The Two Deaths of Edward II

The information used here comes from this post by Dr Ian Mortimer on Edward’s death. It’s worth noting that I’m not totally convinced by the argument, and that the debate over Edward II’s death is still unsettled, with Edward II scholars coming to vastly different conclusions on the same evidence. But the argument is one that’s worth exploring, at any rate.

Officially, Edward II died today 693 years ago – 21st September 1327.

It’s a story well-known by history buffs and private schoolboys: he died in captivity in Berkley Castle, where a red-hot poker was shoved up his arse – apparently as a crude reference to the fact that he might have been homosexual. (Which is a whole other debate I could get into, but don’t have room for here.)

We can disregard the poker story immediately, because it didn’t develop until years after his death. Writing right after the event, he was described as having died from a ‘grief-induced illness.’ After 1330, chroniclers begin to say that he was murdered, but it’s not until 1340 that the story of the metal insertion develops – beginning as a copper rod and ending as an iron poker. These were almost certainly based on rumour and hearsay, no doubt following a whirlwind of gossip amongst the general population – a natural response, when the monarch who you’ve known for 20 years suddenly dies following imprisonment.

But there are other rumours that Edward didn’t die at Berkeley at all. And for these, evidence exists to back them up.

First, it’s easy to be convinced by the volume of evidence that Edward died in 1327. All the contemporary chronicles use that date, and it’s used by the royal administration – in both external and internal documents. But when we look at how that information actually spread, the link is rather tenuous.

According to the Berkeley Castle Select Roll, its owner, Lord Berkeley, sent letters to Edward’s son – the future Edward III – about the king’s death. According to a letter written by Edward III to his cousin, dated 24th September (three days after his father’s death), he first heard of the death the night before.

So, we have Lord Berkeley sending a letter sometime after the king’s death, and his son receiving the news two days later. Edward III was in Lincoln at the time, presiding over a parliament which was supposed to be discussing the war with Scotland. Edward III announced his father’s death in Lincoln, and the parliament dissolved on 23rd of September – by this time, the king and a good portion of the realm’s nobility had heard the news.

It’s not surprising that rumour travelled fast.

And yet strangely, when Lord Berkeley came before parliament in 1330, three years later, when accusations of royal murder were flying, he said that he was never an accomplice, helper or procurer in his death, and that he “did not know of his death until this present parliament.”

Considering it was his castle he was held in, and in his name that the letter informing the king of the death in the first place, that last part seems unlikely. (Mortimer, incidentally, doesn’t come to a conclusion on exactly what Berkeley meant here, but his point stands: Berkeley was the sole source for the information that Edward II had died, and he later refused having knowledge of it, making the evidence to support the 21st September date very shaky.)

Edward’s body was covered at his funeral, and it seems unlikely that any there got to see his face. Indeed, several of the attendants later came to believe Edward II was still alive, including his half brother, the Earl of Kent, who would later try to ‘rescue’ Edward. That one suggests the funeral wasn’t a settled affair, and it may not have been Edward who was buried.

Now, we come to the trial of the Earl of Kent in March 1330, at which he was beheaded, and several others stripped of their lands and punished, all for trying to break Edward II out of Corfe Castle, where he believed he’d been held since 1329. (Yes, Edward was supposed to have died three years ago.)

This is where things get interesting. Kent had attended his half brother’s funeral, yet here he was three years later, trying to break him out of captivity. He was joined by several others, including the constable of Corfe Castle – the man in charge of running it – John Pecche. According to Kent, John had told another conspirator that Edward II was still alive. Who would know better than the constable of Corfe whether or not Edward was imprisoned in Corfe Castle? The Archbishop of York was also aware of the conspiracy: in 1330 he wrote a letter to Simon Swanland, saying he’d received ‘certain news’ that Edward II was still alive, and asking him to provide materials to aid in his rescue.

Either way, their attempt was unsuccessful.

The next piece of evidence comes eight years later, in 1338, while Edward III and his court were travelling through Germany. The court became aware of a man called William le Galeys (William the Welshman) who claimed to be the king’s father (aka, Edward II), and brought him to them. He stayed with them for three weeks, with all expenses paid by the royal court. Pretenders like this were not uncommon – Edward II had to deal with several of them during his reign, even jokingly greeting one of them as “brother” in a meeting, but they were usually arrested or imprisoned. If this was indeed Edward II, William the Welshman would be a fitting second identity for him, since he was the first English king to be born in Wales.

And finally there is the Fieschi letter, a letter written by a prominent Italian priest – and member of a powerful Italian family. It contains incredible assertions, including that Edward was indeed at Corfe Castle, but fled to Ireland shortly after, before returning to England in disguise, travelling to France, then Germany, and ending in Italy. This letter was written around a decade after the king’s official death.

In the end, it’s impossible to know for sure, and Seymour Phillips gives an equally eloquent and convincing argument for the 21st September 1327 date in his huge biography, Edward II. It’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan of gritty, deep-dive history. Then you can come to your own conclusion, which is what history is all about.

10 thoughts on “The Two Deaths of Edward II”

  1. Dewi – Really interesting. I could have done with a bit more of the background to Edward’s death but I suppose that readers could always follow it up elsewhere. I used to have a great interest in the Plantagenet period when I was younger but have forgotten a great deal over the years as other interests and work priorities took over. However, I always remembered that one of the early kings was rumoured to have been killed with a hot poker.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yeah, definitely. I could see a great novel written from the POV of one of the nobles at the time, hearing these rumours from different sides and working out the truth. You could have them discover Edward, but decide to keep his secret and let him leave.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a bit sad the poker story isn’t even slightly true because for me it was the most memorable bit of English history (which, admittedly, I mostly learned from Horrible Histories and bits of Age of Empires II because I am not English).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I’m sorry to have spoiled it then! It’s funny, people either have never heard of it or it’s the most famous event in medieval English history, there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground!

      I think the ‘real’ story might even be more interesting, though 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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