Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mysterious Monarch Deaths: Edward II

King Edward II of England (from 1307 to 1327) had a disastrous reign following that of the greatest Plantagenet king of all, Edward I. Edward I had subdued Wales and crushed revolts in Scotland, and was faithful to his wife, Eleanor of Castile, who provided Edward many children but only one healthy son. Three previous sons -- John, Henry, and Alfonso -- all died in childhood, the last at age 10 a few months after Edward II was born in 1284. Growing up in the shadow of his great, controlling father -- as well as five older sisters -- young Edward II had a fondness for servants and lower-born people, and was always eager to follow another man rather than lead on his own. In his youth he followed Piers Gaveston, the son of a Gascon knight who had done great service for Edward I, in exchange for which Edward I allowed the man's son to be raised with young Edward II. Edward held such special fondness for (and likely a homosexual relationship with) young Piers, who dominated the king until the other barons killed him. Later the Hugh le de Spensers (father and son) replaced Piers Gaveston in the king's affections.

Queen Isabella of France, incensed at how Edward neglected her and preferred his male friends over her, plotted her revenge, and after ensuring that Edward gave her four children, including two sons (Edward -- future Edward III -- and John), took steps to overthrow her husband and place herself and her lover, Roger Mortimer, on the throne. Edward III was only 14 years old when Isabella and Mortimer raised armies from France and overthrew Edward II. In November 1326 Edward II was held captive at Kenilworth Castle, and in January 1327 was forced to abdicate to his son, though Isabella and Mortimer retained the real power. On April 3, 1327, Edward II was secretly moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, under the custody of Thomas de Berkeley, owner of Berkeley Castle, and his brother-in-law John Mautravers, until September 21 of that year. A living former king was always a problem for the new regime, and at least two rescue attempts were made that summer of 1327, the first by Thomas Dunheved and conspirators in the Warwickshire area in July. They raided the castle and managed to free Edward II, but Thomas de Berkeley soon hunted the group down and by late August had recaptured the king and most of those involved in the rescue attempt. A second attempt was being planned soon after, but Roger Mortimer learned the details from one of the men involved, William Shalford, and determined to put an end to any further rescue attempts and have the king murdered. William Ockle, Thomas Gourney, and Simon Bereford are believed to be the men appointed to carry out Mortimer's instructions.

It was expedient to do the deed in secret and make it appear that Edward had simply died of natural causes, and so kill in a way that would not reveal evidence of foul play. The mystery comes out of that shroud of secrecy, so that historians today are not sure how Edward II died, or even if he died at all that year. In the popular story told in the next centuries, a red hot poker was inserted into the inside parts -- purportedly to not show evidence of foul play. This story, which connects the murder to Edward II's perceived homosexuality, was first told in a set of chronicles called The Brut:

when that night the king had gone to bed and was asleep, the traitors, against their homage and their fealty, went quietly into his chamber and laid a large table on his stomach and with other men's help pressed him down. At this he woke and in fear of his life, turned himself upside down. The tyrants, false traitors, then took a horn and put it into his fundament as deep as they could, and took a pit of burning copper, and put it through the horn into his body, and oftentimes rolled therewith his bowels, and so they killed their lord and nothing was perceived.

However, the only reference from the time, from Adam of Murimuth, simply states that the king was suffocated by Gourney and Mautravers, on September 22. Suffocation with a pillow over the head was a common method employed to easily kill someone without leaving a trace, so it seems unlikely that they would have gone to so much trouble when a simpler method would have worked just as well. Furthermore, the bodies of medieval kings were routinely embalmed and wrapped up (as indeed was also done with Edward II's body); so it would have been difficult for anyone to notice marks on the body, and it seems it would not have mattered how he was killed.

Apart from the incident with Edward II's half-brother Edmund of Woodstock (who was entrapped by agents of Roger Mortimer, and as a result of the plot was killed for his alleged treason), everyone at the time accepted that Edward II had died at Berkeley Castle in 1327. However, a few modern historians have made much of the "Fieschi letter" which was not discovered until the 19th century. The Fieschi letter claimed that Edward II was transferred from Berkeley Castle to Corfe Castle, where he resided for 1 1/2 years before crossing to Ireland where he stayed another nine months; then Edward disguised himself as a hermit and took ship to France and later was received by the pope.

Recent books, including Ian Mortimer's 'The Greatest Traitor' and Alison Weir's 'Queen Isabella: treachery, adultery, and murder in medieval England,' make much of the Fieschi letter and thus argue that Edward II lived on for many years as a fugitive. Another writer, Paul Doherty, discredits the Fieschi letter as a made-up story in an attempt to get favors from the king, but still accepts the Fieschi letter's basic premise that Edward II survived -- but that Edward simply eluded his captors and hid for many years.

Of course it really doesn't matter in the greater scheme of things, as certainly Edward II as former king and potential king had clearly deceased in the public eye and could pose no further threat to the next ruler. He may or may not have lived on for a few more years, but all trace of him in the known world vanished in September of 1327.

For further reading:
Brittania Encyclopedia entry
Everything2: The Death of Edward II

Suggested books:
Non-fiction: King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath 1284-1330, by Roy Martin Haines
Historical fiction: Follies of the King, by Jean Plaidy