Monday, October 27, 2014

Edward II, the Unconventional King

 I’m delighted to bring Rooting For Ancestors readers a guest post by Kathryn Warner, medieval historian and author. I’ve been reading her Edward II blog since at least 2007, and we interact frequently on Facebook. I and many others have urged Kathryn, who holds a BA and an MA with Distinction in Medieval History and Literature, to write books, a history like this one, and/or historical fiction based on fact. Finally, she has done so. The book has the endorsement and foreword of historian Dr. Ian Mortimer, and Kathryn has commented in BBC programs.

If you have traced your ancestors back to European medieval aristocracy and royalty, you are almost certainly descended from Edward III, king of England, who reigned during the Black Death and 100 Years War with France. He has literally millions of descendants. And who was Edward III’s father? Edward II. Who’s your daddy? This guy!

Edward II, the Unconventional King
© 2014 Kathryn Warner

King Edward II was born in Caernarfon, North Wales on 25 April 1284, the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, in the twelfth year of his father's reign as king of England. He was at least the fourteenth and perhaps the sixteenth, and youngest, child of Edward I and his first, Spanish queen Eleanor of Castile. 

Five of his older sisters, Eleanor, Joan, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth, also survived into adulthood, but his three older brothers John, Henry and Alfonso and at least five other older sisters died young. Edward II was the first of three kings of England to be born in Wales (the others were Henry V in 1386 and Henry VII in 1457), and is one of only two English monarchs in history (the other being Mary I, born in 1516) with a Spanish parent. His much younger half-brothers Thomas of Brotherton, earl of Norfolk, and Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, were born in 1300 and 1301, the only surviving children of Edward I and his second queen Marguerite of France. Edmund of Woodstock was, via his daughter Joan, the grandfather of Richard II, who was also Edward II's great-grandson.

Edward II's maternal grandfather was a Spanish saint and warrior: the great King Fernando III of Castile and Leon, later canonised as San Fernando and made patron saint of the city of Seville, which he had recaptured during the Reconquista of Andalusia in 1248. Leonor or Eleanor of Castile, the twelfth of Fernando's fifteen children, married the future Edward I of England in 1254 when she was twelve or thirteen and he fifteen. Edward II's paternal grandfather was Henry III, king of England from 1216 to 1272, the son of King John of Magna Carta fame. Edward II took after this grandfather far more than Fernando or his father Edward I in many ways - reliance on favourites, military incompetence - and suffered the price for his ineptitude as a leader when he was forced in January 1327 to abdicate his throne to his fourteen-year-old son Edward III, who reigned for fifty years and began the Hundred Years War with France.

Edward II alabaster effigy
in Gloucester Cathedral
Edward II was most unconventional for his time, and to the disgust of many of his contemporaries, thoroughly enjoyed the company of his low-born subjects and taking part in their activities such as digging ditches, thatching roofs and shoeing horses. Contrary to the common modern image of him as seen in Braveheart and much historical fiction, he was tall, well-built, fit, healthy and enormously strong: "physically he was one of the strongest men of his realm," said one chronicler, and many observers wrote much the same thing.

Edward II succeeded to the English throne on 7 July 1307, when he was twenty-three, on the death of sixty-eight-year-old Edward I. He was left an extremely difficult legacy by his mighty father: restless magnates, hostile relations with France, vast debts and an unwinnable war in Scotland, and sadly for his kingdom, he was not the man to be able to cope with such issues. His reign of nineteen and a half years lurched from one crisis to the next, with civil war constantly threatening to break out and Edward's infuriated magnates threatening him with deposition.

Edward II is perhaps best known for his love of and reliance on male 'favourites,' most famously Piers Gaveston, whom Edward made earl of Cornwall and who was executed by some of the English earls, including Edward II's first cousin and greatest enemy, the earl of Lancaster, in June 1312. The king's reliance on his last and most powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, was to bring both of them down, when they alienated Edward's queen, Isabella of France, daughter of Philip IV, whom Edward had married in 1308. Despenser was grotesquely executed in November 1326, while Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire and in January 1327 forced to give up his throne to his son Edward III.

Stained glass in Gloucester
Cathedral, of Edward III
ordering a memorial tomb
for his father, Edward II.
Mystery surrounds Edward's death at Berkeley Castle in September 1327, and although popular legend has it that he died screaming, impaled on a red-hot poker, much evidence exists to demonstrate that many influential people, including several earls, the archbishop of York and the mayor of London, strongly believed that he was still alive years afterwards, perhaps in Italy. Whatever happened to the king - and it is entirely typical of this most unconventional of men that we don't know for certain when, where or how he died - the tomb built for him at Gloucester Cathedral still exists and remains one of the greatest glories of medieval England.

He is one of the most reviled English kings in history. He drove his kingdom to the brink of civil war a dozen times in less than twenty years. He allowed his male lovers to rule the kingdom. He led a great army to the most ignominious military defeat in English history. His wife took a lover and invaded his kingdom, and he ended his reign wandering around Wales with a handful of followers, pursued by an army. He was the first king of England forced to abdicate his throne. Popular legend has it that he died screaming, impaled on a red-hot poker, but in fact the time and place of his death are shrouded in mystery. His life reads like an Elizabethan tragedy, full of passionate doomed love, bloody revenge, jealousy, hatred, vindictiveness and obsession.

He was Edward II, and this book tells his story. The focus here is on his relationships with his male ‘favourites’ and his disaffected wife, on his unorthodox lifestyle and hobbies, and on the mystery surrounding his death. Using almost exclusively fourteenth-century sources and Edward’s own letters and speeches wherever possible, Kathryn Warner strips away the myths which have been created about him over the centuries, and provides a far more accurate and vivid picture of him than has previously been seen.

The hardcover book is available October 28, 2014, on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository, The Guardian Bookshop or directly from the publisher, Amberley.

1 comment:

  1. I'm always interested to read about Edward's Spanish family connections.


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