An Errant Son: Edward II & the first exile of Piers Gaveston

‘You base-born whoreson! Do you want to give away lands now, you who never gained any? As the Lord lives, if it were not for fear of breaking up the kingdom, you should never enjoy your inheritance’.(1) These are the colourful words reported by the chronicler Walter of Guisborough. As this fearsome attack was made, King Edward I, so the story goes, consumed with apoplectic rage, lashed out, tearing handfuls of hair from the prince’s head, only to fall back into his chair exhausted. Convinced that his profligate son was about to despoil the realm, the king called his magnates to him and there they agreed to banish the prince’s friend Piers Gaveston from England.

It would be all too easy to run away with this colourful scene of an ill and ailing king striking out at his wilful young son, marked down for posterity by a dramatic verbatim account. However, not all contemporary records are quite so dramatic nor agree on the details. Yet what remains true is that on 26 February 1307, Edward I made his son who was England’s future king, and his intimate friend Piers Gaveston swear solemn oaths at the Priory of Lanercost in Cumbria upon the Holy Sacrament, on the Y Groes Naid, fragments of the True Cross confiscated from the Welsh in 1283, and other relics in the king’s possession.(2) Gaveston pledged to leave England from Dover at the end of April, three weeks after an upcoming tournament, to head to Gascony via Wissant, and not to return to England without the king’s express licence. The prince, sharing Gaveston’s distress, swore not to receive  Piers or keep him by his side, unless he was recalled by the king alone. The king for his part, promised to provide Gaveston with a pension of 100 marks, £66 13s 4d, to cover expenses overseas once he arrived partway on his journey to Wissant. While outside the realm, the king would enquire into Gaveston’s estate and, depending upon what he found, ‘would either increase or decrease it according to his pleasure’.(3)

So what had brought about this quarrel? In a word, advancement. The bones of the matter are clear. By February 1307 Prince Edward felt that his close intimate friend, who, if the chronicler of Lanercost is to be believed, had long since started calling him his brother, deserved an endowment of the type that was beyond his position to grant. With a difficult path to tread to achieve his burning desire, the prince threw down the gauntlet and whether in person or through Walter Langton, Bishop of Coventry & Lichfield, suggested to his father that Gaveston be given the vacant, and extensive, earldom of Cornwall with all its appurtenances.(4)

Gaveston at this time was well known to the king who thought well enough of him as a suitable role model, incredibly able and full of the necessary martial skill, to place him in his son’s household from around 1300. There he had most likely come to the attention of his fellow countryman, Guy Ferre, Edward’s teacher of military arts and something of a second father figure, which would only have further recommended him to the king’s son.  Edward I would have watched Gaveston grow both in capability and position but also in the affection of the prince and those around him. After all, Piers Gaveston and Gilbert de Clare, Edward I’s nephew, were both removed from Edward during his earlier quarrel with his father back in 1305 which resulted in a summer estrangement, knowing full well that their exclusion would strike at his son, allowing the king to drive his point home over the prince’s disagreement with the king’s treasurer Walter Langton. Only a month before this dramatic incident in 1307, Gaveston had received a pardon from the king, along with fifteen fellow knights, for absconding to France to tourney in the lists without the king’s licence. He appeared, until February 1307, to be at least in the main, in the king’s general affection.

Add. 10294, f.68
Gaveston’s martial prowess impressed King Edward I who instructed that the young Gascon be placed in the royal household of his eldest son, Edward.

For Edward I, the suggestion of a grant of this size and importance was beyond what was reasonable for two simple reasons. Firstly, he intended to give the earldom to one of his remaining sons, Thomas or Edmund from his second marriage to Marguerite of France; and secondly, Cornwall was then, as it is today, reserved for the more senior members of the royal family. Gaveston, while of Gascon noble stock, was nevertheless far short of the necessary credentials to qualify for such an award.(5) [For Gaveston’s heritage click here]_ It has been argued for many years that Edward’s request was in fact to grant Gaveston the county of Ponthieu in northern France, as noted by Guisborough; however, Cornwall, and not Ponthieu was the likely prize. The earldom of Cornwall was vacant following the death of it’s last incumbent Edmund, whose interment the Prince of Wales had attended on behalf of his father the king back in 1301. Ponthieu was already in the prince’s possession; it was his inheritance, bequeathed directly by his mother, and his oldest title. It was already marked out as a potential dowry for his future wife, Isabella of France. The finer details of the pending marriage were at this very moment being formally ironed out, therefore Ponthieu needed to be available to the English royal negotiators.(6)

For Prince Edward, achieving this grant for Gaveston posed a new problem, as he could not use his usual approach to influence his father through the intercession of his stepmother Queen Marguerite, used so successfully and as recently as the previous month in seeking pardons for Gaveston and his peers who had temporarily absconded to the tourney in France. He knew all too well that his father intended to grant the earldom to one of her two sons so, therefore, the queen was not able or willing to help. For Edward, with the absence of his best diplomatic negotiator, either he or Langton would have to suffice. On the face of it, Walter Langton seems an unlikely choice to procure something of such importance for Edward, given their clash two years earlier where Edward and Gaveston were accused by Langton of damaging his property, the king’s son denying the charges. Edward I backed his minister who was increasingly unpopular with the barons and the country at large, but of fundamental importance to the king who needed his treasurer in order to continue funding his military campaigns in Scotland at this time.  However, Langton was close to the king; he had the king’s ear as the prince knew only too well to his previous disadvantage. Yet it must have been increasingly apparent to the court that the aged king’s health was rapidly deteriorating and Edward would have only a short time to wait before he would come into his greater inheritance. What better way for him to test the future loyalty of a man with whom he had previously clashed? Langton’s later fall and imprisonment in 1307, after Edward ascended the throne that July, is further potential evidence for this suggestion. In Edward’s mind, with the inability to call upon the queen, this was the perfect opportunity for Langton to redeem himself from their first clash two years earlier, while proving his worth now to his future master. Whatever the truth of it, whether Langton was set this impossible task or not, or whether Edward asked his father himself, what is certain is that it failed spectacularly.

Over Holy relics, Edward & Gaveston are forced to swear an oath which separates them, to cool the ardour between them and teach the prince a lesson about patronage. It had the opposite effect, deepening their fire and resolve to be together.

As long as the king lived, Edward was not going to be able to achieve his goal. Understanding the king’s frustration with his own failing health, was can understand him lambasting his son and subsequently banishing Gaveston. The Annalist of St Paul’s noted that ‘the Prince of Wales had an inordinate affection for a certain Gascon knight’.(7) While this affection, most definitely homosexual in nature, was not the overriding reason for the king’s reaction, the inappropriate request for major land grants had become too much for an ailing king who had always been cautious with his patronage giving, resulting in him acting publicly. In all likelihood, on this occasion the king was not targeting his anger directly at Gaveston but again, as in 1305, his growing intolerance was fixed firmly on his son.(8) The two-month window for when Piers was to exit England showed there was no immediate urgency set down for the start of his exile. It was, after all, organised around a tournament which took place a few weeks after the oaths at Lanercost were taken. Had Piers been the main culprit his departure would have been far swifter.

When the time came to leave, Edward accompanied Gaveston and his party to his waiting ship at Dover. On 24 April, the day before Edward’s twenty-third birthday, they were still in London; one week later they passed through Badlesmere in Kent, and were at Canterbury on 2 May. By the 5th the party had arrived at Dover, a week later than Gaveston had promised in his oath; their slow progress no doubt indicative of their mood, made worse by recent news that one of Edward’s sisters, the Countess of Gloucester, had died.(9)

Before Gaveston’s departure, Edward lavished him and his small retinue with gifts. To Piers, the prince gave two quilted buckram tunics, sindon and silk, as well as four green and four yellow tapestries. Four more were given, coloured green and decorated with rosettes. He also gave his lover thirteen swans and twenty-two herons.(10) William de Anne and Henry de Guildford, both yeomen in Piers’ retinue, were given money, £2 6s 8d, while the sum of £13 6s was distributed to the rest of the party.(11) Two minstrels, attempting to lift the dour mood, who had played for them during their slow journey to Dover, were gifted 6s 8d. Gaveston had been able to retain some of his household men, including William and Henry plus five more yeomen, a chamberlain to run his household in exile, two knights for protection, two falconers and four lesser servants. At the last minute, as Piers was boarding the ship, Edward felt that this was not sufficient and gave Gaveston one of his personal yeomen, John de Baldwin, who received a gift of 20s from his master, as well as a further six grooms.(12)

Vatican Library Gaveston
With a heavy heart Gaveston and his retinue set sail from Dover in May 1307

On or just after 5 May, Edward stood on the white chalk cliffs and watched as Gaveston and his party set sail into what would become his first exile from England. Breaking his oath to travel to Gascony via Wissant, on the prince’s order, Gaveston headed instead to Crécy in Ponthieu to wait. With the king ailing fast, it was only too apparent that his stay in exile was not likely to last long and so open defiance of their enforced oath at Lanercost was a direct challenge to the king, albeit a relatively safe one. Had they not thought the king likely to die soon, it was more reasonable for Piers to have headed, as agreed, to Gascony. Gaveston lingered in Ponthieu, Edward sending further gifts; this time two outfits for the tournament that Piers was scheduled to fight in through the late spring. The first was green velvet with pearls, gold and silver piping, embroidery bearing Gaveston’s coat of arms, the other was also green and equally impressive. Five horses were sent, with the huge sum of £260 for Gaveston’s expenses, and promptly put to good use.(13) Edward was characteristically demonstrating his generosity to those to whom he was fiercely loyal – Piers most of all. Piers did not sit idle. Between tournaments, he had the time to host a visit from Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham and Patriarch of Jerusalem, so clearly those at the wider English royal court felt that despite his oath to the king some months earlier, he was not yet a pariah.

Edward, left behind, headed to his manor at Langley in mid-May and moved about south-east England for the following month, visiting Lambeth on 8 June. By the 16th he had moved north to Northampton to begin, at some stage and in no apparent rush, the ten day march to Carlisle to re-join his father who had ordered the English army to assemble for July for another season of campaigning, to bring in the rebel Robert Bruce who had since declared himself King of Scots and had returned from temporary exile, only to gain ground. Edward I, fearful of losing his iron grip over Scotland, could wait no longer and moved his half-assembled army north. The old leopard, dogged by dysentery, was forced to slow his pace, managing only a few miles of travel each day.(14) In early July, rumours began to circulate around the camp, after the king spent several days in bed, that he was already dead. To prove himself very much alive, King Edward forced himself up out of bed, and at the head of his army, marched north on the 3rd and 4th, only to rest on the 5th July. By the 6th he limped into Burgh-by-Sands, just short of the Scottish border. On the following day, the feast of the Translation of St Thomas of Canterbury, while being lifted up in his bed to take food, the sixty-eight-year-old king fell back dead in the arms of his attendants.(15) Prince Edward was now king.

News reached Prince Edward while he was at Westminster on 11 July when he immediately set out north as King Edward II to take charge of his kingdom and view his father’s body which he accomplished on 19 July. Before riding out from London, Edward’s first act was to formally recall Piers Gaveston from exile and sent riders to Ponthieu with the good news. After taking the oaths of his nobles both in England and from those still loyal in Scotland, Edward turned his attention to the administrative matters of government. With his father now dead, he could finally grant Piers Gaveston the very endowment that had brought about the latter’s exile. On 6 August 1307, only three months after Piers departed England at Dover, Edward II issued a beautifully decorated charter which his clerk Thomas de Newhay had drawn up, endowing the absent Piers, the king’s friend since 1300 and longtime lover, with the earldom of Cornwall along with all its appurtenances.(16) The charter was, rather significantly, witnessed by seven earls including Lincoln, Lancaster, Hereford, Arundel, Richmond, Pembroke and Surrey.(17) Unusually, no one below the rank of earl was included in the witness list, indicating Edward’s clever designed piece of theatre. He wanted to be certain that the higher nobility now agreed to Gaveston’s return and, more importantly, to his elevation to the rank earl. The chronicler of the Vita Edwardi Secundi noted that the Earl of Lincoln himself confirmed that the earldom had been given on two separate occasions to men not of the royal blood and thus Edward’s actions were supported by precedents.(18) The oaths the earls had made with the late king on 26 February 1307 at Lanercost, were now effectively dissolved. Three further documents relating to the grant were issued around the same time, all four authenticated with Edward’s new great seal. They were the only documents at this time to be so sealed. Gaveston was at the forefront of Edward’s mind throughout the first months of accession.

Edward dispatches a message recalling Piers Gaveston from his first exile.

On receiving his orders of recall, Piers equally responded with breakneck speed and was back in England sometime around early August, briefly staying at the London home of Walter Reynolds, collecting letters that had been sent to him there on 19 July. On 13 August, Edward made payment of 10d to one of Gaveston’s yeomen, Robert de Ruffed, who had been injured on the return journey from Ponthieu, suggesting the the party had returned certainly no later than this date and probably days earlier.(19) Piers headed north while the king prepared to ceremoniously invest him with his new earldom. Geoffrey of Nottingham was ordered to supply Gaveston with lengths of green and indigo silk to make his new coat of arms and was paid for his efforts on 12 August at Dumfries.(20) It was all done by 17th August when Piers Gaveston, now reunited with Edward, held a lavish feast at Sanquhar, attended by the earls of Lincoln, Hereford and Lancaster; the latter paying one of his minstrels to entertain them.(21) After months of separation, their reunion must have been joyous.

Gaveston’s elevation was considerable. Cornwall was one of the more lucrative earldoms in the kingdom, with an annual income of approximately £4,000 and its boundaries were far more extensive that the geographical county. The tin mines in this area, which had seen a significant upturn in production since 1305, created considerable wealth. The earldom also included lands across England. Gaveston received the honours of Wallingford and St Valery in the Thames Valley, and lands in Oxfordshire, Surrey, Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, the town of Chichester in Essex, and Old Shoreham in Sussex. The honour of Berkhamsted was excluded from the original grant as it was in the possession of the dowager queen, as Marguerite had now become following the death of her late husband, forming part of her dower lands. Also excluded were Eye, Fordington and Bradninch, which were still held by the late earl’s widow, Edward’s second cousin by marriage. In the Midlands and the north, the earldom included the western half of Lincolnshire, as well as specifically Boroughbridge and Aldborough.(22) In order to best administer his new estates, Gaveston retained many of the men previously employed by the crown and set up his central adminstartin at the mighty fortress of Wallingford Castle.(23) Overnight he had become one the premier earls in England, and his recent exile was quickly put behind him. However, the future was set against Piers and Edward, and within a year he was set to face another exile, this time brought about by the demands of his increasingly resentful peers.

For information on what happened next please see; Piers Gaveston: Life, Love & Death (An Overview) and A Solemn Affair: The Funeral of Piers Gaveston, 2 January 1315

Stephen Spinks is author of a medieval series focussing on the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. His books, available globally, include; Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance and Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation



(1) Guisborough, 328-3. Ann Paul, 255. Hamilton, 34-5.

(2) Phillips, 121. Davies, R.R The First English Empire, 34-5.

(3) CCR, 1302-07, 526-7. Hamilton, 34. Chaplais, 22. Johnstone, 123-4.

(4) Phillips, 122-3. Haskins, A Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II, 75.

(5) Hamilton, 19-28. Chaplais, 4-5.

(6) Phillips, 120-1.

(7) Ann Paul, 255. Lanercost, 210.

(8) Hamilton, 34. Johnstone, 123.

(9) BL Add. MS 22923 f.17v. f12. Hamilton, 36.

(10) Hamilton, 138.

(11) Ibid, 35.

(12) Ibid, 138.

(13) Ibid, 36.

(14) The Song of Lewes, 14.

(15) Guisborough, 379. Prestwich, 556-7. Johnstone, 126.

(16) Lanercost, 184. Vita, 1. Chaplais, 27.

(17) Maddicott, 70-1. Hamilton, 37. Chaplais, 27.

(18) Vita, 1.

(19) Chaplais, 26 citing PRO E 101/373/15,f. 2iv.

(20) Ibid, 26.

(21) Phillips, 127.

(22) Hamilton, 39, 140.

(23) Ibid, 43.

The main body of this article is taken from Spinks, Stephen, Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance, (Stroud, 2017), 56-64.

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