Checked content

Edward II of England

Background to the schools Wikipedia

This Wikipedia selection is available offline from SOS Children for distribution in the developing world. All children available for child sponsorship from SOS Children are looked after in a family home by the charity. Read more...

Edward II
Edward II, depicted in Cassell's History of England, published circa 1902
King of England (more...)
Reign 7 July 1307 – 25 January 1327 (700119000000000000019 years, 7002202000000000000202 days)
Coronation 25 February 1308
Predecessor Edward I
Successor Edward III
Consort Isabella of France
Edward III of England
John, Earl of Cornwall
Eleanor, Countess of Guelders
Joan, Queen of Scots
House House of Plantagenet
Father Edward I of England
Mother Eleanor of Castile
Burial Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire

Edward II (25 April 1284 – 21 September 1327(?)), called Edward of Caernarfon, was King of England from 1307 until he was deposed by his wife Isabella in January 1327. He was the seventh Plantagenet king, in a line that began with the reign of Henry II. Interspersed between the strong reigns of his father Edward I and son Edward III, the reign of Edward II was disastrous for England, marked by incompetence, political squabbling and military defeats.

Widely rumoured to have been either homosexual or bisexual, Edward fathered at least five children by two women. His inability to deny even the most grandiose favours to his male favourites (first a Gascon knight named Piers Gaveston, later a young English lord named Hugh Despenser) led to constant political unrest and his eventual deposition.

Edward I had pacified Gwynedd and some other parts of Wales and the Scottish lowlands, but never exerted a comprehensive conquest. However the army of Edward II was devastatingly defeated at Bannockburn, freeing Scotland from English control and allowing Scottish forces to raid unchecked throughout the north of England.

In addition to these disasters, Edward II is remembered for his probable death in Berkeley Castle, allegedly by murder, and for being the first monarch to establish colleges in the now widely-noted universities of Oxford and Cambridge, specifically Oriel College at Oxford and King's Hall, a predecessor of Trinity College, at Cambridge.

Prince of Wales

The fourth son of Edward I by his first wife Eleanor of Castile, Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle. He was the first English prince to hold the title Prince of Wales, which was formalised by the Parliament of Lincoln of 7 February 1301.

Shield as heir-apparent

The story that his father presented Edward II as a newborn to the Welsh as their future native prince did not appear until the 16th century. The Welsh purportedly asked the King to give them a prince who spoke Welsh, and, the story goes, he answered he would give them a prince that spoke no English at all. This was no great concession as the Plantaganets spoke Norman French rather than English.

Edward became heir apparent at just a few months of age, following the death of his elder brother Alphonso. His father, a notable military leader, trained his heir in warfare and statecraft starting in his childhood, yet the young Edward preferred boating and craftwork, activities considered beneath kings at the time.

The prince took part in several Scots campaigns, but despite these martial engagements, "all his father's efforts could not prevent his acquiring the habits of extravagance and frivolity which he retained all through his life".

The king attributed his son’s preferences to his strong attachment to Piers Gaveston, a Gascon knight, and Edward I exiled Gaveston from court after Prince Edward attempted to bestow on his friend a title reserved for royalty. Ironically, it was the king who had originally chosen Gaveston in 1298 to be a suitable friend for his son due to his wit, courtesy and abilities.

Edward I knighted his son in a major ceremony in 1306 called the Feast of the Swans whereby all present swore to continue the war in Scotland.

King of England

Edward I died on 7 July 1307 en route to another campaign against the Scots, a war that became the hallmark of his reign. One chronicler relates that Edward had requested his son "boil his body, extract the bones and carry them with the army until the Scots had been subdued." His son ignored the request, however, and had his father buried in Westminster Abbey. Edward II immediately recalled Gaveston, created him Earl of Cornwall, gave him the hand of the king's niece, Margaret of Gloucester, and withdrew from the Scottish campaign.

Edward's Coat of Arms as King

Edward was as physically impressive as his father, yet he lacked the drive and ambition of his forebear. It was written that Edward II was "the first king after the Conquest who was not a man of business". His main interest was in entertainment, though he also took pleasure in athletics and mechanical crafts. He had been so dominated by his father that he had little confidence in himself, and was often in the hands of a court favourite with a stronger will than his own.

On 25 January 1308, Edward married Isabella of France, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, known as "Philip the Fair," and sister to three French kings, in an attempt to bolster an alliance with France. On 25 February the pair were crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The marriage, however, was doomed to failure almost from the beginning. Isabella was frequently neglected by her husband, who spent much of his time conspiring with his favourites regarding how to limit the powers of the Peerage in order to consolidate his father's legacy for himself.

Nevertheless, their marriage produced two sons, Edward, who would succeed his father on the throne as Edward III, and John of Eltham (later created Earl of Cornwall), and two daughters, Eleanor and Joanna, wife of David II of Scotland. Edward had also fathered at least one illegitimate son, Adam FitzRoy, who accompanied his father in the Scottish campaigns of 1322 and died shortly afterwards.

War with the Barons

In 1308 Edward travelled to Boulogne to marry Isabella, leaving Gaveston to act as regent. It was here that the first discontent with the new king's rule found expression, through the so-called Boulogne agreement. As the resentment against Edward's rule and Gaveston's position of power grew, some barons began to insist Gaveston be banished, through the Ordinances of 1311. Edward recalled his friend, but could do little to prevent Gaveston being captured in 1312 under the orders of the Earl of Lancaster and his allies, who claimed that he had led the king to folly. He was captured first by the Earl of Warwick, whom he was seen to have offended, and handed over to two Welshmen. They took him to Blacklow Hill and murdered him; one ran him through the heart with his sword and the other beheaded him. A monument called Gaveston's Cross remains on the site, south of Leek Wootton near Warwick.

Edward's grief over the death of Gaveston was profound. He kept the remains of his body close to him for a number of weeks before the Church forcibly arranged a burial. Immediately following this, Edward focused on the destruction of those who had betrayed him, while the barons themselves lost impetus (with Gaveston dead, they saw little need to continue). By mid-July, Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke was advising the king to make war on the barons who, unwilling to risk their lives, entered negotiations in September 1312. In October, the Earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Arundel and Hereford were forced to beg Edward's pardon.

Edward and Piers Gaveston

Several contemporary sources criticised Edward's seeming infatuation with Piers Gaveston, to the extent that he ignored and humiliated his wife. Chroniclers called the relationship excessive, immoderate, beyond measure and reason and criticised his desire for wicked and forbidden sex. The Westminster chronicler claimed that Gaveston had led Edward to reject the sweet embraces of his wife; while the Meaux Chronicle (written several decades later) took concern further and complained that, Edward took too much delight in sodomy. While such sources do not, in themselves, prove that Edward and Gaveston were lovers, they at least show that some contemporaries and later writers thought strongly that this might be the case.

Gaveston was considered to be athletic and handsome; he was a few years older than Edward and had seen military service in Flanders before becoming Edward's close companion. He was known to have a quick, biting wit, and his fortunes continued to ascend as Edward obtained more honours for him, including the Earldom of Cornwall. Earlier, Edward I had attempted to control the situation by exiling Gaveston from England. However, upon the elder king's death in 1307, Edward II immediately recalled him. Isabella's marriage to Edward subsequently took place in 1308. Almost immediately, she wrote to her father, Philip the Fair, complaining of Edward's behaviour.

Although the relationship that developed between the two young men was certainly very close, its exact nature is impossible to determine. The relationship may have had a sexual element, though the evidence for this is not conclusive. Both Edward and Gaveston married early in the reign. There were children from both marriages - Edward also had an illegitimate son, Adam. While some of the chroniclers' remarks can be interpreted simply as homosexuality or bisexuality, too many of them are either much later in date or the product of hostility. It has also been plausibly argued that the two men may have entered into a bond of adoptive brotherhood.

The relationship was later explored in a play by the dramatist Christopher Marlowe. This is unusual in making explicit reference to an open sexual relationship between king and favourite. More frequently the nature of the relationship between the two is only hinted at, or is cited as a dreadful example of the fate that may befall kings who allow themselves to be influenced by favourites, and so become estranged from their subjects.

Defeat in Scotland

Robert the Bruce had been steadily reconquering Scotland. Each campaign begun by Edward, from 1307 to 1314, had ended in Robert clawing back more of the land that Edward I had taken during his long reign. Robert's military successes against Edward II were due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the Scottish king's strategy. He used small forces to trap an invading English army, took castles by stealth to preserve his troops and he used the land as a weapon against Edward by attacking quickly and then disappearing into the hills instead of facing the superior numbers of the English.

Bruce united Scotland against its common enemy and is quoted as saying that he feared more the dead king's bones (Edward I) than his living heir (Edward II). By June 1314, only Stirling Castle and Berwick remained under English control.

On 23 June 1314, Edward and an army of 20,000 foot soldiers and 3,000 cavalry faced Robert and his army of foot soldiers and farmers wielding 14-foot-long pikes. Edward knew he had to keep the critical stronghold of Stirling Castle if there was to be any chance for English military success. The castle, however, was under a constant state of siege, and the English commander, Sir Phillip de Mowbray, had advised Edward that he would surrender the castle to the Scots unless Edward arrived by 24 June 1314, to relieve the siege. Edward could not afford to lose his last forward castle in Scotland. He decided therefore to gamble his entire army to break the siege and force the Scots to a final battle by putting its army into the field.

However, Edward had made a serious mistake in thinking his vastly superior numbers alone would provide enough of a tactical advantage to defeat the Scots. Robert not only had the advantage of prior warning, as he knew the actual day that Edward would come north and fight, he also had the time to choose the field of battle most advantageous to the Scots and their style of combat.

As Edward moved forward on the main road to Stirling, Robert placed his army on either side of the road north, one in the dense woods and the other placed on a bend on the river, a spot hard for the invading army to see. Robert also ordered his men to dig potholes and cover them with bracken in order to help break any cavalry charge.

By contrast, Edward did not issue his writs of service, calling upon 21,540 men, until 27 May 1314. Worse, his army was ill-disciplined and had seen little success in eight years of campaigns. On the eve of battle, he decided to move his entire army at night and placed it in a marshy area, with its cavalry laid out in nine squadrons in front of the foot soldiers. The following battle, the Battle of Bannockburn, is considered by contemporary scholars to be the worst defeat sustained by the English since the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Reign of the Despensers

Following Gaveston's death, the king increased favour to his nephew-by-marriage (who was also Gaveston's brother-in-law), Hugh Despenser the Younger. But, as with Gaveston, the barons were indignant at the privileges Edward lavished upon the Despenser father and son, especially when the younger Despenser began in 1318 to strive to procure for himself the earldom of Gloucester and its associated lands.

Westminster Hall

By 1320, the situation in England was again becoming dangerously unstable. Edward had been challenged by John Deydras, a royal pretender; although Deydras was ultimately executed, the rumours surrounding the case highlighted Edward's unpopularity. Edward ignored the law in favour of Despenser: when Lord de Braose of Gower sold his title to his son-in-law, an action entirely lawful in the Welsh Marches, Despenser demanded the king grant Gower to him instead. The king, against all laws, then confiscated Gower from the purchaser and offered it to Despenser; in so doing, he provoked the fury of most of the barons. In 1321, the Earl of Hereford, along with the Earl of Lancaster and others, took up arms against the Despenser family, and the King was forced into an agreement with the barons.

On 14 August at Westminster Hall, accompanied by the Earls of Pembroke and Richmond, the king declared the Despenser father and son both banished.

The victory of the barons proved their undoing. With the removal of the Despensers, many nobles, regardless of previous affiliation, now attempted to move into the vacuum left by the two. Hoping to win Edward's favour, these nobles were willing to aid the king in his revenge against the barons and thus increase their own wealth and power. In following campaigns, many of the king's opponents were murdered, the Earl of Lancaster being beheaded in the presence of Edward himself.

With all opposition crushed, the king and the Despensers were left the unquestioned masters of England. At the York Parliament of 1322, Edward issued a statute which revoked all previous ordinances designed to limit his power and to prevent any further encroachment upon it. The king would no longer be subject to the will of Parliament, and the Lords, Prelates, and Commons were to suffer his will in silence. Opposition to Edward and the Despensers rule continued; in 1324 there was a foiled assassination attempt on their lives, and in early 1325 John of Nottingham was placed on trial for involvement in a plot to kill them with magic.

Isabella leaves England

A dispute between France and England then broke out over Edward's refusal to pay homage to the French king for the territory of Gascony. After several bungled attempts to regain the territory, Edward sent his wife, Isabella, to negotiate peace terms. Overjoyed, Isabella arrived in France in March 1325. She was now able to visit her family and native land as well as escape the Despensers and the king, all of whom she now detested.

On 31 May 1325, Isabella agreed to a peace treaty, favouring France and requiring Edward to pay homage in France to her brother, King Charles; but Edward decided instead to send his son to pay homage. This proved a gross tactical error, and helped to bring about the ruin of both Edward and the Despensers, as Isabella, now that she had her son with her, declared that she would not return to England until Despenser was removed.

Invasion by Isabella and Mortimer

When Isabella's retinue - loyal to Edward, and ordered back to England by Isabella - returned to the English Court on 23 December, they brought further shocking news for the king: Isabella had formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer in Paris and they were now plotting an invasion of England.

Isabella, third from left, with her father, Philip IV, her future French king brothers, and King Philip's brother Charles of Valois

Edward prepared for the invasion but was betrayed by those close to him: his son refused to leave his mother - claiming he wanted to remain with her during her unease and unhappiness. Edward's half-brother, the Earl of Kent, married Mortimer's cousin, Margaret Wake; other nobles, such as John de Cromwell and the Earl of Richmond, also chose to remain with Mortimer.

In September 1326, Mortimer and Isabella invaded England. Edward was amazed by their small numbers of soldiers, and immediately attempted to levy an immense army to crush them. However, a large number of men refused to fight Mortimer and the Queen; Henry of Lancaster, for example, was not even summoned by the king, and he showed his loyalties by raising an army, seizing a cache of Despenser treasure from Leicester Abbey, and marching south to join Mortimer.

The invasion soon had too much force and support to be stemmed. As a result, the army the king had ordered failed to emerge and both Edward and the Despensers were left isolated. They abandoned London on 2 October, leaving the city to fall into disorder.

On 15 October a London mob seized and beheaded without trial John le Marshal (a Londoner accused of being a spy for the Despensers) and Edward II's Treasurer, Walter de Stapledon Bishop of Exeter, together with two of the bishop's squires. The king first took refuge in Gloucester (where he arrived on 9 October) and then fled to South Wales in order to make a defence in Despenser's lands. However, Edward was unable to rally an army, and on 31 October, he was abandoned by his servants, leaving him with only the younger Despenser and a few retainers.

On 27 October, the elder Despenser was accused of encouraging the illegal government of his son, enriching himself at the expense of others, despoiling the Church, and taking part in the illegal execution of the Earl of Lancaster. He was hanged and beheaded at the Bristol Gallows. Henry of Lancaster was then sent to Wales in order to fetch the King and the younger Despenser; on 16 November he with Welsh rebels caught Edward, Despenser and their soldiers in the open country near Tonyrefail, where a plaque now commemorates the event. Edward Longshanks' so called conquest of Wales with his Welsh allies had been short lived, the armed Welsh were in permanent rebellion and Wales was in turmoil throughout the 14th century. Edward Caernarvon was, unlike his father, well liked in Wales. He and the soldiers were released and Despenser was sent to Isabella at Hereford whilst the king was taken by Lancaster himself to Kenilworth.

End of the Despensers

Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger

Reprisals against Edward's allies began immediately thereafter. The Earl of Arundel, Sir Edmund Fitz Alan, an old enemy of Roger Mortimer, was beheaded on 17 November, together with two of the earl's retainers, John Daniel and Thomas de Micheldever. This was followed by the trial and execution of Despenser on 24 November.

Hugh Despenser the younger was brutally executed and a huge crowd gathered in anticipation at seeing him die — a public spectacle for public entertainment. They dragged him from his horse, stripped him, and scrawled Biblical verses against corruption and arrogance on his skin. They then dragged him into the city, presenting him (in the market square) to Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer, and the Lancastrians. He was then condemned to hang as a thief, be castrated, and then to be drawn and quartered as a traitor, his quarters to be dispersed throughout England. Despenser's vassal Simon of Reading was also hanged next to him, on charges of insulting Queen Isabella.

Edward II's Chancellor, Robert Baldock, was placed under house arrest in London, but a London mob broke into the house, severely beat him, and threw him into Newgate Prison, where he was murdered by some of the inmates.


With the King imprisoned, Mortimer and the Queen faced the problem of what to do with him. The simplest solution would be execution: his titles would then pass to Edward of Windsor, whom Isabella could control, while it would also prevent the possibility of his being restored.

Execution would require the King to be tried and convicted of treason: and while most Lords agreed that Edward had failed to show due attention to his country, several Prelates argued that, appointed by God, the King could not be legally deposed or executed; if this happened, they said, God would punish the country. Thus, at first, it was decided to have Edward imprisoned for life instead.

However, the fact remained that the legality of power still lay with the King. Isabella had been given the Great Seal, and was using it to rule in the names of the King, herself, and their son as appropriate; nonetheless, these actions were illegal, and could at any moment be challenged.

In these circumstances, Parliament chose to act as an authority above the King. Representatives of the House of Commons were summoned, and debates began. The Archbishop of York, William Melton and others declared themselves fearful of the London mob, loyal to Roger Mortimer. Others wanted the King to speak in Parliament and openly abdicate, rather than be deposed by the Queen and her General. Mortimer responded by commanding the Lord Mayor of London, Richard de Betoyne, to write to Parliament, asking them to go to the Guildhall to swear an oath to protect the Queen and Prince Edward, and to depose the King. Mortimer then called the great lords to a secret meeting that night, at which they gave their unanimous support to the deposition of the King.

Eventually Parliament agreed to remove the King. However, for all that Parliament had agreed that the King should no longer rule, they had not deposed him. Rather, their decision made, Edward was asked to accept it.

Kenilworth Castle's keep from the south

On 20 January 1327, Edward II was informed at Kenilworth Castle of the charges brought against him: The King was guilty of incompetence; allowing others to govern him to the detriment of the people and Church; not listening to good advice and pursuing occupations unbecoming to a monarch; having lost Scotland and lands in Gascony and Ireland through failure of effective governance; damaging the Church, and imprisoning its representatives; allowing nobles to be killed, disinherited, imprisoned and exiled; failing to ensure fair justice, instead governing for profit and allowing others to do likewise; and of fleeing in the company of a notorious enemy of the realm, leaving it without government, and thereby losing the faith and trust of his people.

Edward, profoundly shocked by this judgment, wept while listening. He was then offered a choice: he might abdicate in favour of his son; or he might resist, and relinquish the throne to one not of royal blood, but experienced in government—this, presumably, being Roger Mortimer. The King, lamenting that his people had so hated his rule, agreed that if the people would accept his son, he would abdicate in his favour. The lords, through the person of Sir William Trussel, then renounced their homage to him, and the reign of Edward II ended.

The abdication was announced and recorded in London on 24 January 1327, and the following day was proclaimed the first of the reign of Edward III—who, at 14, was still controlled by Isabella and Mortimer. Edward II remained imprisoned.


The government of Isabella and Mortimer was so precarious that they dared not leave the deposed king in the hands of their political enemies. On 3 April, Edward II was removed from Kenilworth and entrusted to the custody of two subordinates of Mortimer, then later imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where, it was generally believed, he was murdered by an agent of Isabella and Mortimer on 11 October 1327.

On the night of 11 October while lying on a bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress... weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber's iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his anus so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines. — Thomas de la Moore.

De la Moore's account of Edward's murder was not written until after 1352 and is uncorroborated by other contemporary sources. No-one writing in the 14th century knew exactly what had happened to Edward. The closest chronicler to the scene in time and distance, Adam Murimuth, stated that it was 'popularly rumoured' that he had been suffocated. The Lichfield chronicle, equally reflecting local opinion, stated that he had been strangled. Most chronicles did not offer a cause of death other than natural causes. Not until the relevant sections of the longer Brut chronicle were composed by a Lancastrian (anti-Mortimer) polemicist in the mid-1430s was the story of a copper rod in the anus widely circulated. Nevertheless a public funeral was held, attended by Isabella, after which Edward's body was lain in Gloucester Cathedral. An elaborate tomb was set up by his son which attracted pilgrims from far and wide.

Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

Ian Mortimer has put forward the argument that Edward II was not killed at Berkeley but was still alive at least until 1330. In his biography of Edward III he explores the implications of this, using evidence including the Fieschi Letter, concluding Edward II may have died in Italy around 1341. In her biography of Isabella, Alison Weir also considers the Fieschi Letter narrative - that Edward escaped imprisonment and lived the rest of his life in exile. Other historians, however, including David Carpenter have criticised Mortimer's methodology and disagree with his conclusions.

Following the public announcement of the king's death, the rule of Isabella and Mortimer did not last long. They made peace with the Scots in the Treaty of Northampton, but this move was highly unpopular. Consequently, when Edward III came of age in 1330, he executed Roger Mortimer on fourteen charges of treason, most significantly the murder of Edward II (thereby removing any public doubt about his father's survival). Edward III spared his mother and gave her a generous allowance, but ensured that she retired from public life for several years. She died at Hertford on 23 August 1358.

Edward in popular culture

Edward II of England has been portrayed in popular culture a number of times. The most famous fictional account of Edward II's reign is Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II (c. 1592). It depicts Edward's reign as a single narrative, and does not include Bannockburn.

In 1991 English filmmaker Derek Jarman adapted the Christopher Marlowe play into a film featuring Tilda Swinton, Steven Waddington, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry, and Annie Lennox. The film specifically portrays a homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston.

Edward II was portrayed as an effeminate homosexual in Braveheart. Edward II's death and sexuality are mentioned a number of times in Michael Crichton's novel Timeline

A major new biography of Edward II by Seymour Phillips was published in 2010.


Titles, styles, honours and arms

Retrieved from ""