The Birth of a King: War, Politics & Lifelong Symbolism

On St Mark’s Day, 25 April 1284, the day on which the people of medieval England would parade through their villages carrying veiled black crosses while praying for good harvests, good weather and good health, a forty-three year old woman was in labour.[1] For hours, surrounded by some of the women of her household, headed by her trusted midwives, she lay in her dark, enclosed room, the air thick and oppressive with smoke from the fire. The windows in her lodging were boarded up to keep out light and fresh air, thought to bring evil spirits into the birthing chamber. The walls were adorned with tapestries depicting biblical scenes and calming flora and fauna. The decoration her ladies-in-waiting had chosen was deliberate. In the medieval mind, fear or moral distress during these tense hours in such a delicate moment of life-giving, could be enough it was believed, to physically damage the unborn child, something that had to be safeguarded against at all costs. Praying to St Margaret who had, as the legend goes, been swallowed by a dragon and subsequently disgorged in an act of symbolic rebirth while clutching a crucifix during her ordeal, gave the women of the chamber hope by calling on the saint’s heavenly powers of intercession to deliver the child safely. On this occasion St Margaret must have heard, for eventually, after a painful labour, the mother gave birth to her fourteenth child.


Childbirth in the medieval world was an uncertain affair both for the mother and the child; mortality was high during birth as well as in the days immediately thereafter. Social class, wealth and political position counted for little in the indiscriminate birthing chamber where death frequently stalked the room. If a mother and child survived, child rearing could be just as fraught, many young children failing to make it to adulthood as a result of sickness and limited and effective medical care. On this occasion, despite the odds, the birth went well and a healthy baby boy was delivered in the confines of a wooden lodging, to the sounds of masons carving stones and carpenters shaping great wooden beams; the great castle at Caernarfon in which they both lay, was rapidly growing up around them. Immediately the principal midwife reached out, symbolically cutting the umbilical cord and discarding it into the fire, a token payment of destruction to ward off the sinful accountability of the origins of his conception. Sex after all, in the eyes of the church, was for the sole purpose of procreation of life, and not at all motivated by pleasure, echoing Adam and Eve’s fall from Paradise. The baby boy was then promptly washed down with an infusion of wine and sugar water and wrapped in swaddling cloth, his arms tucked tightly into his sides, thought to aid a baby’s bodily development thereby preventing any future deformity.

Within a week, on 1 May, that boy was presented to God through baptismal rite by the principal midwife on behalf of his mother, Eleanor of Castile, queen of England, and was given the name of Edward in honour of his father, the great Edward I, king of England who had ruled with an iron hand since 1272. This little boy, would go on to grow into manhood and succeed to the English throne, as King Edward II in 1307. The name Edward, despite its Saxon rather than Norman heritage, was not entirely unusual by the end of the thirteenth century; it having been resurrected by Henry III when he had named the boy’s father some forty-five years earlier. King Henry had been so taken with the cult of St Edward the Confessor, the English Saxon king who had died in January of 1066, sowing the seeds for Norman invasion later that year, and who was canonised in 1161, that Henry spent a great deal of his fifty-six year reign, and at great expense, reconstructing Westminster Abbey in the new Gothic style to shore up his ever-challenged kingship. The Abbey may have been forward thinking encompassing the latest European architectural innovations and style, but as much as the king looked ahead, his creativity and inspiration were to be found in the past. It was therefore only fitting that the Saxon names of Edward and Edmund, would remerge under his rule and within his own expanding family. News of the royal birth in 1284 was celebrated widely at Caernarfon and beyond, and as one chronicler noted, ‘many rejoiced including the Londoners’.[2] To mark this special royal occasion, on the day of baptism, alms of £10 were generously distributed to the people of the town to mark the birth of the king and queen’s second surviving son.[3]

Contemporary depiction of  King Edward I & Queen Eleanor of Castile, parents to the future Edward II

Unlike the average medieval birth, the arrival of the young Edward was charged with political symbolism, for in April 1284, Edward was born onto a field of conquest. His father was in the final throes of achieving his imperial ambitions in Wales, which led to the death of the last ruling Welsh Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, in a skirmish near Builth in 1282. The English king went on to systematically destroy the remaining Welsh opposition and in the following year, Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, briefly titular prince, was betrayed by a group of disloyal followers. He was captured near Llanberis at the foot of Snowdon and sentenced to death for high treason, the first time the notion of treason in England had been extended to include rebellion in which Dafydd’s ultimate and clear aim had been regicide: a crime considered at the time as highly subversive and immoral and therefore could be met with the full ferocity of the Crown’s sharp pointed notion of justice. In early October, he was dragged through the streets of Shrewsbury, hanged by the neck for his crimes of murder, and disembowelled while still alive for crimes committed during Holy Week. His entrails are burned before him. Finally, perhaps almost mercifully, he was beheaded and dismembered, his arms, legs and head distributed throughout the realm as a warning to would-be renegades.[4]

By the summer of the following year, 1283, the King of England was consolidating his newfound Welsh power, imprinted on the landscape by the construction of magnificent castles placed at strategic points around the former troublesome kingdom of Gwynedd. For Edward I, conquest was not just marked by the removal of troublesome individuals made up of over-mighty ancient noble or royal houses, it was made visible in buildings and stone built fortifications that would provide an indelible mark on the landscape and in the minds of the conquered. His military takeover was to be both political and cultural, a heavy-handed but nevertheless directly imposed strategy that left the people of Wales in no doubt as to whom now ruled over them.[5] Edward’s stranglehold would be fearsome and relentless, which did more to inspire resistance and disloyalty in the immediate years following.

It was therefore by no mean chance, that the baby Edward was born at Caernarfon, a name with which he became forever associated. In fact, the place of Edward’s birth was positively orchestrated for sound political and cultural reasons, just one more facet of King Edward I’s strategy for imperial conquest. By the start of 1283, it was only a matter of months before works at Caernarfon, Harlech and Conwy were underway after the king had commissioned the castle builder of the day, Master James of St George, to construct them using innovative architectural styles, initially overseen and carefully devised by the king himself. Once works began, they progressed at great pace – but not quickly enough to authenticate the tradition that Edward of Caernarfon was delivered in the great, and to this day still very imposing Eagle Tower, which dominates the landscape and is full of yet more medieval symbolism. As surviving records highlight, construction of the tower did not commence until 1285 and so it was in modest wooden lodgings, removed in the later 1280’s, that Edward II was born.

The formidable Eagle Tower, Caernarfon Castle

Nothing at the time is recorded that gives any tantalising insight into what the baby looked like. The historic record keeping for royal children is often fraught with problems.  Inaccurate dates of birth and poor recording of specific names of some individuals, or the location of their births, especially when the children were girls, is a commonplace problem for historians scouring through ancient documents, sometimes these themselves surviving in mere fragments down the ages. As such we cannot be entirely certain whether Queen Eleanor had fourteenth or sixteen children before her premature death in 1290. However, what remains true, is that on this occasion at least the date and location of Edward’s birth were accurately recorded by a studious royal clerk and can be corroborated.

In later life, Edward was noted by contemporaries as being tall, well built,  physically strong and more than conventionally attractive, as judged by the standards of society then. His height and strength especially is echoed by his father’s own physique, Edward I being known then and now as ‘Longshanks’, meaning long legged or uncommonly tall at 6ft and highly physically active. Edward I however had a droopy eyelid, a slight lisp and long, curly Plantagenet blond hair that darkened to mousy brown as he grew into manhood.[6] His son inherited the hair but not the other two characteristics. Eleanor, his mother, born at Valladolid in Castile, in modern day Spain, was known for her beauty, an astute sense of business and her unstinting devotion to her husband. The magnificent gilt bronze effigy made by William Torel in 1291 that adorns Eleanor’s tomb in Westminster Abbey portrays the queen with long, flowing hair and a beautiful oval-shaped face. Fast forward to 1377 and the death of another king, Edward III, his surviving death mask also has a distinctive ovalness about it, meaning it is quite likely that Edward II had a similar shape face to that of his mother and his own eldest son. Both Edward’s parents had fiery tempers, a trait they most certainly passed on to their child.[7] By standards then and now, Edward had two attractive parents and it is likely he was attractive too. Coins from his reign showing his profile look remarkably similar to that of his father and son, so it would seem the male Plantagenet genes were dominant even if images on coins were mostly stylised and should be taken in this context with a pinch of salt.

The birth of a son to the English king in one of his new castles sent out a powerful message to the Welsh people that conquest was absolute and on-going resistance would ultimately be futile. The statement was clear: the English king continued to have children, successors to his royal power, while the native Welsh dynasties has been brutally extinguished. The age old tale passed down for generations that told of Edward of Caernarfon’s presentation to the people of Wales on a shield from the battlements of the castle as a prince born in Wales who could speak no English and was, therefore, fit to rule over them, was, despite its appeal, most likely the invention of later generations; the story first appearing in the Elizabethan Chronicle of England, written by the London antiquarian John Stow in 1584.[8] Yet despite this later colourful legend, the royal birth at a strategic castle during a period of conquest propelled the baby Edward into the political arena from the start, which was what his father had planned with his characteristic tenacity.

Caernarfon, with its polygonal towers and walls lined with varicoloured masonry, was inspired by the great walled city of Constantinople in the ancient Eastern Roman Empire. Caernarfon was to remain central to the king’s strategy to control the principality. Following the publication of the Statute of Wales at Rhuddlan in March 1284, which set out English administrative control over Wales, it became the political and administrative heart of English government until the seventeenth century.[9]

Children gather to play games in the royal nursery as depicted in the contemporary Alphonso Psalter, made for Edward II’s eldest surviving brother, later passed to his sister, Elizabeth.

The baby Edward was immediately given a Welsh wet nurse, Mary Maunsel, whose task was to feed and care for him. Kept warm and safe, great care was taken to keep the king’s son free from illness, especially as many, but not all of his older brothers had already perished. It would not be until later in the same year, that his oldest surviving eleven year-old brother Alphonso, heir to the throne, would also die, leaving the baby Edward as his father’s natural successor. Mary Maunsel herself did not hold the position for long, falling ill at Rhuddlan Castle around the time the baby’s brother perished in England. With Edward now heir, no chances could or would be taken that may compromise his health. England’s future depended upon his survival. Despite her short service, Mary remained in the royal household, for in 1312 she received 100s a year from the revenues from the king’s mill at Caernarfon, and in 1317, was in possession of 73 acres of crown land, where she lived rent free for life as a result of her previous service.[10] Her replacement in the autumn of 1284 was Alice Leygrave, an English woman who was to remain close to Edward throughout his life. Alice would stay in Edward’s household until his marriage to Isabella of France in 1308, whereupon the was transferred into the household of the young new queen. Alice appears in the records with Isabella in France in 1313 and again in 1314, so her services were always useful to the royal couple, who themselves had children from 1312 onwards.[11]

The royal children remained at Caernarfon for the summer of 1284 as their parents consolidated their gains on progress through north, and later, south Wales. By early autumn, as the leaves over the huge forests began to turn and fall, the royal children, Edward, Joan and Elizabeth (the latter born at Rhuddlan Castle only two years earlier), were eventually bundled up and made the slow, winding journey back to England via Acton Burnell in Shropshire before heading south, finally meeting up with their parents at Bristol. Edward was not to return to Wales until he was invested with the principality in 1301, when just shy of his seventh birthday.

By 1301, the Welsh had therefore been bereft of a prince for nearly twenty years. In 1294-5 they had risen up in revolt against English rule while Edward I was preoccupied with war in Gascony, France and also Scotland. Despite the challenge, the king was able to confidently subdue the revolt and English rule across Wales continued. It was however clear that a further rebellion, as war with Scotland and France remained ongoing, was best avoided. It may be for this reason that the King of England choose to act.


It was at the Lincoln parliament, on 7 February 1301, that Edward of Caernarfon who was then sixteen, was granted the earldom of Chester and all the royal lands in Wales formerly held by his father.[12] In both instances the land grants were extensive geographically. In the February charter, the lands in Wales were divided into two key areas. In the north, Edward received Anglesey, Hope and further east the Four Cantreds (Rhos, Englefield, Rhuvoniog and Duffryn Clwyd) as well as many smaller manors and vills, all known then as Snowdonia as the area was so extensive. In the west and south he was also granted Carmarthen and Cardigan, under English control since 1241, the castles and lordships of Haverford and Builth which were located in a heavily anglicised part of the principality. It was near Builth that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had lost his life in a bloody skirmish. Lands recovered from the rebel Rhys ap Meredudd who was defeated in 1287, including the Cantrev Mawr, were also passed to Edward at Lincoln.[13] The only area of land initially excluded from the grant was the castle and lordship of Montgomery, as these were then held in dower by the queen, Edward I’s second wife Marguerite of France whom he had married long after the death of Eleanor of Castile. However, in the same year on the 10th May, the queen granted Montgomery to her stepson in return for lands elsewhere in England.[14] In short the various grants were expansive. In return Edward performed homage and fealty to his father becoming his sworn man. Overnight, he had been elevated both in terms of his status through his titles, but also financially through the vast rents and incomes he could command as a result of his new landholdings. For now Edward of Caernarfon could command an independent income of his own although he continued to be kept under a tight leash by his father.


But what of the title, Prince of Wales? Even in the February charter, the title of ‘prince’ was omitted from the charter roll. Until 1301, the use of the title prince was not adopted in England. The sons of kings were simply addressed as ‘lord’ just like the king was not called ‘your majesty’ but again ‘lord’ or ‘lord king’. Edward of Caernarfon himself, like his father before him had only ever been addressed in royal and legal correspondence or in person as ‘the lord Edward’ or ‘Edward, the king’s son’. Perhaps Edward I had not yet formulated his plan clearly enough, but this soon changed for on 1 March a second charter was issued, and for the first time in English history, the son and heir of the monarch received the formal title of principe Wallie, or ‘Prince of Wales’. Later, on 10 May Edward was formally addressed as ‘Pro Edward filio regis, principe Wallie et comite Cestrense’ (Edward, son of the king, Prince of Wales and earl of Chester). The use of the term prince was still only used in context of land holding and it did not follow that suddenly the children of kings became princes rather than lords. That evolution would take another century or more. Only the holder of the Principality could afford that privilege directly but nevertheless the Welsh now had an English ruler they could call their own.

Edward also received the earldom of Chester, an important earldom that had palatine status, meaning it was granted a significant degree of autonomy from English royal government. Chester was a strategic gateway into Wales and until the conquest in 1282 was fiercely protected by the English, its strategic value well understood. Along with the earldom Edward inherited  the manors of Macclesfield to the east of Chester and Overton in the west near Wrexham, both of which had formerly belonged to his mother, who had died when Edward was only six years old.

As with any grant of this kind there was due ceremony. The records of proceedings do not survive, except in 1343 when Edward III commissioned an enquiry to look back to 1301 to understand how he ought to go about investing his own son with the principality. It is from this that we can glean a sense of what took place in 1301. In a ceremony overseen by his father, Edward of Caernarfon was likely invested with a ring placed on his finger, a silver rod was granted to him symbolising his titles and requirement to dispense justice, and a golden circlet was then placed upon his head. In 1283 when Edward I confiscated the Welsh regalia, he had taken a gold circlet belonging to Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. It is most likely that this gold circlet was the very same one used in the latter’s investiture.[15] In age old tradition Edward was also girt with a sword and belt for the earldom of Chester. [16]

An Investiture Ceremony

By granting his son the principality, Edward I was achieving something symbolic. Not only did it add another layer to the conquest, but conversely it also allowed the Welsh inhabitants the opportunity to bind themselves in service to their lord who was not in 1301 the king of England, thereby having an avenue to seek justice and political readdress, to hear their grievances and offer them safety in return for loyalty. Once Edward gained the title, he quickly set out on 6 April for Wales to receive the homages of his tenants, which were many. On 12 April he appointed William Trussell as Justice of Chester and on 17th William Melton as chamberlain, both of whom would administer all his estates in England and Wales.[17] It is poignant that both men would become key players in Edward’s reign, the former a member of the delegation sent to Kenilworth in 1327 to renounce the country’s homage to the king during his deposition.

On 21 April Edward set foot in Wales, the first time since the year of his birth. At Flint, he received the homages of over 200 people. At Conway over 140 people came forward, whilst 60 appeared Rhuddlan. At some point during proceedings he may have been presented with a manuscript of Welsh religious and secular poetry that was later kept in his wardrobe. The numbers continued throughout the first week of May as did the various locations Edward visited, but by middle of the month it was all done. Edward had bound himself to his Welsh tenants and they to him. He appointed many men from Wales to the sheriffdom and into his own household. The relationship seems to be one that worked well for all parties, for the Welsh remained loyal to Edward, especially in 1322, never revolting during his reign. In 1326, many Welsh notables including Sir Gruffudd Llwyd, Rhys ap Gruffudd and Hywel ap Gruffudd, supported their overlord during the invasion crisis and continued to plot his escape and rescue during and after 1327.[18] It is also poignant that Edward’s last days of freedom in 1326 were also spent in Wales.

Despite the innovation in 1301, it did not automatically follow that the eldest son and heir of the ruling monarch would then go on to receive the title. Edward III, eldest son of Edward II and Isabella of France was never made Prince of Wales although he did become earl of Chester shortly after his birth in 1312. Things may have been different had Edward and his mother not invaded England in 1326, deposing Edward II in January 1327, but even in 1325 when Edward III received the duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu from his father, he did not receive the principality. This may have changed in subsequent years but we will of course never know. The precedent did not follow until 1343 when Edward III bestowed the principality on his son the Black Prince and from hereon in the tradition begins to take hold.

Lastly, it is also interesting to note that when Edward was deposed in January 1327, the Principality of Wales was omitted from the Articles of Deposition, so although Edward simply reverted to the name Edward of Caernarfon, the place of his birth, he technically kept the title Prince of Wales. This oversight may account for why a man named William le Galeys, or ‘William the Welshman’ presented himself in Cologne purporting to be the surviving Edward II in 1338. It most likely was Edward II, which is a whole other story, but nevertheless it is fitting that he played on his Welsh connection.

Stephen Spinks is author of a medieval series of works 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



The content and words for this article are drawn extensively from material outlined in chapters 1 and 4 of Spinks, Stephen. Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance (Stroud, 2017), 18-21, 37-41, 249, 251. and article ‘Principe Wallie: The First English Prince of Wales, 1301′, Stephen Spinks (24 June 2017,

Detailed evidential footnotes:

[1] Johnstone, Hilda. Edward of Caernarvon 1284-1307, 7.

[2] Flores Historiarum, vol iii (H.R Luard), 61. The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough (ed. Harry Rothwell), 15.

[3] E 101/351/15, m.2. Phillips, Seymour. Edward II, 33. Prestwich, Michael, Edward I, 4.

[4] Morris, Marc. A Great & Terrible King, 188-190. Bellamy, J.G. The Law of Treason in the Middle Ages, 23-6.

[5] Morris, 191-2.

[6] Vita Edwardi Secundi, N. Denholm-Young, 40. Prestwich, 5, 44.

[7] Cockerill, Sara, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, 348-9.

[8] Phillips, 36. Johnstone, 9.

[9] Morris, 190.

[10] CPR, 1307-13, 448. Johnstone, 9.

[11] CPR, 1307-13, 591. CCR, 1313-17, 86. Johnstone, 9.

[12] CChR, 1300-26, 6.

[13] Johnstone, 55-57.

[14] CPR, 1292-1301, 592.

[15] Davies, R.R. The Age of Conquest, 386. Phillips, 85.

[16] Johnstone, 60.

[17] Phillips, 86-7.

[18] Davies, Conquest, 86-7.

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