If you know a bit of English history, you know Edward II. He was the king who was killed by a red-hot poker being shoved up his behind. (Note: that almost certainly didn’t happen.) He was a tyrant, he abused his power and was ultimately punished for it when his wife returned from the continent with an army of mercenaries. His regime fell like a house of cards: most of the country’s sheriffs refused to raise troops in his name. He fled to the Welsh Marches, the lands of his hated ally, Hugh Despenser, and was captured weeks later.
History hasn’t been kind to Edward.
But in my view, he’s one of the most fascinating monarchs in English history. We know more about his personality than many other medieval kings: we know, for instance, that he seems to have disliked being king. He loved the common people more than the barons: he would frequently go rowing in the Thames with the common men, swimming and working alongside them. He’d have long conversations with fishermen and builders, and would go out of his way to oversee construction personally so he could be involved. There’s one account of him working alongside other labourers, in the heat of a particularly brutal summer, helping to dig a ditch – and even going to fetch water for the other men.
By all accounts, he was a fine specimen – tall, handsome and muscular, people were excited at the start of his reign because he looked the very portrait of a king. He was also good at public speaking, when he put his mind to it, able to sway parliament to his will and speak passionately.
And in the summer of 1313, he saved his wife Isabella from a burning pavillion. You can find the full story here (and this blog is wonderful for all things Edward II).
They were in France, June 1313, visiting the king – who was Isabella’s father. The trip lasted twenty days, and by accounts from the time, it was very indulgent – with the king paying for naked dancers, musical performers and lavish amounts of food and drink. One night, Isabella and Edward were sleeping in a silk pavillion when it caught fire.
Isabella tried to save some of her belongings, suffering severe burns in the process. The king – fully naked, according to an eyewitness – scooped her up and carried her outside, before going back to rescue others (presumably their royal retinue). She was still being treated for burns months later, but she’d survived.
And the chronicler who tells us about it, Geoffrey of Paris, was very impressed by the king’s bravery, saying he acted out of love.
There’s no disputing it, Edward was a terrible king. But he had his moments.