King Edward II
Born: April 25, 1284
Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales
Reign: July 7, 1307 - January 20, 1327 (19 years)
Died: September 21, 1327?
Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England (Age 43?)
Edward of Caernarfon was born the twelfth (possibly fourteenth) and final child of King Edward I and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, on April 25, 1284. It can only be assumed that the royal couple was overjoyed that a healthy boy had been born, being that they had already lost two sons. Their third son, Alfonso, died in August 1284, leaving Edward as his father’s only surviving son and heir to the English throne at a mere four months of age. Being that he was now his father’s sole direct heir, it came as no surprise that Edward was brought into the national spotlight at a very young age and was the subject of various marriage proposals. The first of these came in the late 1280s when it was suggested that Edward should marry Margaret, the Maid of Norway, the granddaughter and lone heiress to the late Alexander III of Scotland. Edward I’s reason for pushing for this union was simple: to ultimately unify England and Scotland under a single ruler. Unfortunately, this plan was not meant to be, as young Margaret died upon arriving in her new kingdom, throwing the Scottish succession into complete disarray in the process.
Edward’s next prospective marriage came in the mid-1290s when it was suggested that he should marry a daughter of the Count of Flanders, an ally of Edward I in the war against Philip IV of France. By this time, the younger Edward was beginning to receive more patronage and more responsibilities, all in order to help prepare him to ultimately succeed his father on the throne. He was granted the County of Ponthieu, his mother’s inheritance, in 1290, and was given command (at least nominally) of a force whose task was to defend England’s south coast from a possible French invasion in 1296. In the following year, Edward I departed England to embark on what was to be his ill-fated Flanders expedition, leaving his thirteen-year-old son in nominal control of the kingdom.
While the young Edward was left in the hands of competent advisers, the king had left his son a realm that was dangerously close to civil war, brought upon primarily by the harsh taxation policies Edward I was forced to put into effect to fund the war against France. The Earls of Norfolk and Hereford took advantage of the king’s absence and forced the prince to agree to some of their demands, which included concessions on taxation, as well as a reconfirmation of Magna Carta as a sign of good faith. Edward and his advisers had no choice but to agree to the demands of these powerful magnates in order to prevent any civil discord at a time when England was fighting simultaneous wars against France and Scotland. This situation indeed taught Edward how difficult it could be to govern a kingdom, and it was an eerie prequel to his own reign, when he would face off against the Ordainers.
When Edward I realized that his Flanders expedition was going nowhere, and was forced to sue for peace with his enemies, the younger Edward was again the subject of a marriage betrothal. As a condition of the peace agreement between Edward I and Philip IV of France, Edward was to be married to Princess Isabella, a daughter of the French king; Edward I himself was married to Philip’s sister Margaret. The latter marriage duly took place in the fall of 1299, but the younger Edward’s marriage to the young princess would be years in the making, and it would not occur until after he took the throne. With Anglo-French relations calm (at least for the moment), Edward I decided to focus his full attentions on bringing Scotland to heel. In the process, he wanted to give his son and heir some much needed training on the battlefield. At the tender age of fourteen, Prince Edward was given nominal control of a contingent of the English forces during the Galloway campaign in the spring of 1300. While the enterprise proved to be relatively uneventful, Edward did take part in the one noteworthy event of the campaign – the siege of Caerlaverock Castle – and gained some valuable knowledge as to how wars were conducted.
The following year, likely as a reward for his services (as well as to further endow the heir to the throne), Edward was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. In creating his son the first English Prince of Wales, Edward I had started a tradition in which the heir to the throne would hold this title that exists to this very day. Prince Edward took part in another expedition into Scotland in 1301, but nothing of significance came from this journey. More significantly, Edward took part in the more eventful campaign of 1303-04, including in the important siege and capture of Stirling Castle; this directly led to the second English conquest of Scotland. The situation in Scotland was relatively quiet for the next two years, but was abruptly picked up when Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn at Dumfries in early 1306 and proceeded to have himself crowned as the new King of Scots.
Edward I, knowing he did not have much more life left in him, saw this as an excellent opportunity to further provide for his son and heir and to give him even more valuable experience on the battlefield. The prince was knighted and granted the duchy of Gascony, further adding to his already rich endowment, and was given the responsibility of leading the next expedition into Scotland in the aftermath of Bruce’s accession of the Scottish throne. According to contemporary chronicles, Edward acted with a great deal of cruelty – burning villages, executing important figures and leaving a path of destruction anywhere he and his army went. If there is any truth to these accusations, it has to be assumed that the prince was doing so under direct orders from his father, who looked at the Scots as traitors to their rightful lord. Whatever the case may have been, the prince’s methods seem to have been effective, as King Robert was forced to go into hiding to prevent being captured by the English. After a break in hostilities during the winter of 1306-07, a rejuvenated Bruce returned and the war commenced once again. As the prince prepared to rejoin the war effort, Edward I had decided to lead an army in person against the Scots; his efforts, however, would be short-lived, as he died, aged sixty-eight, at Burgh-by-Sands on July 7, 1307. At the age of twenty-three, the Prince of Wales was now King Edward II.
Edward I was undoubtedly a strong monarch, but over a decade of nearly continuous warfare (with both Scotland and France) had drained the royal coffers dry and nearly caused a civil war in the mid-1290s. The king was forced to rely heavily on the practice of purveyance, in which the crown exercised its right to purchase certain goods from the people at highly deflated rates (if they even paid at all) to fund its various enterprises. This process was highly burdensome to the general population and, unsurprisingly, dangerously unpopular. It was only the embarrassing English defeat at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1296, which acted as a unifier of sorts, as well as the strong personal character of the king himself that prevented Edward I from following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both of whom faced revolts from the nobility towards the ends of their respective reigns. When Edward II ascended the throne, the war with Scotland raged on, and there was still no good way to pay for it; it cannot be doubted that Edward II inherited a highly precarious situation. However, instead of assuring the nobility that their grievances that had spilled over from the previous reign would be heard, and instead of focusing his attentions on subduing Robert Bruce and the Scots (as his father would have wanted), Edward chose to make his first priority as king something far less important: the recall and reinstatement of his friend and confidant, Piers Gaveston.
Gaveston, a knight from Gascony whose father had been in the service of Edward I since the Welsh Wars of 1282-83, had been a member of the young Edward’s household since 1300; he had previously served Edward I in the ill-fated Flanders campaign in 1297, as well as the infinitely more successful Falkirk campaign into Scotland the following year. The king had apparently been impressed by Gaveston’s abilities as a soldier and felt that he would be an asset and a good influence to his son and heir. In the years that followed, Gaveston and the younger Edward grew closer and closer, and the prince heaped a great deal of royal patronage on his friend. The two men were even knighted within just days of one another. However, in early 1307 Gaveston became the scapegoat for Prince Edward’s wasteful and irresponsible behavior (qualities that were already beginning to become apparent and that would lead to further trouble in the future). It was at this point that Edward attempted to grant Gaveston the county of Ponthieu, a realm that had been left to the prince by his late mother years earlier. When Edward I discovered that his son was considering giving away such a rich prize, he reacted violently and supposedly ripped out a chunk of the prince’s hair. Soon after, the king ordered Gaveston into exile in his native Gascony. The fact that Gaveston was ordered to be well provided for during his exile gives evidence that Edward I was not angry with him, but with the prince for being so naively generous with his patronage. Gaveston duly departed the kingdom (to Ponthieu, not Gascony as had been stipulated by the king), much to the chagrin of Prince Edward.
When Edward II became king, Gaveston was not only immediately recalled from his brief and comfortable exile, but he was created Earl of Cornwall and married to Edward’s niece Margaret de Clare, a co-heiress to the rich earldom of Gloucester. While there was no direct opposition to Gaveston’s advancement at this time, it cannot be imagined that the barons looked very highly upon the king’s controversial move. Edward’s second act of business upon taking the throne was to have an old enemy of his, Bishop Walter Langton of Coventry & Litchfield (the royal treasurer), arrested and imprisoned. While Edward could easily make the case that Langton’s arrest was a result of past misappropriations (he was, after all, the treasurer to a king who had engaged heavily in unpopular taxation processes), there was clearly an element of revenge in the bishop’s destruction. Instead of focusing his efforts on a dangerous neighbor to the north and a dire financial situation, Edward made the first priorities of his new reign the unfair advancement of his friend and the unfair punishment of his enemy. These were indeed ominous signs which would prove to be foreshadowers for a turbulent tenure as king.
In January 1308, Edward finally made good on a long-standing agreement when he married Princess Isabella of France in a lavish ceremony in the French coastal town of Boulogne, which was attended by some of the most important figures in all Europe. It was originally agreed, in principle, that the couple would be married back in 1299 as part of the peace agreement between England and France; they were formally betrothed in 1303. After years of seemingly endless negotiations, the peace accord between these two rival kingdoms was finally complete. In his absence, Edward left none other than his friend Gaveston to act as regent of England. According to certain chroniclers of the time, the newly-created earl acted with extreme arrogance is his command post, and he greatly angered a number of the most powerful magnates of the realm by ignoring their council, as well as defeating them at a jousting tournament. To make matters worse, Edward, before his return, had sent a number of the extravagant wedding gifts (given to him and his new bride by Philip IV of France, the latter’s father) to Gaveston. It is not known if the gifts were put into Gaveston’s possession for safe keeping due him holding the post of chamberlain (another lucrative position awarded to him by the king), or if they were merely further rewards from an already overly generous master.
With the king committing all of these antagonistic (yet, to him, innocent) acts, it came as no surprise that a group of barons assembled and drew up the Boulogne Declaration as Edward was participating in the festivities associated with his wedding. The document put forth a number of suggestions to the king to govern the realm more effectively and concentrated mostly on financial reforms and the curbing of corruptions committed by royal officials. Though Gaveston was not mentioned directly, he undoubtedly must have been on the minds of the barons when they created this piece of legislation that was clearly meant to put some sort of limitations on the king’s power in order to force him to govern the realm more responsibly. Instead of heeding the friendly warnings of his magnates, Edward (whether intentionally or not) antagonized them even further by giving Gaveston a prominent role at his coronation, a ceremony that was supposed to be a sacred one involving the most important figures in the realm. He even went so far as to display tapestries bearing Gaveston’s arms instead of those of France, to represent the queen, who was also being crowned. This was both an insult to the queen and a desecration of the coronation ceremony.
At the next parliament, which met soon after, the barons pushed heavily for Gaveston’s exile. Nothing happened at the parliament itself, but both sides knew that conflict was inevitable if the issue was not resolved. Therefore, the king and Gaveston and the barons began mustering troops to prepare for the possibility of a civil war. At the next parliament, the barons were significantly firmer in their demands, and they presented a document that clearly put forth Gaveston’s offenses in legal terms. The magnates claimed that, among other offenses, Gaveston had played a major role in impoverishing the kingdom (enriching himself in the process), had alienated the king from both his wife and his rightful councilors – the nobility – and was distracting the king from engaging in the reform the kingdom so desperately needed. To make their case stronger, the barons had gained the support of Edward’s father-in-law, Philip IV of France, who felt that his daughter was being neglected and insulted by her husband in favor of some upstart favorite. The French king also looked at the Gaveston situation as a distraction from normal business that needed to be conducted between the two kingdoms (namely the terms of Isabella’s dowry). Under tremendous pressure from nearly all of the English nobility, as well as his powerful father-in-law, Edward had no choice but to agree to exile Gaveston and to strip him of many of the lands he had been granted upon his creation as earl. To further enforce the favorite’s exile, the Archbishop of Canterbury passed a sentence of excommunication against Gaveston, to be enforced should he return to England.
It was ultimately agreed that Gaveston would spend his exile in Ireland, where he would serve as the king’s lieutenant there; the banished earl departed the realm in June 1308. Gaveston’s absence from England brought about much more cordial relations between Edward and the magnates, and it appears that progress was being made pertaining to the normal business of the kingdom. The king distributed royal patronage (which normally would have gone to Gaveston) to a number of influential earls, and he agreed, in principal, to at least some of the reforms that were put before him. Unfortunately, it appears that, from the very beginning, Edward’s motives were devious and revolved almost exclusively around bringing about Gaveston’s return from exile. In addition to placating the English barons, Edward gave approval to his father-in-law, Philip of France, to dissolve the Knights Templar in an attempt to win his support. All the while, Edward was also pleading with Pope Clement V (assuring him that he and the barons had settled their differences) to reverse the sentence of excommunication against Gaveston, allowing him to return to the kingdom.
At the Westminster Parliament of April 1309, Edward finally revealed his true motives and requested that Gaveston be allowed to return from exile. This plea was outright rejected by the barons, who then proceeded to put forth a document of eleven articles to reform the kingdom, approval of which would be a prerequisite to receiving a grant of taxation for a much needed campaign into Scotland. For the time being, Edward brushed off the articles, though he did not condemn them outright. Two months later, the situation took a dramatic turn when the papal bull annulling Gaveston’s excommunication arrived in England, paving the way for his return, which took place in June 1309. For obvious reasons, this was seen as an antagonism for the nobles. However, Edward seems to have genuinely wanted to appease them. To extend the proverbial olive branch, the king agreed to the Statute of Stamford at the next parliament, which put into effect many of the articles that were presented by the barons at the Westminster Parliament. Dealing with such issues as the unpopular practice of purveyance and limitations on the powers of certain royal officials, the Statute placated the magnates enough so that they gave their approval (albeit grudgingly) for Gaveston’s return and reinstatement as Earl of Cornwall.
While most of the barons had allowed Gaveston reentry into the country in the spirit of compromise, they would soon regret doing so as nothing changed. The king continued to showed a disproportionate amount of favor to his friend and, to make matters worse, Gaveston, in a blatant display of arrogance, decided to antagonize his fellow barons by making up insulting nicknames for a number of them. As it turned out, the royal faction was in no position to be confident. Despite the ratification of the Statute of Stamford, Edward continued to make ample use of purveyance, claiming that he needed the munitions to mount another campaign against the Scots, in addition to collecting a hefty tax that was agreed to at the Stamford Parliament. However, no campaign occurred at this point, while Robert Bruce had slowly but surely been retaking all of the Scottish lands that Edward I had once conquered.
The combination of the improper use of purveyance, the stalemate in the war with Scotland and Gaveston’s cocky behavior would, unsurprisingly, create an extremely volatile situation within English politics. Both the barons and the commons were on the verge of rebellion, and the former group pushed even harder than before for reform. The result of this conflict between king and nobility (in which the latter were in a far more advantageous position) was the creation of the Ordainers, a group of twenty-one of the realm’s most powerful barons and prelates whose job was to reform England’s government and to aid the king in conducting the day-to-day functions of the kingdom in what they considered to be a proper fashion. Edward had no choice but to agree to this proposal, and the Ordainers’ authority was set to last for a period of exactly one year, beginning in September 1310. In the aftermath of the election of the Ordainers, Edward finally left for a long-awaited campaign into Scotland, the first of his reign. Unfortunately, the king had the support of only a few of the major barons (something that would hurt him even more in later campaigns), and he achieved next to nothing. Most contemporaries will agree that the Scottish campaign of 1310 was nothing more than a stalling technique by the king , who had no interest in having his power limited by the documents being drawn up by the Ordainers.
Unfortunately, Edward had very little choice in the matter, and the Ordainers published a series of legal clauses, appropriately referred to as the Ordinances, in parliament in September 1311, shortly before their period of authority was set to come to an end. What they produced was a document that, in many ways, substantially weakened the power of the monarchy and attempted to transition England’s government to more of a democracy, where the king would work in unison with parliament and the nobility. Unsurprisingly, one of the major clauses involved putting limitations on the practice of purveyance. Another clause stated that the king could not go to war without consulting, and receiving the approval of, parliament. Other clauses dealt with various reforms pertaining to taxation, borrowing and expenditures within the royal household. The king was also forced, in another clause, to receive approval from parliament before naming a new member of his administration (i.e. chancellor, treasurer, etc.).
None of these clauses shocked many contemporaries, as many of them had been lingering issues from the reign of Edward I and had carried into, and worsened, during Edward II’s early reign. One clause that the Ordainers added was that the king was forbidden to surround himself with “evil counselors”; there was direct reference made to Gaveston here. Once again, the favorite’s exile was called for. This time, he was forbidden to spend his exile anywhere within the king’s dominions, which included England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and, presumably, Gascony. This left out the option of assigning Gaveston the position of lieutenant of Ireland as was done during his first exile. After a wasteful and uneventful campaign in Scotland, and with his overall policies nearly universally unpopular, Edward was in no grand bargaining position, and he had no choice but to accept the Ordinances, including the clause which called for Gaveston’s permanent exile.
Gaveston departed England in November 1311. While it is not known exactly where he spent his brief and final exile, Flanders seems to be the most logical place. Almost immediately after his friend’s departure, Edward began to make preparations to be reunited with him, even going so far as to again make entreaties to the Pope to gain his support. In a blatant act of defiance to the Ordinances, Gaveston returned to the kingdom just two months later. His justification for this act was that he wanted to be there to witness the birth of his daughter; there is little doubt though, that he had any intention of departing again, and this is exactly how the king wanted it. Edward then proceeded to antagonize the barons by informing them that he did not intend to obey the Ordinances, being that he had only agreed to them under duress. Therefore, Gaveston was able to remain in England. To pour further salt on the wounds of the barons, Edward appointed his old enemy, Bishop Langton, to the post of treasurer, another move that was strictly forbidden in the Ordinances.
When they were informed of the king’s recalcitrant behavior, the barons were, understandably, furious, and they began to muster troops to cut him and his upstart favorite down to size. While Edward and Gaveston did their best to resist the earls, it was not enough. In May 1312, Gaveston was besieged and ultimately captured at Scarborough Castle (where the king had placed him for safekeeping) by Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, and John de Warren, Earl of Surrey, two of the more moderate Ordainer lords. The earls soon after met with the king and the two sides agreed that Gaveston’s fate would be decided in a proper, legal setting and that, until then, he would be perfectly safe in their custody. Pembroke placed Gaveston at Deddington Castle to await his date in court, supposedly with no worries that any harm would come to him.
However, the more antagonistic of the Ordainer lords had other ideas for the favorite. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and the king’s first cousin (being a son of Edmund “Crouchback,” the younger brother of Edward I), had, since the death of his father-in-law, the Earl of Lincoln, the previous year, emerged as the leader of the opposition to Edward’s regime, despite the fact that, in the opening years of the reign, he was a staunch ally to the king. Being that he was easily the wealthiest and most powerful man in the kingdom, he had little opposition from his fellow Ordainers. It was Lancaster’s main political ally, Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who took the initiative, seized Gaveston from Deddington and brought him before Lancaster to be judged for his actions, despite Pembroke’s assurances to the king that his friend would not be harmed. Lancaster, Warwick and a number of other barons then proceeded to give Gaveston a show trial, where he was found guilty of violating the Ordinances. He was then executed on the Earl of Lancaster’s lands like a common criminal. When Gaveston’s unsanctioned execution was discovered, the Earls of Pembroke and Surrey immediately renounced their support for Lancaster’s cause (and became staunch royalists from that point on), and a permanent rift was now in place between the king and his cousin – a rift that would only be sealed by the latter’s death ten years later.
In the aftermath of Gaveston’s death, Edward, as can be imagined was devastated and in a vengeful mood. The barons, who continued to claim that they had done nothing more than upheld the Ordinances, were not willing to back down. It seemed that civil war was all but inevitable, and both sides began making preparations for this very real possibility. Neither side, however, cared to carry out an extended conflict that would polarize the realm at a time when Robert Bruce and the Scots were causing considerable trouble in the north. For all intents and purposes, this should have been the top priority of the king and the magnates. Instead, Edward was dead set on avenging the death of Gaveston, while the lords were focused upon enforcing the Ordinances and weakening their king’s authority. With the two factions at least in agreement that it was no time to be engaging in a civil war, negotiations for a peace settlement were soon commenced – with French and papal intervention.
The king’s major demand was that any of Ordinances that he considered to be prejudicial to him were to be repealed immediately. He also wanted Gaveston’s wife and daughter to be able to inherit his lands and possessions. This would mean that any accusations that the formal royal favorite was a traitor would need to be dropped. Adversely, the barons wanted to receive a complete and unconditional pardon for their involvement in Gaveston’s death. A treaty that covered these issues was agreed to, in principle, in December 1312, but this did not bring the conflict to a conclusion. In the interval between this preliminary agreement and the final treaty, which was officially put into effect in October 1313, Edward greatly strengthened his position. He and Queen Isabella went on a diplomatic visit to France and were able to solidify the support of Philip IV. Additionally, Edward improved on his financial situation by receiving a generous loan from Pope Clement. With the king clearly gaining the upper hand, it appears that the barons thought it more prudent to cut their losses and fight another day. Therefore, the final treaty between the royal and baronial factions was more beneficial to the king. Several of the most royally detrimental clauses of the Ordinances were done away with, but there was no specific mention of the status of all of the other clauses, making the agreement semi-ambiguous, a fact that was, in this case, to the king’s advantage. While the barons did not come out in a particularly strong position, they did receive their most important demand: a full pardon for their judicial murder of Gaveston.
The treaty of 1313 was merely a temporary fix which averted any immediate crises within the kingdom. Tensions still remained high between the royals and the barons – particularly between the king and his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster. With the conflict with the Ordainers “settled,” Edward felt that it was safe to go into full preparation mode for a much-needed campaign into Scotland. For the past several years, while Edward and the Ordainers battled it out at home, the self-proclaimed King of Scots, Robert Bruce, had been slowly but surely taking back all of the lands that Edward I had conquered; he was also conducting sporadic raids into northern England. In March 1314, Bruce and his army laid siege to Stirling Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. With the fortress under severe pressure and on the verge of surrendering to their besiegers, Edward felt that this would be the perfect opportunity to prove himself on the battlefield and put himself in an even stronger position against his enemies at home (i.e. the Ordainers).
The king mustered a large force for the campaign, which included such powerful lords as the Earls of Pembroke, Gloucester and Hereford. However, the equally powerful Earls of Surrey, Arundel, Warwick and, most significantly Lancaster refused to appear in person, sending only the bare minimum of troops that was legally required of them under feudal law. The barons claimed that they were not joining the campaign because the king had not received proper approval from parliament for it, which was stipulated in the Ordinances (which, according to these lords, was still the law of the land). Whether this was their true reason or not will never be known. Whatever the case may be, the English army was still a sizeable one and was certainly far superior to that which Robert Bruce commanded. Therefore, Edward entered Scotland in June 1314 in an optimistic mood; he was to be severely disappointed. At what has come to be known as the Battle of Bannockburn, the considerably smaller Scottish force under Robert Bruce handed King Edward and the English a crushing defeat. The Earl of Gloucester and several other noblemen were killed in the battle, while several more were captured and held for ransom. Edward himself narrowly avoided capture by engaging in a cowardly retreat, capping off what was arguably the most embarrassing defeat the English had ever suffered.
As can be imagined, Edward lost most of the political clout that he had acquired before his defeat at Bannockburn. At the next parliament, the lords, with Lancaster as their clear leader, came at the king with all their might. Edward was forced to confirm the Ordinances, which had been in a state of limbo since Gaveston’s unsanctioned execution, and accept them as the law of the land (at least publicly), and a major overhaul of the king’s household was undertaken, with any members that the barons felt were detrimental to the realm being removed and replaced. Severely humbled by his failed Scottish expedition, Edward was no more than the personal puppet of Lancaster and the barons during this time.
This was not the only issue he had to deal with either. Emboldened by their glorious victory at Bannockburn, Robert Bruce and the Scots decided to mount a massive raid into northern England, leaving a path of destruction wherever they went and laying siege to several major fortresses in the region; clearly, the citizens of England were paying the unfair price for their sovereign’s military failures, and an English army was sent north to do damage control. While this expedition was successful in keeping the Scots from causing anymore damage in England, King Robert had his sights set on another vulnerable area of the British empire: Ireland. In May 1315, Edward Bruce, the younger brother of the King of Scots, landed at Larne in north-eastern Ireland. The following month, he was proclaimed as “King of Ireland,” with the support and assistance of a number of local Irish lords. Having caught the English off guard, Bruce had somewhat of a built-in advantage and wasted no time in beginning what he and his brother hoped would be the Scottish conquest of Ireland.
Bruce laid siege to Carrickfergus Castle (which took an entire year to ultimately fall); he followed up this action with victories against Anglo-Irish forces at the Battles of Connor and Kells, in September and December 1315 respectively. Scottish progress was, however, halted to an extent by a lack of supplies and an encounter with government forces at the Battle of Ardscull, which, though indecisive, helped to weaken the strength and the morale of Bruce’s forces. This seems to be evident by the fact that the Scottish forces were fairly dormant for the greater part of the next year, choosing to stay in their base rather than launch further attacks. In January 1317, in an attempt to rejuvenate the floundering campaign, Robert Bruce himself arrived in Ireland, and the brothers continued their progress south. Unfortunately, after only three months, and very little action, King Robert departed the island and left his brother to pursue his own fortunes. Another period of dormancy ensued, until Bruce finally launched one last, desperate attack outside of his Ulster base in October 1318. He was accosted by an Anglo-Irish force and was soundly defeated at the Battle of Faughart. Bruce was killed in the encounter and posthumously beheaded, effectively ending the Scottish campaign in Ireland.
While all of this action was unfolding in Ireland, the power and influence of the Earl of Lancaster was on the rise at the English court. At the Lincoln Parliament of early 1316, it was agreed that the earl would become the head of the royal council, giving him a place of prominence at the king’s side and virtually assuring that he would be involved in all of the major decisions in the kingdom. As it would turn out, for all his power and wealth, Lancaster was no politician and, a mere two months after he agreed to become head councilor, the earl departed court and returned to his own lands. While Lancaster’s reasons for leaving his post so swiftly and suddenly can only be speculated upon (he claims that he left because Edward was not properly adhering to the Ordinances), it seems safe to assume that he and the king had some sort of falling out. In addition, the earl had no real political allies on the council since the death of the Earl of Warwick the previous year and likely found the day-to-day business of government tedious and redundant. Whatever Lancaster’s reason for departing his place at the head of the royal council, it does not seem to have improved relations between him and the king.
Lancaster’s recalcitrant behavior virtually assured that the quarrel between he and the king would be the most dominant issue within the kingdom, and that all other matters would have to be put on hold, including a much-needed campaign against the Scots. Some of the more moderate lords at court attempted to mediate the increasingly heated conflict between Edward and his most powerful subject and, for a time, it seemed as if some progress was being made. Unfortunately, progress came to a halt in May 1317 when the Earl of Surrey, a powerful lord with royalist leanings, decided to send one of his men to Lancaster’s estates and abduct the latter’s wife. While Lancaster and the countess had been estranged for some time (and whatever relationship had been occurring between her and Surrey was likely consensual), the act was clearly seen as antagonistic, and Lancaster accused the king of masterminding the incident, or at least being party to it. In September, Lancaster was blamed when a party containing two foreign cardinals carrying papal bulls to Scotland were robbed (though it is doubtful he was involved in the incident), and the earl blocked off numerous roads when he learned that the king himself was travelling in the north with a sizeable retinue (with possible hostile intentions).
With both sides arming themselves to the teeth for protection, it was clear that there was no trust whatsoever between the king and his cousin, and that was extremely damaging to the welfare of the entire realm, considering Lancaster’s immense wealth, power and ability to muster an army at a moment’s notice. Negotiations for a settlement between the cousins had come to a standstill, as Lancaster refused to attend parliaments and council meetings and feared that, if he met with the king personally, his life would be in danger at the hands of the new royal favorites at court. An agreement was made soon after to hold off any disputes until the next parliament, and Lancaster removed his men from the roads as a sign of good faith. Edward showed his appreciation by marching with his armed retinue and standing outside one of the earl’s castles in an attempt to intimidate his cousin. Lancaster, in turn, attacked a number of castles of his mortal enemy, the Earl of Surrey, as well as of one of the king’s favorites, Roger Damory. In the months following these instigations, a group of clergymen and moderate lords made it their mission to staunch the bleeding between Lancaster and the royalists and to bring about a reasonable peace settlement. Substantial progress was made between Lancaster and the moderates at separate meetings at Leicester and Westminster, but negotiations were protracted and grueling at times.
After many months of haggling between the two sides, a settlement was finally agreed to in August 1318 in the form of the Treaty of Leake. The treaty stipulated that Lancaster was to be pardoned for all of the offenses that he had committed against the crown, while Edward, once again, gave his word to uphold the Ordinances. Additionally, a council of moderate clerics and noblemen was created whose job was to see to the day-to-day functions of government in-between parliaments. Edward and Lancaster exchanged the kiss of peace and, for the time being, their heated rivalry was settled. A crisis had been narrowly avoided, thanks to the interventions of some of the more reasonable men in the realm, but the fact that the Treaty of Leake made no specific mention of the removal of Edward’s hated favorites from court (and the repeal of any grants made to them), as Lancaster had requested be part of any peace agreement, assured that the treaty would merely be a temporary document of appeasement for the parties involved. The situation within England was still a powder keg with a relatively short fuse waiting to explode.
The atmosphere at the English court was decidedly less tense after the Treaty of Leake had been agreed to, and the matters discussed at the York Parliament (which began two months later) helped cool the situation even more. In addition to officially ratifying the treaty, it was also agreed that three of Edward’s hated favorites – Roger Damory, Hugh Audley and William Montacute – were to leave court (at least for the time being); this was a move that must have been quite pleasing to Lancaster, who had specifically requested they be removed from the political scene. In addition, the king’s household was once again reformed and, perhaps most importantly, Lancaster agreed to personally participate in a long overdue campaign against the Scots.
To say that a full-scale attack on Scotland was much needed would have been an understatement. The defeat and death of Edward Bruce in Ireland was certainly a significant victory for the English but, two months prior to this event, the Scots had taken the strategically-located town and castle of Berwick on the Anglo-Scottish border. Its capture provided the Scots with a portal that would allow them to perform raids and terrorize the innocent people of northern England with relative ease. After months of preparation, the English forces finally laid siege to Berwick in September 1319. While Edward’s aspirations were high at the beginning of the campaign, they were soon to be dashed to the ground. As the main English army was busy besieging Berwick, Archbishop William Melton of York and a few others decided to form a ragtag force of York’s citizens to surprise a Scottish contingent that was camped a short distance from the city; the archbishop’s strategy did not go well. It appears that the Scots were forewarned of an attack and were easily able to defeat the pathetic English force at the Battle of Myton. Casualties were fairly high on the English side and included the Mayor of York, as well as a substantial number of clergymen and civilians. The news of the archbishop’s defeat at Myton sucked all of the life out of the English forces encamped at Berwick, and the siege was lifted soon after.
While the Scottish campaign of 1319 cannot be considered as disastrous as Edward’s defeat at Bannockburn five years earlier, it was nothing close to successful. In the aftermath of this uninspiring military operation, tensions again arose between the king and Lancaster, and the latter was accused of going so far as to aid the Scots so as to prevent Edward from succeeding on the battlefield. There is no solid evidence to support this rumor, but the fact that it was even discussed was not a good sign, as it could bring further disturbance to an already-fragile peace between the king and his mightiest subject. By the beginning of 1320, the relationship between Lancaster and the crown had become no different than it had been before the signing of the Treaty of Leake. The earl refused to attend parliaments (as he was required to do) claiming fear of an attack by the king’s favorites, while Edward was mum when it came to following the Ordinances.
By this point, however, it was becoming blatantly clear that the most significant emerging problem within the realm was not the Ordinances, absences from parliaments or the failed Scottish campaign, but the meteoric rise of a new favorite at court that rivaled Gaveston in his devouring of the king’s patronage and affections: Hugh Despenser the Younger. The Despenser family was by no means new to English politics. Hugh the Younger’s grandfather, another Hugh, had been killed at the Battle of Evesham fighting for the baronial forces, and his father, a third Hugh, was a trusted councilor of both Edward I and the current king (as well as a bitter enemy of Lancaster’s).
The youngest Despenser was a novice when it came to matters of state in comparison to his father, but it was clear that he was being prepped to step into the political limelight for some time now. In 1306, Despenser had married the king’s niece, Eleanor de Clare, a sister and co-heiress of the Earl of Gloucester (and also, ironically, a sister of Gaveston’s wife Margaret). When Gloucester was killed at Bannockburn in 1314, Despenser became one of the wealthier magnates in the realm when he and his wife inherited a third of the vast de Clare estates (though the inheritance was not officially delivered until late 1317). He was then awarded with the lucrative position of the king’s chamberlain (yet another post that Gaveston had once held). Over time, Despenser built up an even more expansive powerbase in the Welsh marches (where the de Clare estates were centered) in the months and years that followed. All of this success, however, came with a price, as Despenser gained a great deal of hatred and enmity from his fellow marcher lords, creating a dangerously volatile situation that was rapidly reaching its boiling point.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have come when Despenser unlawfully seized the lordship of Gower (which was, for all intents and purposes, a territory that was up for grabs), a land that several of the other marcher lords had been hoping to add to their own estates. Edward, seemingly oblivious as to what was occurring in the Welsh marches, carelessly agreed to support his new favorite’s claim to Gower. An all-out war between Despenser and a majority of the other marcher lords now seemed inevitable, and both sides began to prepare by mustering troops. In May 1321, after months of failed peace negotiations, the marcher lords began staging attacks on Despenser’s lands. Many of the lords who participated in these actions had been staunch supporters of the king’s in his struggle against Lancaster in the years leading up to 1318; therefore, Edward undoubtedly looked at their current actions as a great betrayal. These men included the Earl of Hereford, a moderate lord who had been responsible for bringing about peace between Edward and the barons on several occasions; Roger Mortimer of Chirk and his nephew, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore; and even two of the king’s erstwhile favorites (and men who Lancaster had specifically asked to be removed from court), Roger Damory and Hugh Audley, among others.
By the end of the month, a majority of the Despenser lands were in the hands of the rebel marcher lords. It was at this point that Lancaster began to take a more active role in the chaotic events that were occurring in the Welsh marches. While the earl had not been directly involved in the attacks on the Despenser lands, he was certainly looking for a way to bring down his old political enemy, Hugh Despenser the Elder, as well as his upstart son, who Lancaster must have viewed as a virtual second-coming of Gaveston. For this reason it came as no surprise that Lancaster hosted a private meeting with the marcher lords and others at Sherburn; the result of this meeting was the creation of an indenture that excused the actions of marcher lords for their attacks on the Despenser lands (claiming that they had done so for the good of the realm) and also condemned the Despensers for misleading the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Many of the proclamations within the indenture were exaggerated or trumped up, but the meeting proved that opposition to this new set of royal favorites was becoming more widespread amongst the nobility. This is proven by the fact that, when Edward sent Bartholomew de Badlesmere (another moderate lord who had worked heavily with the Earl of Hereford to bring about peace between the king and Lancaster in 1318) to Sherburn to negotiate with Lancaster and the marchers, he suddenly, and without warning, defected to the rebel party. This was a major blow to the royal party and represented yet another betrayal that Edward would not take kindly to.
The marcher lords then proceeded to march south and present their primary demand to the king: the unconditional, and permanent, exile of the Despensers. A barrage of charges were levied against the royal favorites (much of which was concentrated on their influence on the king) and, when even the Earl of Pembroke (a staunch royalist) and Queen Isabella agreed that the Despensers needed to go, Edward had no choice but to agree to their exile. Knowing that they faced a very real threat from the marchers, the Despensers had already departed the kingdom even before the sentence of exile was passed against them. However, just as with Gaveston in 1308, Edward almost immediately began to pave the way for their return to England. The king planned to do this by making the actions of Lancaster and the marcher lords appear treasonous. Up to this point, the rebel lords had used “legal” justification to achieve their goals, even unfurling the king’s banners alongside their own to demonstrate that they were acting against the hated royal favorites, not the crown. This all changed when Edward sent Queen Isabella and a small party to attempt to negotiate with the rebels at Bartholomew de Badlesmere’s castle of Leeds. The queen was refused admission and attacked, with several members of her party being killed, providing Edward with ample reason to move against the marchers as traitors to the crown; the king had clearly played his hand skillfully. Leeds castle was besieged by the royal forces and was forced to surrender the following week.
Further justification for the king’s actions were brought about by the fact that the marcher’s refused to surrender the lands they had seized from the Despensers into royal custody. Civil war between the crown and the marcher lords was now inevitable; the campaign began in earnest in December 1321, and the Despensers were recalled the following month after their sentence of exile was declared illegal and invalid. The task was a daunting one for the marchers because Edward still had the support of a majority of the upper nobility – including the Earls of Pembroke, Arundel, Surrey, Richmond and the king’s half-brothers, the Earls of Kent and Norfolk, - as well as most of the English clergy and the city of London. At the mere approach of the royalist forces, the Mortimers (Roger of Chirk and Roger of Wigmore) surrendered and begged the king to pardon them; they were imprisoned in the Tower of London for their troubles.
The remaining rebel marchers (the Earl of Hereford, Roger Damory and Hugh Audley), not wishing to suffer the same fate as the Mortimers, fled north to join the Earl of Lancaster, who had been sitting comfortably at his castle of Pontefract awaiting to see how the rebellion would play out. Lancaster then made the mistake of attacking Tickhill, a royal castle. It is also believed that the earl was forming an alliance with the Scots against the king; these treasonous acts gave Edward all the reasons he needed to take down all of his enemies in one fell swoop. Edward and the royal forces swiftly marched north and began seizing Lancaster’s castles in the region. The end result of this attack was the Battle of Boroughbridge, where the royal army handed the rebels a decisive defeat. Lancaster and most of the other leading figures of the revolt were captured, excepting Roger Damory (who had been mortally wounded at an earlier siege and died soon after) and the Earl of Hereford, who was killed during the battle itself. Soon after his defeat, Lancaster was taken to his own castle of Pontefract, where he was given a show-trial, found guilty of treason and promptly beheaded, ridding Edward of his nearest and dearest enemy.
Over a dozen other barons who had taken part in the rebellion were executed in its aftermath (with Bartholomew de Badlesmere being the most significant), while more than a hundred others were imprisoned or stripped of their lands – or both. Meanwhile, those men who had stayed loyal to the king were graciously rewarded. The Earls of Pembroke, Surrey, Arundel, Kent and others all received substantial landholdings that were confiscated from the rebel lords, and Andrew de Harclay (one of the main commanders at the Battle of Boroughbridge) was created Earl of Carlisle. Unsurprisingly though, it was the Depsensers who were rewarded most of all. The elder Despenser was created Earl of Winchester and granted numerous lands that had belonged to the now-deceased Lancaster. Hugh the Younger not only had all of the lands that the rebel marchers had taken from him returned, but was also granted numerous other lands in the region that had belonged to these rebels, easily making him the most powerful magnate in the Welsh marches (though he was not officially created Earl of Gloucester as many contemporaries undoubtedly thought he would be). Perhaps the most important result of Edward’s triumph against his enemies was the ratification of the Statute of York at the next parliament, which officially revoked the Ordinances that had been a major albatross around the king’s neck for the past ten years. As a sign of good faith, Edward kept some of the clauses within the Ordinances that he felt were less restrictive in effect but, for all intents and purposes, the legacy of the Earl of Lancaster had been wiped out of existence along with the man himself.
With his confidence brimming from his decisive defeat of his enemies at home, Edward felt that the summer of 1322 would be the perfect time to finally extend his military success into Scotland. Just as had been the case for the unsuccessful Scottish campaigns of 1314 and 1319, Edward had little trouble in mustering a sizeable force to invade the land that he so desperately wanted to win back. It was his seeming ineptness as a military commander (combined with a formidable foe in Robert Bruce) that was to, once again, lead him to failure. Edward marched into Scotland with his large army but was unable to draw the Scots onto the battlefield; he was forced to return to England just a month after the pointless campaign was launched. The failure of the English army to inflict any damage on the Scots enabled Robert Bruce to march into England with his own army with the intention of taking King Edward, who was still in the north, captive. Luckily, Edward was warned of Bruce’s plot and was able to send for reinforcements, but this did not prevent the Scottish forces from routing the English at the Battle of Byland. The Earl of Richmond and others were taken captive and Edward and Queen Isabella just barely escaped capture at the hands of the Scots.
This was the king’s third humiliating defeat at the hands of his Scottish enemies, and it appeared that the only viable option at this point was to cut his losses and sue for peace. Edward, however, seemed to be completely oblivious to the reality of the situation, and he remained in the north hoping to conduct yet another march into Scotland. He even had the newly-created Earl of Carlisle executed as a traitor for daring to attempt to negotiate a peace with the Scots. It was not until May 1323 that Edward finally succumbed to repeated entreaties from his advisors and agreed to a thirteen year truce with his enemies (though he still refused to recognize Robert Bruce as King of Scots). The campaign of 1322 was Edward’s last serious attempt to win back the land that his father had twice conquered, and it proved that the Scottish strategy of pillaging northern England to push the English towards a peace settlement was indeed a successful one.
A more serious issue following the royal victory over Lancaster in 1322 was the unimpeded rise of the Despensers, and in particular Hugh the Younger. The younger Despenser held an unprecedented amount of influence over the king and the day-to-day workings of government, and he became one of the wealthiest magnates in the realm through a combination of royal patronage and forceful diplomacy (by forcing a number of powerful lords to forfeit their lands to him). None of this, of course, endeared Despenser to the people of England. To make matters worse, Edward condoned Despenser’s regal ambitions and provided him with free rein to do whatever he pleased. In addition to the seemingly autocratic government of Hugh Despenser the Younger (which was becoming increasingly unpopular as time went by), a further problem existed in the form of the king’s deteriorating relationship with the church, and Edward found it more difficult to convince the Pope to allow him to appoint his own candidates (i.e. his political allies) to vacant bishoprics. Even during the midst of the many conflicts with the nobility throughout his reign, Edward had always seemed to maintain fairly solid support from the church and the papacy. Even this was now whittling away, helping to pave the way for what would be a disastrous end for both the Despensers and for the king himself.
Unsurprisingly, most historians will conclude that the widespread disaffection from the English church, nobility and general populace with the increasingly tyrannical and repressive Despenser regime was the primary factor which ultimately brought about the downfall of Edward II. By no means are they incorrect in coming to this conclusion. Oddly enough though, the catalyst that sparked the series of events that led to the eventual demise of Edward II and his hated favorites came in the form of a little-known and (at the time) relatively minor quarrel in the English-controlled duchy of Gascony that has come to be known as the War of Saint-Sardos. The “war” (if it can indeed even be referred to as such) began in the fall of 1323 when a group of Gascon citizens (who were subjects of the English crown) murdered a French official who had come to mark the creation of a new bastide (a fortified town) near the tiny village of Saint-Sardos. While the foundation of the bastide was the idea of a congregation of monks from a nearby abbey, and therefore did not seem to be an antagonistic act carefully conducted by the French crown, the move was looked at with hostility by the people of Gascony because it placed a French-controlled settlement in the middle of an area that was under the control of the King of England. For obvious reasons, this was seen as unacceptable.
Though Edward himself had no direct involvement in the deed, the French king, Charles IV (Edward’s brother-in-law), was furious when he heard that one of his officials had been murdered in cold blood and wanted retribution. Edward attempted to cool the situation by writing sympathetically to his French counterpart and sending envoys to France to negotiate a peace settlement, but Charles was unreceptive and seemed dead-set on punishing his contumacious vassal – by seizing his lands. The French forces quickly mustered and were able to conquer most of the region known as the Agenais with fairly minimal resistance. This, however, would be the extent of Charles’s military success, and he was not able to gain access into any of the major administrative centers that made up the heart of Gascony (i.e. the major port cities of Bayonne and Bordeaux). Just as quickly and abruptly as it had begun, the War of Saint-Sardos was, for all intents and purposes, at its end.
While the conflict was little more than a tiny blot of ink in the pages of history, it outlined a much more serious source of tension between the Kings of England and France: the English king’s requirement of paying homage for the duchy of Gascony (and also the county of Ponthieu in Edward’s case). As can be imagined, a crowned and anointed monarch having to acknowledge himself as the vassal of any man could be a humiliating process, and yet it needed to be repeated each time a new king ascended the French throne. Since Edward’s accession to the English throne, there had been four different Kings of France: Philip IV and his three sons – Louis X, Philip V and now Charles IV. By the conclusion of the War of Saint-Sardos, Charles IV had been on the throne for over a year and Edward had still not paid him homage (and had made numerous excuses as to why he had not done so). This was the proverbial elephant in the room between the two sovereigns and, even after the initial fighting in the Agenais ceased, it continued to be the primary subject of the peace talks between the rival kingdoms that followed, and Charles IV meant to use the issue to his advantage. These peace negotiations did not come about immediately, as Edward originally planned on leading an army into Gascony in person to take back the Agenais, but cooler heads ultimately prevailed and peace seemed a more sensible alternative to violence. When negotiations for a permanent peace settlement began, many issues were on the bargaining table, but Edward’s homage for Gascony and Ponthieu was certainly the dominant theme.
Negotiations dragged on for months before it was decided that Queen Isabella (the French king’s sister) would travel to France and work out the details of a settlement in her husband’s name. Edward agreed to this proposal and Isabella departed for France in March 1325, never to return to England as a faithful and loving spouse and subject of her husband. When Isabella arrived in France and met with her brother, negotiations began in earnest. After two months of haggling, the two sides came to a preliminary agreement. It was, however, much more beneficial to Charles IV and involved Edward paying restitution to the French crown for expenses accrued in the invasion of Gascony; the unconditional surrender of Gascony and Ponthieu to the French (which would then, in turn, be re-granted to Edward); and Edward must still travel to France in person to pay homage for his lands. In addition, Edward was to remove all of his troops and officials from Gascony, to be replaced by locals who would run the duchy according to its own customs and traditions. This was indeed a tough pill to swallow for a monarch, but Edward was not in a strong bargaining position and was forced to take the deal.
Preparations began for Edward to travel to France and pay homage to Charles IV but were abruptly halted when the former supposedly fell ill. It cannot be definitely concluded that Edward was feigning his sickness to further put off the embarrassing process of acknowledging himself as a vassal of a fellow monarch, but it is certainly a possibility. In addition, it can be surmised that Edward genuinely feared treachery should he travel to France – both in England and on the continent. It must be remembered that Edward’s regime, and the hated favorites that dominated it, were dangerously unpopular at this point, and the king had an increasingly large number of enemies both at home and abroad. Should he leave the kingdom, a civil rebellion or an outside invasion were distinct possibilities. Edward may also have been in danger on the continent, where several of his most loathed enemies were lurking. The most dangerous of these was, by far, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, the powerful marcher lord who had been defeated and imprisoned during the civil war of 1321-22. He had managed to escape his captors and flee to the continent the following year. It appears that Mortimer had originally fled to France but, when Edward insisted that Charles IV could not harbor such a fugitive within his kingdom if he wanted peace negotiations to go smoothly, it appears that he was forced to retreat to the adjacent Low Country territories that were under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Emperor.
For all these reasons and more, Edward was hesitant to leave his own kingdom and travel to what he considered to be a hostile land. Yet, he did not want to continue the conflict with Charles IV. Therefore, what would prove to be a fateful decision was made: Edward would grant Gascony and Ponthieu to his eldest son and heir, Prince Edward, who would then journey to France and pay homage to Charles IV for the lands in place of his father. The French king ultimately agreed to this proposal, and young Edward joined his mother in France in September 1325. That same month he duly paid homage to his uncle, Charles IV, for Gascony and Ponthieu. This brought an end to months of tense negotiations and finally brought about a solid, if uneasy, peace between the kingdoms of England and France. However, events were about to take a dramatic turn.
The month following the performance of homage, King Edward sent an envoy to France to request that Isabella and Prince Edward should return to England at once, being that their task had been completed and there was no further need for them to remain abroad. Isabella promptly refused to return to her husband unless Hugh Despenser the Younger was removed from his position of power and banned from the presence of the king. There was no solid evidence that the queen had planned to take this plan of action from the very beginning of her diplomatic mission to France. What is clear is that Isabella had, like so many others within England, taken a severe dislike to the Despenser regime that was established after Edward’s defeat of the Earl of Lancaster in 1322. Isabella had indeed been neglected since Despenser’s rise to power, and she was not the prepubescent girl, that she was when a similar situation occurred with Gaveston at the beginning of her husband’s reign, who was prepared to sit back idly and obediently. To make matters worse, it was apparent by early 1326 that Isabella was in close personal contact with the rebel marcher Roger Mortimer, and that it was highly possible that they were plotting an invasion of England. It is not known exactly how Mortimer and Isabella met on the continent, nor is it clear how much physical contact that had with one another in England, but it seems obvious that they were united by their intense hatred of the Despensers and their desire to see them violently removed from power.
At some point, Isabella and Mortimer expanded their relationship beyond politics and began an illicit affair. Certain historians will claim that the two had been romantically involved for some years, but there is no real evidence to provide substance to this claim, and it therefore must be concluded that they did not begin their affair until they met on the continent in 1325-26. Whatever the real specifics of the situation may have been, Isabella clearly sympathized with Mortimer after his defeat and imprisonment in 1321-22 (at least to a certain extent) and was seemingly drawn to him five years later not only because they both hated the Despensers, but also because Isabella’s own marriage was in disarray. Altogether, this created a dangerous situation for the welfare of Edward’s regime, as he now knew that his wife, his heir and his greatest enemy were in constant contact and very likely plotting against him and his supporters. Edward’s fears were justified by the fact that some of his most powerful and faithful supporters began to desert his cause and join Isabella. These men (who fought for him in the civil war of 1321-22) included the Earl of Richmond and even the king’s own brother Edmund, Earl of Kent, among others.
Rumors of an invasion of England by Isabella and Mortimer were beginning to surface frequently, and they were not without merit. Isabella most likely attempted to attain aid for an English invasion from her brother initially. However, Charles IV, despite his dislike for Edward II and the Despensers, did not particularly approve of his sister openly carrying out an illicit affair with a fugitive and refusing to return home to her husband. It indeed set a bad precedent on how a queen should conduct herself. Therefore, the next best place to turn to for assistance was the adjacent county of Hainault, where Mortimer had likely spent at least part of his time on the continent after his escape from the Tower of London. Count William of Hainault (who possessed no great love for Edward II) agreed to provide Isabella and Mortimer with ships and troops to invade England in exchange for the betrothal of Prince Edward to one of his own daughters. Isabella readily agreed to this proposal, and the prince and the count’s daughter Philippa were formally betrothed in August 1326. The following month, Isabella, Mortimer, Prince Edward and a relatively small force of disgruntled Englishmen and continental mercenaries set sail for England, and they landed at Orwell in Suffolk soon after.
Edward’s nightmare had become a reality, and he now had to scramble to do whatever he could to save his crumbling regime, even as more and more English magnates began to defect to Isabella’s cause. These noblemen included the king’s other half-brother, Thomas, Earl of Norfolk, as well as Henry, Earl of Leicester, the younger brother of the Earl of Lancaster, and a number of powerful English prelates. As Isabella and her party marched south, they continued to gain support. When the city of London (where Edward was located at the time) heard of the rebels’ arrival in England, they rose in revolt against the king and his favorites. While Edward himself was able to escape in time, a number of his supporters were not so lucky, and fell victim to the bloodthirsty mob. Bishop Walter Stapledon of Exeter, the former treasurer, was savagely beheaded by the insurgents and many prisoners were freed from the Tower as the Londoners engaged in an orgy of plunder and destruction. It appears that the original plan for Edward, the younger Despenser and other royalists was to escape to Ireland to regroup. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, and they were only able to get as far as Wales, which remained relatively loyal to the crown.
Meanwhile, Isabella and Mortimer continued their march through the kingdom, gaining more and more support for their cause along the way. The rebels got their hands on Hugh Despenser the Elder at Bristol Castle and, after a show trial, had him executed as a traitor. In addition, Prince Edward was acknowledged as guardian of the kingdom since his father, the rightful king, had fled. The authority of the regime of Edward II was being dismantled piece by piece. In mid-November 1326, Edward himself was captured in Wales and handed over to the Earl of Leicester; Hugh Despenser the Younger and other of the king’s hated favorites were discovered soon after. Isabella and Mortimer forced Edward to surrender the Great Seal and then began to hand out punishments to all of the favorites. The Earl of Arundel (one of the few earls to remain faithful to Edward II to the end) was beheaded for his loyalty, while Robert Baldock, the former chancellor, was seized by the Londoners and imprisoned; he died miserably several months later.
As can be imagined, the rebels saved most of their hatred for the younger Despenser, the cause of most of their angst and bitterness. Despenser was accused of a plethora of different crimes (most of which involved the encroachment of royal authority) and judged to be a traitor to the crown. In a deliberate display of savagery, Despenser was hanged, drawn and castrated on a specially built, 50-foot gallows at Hereford before being beheaded. It was indeed a fitting death (at least in the opinions of Despenser’s enemies) for a man who had gone far beyond the boundaries of his power as a mere subject. Edward, now at the mercy of his captors, could do nothing whatsoever to help his favorite as he met his gruesome end.
Isabella, Mortimer and the magnates and prelates of England were now forced to make a difficult decision: What should be done with King Edward? Restoring him to power seems to have been completely out of the question. There was no reason to believe that history would not repeat itself and that Edward would gather a new set of favorites at court; he would then proceed to punish those who had rebelled against him, just as he had done with Lancaster and the marcher lords in 1322. Edward had clearly abused his power and was now facing the inevitable and well-deserved consequences. After careful deliberation, it was ultimately decided that the king should abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son and heir, Prince Edward. Articles of deposition were drawn up charging Edward with a whole slew of offenses, including allowing himself to be mislead by false councilors and executing some of the great men of the realm without a proper trial, among many others. Envoys were sent to the captive king to urge him to abdicate the throne peacefully; if he did not do so, both his sons would be disinherited in favor of another candidate. The disinheritance of Edward’s sons, the rightful heirs to the throne, can only be looked at as an empty threat (since is almost certainly would have caused another civil war), but it proved to be an effective strategy, as Edward agreed to give up the crown to his eldest son. On January 25, 1327, the fourteen-year-old prince was proclaimed (and soon after crowned) as King Edward III, effectively ending the disastrous and tragic reign of his father.
Being that the new king was not of age to rule independently, much of the power was to fall onto Mortimer and Isabella, who would rule the kingdom as unofficial regents in young Edward’s name for the next three years. The former King Edward II was now a broken man, but he still commanded sporadic support within the kingdom he had been forced to give up. Two months after his forced abdication, a supposed plot by a small group of Dominican friars to break Edward out of his prison at Kenilworth Castle was discovered. This threat, if it can even be referred to as such, was quickly eliminated, but it forced the old king’s captures to move him to the more secure location of Berkeley Castle, where he was now in the custody of some of Mortimer’s closest supporters. Further plots to rescue the disgraced king inevitably surfaced, and Mortimer began to grow nervous. He knew that his puppet regime could never survive if Edward still lived and breathed, as he could always be used as a rallying cry for any man who became disillusioned with him. Therefore, it cannot be a coincidence that Edward was reported dead at the age of forty-three on September 21, 1327.
Chroniclers of the time offer various ways as to how Edward met his end. Some claim that he died of natural causes or some sort of illness, while others say that his end was hastened by the deep state of depression that he had fallen into since his defeat, capture and deposition. These explanations are merely hypotheses which come off as far too coincidental and convenient. The more likely explanation is that Edward was murdered under direct orders from Mortimer. While some of the contemporary chroniclers will state that Edward was simply suffocated by his assassins, the most famous story of his death involves the culprits thrusting a hot poker into his bowels; this is indeed accepted as fact by many modern historians and most certainly cannot be discounted, as it would have achieved the task of not leaving any visible marks on the king’s body, therefore taking away at least some of suspicion that foul play was involved. Rumors that Edward did not die at Berkeley Castle in September 1327 are unsubstantiated and most likely untrue, as fun as it is to speculate. The death of the former Edward II now made Edward III the undisputed King of England. It is not known as to how he reacted to his father’s tragic, yet unsurprising, demise.
Assessment and Analysis
To say that the reign of King Edward II was a complete disaster would, quite possibly, be one of the biggest understatements that can be made in reference to English history. For centuries, historians have been baffled by the fact that this weak, docile and easily-influenced man could possibly have been the son of Edward I and the father of Edward III, two of the strongest monarchs of the Middle Ages in any kingdom or empire. Edward’s tragic and catastrophic reign being sandwiched in between the impressive reigns of his father and son is indeed an anomaly, but it seems as if there are genuine reasons as to why this is the case.
When we look at the reign of Edward II, we cannot help but be reminded of two other monarchs of the era who are also looked at as some of the weaker rulers of their time: Edward’s grandfather, Henry III, and his great-grandfather, King John. John’s reign would turn out to be unsuccessful because he proved to be unable to handle the vast empire that he was left with (I.e. Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou on the continent) and because he could not seem to get along with the English nobility. Edward also faced similar issues. Instead of taking the council of his magnates, he, in many cases, ignored them, instead choosing to heap patronage on a small group of royal favorites. John was only saved from destruction by his own death (and the accession of his son, Henry III), while Edward was not granted this mercy, and was forced to suffer the full humiliation of deposition and, ultimately, murder. He also proved, like his grandfather, to be no military commander.
In the case of Henry III, he too alienated his magnates, but not until much later in the reign. One of Henry’s biggest disadvantages was the fact that he took the reign at the very young age of nine. This forced him to be dependent on a series of regent/guardians which, in turn, made it so that he was never really completely self-sufficient. In the end, Henry was unable to prevent the outbreak of civil war. It was only due to the strength of his son and heir, the future Edward I, that Henry was able to end his reign peacefully. Edward II also possessed a son with a strong will but, unfortunately, Prince Edward was a mere fourteen years of age when his father was deposed and would not have been in a position to save him. While Edward II did not take the throne at as young an age as his grandfather did, he was still only a man of twenty-three and was clearly in over his head. Edward I became king at the more mature age of thirty-three and was infinitely more qualified.
One of the major reasons that Edward’s reign was not a success was because of his seeming ineptitude as a military commander. While his father’s record in Scotland was far from flawless (he indeed left a very volatile situation in the region to his son), Edward’s was nothing short of horrific. The Battle of Bannockburn was arguably the worst defeat an English army had suffered since the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Subsequent Scottish campaigns in 1319 and 1322 were equally as fruitless. This alone would be enough to doom a regime, or at least discredit it. Luckily, Edward did not face any widespread dissent from Wales, thanks to the fact that his father had pacified the region thoroughly. Even France did not cause any major problems for Edward (at least in comparison to the issues that Edward I had to deal with), thanks in large part to the fact that he was married to a French princess.
In the end, however, it must be concluded that Edward’s biggest flaw was ability to surround himself with the wrong people. While it cannot be said that Edward had no wise councilors in his time, he chose to shower men such as Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger with an unprecedented amount of royal patronage. Both men were married to royal nieces and wealthy heiresses and became powerful magnates in their own right, with Gaveston being created Earl of Cornwall and Despenser gaining a monopoly in the Welsh marches. The king was so close to the men that rumors were floated about that they were involved sexually, and Edward’s gruesome death via red poker was believed to be a further punishment for this relationship. But, speculations about Edward’s homosexuality or bisexuality are mainly without substance and therefore must be taken with a grain of salt. Edward was seemingly just rewarding men he felt were good friends of his and did not think of the consequences. After being taking down to size once after Gaveston’s execution in 1312, it did not seem that Edward learned his lesson. He brought a new group of favorites to court and ended up alienating most of his formerly loyal subjects, including his own wife. Seventy-two years later, his great-grandson, Richard II, would follow suit in an eerily similar fashion.
Edward II must be given credit for a few accomplishments. He proved that, when he put his mind to a task, he could achieve it with swiftness and precision. This is made more than evident by his quashing of Lancaster and the marcher lords in the civil war of 1321-22. Another example would be when Edward Bruce and the Scots were decisively defeated after their unsuccessful attempt to conquer Ireland. It also must be remembered that Edward was left with a very volatile situation in Scotland, and his father had most certainly not left him with anything close to a land at peace. Robert Bruce was a formidable enemy, and that cannot be discounted. The situation in France was also an awkward one, and the fact that Edward owed homage to four different kings during his reign made for a very tense situation. Ironically, it would be the seemingly insignificant War of Saint-Sardos that would put the wheels in motion towards Edward’s downfall and demise. If not for this issue, Isabella and Prince Edward very likely would never have been sent to France to negotiate a truce.
Despite the fact that Edward was dealt a tough deck of cards, it would be a daunting task to make the case that his reign was anything close to a success. He simply did not possess the strong character and leadership qualities of Edward I or Edward III and could certainly not boast of conquering Wales or defeating the Scots at Falkirk as his father had, or winning the glorious Battles of Crecy and Poitiers as his son would go on to do. Edward II was too generous towards his friends and too liberal with his patronage. This was in direct opposition to his predecessor and successor, both of whom were well-known for giving out rewards very sparingly. Perhaps most importantly, Edward could not learn from his mistakes. This would prove to be his biggest flaw. In the end, we as historians seem to have little choice but to acknowledge that Edward II was simply incompetent when it came to choosing friends, taking advice, conducting military operations and running a kingdom. It would be up to his valiant son to return the dignity and prestige to the English throne – both of which Edward II had so carelessly let fall by the wayside.
References & Further Reading
Buck, Mark. Politics, Finance and the Church in the Reign of Edward II
Natalie. The Tyranny and Fall of
Edward II, 1321-1326
Haines, Roy Martin. King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330
Phillips, Seymour. Edward II
Prestwich, Michael. The Three Edwards: War and State in EnglandRaban, Sandra. England Under Edward I and Edward II: War and State in England