Unreliable evidence

Berkeley Castle from an old print
The courtyard of Berkeley Castle from a lithotint of the 1840s (public domain)

Paul Doherty
Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
Robinson 2004 (2003)

On the one and only time I visited Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, way back in the sixties, the chamber where Edward II was reputedly murdered was billed as a highlight of the tour. Later, as a student at Southampton University in 1969, I remember Ian McKellen playing Edward II in Marlowe’s play of the same name, raising shocked intakes of breath as he entered planting a kiss on the lips of the King’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

The notorious manner of the king’s death — “by a red hot poker being thrust up into his bowels” according to the contemporary Swynbroke chronicle — often overshadows the complicated life and reign of Edward. Paul Doherty’s study promised a new look not only at Edward but also at Isabella, the wife he was betrothed to when both were still young.

Edward was the only surviving legitimate son of Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. Born in 1284 at Caernarfon Castle (thus supposedly meriting the title Prince of Wales) he seemed singularly unsuited to ruling, preferring, as Doherty tells us, “hunting, horses and music”. Subjected to dynastic politicking and match-making between Philip the Fair of France and the English king, on the death of his father the young king resisted marrying the French princess Isabella as long as he could. But while he fathered four children in relatively quick succession, not to mention at least one illegitimate son, Edward’s real interest was his favourite Piers Gaveston, the son of a Gascon landowner. In 1307 he succeeded to the throne, but Gaveston’s speedy advancement (a commoner made Earl of Cornwall?!) excited resentment from the nobility and he was judicially murdered in 1312, the same year as the birth of Edward’s legitimate son, the future Edward III.

1314 was an eventful year. The downfall of the Knights Templar order in France, instigated by Isabella’s father Philip IV, was eventually followed by their dissolution in England — though in a less brutal fashion — but the French king didn’t savour his triumph for long, dying within the year. Isabella, on a state visit to the land of her birth, did not endear herself to her compatriots by unwittingly exposing her three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip as cuckolds. Back in Britain Edward, no credit to his militarist father, oversaw the worst ever English defeat since the battle of Hastings when the Scottish decisively crushed his army at Bannockburn. Edward’s star, never much in the ascendant, continued to slide until he found a new ‘favourite’, the younger Hugh de Spencer in 1320.

Isabella’s position at Edward’s side was now severely compromised, and the couple drifted apart, a situation strengthened by overt antagonism between the Queen and Spencer; that uneasiness was matched by growing unrest in England directed against Spencer’s rapaciousness and Edward’s incompetence. Isabella travelled to France in 1325 to negotiate rapprochement between England and France. Here she was joined by Welsh magnate Roger Mortimer, who had escaped from the Tower of London after falling foul of Spencer in 1322, and the pair plotted a return to England to counter the unpopular rule of Edward and his favourite. Crossing the Channel, they quickly garnered public support; Edward and Spencer fled to South Wales where they were eventually captured. The hated Spencer suffered a particularly barbaric execution and Edward was imprisoned, first at Kenilworth, eventually at Berkeley in Gloucestershire. Forced to abdicate (as effectively happened to another Edward in 1936) he was succeeded by his son, with Isabella and her probable lover Mortimer holding the real reins of power.

And it is here that, traditionally, the life of Edward came to an end on September 21st. Officially he died from grief, but various contemporary or near contemporary stories suggested general ill-treatment or suffocation as cause of death, not to forget that poker as an appropriate instrument of death for a suspected sodomite. But, as Doherty points out, there are far too many inconsistent facts and testimonies to be certain that any of this is true. There is every likelihood that a rescue attempt by a ‘gang’ from the English Midlands led by the Dunheved brothers was successful, and that the King escaped, spent time in secret in Corfe Castle and then went into self-imposed exile as an anonymous hermit in Europe. A curious letter, written around 1340 by Manuel Fieschi to Edward III, claimed that this Italian cleric had actually met the disguised ex-king, with much that was circumstantial but also including information suggesting insider knowledge.

Corfe Castle from an old postcard
Corfe Castle from an old postcard

How it was that a body was produced, embalmed and given a right royal burial in Gloucester Cathedral just before Christmas three months later without substitution being suspected might seem incredible to anyone who is not into conspiracy theory but Doherty makes it seem possible, even if he doesn’t necessarily totally endorse it. However, another historian, an academic called Ian Mortimer also published a work along the same lines as Doherty’s in the same year (The Greatest Traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330) but more strongly espousing the theory of Edward’s survival; and these two writers’ work on the faked death was endorsed by Alison Weir two years later in her Isabella: She-wolf of France, Queen of England.

And Isabella? She and her own favourite Mortimer began to act as outrageously as Edward had with his favourites and soon lost any sympathy that she might have elicited for the cruel treatment she had latterly received before the Edward’s defeat. In 1330 the young king Edward II asserted his authority: Mortimer was seized and executed and Isabella the she-wolf or ‘iron virago’ — exonerated by her son from any wrongdoing, all attributed to Mortimer — finally took a back seat, surviving in comfort until 1358.

Doherty’s book is furnished with a full panoply of notes and sources, and tells an exciting tale of everyday intrigue and violence among upper class folk. Not being too familiar with this period meant some detailed note-taking for me but there is little here that would be incomprehensible to the general reader. I do have some criticisms though, many to be laid at the door of the publisher rather than the author personally I suspect. First, genealogical trees would have helped to clarify relationships, and a couple of maps wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Some basic errors should have been picked up between the hardback and paperback editions, for example France’s ‘western’ borders extending to the Rhine (‘eastern’ is clearly meant), while Brittany is misspelled (both these on page 12); Gaveston was actually married to Margaret de Clare not her mother, Joan of Gloucester (page 50); the river Gesota is interpreted as the Usk on page 186 but the Wye on 194 (the latter is correct); and Howel ap Griffith (that is, Howel son of Griffith) is incorrectly called by his father’s name — only applicable if ap Griffith was anglicised as Griffiths, a practice that was not adopted for at least another couple of centuries.

But credit where it’s due, my eyes were certainly opened by this study. Doherty ends by admitting that “the true fate of Edward II can only be a matter of speculation. However, there is considerable evidence that the corpse in the lead coffin beneath the beautiful Purbeck marble sarcophagus in St Peter’s at Gloucester is not Edward II’s.” Ian Mortimer goes further in pointing to the unreliability of contemporary testimony: “It is still possible to believe that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle. It is still possible to believe that the world is flat and that Father Christmas exists. But to state that we can rely on the bulk of the evidence for the death is like saying we can be sure that most people believe in Father Christmas because the weight of evidence – so many Christmas cards depicting him – outweigh the statements of disbelief.”

Marlowe’s dramatisation of Edward’s gruesome death is certainly memorable. But I know what I’d rather believe.

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3 thoughts on “Unreliable evidence

    1. I agree, Col — perhaps she was nice to her son, reading him bedtime stories about King Arthur (her favourite genre, apparently), and young Edward forgave her for that?! More realistically, he must have been more astute politically than his father and realised the importance of stability in magnaminity over the turmoil of vindictiveness.

  1. Pingback: Sculpture: Queen Isabella | My New Shy

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