Edward II of England

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Monarchs of Great Britain

Edward II
By the Grace of God, King of England
Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine
Reign 7 July 1307 - 20 January 1327
Coronation 25 February 1308
Born 25 April 1284
Caernarfon Castle
Died 21 September? 1327
Berkeley Castle
Buried Gloucester Cathedral
Predecessor Edward I
Successor Edward III
Consort Isabella of France (c. 1295- 1358)
Issue Edward III ( 1312- 1377)
John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall
( 1316- 1336)
Eleanor of Woodstock ( 1318- 1355)
Joanna ( 1321- 1362)
Royal House Plantagenet
Father Edward I ( 1239- 1307)
Mother Eleanor of Castile ( 1246- 1290)

Edward II, ( 25 April 1284 – 21 September? 1327), of Caernarfon, was King of England from 1307 until deposed in January, 1327. His tendency to ignore his nobility, in favour of low-born favourites, led to constant political unrest and eventually to his deposition.

Edward 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 were to have the favour of Edward's son, Edward III, who confirmed Oriel's charter in 1327 and refounded King's Hall in 1337.

Prince of Wales

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 7 February 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 to the throne when he was just a few months old, upon the death of his elder brother Alfonso. His father, a notable military leader, made a point of training young Edward in warfare and statecraft starting in his childhood. Edward however preferred boating and craftsman work, things thought beneath kings at the time. It has been hypothesized that Edward's love for "low brow" activities was developed because of his overbearing and ruthless father. The prince took part in several Scots campaigns, but "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 problems to Piers Gaveston, a Gascon knight some believe to have been the prince's lover. Gaveston was exiled by the king after the then Prince Edward attempted to bestow upon him 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 prince, now King Edward II, was to recall Gaveston. His next was to abandon the Scots campaign on which his father had set his heart.

King of England

Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902
Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902

The new king was physically as impressive as his father. He was, however, lacking in drive and ambition and was "the first king after the Conquest who was not a man of business" (Dr Stubbs). His main interest was in entertainment, though he also took pleasure in athletics and in the practice of mechanical crafts. He had been so dominated by his father that he had little confidence in himself, and was always in the hands of some favourite with a stronger will than his own.

English Royalty
House of Plantagenet

Armorial of Plantagenet
Edward II
   Edward III
    John, Earl of Cornwall
    Eleanor, Duchess of Gueldres and Zutphen
    Joan, Queen of Scots

In the early years of his reign Gaveston held this role, acting as regent when Edward went to Boulogne in northern France, where, on 25 January 1308, he married Isabella of France, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, "Philip the Fair"; she was the sister of three French kings. The marriage was doomed to failure almost from the beginning. Isabella was neglected by her husband, who spent much of his time with the few friends he shared power with, conspiring on how to limit the powers of the Peerage in order to consolidate his father's legacy for himself. Their marriage nevertheless 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 ( 1318– 1355) and Joanna ( 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 who died shortly after on 18 September 1322.

Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

Gaveston received the earldom of Cornwall with the hand of the king's niece, Margaret of Gloucester. The honour of marriage with a close relative of the King was generally reserved for more senior or proven nobles; the Earldom of Cornwall, at £4000 p.a. being one of the richest earldoms in the Kingdom, was viewed as belonging rightfully only to a son of the King, and had indeed been intended by Edward I for his second son, Thomas of Brotherton. The barons grew resentful of Gaveston and twice insisted on his banishment. On each occasion Edward recalled his friend, whereupon the barons, headed by the king's cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, went to war against king and favourite and in 1312 Gaveston was executed as a traitor by the Earl of Lancaster and his allies, claiming 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.

Edward, appalled by the death of his friend, swore, "He acted as a fool. If he had taken my advice, he would never have fallen into the hands of the earls...I guessed that what has now happened would occur." He immediately became focused on the destruction of those earls who had betrayed him, resulting in him temporarily becoming more clear in thought and deed; this coincided with the rebels losing impetus (with Gaveston dead, they saw little need to continue). As a result, the earls were prevented from marching on London, and instead loitered at Ware in Herefordshire, steadily weakening, whilst the King gained advice, money and arms from others. By mid-July, the Earl of Pembroke was advising the King to make war on the rebels; the rebels, unwilling to risk their lives, entered negotiations in the September of 1312. Eventually, in October, the Earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Arundel and Hereford begged Edward's pardon.

Conflict with Scotland

During the quarrels between Edward and the "ordainers", Robert the Bruce was steadily re-conquering Scotland. His progress was so great that he had occupied all the fortresses save Stirling, which he besieged. The danger of losing Stirling shamed Edward and the barons into an attempt to retrieve their lost ground. In addition, Edward saw a chance for his sworn revenge against Lancaster, if he were to return home in front of a large, victorious army. Lancaster, his greatest Magnate, however refused to join the campaign. In June 1314 Edward led a huge army into Scotland in the hope of relieving Stirling. On 24 June, his ill-disciplined and poorly led force was completely defeated by Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. Henceforth Bruce was sure of his position as King of Scots, and took vengeance for Edward I's activities by devastating the northern counties of England.

Political factions

With the English disaster at Bannockburn, the advantage passed to Lancaster's party. Lancaster had shown some ability as a leader of opposition, but lacked creativity or the leadership ability of previous baronial leaders like Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester. He was the de facto leader because he was the wealthiest of the barons, not because of his skills. The perception was not that he wanted Edward to be more equitable with his distribution of gifts, but that he wanted Edward to give everything to him instead. He also was suspected of having made a secret understanding with Bruce, in hopes of keeping the king weak.

Lancaster and Lord Warwick demanded changes to be made to the royal household, claiming that the King had ignored the Ordinances since Gaveston's death, had wrongfully appointed men to offices they did not deserve, and had wrongfully forgiven debts. The Bannockburn humiliation was explained as Divine punishment for Edward's flouting of the Ordinances, since the Archbishop of Canterbury had threatened all who disobeyed them with Excommunication. Accordingly, Parliament met in York in the September of 1314, to discuss this matter.

Edward was saved from excessive humiliation in this Parliament by a phenomenon typical of all politics, namely division of the opposition: in this case, the division of the Barons into fiercely contending factions. In this case, the King had the support of the powerful Aymer of Valence, Earl of Pembroke, and also that of Pembroke's kinsman (and Edward's childhood friend), Sir Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, both of whom, together with others, were sympathetic to the King due to their hatred of Lancaster, and commanded enough political authority to make their sympathy effective. This 'middle party' dreaded the overweening power of the Earl of Lancaster, and feared a return to England as it had stood under Simon de Montfort. Accordingly, the replacement Chancellor and Treasurer were both sympathetic to the King (and one was also a friend of Lord Mortimer), and other allies of the King whom Lancaster wished removed were kept in place. Most of these were allies or friends of the Mortimer and the de Valence (Pembroke) family. Hugh le Despenser, the husband of one of the Gloucester sisters (Edward's nieces) was not.

The result of this was that the dramatic curtailment of the King's power envisioned by Lancaster and his followers (with the associated benefits for themselves) failed to emerge; instead, Edward emerged from the crisis with a bruised ego, a fading grief for Gaveston, an all but lost Scotland, but little loss of real power. However, he was already breeding new troubles with his favouring of the Despenser family.

The Favourites

Since the death of Gaveston, the King had been showing increasing favour to his nephew-by-marriage (who was also Gaveston's brother-in-law), Hugh the Younger Despenser. Although the King listened to and trusted the advice given by Lords such as Pembroke and Hereford, he had little personal liking for them, in large part due to their involvement in the murder of Gaveston. He also had a large amount of trust and liking for Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, but that man was more valuable to Edward far away in Ireland, quelling revolts and the Scottish Invasion, than he could be as a court favourite. Accordingly, it was Despenser, of Edward's own age, who rose in the affections of the King, becoming as close to and favoured by the King as Gaveston had been. Initially with Despenser rose also William de Montagu, Roger Damory, and Hugh Audley.

If the hatred the Barons had borne Gaveston had been very great, that which they would eventually bear these four, in particular the Despenser family, would prove even greater. "Worse than Gaveston," was how chroniclers described their effect upon the King. Since Damory, Audley and Despenser were married to the three de Clare sisters, heiresses to the rich Gloucester estates, they accordingly were placed in a high position in the realm, and were a real threat to the influence and power of Lancaster. The Barons were especially 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, in right of his wife Eleanor de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Hertford and Joan of Acre and niece of Edward II. Accordingly, Lancaster yet again accused the King of disobeying the Ordinances, and demanded that all four favourites be banished - a demand which was predictably ignored.

By late 1316, tension in England was so great that it appeared to be at the point of breaking into full-scale conflict. The King, ignoring Lancaster's demands and fearing war, mustered an army at York, in preparation for any conflict beginning whilst Parliament met there in October. Pembroke and Bartholemew de Badlesmere (head of a particularly rich and influential family, whose daughter was married to Roger Mortimer's heir), as two particularly respected and senior politicians, urged the supporters of both the King and Lancaster to come to an agreement between them; Lancaster, fearing that he would be murdered, refused to attend any conference, or go to Court. He finally agreed to attend Court in September 1317; at this point, Edward very foolishly was persuaded by his favourites to attack Pontefract Castle, a possession of the Earl, in retaliation to Lancaster's occupation of two royal castles under the jurisdiction of Damory. Pembroke and Badlesmere managed to prevent any bloodshed; however, when they were left despairing by Lancaster's withdrawal from negotiations, they decided to take a new line of behavour - they would aim to influence the King's favourites. Accordingly, by Spring 1318, the two had enlisted the cooperation of Roger Damory (who promised to advise the King only according to the wishes of Pembroke and Badlesmere), and were in a position of real influence. Accordingly, by August 1318, agreement was secured - gifts contrary to the Ordinances would be revoked, and Damory, Montagu and Audley would be banished from Court. The Despensers, however, would remain near to the King. Accordingly, the King, having lost three of his favourites, vested his affections entirely in Hugh the Younger Despenser; at the same time, Roger Mortimer, a long valued and respected, yet not entirely trusted, vassal of the King, began to slide in the King's regard, due to both Mortimer's behaviour (he was very independent minded), and due to the old rivalry between the Mortimer and the Despenser families.

Rule of the Despensers

By 1320, the Despensers were extraordinarily powerful in England. The younger Despenser had already been responsible for the killing of the Welsh rebel Llywellyn Bren, and had suffered no punishment. He had attempted to seize lands once associated with the County of Gloucester, for example Gwennllwg from Hugh Audley in 1317 (having already been granted the Lordship of Glamorgan, the richest part of the Gloucester inheritance, in that same year). He had also been made King's Chamberlain in 1318, granting him control over access to the King. And by 1320, it was evident that he was attempting to lay claim to the Earldom of Gloucester itself, whose rightful disposition was unclear. This attitude earned him the enmity of Hugh Audley and Roger Damory, the two former favourites and husbands of the other two Gloucester heiresses, whose marital inheritances were threatened by Despenser's ambitions. It also angered the Earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer, both of whom had been angered by Despenser's murder of Llywellyn, and whose lands were also threatened by Despenser.

By 1320, though, the situation in England was becoming dangerously unstable. The King, desiring to please the voracious Despenser, had granted to him Gwennllwg, a former Gloucester possession but inherited by Audley in his wife's name; Edward's new grant went against all law and right. Not even in Gaveston's day had the King so blatantly treated England as a personal fief (which it was in theory only), nor had he then granted Gaveston the lands of another at a whim, an action which went against all moral and legal justification. Edward followed this by ignoring laws of the land in favour 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, confiscated Gower from the purchaser, de Mowbray; in doing this, he invoked the fury of most of England, and brought armed resistance to himself. At the same time, Despenser served as his 'right-hand man', preventing the King from being exposed to duties which Edward found tedious, and taking many features of his administration onto his own shoulders. This led to the opposition even of the Earl of Pembroke.

In 1321, the Earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer took up the leadership of the Marcher Lords, and took up arms, along with the Earl of Lancaster and his allies, against the Despenser family. The Marchers had on their side some of the best fighters in the realm, in particular the battle-hardened Mortimer, whose conduct in Ireland had so recently earned him great praise. The Despensers had very few military knights. The rebel force then proceeded to ravage Despenser lands, causing massive amounts of damage, and stirring up an almost united national force of hatred against the Despenser family, which Gaveston had never experienced. Indeed, many from all sides now heartily regretted Gaveston's death - where he had not been guilty of more than flamboyance, irreverence, and a worrying closeness to the King, the Despensers were described as "brutal and greedy," having "wronged many"; the elder Despenser was accused of having "accused many of poaching from royal hunting grounds, many of these he vilely disinherited, some he forced into exile, from many he extorted unjust sums of money, and collected a thousand librates of land by means of threats...By general judgement, he justly lost what he had accumulated from the losses of others." By the end of July 1321, the forces of Roger Mortimer were outside London, awaiting a break of the deadlock.

In 1321, under the mediation of Lord Pembroke, an agreement between the King and the rebels was hammered out. On the 14 August at Westminster Hall, in the presence of the rebels, and accompanied by the Earls of Pembroke and Richmond, the King declared the Despenser father and son both banished. Further legal manoueverings affixed the blame rightfully due to the Despensers (and some which was not) to the two men, and absolved the rebels of any blame. The Despensers retired from England in a spiteful and vicious mood: whilst the elder retired to Bordeaux, fulminating against the greed of his son which had led to their downfall, the younger became an undiscriminating pirate, "a sea monster", whose actions greatly damaged England's international relations and trade.

Edward Victorious

The victory of the rebels, however, 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 favour, these nobles were willing to aid the King in his revenge against the rebels, and thus increase their own wealth and power. Edward himself therefore not only desired revenge; he also had the means to attain it.

The excuse for the opening of hostilities came when Lady Badlesmere of Leeds Castle, Kent, refused to give Queen Isabella - returning to London from Canterbury - lodging for the night, having been ordered by her husband Bartholemew de Badlesmere to grant access to no-one. Accordingly, the furious Queen ordered her men to force the gate. Ill-equipped to attack a well-defended castle, nine of the men perished, and the shamed Queen was forced to return to her husband - who used the incident as an excuse to raise an army, and attack Leeds Castle. The result was the division of the rebel alliance: the Marcher Lords, led by Mortimer and Hereford, chose to support Badlesmere, expecting all those who had hated the Despensers to aid them. They did not. Instead, the Earl of Lancaster - who detested Badlesmere - broadcasted his disapproval of the march to aid Badlesmere. As a result, the rebels failed to send troops to Leeds, which was captured by the King. Twelve of its garrison were hanged; the Badlesmere womenfolk and children were imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In the following campaigns, Lancaster offered his support, but failed to give force of arms to the Marcher forces - his excuse being their protection of de Badlesmere. The Mortimers therefore sued for peace. Having been lied to by a desperate Lord Pembroke - who claimed that the King would spare their lives and pardon them - Lords Roger Mortimer de Chirk and de Wigmore submitted to the King, and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Soon after this, the Despenser father and son returned to England. Lancaster, viewed with disdain for his abandonment of the Marcher Lords, abandoned by his vassals, attempted to flee to Dunstanburgh Castle. They were caught at Boroughbridge near York, however, between two royal armies. The Earl of Hereford was there murdered gruesomely: he was stabbed from below in the intestines with a pike. Lord Damory, the former favourite of the King, also perished. The Earl of Lancaster was caught by Sir Andrew de Harclay, the Sheriff of Carlisle, along with the other rebellious Lords, and led to gaol in York. From there, six northern barons were immediately hanged, drawn and quartered at Pontefract Castle. Lancaster, due to his royal blood, was given a show trial, at which he was allowed no defence; he was then dressed in an old surcoat and led a mile from Pontefract on an ass, at which point he was beheaded in the presence of the King.

The death of Lancaster was followed by further harsh reprisals from the King and the Despensers. More than a dozen lords were killed or executed, and many knights died or were imprisoned. Property was confiscated, and women and children of rebels imprisoned. Only a few, such as the Lords Mortimer, were spared - the two Roger Mortimers, despite their crimes against the King, were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment rather than death.

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.

The younger Despenser, meanwhile, took on the guise of both first minister and national bully. He demanded that the King gather a large Treasury, taking money from whoever he could and paying as little as possible. He threatened anyone he wished to constrain with fines so crippling that they could not pay, thereby ensuring their obedience to himself. He seized any lands he wished: thus, he was given lands by the King which rightfully belonged to Roger Mortimer of Chirk and Alice de Lacy, dowager Countess of Lancaster; and the King's brother, the Earl of Kent, was forced to rent out lands to Despenser for a nominal amount, before later being forced to sell them for a farcically small sum. He also seized the inheritance of his sister in law, Elizabeth de Clare, the widow of Lord Damory.

Says Ian Mortimer of Despenser: "It would be tedious and depressing to list all of Despenser's misdealings. Through extraordinary connivance, intrigue, extortion, oppression and royal nepotism, he acquired whatever he wanted. Lands, money, influence, and prestige all flooded his way...what Despenser requested, the King invariably agreed."

Queen Isabella's Resistance

It was unfortunate in the extreme for the Despensers that they should have engaged the hatred of the Queen so vigourously. She had never cared for any of the King's favourites; for the Despensers, she reserved a particular detestation, due to their ruthlessness and their manipulation of the King. She also hated the tyranny they were inflicting upon England, especially the imprisonment of noblewomen, and their treatment of the people of London (for whom Isabella cared - they had welcomed her upon her arrival to England), whom they subjected to unbearable taxation; and she detested the separation of children from their families, and the undermining of her respect and authority by the younger Despenser.

Isabella's patience finally snapped during the Summer of 1322, during yet another Scottish Campaign. Isabella had, for the first time, accompanied the King to the border as part of the campaign, during which she stayed at Tynemouth Abbey. The Scots surprised Edward and Despenser at Blackhow Moor, causing them to flee. Isabella, the King abandoned to the mercy of Robert Bruce, who still remembered the treatment of his women by Edward I. Isabella, however, managed to escape - although two of her ladies in waiting died - in a boat willing to take her to England, despite the control of the coastal routes by the Fleming allies of the Scots.

Upon her return to England, the Queen began drifting towards active opposition to her husband. She began to complain of the mistreatment of Joan Mortimer, wife of Sir Roger Mortimer de Wigmore. She also may have had a hand in the escape of Mortimer from the Tower. This escape pitched the King into further dread of insurrection, and he expended great efforts upon seeking out Mortimer. He failed to discover more than that Mortimer was staying with his cousins, the de Fiennes family, which led many of those who hated the Despensers to gather hope, and begin making sporadic attacks upon Despenser property.

At the same time, dispute between France and England broke out over the thorny subject of Gascony. Edward had refused to pay homage to the French King for the territory upon his succession, and had failed to stamp out various insurrections in the territory. This legally obliged the French King to confiscate the territory. When a disagreement arose between England and France over the building of a fortified town in English territory, during which a French official was murdered by the Gascon Lord Raymond Bernard, and when Edward (on Despenser's advice) refused yet again to do homage for Gascony, Isabella's brother, Charles IV of France, declared the territory forfeit.

This incurred the King's wrath against his wife, Isabella. It was further stirred when she declared her support for the Bishops of Hereford and Lincoln, both accused of aiding Mortimer's escape. She was ordered to write to the French King with a request for peace, which Edward claimed to have been the purpose of their marriage. He refused, however, to allow her to mediate with her brother in person, as the Pope suggested be done - Edward feared that she would ally with Mortimer. Instead, he kept her under strict control, refused to repay his debts to her, and set his niece Eleanor - wife of the younger Despenser - to watch over the Queen and to read her letters. In September 1324, all her property was confiscated following rumours of Mortimer invading from Hainault, and Despenser reputedly requested a divorce for the King from the Pope. The Queen then lost most of her living expenses, all French people in England, including her servants, were arrested, and her children were removed from her care and given into that of Eleanor de Clare.

Edward then proceeded to bungle attempts to regain Gascony, sending his half-brother the Earl of Kent to lead the campaign. Kent was young and inexperienced; he won the hostility of the Gascons by attempting to extort money from them, and by abducting a young girl from Agen, before losing large amounts of territory to his uncle, Charles of Valois, and being forced to call a truce. The King then attempted to conscript large numbers of men from England into the army, threatening to hang without trial any who returned to their homes. The army then proved to be ill-funded and ill-provisioned, and failed to make any headway in Gascony.

Charles, in secret alliance with Mortimer, then made Edward an offer: if the King sent Isabella and his heir, Prince Edward of Windsor, to France to pay homage to the French King, all Edward's French lands would be returned. This was clearly a trap: the Queen and the heir could easily be used against Edward. However, it would also allow Edward to regain his lost French possessions with little trouble. Edward accordingly sent Isabella, promising to send Prince Edward when further concessions were made. Isabella was sent to France in March 1325 in the company of spies and chaperones - her women were all married to loyal retainers of Edward, and her male retainers were all staunchly royalist. Nonetheless, the Queen was 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.

Isabella initially acted in a manner designed to allay suspicions - she toured the country briefly, met her sister-in-law the Queen of France, and negotiated with her brother over the future of Gascony. She even wrote to Edward, after a bad start to negotiations, claiming that she was considering returning to England, but that if he agreed, she would remain in France. Edward agreed to the latter, and sent her some money.

On 31 May 1325, Isabella agreed to a Peace Treaty. It favoured France: Gascony would be entirely surrendered to Charles, and then partially returned. France would also retain a measure of power in the region, thereby limiting that of England there, and would retain a military presence there. Nonetheless, Edward had no choice but to agree to it: the King of France would make no further concessions, England was not able at that time to secure Gascony militarily, and the Treaty was considered better than the complete loss of the region. He therefore did so on 13 June, and announced that he, rather than his son, would pay homage to the King.

Edward initially intended to go to France and pay homage himself: if he were to send his son, the Prince would almost inevitably be used as a bargaining chip. The younger Despenser, however - recalling the fate of Piers Gaveston when divided from the King - knew full well that, were he left alone in England without the King, his downfall would be swift and implacable. Accordingly, he desperately attempted to persuade members of the royal council to persuade the King to remain in England. Given that the council was not fond of him, it was hardly surprising that they largely spoke in favour of the King going to France. Nor that Henry of Lancaster, brother of the deceased Earl Thomas, proved the deciding voice in urging the King to go. Despenser, unable to persuade the King in public, made clear in private to the King the extent to which the Despenser family would be endangered should Edward leave the realm. Edward gave in to Despenser, and feigned illness. He then sent the Bishop of Winchester to France to make an alternative arrangement: and to order Isabella back to England. Isabella, however, bluffed him, promising to return when her son had paid homage to her brother. And Edward invested his son with the title of Duke of Aquitaine, and sent him to Isabella in France.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in his handling of the matter, Edward proved right the fears his father had so long ago had regarding the friendship between Edward and Gaveston. Edward I had dreaded that the binding of the King to a commoner would restrict the King and bring his ruin. Now he was proved right: for, instead of going to France himself, which would have no doubt doomed le Despenser but preserved himself, Edward II chose to send his heir - knowing full well the dangers of doing so - into the hands of France and his wife, in order to preserve the life of his favourite. This would prove a gross tactical error, and bring about the ruin of himself and le Despenser.

The signal that Edward had miscalculated came after Prince Edward had performed his homage to the King of France. The Bishop of Exeter, Isabella's enemy, demanded on King Edward's behalf, and in front of the French King and court, that she must now immediately return home - claiming in front of all that Edward would tolerate no excuse for her intransigence. Isabella's expenses, the Bishop continued, would be paid only if she returned to England, as was her moral and legal duty. He finished by insisting that she had no choice in the matter. Isabella, however, thought otherwise, and - now that she had her son with her - declared (to the amazement, and ill-concealed delight, of the court) that she would not return to England until Despenser was removed. Her brother, to the Bishop's horror, supported her, vowing that as her brother he would let her reside in France for as long as she wished. The Bishop they sent packing to England, disguised as a hermit, where he reported the events to the outraged King.

Invasion by Isabella and Mortimer

The King did not immediately give up hope of persuading the Queen to return to England. In reply to an earlier statement from her that she would not return "for fear and doubt of Hugh Despenser", he wrote to her in December, saying that he did not believe her to dislike Despenser, and claiming that Despenser had always done his utmost to advance the Queen (a statement which no doubt flabbergasted Isabella, considering that she was the daughter of a King and Queen, and Hugh le Despenser a mere Baron's son). He also flatly refused to her complaints. He then proceeded to order all of the Bishops in England to write to her in the guise of disapproving fathers, ordering her to return home - he even dictated the text of their letters.

However, when Isabella's retinue (loyal to Edward, and ordered back to England by Isabella) returned to the English Court on 23 December, they brought shocking news for the King: Isabella had formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer in Paris. Furthermore, they were now plotting an invasion of England. Edward had already been driven to hatred of Mortimer by his rebellion and escape; now, appalled at being cuckolded by his enemy, he not only prepared for invasion, but continued his revenge against Mortimer, sending soldiers to arrest the man's mother, Margaret de Fiennes (who, like her son, managed to evade capture by the King). He was then left 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 February 1326, the Pope wrote to Despenser, ordering him to leave court to avert civil war. Despenser however responded by claiming that the Queen had no right to demand his withdrawal. He also claimed that Isabella was refusing to leave France because Mortimer was threatening to kill her, and that she was sharing her bed with Mortimer. Despenser then attempted to have the Queen assassinated. In September 1326, Mortimer and Isabella invaded England from Hainault, landing in Suffolk, on the north bank of the Orwell, in the lands of the Earl of Norfolk (the King's half-brother, who detested Despenser).

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. Mortimer and the Queen also showed a shrewd understanding of popular thought processes - they made clear that Prince Edward supported their invasion (since many people would refuse to fight the future monarch), and were careful to minimise Mortimer's role (to avoid people looking askance at his connection to the Queen). They claimed that their goal was only to rid England of the tyrannical Despenser. Isabella, for her part, played the role of a wife in distress, winning the support of the commoners, and behaved as though on pilgrimage (to emphasise their campaign as Divinely Ordained). She also, importantly, made recompense to any whose property was damaged by her army.

Swiftly, the invasion had too much force and support (from, for example, the Bishops of Hereford, Ely, Lincoln, Durham and Norwich, and the Archbishop of Dublin) to be easily stemmed. The King and Despenser further damaged themselves by showing a complete inability to effectively spend the Treasury in fighting the invaders, whilst Mortimer easily spent to his best advantage. As a result, the army the King had ordered failed to emerge - his Sheriffs either gave excuses, or simply stayed silent, due to the unwillingness of their men to fight - and the King, with Despenser, was left isolated in the Tower of London. They abandoned London on 1 October, leaving the city to fall into disorder, many Despenser agents suffering persecution.

The King first took refuge in Gloucester, from where he ordered all soldiers still loyal to him to join him there. He then fled to South Wales, to make a defence in Despenser's misbegotten lands there, following receivement of Lancaster's treachery on 10 October. Isabella, on 15 October, certain now of victory, declared that she had come to free Kingdom, Crown and Church from the abuses of Despenser and his followers, including Robert Baldock the Chancellor and Walter de Stapledon the Treasurer. The London mob, inspired by this, promptly murdered de Stapledon and various men they considered spies of Despenser, stealing much of de Stapledon's wealth in the process. His head was presented to Mortimer and Isabella, and the city of London continued to slide into anarchy, nominally presided over by Prince John, the younger son of Edward and Isabella. Mortimer and the Queen however chose to leave London in riot for that time, instead moving on Bristol and capturing the Earl of Winchester (the elder Despenser) at Bristol on 26 October.

The King, in Glamorgan, was unable to rally an army - many of the Welshmen, for all their loyalty to the King, refused to fight to defend Despenser, whom they hated due to his murder of Llywellen Bren. Deciding to abandon England, Despenser and Edward took ship on 21 October from Chepstow with a small force of soldiers. The weather being contrary, they attempted for five days to make headway (even paying a friar to pray for a change in weather) before finally putting into Cardiff. From there, they moved to Caerphilly Castle. On 31 October, Edward was abandoned by his servants, leaving him with only Despenser, Baldock, and a few retainers. On 26 October, Roger and Isabella had appointed Prince Edward as governor of the realm in the stead of his father - the boy being just fourteen and largely influenced by his mother and her lover, the de facto leaders of the country were thus the Queen and Roger Mortimer.

On 27 October, the elder Despenser was tried by Roger Mortimer, Thomas Wake and Henry Trussel (former retainers of the Earl of Lancaster), Henry of Lancaster, and the King's half-brothers Norfolk and Kent. Isabella pleaded for the old man to be shown clemency, which was denied; instead, in a trial deliberately echoing that of Thomas of Lancaster, 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.

The two had by now retreated to Neath, from where the King sent its abbot to negotiate with Mortimer. Mortimer, however, refused to accept anything other than complete surrender. Then, on 16 November, Lancaster caught the King, Despenser and their soldiers in the open country near Neath (according to legend, his capture took place at Pant-y-Brâd ("the dell of treachery"), near Llantrisant). The soldiers were released; Despenser and Baldock were sent to Isabella at Hereford. The King was taken by Lancaster himself to Kenilworth. Caerphilly, the last royal castle, promptly surrendered.

Reprisals against the King's allies immediately began. The Earl of Arundel, an old enemy of Roger Mortimer, was beheaded. This was followed by a trial against Despenser, presided over by those men who had tried the elder Despenser. The judgement on Despenser was "thorough, extensive and uncompromising." The sentence, however, was problematic. The Lancastrians wanted him beheaded at one of his own castles, to echo the death of Thomas of Lancaster at Pontefract. Mortimer wanted Despenser's death to be as horrible as the death of Llywelyn Bren (who had been drawn by two horses to a gallows, hanged, whose heart and intestines had been cut out before he was dead and burnt, and then dismembered, his limbs being dispersed through Glamorgan). Isabella wanted him executed in London. Therefore, a compromise was reached. On 24 November, Despenser and others were taken to Hereford. There, 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, and be drawn and quartered as a traitor, his quarters to be dispersed through England. Despenser was then brutally executed.


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. However, 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. There were also concerns that a fair trial might find the King innocent of treason and restore him, and that a show trial would evoke dangerous levels of sympathy. Therefore, whilst the Lancastrians demanded that the King die, Mortimer, who recalled the sparing of his own life by the King, and his one-time great loyalty to Edward, and who wanted to maintain the good opinion of Isabella (who believed in the dignity of royalty, and thus shied from execution) and her eldest son (who would naturally detest the murderer of his father), decided to have Edward imprisoned for life instead. The Lancastrians were worn down, the nobles persuaded, and Mortimer's decision was put into effect.

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; and in December 1326, the Chancery was ordered to date writs issued in the King's name as if they came from him at Kenilworth; nonetheless, these actions were illegal, and could at any moment be challenged.

Parliament was scheduled to meet on 7th January 1327, and the Queen's party entered London on the 4th to that purpose. Two Bishops were sent to Kenilworth, to accompany the King to Parliament (which required his presence to meet). However, the King did not appear, and Parliament could do nothing until the arrival of the two Bishops - alone - on the 12th. They reported that the King refused to attend, and declared all who did so to be traitors. Furthermore, Bishop Orleton reported, the King reportedly kept a dagger in his clothes, with the intention of killing his wife if the chance ever arose.

In these circumstances, Parliament chose to act as an authority above the King. Representatives of the Commons were summoned, and debates began. Initially, Parliament - stunned by this sudden change of affairs - was unwilling to answer the question put by Bishop Orleton ("Did Parliament want the King to rule the country, or did it prefer that his son should rule instead?"); 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.

When Parliament met in Westminster Hall the next day, Roger showed them the letter from the Mayor and citizens calling for the protection of the Queen and Prince, and deposition of the King; he also added that the great lords of the realm had met the night before and all believed that the King should be deposed; although he spoke neither for himself nor for the commons, he had to speak because the great lords had asked him to do so. At this point, Mortimer's cousin, Thomas Wake, loudly declared that the King should not rule any longer; Bishop Orleton then preached a vigourous and rousing sermon beginning "An unwise King destroyeth his people". By the end of that, Parliament was demanding "Away with the King!" After a sermon from Bishop Stratford to the same effect, Wake demanded, "Do you agree? Do the people of the country agree?" Those who agreed, swept away, loudly clamoured that they did so; those who did not, terrified of meeting the Londoners later that day, stayed quiet. Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, spoke, saying that 'the people of England had been oppressed for too long, and that, if it were the people's will that the King should be deposed, then it was God's will, and the reign should come to an end.' For the final time, Wake rose, demanding, "Is this the people's will? Is it it the people's will that the king should be deposed and his son made king in his place?" When Parliament screamed, "Let it be done!", the Archbishop pronounced final judgement: "Your voice has been clearly heard here, for Edward has been deprived of the government of the Kingdom, and his son made king as you have unanimously consented." Edward of Windsor was then ushered into the hall to the cry, "Behold your King!" The assembly then proceeded to sing Glory, Laud and Honour; the Bishop of Rochester, one of the few to not sing, was later beaten up. Later that day, a large crowd of nobles, prelates and knights, led by Mortimer, proceeded to swear to the people of London to protect Isabella, her son, and those who fought against Despenser, and to observe the Ordinances and the liberties of the City of London; there was no mention of the Deposition of the King. It did not matter; Parliament had agreed to remove the King, an almost unprecedented event in mediaeval Europe (the only precedent being the deposition of a minor forgettable German prince in the fourteenth century). However, for all that Parliament had agreed that the King should no longer rule, they had not deposed him. Rather, their decision made, Edward was asked to accept it.

On 20 January, Edward II was informed at Kenilworth Castle of what had happened by those who had come to announce the decision of Parliament. He fainted upon seeing their faces, and had to be lifted up by Bishop Stratford and Henry of Lancaster. Orleton then read the charges. 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 judgement, wept whilst listening. He was then offered a choice: he might abdicate in favour 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 favour. 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 24 January, and the 25th 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.

Life in captivity and death

Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral
Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

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 he was removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two dependents of Mortimer. He was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where he died. Contrary to the polemical chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, record evidence shows that he was well-treated in captivity.

Following the declaration of the king's death, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer did not last long. Mortimer and Isabella made peace with the Scots with the Treaty of Northampton but this was highly unpopular. On 19 March 1330, Edmund of Woodstock, brother of Edward II, was executed for plotting the restoration of Edward II. Some say Mortimer had fed him the information that Edward was still alive hoping to entrap him. However Mortimer's execution of the Earl lost him his remaining support. Consequently as soon as Edward III came of age in 1330, he executed Roger Mortimer on charges of treason, the most important of which was the murder of Edward II. Edward III spared Isabella and gave her a generous allowance, but he ensured that she retired from public life. She died at Hertford on 23 August 1358.

Fictional accounts of Edward II

King Edward II of England. The scene on the lower part shows the king being murdered. Ca. 1700 AD
King Edward II of England. The scene on the lower part shows the king being murdered. Ca. 1700 AD

The most famous fictional account of Edward II's reign is that of Christopher Marlowe in his 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. Jean Plaidy's The Follies of the King is a rather plodding look at the reign, though it livens up when it comes time for the red-hot poker. In A Secret Chronicle by Jane Lane, Edward II's youngest daughter sends a trusted servant to investigate the circumstances of her father's death. Jean Evans' A Brittle Glory is narrated mostly by the king's fool. Chris Hunt's Gaveston is a sexually explicit account of the king's relationship with his first favourite, while Sandra Wilson's Alice breaks tradition with an emphatically heterosexual Gaveston, whose mistress is the title character. In Cashelmara, Susan Howatch updates the story to 19th century Ireland. Shootings, stabbings, and poisonings replace beheadings and red-hot pokers. There has also been a ballet of his story produced by Birmingham Royal Ballet, which adheres to the red hot poker myth.

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 Paul Doherty and Michael Jecks have set a number of their books against the backdrop of Edward II's reign.

A Victorian novelist, Emily Sarah Holt, set several historical novels during this period. Holt's appendices to her books show that she researched her novels thoroughly, though her religious prejudices (she appears to have been strongly anti-Catholic) and her strong sense of propriety make her books rather odd reading. She is far harsher on Isabella than on Edward II, and she seems to have had a soft spot for Hugh le Despenser.

Edward II appears in Maurice Druon's series of novels The Accursed Kings (in French: Les Rois Maudits). There, his homosexuality is not at all hidden; Queen Isabella describes how she had to endure Hugh the younger Despenser's presence during sex with her husband. Volume 5, La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), describes the overthrow and murder of Edward II by Isabella and Roger Mortimer, the executions of the Despensers, and the installation of Edward III. The novel describes these as part of the circumstances leading to the Hundred Years' War and the end of the House of Capet.

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, right down to the drooping eyelid. He 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.

The film implies that William Wallace consummated an affair with Edward II's lonely wife Isabella and was the real father of Edward III. This is total fiction. Wallace was executed in 1305, Edward II married the twelve year old Isabella in 1308 and Edward III was born in 1312.

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