During the evening of 23 September 1327, the young Edward III received news at Lincoln that his recently deposed father, Edward II, was dead. According to the letter written by Thomas de Berkeley and delivered by Thomas Gurney who had set out from Berkeley castle on 22 September, the late king had died of natural causes the night before his journey. Convenient one might think. There are a number of points which immediately stand out. Firstly, the king apparently died eight months after his deposition which had occured in January that year, despite having a notoriously healthy constitution and was only forty-three. Edward I, Edward II’s father, was sixty-eight when he died in July 1307, whilst Edward III was sixty-five when he died in 1377. Secondly, the news arrived when Edward III was holding parliament at Lincoln which had been in session since 15 September. What a more convenient way to inform the assembled great and good that the past was the past and they should all now look to the future; Edward III’s future. The timing was perfect. Too perfect in fact for my liking.
Call me a cynic but one thing is certain. The news that arrived that evening at Lincoln contained one glaringly obvious omission. The death of the late Edward II was certainly not by natural causes and contemporaries themselves, possibly almost immediately although too fearful to say it out loud, began to suspect something far more sinister. Today we cannot even be sure that Edward II did in fact die in September 1327, but may have escaped and lived out his final days in Italy dying sometime around 1341; a much more complicated but nevertheless fascinating aspect of his biography that will be explored at the end of my up coming book. There is much contemporary evidence to support his survival, which for generations has been ignored because we all like a good yarn about red hot pokers in dark corners. In truth, we all love a good story, me amongst them, but time has come to have a serious debate, which has been raging for over a decade now.
Whether Edward II died of natural causes, was murdered or in fact survived and someone else was initially buried in his place, Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer needed a good cover story to ensure that Edward III could be ensconced safely on his throne without any would-be conspiracy theorists undermining his burgeoning rule, or more pointedly, that of his mother and Mortimer. The unprecedented deposition of an anointed king needed to be glossed over as quickly as possible. To this effect a royal funeral was held at St Peter’s Abbey on 20 December 1327; 689 years ago today.
There is little account of the funeral itself. Many chroniclers do not make reference to it, but what we do know is this. The body, possibly of the late king, was embalmed whilst it still rested at Berkeley castle in late September where the king had been held in captivity since April that year. The heart was removed and placed into a sealed silver vase and presented to the queen, who following her death in 1358 was buried with it when she was interred at the Franciscan’s church at Newgate in London; now long since lost. Priors, knights and burgesses were summoned to attend the body and pay their respects, however as the chronicler Adam Murimuth states, this was done only superficially.(1) This may mean that they did not actually get to see the body itself, or at best from some distance off; something a little bit odd given contemporary practices and their summons to pay their respects to it.
On 21 October, the body was moved from Berkeley castle to nearby St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral, where it lay in state until the funeral on 20 December. It was felt that St Peter’s was a good choice of location for burial, and whilst the monks of Westminster wanted the body at their abbey, the mood in London and Westminster was hostile to the late king and so it was settled towards the West Country instead. The new regime could hardly afford questions or angry mobs rioting through the streets.Gloucester was far enough away to fit the bill.
A great hearse from London was erected in the abbey for the coffin to sit upon, and later replaced with a wooden one which had been made by eight local carpenters. It was guarded by four painted lions bearing the royal coat of arms, and interestingly four substantial oak beams were placed around the hearse to prevent crowds from getting to close to the coffin. The coffin was closed and for the first time in the history of English royal burials, a wooden funeral effigy was placed on top of it, which was dressed with Edward’s armour and on its head was placed a copper crown. On the day of the funeral itself, the effigy was dressed in the king’s coronation robes from 1308.(2) The later murdered Richard II’s coffin was left open for the crowds to see the body of the king both before and during the funeral in 1400 to bring about the end of any rumours that the king had survived. Why did Isabella and Mortimer not do this in 1327 to quash any rumours? The treatment of the body in the coffin in 1327 is curious and one can’t help but think great effort was taken to conceal the body during these months leading to something more like deception in plain sight than anything else. Seeing the coffin is not the same as seeing the body. Or is that just me?
The funeral was well attended and the congregation included Edward III, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The proceedings of the day are not recorded or do not survive. It was to all intents and purposes a lavish but strange affair where the congregation never saw the body of their late king, and were more often than not, kept at more than a respectable distance. Following the funeral, the coffin was interred under an arch on the north side of the Presbytery adjacent to the Ambulatory, up near the high altar and initially a plain Purbeck marble slab was placed over it. It was not until the 1340’s before any attempt was made to erect a magnificent tomb and effigy over the burial place was commissioned by Edward III. Quite possibly, the king knew the body under the floor was not initially his father’s and waited until the real body could be later interred before expensive and lavish works to commemorate his dead father could really begin. It is definitely food for thought, especially as I am not a conspiracy theorist, preferring to keep to cold hard facts. Even i’m convinced things are not quite what they seem 689 years ago today.
Perhaps tonight is a good night to light a candle in remembrance of a man much maligned by history. Even the king’s funeral, much like his life, is full of intrigue and deceptions at the hands of others. Edward II made many devotions to departed family and friends during his lifetime. It is only fitting we may do the same for him now.
Notes & Further reading
(1) Ade Murimuth Continuato Chronicarum, ed E.M.Thompson (London, 1889), 53-4
(2) Seymour Philips, Edward II, 552-554
Moore, S.A., ‘Documents relating to the death and burial of King Edward II’, Archaeologia 50 (1887), 215-26
The Tomb of Edward II – BL Egerton ms 3028 f.63r