Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while reading history at King’s College London. He is a heritage professional, working for the National Trust managing three historic properties in Warwickshire, England with a team of 900 volunteers and around 150 staff. He publishes weekly articles about the fourteenth century on his popular blog, as well as giving writing and research advice. Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance is Stephen’s debut book so today he shares with us some things we might not know about the man himself.
Edward II, born on 25 April 1284, was not meant to be king. At the time of his birth he had an elder brother, Alphonso, who died that year. Edward was his parents’ fourteenth child. Despite the odds, he became king on 7 July 1307 at the age of 23.
Edward had a pet Lion when he was a teenager, kept by Adam of Lichfield. The prince took him to war against the Scots in 1303, awarding his lion a new collar and chain at a cost of 2s 9d, as well as a new cart in which to travel. He kept his lion well fed at a cost of 4d per day – twice the daily wage paid to an unskilled labourer.
Edward had rude health. He was rarely ill – lucky for a man alive in the Middle Ages. He once caught Tertian fever with his sister Margaret when he was ten; a malarial fever that reappears every three days, giving the sufferer a bad case of the sweats, and which lasted a full month.
Despite the persistent reputation that Edward was a coward in war – which was highly inaccurate – he fought in Scotland four times before he became king in 1307, fighting fiercely and with good repute.
Unconventional but very much a king with the common touch, Edward II much preferred swimming, rowing, digging, thatching, and getting to know his subjects. While digging a ditch in 1326 – only months before he was overthrown from power – Edward gave 12d, a week’s wage for a well-paid labourer, to one of the common folk who was digging with him, so he could buy himself a pair of shoes. Edward was always generous with the poor.
Edward II was bisexual. He had an intense, intimate relationship with his boyhood friend Piers Gaveston. In February 1307, Edward tried to persuade his father, the irascible Edward I, to grant the earldom of Cornwall to Piers. For years historians thought it was Ponthieu that was the intended gift, but this is highly unlikely, Ponthieu already being used as collateral in Edward’s forthcoming marriage. Edward I refused and Piers Gaveston was banished from court and exiled to France. Edward II granted Cornwall to Piers upon his return in August 1307, two months after Edward II became king.
Edward II and Isabella of France married in a lavish ceremony in 1308. Despite claims, they actually had a relatively successful marriage producing four children (Edward, John, Eleanor and Joan). After 1322, the couple became increasing estranged when Edward’s last favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, rapidly rose to power.
Throughout his life, Edward loved music, dancing and great theatrical displays. On 19 June 1313, the first anniversary of the murder of Piers Gaveston, the king paid Robert the Fool and fifty-four naked dancers to entertain him and his court to lighten the mood. He had a good sense of humour.
In 1878, the ‘Fieschi Letter’ was discovered in an archive in Montpellier, France. The letter is extraordinary (and not a forgery) setting out a confession from the late Edward II written sometime around 1336. This is extraordinary because Edward II was allegedly murdered in 1327. The letter details how the king in fact survived, and after visiting the pope, lived out his days in a hermitage in Italy. Historians are divided about its accuracy, but recent scholarship, including that in my book, supports the view that Edward II did in fact live until sometime around 1341.
Whilst living ‘beyond the grave’ from 1327, at some point Edward II took on the persona of William le Galeys or ‘William the Welshman’. Wales was the place of Edward II’s birth, being born at Caernarfon castle, and so is a fitting name for Edward to take in later life to keep him safe. William Galeys was presented to Edward III (r 1327-1377) in 1338 at Koblenz and was entertained as the king’s father for two weeks, afterwards returning to his monastery in Italy where no more is heard from him.