It was Walter of Guisborough who first poured scorn on the supposed heritage of Piers Gaveston, favourite and lover of Edward II, declaring that the then earl of Cornwall was ‘raised up as if from nothing’.(1) Historians for the best part of the last 700 years have run away with this assertion, until academics like Jeffrey Hamilton challenged that perception in 1988. To contemporaries, immediately beyond the royal circle and the highest level of the nobility, Gaveston’s dramatic rise in apparent status was certainly something to note, even before the later controversy after 1307 really got going. This focus on rise, is possibly because chroniclers and commoners alike knew little about him. Yet a closer look at the evidence, and an appreciation of Gascon politics – Gascony being the place of Gaveston’s birth – quickly dispels the myth that Piers came from nothing. In fact his heritage is rich, vibrant and centrally important in Gascon society, and to better understand Gaveston, you need to stop and understand the complex world in which he grew up in and was part of.
Born in approximately 1282, Piers Gaveston was one of four sons of Arnaud de Gabaston and Claramonde de Marsan. The infamous name ‘Gaveston’ is a anglicisation of his father’s family surname, which takes it’s heritage from the village of Gabaston in an area known as Béarn. The first part of the name Gabaston comes from the local river ‘Gabas’ and was certainly adopted by one of his ancestors, appearing in the records in the 1040’s. Béarn is an important part of Gascony, which sits in the south-west of France near the border between France and what is now modern day Spain.(2) Gascony in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was part of the much reduced Duchy of Aquitaine, which had first come to the English crown when Henry II had married Eleanor of Aquitaine and then went on to inherit the throne of England in 1154. During the middle part of the thirteenth century, the young duke of Aquitaine was Edward, the future Edward I. The viscounts of Béarn owed Edward homage and fealty for some of their lands, albeit it Béarn itself remained fiercely independent, and in turn Arnaud de Gabaston and Clarmonde de Marsan owed the viscount Gaston VII, their homage and fealty for their lands in and around large swathes of Béarn and Marsan. In short, despite the complexity of the landholdings in this part of the world at this time, it was somewhat inevitable that Arnaud de Gabaston and Edward I were to come into direct contact.
Arnaud de Gabaston was a man of significant status, who could trace his ancestors back to the eleventh century. He was especially noted for his position as jurat which he undertook from 1269. This role came with many facets, but the most important was effectively sitting as a judge in Béarn. (3) This gave him significant power in the region. As did Arnaud’s marriage, to Piers Gaveston’s mother, Claramonde de Marsan, who was daughter of another jurat called Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan. Claramonde, was co-heir to her father’s estates with that of her brother, Fortaner de Lescun. So when she married de Gabaston, with her came substantial land holdings which included the five castles of Louvigny, Hagetmau, Montgaillard-des-Landes, St. Labouer, Roquefort-de-Marsan valued collectively at £100 sterling, as well as lands in Marsan, Turban, Chalosse and Sauveterre-de-Béarn. There were also other lands which Clarmonde retained in her own right after her marriage. The marriage proved to be successful by the standards of the day. Piers Gaveston was to be their second child, his elder brother being Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan, but he also had a recognised illegitimate half-brother Guillaume-Arnaud de Gabaston. There were three other siblings. Two younger brothers, Gerard de Gabaston and Raimon-Arnaud de Gabaston, as well as his sister Amy who was with Piers in 1312 at the siege of Scarborough castle.(4)
Furthermore, through the de Marsan family, Piers Gaveston was also connected to a third significant family – the Caillau, who were one of the most prominent families in Bordeaux, whose family members had risen to the rank of mayor among other positions. Gaveston’s aunt, Miramonde de Marsan, married Pierre Caillau the head of the Caillau family.(5) Gaveston’s relation, Bertrand de Caillau had risen in status in the papacy and it was he who was sent by Clement V among others in 1309 to bring about the return of Piers from his second exile from Ireland. (6) With the marriage of Claramonde and Arnaud, two ancient Gascon families had thus been united; it is quickly evident that Piers Gaveston was no mere nothing. In fact his family was at the high-end heart of Gascon society.
From the 1270’s Gabaston became intricately linked with Edward I, especially when the reclatriant viscount of Béarn, Gaston VII, rebelled against the king of England. In the end the rebellion was short lived and in the ensuing peace, the viscount was forced to offer homage and fealty again for his lands excluding Béarn. During the act of homage, Arnaud de Gabaston – the jurat – along with three others, acted as surety for the viscount. The year before this event, Gabaston formally acknowledged in the official royal records, a debt of £450 to Edward I in 1272, the year of Edward I’s accession to the throne of England. This is a princely sum – we are uncertain what the debt was in response to – but to help ease the burden, Gabaston granted to Edward I his wife’s castle at Louvigny as security until the debt was paid. (7) Arnaud de Gabaston had therefore placed himself in the mind of the king, for from 1282, he would render service to the king of England that would last until his death in 1302. It is through this service, that Piers Gaveston would enter into the history of England.
In 1282-3, Arnaud was in England initially, joining the king on his later campaign into Wales where Edward I was attempting, and succeeded, to subdue the native Welsh Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. Arnaud was part of a contingent made up of 3 knights, 7 mounted archers and 120 foot.(8) In 1288, Piers Gaveston’s father, the year after his wife Clarmonde died, was again in English service, only this time as a hostage for Edward I. He, along with 63 others were sent to Alfonso III of Aragon as security for the king’s pledge to pay the ransom of Charles of Salerno at the cost of 70,000 marks. In the end he may not have been held for long, because the deal between Edward I and Alfonso III was overturned by pope Nicholas IV. (9) In 1294 he reprised the role, becoming hostage again on behalf of Edward I, this time being sent to the king of France, Phillip IV; until he escaped on 13 November 1296 along with two other hostages back to England and was favourably received by the king. They were decked out with new clothes initially at a cost of £67, and then further awards were made to the tune of £106. 5s to pay for armour and equipment for their retinues, and £34 on horses.(10) This was used no doubt for the forthcoming campaign in Gascony.
In 1297 Arnaud was fighting for Edward I in Flanders, as was his second son for the first time. Piers Gaveston was paid 12d a day and had a horse valued at 12 marks; a modest sum.(11) In the spring of 1298, Arnaud was in Gascony and given the town and castle of Sault and the castle of Roquefort to defend, that was at least until Guillaume-Arnaud de Brocas complained to the king that de Gabaston had overreached his authority and executed a man without trial. The king raised a commission in which Gabaston appears to have been acquitted of any crime, but nevertheless he had given up his custodianship of the castles before or soon after the inquiry got going. In 1300 he and his sons were fighting in Scotland for the king, with Arnaud , once more becoming a royal household knight, receiving £38 from1 August until 3 November as wages for him and his four or six squires which included two of his sons, Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan and Guillaume-Arnaud de Gabaston. His retinue in total consisted of 8 yeomen. Piers on this occassion was not to squire for his father but was instead fighting in the household of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward II, still being paid the sum of 12d a day but had now acquired a servant and a horse valued at 36 marks, rather than the 12 marks of 1297. The horse didn’t make it through the campaign however and was duly compensated for.
In 1302, Arnaud de Gabaston died and was buried in Winchester Cathedral where his effigy can still be seen today. Before his death, he had ensured that his family had found service with Edward I, leaving them with stable jobs and regular incomes; their futures seemed secured. After 1302 the Gabaston family found themselves maintaining that mantle of service like before, only for Piers his position within the household of the future Edward II would place him at the very heart of the royal government.
In 1300 Gaveston’s entry into the household of the Prince of Wales set him and the prince on a course that would have a profound impact on the annals of history. According to a contemporary chronicle, Gaveston was placed there by Edward I because of his ‘courteous manners’ and because he excelled in military arms. He was a tourney champ and proven in war. He was also known to Guy Ferre, the former seneschal of Gascony through his family’s position in that region, and it may in fact be through this connection that he was recommended to Edward I by Guy himself. Guy Ferre had become Prince Edward’s horse master and teacher of military arms and was a key member of the heir to the throne’s household.(12) Yet again, Gaveston’s Gascon connections ensured he was promoted within royal circles. There were only approximately two years that separated the future Edward II and Gaveston in age and they appeared to quickly hit it off.
On 14 December 1302, Edward I ordered that Gaveston’s daily allowance be raised from 12d to 15d and that he was suitably robed each season.(13) Clearly he was impressing the king. On 29 July 1304, the king at his son’s request, granted to Piers custody of Edmund of Mortimer’s lands in the Welsh March and Ireland, and this wardship of his heir – the future Roger Mortimer of Wigmore – proved lucrative until Mortimer entered into his estates, still a minor, in April 1306. It was a note of honour from the king and one that recognised Gaveston’s positive contribution to the Price’s household. Given the request came from the young Edward, it was most likely that he and Piers were already in an intimate relationship, as Edward had begun his efforts to reward his lover and drive his position yet further. Before 1307, the Annalist of St Paul’s noted that ‘the Prince of Wales had an inordinate affection for a certain Gascon knight.'(14) The gifts after this date grow bigger. (15). Piers went on to be knighted in May 1306 and his wealth increased steadily. For the 1306 campaign in Scotland his horse was valued at an impressive £60, he now had his own modest household and was the holder of lands in ten counties according to official records in that year (although these may have been wrapped up in his wardship of the Mortimer lands as noted above).
By the dawn of 1307, Piers Gaveston by virtue of his family’s position in Gascony, his military ability and courteous manners, had risen high in English royal service, a service that began with his father Arnaud de Gabaston as far back as 1282. He had won the respect of the king of England, Edward I, most likely the heart of the king’s son, the future Edward II, and was friends with men at court who would one day become his enemies. To say that Piers Gaveston was ‘raised up as if from nothing’ belies the reality of who he was and where he and his family came from. Like with so much of history, we need to take the time and care to look beyond the rhetoric. What followed after this date remains to be Gaveston’s legacy, but to better understand him, we need to see the whole picture and not just the bits that make the best of stories.
For information on what happened next from the start of 1307 please see; Piers Gaveston: Life, Love & Death (An Overview) and A Solemn Affair: The Funeral of Piers Gaveston, 2 January 1315
Nb: This article draws heavily on Hamilton, Jeffrey. Piers Gaveston Earl of Cornwall 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II, (Detroit, 1988)
(1) Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed H. Rothwell (London Camden 3rd Series, 89, 1957), 382.
(2) Hamilton, Jeffrey. Piers Gaveston Earl of Cornwall 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II, (Detroit, 1988), 19.
(3) Ibid, 20.
(4) Ibid, 22.
(5) Ibid, 133.
(6) Spinks, Stephen. Edward II the Man, 83
(7) Hamilton, 21.
(8) E. 101/3/27 m. 2.
(9) Hamilton, 24.
(10) Ibid, 24 citing BL Add. MS 7965 ff. 53v, 54, 54v, 55v, 58v.
(11) Hamilton, 29.
(12) Spinks, 40. Phillips, Seymour. Edward II, 37-8.
(13) Ibid, 30.
(14) Ann Paul, 255.
(15) CPR, 1301-07, 244.