Ultimately a failure as a king, Edward II spent the majority of his reign battling with the baronial lords of the time who constantly rebelled and sought to gain power over the king and control of the country. Edward II incurred large debts during his years as King and oversaw the Scots’ famous victory at Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce. Criticized for his habit of taking close personal friends and lavishly bestowing them with titles and wealth, Edward was constantly at odds with his nobles. Betrayed by his wife, in politics and matrimony, Edward was forced to renounce his throne to his son before dying a sad death while held captive at Berkeley Castle.
- Edward II was born on the 25th of April 1284 at Caernarvon.
- He succeeded to the English throne on 7th July 1307, aged 23 and became the King of England, Overlord of Ireland and Scotland and Duke of Aquitaine.
- Edward II was married in 1308 to Isabella of France, daughter of King Philip IV. Isabella was nicknamed the She-Wolf and after 19 years of marriage was instrumental in having Edward deposed and killed.
- Following his abdication from the throne and ten months of imprisonment, Edward II was killed on 22nd September 1327.
The fourth son of King Edward I and his first wife Eleanor of Castile, Edward II endured a childhood marked by loss. Eleanor of Castile was separated from Edward through the majority of his childhood and died when he was just six years old following an extended illness. Edward I was fighting in three countries over the next few years of young Edward’s life. When Edward I remarried he focussed his time on his new family and rarely saw his other sons.
Raised by a dedicated Royal Household, Edward was given a religious education by Dominican friars. Edward enjoyed horse-riding and music but was criticized for his regular association with laborers and other members of the lower-class. An image of Edward as a somewhat shallow and irresponsible person took seed during his childhood years and set him on a course of hostility with his court that he would struggle with for the rest of his life.
During 1297 and 1298, Edward II was left as the acting regent of England while his father fought a campaign in Flanders against the French King Philip IV. As part of a peace treaty, Edward was betrothed to Isabella, King Phillip’s daughter who was then only seven years old. Edward was taken to Scotland with his father in 1300 to command a division and was declared the Prince of Wales in 1301. The young prince was being groomed for a future as King.
According to some historians, the single most significant person in Edward’s life was not his father, his wife or his priest but his childhood playmate Piers Gaveston. Piers was the son of a noble knight from Gascony and was brought to Edward’s household as a companion to for the young prince. Edward’s life was filled with Gaveston, and contemporary chroniclers of royal lives have launched in-depth investigations into whether or not the pair were intimate. The details of the relationship remain unclear but in 1306 Gaveston was knighted by King Edward I a few days after the Feast of Swans before being promptly exiled by him in 1307.
Just one month after his father’s death the newly crowned Edward II brought Galveston back from exile and made him the Earl of Cornwall, a title generally reserved for the royal family and married him to the wealthiest lady in the land, Margaret de Clare. As if that wasn’t enough, Edward appointed Gaveston regent of England while he went to France for his wedding to 16-year-old Isabella of France. None of this was well-received by the English aristocracy. In fact, the special treatment given to young Galveston was so badly received by the aristocracy that Edward’s own Council launched a revolt.
Thomas of Lancaster, a Marcher Lord who was in the enviable position of being a cousin to both the King and his new queen as well as holding five powerful earldoms, led the revolt against Edward. Within a year of his accession, Edward was forced by his Council to take the Earldom of Cornwall back from Gaveston and again sent him into exile. In response, Edward appointed Gaveston as his Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a move that further enraged the Barons.
Within one year Gaveston had returned to Edward’s court thanks to Edward’s efforts that involved a complicated game of favors that involved the Pope and the monarchy of France. When Gaveston’s influence over government and excessive spending of the country’s revenue got too much for the Barons, they forced the appointing of 21 Lord Ordainers who took over the management of the economy.
Tensions between the unpopular king and the barons remained high, and the earls opposed to the king, led by the powerful and wealthy Earl of Lancaster, kept their personal armies mobilized. In 1312 the barons had Galveston excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and seized him following a short siege. Accused of being a traitor, Gaveston was executed.
The storm clouds parted for just a moment to welcome Edward and Isabella’s first child into the world, a son who would go on to become Edward III, but soon things got even worse for the unhappy king. In 1314, seven years into his reign Edward came up against Robert the Bruce in the Battle of Bannockburn and suffered a defeat that gained Scotland its independence. It would take three centuries for the English to recover this loss and the huge debts left by Edward’s Scottish campaign made him even more unpopular with the people.
In the tense time that followed the loss of Scotland, Lancaster was able to insert himself as the leader of the Lord Ordainers, effectively the leader of the formal government of England. Excluded and despised Edward turned to his friends, most notably the Lord le Depenser and his son, who he pampered with favors and titles, just as he had pampered Gaveston.
The Earl of Lancaster and Roger de Mortimer, Earl of March formed a powerful enough alliance to wage war with the king and a civil war ensued. The le Depensers were banished, but Edward managed to capture both Lancaster and Mortimer. Lancaster was executed, and Mortimer was held in the Tower of London. By now it was known to all that Edward’s wife Isabella was having an affair with Mortimer. In 1323, Isabella took matters into her own hands, contriving Mortimer’s escape from the Tower into France and following with her son Edward III, heir to the English throne.
In September 1326, the ambitious trio landed in Suffolk with an army and declared the young prince-governor of the country. With no army and no support from his people Edward II was easily captured, his companions the le Depensers were hanged, and he was imprisoned in Kenilworth to await his fate. After being forced to abdicate by a representative delegation of barons, clergy and knights who agreed that Edward II was unfit to lead the country, his son Edward III was proclaimed King of England at Westminster Abbey on 20 January 1327.
Conveniently, Edward II died in custody on 21st September. Little is known about the circumstances of his death, but it is thought that Mortimer likely arranged for his murder. Mortimer’s dominance did not last long, however. He and Isabella soon fell out of favor with the populace as they amassed and spent a huge fortune and in 1330, King Edward III initiated a coup d’etat, arresting and executing Mortimer on charges of treason. But that’s the story of a different king.
King Edward II’s legacy is not a particularly glorious one. Unpopular with his baronial lords, his court and his people, Edward’s reign was primarily spent avoiding his duties and king and buying the affection of his so-called ‘favourites.’ A dismal reign, Edward’s time on the throne saw English defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. Much writing on Edward II following his death has focussed on his relationship with Piers Gaveston and alluding to his possible homosexuality. An unpopular and inadequate king, Edward II was nonetheless a source of fascination, particularly to the Victorians who learned about his life from the likes of Charles Dickens and Charles Knight.
Film and TV
- Braveheart (1995)
- Marlowe (1991)
- Edward II (1991)
- Edward II (1970) (TV Movie)
- Edward II (1982) (TV Movie)
- Mortimer, Ian, and Warner, Kathryn (2015) Edward II: The Unconventional King
- Jones, Dan (2013) The Plantagenets
- Phillips, Seymour (2011) Edward II (The English Monarchs Series)
- Doherty, Paul (2004). Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
- Haines, Roy Martin (2003). King Edward II: His Life, his Reign, and its Aftermath
- Merritt, Stephanie (2002) Gaveston (fiction)
- Hunt, Chris (1992) Gaveston (fiction)
- Pentford, John (1984) The Gascon (fiction)
Locations to Visit
- Caerphilly Castle, the place Edward II spent his last weeks in hiding.
- Warwick Castle, the location where Piers Gaveston was tried and killed.
- Bannockburn, the place England was defeated by the Scots under Robert the Bruce during Edward II’s reign.
- Edward II’s place of death, Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, UK
- Edward II’s place of burial, Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucestershire, UK.