The story that the king presented the newborn child to the Welsh as their future native prince is unfounded. Its earliest appearance was in the work of a 16th century Welsh "antiquary", David Powel. In fact, Edward was only made Prince of Wales in the Lincoln Parliament of February 7, 1301. Edward was, however, the first English prince to hold the title.
When Edward was a few months old, his elder brother, Alfonso, died, and he became heir to the throne. From childhood, his father, a notable military leader, made a point of training him in warfare and statecraft. 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 defects to the bad influence of friends such as the Gascon knight Piers Gaveston, and the favourite was exiled. When Edward I died, on July 7, 1307, the first act of the prince, now Edward II, was to recall Gaveston. His next was to abandon the Scots campaign on which his father had set his heart.
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 Philip the Fair. The marriage was doomed to failure almost from the beginning. Isabella was neglected by her husband, who appeared to prefer the company of his male favourites, and was rumoured to be homosexual. Their marriage nevertheless produced two sons, Edward, and John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall (1316-1336), and two daughters, Isabella and Joanna (1321-1362), wife of David II of Scotland.
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 was excluded. The effect was to transform England from a monarchy to a narrow oligarchy.
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 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.
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. In the hope of keeping the king weak, he was suspected of having made a secret understanding with Bruce. 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, a baron of great experience. What was more important to him, he had in Despenser's son, Hugh le Despenser the younger, a personal friend and favourite, who effectively replaced Gaveston. The fierce hatred which the barons had for the Despensers was equal to that with which they had hated 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, Edward's niece.
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.
Queen Isabella kept silence until 1325, when she went to France in company with her eldest son, Edward of Windsor, who was sent to do homage for Aquitaine to her brother, the new French king. When her business was over, Isabella declined to return to her husband as long as the Despensers remained his favourites. She formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, one of the baronial exiles, and in September 1326 landed 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. His wife followed him, put to death both Despensers, and, after a futile effort to escape by sea, Edward was captured on November 6. He was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, and a parliament met at Westminster in January 1327, which chose his son to be king as Edward III. It was thought prudent to compel the captive king to resign the crown, and on January 20 Edward was forced to renounce his office before a committee of the estates.
The government of Isabella and Mortimer was so precarious that they dared not leave the deposed king alive. On April 3 he was secretly removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two dependants of Mortimer. After various wanderings be was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Every indignity was inflicted upon him, and he was systematically ill-treated in the hope that he would die of disease. When his strong constitution seemed likely to prevail he was secretly put to death on September 21. The popular legend is that his murder was by a red-hot poker thrust up his anus, considered by his captors as an appropriate punishment for his homosexuality, which would show no outward signs of violence. It was announced that he had died a natural death, and he was buried in St Peter's Abbey at Gloucester, now the cathedral, where his son afterwards erected a magnificent tomb.
An alternative version of events, which has received little attention from historians, suggests that the body buried at Gloucester is not that of King Edward, but that he was allowed to escape to the Continent and survived many more years.
Following the king's death, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer did not
last long. As soon as Edward III came of age, he executed Roger Mortimer,
but spared his mother on condition that she leave the court. In 1330, Isabella
retired from public life; she died, either at Hertford or at Castle Rising
in Norfolk on August 23, 1358.
|List of British Monarchs