Edward II and the Fieschi Letter

Edward II

Of Edward II’s life, much is known. Born at Caernarfon Castle in 1284, the prince accompanied his father on many of the Scottish campaigns throughout his late teens and early twenties, leading to his being knighted in 1306 before taking the throne a year later. On marrying Isabella, daughter of Phillip IV of France, in 1308 as part of an attempt to calm the rift between the two nations, much was expected of Longshanks’s successor. Yet any chance that England might have enjoyed a continuation of his father’s dominance was plagued by regular run-ins with his barons.

Of Edward’s performance and personality, most notably his sexuality, the debate has been ongoing since his coronation. His fathering of four children with Isabella, in addition to a lack of personal accusation by his rivals, suggests he was unlikely to have been gay, even if he was bisexual. What cannot be disputed, however, is that his tendency to promote personal favourites like Piers Gaveston to roles of prominence proved a cause of great political unrest. Eventually this resulted in a series of reforms, most notably the Ordinances of 1311, which further curbed the king’s absolute authority.

Though success in achieving the new legislation and the execution of Gaveston a year later was undoubtedly viewed with much initial optimism by the barons, sadly for Edward the worst times remained ahead of him. His crippling defeat by Robert the Bruce in 1314, despite a numerically superior English force, saw a drastic shift in the war with Scotland, following which widespread famine further tested the patience of his people. Even after Gaveston’s death, his willingness to empower personal favourites remained, resulting in the rise of the Despenser family, who in time would take their rightful place among history’s controversial figures.

Despite initial success revoking the reforms of 1311, his uneasy truce with Scotland saw opposition to his regime intensify significantly. When his furious queen allied herself with the exiled baron Roger Mortimer, the writing for Edward was on the wall. As his government collapsed, he fled into Wales, where he was eventually captured and forced to abdicate in January 1327. According to most contemporary chroniclers, he died eight months later at Berkeley Castle, be it of a grief-stricken illness or a painful murder.

However, in recent times, much of this has been brought into question.