Edward II of England

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

Edward II,(April 25, 1284 - September 21, 1327), of Caernarvon, 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. He is today perhaps best remembered for the brutal method of his alleged murder, which was linked to his reliance on the corrupt family of Hugh le Despenser.

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 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 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. 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 bestowed 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

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.

In the early years of his reign Gaveston held this role, acting as regent when Edward went to France, where, on January 25, 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

English Royalty
House of Plantagenet

Henry II
   William, Count of Poitiers
   Henry the Young King
   Richard I
   Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany
   King John
   Matilda of England
   Leonora of England
   Joan of England
Richard I
   Henry III
   Richard, Earl of Cornwall
   Joan of England
   Isabella of England
   Eleanor of England
Henry III
   Edward I
   Margaret of England
   Beatrice of England
   Edmund, Earl of Lancaster
Edward I
   Joan of England, Countess of Gloucester
   Alphonso, Earl of Chester
   Edward II
   Thomas, Earl of Norfolk
   Edmund, Earl of Kent
Edward II
   Edward III
   John, Earl of Cornwall
   Eleanor of England
   Joan of England
Edward III
   Edward, Prince of Wales
   Lionel, Duke of Clarence
   John, Duke of Lancaster
   Edmund, Duke of York
   Thomas, Duke of Gloucester
   Joan of England
   Isabella of England
    Richard II
    Philippa, Countess of Ulster
    Philippa of Lancaster
    Elizabeth of Lancaster
    Henry IV
    Catherine of Lancaster
    Edward, Duke of York
    Richard, Earl of Cambridge
    Constance of York
    Anne of Gloucester
Richard II
Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902
Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902

Gaveston received the earldom of Cornwall with the hand of the king's niece, Margaret of Gloucester. 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 assassinated Gaveston. Edward was not strong enough to avenge his loss.

He stood aside, allowing the country to come under the rule of a baronial committee of twenty-one lords ordainers, who, in 1311, had drawn up a series of ordinances, which substituted ordainers for the king as the effective government of the country. Parliament meant to the new rulers an assembly of barons just as it had done to the opponents of Edward's grandfather, Henry III, in 1258. The Commons were excluded. The effect was to transform England from a monarchy to a narrow oligarchy.

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. In June 1314 Edward led a huge army into Scotland in the hope of relieving Stirling. On June 24, his ill-disciplined and badly 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

Edward II's disgraceful defeat made him more dependent on his barons than ever. Thomas of Lancaster now had an opportunity of saving England from the consequences of the king's incompetence. He had shown some ability as a leader of opposition, but lacked creativity. He was suspected of having made a secret understanding with Bruce, in hopes of keeping the king weak.

Before long the opposition split into fiercely contending factions. Under Aymer of Valence, Earl of Pembroke, a middle party arose, which hated Lancaster so much that it supported the king. After 1318, the effect of its influence was to restore Edward to some portion of his authority. However, the king hated Pembroke almost as much as Lancaster, and now found a competent alternative adviser in Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester, a baron of great experience.

His son, Hugh the younger Despenser, became a personal friend and favourite, who effectively replaced Gaveston. The fierce hatred which the barons had for the Despensers was equal to their hatred for his previous favourite. They were indignant at the privileges Edward lavished upon father and son, especially when the younger Despenser strove to procure for himself the earldom of Gloucester 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.

Rule of the Despensers

In 1321, the barons met in parliament, and under Lancaster's guidance had Hugh le Despenser and his son banished. This inspired Edward to act. In 1322 he recalled the Despensers from exile, and waged war against the barons on their behalf. Lancaster, defeated at Boroughbridge, was executed at Pontefract. For the next five years the Despensers ruled England. Unlike the ordainers, they took pains to get the Commons on their side, and a parliament held at York in 1322 revoked the ordinances because they encroached upon the rights of the crown. From this time no statute was technically valid unless the Commons had agreed to it. This marks the most important step forward in Edward II's reign. But the rule of the Despensers soon became corrupt. Their first thought was for themselves, and they stirred up universal indignation. In particular, they excited the ill-will of the queen, Isabella of France.

Deposition by Isabella of France

A dispute broke out between England and France over the building of a fortified town in the English possession of Aquitaine by Isabella's brother Charles IV of France. The Despensers then sequestered the queen's vast estates, banished Isabella's loyal French servants and took three of her children into their custody. Eleanor de Clare was also imposed on Isabella as her 'housekeeper' to control her actions. Queen Isabella kept silence until 1325, when she went to France to negotiate a solution to the dispute. Her eldest son, Edward of Windsor, followed on later to do homage for Aquitaine to Charles IV when a settlement was reached. Isabella's polite attitude to Despenser and her husband concealed her deep animosity and she was considered loyal.

When her business was over, Isabella declined to return to her husband as long as the Despensers remained his favourites. In Paris, she formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, one of the barons, who had been exiled in 1323 when he rebelled after his lands had been seized by the Despensers. On 24 September 1326 Isabella landed with a large force in Essex accompanied by Mortimer and her son, declaring that she was come to avenge the murder of Lancaster and to expel the Despensers. Edward's followers deserted him, and on October 2 he fled from London to the west, where he took refuge in the younger Despenser's estates in Glamorgan. When Isabella entered London, there was a violent revolution in her favour and weeks of anarchy followed. His wife and her army followed Edward and the Despensers, and after a futile effort to escape by sea, Edward and a handful of supporters were captured on 16 November and escorted to Monmouth Castle. According to legend, his capture took place at Pant-y-Brad ("the dell of treachery"), near Llantrisant. He was later transferred to Kenilworth Castle. It was thought prudent to compel the captive king to resign the crown, and this occurred on January 20. The Articles of Deposition accused Edward of many offences including: being incompetent to govern, unwilling to heed good counsel, allowing himself to be controlled by evil councillors, giving himself up to unseemly works and occupations, and plundering the kingdom.

A parliament met at Westminster in January 1327,

which proclaimed Edward's son to be king as Edward III. Both Despensers were tried and executed.

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. Contrary to the polemical chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, record evidence shows that he was well-treated in captivity. It was later rumoured that Edward had been killed by the insertion of a piece of copper into his anus (later a red-hot iron rod, as in the supposed murder of Edmund Ironside), supposedly as a deserved end of a homosexual. It also supposedly had the added benefit that it would appear that the king had died a natural death; this is unlikely, as burns in the rectal region would easily have given it away. This was elaborated in a history by Sir Thomas More:

  • "On the night of October 11 (1327 AD) 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 (into his anus) so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines."

This method is unnecessarily complicated, as simple suffocation would have met the objectives and so is unlikely.

Following 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 March 19, 1330, the Earl of Kent, 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.

The Fieschi Letter

A letter was written to Edward III in circa 1337 by a Genoese priest Manuele de Fieschi, Bishop of Vicelli, which has been a source of controversy ever since a copy was discovered in 1878 in Montpellier, because it claims that Edward II was not murdered but escaped. Supporters of this letter say that the accounts of the murder, including le Baker's, were not written until long after Edward's death. Edward's tomb was a valuable source of revenue from pilgrims and the story of a gruesome murder would have been useful. Furthermore the events at Berkeley Castle were only known to a few people who were sworn to secrecy. No-one doubts the authenticity of Fieschi's letter, only its veracity, and it contains details that few people knew at the time and was written long before the accepted accounts of the flight, imprisonment and murder.

In the Fieschi letter the flight to Wales, the arrest, the escape to Glamorgan and imprisonment at Kenilworth and Berkeley are described. According to Fieschi Edward heard that he was to be killed and changed clothes with a servant. On reaching the gate, he is reported to have killed the gate-keeper and went to Corfe Castle where he stayed for 18 months.

Edward is then said to have stayed in Ireland for nine months, crossed to the Low Countries and travelled to Italy, visiting the Pope in Avignon on the way. Edward is then reported to have lived in monastic hermitages near Milan. Supporters of the letter say that he knew that he had no support at home and never tried to regain the throne, especially after his son, Edward III, had removed Mortimer. In the Italian town of Cecima, (75 km from Milan), there is a tradition that a king of England was buried there and there is an empty mediaeval tomb said to be the place of his burial before his body was repatriated to England by his son.

Supporters of the letter say that the elaborate funeral in Gloucester of the person supposed to be Edward II may have been that of the gate-keeper. Many local dignitaries were invited to view the body from a distance, but it had been embalmed and may have been unrecognisable. For the first time a carved wooden effigy of the dead king was carried through the streets rather than the body on a bier.

Diplomatic documents also show in 1338 that Edward III travelled to Koblenz to be installed as Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire

and there he met someone called William le Galeys, or William the Welshman, who claimed to be the king's father. (Edward II was born in Caernarvon and was the first Prince of Wales.) Claiming to be the king's father would have been dangerous, and it is not known what happened to William. Many historians claim that the person was William Ockle.

Opponents of the letter say that the letter is an attempt by the bishop of Maguelone who had been sent to Germany to disrupt an Anglo-German alliance. The letter may therefore be an attempt to blackmail Edward III by undermining his position at the German court. Fieschi held various church appointments in England from 1319 and may also have been attempting to gain royal patronage.

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 favorite, 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; 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 Isabella's and Roger Mortimer's overthrow and murder of Edward II, 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 Capetian dynasty.

Cinematically, the Mel Gibson feature, Braveheart, shows Edward II as a flaming effeminate. Contrary to this portrayal, there is no evidence that Edward I despised his son, and a dramatic scene where the king defenestrates his son's boyfriend is complete fiction. On the other hand, when he became king Edward II was just as weak a military leader against the Scots as the movie shows him as being.

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 also fiction. Wallace was executed in 1305 and Edward III was born in 1312.


  • Vita Edwardi Secundi
  • Blackley, F.D. Adam, the Bastard Son of Edward II, 1964.
  • Doherty, Paul. Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. Constable and Robinson, 2003. ISBN 1841193011
  • Weir, Alison, 'Isabella, She-Wolf of France', 2005, Jonathan Cape, (ISBN 0224063200)
Preceded by:
Edward I
King of England
Succeeded by:
Edward III
Lord of Ireland
Duke of Aquitaine
Count of Ponthieu

Preceded by:
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
Prince of Wales
1301– 1307
Succeeded by:
Edward, the Black Prince
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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