of the new taxes.
The parliament and the king would meet again in February of 1310. The proposed discussions of Scottish policy were replaced by a debate over domestic problems. Edward was petitioned to abandon Gaveston as his counsellor and instead adopt the advice of twenty-one elected barons who were termed Ordainers. They had to carry out a widespread reform of both the government and the royal household. Under huge pressure, Edward decided to agree to a proposal and the Ordainers were elected, broadly evenly split between reformers and conservatives. While Ordainers began their plans for reform, Edward and Gaveston had taken a new army of around 4,700 men to Scotland, where the military situation had continued to deteriorate. Robert the Bruce had declined to give battle and the campaign progressed ineffectually over the winter, until supplies and money ran out in 1311, forcing Edward to go back to the south.
By this time, Ordainers had drawn up their Ordinances for reform and Edward had little political choice but to give way and accept them in October. The Ordinances of 1311 contained clauses that limited the King’s right to go to war or to grant land without parliament’s approval. This would give parliament control over the royal administration, abolishing the system of prises, excluding the Frescobaldi bankers, and introduced a system to monitor the adherence to the Ordinances. In addition, the Ordinances exiled Gaveston yet again. This time, with the instructions that he should not be allowed to live anywhere within Edward’s lands, including Gascony and Ireland. He was also to be stripped of all of his titles. Edward retreated to his estates at Windsor and Kings Langley, Gaveston left England and possibly went to northern France or Flanders.
The Death of Piers Gaveston
The tensions between the barons and Edward continued to remain high. The earls, who were opposed to the king, kept their personal armies mobilized late into 1311. By now, Edward became estranged from his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster, who had held the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester, Lincoln, Salisbury and Derby, with an income of around 11,000 pounds a year from his lands. This was almost double that of the next wealthiest baron. Backed by the earls of Arundel, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and Warwick, Lancaster led a powerful faction in England, but he wasn’t personally interested in practical administration, nor was he a particularly imaginative or effective politician.
Edward had responded to the baronial threat by revoking the Ordinances and recalling Gaveston from exile. The men were reunited with one another at York in January of 1312. The barons were furious and gathered together in London, where Gaveston was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and plans were put in place to capture Gaveston and prevent him from fleeing to Scotland. Edward, his wife Isabella and Gaveston left for Newcastle, pursued by Lancaster and his followers. The royal party fled by ship and landed at Scarborough, abandoning many of their belongings, it was here that Gaveston stayed while Edward and Isabella returned to York. After the siege, Gaveston surrendered to the earls of Pembroke and Surrey, on the promise that he would not be harmed. He had with him a huge collection of gold, silver and gems, probably part of the royal treasury, which he later was accused of having stolen from Edward.
On the way back from the north, Pembroke stopped in the village of Deddington in the Midlands. He put Gaveston under guard there while he went to visit his wife. The Earl of Warwick would take this opportunity to seize Gaveston and take him to Warwick Castle, where Lancaster and the rest of his action assembled on the 18th of June. At a brief trial, Piers was declared guilty of being a traitor under the terms of the Ordinances. He was executed on Blacklow Hill the next day, under the authority of the Earl of Lancaster. Piers’ body was not buried until 1315 when his funeral was held in Kings Langley Priory.
Tensions with Lancaster and France
The reactions to Gaveston’s death varied considerably. Edward was furious and deeply upset over what he had seen as a murder of Gaveston. He made provisions for Gaveston’s family and intended to take his revenge on the barons that were involved. The earls of Pembroke and Surrey were embarrassed and angry about Warwick’s actions and shifted their support to Edward in the aftermath. To Lancaster and his core of supporters, the execution had been legal and necessary so as to preserve the stability of the kingdom. A new civil war appeared to be likely. In December, the Earl of Pembroke negotiated a potential peace treaty between the two sides. The treaty would pardon the opposition barons for having killed Gaveston, in exchange for their support for a fresh campaign in Scotland. Lancaster and Warwick, however, didn’t give the treaty their immediate approval, and further negotiations continued through most of 1313.
In the meantime, the Earl of Pembroke had been negotiating with France to resolve the long-standing disagreements over the administration of Gascony. As part of this, Edward and Isabella had agreed to travel to Paris in June of 1313 to meet with Philip IV. Edward had probably hoped for both to resolve the problems in the south of France, and to win Philip’s support in dispute with the barons. For Philip though, this was an opportunity to impress his son-in-law with his power and wealth. The visit proved to have been a spectacular one. It would include a grand ceremony of which the two kings would knight Philip’s sons. Two hundred other men were also knighted in Notre Dame and large banquets were held along the River Seine. A public declaration that both kings and their queens would join a crusade to the Levant, and the event was spoiled only by a serious fire in Edward’s quarters.
Upon Edward’s return from France, he found his political position greatly strengthened. After intense negotiations, the earls, including Lancaster and Warwick, came to a compromise in October of 1313. The negotiation was quite similar to the draft agreement of the previous December. Edward’s finances also improved, thanks to parliament agreeing to raise taxes, a loan of 160,000 florins (25,000 pounds) from the Pope and 33,000 pounds were also borrowed from Philip. Further loans organized by Edward’s new Italian banker, Antonio Pesagno also helped his financial situation. For the first time in his reign, Edward II’s government was well-funded.
The Battle of Bannockburn
Depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn
By 1314, Robert the Bruce had recaptured most of the castles in Scotland that were once held by Edward. He pushed raiding parties into northern England as far as Carlisle. In response, Edward had planned a major military campaign with the support of Lancaster and barons, mustering together a large army of between 15,000 and 20,000 men. Meanwhile, Robert attacked Stirling Castle, a key fortification in Scotland. Its English commander had stated that Edward’s uncles had arrived by the 24th of June and he would surrender. News of the surrender reached Edward in late May and he decided to speed up his march north from Berwick to relieve the castle. Robert, along with 5,500 to 6,500 troops, most of which were spear-men, prepared to prevent Edward’s forces from reaching Stirling.
On the 23rd of June, the battle started as the English army made an attempt to force its way across the high ground of the Bannock Burn, which was surrounded by marshlands. Fighting between the two sides broke out and resulted in the death of Sir Henry de Bohun, who Robert had killed in personal combat. Edward continued his advances the next day. He encountered most of the Scottish army as they emerged from the woods of New Park. Edward appears to have not expected the Scots to give battle there and as a result he had kept his forces marching. Archers, that were usually used to break up the enemy spear formations from the rear of the army, were moved to the front. His cavalry found it hard to operate in the cramped terrain and were crushed by Robert’s spear-men. The English army was overwhelmed and its leaders were unable to regain control.
King Edward stayed behind to fight, but it became obvious to the Earl of Pembroke that the battle was a loss. He dragged the king away from the battlefield while being quickly pursued by the Scottish forces. Edward had only just escaped the heavy fighting, making a vow to found a Carmelite religious house at Oxford if he had survived. Historian Roy Haines describes the defeat as a “calamity of stunning proportions” for the English side, whose losses in battle were huge. In the aftermath of the defeat, Edward retreated to Dunbar, then by ship to Berwick, and then back to York. In his absence, Stirling Castle had quickly fell.
Famine and Criticism
After the fiasco at Bannockburn, the earls of Lancaster and Warwick saw their political influence increase. They pressured Edward to re-implement the Ordinances of 1311. Lancaster became the head of the royal council in 1316, promising to take forward the Ordinances through a new reform commission, but he appears to have abandoned this role not long after, partially because of disagreements with other barons, and possibly because of ill-health. Lancaster would refuse to meet with Edward in parliament over the next two years, bringing any effective governance to a standstill. This stymied any hopes for a fresh campaign into Scotland and raised fears of a civil war. After many negotiations, once again involving the Earl of Pembroke, Edward and Lancaster finally agreed to the Treaty of Leake in August of 1318. This would pardon Lancaster and his faction, and also established a new royal council, temporarily averting a conflict.
Edward’s difficulties were exacerbated by prolonged problems in English agriculture, part of a wider phenomenon in northern Europe known as the Great Famine. The famine started with torrential rains in late 1314, followed by a very cold winter and heavy rains the next spring. Many sheep and cattle were killed during this time and bad weather continued, almost unabated into 1321, which resulted in a string of bad harvests. Revenues from exports of wool also plummeted and the price of food also rose, even though Edward’s government made attempts at controlling the prices. Edward called for hoarders to release their food and tried to encourage both internal trade and importation of grain, but only with little success. The requisitioning of provisions for the royal court during the famine years only added to tensions.
Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce exploited his victory at Bannockburn so that he could raid northern England, initially attacking Carlisle and Berwick and then reaching further to the south into Lancashire and Yorkshire, even threatening the town of York itself. Edward undertook the expensive but unsuccessful campaign to stop his advances in 1319, but the famine had made it increasingly hard to keep his garrisons supplied with food. In the meantime, a Scottish expedition, led by Robert’s brother had successfully invaded Ireland in 1315. Edward Bruce declared himself as King of Ireland at this time, but he was finally defeated in 1318 by Edward II’s Irish justiciar, Edmund Butler at the Battle of Faughart. Edward Bruce’s severed head was sent back to the King. Revolts would break out in Lancashire and Bristol in 1315 and then in Glamorgan, Wales in 1316, but they were suppressed.
The famine and Scottish policy were felt to be punishments from God and complaints about Edward continued to multiply. Many would criticize Edward’s “improper” and ignoble interest in rural pursuits. In 1318, a mentally ill man by the name of John of Powderham appeared in Oxford. He claimed that he was the real Edward II and that King Edward was a changeling that was swapped at birth. John was quickly executed, but his claims resonated with those criticizing Edward for his lack of regal behavior and steady leadership. Opposition also grew around Edward’s treatment of his royal favorites.
Edward had managed to retain some of his previous advisers, even though attempts were made by the Ordainers to remove all of them. He divided the extensive de Clare inheritance among two of his new favorites. The former household knights, Hugh Audley and Roger Damory, were instantly made extremely rich. Many of the moderates who had helped deliver the peaceful compromise in 1318 had now started to turn against King Edward, making violence ever more likely.
The Despenser War
The long-threatened civil war would finally break out in England in 1321, triggered by tensions between many of the barons and royal favorites and the Despenser family. Hugh Despenser the Elder had served Edward, as well as his father, while Hugh Despenser the Younger had married into the wealthy de Clare family. He would become the King’s chamberlain and also acquired Glamorgan in the Welsh Marches in 1317 and subsequently expanded his holdings and power across Wales, mainly at the expense of other Marcher Lords. The Earl of Lancaster and the Despensers were fierce enemies. Lancaster’s antipathy was shared by most of the Despenser neighbors, including the Earl of Hereford, the Mortimer family and the recently elevated Hugh Audley and Roger Damory. Edward, however, increasingly relied on the Despensers for advice and support. He was particularly close to Hugh the Younger, who one chronicler noted he “loved…dearly with all his heart and mind”.
Early on in 1321 Lancaster mobilized a coalition of Despenser’s enemies across Marcher territories. Edward and Hugh the Younger became aware of these plans in March and then headed for the west, hoping that negotiations led by the moderate Earl of Pembroke would defuse the crisis. This time, Pembroke had made his excuses and declined to intervene and a war broke out in May. The Despensers’ lands were quickly seized by a coalition of Marcher Lords and the local gentry, which had condemned the Despensers for having broken the Ordinances. Edward had tried to reconcile, but in July the opposition occupied London and called for the permanent removal of the Despensers. Fearing that he may be deposed if he had refused, Edward agreed to exile them and pardoned the Marcher Lords for their actions.
Edward had started planning his revenge. With the help of Pembroke, the King would gather a small coalition of his half-brothers, a few of the earls and some of the senior clergy and began preparing for war. The king started with Bartholomew of Badlesmere. The King’s wife, Isabella, was sent to Bartholomew’s stronghold, Leeds Castle, to deliberately create a casus belli. Bartholomew’s wife, Margaret, took the bait and her men killed several of Isabella’s retinue, which gave Edward an excuse to intervene. Lancaster refused to help Bartholomew, who was then his personal enemy, and Edward quickly regained control of the southeast of England. Alarmed by this, Lancaster mobilized his own enemy in the north of England. Edward would muster up his own forces in the southwest as the Despensers returned from exile and were pardoned by the royal council.
In December, Edward led his army across the River Severn and advanced into the Welsh Marches where opposition forces gathered. The coalition of Marcher Lords crumbled and the Mortimers surrendered to the king, but Damory, Audley and the Earl of Hereford marched to the north in January to join Lancaster, who had laid siege to the king’s castle at Tickhill. Bolstered by fresh reinforcements from the Marcher Lords, Edward pursued them, meeting Lancaster’s army on the 10th of March at Burton-on-Trent. Lancaster was outnumbered and thus retreated without a fight and fled to the north. Andrew Harclay cornered Lancaster at the Battle of Boroughbridge and captured the Earl. King Edward and Hugh the Younger met with Lancaster at Pontefract, where, after a summary trial, the earl was found guilty of treason and then beheaded.
Edward and the Despensers
King Edward punished the Lancaster supporters through a system of special courts throughout the country, with judges instructed in advance on how to sentence the accused. Those that were accused were not allowed to speak in their own defense, and many of these so called “Contrariants” were simply executed. Others were imprisoned or fined and their lands seized and surviving relatives detained as well. The Earl of Pembroke, who Edward now did not trust, was arrested and was only released after he pledged all of his possessions as collateral for his own loyalty. Edward was able to reward his loyal supporters, especially the Despenser family, with the confiscated estates and new titles. Fines and confiscations would make Edward very rich, almost 15,000 pounds were brought in during the first few months and by 1326, his treasury contained 62,000 pounds. A parliament had been held in March of 1322 at York, it was here that the Ordinances were formally revoked through the Statute of York and fresh taxes were agreed upon for a new campaign against the Scots.
Campaigns against Scotland by the English were planned on a massive scale at this time as well. Forces were gathered with a total number of around 23,350 men. Edward would advance through Lothian towards Edinburgh. Robert the Bruce would decline to meet him in battle, which only drew Edward further into Scotland. Plans for resupplying the campaign by sea had failed and the large army rapidly ran out of food, Edward would be forced to retreat south of the border, with the Scottish raiding parties on their tail. Edward’s illegitimate son, Adam, would die during the campaign, raiding parties almost captured the king’s wife who had been staying at Tynemouth and was forced to flee by sea. The king planned for a fresh campaign, backed by another round of taxes, but the confidence in Edward’s Scottish policy was diminishing. Andrew Harclay, instrumental in securing Edward’s victories the previous year and who was recently made the Earl of Carlisle, independently negotiated a peace treaty with Robert the Bruce, proposing that Edward would recognize Robert as the King of Scotland. In return, Robert would cease to interfere in England. Edward was furious at this and immediately had Harclay executed, but he did agree to a thirteen year truce with Robert.
Hugh Despenser the Younger would live and rule in grand style, playing a leading role in Edward’s government. He also executed policy through a wide network of family retainers. Hugh was supported by Robert Baldock and Walter Stapledon, Edward’s chancellor and lord treasurer. Due to his position the Despensers were able to accumulate land and wealth to provide a superficial cover for what historian Seymour Phillips describes as “the reality of fraud, threats of violence and abuse of legal procedure”. Meanwhile, Edward had faced growing opposition towards himself, miracles were reported around the late Earl of Lancaster’s tomb and at the gallows that were used to execute members of the opposition in Bristol. Law and order began to break down as was encouraged by the chaos that was caused by the seizure of lands. The old opposition that consisted of Marcher Lords’ associates would attempt to free prisoners that Edward was holding in Wallingford Castle, along with Roger Mortimer, one of the most prominent of the imprisoned Marcher Lords. He would escape from the Tower of London and ended up fleeing to France.
War with France
Disagreements between Edward and the French Crown over the Duchy of Gascony would lead to the War of Saint-Sardos in 1324. Charles, Edward’s brother-in-law, had become the King of France in 1322 and was more aggressive than his predecessors. In 1323, he had insisted that Edward come to Paris to give homage to him for Gascony and demanded that his administrators in Gascony allow the French officials there to carry out orders that were given to them in Paris. Matters came to a head in October when a group of Edward’s soldiers hanged a French sergeant for trying to build a new fortified town in the Agenais, which was a contested section on the Gascon border. Edward had denied having any responsibility for the incident but the relations between Edward and Charles continued to sour. A year later, Edward dispatched the Earl of Pembroke to Paris to broker a solution, but the earl ended up dying suddenly of an illness while en-route. Charles mobilized his army and ordered an invasion on Gascony.
King Edward’s forces that were in Gascony numbered around 4,400 strong, but the French army, commanded by Charles of Valois had numbered far greater at 7,000. Valois would take Agenais and then advanced further, cutting off the main city of Bordeaux. In response, Edward ordered the arrest of any French people in England and also seized Isabella’s lands on the basis that she was of French origin. During November of 1324, Edward met with the earls and the English Church who had recommended that he lead a force of 11,000 men to Gascony. Edward chose to not go personally but instead sent the Earl of Surrey. Meanwhile, Edward opened up fresh negotiations with the French king. Charles advanced various proposals, the most tempting of which was a suggestion that if Isabella and Prince Edward were to travel to Paris and the Prince was to give homage to the French King for Gascony, he would terminate the war and return the Agenais. Edward and his advisers had concerns about sending the prince to France, but agreed to send Isabella on her own as an envoy in March of 1325.
A Rift with Isabella
With Edward’s envoys, Isabella carried out negotiations with the French in late March. The negotiations proved to be difficult. They arrived at a settlement only after Isabella had personally intervened with her brother, Charles. The terms favored the French crown, in particular, Edward would have to give homage, in person, to Charles for Gascony. Concerned with the consequences of a war breaking out once again, Edward had agreed to the treaty, but decided to give Gascony to his son, also named Edward. He also sent the prince to give homage in Paris and the young prince crossed over the English Channel and completed the bargain in September.
King Edward had now expected Isabella and their son to return to England, but instead Isabella remained in France and showed no intention of making her way back until 1322. Edward and Isabella’s marriage appears to have been a successful one, but by the time that the queen left for France in 1325 their marriage had deteriorated. Isabella appears to have disliked Hugh Despenser the Younger intensely, not least cause of his abuse of high status women. Isabella was so embarrassed that she had fled from the Scottish armies three times during her marriage to Edward, blaming Hugh for the final occurrence in 1322. When Edward had negotiated a recent truce with Robert the Bruce, he had severely disadvantaged a range of noble families who owned land in Scotland, including the Beaumonts who were close friends of Isabella’s. She was also angry about the arrest of her household and the seizure of her lands in 1324. Finally, Edward had taken away her children and gave the custody of them to Hugh Despenser’s wife.
By February of 1326, it was clear that Isabella was involved in a relationship with the exiled Marcher Lord, Roger Mortimer. It’s not clear when she first met Mortimer or when their relationship began, but both had wanted to se Edward and the Despensers removed from power. The king appealed for his son to
return, and for Charles to intervene on his behalf, but this had no effect.
Edward’s opponents started gathering around Isabella and Mortimer in Paris and Edward became increasingly anxious about the possibility that Mortimer may invade England. Isabella and Mortimer turned to William, the Count of Hainault, and proposed a marriage between Prince Edward and William’s daughter, Philippa. In return for the advantageous alliance with the English heir to the throne, and sizeable dower for the bride, William offered 132 transport vessels and eight warships to assist in the invasion of England. Prince Edward and Philippa were betrothed on the 27th of August and Isabella and Mortimer prepared for their campaign.
From August through September of 1326, Edward mobilized his defenses along the coasts of England to protect against the possibility of an invasion either by France or by Roger Mortimer. Fleets were gathered at the ports of Portsmouth in the south and Orwell on the east coast. A raiding force of 1600 men was sent across the English Channel into Normandy as a diversionary attack. Edward would issue nationalistic appeal for his subjects to defend the kingdom, but this had little impact. Regime’s holding onto power at the local level were fragile. The Despensers were widely disliked, many of those that Edward entrusted with the defense of the kingdom had proved incompetent, or promptly turned against the regime. Some 2,000 men were ordered to gather at Orwell to repel any invasion, only fifty-five of them appear to have actually arrived though.
Roger Mortimer, Isabella and the thirteen-year-old Prince Edward, accompanied by King Edward’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock would land in Orwell on the 24th of September with a small force of men and were met with no resistance. Instead, enemies of the Despensers moved quickly to join them, including Edward’s other half-brother, Thomas of Brotherton and Henry of Lancaster who had inherited the earldom from his brother Thomas; as well as a range of senior clergymen.Ensconced in the residence halls of the fortified and secure Tower of London, Edward attempted to garner the support from within the capital. The city of London rose up against the government and on the 2nd of October the King left London, taking the Despensers with him. London descended into anarchy, as mobs attacked Edward’s remaining officials and associates, killing his former treasurer, Walter Stapledon in St. Paul’s Cathedral. They also took the Tower and released the prisoners that were held inside.
Edward continued west up the Thames Valley, reaching Gloucester sometime between the 9th and 12th of October, hoping to reach Wales. From there he mobilized an army against the invaders, but Mortimer and Isabella were not far behind. Proclamations would condemn the Despensers’ recent regime. Day-by-day they gathered new supporters. Edward and the younger Despenser crossed over the border and set sail from Chepstow, probably aiming first for Lundy, then for Ireland. It was in Ireland that the king had hoped to receive refuge and raise a fresh army. Bad weather drove them back though and they landed at Cardiff. Edward retreated to Caerphilly Castle and attempted to rally his remaining forces.
The king’s authority collapsed in England and in his absence, Isabella’s faction took over the administration with the support of the Church. Her forces surrounded Bristol, which was where Hugh Despenser the Elder had taken shelter and surrendered, then was promptly executed. Edward and Hugh the Younger fled their castle around the 2nd of November, leaving behind jewelry, considerable supplies and at least 13,000 pounds in cash, possibly once again hoping to reach Ireland. On the 16th of November, they were betrayed and captured by a search party north of Caerphilly. Edward was escorted first to Monmouth Castle and from there, back into England, where he was held at Henry of Lancaster’s fortress at Kenilworth. The king’s final remaining forces had by now been besieged in Caerphilly Castle. They would surrender five months later in April of 1327.
Isabella and Mortimer quickly took revenge on the former regime. Hugh Despenser the Younger was put on trial and was declared a traitor. He was sentenced to being drawn, disemboweled, castrated and quartered and was executed on the 24th of November 1326. Edward’s former chancellor, Robert Baldock would die in Fleet Prison and the Earl of Arundel was beheaded. Edward’s position though was a bit more problematic. He was still married to Isabella, in principle, and still remained king. Most of the new administration however, had a lot to lose if he were released and had potentially regained power.
There was no procedure set for removing an English king from the throne. Adam Orelton, the Bishop of Hereford, made a series of public allegations about the king’s conduct. During January of 1327, a parliament gathered at Westminster, at which the question of Edward’s future was raised. The king refused to attend the meeting. Parliament, initially ambivalent, responded to the London crowds that had called for Prince Edward to take the throne. On the 12th of January, leading barons and clergy had agreed that Edward II should be removed and then replaced by his son. The next day it was presented to an assembly of barons, where it was argued that Edward’s weak leadership and personal faults had led the kingdom into disaster, and that he was incompetent to lead the country.
A little while later a representative delegation of barons, clergy and knights were sent to Kenilworth to speak to the King. On the 20th of January, Henry of Lancaster and bishops from Winchester and Lincoln met privately with Edward in the castle. They informed him that if he were to resign as the monarch, his son Prince Edward would succeed him, but if he had failed to do so, his son might be disinherited as well and the crown would be given to an alternative candidate. In tears, Edward agreed to abdicate his position as king. The following day, Sir William Trussell, representing the kingdom as a whole, withdrew his homage and formally ended Edward’s reign. A proclamation was sent to London announcing that Edward, now known just as Edward of Caernarvon, had freely resigned his kingdom and stated that Prince Edward would succeed him. The young man’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on the 2nd of February 1327.
Edward II’s Death and the Aftermath
Those that were opposed to a new government started making plans to free Edward once his son became king. Roger Mortimer decided to move Edward to a more secure location at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. The former King arrived at the castle around the 5th of April of 1327. Once he was there, Edward was kept in the custody of Mortimer’s son-in-law, Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers. The former king was given five pounds a day for his maintenance. It’s not clear how well cared for Edward actually was and records show luxury goods being bought on his behalf. Some chroniclers suggest that he was often mistreated. A poem known as the “Lament of Edward II”, was once thought to have been written by Edward during his imprisonment, but modern scholars have cast doubt on this.
Concerns continued to be raised over fresh plots to liberate Edward. Some involved the Dominican order and former household knights, one such attempt got at least as far as breaking into the prison within the castle. As a result of these threats, Edward was moved around to other locations in secret for a time before he was returned to permanent custody at the castle in the late summer of 1327. The political situation in the country remained unstable, and new plots appear to have been formed to free him.
On the 23rd of September, Edward III was informed that his father had passed away at Berkeley Castle during the night of the 21st of September. Most historians agree that Edward II did die at Berkeley on that day, although there is a minority view that think that he died much later. Edward’s death was, as Mark Ormrod notes, “suspiciously timely”, as it had simplified Mortimer’s political problems greatly. Most historians believe that Edward had probably been murdered on the orders of the new regime, although it is impossible to be totally certain. Several individuals suspected in his death, including Sir Thomas Gurney, Maltravers and William Ockley would later flee. If Edward had died of natural causes, his death may have been hastened by depression after his imprisonment.
The rule of Isabella and Mortimer didn’t last very long after the announcement of the former king’s death. They made peace with the Scots in the Treaty of Northampton, but this was a highly unpopular move. Isabella and Mortimer both amassed and spent great wealth, and criticism of them mounted. Relations between Mortimer and the young Edward III became strained. In 1300 the king conducted a coup d’etat at Nottingham Castle, he would arrest Mortimer and then executed him on fourteen charges of treason, including the murder of Edward II. Edward III’s government looked to blame Mortimer for all of the country’s recent problems, effectively politically rehabilitating the late King. Edward III spared his mother Isabella, giving her a generous allowance and she soon returned to public life.
Burial and a Cult
The former king’s body was embalmed at Berkeley Castle and then viewed there by local leaders from Bristol and Gloucester. The body was then taken to Gloucester Abbey on the 21st of October. On the 20th of December, Edward was finally laid to rest by the high altar at Gloucester Abbey. The viewing had probably been delayed so as to allow Edward III to attend in person. Gloucester was probably chosen because other abbeys had refused or were forbidden to take the king’s body, as well as it’s closeness to Berkeley. The funeral was a grand affair and had cost three hundred and fifty-one pounds in total. It was complete with gilt lions and standards painted with gold leaf and oak barriers to manage the crowds. Edward III’s government had probably hoped to put a veneer of normality over the recent political events, which would increase the legitimacy of the young King’s own reign.
A temporary wooden effigy with a copper crown was made for the funeral. This is the first known use of a funeral effigy in England and was probably necessary because of the condition of the king’s body, which had been dead for three months. Edward’s heart was removed and placed in a silver container and then later buried with Isabella at Newgate Church in London. His tomb includes a very early example of the English alabaster effigy, with a tomb-chest and canopy made of oolite and Purbeck stone. He was buried in the shirt, coif and gloves from his coronation. His effigy depicts him as king, holding a scepter and orb and wearing a strawberry-leaf crown. It also features a pronounced lower lip and may be a close likeness to Edward.
The king’s tomb rapidly became a popular site for visitors, which was probably encouraged by local monks who had lacked an existing pilgrimage attraction. Visitors donated extensively to the abbey, allowing monks to rebuild much of the surrounding church in the 1330s. Miracles had reportedly taken place at his tomb and modifications had to be made to allow for visitors to walk around it in larger numbers. Geoffrey de Baker, a chronicler, depicted Edward as saintly and a tortured martyr, Richard II gave royal support for an unsuccessful bid to have Edward canonized in 1395 as well. Edward’s tomb was finally opened by officials in 1855, uncovering a wooden coffin, still in good condition, and a sealed lead coffin inside of it. What remains of the abbey is now Gloucester Cathedral, which was extensively restored from 2007 and 2008 at a cost of over 100,000 pounds.
There was a lot of controversy that quickly encompassed the death of Edward. With the execution of Mortimer in 1330, rumors began circulating that Edward had been murdered at Berkeley Castle. Accounts that he had been killed by the insertion of a red-hot iron or poker into his anus slowly began to circulate, possibly as the result of deliberate propaganda. Chroniclers in the mid 1330s and 1340s would spread this account of the killing, which incorporated it into most later histories of Edward, typically being linked to his possible homosexuality. Most historians now dismiss this account, querying the logic in Edward’s captors murdering him in such an easily detectable fashion.
Another set of theories that surrounded his death was the possibility that Edward didn’t really die in 1327. These theories typically involve the “Fieschi Letter”. This letter was sent to Edward III by an Italian priest named Manuel Fieschi. He had claimed that Edward had escaped Berkeley Castle in 1327 with the help of a servant. He would go on to say that Edward ultimately retired to become a hermit in the Holy Roman Empire. The body that was buried at Gloucester Cathedral was said to have been that of the porter of Berkeley Castle that was killed by assassins. The body was then presented to Isabella by the assassins as that of Edward’s corpse so as to avoid any punishment. The letter is often linked to the account of Edward III meeting with a man called William the Welshman in Antwerp in 1338 who had claimed that he was Edward II.
There are some parts of the letter’s content that are considered broadly accurate by historians, but other aspects of its account have been criticized as implausible. Only a few historians have supported the versions of its narrative. Paul Doherty questions the veracity of the letter and the identity of William the Welshman. Nonetheless, he does have suspicions that Edward might have survived his imprisonment. Another popular historian, Alison Weir, believes the events in the letter to be essentially true, using the letter to argue that Isabella was innocent of murdering him. Ian Mortimer, yet another historian, suggests that the story in Fieschi’s letter is broadly accurate. He argues that, in fact, Mortimer and Isabella had Edward secretly released and then faked his death. A fiction later maintained by Edward III when he came to power. Ian Mortimer’s account was criticized by most other scholars when it was first published, in particular by historian David Carpenter.
Edward’s Kingship, Government and Law
Ultimately, as a king, Edward II was a failure. Historian Michael Prestwich observes that he “was lazy and incompetent, liable to outbursts of temper over unimportant issues, yet indecisive when it came to major issues”. This is echoed by Roy Haines’ description of Edward being “incompetent and vicious” and as “no man of business”. Edward didn’t just delegate routine government to his subordinates, but also at a higher level of decision making. Pierre Chaplais argues that he “was not so much an incompetent king as a reluctant one”. He had preferred to rule through a powerful deputy, like that of Piers Gaveston or Hugh Despenser the Younger. Edward was quite willing to promote his favorites, which would have serious political consequences, he also attempted to buy the loyalty of wider groupings of nobles through grants of money and fees. He could take a keen interest in minutiae of administration though, and on some occasions he’d engage in details of a wide range of issues across England and his wider domains.
One challenge for Edward that had lasted throughout his reign was a shortage of money. He had inherited debts from his father, amounting around sixty-thousand pounds, which was still owed in the late 1320s. The king had worked his way through many treasurers and other financial officials during his reign, but only few stayed for a long period of time. He would raise revenues through often unpopular taxes and requisitioned goods using his right of prise. Edward had also taken out a lot of loans, first through the Fescobaldi family of Italy, then through his banker Antonio Pessagno. Even though he had a lot of debt, Edward had a strong interest in financial matters towards the end of his reign. He would distrust his own officials and attempted to increase revenues directly by cutting back on expenses of his own household.
The former king was responsible for implementing royal justice through his network of judges and officials. It’s unclear to what extend that Edward had taken personal interest in dispensing justice, but he does appear to have involved himself, at least to some degree during the first part of his reign, and increasingly intervened in person after 1322. Edward had made extensive use of Roman civil law during his time as king when he argued his defense of his causes and favorites, which might have attracted criticism from those who had perceived this as abandoning the established principles of English Common Law. He was also criticized by his contemporaries for allowing the Despensers to exploit the royal justice system for their own ends. The Despensers had certainly appeared to have abused the system, though just how widely they did so is not clear. Amid rocky politics, armed gangs and violence spread across England under the reign of Edward II. This destabilized the position of the local gentry, much of Ireland also fell into anarchy.
Under Edward’s rule, parliament’s importance grew as a means of making political decisions and answering petitions. These gatherings, as historian Claire Valente notes, were “still as much an event as an institution”. After 1311, parliament began to include, in addition to barons, the representatives of knights and burgesses, who in later years would constitute the “commons”. Although parliament had often opposed raising fresh taxes, active opposition to Edward mostly came from the barons rather than parliament itself, even though the barons did seek to use parliamentary meetings as a way of giving legitimacy to their long-standing political demands. After resisting it for many years, Edward started intervening in parliament in the second half of his reign to achieve his own political goals. It remains unclear whether Edward was deposed in 1327 by a formal gathering of parliament, or if he had simply been deposed by a gathering of political classes alongside an existing parliament.
Edward’s royal court would travel around the country with him. When they were at Westminster Palace, the court occupied a complex of two halls, seven chambers and three chapels, along with several other smaller rooms. However, due to the Scottish conflict, the court had spent a lot of its time in Yorkshire and Northumbria. At the heart of the court was Edward’s royal household, which was divided into the “hall” and “chamber” The size of his household had varied over time. During 1317, the king’s household included around five hundred people, including household knights, squires, kitchen staff and transport staff. It was surrounded by wider groups of courtiers and appears to have also attracted a circle of prostitutes and criminal elements.
Both music and minstrels were very popular in Edward’s court. Hunting appears to have been a much less important activity. There was little emphasis on chivalric events as well. Edward was interested in buildings and paintings, but was less interested in literary works, which were not extensively sponsored at court. There was an extensive use of gold and silver plates, jewels and enameling at court, which would have been richly decorated. Edward also kept a camel as a pet, and as a young man, he had taken a lion with him on a campaign to Scotland. The court was entertained in many exotic ways, once by an Italian snake-charmer in 1312, and a year later by fifty-four nude French dancers.
Edward’s approach to religion was normal for his time period. Michael Prestwich, a historian, describes him as “a man of wholly conventional religious attitudes”. There were daily chapel services and alms-giving at his court and Edward also blessed the sick, although he did this less often than his predecessors. Edward had remained close to the Dominican Order who had helped to educate him. He also followed their advice in asking for the papacy’s permission to be anointed the Holy Oil of St. Thomas of Canterbury in 1319. This request was refused though, which caused the king some embarrassment. Edward also supported the expansion of universities during his time as king. He established King’s Hall in Cambridge and promoted training in religious and civil law. He also established Oriel College in Oxford, as well as a short-lived university in Dublin, Ireland.
Pope Clement V and Edward enjoyed a good relationship with one another, despite the King’s repeated intervention in the operation of the English Church, including the punishment of bishops with whom he had disagreed. With the support of Clement, Edward had attempted to gain financial support of the English Church for his military campaigns in Scotland, including the taxation and borrowing of money against funds gathered for crusades. The English Church did relatively little to influence or moderate Edward’s behavior during his reign, possibly because of the bishop’s self-interest and concern for their own protection.
Pope John XXII was elected in 1316 and sought out Edward’s support for a new crusade and was also inclined to support him politically. In 1317, in exchange for support from the papacy in his war with Scotland, Edward would agree to recommence paying an annual Papal tribute, which had been first agreed upon by King John in 1213. Edward soon stopped making the payments though and never offered his homage, another part of the 1213 agreement. In 1325, Edward had asked the Pope to instruct the Irish Church to openly preach in favor of his right to rule the island and to threaten to excommunicate any contrary voices.