On the 20 January 1327 Edward II, a prisoner at Kenilworth Castle, faced a delegation. Initially he had been offered the courtesy of a quiet conversation with the bishops of Winchester and Lincoln in his private chamber. The news was most likely expected. Edward, they declared, was by the will of parliament and the community of the realm, encouraged to abdicate his throne in place of his eldest son, Edward, Duke of Aquitaine on account that his people felt he was unfit to rule and won’t never to change. Edward, famous for his Plantagenet temper, refused outright.
The threat was not new. Well not exactly. At times of crisis during his twenty year reign, his over-mighty vassals had, on occasion, threatened to withdraw their allegiance to him. During each occasion, Edward had played for time, capitulated to their demands and found a way out of a sticky situation, overturning his losses at a later date. Only on this occasion, his powers of persuasion failed him. Never before had he been met with such overwhelming opposition.
Given his lifelong determination to protect his royal dignity, even now he must have fought hard against the suggestion that he should voluntarily give up his throne. He held firm. They tried to assure him that he would be treated with the utmost respect for the rest of his life. It was a poor argument. The two bishops resorted to threats. If he did not relinquish his crown, he could, according to the colourful account in le Baker, be replaced with someone not of his direct line. That implied the king’s mortal enemy, Roger Mortimer, who had in Edward’s mind at least, alienated and seduced his wife and brought about the king’s fall from power and the execution of his favourites, including Hugh Despenser the Younger. While the notion of replacing Edward with anyone other than his heir would not have been conceivable or acceptable to anyone in England at the time, least of all Edward’s wife Queen Isabella who had championed and led the invasion against her husband, or even leading magnates like the earls of Lancaster, Norfolk or Kent, it may have been used as a tool to force Edward to abdicate. The king, locked away and starved of information at Kenilworth Castle, would have had no sense of the political climate in England following the invasion of his wife and her army. The threat, as far as the king knew, magnified by his preoccupation over the last four years that Mortimer was dangerous beyond measure to everyone, even to Isabella, was believable to the king.
The two bishops were frustrated, but equally were not alone in this mission. Shortly after their conference with the king, the rest of the delegation, which included another twenty-two men, representatives of the prelates, earls, priors, justices, knights of England, citizens of London and the Cinque ports, arrived at the castle. By this stage the king was utterly exhausted, highly emotional and battleworn from months of flight, personal betrayals and imprisonment. Everything he knew, everything that characterised his life, was in the balance and he knew it. Eventually Edward entered the adjoining chamber dressed in a black robe to hear their commission. He could barely stand and may have fainted, being helped to his feet by his cousin, Henry of Lancaster and the bishop of Winchester.
Adam Orleton, one of Edward II’s bitterest enemies, stepped forward and informed the king of why they were there and demanded that he abdicate. Edward must have refused. He began to weep, perhaps he also became angry, again it is not all that clear. But in the end he could not hold out against such overwhelming and widespread resistance to his rule. At some point he must have given in. William Trussell, the man who had pronounced judgement on both the Despensers only two months before, then stepped up and formally renounced homage on behalf of the entire kingdom. Finally, Sir Thomas Blount, the steward of the royal household, symbolically broke his staff of office. At this moment a milestone had been reached in the history of England. An anointed king of England had been forced to abdicate. Given the tactics used, it came all the more closer to deposition. All the more poignant for the king, was that Edward lost this throne only a few miles away from where his lover Piers Gaveston lost his life.
Edward was now known only as Edward of Caernarfon, the place of his birth. Occasionally in official records he would also be called ‘Edward , the king’s father’ after his son ascended the throne as Edward III. On 24 January, four days after Edward II lost his crown, a general proclamation was made in London, announcing that the former king had renounced his throne and that his son, the young Duke of Aquitaine, was now to take his father’s place. Shortly afterwards, on 2 February, Edward III was hastily crowned at Westminster Abbey. Edward of Caernarfon remained at Kenilworth Castle, in some comfort as a prisoner of his cousin Henry of Lancaster until he was transferred to Berkeley Castle in April that year, where a much harsher confinement ensued.
The deposition or forced abdication of Edward II marked a milestone. From here on in, no king was safe. Edward’s prevailing legacy remains the warning that all kings can fall from power. Before the fourteenth century was spent, Edward II’s great-grandson, Richard II was deposed and murdered. The following century witnessed the horror of the Cousin’s War, and with it, kings came and went with break neck speed. The events of 13 – 20 January, from the parliament convened to depose a king, to the actual deposition at Kenilworth Castle itself, is as significant as 1066 or 1215.
Text drawn from ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’. Stephen Spinks (Amberley, 2017), 219-20.
Feature Image & One: MS Royal 20 A II, f.10.
Image Two: Edward II is forced to abdicate.