The Character of a King: What was Edward II really like? (Part One)

When I tell people I am writing a book about Edward II, the first question is a confused but simple one; ‘was that the guy, you know, Longshanks’?  Seeing my disappointment, there often quickly follows the second guess; the thought that he was the king who claimed the crown of France and started the Hundred Years War. On some occasions I get the, ‘oh, that one in Braveheart’, often delivered with a knowing sense of disapproval at the somewhat foppish character who failed to show any backbone when confronted by hardship, so seemingly indelibly portrayed on the silver screen. Every so often though, much to my excitement, I find someone who identifies the man, but it is usually wrapped up in tales of total incompetence, profound weakness, a propensity for favourites at the expense of anyone else, tyranny and general misrule; along of course with a good bit of gossip – rumours of red-hot pokers in dark corners of Gloucestershire generally dominate the conversation. We all like a good tale, and this one, of an emasculated king put to death in such a manner that gives a symbolic nod to his alleged ‘vices’, even today fills the popular mind with gruesome images of perceived medieval brutality.

I cannot blame anyone of course. Edward II was after all surrounded by giants. His twenty year reign, wedged in between the likes of the infinitely more famous Edward I and Edward III, each reigning for thirty-five and fifty years respectively, dominates our nation’s popular view of the medieval world. Edward I; strong, confident in his kingship, with imperial ambitions that could at times put Roman Emperors to shame, forged the notion at least of a united set of kingdoms, which even today lives on relatively unchallenged. After all, the gold lettering that adorns his polished Purbeck marble tomb in Westminster Abbey still proclaims him as ‘Scotorum Malleus hic est’ or ‘Hammer of the Scots.(1) Unlike his own father Henry III (r.1216-1272), he kept his nobles in check, upheld and fiercely guarded the rights of the crown and championed the medieval ideal of kingship. On his death, the old leopard was compared by a contemporary to Alexander the Great and Pope Clement V performed solemn obsequies to the dead king at Poitiers Cathedral.(2) He was in short, a tough act to follow. So to his wife and Edward II’s mother, Eleanor of Castile; loyal, shrewd, entrepreneurial: no more so than at making money where many could barely find a shilling.(3)Their marriage, although political was rather fortunately bound by a genuine love. The king’s broken heart following Eleanor’s premature death in 1290 is clearly etched out in stone in the form of the beautiful Eleanor Crosses which can still be found both in replica and occasionally in the original, between Lincoln and London. Their grandson Edward III, three years into his reign, re-established royal authority taking the English crown to new heights. Claiming the throne of France through lineal descent from his mother Isabella of France and his grandfather, the Capetian king Philip IV, Edward III was the champion of chivalry, the founder of the Order of the Garter, winner at Crecy and father to the legendary Black Prince. With a curriculum vitae like this, it is hard not to see the golden glow over the greater part of the middle fourteenth century, luring the medieval reader like a moth to a flame.(4)

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So where does this leave Edward II? Out in the cold? Wrapped up in an almost impenetrable cloak of myths, legends, fantasies and the occasional bit of hard truth more likely. However, when you take the time to look beyond the words, the centuries of king bashing and the occasional bit of pub banter with a good dose of thorough and sensible research, slowly those layers of witting and unwitting deceptions begin to fall away. The notion of a foppish prince, moping about castles and generally being idle fast disappears.

Edward II, born on 25 April 1284 at Caernarfon Castle in Wales, grew into a fair haired, six foot figure of a man. Ranulph Higden writing his ‘Polychronicon’ in the 1330’s, noted that Edward II was a handsome man in body and of outstanding strength.(5) This strength no doubt served him well when fighting in Scotland with his father, which Edward did on four occasions before his accession in July 1307; once leading the campaign himself. Edward was no shrinking violet of Braveheart fame when it came to his physical ability to fight, which was something he did both as prince and king. At the disastrous battle of Bannockburn in 1314, it was only after Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke seized the king’s reins and forced him off the field, that Edward retreated back to England, fearing capture by Robert Bruce.(6) Bravery, if not folly, was also part of his character which is often over looked. Whilst besieging Caerlaverock Castle just south of Dumfries in 1300, the herald who composed the Roll of Arms for the campaign declared,

‘The fourth squadron with its train, Edward the king’s son led. A youth of seventeen…and newly bearing arms. He was well proportioned and [a] handsome person, of a courteous disposition and well bred, and desirous of finding an occasion to make proof his strength. He managed his steed wonderfully well.’ (7)

Edward was also intensely loyal, and often to a fault. Higden noted that Edward was extravagant with his gifts, and this is certainly evident with his boon companions but also many beyond. The official household records are full of accounts of Edward gifting money to his subjects both high and low. He exercised patronage in a much more equitable way than first appreciated, if not directly to his higher nobility in a manner that they would expect and often found to their detriment. This was, ultimately his biggest mistake. He was splendid with his entertainment, loved music and employed a variety of musicians, that up until 1327, are usually always in his presence, including those gifted in playing the Crwth; a medieval stringed instrument commonly associated with Wales in the fourteenth century. Edward’s sociability and gift for taking time with all his subjects was extraordinary and he therefore stood out from his contemporaries for having what today would seem ‘a common touch’. In many ways, as we shall later discover, this affinity with his ordinary subjects allowed his critics ample opportunity to besmirch his character in an age when the medieval ideal, demanded that the king be aloof from his subjects marked down by a highly hierarchical society. Edward simply broke the  established rules. It can be said that he was therefore a man beyond his time.

Where Edward did meet the medieval mark of kingship was in his religious devotion. He often made devotions to St Edward the Confessor, the Plantagenet saint, as well as to St Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century. Edward, throughout his lifetime, gave money for prayers to be said for dead relatives to, including his father, mother, grandparents, sisters and friends in particular.(8) The later claims that he was unconcerned with the soul of his dead father brought on by a long term fractious relationship overplayed by the likes of the film Braveheart, are simply unfounded when you look quickly through even the basic bits of evidence.  Father and son clashed often enough, but in no way different to that of Edward’s sisters and their father. The family rifts generally healed.

However, many of his contemporaries were heavily critical of his character. Some of Edward’s biggest critics are chroniclers writing their histories during and after his reign. Their unbridled anathema is poured all over their delicate illuminated pages, especially after the king’s deposition in January 1327 at Kenilworth Castle. More about them and their judgements, rustic pursuits and those noble gifts again, in part two.

Notes

  1. Prestwich, M. Edward I. 2ed (Yale, 1997), 566.  Morris, Marc, Edward I: A Great and Terrible King (Windmill, 2009), 377-378
  2. Seymour, Phillips, Edward II. (Yale, 2011), 5, 131. Prestwich, 558-559
  3. Further reading. Cockerill, Sara. Eleanor of Castile: The shadow Queen. (Amberley, 2014)
  4. Further reading. Mortimer, Ian. The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation. (Vintage, 2006).
  5. Polychronicon Ranulphi Hidden, ed J.R. Lumby, viii, Rolls Series (London, 1882), 298.
  6. Phillips, J.R.S. Aymer de Valence: Earl of Pembroke 1307-1324. (Clarendon Press, 1972), 75
  7. Rolls of Arms of the Princes, Barons and Knights who attended Edward I as the siege of Caerlaverock, ed. T Wright (London, 1864), 17-18
  8. Phillips, S. 69-72

8 thoughts on “The Character of a King: What was Edward II really like? (Part One)

  1. Anyone succeeding Edward I would have had a tough job. I sometimes wonder how Alphonso would have done, had he lived. He would have been ten years older than Edward II had he become king, which might have made a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello, living in Aquitaine has introduced me to the characters of your story, and in turn I have introduced them superficially on my blog. I will be particularly interested in following your recount of Edwards life.

    Liked by 1 person

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