King Edward II the Condemned Monarch

King Edward II was born in Caernarfon Castle, Wales on 25 April 1284. He was the fourth son of King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Edward’s three older brothers died during childhood, leaving him as heir to the throne of England.

In 1301, when Edward was just 16, his father bestowed the title ‘Prince of Wales’ onto him. Later, Edward would grow to become a popular figure in Wales, but would fail to do so in England.

King Edward II was good looking, tall and strong, despite popular belief that he was feeble. He enjoyed outdoor activities, like husbandry and rowing in particular. A hobby not usually associated with medieval kings! Edward also played music and indulged in the arts. However, the king lacked the leadership of his father, and possessed a poor judge of character, which would eventually lead to his downfall.

King Edward II Marries Isabella of France

Like most heirs to the throne, Edward had no choice on whom he married. His father, Edward I, negotiated his son’s betrothal to three other girls during his childhood, to aid foreign policy; Margaret of Norway, Blanch of France and Philippa of Flanders. Isabella of France, daughter of Philip IV of France was no different.

King Edward II Isabella Of France

Edward I and Philip IV of France began marriage discussions as early as 1298, when Isabella was just three years old. Over the next decade, the terms of marriage were finally resolved. Edward II of England and Isabella of France were married on 25 January 1308, at the church of Notre Dame, Boulogne, France.

Isabella wore a blue and gold gown, with a red shawl over the top, which she would request to be buried in, half a century later. At this time, Edward II had already succeeded his father 6 months earlier, but had not yet been crowned.

Their marriage was a functional one, but there is some evidence of affection. After all, they produced four children including the future King Edward III. However, for the most part, the marriage was strained and ultimately ended in rebellion and death.

Edward of Caernarfon is Crowned King Edward II

Exactly one month after his wedding, Edward of Caernarfon was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey, on 25 February 1308.

King Edward II Coronation
King Edward II’s Coronation
Public Domain Source

Henry Woodlock, the Bishop of Winchester, oversaw the ceremony, as Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, was unwell and out of the country. The ceremony included the standard oaths sworn by previous kings. However, there were a few changes.

Firstly, the oath was in French, and not in Latin as before. Secondly, wives were allowed to attend the ceremony for the first time. Thirdly, an interesting new phrase was added to the oaths, which may have come about after Edward I’s reign of broken promises:

Do you grant to be held and observed the rightful laws and customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen…

This new phrase suggests that it wants to prevent the king from overturning any vows made in the future. Something that Edward II’s barons would very much like to uphold.

During the banquet, King Edward II spent most of his time with his very close friend, Piers Gaveston. They were laughing and joking between themselves, while ignoring everybody else, including his new wife! This insulted Isabella and her family, and that was to become only the beginning of a disastrous and tragic reign.

Piers Gaveston

King Edward II had a very close relationship with Piers Gaveston, a household knight’s son. Edward was immediately drawn to the man, when they met in 1300. By 1307, the two men had become too close, and speculation on their intimate relationship grew. Edward’s father, King Edward I, banished Gaveston to France, for being a bad influence over this son. Edward the younger had also asked if the title Count of Ponthieu could be given to Gaveston.

Piers Gaveston’s exile was short lived, and soon after King Edward I’s death, Edward II recalled Gaveston, and granted him the title Earl of Cornwall. This outraged many of the king’s barons, including the Earl of Lancaster.

In 1308, Edward left for France to marry Isabella. He appointed Gaveston as regent in his place, which was normally a responsibility for family members. Upon his return, the king spent more time with Gaveston, who seemed to have great influence on royal policy. The barons met in Parliament, and a heated exchange erupted, demanding the exile of Gaveston. The barons had the support of King Philip IV of France, and so Edward II finally gave in and sent Gaveston to Ireland.

In 1309, Gaveston returned and was reinstated with the Earldom of Cornwall. Gaveston began to exploit his position once more, gaining favours for friends and abusing his power. So the barons refused to enter Parliament while Gaveston was present.

Lords Ordainers

King Edward II was forced to enlist a group of subjects, to ordain reforms of the royal household, in an attempt to restrict the King’s powers over finances and appointments. The Lords Ordainers was formed, and consisted of both supporters and opponents of Edward. The Earl of Lancaster seemed to take control of the group.

In 1310, King Edward II tried to continue his father’s military campaigns in Scotland. With little support from his barons, Edward II marched north with only Gloucester, Warenne and of course, Gaveston. The campaign was a failure, as Robert the Bruce continued to evade the English army. By 1311, Edward was needed back in London to be presented with the Ordainer’s new document. So he appointed Gaveston as Lieutenant of Scotland before leaving for London. However, Robert the Bruce took his chance and raided northern England, forcing Gaveston to withdraw back to Bamburgh Castle.

The Ordainer’s document proposed banishing Gaveston once more, along with other reforms of the royal household. King Edward II agreed to all except Gaveston’s exile. However, after much debate, Edward gave in and for now, agreed to it. But not long after, Edward II decided to summon Gaveston back to court, declaring the judgement against him was unlawful.

King Edward II Piers Gaveston

In 1312, the barons had reached their limit, and Gaveston was besieged at Scarborough Castle by Pembroke, Warenne, Percy and Clifford. In response, King Edward II held talks with the barons and Gaveston was moved to Deddington Castle, under the protection of Pembroke. But the Earl of Warwick learned of Gaveston’s new location.

With the support of the Earl of Lancaster, Hereford and Arundel, they attacked the castle while Pembroke was away visiting his wife, and took Gaveston prisoner.

Pembroke, with his honour at stake, pleaded for mercy. But Piers Gaveston was found guilty of violating the terms of the Ordinances, and executed on Blacklow Hill on 19 June 1312. King Edward II was devastated.

The Battle of Bannockburn

While the English nobility were busy dealing with Gaveston, Robert the Bruce was running riot up in Scotland. The governor of one of the few remaining English-held castles in Scotland, Stirling, requested help. King Edward II responded, and gathered an army of 15,000 men and marched north.

On 23 June 1314, Robert the Bruce commanded 5,000 men, who were waiting just south of Stirling. The English has arrived, and Henry de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford, took his chance and charged at Robert the Bruce. When the two passed side by side, Robert the Bruce split Bohun’s head with his axe, in what would later become a celebrated instance of single combat.

Edward II responded and sent in an cavalry charge, buoyed by the number advantage he had. However, his cavalry were immediately struck by long spikes hidden in ditches, forcing the remainder to retreat. The English then forded the Bannock Burn river, south-east of the Scottish position, to camp for the night, exhausted.

At first light, on 24 June 1314, Robert the Bruce ordered his army to attack, taking the English by surprise. The English attempted to counter-attack with another cavalry charge, but it had little effect. Edward II called for his archers to attack the Scottish flanks, but the Scottish light cavalry charged them down.

Finally, Robert the Bruce unleashed the Highlanders to send panic among the disheartened English. King Edward II fled to Stirling Castle, but was not admitted, so continued on to Berwick by ship. Meanwhile, the Scots wiped out the English army. The result was a humiliating defeat for Edward, and the beginning of independence for Scotland.

King Edward II Battle Of Bannockburn

King Edward II Favours Hugh Despenser

The defeat at Bannockburn had made it very clear to the English barons, that Edward II had no military skill or leadership. England split into two, with a pro-royalist faction against an anti-royalist faction. Hugh Despenser was at the helm of the pro-royalists. Hugh was King Edward II’s new favourite, along with his father, who was also named Hugh. Leading the anti-royalists was the Earl of Lancaster, Edward’s cousin.

Edward had not learned from his past mistakes, when it came to lavishing his favourites. The king showered Hugh Despenser with land and gifts, and would later make him royal chamberlain in 1318. This rise to power dismayed the barons, and the fear of another Gaveston had returned. Despenser soon became deeply unpopular to almost everyone, including Queen Isabella, and the barons decided to act.

The Earl of Lancaster made himself governor of England in 1316, in an attempt to bring back some order, and to reform the Ordinances. However, Lancaster did not stick by his role for long, as internal disagreements and ill health dogged his efforts. For two years, Lancaster refused to meet with the king in Parliament, grinding the government to a halt. In 1318, after much negotiation from Pembroke, the Treaty of Leake was eventually signed, establishing a royal council and temporary peace.

By 1321, tensions between Hugh Despenser and the barons forced Lancaster to take action. He joined forces with Roger Mortimer and the Marcher Lords, and seized the Despensers’ land. The barons declared the Despensers were guilty of violating the Ordinances, just like Gaveston had done. King Edward II had little choice but to agree to the Despensers’ exile, else face being deposed himself!

The following year, Edward II called back the Despensers from exile, and formed an army of supporters, which were boosted by the large following the Despensers’ had in Wales. Edward II marched north and met Lancaster in battle at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire on 16 March 1322. Lancaster and Mortimer were captured, and shortly after, Lancaster was executed for treason.

Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer

Following the death of the Earl of Lancaster, King Edward II dissolved the Lords Ordainers, giving back royal power to the king. Hugh Despenser was reinstated, and tensions with Isabella grew. Relations between England and France were low.

King Edward II Roger Mortimer

Despenser, who by now was one of the most hated men of his time, made Queen Isabella’s life a misery. After all, the queen was French and Despenser a tyrant. He wouldn’t even let Isabella see her own husband, the king, without him being present!

In 1323, Roger Mortimer escaped the Tower of London, and fled to France. Two years later, King Edward II sent his son and heir, the future King Edward III, to France to pay homage to the French king, Charles IV. The homage was for the English Duchy of Aquitaine, which Edward II should have done himself. Queen Isabella travelled with her son to France, became the lover of Mortimer. Together, they conspired to overthrow Edward, and install her son on the English throne.

King Edward II is Deposed

In September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer arrived in England with an army. As they marched, more and more joined the rebellion in favour of their cause. King Edward II tried to rally in London, but support for him had vanished. The king fled, and was eventually captured in November, along with Hugh Despener the younger near Llantrissant, South Wales. Hugh Despenser the elder was also captured at Bristol, and hanged. His body was later fed to the local dogs.

King Edward II Hugh Despenser

Edward II was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle, while Hugh Despenser was dragged off to Hereford, where a huge crowd gathered. There, Despenser the younger was hanged high up on the tower, castrated (possibly for his sexuality), drawn and quartered. Only then was he beheaded.

A recent discovery at Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire shows evidence of the possible buried remains of Hugh Despenser the younger. The evidence suggests the buried man was in his thirties, which matches Despenser’s age. It also shows a stab wound to the stomach, hacked up bone fragments and carbon dating results of between 1050 and 1385. However, some historians are not convinced that this is Despenser.

King Edward II was forced to abdicate in January 1327, to his son 14 year old son Edward III.

How Did King Edward II Die?

Edward II was moved to Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire in April. But just five months later, Edward was murdered on 21 September 1327, on the orders of Isabella.

King Edward II Berkeley Castle
Berkeley Castle cell where King Edward II died
Original Photo by David Stowell

So how did King Edward II die? Well, this has become one of the most famous stories of the middle ages. The story goes, that Edward was held in a cell above rotting animal corpses, in an attempt to bring about illness and eventually death. But Edward was renowned for his health and strength. So, to speed things up, they pinned Edward down, stripped him, and thrust a red hot poker up his rear! The screams could be heard for miles.

However, there is actually no evidence to prove that this really happened. The idea behind this horrific method, was to avoid any obvious marks being seen on Edward’s body. But if that was the case, why not suffocate him or feed him some poison? The majority of the chronicles written at the time do not mention the poker at all, and instead suggest strangulation or natural causes.

So like many historical references, they all depend on who wrote them and what relationship they had with the subject. I believe in this case, that Edward died from strangulation. But we will probably never know the truth.

King Edward II Facts

  • Edward was born on 25 April 1284, Caernarfon Castle, Wales
  • His father was King Edward I
  • His mother was Eleanor of Castile
  • He was crowned on 25 February 1308 at Westminster Abbey, aged 23
  • He married Isabella of France, daughter of King Philip IV of France
  • He had 4 children, including Edward III
  • He abdicated on 20 January 1327, to his son 14 year old son Edward III
  • He died (murdered) on 21 September 1327 at Berkeley Castle, aged 43
  • He was known as Edward of Caernarfon, and the Prince of Wales
  • He is best known for his humiliating defeat to the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn
  • He is also well known for the manner of his death, although most argue the known method was unlikely

All images are in the public domain, except for those that are cited.

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