Edward the Second
Kings and Queens, Princesses and Princes,
Fairy Stories for children and for grown-ups,
But this is no fairy tale,
This is the story of a reign gone wrong:
King Edward the Second, most foul murdered,
So-say, on our Berkeley Castle doorstep,
Screams, they say, heard for twenty miles,
His cortege stopping at Standish en route
For a regal entombment at Gloucester …
This Gothick tale is not made for the Age of Enlightenment –
Oh, go away, Tom Paine with your Reason:
‘When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are easily poisoned by importance, and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions’ …
Let’s keep the fairy tale going if we can –
Oh, but how much do you loathe and detest
Tales like The Princess and the Pea and their ilk?
And by all The Rights of Man and Woman,
A simple question to ask of pomp and circumstance:
Why do monarchs wear crowns upon their heads?
I suppose head-dresses, wreaths, crowns and the like
Signify ‘otherness’, legitimacy, immortality,
And yet, let’s be honest with ourselves,
People look slightly strange in a crown –
We wear paper hats at Christmas Dinner,
And laugh at ourselves in an echo
Of the World Turned Upside Down,
And the Twelfth Night’s Lord of Misrule,
But we also laugh at ourselves because we look comic:
You look weird in a crown, be it paper
Or heavy with gold and wrought with jewels …
But on to Edward the Second at Gloucester,
And a popular history paperback,
Edward the Second The Unconventional King
(Kathryn Warner) –
The foreword by Ian Mortimer
Offers some interesting observations
About monarchy, but not, perhaps,
In the way that the writer intended,
But what do you make of all of this?
‘Primogeniture was a cruel method of selecting a king’ …
‘Edward is … a member of a … select group: a king whose failings were more important than his successes in the history of the realm … William the Second, whose tyranny … paved the way for Henry the First’s charter of liberties – the first time a King of England was formally bound to the law. There is the even more notable example of King John, without whose ineptitude there would have been no Magna Carta. The divisive rule of his son, Henry the Third, led to the establishment of the English parliament. And it was the reign of Edward the Second that brought to the fore the radical notion that Englishmen owed their loyalty to the Crown itself, not the wearer. Even more importantly, Edward the Second’s enforced abdication demonstrated that there were limits to the inviolable status of an anointed hereditary monarch. From 1327, if a King of England broke his coronation oaths, he could be dethroned by his subjects acting in parliament …’
How do you parse or deconstruct that?
‘When government was vested in a single individual, its failings were almost entirely personal … Edward the Second’s short temper, his overbearing pride, and his refusal to compromise … he was always trying to have things both ways: to have the dignity and power of a King and yet at the same time the freedom of the common man – to dig ditches, go swimming [ and thatching, rowing boats and driving carts] and to give lavish gifts to his friends, if he felt like doing so. The result was the almost inevitable alienation of the nobility, who expected a man to be one thing or the other; either a properly regal King or a plain commoner …’
“I greatly lament that I have so utterly failed my people,
but I could not be other than I am.”
“He forsook the company of Lords, and fraternized with harlots, singers, actors, carters, ditchers, oarsmen, sailors and others who practice the mechanical arts”; And as regards Piers Gaveston – this example of how Edward “run to Piers among them, giving him kisses and repeated embraces; he was adored with a singular familiarity, already known to the magnates, furnished fuel to their jealousy” gives a flavour.
But then, in the words of Kathryn Warner:
‘The men who had heaved a sigh of relief at the death of Piers Gaveston now realized, to their horror, that Edward had replaced him with a man who was far worse and far more dangerous. Scalacronica says, “the great men had ill will against him [Edward] for his cruelty and the debauched life which he led, and on account of the said Hugh, whom at that time he loved and entirely trusted.”’ When Hugh Despenser was eventually hanged, drawn and quartered, his genitals were cut off too, “because,” Froissart said, “he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen.”
In conclusion, parse these words of Kathryn Warner:
‘He was not an evil man or one who set out to make anyone suffer; it was his misfortune and his kingdom’s that he was born into a hereditary monarchy and had no other choice than to succeed his father.’
And the tale of his murder?
Apocryphal or a poker-full?
And the tale of his escape from Berkeley,
Some other man murdered and placed in the coffin,
An impostor entombed at Gloucester,
Apocryphal or a poker-full?
Anno Domini 1327