The Story of Piers Gaveston

There was once a king of England called Edward II. I’ve talked about him a lot before, but here are some things you ought to know about him.

They thought he’d be a good king. He looked the part and he spoke well. Chroniclers say he was great at persuading people to his side, that he had a way with words which often won Parliament back to his side when things were rough. He was good at wooing people and making friends (though sometimes he’d say one thing to someone’s face and the opposite to someone else in order to please both.)

But he didn’t enjoy being king. He’d much rather have been out in the countryside, pursuing his unusual hobbies (like digging and building.) When he did turn his mind to politics, he depended on his favourite, Piers Gaveston.

Edward and Gaveston became good friends before Edward became king. They fought together and were part of the same household during the English campaigns in Scotland: battling the enemy together made them fast friends. Gaveston was part of Edward’s plans from the start.

By many accounts, Gaveston was the force behind Edward’s reign: he was frequently left in charge of the country when the king was absent, and was his lieutenant in Ireland for a while. He had a strong influence on the king personally: Edward would consult him on nearly every decision he made. They were almost inseparable.

The people of the realm didn’t like it. The St Paul’s annalist wrote that there were “two kings in one kingdom, one in name and the other in deed,” while the Vita Edwardi Secundi called Gaveston a “second king.”

Why did they hate him so much? Because he was from outside the traditional establishment. He wasn’t a member of the powerful noble families. Edward tried to fix this by giving him Cornwall (traditionally belonging to the royal family) and by marrying him to Margaret de Clare, sister of the Earl of Gloucester, one of the most powerful magnates in England. But this only further annoyed the barons, who thought Gaveston was raised well above his station. No man should have had such influence over the king, let alone someone from outside the clique.

But they would probably have tolerated it if Gaveston wasn’t such an a**hole. He milked his position for all it was worth. He gave the barons insulting nicknames, badmouthed them behind their backs, and – according to the Polistorie of Christ Church – forced the earls to get on their knees in order to speak with him. In short, he was an arrogant outsider, who used his goodwill with the king to get away with things he shouldn’t. He hid behind the king when his actions caught up with him, which only made his behaviour worse.

What happened to Gaveston?

One baron, Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (who incidentally owned Barnard Castle at the time) decided he’d had enough of him.

His soldiers circled his manor in the early hours of the morning and forced him out. Still in his bedclothes, they herded him down the road with their hounds, horses and hunting horns, treating him like an animal. When they reached Warwick castle, they gave him a mock trial, dragged him out into the wilderness and beheaded him. His body lay there for days, until some monks took pity on him and brought it to Oxford. He was finally buried three years later.

Eventually, after obsessing over another favourite, Edward embarked on a disastrous experiment of self-rule. He was so despised that when his wife came from the continent with a hired army to depose him, hardly anyone raised a finger in his defence.

(Incidentally, the second favourite was hanged from a 50ft frame, then cut into small pieces and scattered across the country.)

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