The homosexual King Edward II and Piers Gaveston

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis

England has had many gay or lesbian monarchs (some definitely, others were just rumoured to be) - King William Rufus (the son of William the Conqueror), King Edward II, King Richard II, Queen Anne, Queen Mary, Richard the Lionheart (the brother of King John of Magna Carta fame), King James I - but it is Edward II who was possibly the most notorious.
This 14th Century king, the son of Edward I (Edward Longshanks, "The Hammer of the Scots") and the first Prince of Wales, was married to Queen Isabella, but he seemed to show much more affection to a man called Piers Gaveston than he did to Isabella.
Many people in the country weren't too happy about this, and Piers Gaveston was eventually executed by the Earl of Warwick (who Gaveston had called "the black hound of Arden") by having his head chopped off - homosexuality was a capital offence in England at this time.
After Gaveston's death, Edward II then seemed to embark on an affair with another man - Hugh Despenser. Queen Isabella had ebough, and left Edward II for another lover - Mortimer.
Despenser was eventually tracked down and executed - he had his genitals cut off and burnt in a fire before his eyes.
In 1327, Edward II was imprisoned, but after trying to escape Mortimer eventually ordered his death. How did Edward II die? By having a red-hot meat-roasting spit shoved up his anus.
Edward II and Piers Gaveston
‘Fair of body and great of strength’, Edward of Caernarfon, England’s first Prince of Wales, was widely welcomed when he came into his inheritance as King Edward II at the age of twenty-three. But as he made his way down the aisle of Westminster Abbey at the end of February 1308 with his young queen Isabella, daughter of the French king Philip IV, all eyes turned to the individual behind him – Piers Gaveston, a young knight from Gascony. The new king had awarded Gaveston pride of place in his coronation procession, bestowing on him the honour of carrying the crown and sword of Edward the Confessor, and Gaveston, in royal purple splashed with pearls, was certainly dressed for the occasion. His finery was such, wrote one chronicler, that ‘he more resembled the god Mars, than an ordinary mortal’. According to the gossips, King Edward was so fond of Gaveston that he had given him the pick of the presents that he had received at his recent wedding to Isabella. The Queen’s relatives went back to France complaining that Edward loved Gaveston more than he loved his wife.
Edward’s father, Edward I, the pugnacious ‘Hammer of the Scots’, had been infuriated by his son’s closeness to the flamboyant young Gascon. The old king had made Gaveston, the son of a trusted knight, a ward in the prince’s household, but there were complaints that the two men got up to mischief together, frequenting taverns and running up debts. On Edward I’s last unsuccessful campaign against the Scots in Carlisle in the winter of 1306–7, the prince had suggested giving Gaveston some of the royal estates in France. His father exploded, seizing Edward by the hair and tearing it out in tufts. He ordered Gaveston into exile.
On coming to the throne, Edward II’s first concern had been to expedite the return of his friend Piers. When he went off to France to marry Isabella in January 1308, a few weeks before the coronation, he placed Gaveston in charge of England, and, to the fury of just about every baron in the land, he also bestowed on him the rich earldom of Cornwall.
The reckless passion of Edward II for Piers Gaveston ranks as the first of the momentous love affairs that have shaken England’s monarchy over the centuries. Homosexuality was deeply disapproved of in medieval England. It was considered by many a form of heresy – a ticket to hell – though there is enough evidence to make it clear that many a monk and priest might have been seen at the ticket barrier. ‘The sin against nature’ was usually referred to indirectly, with comparisons to the Old Testament love of King David for Jonathan – ‘a love beyond the love of women’. When writing specifically of Edward’s love for Gaveston, the chroniclers of the time would call it ‘excessive’, ‘immoderate’, ‘beyond measure and reason’. But one source referred directly to a rumour going around England that ‘the King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife, a most handsome lady and a very beautiful woman’.
It should be stressed that the details of Edward’s physical relationship with Gaveston are as unknowable as those of any other royal bedchamber, and we should not forget that the King had four children by Isabella. It has even been argued that the two men were totally chaste, cultivating their relationship as devoted ‘brothers’. Certainly, none of this would have been an issue if Edward had not allowed his private affections to intrude so fiercely into his public role. Other kings had no problems with same-sex relationships. It is generally assumed that William Rufus (who ruled from 1087 to 1100) was gay – he produced no children and kept no mistresses – and the same has been said of Richard Coeur de Lion, though this is hotly denied by recent biographers. Whatever their predilections, these monarchs did not allow their private passions to impinge on their royal style or, more important, to influence their decisions when it came to handing out land and other largesse.
Edward II, however, displayed an assortment of characteristics that were viewed as unkingly. For a start, he dressed like his friend Piers, a little too extravagantly. He enjoyed the unusual sport of swimming and also rowing, which was considered demeaning – kings traditionally showed their power by getting others to row them. He kept a camel in his stables. He pursued a whole range of ‘common’ pursuits such as digging, thatching, building walls and hedges, and he enjoyed hammering away at the anvil like a blacksmith.
Nowadays England might welcome a DIY king, but in the fourteenth century such activities, not to mention the pleasure Edward took in hobnobbing with grooms and ploughmen, were considered abnormal.
The major grievance, however, was the disproportionate favour that Edward showed Piers Gaveston. When the barons in Parliament called for the exile of the favourite, Edward’s response was to endow him with still more castles and manors. He did agree, reluctantly, that Gaveston should go over to Ireland for a while as his representative, but he was clearly unhinged by his departure. The King took his entire household to Bristol to wave Gaveston off and pined for him in his absence, getting personally involved in such petty problems as the punishment of trespassers on Gaveston’s property on the Isle of Wight.
When, in an attempt to curb the King’s aberrations, Parliament presented him with a set of ‘Ordinances’ in 1311, along the lines of Simon de Montfort’s Provisions of Oxford, Edward took the extraordinary step of offering to agree to any restriction on his own powers provided that his favourite was in no way affected.
The muscular Gaveston did not make things any easier. He took delight in defeating the barons in jousts and tournaments, and then rubbed salt in their wounds by mimicking his critics and giving them derisive nicknames. The Earl of Gloucester was ‘*****son’, Leicester was ‘the fiddler’, and Warwick the ‘black hound of Arden’.
‘Let him call me“hound”,’ the earl exclaimed. ‘One day the hound will bite him.’
As approved by Parliament and reluctantly agreed by the King, the Ordinances of 1311 imposed stringent controls on royal power. Building on Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford, championed by Simon de Montfort, it was now laid down that the King could not leave the kingdom without the consent of the barons, and that parliaments must be held at least once or twice a year and in a convenient place. Clearly, the immediate purpose of the Ordinances was to deal with Gaveston, who was promptly sent out of the country for a second time. But he sneaked quietly back, and by the end of November there were reports of the favourite ‘hiding and wandering from place to place in the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset’. That Christmas he appeared openly at Edward’s side at Windsor.
For the indignant barons, this act of defiance was the last straw. Using the authority of the Ordinances, they summoned troops, while Edward and Gaveston headed north to rally forces of their own. Cornered at Newcastle, they managed to escape, Edward to York and Gaveston to Scarborough, where the barons besieged him. Lacking supplies, Gaveston surrendered, and under promise of safe conduct he was escorted south. But just beyond Banbury the party was ambushed by the Earl of Warwick, who whisked the favourite back to his castle and delivered the promised ‘bite’. On 19 June 1312, Piers Gaveston was beheaded at Blacklow Hill on the road between Warwick and Kenilworth.
The killing of Edward II’s beloved ‘brother’ devastated the King and prompted a backlash of sympathy in his favour. But two years later, finally doing what a king was supposed to do and leading his army north against Scotland, Edward was heavily defeated between Edinburgh and Sterling in June 1314. Robert the Bruce’s brave and cunning victory at Bannockburn is one of the great tales of Scottish history, but in England its consequence was a massive further blow to Edward’s authority. Early in 1316 at the Parliament of Lincoln, the King humbly agreed to hand over the running of the country to the barons.
The trouble was that Edward had found himself another Gaveston. Hugh Despenser was an ambitious young courtier whose father, also named Hugh, had been an adviser and official to Edward I and still wielded considerable power. The Despensers came from the Welsh borders or Marches, and they used their influence shamelessly to extend their lands. Once again the barons found themselves rallying together to restrict the power of a royal familiaris – a favourite – and this time a new element came into play. In 1325 Edward’s long-suffering wife Isabella seized the chance of a journey to France to take a stand against the husband who had humiliated her, first with Gaveston and now with the younger Despenser. She took a lover, Roger Mortimer, another powerful Welsh Marcher lord, who had taken up arms against the King and the Despensers in 1322, and who, after being imprisoned in the Tower of London, had been lucky to escape to France with his life.
When Mortimer and Isabella landed in England in 1326, they had only a few hundred men, but they held a trump card – Isabella’s elder son by Edward, the thirteen-year-old Prince Edward. As heir to the throne, the boy represented some sort of hope for the future, and London welcomed the Queen, whose cause, according to one chronicler, was supported by ‘the whole community of the realm’. In a widespread uprising, the hated Despensers were tracked down and executed – in the case of Edward’s favourite, at the top of a ladder in Hereford, where his genitals were hacked off and burned in front of his eyes.
England now set about doing something it had never attempted before – the deposition of a king by legal process. Prelates prepared the way. Early in January, the Bishop of Hereford preached to a clamorous London congregation on the text ‘a foolish king shall ruin his people’, and a parliament of bishops, barons, judges, knights and burgesses was convened in Westminster. Preaching to them on 15 January 1327, the Archbishop of Canterbury took as his text ‘Vox populi, Vox dei’ – ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ By the unanimous consent of all the lords, clergy and people, h e announced, King Edward II was deposed from his royal dignity, ‘never more to govern the people of England’, and he would be succeeded by his first-born son, the Lord Edward. So Edward III would be the first English monarch appointed by a popular decision in Parliament.
It remained to break the news to the King himself, then imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, and a deputation of lords, churchmen, knights and townsfolk set off forthwith for the Midlands. Dramatically clad in black, Edward half fainted as he heard William Trussell, a Lancastrian knight, read out the verdict of the whole Parliament. It grieved him, he said in response, that his people should be so exasperated with him as to wish to reject his rule, but he would bow to their will, since his son was being accepted in his place. Next day Trussell, on behalf of the whole kingdom, renounced all homage and allegiance to Edward of Caernarfon, and the steward of the royal household broke his staff of office, as if the King had died. The deputation returned to Parliament and the new reign was declared on 25 January 1327.
Now formally a non-king, Edward was imprisoned in the forlorn and ponderous Berkeley Castle overlooking the River Severn just north of Bristol. It is possible that, with time, his imprisonment might have been eased so as to allow him to potter around the grounds, digging his beloved ditches and hammering out a horseshoe or two. But in the space of just a few months there were two attempts to rescue him, and the Queen’s lover, Mortimer, decided that he was too dangerous to be left alive. In September 1327 a messenger took instructions down to Berkeley, and two weeks later it was announced that Edward of Caernarfon, only forty-three and of previously robust health, was dead. Abbots, knights and burgesses were brought from Bristol and Gloucester to view the body, and they reported seeing no visible marks of violence. Edward had had ‘internal trouble’ during the night, they were informed.
But in the village of Berkeley, tales were told of hideous screams ringing out from the castle on the night of 21 September, and some years later one John Trevisa, who had been a boy at the time, revealed what had actually happened. Trevisa had grown up to take holy orders and become chaplain and confessor to the King’s jailer, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, so he was well placed to solve the mystery. There were no marks of illness or violence to the King’s body, he wrote, because Edward was killed ‘with a hoote brooche [meat-roasting spit] putte thro the secret place posterialle’.

From "Great Tales of English History", by Robert Lacey
The homosexual King Edward II and Piers Gaveston

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