Edward II: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Smothered, red hot poker, died- smothered, red hot poker, survived?! Not quite as catchy as the Henry VIII version about his wives is it. Intrigued as to what I’m talking about? If so welcome to episode two of the Plantagenets; the mysterious and potentially brutal death of Edward II.

Crowning of Edward II – image taken from Wikipedia

The life of Edward II is fascinating. Considered one of the worst kings in English history his reign is pretty much disaster after disaster. His reign is characterised by his bad choice in friends, friends who influenced his decisions and alienated him from his barons. His barons then revolted and restricted his power- not good. To top it off, he had to deal with Robert the Bruce and the Scottish revolt, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn. The Scottish wiped the floor with him and he was rapidly defeated. Edward II was considered weak, easily influenced and was just pretty useless. He was outshone by his wife Isabella the She Wolf of France, (we shall come back to her very soon!) who invaded England with her lover Roger Mortimer and Edward II eventually gave up the throne.

Depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn- image taken from Wikipedia

There is so much that can be written about Edward II and his reign that I could put here but I won’t because I could go on for ages! Instead, I’ve decided to focus on his death which quite frankly, is pretty weird.

Following his not very voluntary abdication (he was crying as he signed the documents), Edward II was placed in custody in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It’s not very clear how well he was cared for in captivity but we do know that there were multiple plots to free Edward II and as such he was moved around to various locations. However by the end of 1327 he was back in Berkeley Castle. By the 23rd of September however Edward II was dead, dying in the night on the 21st. However No one really knows how he died, or if he even died on that night. Here are some of the wild theories surrounding his death.

15th Century depiction of Isabella capturing Edward II. Image taken from Wikipedia

Theory number one: Edward II was murdered. Having a spare king lying about would always be problematic as plots to reinstate him would always be lingering below the surface. Solution: murder. Pretty easy right? Some theories say he was suffocated or strangled but a more gruesome one exists. Some say Edward was murdered by having a red-hot poker inserted – yep you guessed it- into his anus which ruptured his internal organs and burned him from the inside out. The sexuality of Edward II has been subject to much debate with many believing his close relationships with friends such as Pier Gaveston to be sexual. The rumour that he died in such a manner plays up to rumours surrounding his homosexuality, however this story is probably just that- a myth.

Theory number two: Edward II wasn’t murdered and was set free! This is an interesting one and is based around a letter called the Fieschi Letter. This letter was sent to Edward III claiming that his father Edward II escaped from imprisonment and fled to the Holy Roman Empire. The letters are often compared with an account of a man called William the Welshman in Antwerp who claimed he met a man in 1338 who said he was Edward II. Whilst some of the letter is considered to be historically accurate- other parts aren’t and so the plausibility of whether Edward did survive is questionable.

Theory number three: Edward II died of natural causes. The most boring theory by far, but it could have happened. Placed in questionable conditions with even more questionable food- imprisonment could have caused a rapid decline in his health leading to his sudden death in 1327.

The sudden death of Edward II has led historians for years to believe that he was in fact murdered by agents of his ex wife Isabella, freeing the throne for her and Mortimer. The circumstances surrounding his death however have faded into myth and legend. Murdered, escaped or death by natural causes?

You decide!

Bibliography

Doherty, Paul (2004). Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. London, UK: Robinson.

Haines, Roy Martin (2003). King Edward II: His Life, his Reign and its Aftermath, 1284–1330. Montreal, Canada

Mortimer, Ian (2005). “The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle”. English Historical Review.

Mortimer, Ian (2006). “Sermons of Sodomy: A Reconsideration of Edward II’s Sodomitical Reputation”. In Dodd, Gwilym; Musson, Anthony (eds.). The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives. Woodbridge, UK: York Medieval Press.

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