|By the Grace of God, King of England
Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine
|Reign||July 7, 1307 - January 20, 1327|
|Coronation||February 25, 1308|
|Born||April 25 1284|
|Died||21 September 1327 (aged 43)|
|Consort||Isabella of France (c.1295-1358)|
|Issue||Edward III (1312-1377)
John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall
Eleanor of Woodstock (1318-1355)
|Father||Edward I (1239-1307)|
|Mother||Eleanor of Castile (1246-1290)|
Edward II (April 25, 1284 – September 21, 1327), of Caernarfon, was King of England from 1307 until deposed in January, 1327. His tendency to ignore his nobility—in favor of low-born favorites—led to constant political unrest and his deposition by a rebellion led by his own Queen, Isabella. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for his murder, for alleged homosexual behavior, and for his defeat by Robert the Bruce of Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Edward II was the first monarch to establish colleges in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; he founded Cambridge's King's Hall in 1317 and gave Oxford's Oriel College its royal charter in 1326. Both colleges received the favor of Edward's son, Edward III, who confirmed Oriel's charter in 1327 and refounded King's Hall in 1337.
Edward was king at a time when the relationship between king and people was changing. In place of the nation as more or less the personal possession of the monarch, the view of the nation as a community or commonwealth was emerging, in which all freemen (but not yet women) had rights and responsibilities. The kingly power, it was still believed, was part of the natural order but even the king had to govern justly, and consult his barons and the representatives of the Commons to raise and spend money, as well as to wage war. Parliamentary government was still a long way off, yet increasingly kings could not rule without Parliament. Since it was Parliament that officially deposed Edward, it was also Parliament that legitimized the succession of Edward III.
The fourth son of Edward I of England by his first wife Eleanor of Castile, Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle. He was the first English prince to hold the title of the Prince of Wales, which was formalized by the Lincoln Parliament of February 7, 1301. The story that his father presented Edward II as a newborn to the Welsh as their future native prince is unfounded; the story first appeared in the work of 16th century Welsh "antiquary" David Powel.
Edward became heir at just a few months old, following the death of his elder brother Alfonso. His father, a notable military leader, trained his heir in warfare and statecraft starting in his childhood, yet the young Edward preferred boating and craftsman work—activities thought beneath kings at the time.
It has been hypothesized that Edward's love for "low brow" activities developed because of his overbearing and ruthless father. The prince took part in several Scots campaigns, but despite these martial engagements, "all his father's efforts could not prevent his acquiring the habits of extravagance and frivolity which he retained all through his life." The king attributed his son’s preferences to his strong attachment to Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall , a Gascon knight, and Edward I exiled Gaveston from court after Prince Edward attempted to bestow his friend with a title reserved for royalty. Ironically, it was the king who had originally chosen Gaveston to be a suitable friend for his son, in 1298. When Edward I died on July 7, 1307, the first act of the new King Edward II was to recall Gaveston; his next was to abandon the Scots campaign that had been a hallmark of his father's reign.
Edward was as physically impressive as his father, yet he lacked the drive and ambition of his forebear. It was written that Edward II was "the first king after the Conquest who was not a man of business". His main interest was in entertainment, though he also took pleasure in athletics and mechanical crafts. He had been so dominated by his father that he had little confidence in himself, and was often in the hands of a court favorite with a stronger will than his own.
On January 25, 1308, Edward married Isabella of France, the daughter of King Philip the Fair and sister to three French kings. The marriage was doomed to failure almost from the beginning. Isabella was frequently neglected by her husband, who spent much of his time conspiring with his favorites regarding how to limit the powers of the Peerage in order to consolidate his father's legacy for himself. Nevertheless, their marriage produced two sons, Edward (1312–1377), who would succeed his father on the throne as Edward III, and John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall (1316–1336), and two daughters, Eleanor of Woodstock (1318–1355) and Joan of the Tower (1321–1362), wife of David II of Scotland. Edward had also fathered at least one illegitimate son, Adam FitzRoy, who accompanied his father in the Scottish campaigns of 1312 and died on 18 September 1322.
When Edward traveled to the northern French city of Boulogne-sur-Mer to marry Isabella, he left his friend and counselor Gaveston to act as regent. Gaveston also received the earldom of Cornwall and the hand of the king's niece, Margaret of Gloucester. But these proved to be costly honors.
Various barons grew resentful of Gaveston, and insisted on his banishment through the Ordinances of 1311.  An expression of Parliamentary power, the Ordinances, which referred to the king's "oppressive and destructive measures" severely restricted Edward's ability to make appointments without reference to Parliament, and also to spend money. Edward recalled his friend, but in 1312, Gaveston was executed by the Earl of Lancaster and his allies, who claimed that Gaveston led the King to folly. (Gaveston was run through and beheaded on Blacklow Hill, outside the small village of Leek Wootton, where a monument (Gaveston's Cross) still stands today). For four years, Lancaster, who was appointed Chief Counsellor by Parliament, was de facto ruler as he tried to put the realm's economy back in order. Although a cousin of the king, Lancaster was a strong advocate of Parliamentary governance. He did not see this as a substitute for kingly rule. Governance was to be a partnership but when needed parliament could supervise and even censure the king's actions.
Edward immediately focused on the destruction of those who had betrayed him, while the Barons themselves lost impetus (with Gaveston dead, they saw little need to continue). By mid-July, Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke was advising the King to make war on the Barons who, unwilling to risk their lives, entered negotiations in September of 1312. In October, the Earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Arundel and Hereford begged Edward's pardon.
During this period, Robert the Bruce was steadily re-conquering Scotland. In June 1314, Edward led a huge army into Scotland in hopes of relieving Stirling. On June 24, his ill-disciplined and poorly-led force was completely defeated by Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. Contemporary chroniclers considered it one of the worst defeats sustained by an English army since 1066. Consequently, Bruce's position as King of Scots was secure, and he subsequently took vengeance for Edward I's activities by devastating the northern counties of England. The English, learning from defeat, never again fielded an army which relied on heavy cavalry charges, instead they fielded large numbers of longbowmen, dismounted men-at-arms and knights.
Following the death of Gaveston, the King increased favor to his nephew-by-marriage (who was also Gaveston's brother-in-law), Hugh Despenser the Younger. But, as with Gaveston, the Barons were indignant at the privileges Edward lavished upon the Despenser father and son, especially when the younger Despenser began in 1318, to strive to procure for himself the earldom of Gloucester and the lands associated with it.
By 1320, the situation in England was again becoming dangerously unstable. Edward ignored laws of the land in favor of Despenser: when Lord de Braose of Gower sold his Lordship to his son-in-law (an action entirely lawful in the Welsh Marches), Despenser demanded that the King grant Gower to him instead. The King, against all laws, then confiscated Gower from the purchaser and offered it to Despenser. In doing this, he invoked the fury of most of the Barons. In 1321, the Earl of Hereford, along with the Earl of Lancaster and others, took up arms against the Despenser family, and the King was forced into an agreement with the Barons. On August 14, at Westminster Hall, accompanied by the Earls of Pembroke and Richmond, the King declared the Despenser father and son both banished.
The victory of the Barons proved their undoing. With the removal of the Despensers, many nobles in England, regardless of previous affiliation, now attempted to move into the vacuum left by the two. Hoping to win Edward's favor, these nobles were willing to aid the King in his revenge against the Barons and thus increase their own wealth and power. Edward himself therefore not only desired revenge; he now had the means to attain it. In following campaigns, many of the King's opponents were murdered, the Earl of Lancaster being beheaded in the presence of the King, his own cousin.
With all opposition crushed, the King and the Despensers were left the unquestionable masters of England. At the York Parliament of 1322, Edward issued a Statute which revoked all previous Ordinances designed to limit his power and to prevent any further encroachment upon it. The King would no longer be subject to the will of Parliament, and the Lords, Prelates, and Commons were to suffer his will in silence. Parliament degenerated into a mere advisory council.
A dispute between France and England broke out over Edward's refusal to pay homage to the French King for the territory of Gascony and, after several bungled attempts to regain the territory, the King sent Isabella, the Queen, to negotiate for peace terms.
Isabella was sent to France in March 1325, visibly overjoyed to be leaving England, which would not only allow her to visit her family and native land, but also allow her to escape the Despensers and the King, all of whom she by now detested.
On May 31, 1325, Isabella agreed to a Peace Treaty. It favored France and required the King to pay homage, in France to Charles. But Edward decided instead to send his son who would pay homage to Charles.
This proved a gross tactical error, and helped to bring about the ruin of both Edward and the Despensers as Isabella, now that she had her son with her, declared that she would not return to England until Despenser was removed.
When Isabella's retinue (loyal to Edward, and ordered back to England by Isabella) returned to the English Court on 23 December, they brought further shocking news for the King: Isabella had formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer in Paris and they were now plotting an invasion of England.
Edward now prepared for invasion, but was betrayed by others close to him: His son refused to leave his mother (claiming that he wanted to remain with her during her unease and unhappiness); his brother, the Earl of Kent, married Mortimer's cousin, Margaret Wake; and other nobles, such as John de Cromwell and the Earl of Richmond, also chose to remain with Mortimer.
In September 1326, Mortimer and Isabella invaded England. Edward was amazed by their small numbers of soldiers, and immediately attempted to levy an immense army to crush them. However, a large number of men refused to fight Mortimer and the Queen; Henry of Lancaster, for example, was not even summoned by the King, and he showed his loyalties by raising an army, seizing a cache of Despenser treasure from Leicester Abbey, and marching south to join Mortimer.
Swiftly, the invasion had too much force and support to be stemmed. As a result, the army the King had ordered failed to emerge and the King, with Despenser, was left isolated. They abandoned London on 1 October, leaving the city to fall into disorder. The King first took refuge in Gloucester, he then fled to South Wales, to make a defence in Despenser's misbegotten lands. But the King was unable to rally an army. and on October 31, Edward was abandoned by his servants, leaving him with only Despenser and a few retainers.
On October 27, the elder Despenser was accused of encouraging the illegal government of his son, enriching himself at the expense of others, despoiling the church, and taking part in the illegal execution of the Earl of Lancaster. He was hanged and beheaded at the Bristol Gallows. Henry of Lancaster was then sent to fetch the King and the younger Despenser from Wales and on November 16, he caught the King, Despenser and their soldiers in the open country near Neath. The soldiers were released and Despenser was sent to Isabella at Hereford. The King was taken by Lancaster himself to Kenilworth.
Reprisals against the King's allies immediately began. The Earl of Arundel, an old enemy of Roger Mortimer, was beheaded. This was followed by the trial and execution of Despenser.
Despenser was brutally executed: A huge crowd gathered in anticipation at seeing him die. They dragged him from his horse, stripped him, and scrawled biblical verses against corruption and arrogance on his skin, and then led him into the city, presenting him in the market square to Roger, Isabella, and the Lancastrians. The list of charges was then read out, taking a great time. He was then condemned to hang as a thief, be castrated, and then be drawn and quartered as a traitor, his quarters to be dispersed through England.
With the King imprisoned, Mortimer and the Queen faced the problem of what to do with him. The simplest solution would be execution: his titles would then pass to Edward of Windsor, whom Isabella could control, whilst it would also prevent the possibility of his being restored. Execution would require the King to be tried and convicted of Treason: And whilst most Lords agreed that Edward had failed to show due attention to his country, several Prelates argued that, appointed by God, the King could not be legally deposed or executed; if this happened, they said, God would punish the country. Thus, at first, it was decided to have Edward imprisoned for life instead.
However, the fact remained that the legality of power still lay with the King. Isabella had been given the Great Seal, and was using it to rule in the names of the King, herself, and their son as appropriate; nonetheless, these actions were illegal, and could at any moment be challenged.
In these circumstances, Parliament as guardian of the "community" and its law, acted as an authority above the King. Representatives of the Commons were summoned, and debates began. The Archbishop of York and others declared themselves fearful of the London mob, loyal to Roger Mortimer. Others wanted the King to speak in Parliament and openly abdicate, rather than be deposed by the Queen and her General. Mortimer responded by commanding the Mayor of London, Richard de Bethune, to write to Parliament, asking them to go to the Guildhall to swear an oath to protect the Queen and Prince Edward, and to depose the King. Mortimer then called the great lords to a secret meeting that night, at which they gave their unanimous support to the deposition of the King.
Eventually Parliament agreed to remove the King. At his coronation, he had promised to keep the peace, to maintain justice and to obey the laws of "the community." This was a new oath which arguably subjected the king to the authority of Parliament, since no law could now be passed without the consent of both Parliament and king.
On January 20, Edward II was informed at Kenilworth Castle of the charges brought against him. The King was guilty of: Incompetence; allowing others to govern him to the detriment of the people and Church; not listening to good advice and pursuing occupations unbecoming to a monarch; having lost Scotland and lands in Gascony and Ireland through failure of effective governance; damaging the Church, and imprisoning its representatives; allowing nobles to be killed, disinherited, imprisoned and exiled; failing to ensure fair justice, instead governing for profit and allowing others to do likewise; and of fleeing in the company of a notorious enemy of the realm, leaving it without government, and thereby losing the faith and trust of his people. Edward, profoundly shocked by this judgment, wept whilst listening. He was then offered a choice: He might abdicate in favor of his son; or he might resist, and relinquish the throne to one not of royal blood, but experienced in government—this, presumably, being Roger Mortimer. The King, lamenting that his people had so hated his rule, agreed that if the people would accept his son, he would abdicate in his favor. The lords, through the person of Sir William Trussel, then renounced their homage to him, and the reign of Edward II was ended by himself.
The abdication was announced and recorded in London on January 24 and 25 was proclaimed the first day of the reign of Edward III - who, at 14, was still controlled by Isabella and Mortimer. The former King Edward remained imprisoned.
The government of Isabella and Mortimer was so precarious that they dared not leave the deposed king in the hands of their political enemies. On April 3, Edward II was removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two dependents of Mortimer, then later imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where, it is generally believed, he was subsequently murdered.
The suspicion was elaborated in a later history by Sir Thomas More (1478–1535):
On the night of October 11, while lying in on a bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress… weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber's iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his secret parts so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines.
The closest chronicler to the scene in time and distance, Adam Murimuth (1274 – 1347) an English ecclesiastic and chronicler, stated that it was popularly rumored that Edward II had been suffocated. The Lichfield chronicle, equally reflecting local opinion, stated that he had been strangled. Most chronicles did not offer a cause of death other than natural causes. Not until the relevant sections of the longer Brut chronicles (c. 1190), a Middle English poem compiled and recast by the English priest Layamon, who was a poet of the early thirteenth century and a Lancastrian polemicist, was the story of a copper rod in the anus widely circulated.
One story has Edward II escaping death and fleeing to Europe, where he lived as a hermit for twenty years. Ian Mortimer, in his biography of Edward III, also supports the theory that there is some evidence that Edward II lived for at least another 11 years after his supposed death in 1327.
Following the public announcement of the king's death, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer did not last long. Mortimer and Isabella made peace with the Scots in the Treaty of Northampton, but this move was highly unpopular. Consequently, when Edward III came of age in 1330, he executed Roger Mortimer on fourteen charges of treason, most significantly the murder of Edward II (thereby removing any public doubt about his father's survival). Edward III spared his mother and gave her a generous allowance, but ensured that she retired from public life for several years. She died at Hertford on August 23, 1358.
The most famous fictional account of Edward II's reign is Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II. In recent years, several acclaimed productions have been staged in the United Kingdom, although the play is seldom performed in the United States outside of large cities and university towns. Derek Jarman's cinematic version of the play has much more to do with twentieth-century sexual politics than it does with Marlowe's drama. Margaret Campbell Barnes' Isabel the Fair, Hilda Lewis' Harlot Queen. Maureen Peters' Isabella, the She-Wolf, and Brenda Honeyman's The Queen and Mortimer all focus on Queen Isabella. Eve Trevaskis' King's Wake starts shortly after the fall of the Despensers and ends with the fall of Mortimer.
Most recently, Susan Higginbotham in The Traitor's Wife: A Novel of the Reign of Edward II looks at the reign and its aftermath through the eyes of Hugh le Despenser's wife, Eleanor de Clare. Medieval mystery novelists P. C. Doherty and Michael Jecks have set a number of their books against the backdrop of Edward II's reign.
Cinematically, the Mel Gibson feature, Braveheart, shows Edward II as highly effeminate. This portrayal is inaccurate, as Edward II's appearance was similar to his father's great stature and drooping eyelid. He was, however, generally believed to be homosexual and did not, however, care for warcraft; when he became king, Edward II was just as weak a military leader against the Scots as the film shows him to be. In the film, a Gaveston-like character (Edward clearly favored him over his wife and said he was his military adviser) was pushed through a window to his death by Edward I. This sequence is historically inaccurate to the real Gaveston. Other details in the film including Edward II being cuckolded by William Wallace are definitely false—although his wife was, as the above recounts, extremely capable of diplomatic intrigue, military initiative and political leadership.
While mainly remembered as a failure with respect to his ability to govern the country, for his defeat by Robert the Bruce, and death at the hands of rebels, Edwards's support for scholarship by founding Oriel College, Oxford and King's Hall, Cambridge represents an enduringly valuable contribution to learning and to the academy. He was king at a time when Baronial power was increasing, as was that of the Commoners, who were also represented in Parliament. Called upon to raise taxes and to contribute troops to fight wars which were often of little benefit to themselves but furthered the personal interests of the king, they increasingly demanded a say in governance. The attempt to remove responsibility for financial management from the king represents ther beginning of a long move away from absolute monarchy towards shared governance. The concept of the state began to be more than the person realm of the king, who could more or less do what he wanted. What started to develop was the idea of the state as a common home to king and to subjects, with the latter possessing rights as well as duties and responsibilities.
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