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Friday, September 22, 2023

Depicting the real Edward II

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Edward II (born 1284, king of England 1307-1327) appears in the perennially popular Mel Gibson vehicle Braveheart (1995) as the camp, fey, feeble prince whose gorgeous but unfulfilled French wife Isabella cuckolds him with the manly hero Sir William Wallace, whom the film presents as the real father of Edward’s son. (In fact, Wallace was executed by Edward I on 23 August 1305; Isabella of France arrived in England on 7 February 1308 and never met her husband’s father; Isabella and Edward II’s eldest child Edward III was born on 13 November 1312.) Edward II also appears in the recent Hollywood film The Outlaw King, in which Chris Pine plays Robert Bruce, who became King Robert I of Scotland in 1306 and who defeated Edward at the battle of Bannockburn near Stirling Castle in June 1314. In this film, Edward is depicted as a raving, screaming, self-pitying psychopath sporting an anachronistic fifteenth-century pudding bowl haircut.


What was Edward II really like? Well, nothing whatsoever like the way he is depicted in these two films, for a start. Here’s some information about the real man.


Half a dozen contemporary or near-contemporary chroniclers described Edward’s appearance, and they all say the same thing: he was tall, handsome and enormously strong. One of his own clerks – who often criticized his behaviour and stated in c. 1313 that the king had done ‘nothing praiseworthy or memorable’ – wrote the Vita Edwardi Secundi, ‘The Life of Edward II’. In it, he described Edward as ‘tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man.’ When Edward’s son the future King Edward III was born in November 1312, the same writer expressed a wish that the boy would grow up to ‘remind us of the physical strength and comeliness of his father.’ The Scalacronica by Sir Thomas Gray, whose father of the same name was captured fighting for Edward II at Bannockburn, says that Edward ‘was one of the strongest men in his realm,’ the Anonimalle calls him ‘a handsome man, strong of body and limb,’ and the Polychronicon states that he was ‘fair of body and great of strength.’ The Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon continues the theme, calling him ‘elegant, of outstanding strength.’ The popular modern notion that Edward II was feeble and camp is based solely on prejudice and stereotype, because Edward was a lover of men (he spent most of his life from his mid-teens until his deposition in early 1327 at the age of forty-two infatuated with one man or another).


Edward was hugely unconventional by the standards of his own era. It was usual for royal and noble men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to take part in jousting, but there is no evidence that Edward ever participated. Although he did, conventionally, enjoy hunting, he far preferred indulging in what his rather horrified contemporaries sneered at as ‘rustic pursuits’. The Lanercost chronicler wrote ‘From his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king.’ As well as digging, thatching and driving carts, Edward loved building walls, swimming, hedging, working with wrought iron and shoeing horses, and not only did he enjoy such hobbies, he did them well: the Scalacronica calls him ‘very skillful in what he delighted to employ his hands upon.’ The king’s willingness to ‘give himself up always to improper works and occupations’ was deemed important enough to be mentioned at his deposition in early 1327 as one of the reasons for his unsuitability to continue to be king, not only because such occupations were considered incompatible with his royal dignity, but because they led him ‘to neglect the business of his kingdom.’



Edward’s own accounts of the 1320s bear out the chroniclers’ tales. In August 1326, he was staying at his Wiltshire palace of Clarendon near Salisbury, and hired a group of men to dig ditches and make hedges around his park there. The king himself grabbed a spade and joined in: he jumped down into the trench and worked alongside a man called Gibbe. Also in the summer of 1326, the king watched a group of men clean the ditches around his Westminster cottage of Burgundy, and in September that year, popped into the forge at Portchester in Hampshire to watch two blacksmiths making nails for one of his ships. He not only took pleasure in performing manual labor himself, he enjoyed watching others do so. Edward also liked fishing, and in 1324 went out onto the lake at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire with the local fisherman Jack Bere and seven others. On another occasion, the king went out fishing by himself on the River Medway at Tonbridge in Kent. In the autumn of 1315, Edward took a month’s holiday, and went swimming and rowing in the Fens with ‘a great company of common people.’ During the hot summer of 1326, he went swimming again in the River Thames. This was centuries before swimming, and spending time near water, became common pastimes.


Edward II was a particularly approachable person who took a keen interest in the lives of his subjects. He sometimes sailed along the River Thames in an open boat, chatting to people who came down to the riverbank to greet him, and encouraged them to tell him about their lives. The parker of Cold Kennington told the king in July 1326 that he was currently repairing his house and Edward gave him five shillings to help with the costs, and Robyn atte Hethe told Edward that he was ill. Will the gardener of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire came a hundred miles south to ask the king’s advice on some unstated business, and Denise, wife of a sailor called Will Pouche, went to Edward to complain that her husband had a mistress and was ignoring her. There are countless similar examples. Edward II was very much a king with the common touch, and although this would surely be applauded nowadays in our much more egalitarian era, in the fourteenth century such behaviour attracted scathing criticism from chroniclers. He was very much a man born out of his time.

Guest post by Kathryn Warner Edward II specialist.

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