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Edward II of England

This article is about the fourteenth century king of England. For other uses see Edward II (disambiguation)

Edward II, (April 25, 1284October, 1327), of Caernarvon, was king of England from 1307 until deposed in January, 1327. He is remembered largely for the brutal method of his murder, which was itself linked to his probable homosexuality.


Prince of Wales

The fourth son of Edward I of England by his first wife Eleanor of Castile, Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle. He was the first English prince to hold the title of the Prince of Wales, which was formalized by the Lincoln Parliament of February 7, 1301. (The story that his father presented Edward II as a newborn to the Welsh as their future native prince is unfounded; the story first appeared in the work of 16th century Welsh "antiquary" David Powel .)

Edward became heir to the throne when he was just a few months old, upon the death of his elder brother Alfonso. His father, a notable military leader, made a point of training young Edward in warfare and statecraft starting in his childhood. The prince took part in several Scots campaigns, but "all his father's efforts could not prevent his acquiring the habits of extravagance and frivolity which he retained all through his life". The king attributed his sonís problems to his lover Piers Gaveston, a Gascon knight. Gaveston was exiled by the king after the then Prince Edward bestowed upon him a title reserved for royalty. Ironically it was the king who had originally chosen Gaveston to be a suitable friend for his son, in 1298. When Edward I died, on July 7, 1307, the first act of the prince, now King Edward II, was to recall Gaveston. His next was to abandon the Scots campaign on which his father had set his heart.

King of England

The new king was physically as impressive as his father. He was, however, lacking in drive and ambition and was "the first king after the Conquest who was not a man of business" (Dr Stubbs). His main interest was in entertainment, though he also took pleasure in athletics and in the practice of mechanical crafts. He had been so dominated by his father that he had little confidence in himself, and was always in the hands of some favourite with a stronger will than his own.

In the early years of his reign Gaveston held this role, acting as regent when Edward went to France, where, on January 25, 1308, he married Isabella of France, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, "Philip the Fair"; she was the sister of three French kings. Although Edward and his wife had children, the marriage was doomed to failure almost from the beginning. Isabella was neglected by her husband, who spent much of his time with the few friends he shared power with, conspiring on how to limit the powers of the Peerage in order to consolidate his father's legacy for himself, and so appearing to prefer the company of his male favourites. This led to considerable rumours of Edward being homosexual, which historians generally agree he was. Their marriage nevertheless produced two sons, Edward, and John of Eltham , Earl of Cornwall (1316-1336), and two daughters, Eleanor (1318) and Joanna (1321-1362), wife of David II of Scotland. Edward had also fathered an illegitimate son, Adam FitzRoy , who accompanied his father in the Scottish campaigns of 1312, and who died shortly after September 18, 1322.

Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902
Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902

Gaveston received the earldom of Cornwall with the hand of the king's niece, Margaret of Gloucester. The barons grew resentful of Gaveston and twice insisted on his banishment. On each occasion Edward recalled his friend, whereupon the barons, headed by the king's cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, went to war against king and favourite and in 1312 assassinated Gaveston. Edward was not strong enough to avenge his loss.

He stood aside, allowing the country to come under the rule of a baronial committee of twenty-one lords ordainers, who, in 1311, had drawn up a series of ordinances, which substituted ordainers for the king as the effective government of the country. Parliament meant to the new rulers an assembly of barons just as it had done to the opponents of Edward's grandfather, Henry III, in 1258. The commons was excluded. The effect was to transform England from a monarchy to a narrow oligarchy.

Conflict with Scotland

During the quarrels between Edward and the "ordainers", Robert the Bruce was steadily re-conquering Scotland. His progress was so great that he had occupied all the fortresses save Stirling, which he besieged. The danger of losing Stirling shamed Edward and the barons into an attempt to retrieve their lost ground. In June 1314 Edward led a huge army into Scotland in the hope of relieving Stirling. On June 24, his ill-disciplined and badly led force was completely defeated by Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. Henceforth Bruce was sure of his position as king of Scots, and took vengeance for Edward I's activities by devastating the northern counties of England.

Political factions

Edward II's disgraceful defeat made him more dependent on his barons than ever. Thomas of Lancaster now had an opportunity of saving England from the consequences of the king's incompetence. He had shown some ability as a leader of opposition, but lacked creativity. He was suspected of having made a secret understanding with Bruce, in hopes of keeping the king weak.

Before long the opposition split into fiercely contending factions. Under Aymer of Valence, Earl of Pembroke, a middle party arose, which hated Lancaster so much that it supported the king. After 1318, the effect of its influence was to restore Edward to some portion of his authority. However, the king hated Pembroke almost as much as Lancaster, and now found a competent alternative adviser in Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester, a baron of great experience.

His son, Hugh the younger Despenser, became a personal friend and favourite, who effectively replaced Gaveston. The fierce hatred which the barons had for the Despensers was equal to their hatred his previous favourite. They were indignant at the privileges Edward lavished upon father and son, especially when the younger Despenser strove to procure for himself the earldom of Gloucester in right of his wife Eleanor de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Hertford and Joan of Acre and niece of Edward II

Rule of the Despensers

Statue of Edward II at
Statue of Edward II at York Minster

In 1321, the barons met in parliament, and under Lancaster's guidance had Hugh le Despenser and his son banished. This inspired Edward to act. In 1322 he recalled the Despensers from exile, and waged war against the barons on their behalf. Lancaster, defeated at Boroughbridge, was executed at Pontefract. For the next five years the Despensers ruled England. Unlike the ordainers, they took pains to get the Commons on their side, and a parliament held at York in 1322 revoked the ordinances because they encroached upon the rights of the crown. From this time no statute was technically valid unless the Commons had agreed to it. This marks the most important step forward in Edward II's reign. But the rule of the Despensers soon became corrupt. Their first thought was for themselves, and they stirred up universal indignation. In particular, they excited the ill-will of the queen, Isabella of France.

Deposition by Isabella of France

Queen Isabella kept silence until 1325, when she went to France in company with her eldest son, Edward of Windsor, who was sent to do homage for Aquitaine to her brother, Charles IV of France. When her business was over, Isabella declined to return to her husband as long as the Despensers remained his favourites. She formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer of Wigmore , one of the baronial exiles, and in September 1326 landed in Essex accompanied by Mortimer and her son, declaring that she was come to avenge the murder of Lancaster, and to expel the Despensers. Edward's followers deserted him, and on October 2 he fled from London to the west, where he took refuge in the younger Despenser's estates in Glamorgan. His wife followed him, put to death both Despensers, and, after a futile effort to escape by sea, Edward was captured on November 6. He was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, and a parliament met at Westminster in January 1327, which chose his son to be king as Edward III. It was thought prudent to compel the captive king to resign the crown, and on January 20 Edward was forced to renounce his office before a committee of the estates.

Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral
Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

Life in captivity and death

The government of Isabella and Mortimer was so precarious that they dared not leave the deposed king alive. On April 3 he was secretly removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two dependants of Mortimer. After various wanderings he was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Every anti-kingly indignity was inflicted upon him, and he was systematically ill-treated in the hope that he would die of disease. When his strong constitution seemed likely to prevail he was secretly put to death on October 11. According to Thomas de la Moore ca. 1327 AD:

  • "On the night of October 11 (1327 AD) while lying in on a bed (the king) was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress... weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber's iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his secret parts so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines."

It was considered by his captors as an appropriate punishment for his homosexuality, and which would show no outward signs of violence. It was announced that he had died a natural death, and he was buried in St Peter's Abbey at Gloucester, now the cathedral, where his son afterwards erected a magnificent tomb.

Following the king's death, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer did not last long. As soon as Edward III came of age, he executed Roger Mortimer, but spared his mother on condition that she leave the court. In 1330, Isabella retired from public life; she died, either at Hertford or at Castle Rising in Norfolk, on August 23, 1358.


  • Vita Edwardi Secundi
  • Blackley, F.D. Adam, the Bastard Son of Edward II, 1964

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:37:05
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