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

So in part one we discovered a king with the common touch. A man, tall, strong, conventionally handsome who led a campaign into Scotland and fought in others before his accession; loved entertainment, music and had on the face of it, a common touch with his people. All in all, not a bad resume for a man who was lined up for and became king.

Edward II (BL MS Royal 20, a ii, f. 10r)

Yet many of the chroniclers of the day poured scorn over Edward’s character, especially those in the following seven centuries since his depostion. One of the key complaints that Edward loved the company of the common man needs a bit more of a look. This was so distasteful to the nobility of the fourteenth century that Edward’s love of so-called ‘rustic pursuits’ earned him considerable criticism from writers penning their works including the Lanercost Chronicle, the author of Vita Edwardi Secundi, the Brut and Ranulph Higden.(1) One of the king’s favourite pastimes included rowing and swimming, over hunting and hawking, and in September 1315 he almost drowned when rowing in the Fens in the depths of winter.(2) He clearly had a great constitution that could cope with the cold winters of the fourteenth century, known today as the Little Ice-age. In his household accounts, there are countless entries of Edward walking down to the riverside, especially at the Thames, speaking to fishermen and sailors and paying for fish freshly caught which he would then take back to his table.(3) Fish was one of his favourite foods of choice. This geniality with his subject was seen as so unusual by the senior figures of his court that they listed it as one of many reasons to remove him in the articles of deposition presented to Edward at Kenilworth Castle in January 1327 when he was subsequently dethroned.(4)Living out the image of kingship was not only essential, it was now fundamental to safeguarding possession of the crown.

Unusually for the period, Edward was no fan of the tournament and often through his reign prohibited them for political reasons. They were often, but not exclusively, used by opponents as smoke screens for untoward gatherings, and given the nature of the turbulent political situation through his reign, Edward did his utmost to limit them. He never took part in tournaments as Prince of Wales either, despite being capable in arms. However, as the only heir to Edward I right up until the birth of Edward II’s half-brother, Thomas of Brotherton in 1300, no one could afford to lose the heir to the throne. His life was simply too important and the tournament was full of real life threatening dangers. His father’s fear may account for Edward II’s disinterest in tourneys in later life.  When Piers Gaveston held his controversial tournament at Wallingford in December 1307, the king stayed at home in his nearby manor at Langley whilst Gaveston was left outwitting his senior peers much to their chagrin.(5) If Edward had been chomping at the bit to have a go, this was his first opportunity to do so without his father holding him back, but clearly this was not the case.

Edward was however, fond of horses and racing dogs, something contemporaries thoroughly approved of and from what we saw in part one, was skilled at riding. Throughout his life there are records of him taking a personal interest in breeding. In 1311 the king sought to acquire the late Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham’s Weardale stud and a further 240 horses and ten stabuli for destriers and other horses. When Prince of Wales, he acquired a stud from the earl of Surrey whom he immediately wanted to breed.(6) The same passion was shared for greyhounds and in 1305, Edward wrote a letter filled with humour and affection to Count Louis of Evreux , brother to King Philip IV of France;

‘We send you a big trotting palfrey which can hardly carry its own weight , and some of our bandy legged harriers from Wales, who can well catch a hare if they find it asleep, and some of our running dogs, which go at a gentle pace; for well we know that you take delight in lazy dogs.’(7)

Clearly there was a friendly rivalry between them when it came to the sport and gives us a glimpse at the same time of Edward’s humour. He also loved to gamble, along with many of the time, including his sisters such as the ‘gambling nun’ Mary ensconced at Amesbury Abbey. Chess, dice and tables were highly popular throughout Europe and Edward loved them to. Between 1307-8, he twice received payment of over £80 from his wardrobe to pay off debts he had run up as a result of poor fortune or bad judgement. Eight years earlier, Edward I paid, and not for the first time, 40s towards his son’s gambling debts. (8) Edward’s new found position as king, did not evidently encourage people to allow him to win as the debts continued to feature!

Edward loved to breed horses (MS Bodl. 764, f. 46r)

Edward also had a pet lion. In early 1303 prior to setting out on his father’s campaign in Scotland that summer, Edward ordered that his lion, kept by Adam of Lichfield, should travel with the army whilst they went north. The lion was given a new collar for the occasion as well as new cage. He clearly needed to look magnificent. As strange as this may sound, medieval monarchs often received exotic animals as diplomatic gifts made by foreign kings, princes and other such rulers. Henry III for example received three lions or leopards from the Holy Roman Emperor when he married his wife Eleanor of Provence in 1236, in a symbolic nod to his royal coat of arms. A menagerie was set up at the Tower of London during the reign of King John (r. 1199-1216), but by the time Edward I (r. 1272-1307) was king, had become a permanent feature at the western gate of the castle. The nearest tower is still known as the Lion Tower today.

Edward’s tastes were diverse. He took a keen interest in architecture, much like his grandfather Henry III had done who was responsible for rebuilding the larger parts of Westminster Abbey in the gothic style in the mid thirteenth century. Edward appears in records as taking a direct role in organising and directing the refurbishment of rooms, castles and manor houses. In 1308 prior to his coronation on 25 February, he had two new chambers constructed at Westminster between his Green Chamber bedroom, and a second adjacent to the Painted Chamber. He also gave instructions on the fitting out of the ship, the Margaret of Westminster, that was to bring his new wife Isabella to England after their marriage in France in January 1308.(9) He must have had a keen eye for detail and design, and often looking through accounts, it quickly becomes apparent that the colour green is the colour of choice that Edward often steered towards; most likely, this was his favourite.

Many of his later critics accuse Edward of intense stupidity, illiteracy and general poor education. This is completely unfounded. Brought up on the typical education of the day, he possessed his grandmother’s book of romances, most likely in French, which he was given in 1298-9. We know he generally spoke French and could debate fiercely. He owned a prayer book as well as a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) bought for him in 1300.(10) There are further works recorded. We cannot say with any certainty whether he actually read them, but they were accounted for in audits of his wardrobe and so were readily available to him. Other books and manuscripts were also held in the treasury and Edward throughout his lifetime, sponsored clerks and scholars through their university studies such as Richard of Nottingham and Thomas Duns who were each given 6d a week in maintenance whilst studying at Oxford, as well as an additional 32s for clothes and shoes.(11) Edward was associated heavily with the  Oxbridge universities, in particular Cambridge. He clearly understood the need to send young men to build their education, who in turn could then be called upon in royal service as administrators, clerks, lawyers and diplomats. Learning was more important to him than so many of his detractors conveniently omit from their assessments.

So in all, Edward appears to the modern reader as a well rounded, educated, confident and playful character whose loyalty to his friends, more equitable exercise of patronage and common touch should have made him widely popular. He was a man before his time. Yet, living in his time, he was subject to great criticism, as he essentially broke the hierarchical rules of the day, upset the higher nobility with his common touch and equitable exercise of patronage, that his behaviour was enough to feature in his deposition. It stands out to me, that perhaps one of Edward’s many reasons for his close attachment to a small inner circle of favourites, is principally because those few people shared his fourteenth century ‘unconventional’ tastes, which inadvertently increased the sense of difference between king and favourites and the wider court around them. I often wonder what the people of England who met the king personally, the sailors, the fishermen, the rowers and swimmers, really thought of this man, setting aside the established rules because of a genuine interest in being amongst them: Privileged to have time spent with their anointed sovereign one can only guess.


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(1)Chronicle of Lanercost (Edinburgh, 1839), 236. Vita Edwardi Secundi (London, 1957), 69, Polychronicon (London, 1882), 298. Phillips, S. Edward II, (London, 2011), 72
(2) The Brut, i, (London, 1906), 208
(3) Warner, Kathryn. Post ‘On 27 September 1326, at the Tower of London…’
(4) Select Documents of English Constitutional History, 1307-1485, ed SB Crimes & AL Brown, (London, 1961), 37
(5) Vita, 2
(6) Phillips, 74
(7) Johnstone, H. Edward of Carnarvon. (Manchester, 1946),10
(8) E 101/375/15, f, 9r, 9v. Vale, Malcolm. The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North West Europe, 2001
(9) Phillips, 73
(10) Johnstone, 18. Philips, 57-59
(11) E 101/363/18, f.2

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

  1. I think if you ask the question ‘Would Edward I have done that?’ you can see how very different Edward II was and perhaps understand why people were suspicious of him. He might have had the common touch, but it looks as if he had no idea how to deal with his barons

    Liked by 1 person

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