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Edward II

Tonbridge Castle, Kent

In 1875 the Oxford historian Bishop William Stubbs published his hugely influential The Constitutional History of England. In this work Stubbs presented the point of English history as the creation of modern parliamentary democracy. Great men helped progress towards this vision. Occasionally, however, there were lapses from the path of righteousness. The reign of Edward II was presented as one of these lapses. Stubbs writes of Edward:

"We pass from the age of heroism to the age of chivalry, from a century ennobled by devotion and self-sacrifice to one in which the gloss of superficial refinement fails to hide the reality of heartless selfishness and moral degradation - an age of luxury and cruelty. This age has its struggles, but they are contests of personal and family faction, not of great causes; it has its great constitutional results but they seem to emerge from a great mass of unconscious agencies rather than the direct action of great law givers or from the victory of acknowledged principles" (quoted The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II by Natalie Fryde P2).




Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede

There is much irony now in Stubbs' confident nineteenth century judgments. Edward II's great great grandfather King John had been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a famous symbol of a revolutionary new form of government. But this seeming revolution was not the "victory of acknowledged principle" that it seemed to be. The Magna Carta was actually an attempt by the barons of England to defend their traditional privileges in the face of King John's annoying tendency to choose people of merit for government "without regard to status or nationality" (King John by W.L. Warren P144). The barons did not want meritocracy. They wanted to defend aristocracy. These people were not revolutionaries. Instead they were conservatives defending their position. In a bizarre kind of historical accident their conservatism was eventually to be seen as bringing about a change in the government of England. But their efforts in themselves had nothing to do with heroic law givers or the victory of acknowledged principles.


Through the reigns of John, Henry III, and Edward I the position of the nobles had generally strengthened, with the Magna Carta being wheeled out whenever it was felt traditional aristocratic or Church privileges were being threatened. When Edward I died in July 1307 he was replaced by his son Edward II, a man very different to his father. Edward II did not fit in with the nobles from the start. Little is known about Edward's childhood, but he seems to have been a young man of strong affections, who would show great loyalty to his few friends. It is not certain whether he was homosexual: only one chronicler writing fifty years later refers to it directly, while a contemporary biographer writes carefully of "a love which is said to have surpassed the love of women" (quoted in The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson). Edward was married, to Isabella, sister of Charles IV of France, but as was usual in these times, the marriage was dynastic, designed as a diplomatic arrangement more than anything else. As well as probably being homosexual, Edward had an interest in handicrafts of all kinds, woodwork, metal work, thatching, digging ditches, and above all rowing. All of these activities were considered unbecoming, especially the rowing. Many historians dated England's beginning as a country to Whit Sunday in the year 973 when regional kings rowed Edgar the Peaceable down the river Dee as an act of homage. Kings were rowed. They did not themselves row. From the start then Edward II and his barons were unlikely to get on. The Magna Carta had been designed to keep the wrong sort of people out of government, and Edward, even if he was a king, was the wrong sort of person, who liked the wrong sort of people.


Early in Edward's reign the barons acted in their usual way, objecting to anyone outside their charmed circle having influence in government. At Edward II's coronation on 25th February 1308 the barons inserted a new pledge into Edward's Coronation Oath, a promise to "uphold and defend the laws and righteous customs that the community of the realm shall choose" (quoted Fryde P17). "The community of the realm" was a traditional phrase, without a clear meaning. In practice the community of the realm referred to England's nobility and Church leaders. In contrast to this fixed idea of a community of power, and who it should consist of, Edward didn't seem to mind with whom he mixed. His biographer talked of intimacy with "singers, actors, grooms, sailors and others of this kind, artists and mechanics" (quoted Johnson P19). Edward's first favourite was a man from Gascony, Piers Gaveston. There is nothing to show that Gaveston had great merit. He may have simply been selected for his looks. But whatever his qualities or lack of them, Gaveston was not a member of the English aristocracy and was not to be tolerated. The barons banded themselves together, called themselves the Lord Ordainers, and in 1311 forced Edward to agree to a set of constitutional rules or Ordinances. They also demanded the exile of Gaveston. When Edward broke the Ordinances the following year, and invited his favourite back, Gaveston was captured by the barons and executed without trial. Edward's next set of favourites, the Despenser family, had been friendly with Edward since the beginning of his reign. Originally household officials for the earls of Chester in the twelfth century - which is where the family name came from - members of the Despenser family had risen to the highest levels of government under Henry III. Initially Edward was friendly with Hugh Despenser the elder, before forming a close relationship with Hugh's son, Hugh the younger. Young Hugh was exceptionally ambitious and greedy. Hugh married the king's niece, Eleanor, and then did very well out of the Earl of Gloucester's death at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The earl's death entitled Hugh's wife to a third of Gloucester's vast estate. Hugh did not wait for due process, and seized Tonbridge Castle from the widowed countess in May 1315. This caused widespread outrage, and the continuing influence that Hugh the younger was to have on Edward would be disastrous.


Leeds Castle, Kent

The Despensers, knowing their hold over the king was secure felt they could do anything. They began acquiring lands by force and intimidation. Resentment was particularly strong in south Wales where there were extensive Despenser holdings. In August 1321 the Marcher Lords came to London to demand the exile of the Despensers. It was falsely claimed that the Despensers had made a revolutionary demand that a king could be removed by force if he acted unreasonably. Once again revolutionary ideas were simply weapons in a power struggle. On 14th August 1321 Edward came to Parliament and agreed to exile the Despensers. Secretly, however, Edward was determined that the barons, for whom he had such instinctive antipathy, were going to pay. With the Despensers in exile, Edward devised a plan to pick off his opponents one by one. He started with Bartholomew Badlesmere, besieging his forces at Leeds Castle, which fell on 31st October 1321. Edward, terrifyingly, had the garrison executed on the spot, and sent Badlesmere's wife and children to the Tower. Badlesmere himself cowered in Oxford.

Edward recalled the Despensers in December 1321, and ironically justified his action by quoting the Magna Carta and his own Coronation Oath. As members of the "community of the realm" the Despensers had rights. Edward then used disaffected Welshmen to defeat the Marcher Lords. The powerful Mortimer family surrendered in January 1322, Roger Mortimer fleeing abroad. By March Edward had captured the barons' most influential leader, the Earl of Lancaster. Many executions followed, with an indiscriminate choice of victims. The king would then seize the lands of dead nobles, and add their incomes to his own. In this way the position of Edward and his Despenser allies became overwhelmingly powerful. With seized lands providing such a huge income, Edward had little need to call parliaments to grant him taxes. Edward had his revenge, and the chronicler of Vita Edwardi wrote: "The harshness of the king has today increased so much that no one, however great or wise, dares to cross his will. Thus parliaments, colloquies and councils decide nothing these days. For the nobles of the realm, terrified by threats and the penalties inflicted on others, let the king's will have free play" (quoted Fryde P67).


Edward could now be justifiably viewed as a tyrant, and yet still the contradictions continue. Edward expressed his insecurity in extreme greed and meanness. Hectoring letters were sent to the exchequer demanding more work, fewer holidays, and delivery of higher revenues. Attempts were made to stop the exchequer allowing people to pay debts by reasonable installments. And yet part of Edward's hated effort to squeeze more money out of the exchequer involved the expectation of standards which we would now see as quite reasonable. "All exchequer personnel were severely forbidden to act as attorneys for people rendering accounts in it" (Fryde P100). The king in effect forbade conflict of interest, which of course is now viewed as expected behaviour of government. Many modern government figures have seen their careers ruined when conflict of interest has been exposed. So what is usually seen as a dark age when all progress towards modern government stopped, actually shows continuing, accidental evolution. Edward did not want government to be fairer. He wanted more money. And yet his uncharitable motives produced a development we would now see as progressive. This same contradiction is apparent in Edward's founding of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. When he set up King's Hall Cambridge in 1317 and Oriel Oxford in 1324, his aim was to train chancery clerks for his administration. These men he hoped would efficiently get him more money. The accidental result was the boosting of an educational institution.


Caerphilly Castle, Wales

While Edward fretted about money, the Despensers continued to run amok. Between 1322 and 1326 they were virtually above the law, seizing lands they wanted, terrorising whoever got in their way, and becoming incredibly rich. The product of this money can still be seen today at Caerphilly Castle in south Wales. Hugh Despenser the younger poured money into Caerphilly Castle which survives as one of the most dramatic fortresses in Britain. The period of the Despensers reign of terror finally came to an end when Edward's disilussioned wife and son decided to go abroad and recruit help to rid England of its hated king. In March 1325 Edward sent his wife Isabella to France to see her brother Charles, the French king. Isabella's job was to talk to her brother about England's interest in the region of Gascony. Then Edward's son, Prince Edward was sent on a ceremonial visit to Gascony. Once Isabella and Prince Edward were safely abroad they refused to come back. Instead they began to plan an invasion. At some time during her stay in France Isabella became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, leader of the English barons in exile. Together they arranged for Prince Edward to marry Philippa of Hainault, and used her dowry to fund their invasion plans. John of Hainault, a renowned warrior, was to provide the military expertise. Isabella with 1500 men landed at Orwell in Suffolk on 24th September 1326. It is likely that Robert Wateville in charge of the English fleet off the east coast let her sail through. Once in Suffolk supporters crowded to join Isabella's cause. Her growing rebel army chased the king to Gloucester, then to Chepstow, where the dwindling royal party boarded a boat and set sail. Hugh Despenser the elder was left to defend Bristol Castle, where the garrison refused to fight. Despenser was captured and executed. Meanwhile contrary winds had blown Edward and the younger Despenser into Cardiff. They went to the great showpiece of Caerphilly Castle, but found no security there. Fearing encirclement at Caerphilly, the party kept moving before finally being captured in south Wales on 16th November 1326. Edward was taken to Kenilworth Castle, while Despenser was taken to Hereford and executed, hung from a scaffold fifty feet high, after local people had scrawled on his skin verses of scripture denouncing arrogance.


Berkeley Castle

As for Edward, his position was now hopeless. The original plan had only been to remove the Despensers, but now it seemed the king had to go too. Naturally such a bold step had to be dressed up with some legal niceties. In January 1327 Roger Mortimer announced that some earlier "meeting" of magnates had decided that Edward should be deposed. A huge parliament heard this announcement, but big as this parliament was, there seem to be no details about the earlier meeting. Nobody wanted to take direct responsibility for what was about to happen. The news that he was to step aside was given to Edward at Kenilworth Castle. Edward was the first king to be deposed by a group of people calling themselves "Parliament". Sometimes these events have been described as a reassertion of parliamentary power, or as a precedent for parliamentary power over kings. But as Bertie Wilkinson has written: "the precedent of 1327 was not a precedent for 'parliamentary deposition'... It was a precedent for deposition by the magnates with the cooperation, agreement and acclamation of the people" (The Deposition of King Edward P343). Quite what actually happened to Edward after this is not known for sure. He was sent to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, and died there some time in September 1327. A lavish burial was then organised at Gloucester Cathedral, and a magnificent tomb erected.

So ended the reign of Edward II. The picture I get of Edward is of a man who did not fit in with a group of ruthless men who wanted to defend their patch. He foolishly favoured one part of the greedy nobility over all the others with disaster ensuing. This wasn't so much an age when ideals were lacking, as Stubbs would claim. It was instead an age when it was easier to see the real motivations behind what was later interpreted as progress.