Edward II is so much more than the weedy bloke in Braveheart, as his real story is beset by treachery, rumour and the search for power.
Incompetent, superficial, immature, easily led – just some words that describe Edward II, King of England from 1307-1327. Oh, and gay. Edward’s court was notable for the King’s male favourites, and for his close relationship with a young courtier, Piers Gaveston.
It’s 2016 now, and everyone knows that being gay has absolutely no bearing on someone’s capacity to do their job, so why is Edward’s sexuality relevant to this discussion? Surely what happened in the privacy of the King’s bedroom wasn’t germane to his ability to rule?
Or was it?
The fact is that Edward showed such overt favouritism to his young men that his sexuality, or at least his sex life, became a real political issue. It gave his detractors ammunition to use against him, but was he really homosexual or was he the victim of a smear campaign?
Something to bear in mind is that back in the fourteenth century, people didn’t identify as homosexual or bisexual or whatever. Men often spoke of their love for other men, but this was the way people defined affection and friendship – it didn’t necessarily mean love in the romantic sense. Still, it makes for a good story.
The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 lengthily-named play, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragicall Fall of Proud Mortimer, is largely responsible for Edward’s homosexual reputation.
But that reputation may not be entirely accurate.
What is known is that Edward loved his friend Gaveston and the chances are that they were lovers, but we’ll never know for sure. Edward certainly gave the young man an abundance of gifts and even an Earldom. Gaveston was arrogant, flaunted his close relationship with the King and got himself exiled, so their bond was definitely strong and deeply personal.
It’s said that at their wedding, Edward preferred to sit with Gaveston rather than his new bride, and that he gave Gaveston jewels intended for Isabella. Insulting the French royal family – and the bride – in such a public setting was poor diplomacy, to say the least.
Edward II was born in 1284, the fourth son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. He was the very first Prince of Wales, having had the title conferred on him in 1301. He is reported to have loved music, dancing and fine clothes and was known as a bit frivolous, a prince who didn’t much care for jousting and other knightly pursuits. His bromance with Gaveston was of great concern to Edward’s parents and they had the young courtier exiled.
When Edward ascended the throne in 1307, one of the first things he did was to bring his boyfriend back to court. You see why these rumours of homosexuality persist.
Edward II married Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France in 1308, and he obviously fulfilled his husbandly and dynastic obligations – they produced four children. It’s said that at their wedding, Edward preferred to sit with Gaveston rather than his new bride, and that he gave Gaveston jewels intended for Isabella – not good moves as things turned out. Royal and aristocratic marriages were made for strategic and political reasons, so insulting the French royal family – and the bride – in such a public setting was poor diplomacy, to say the least.
Gaveston was hugely unpopular with the powerful barons. Couple this with Edward’s less than inspiring leadership and the fact that England was in debt to its eyeballs, and you’ll get an idea why Edward was forced to sign the Ordinances of 1311, agreeing to certain restrictions on his regal powers. It was an attempt to maintain political stability but really, mistrust and resentment festered on both sides.
In 1312, the barons, now allied with Thomas of Lancaster against the king, executed Gaveston. What a time in England! Edward wasn’t a good king; he lacked effective communication skills and clearly his favouring of particular young men was not a sound political tactic. He was livid about the death of his darling boy, and planned revenge.
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In 1314, Robert the Bruce trounced Edward’s forces at the Battle of Bannockburn, essentially winning Scottish independence. This was a mammoth blow for Edward. His authority further shaken, the barons declared Lancaster the true ruler of England, but it turns out that he wasn’t much chop either.
In 1318, Edward found himself two new golden boys – Hugh Despencer and his son, also called Hugh (he was Edward’s particular pet) – and, among other things, gave them lands in Wales. When Lancaster banished the Despencers because he thought they were becoming too powerful, Edward didn’t take it lying down. He attacked Lancaster, taking advantage of some internal bickering between the barons and regained the upper hand. In 1322, Lancaster was executed.
It was then that Edward revoked the Ordinances, returning to himself authority over finances and political appointments. He thought everything was going to be hunky dory from then on, but he had underestimated Isabella. She was deeply peeved with her husband, his marital neglect, and especially his male companions.
In 1325, Isabella was sent to France on a diplomatic assignment. Her brother, King Charles IV, was demanding outstanding payments from England. Officially, Isabella was supposed to negotiate a settlement between Edward and Charles, but she had other things on her mind.
She took Roger Mortimer, an exiled English baron, as her lover and together they plotted the overthrow of the English king. The following year, they’d amassed enough men and capital to invade England, execute the hated Despencers and depose Edward. In January 1327, her son Edward III was crowned king.
Edward II was imprisoned and died later that year – probably murdered, though reports of his having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus are certainly sensationalist spin and are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Edward II valued erudition and founded colleges within Oxford and Cambridge universities, but he’s gone down in history as an ineffectual king and a poor financial manager; the ruler defeated by Robert the Bruce; the monarch whose wife deposed him; and especially for his liaisons with his dearest male “chums”.
Poor old Edward, what a story.