The end of Edward II

Edward of Carnarvon, first Prince of Wales, crowned king Edward II of England on the 25th February 1308, twice defeated by Robert the Bruce of Scotland found himself in the September of 1326 faced with an invasion led by his wife Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer. Within a month his government had collapsed and Edward was forced to flee the country.

On the 16th November 1326 Edward II was captured in south Wales by Henry of Lancaster and taken to Henry's stronghold of Kenilworth Castle. Later forced to abdicated his throne on the 20th January 1327 Edward was formally deposed on the 25th January and replaced with his young son Edward III, although the real power lay with Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer soon to be Earl of March. Edward remained at Kenilworth under the care of Henry of Lancaster until the 3rd of April when he was secretly removed on the orders of Isabella and Roger and was eventually taken to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. There the former king was placed in the custody of Thomas de Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley and owner of Berkeley Castle, and his brother-in-law John Mautravers, 1st Baron Mautravers.

We know that there were at least two attempts made to rescue Edward whilst he was held at Berkeley. The first was by a Dominican friar named Thomas Dunheved (the king's former confessor) acting together with his brother Stephen and a group of fellow conspirators from the Warwickshire area. The Dunheved gang had already stirred up trouble in Cirencester and Chester and sometime in July 1327 they launched a raid on Berkeley Castle and freed Edward.

On the 1st August 1327 Thomas de Berkeley was authorised to hunt down the king and his rescuers and by the 20th had both arrested a member of the gang named William Aylmer at Oxford and recaptured the former king and returned him to Berkeley Castle. Aylmer was later acquitted and released, leading to a suspicion that he traded his own life for those of his fellow conspirators, as with the exception of Stephen Dunheved they were all soon captured. It is known that Thomas Dunheved died of goal fever at Newgate but all the others simply disappeared, presumed to have been quietly executed.

A second attempt was apparently being organised by Rhys ap Gruffudd, who according to the later testimony of Hywel ap Gruffudd was acting with the agreement of "certain great lords of England". This particular attempt was frustrated when a certain William Shalford betrayed the details to Roger Mortimer. Mortimer then sent a William Ockle to Berkeley Castle to sort out the problem of Edward II once and for all. It was now September and as Thomas de Berkeley had been called away, and it was Ockle and a Thomas Gourney who were placed in charge of the former king, acting together with a gentleman named Simon Bereford. It is these men who are believed to have carried out Mortimer's instructions to end the life of Edward II.

A public announcement was made on the 28th September to the effect that Edward of Carnarvon, former king of England had died of natural causes on the feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, which is to say the 21st September 1327. Edward's body remained at Berkeley until the 21st October when he was handed over to the abbot of St Peters Abbey in Gloucester (now Gloucester Cathedral and buried there in December. His son Edward III later erected a magnificent tomb at the abbey in remembrance of his father. This soon became the focus of a minor cult, particularly for many of the Welsh who made the pilgrimage across the border to pay their respects to their Prince of Wales; the chronicler Thomas Walsingham was moved to comment on the "the remarkable way in which he was revered by the Welsh"

When Roger Mortimer was later ousted from power in the coup of October 1330 he was accused of the king's murder and found guilty by 'common knowledge' and executed for treason at Tyburn on the 29th November 1330. Simon Bereford was also executed alongside Mortimer but Thomas de Berkeley escaped any punishment arguing that he was absent from the castle and knew nothing of the fate of Edward II. The other three men implicated fled abroad although they were convicted and sentenced to death in absentia. Warrants were issued for their arrest; Thomas Gourney was captured at Naples in 1333 but died in custody before he could be repariated whilst William Ockle simply disappeared. John Mautravers was eventually pardoned and returned to England.

Two interesting questions however remain regarding the death of Edward II; firstly regarding the exact manner of his death and secondly whether he died at all in 1327.

How exactly did Edward II die?

The only actual contemporary account of Edward's death that makes any reference to this question was the work of Adam of Murimuth who simply says that the king was suffocated by Thomas Gourney and John Mautravers and dates the deed to the 22nd September. However the more famous version, the one that everybody believes, first appeared in the set of chronicles known as The Brut which tells us that;

when that night the king had gone to bed and was asleep, the traitors, against their homage and their fealty, went quietly into his chamber and laid a large table on his stomach and with other men's help pressed him down. At this he woke and in fear of his life, turned himself upside down. The tyrants, false traitors, then took a horn and put it into his fundament as deep as they could, and took a pit of burning copper, and put it through the horn into his body, and oftentimes rolled therewith his bowels, and so they killed their lord and nothing was perceived.

This is the origin of the story that Edward II died from having a red hot poker inserted into his rectum and that he was killed in this manner in order that "no appearance of any wound or hurt outwardly might be once perceived". A tale that was elaborated on and repeated by later chroniclers such as Ralph Holinshead and Thomas More. But death by anal insertion does not appear to have been a common method of medieval execution and it seems a rather over-complicated method of killing someone just to avoid leaving any obvious signs of the crime when a simple suffocation would have done just as well.

It is also worth noting that kings at the time were routinely embalmed, that is eviscerated and wrapped in cerecloth as soon as practicable after death, as indeed was the case with Edward II. Indeed as far as Edward was concerned his body was placed in one coffin of lead inside another of wood and it is therefore difficult to see how it would have mattered one way or another how he was killed, as no one would have been any the wiser in the circumstances.

The largely unquestioned acceptance of the traditional story may well be influenced by the perceived connection between the manner of Edward's death and his alleged homosexuality. Although it should be noted that the exact nature of Edward's relationship with Piers Gaveston remains a matter of debate and that the king's homosexuality or bisexuality is a supposition rather than a fact.

It would seem most likely that Edward died by suffocation.

Whether Edward died at all

Of course his half brother Edmund of Woodstock, later had reason to believe that Edward was still alive and being held at Corfe Castle, although it is now clear that this belief was largely the deliberate product of a campaign of disinformation by agents of Roger Mortimer seeking to entrap him. (Successfully as it turned out.)

Part from that particular incident, everyone seems to have accepted that Edward II had indeed died at Berkeley Castle in 1327. Indeed there was no particular reason to doubt the story until the emergence of what is known as the Fieschi letter or the `Confession of Edward II' was first published in 1878. This document was a letter written by a Manuele de Fieschi, Bishop of Vicelli to Edward III which had remained unknown for centuries until it was discovered by a Frenchman named Alexandre Germain as he was trawling through some ecclesiastical archives.

The Fieschi letter alleged the following course of events; that Edward II was transferred from Berkeley Castle to Corfe Castle where he was held for a year and a half, and then crossed into Ireland, where he remained for the next nine months. Edward next disguised himself as a hermit, returned to England and took ship to the continent where he travelled across France to Avignon where he was received by the pope. After further travels across France and Germany he then settled in Milan which is where he came to the attention of Manuele de Fieschi.

Two recently books have sought to re-ignite the controversy both alleging, for different reasons that Edward II did not die at Berkeley in the September of 1327.

The first by Ian Mortimer believes the Fieschi letter to be genuine and cites the meeting between Edward III and the enigmatic William the Welshman (who apparently claimed to be Edward II) as further evidence of Edward's survival. The second by Paul Doherty carries out a fairly comprehensive demolition of the Fieschi letter and makes the convincing argument that Fieschi simply made the whole thing up in an attempt to extract a promise of ecclesiastical preferment from the king. (And further argues that William the Welshman was none other than William Ockle.) Despite this he remains of the opinion that Edward escaped death although he takes the more practical view that Edward was simply not recaptured after the Dunheved rescue and that he succeeded in eluding the new government and thus made his escape and simply faded from view.

One is therefore tempted to conclude that the Fieschi letter is unlikely to be genuine but that the essentially secretive arrangements that were made regarding Edward's death leaves open the possibility that it was some unfortunate stooge that ended up in his grave rather than the king himself. It is however worth pointing out that it makes no difference either way; Edward the man might have survived but Edward the king most certainly died in September 1327.


SOURCES

  • Paul Doherty Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II(Robinson 2004)
  • Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (Plimlico 2004)
  • T. F. Tout The History Of England From The Accession Of Henry III To The Death Of Edward III (1216-1317) (Longmans Green and Co. 1905)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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