The Scandal and Downfall of Piers Gaveston

Today The Freelance History Writer is pleased to present a guest article by Gareth Russell. Gareth is an historian and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied Modern History at the University of Oxford and completed a postgraduate in medieval history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including his most recent book, “A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I”. He is currently writing a biography of Queen Catherine Howard.

Depiction of King Edward II of England
Depiction of King Edward II of England

The Scandal and Downfall of Piers Gaveston at the Court of King Edward II of England

Anyone who has seen the 1995 movie Braveheart is likely to remember the pathetic and weak Prince Edward, a snivelling wretch whose lover is tossed out a window by his depraved father. The real Edward II could not have been less like his portrayal in one of the 1990s’ most successful flicks. He had a filthy sense of humour, an easy-going repartee with common people and a passion for manual labour. Like his father, Edward II was tall and robust. The “Vita Edwardi Secundi”, which was an account of the King’s life written by a clerk who lived at Edward’s court and who recorded his experiences at the time, observed that the King was ‘a fine figure of a handsome man’, while Sir Thomas Grey, whose father fought in Edward’s army, wrote that ‘physically he was one of the strongest men in the realm’. Another thought Edward moved well despite his size: ‘elegant, of outstanding strength’. None of the eyewitness descriptions of Edward’s contradicts one chronicler’s description of him as ‘fair of body and great of strength’. There are no surviving accounts that mention his eye colour, but illustrations and his effigy all show wavy blond hair that fell either to his chin or his shoulders. Later in life, he grew a beard.

The exact nature of Edward’s relationship with his favourite Piers Gaveston has divided scholars, with some cautioning against ‘anachronistic and futile’ attempts to impose modern concepts of sexuality on the medieval period. However, the contemporary accounts leave little room for reasonable doubt that it was a romantic relationship and quite probably a sexual one, as well. While it will always be impossible to verify how far they went sexually or how often, what mattered was that it was a love affair, the great love affair of Edward II’s life.

Piers Gaveston was the son of a Gascon knight, born a year or two before Edward II in 1284. He was barely a teenager when he joined his father in combat, where he apparently impressed King Edward I with his manners and skills as a soldier. Shortly after that, Edward I appointed him as one of ten young men to attend on the Prince of Wales to provide him with some suitable male company. Gaveston seems to have been the oldest of the ten and that, coupled with his good looks – one contemporary wrote that Gaveston was ‘graceful and agile in body, sharp witted, refined in manners […] well versed in military matters’ – his prowess as a jouster and the fact that he had already experienced the battlefield, perhaps explain young Edward’s initial infatuation with him.

Infatuation quickly turned into obsession. A clerk in Edward’s service wrote, ‘I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another. Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus.’ Another chronicle wrote that after a short separation, Edward ran over to Piers ‘giving him kisses and repeated embraces; he was adored with a special familiarity’. In an age when embracing and kissing, even on the lips, was an accepted form of greeting within the upper classes, it was not so much Edward’s actions that caused offence as the effusiveness with which they were bestowed. In a ruthless and mercenary age, the Earl of Pembroke would later remark, ‘he perishes on the rocks that loves another man more than himself’. It was a lesson that Edward II never learned.

At a winter joust held shortly after Edward I’s funeral, Gaveston ‘very proud and haughty in bearing’ carried the day as the best man at the tilts. It was victory at the jousts that apparently helped turn some of the magnates, like the bested Earl of Surrey, against him. Insult was added to injury by the favour Edward II lavished upon him. Aristocratic jaws collectively hit the floor when Edward made Gaveston the new Earl of Cornwall, a title that had previously been held by the younger brothers of Henry III and Edward I. The other nobles at Edward’s court ‘looked down on Piers, because, as a foreigner and formerly a mere man at arms raised to such distinction and eminence, he was unmindful of his former rank’. Further anger came when Edward arranged for Piers to be married to his niece, Margaret de Clare, a more-than advantageous match for the son of a knight. In a world obsessed with rank and precedence, Gaveston constituted an offensive anomaly.

In 1308, Edward himself was married to his stepmother’s niece, Princess Isabella of France. As the daughter of two monarchs – her father ruled France and her mother was the queen of Navarre – Isabella was a great catch as well as the living seal on the Treaty of Montreuil between her husband and her father. Three months after his marriage, Parliament presented Edward with a petition that asked for Piers Gaveston to be banished and stripped of his title. Faced with united opposition from his peers and parliament, Edward had to acquiesce, but he did so begrudgingly and with minimal sincerity. In return for losing the earldom of Cornwall, Gaveston was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a job he executed with great success. The state the island had been left in after Edward I’s dereliction of duty there meant that governing Ireland in the King’s name was a thankless task and Gaveston did not succeed in restoring royal authority to the levels it had enjoyed prior to the wars with Scotland. However, he was an effective and honest Lord Lieutenant who oversaw the fortification of vulnerable towns, avoided lining his own pockets, waged successful war in the Wicklow Mountains and, if he did not manage to retake the entire country, he at least solidified English control over the eastern province of Leinster.

In the summer of 1309, Gaveston was brought back to England. Two years later, Edward took him with him on campaign against Scotland. Here, Gaveston was far less successful. Edward II is often blamed for losing the Scottish Wars of Independence, but while he was an infinitely less talented general than his father it is unlikely that Edward I himself would have won those wars, even if he had lived longer.

In a climate of military failure and aristocratic unrest, Piers Gaveston was exiled for a third time, but hope tragically triumphed over experience as Edward brought him back two months later. This time, despite their happiness at being reunited, Edward and his favourite were aware of the net tightening around them. In the spring of 1312, they had to vacate Newcastle in a hurry when they were warned that there were forces moving against them. They fatefully chose to briefly separate. The King went to York, while Gaveston made for Scarborough Castle where he was surprised by his enemies. He surrendered on condition of safe conduct to York, where he would be allowed to join the King for another round of negotiations. Through accident or design, the guardians of his safe conduct failed. The Earl of Warwick managed to kidnap Gaveston from Deddington in Oxfordshire and brought him to Warwick Castle, where he was tried by a panel of his opponents and taken to nearby Blacklow Hill, where two Welsh soldiers had been instructed to run him through with their swords before hacking off his head and leaving the body where it fell. A passing group of Dominican friars recovered the corpse and his remains were eventually laid to rest at the priory of Kings Langley, a Dominican house that Edward had founded himself.

Steve Waddington as Edward in the movie adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play “Edward II”, which focused heavily on the downfall of Piers Gaveston

Edward II’s grief at Piers Gaveston’s death can only be imagined and there are signs, not least in the terrible hatred he bore towards his killers right up until his own deposition fifteen years later, that he never fully recovered from it. For a year after the murder, every Augustinian abbey in England and Ireland was ordered to say a daily Mass for the repose of Gaveston’s soul. Public sympathy was, at least initially, firmly on the King’s side. What the earls had done was astonishing and repulsive. Gaveston’s death looked more like a lynching than a lawful execution. Even some of the dead man’s former enemies, like the Earl of Surrey, were unhappy with what had occurred and Queen Isabella seems to have sided completely with her husband. Edward II did his duty by fathering four children with Queen Isabella who, as she grew older and became a mother, was given more of a say in her husband’s government. (It was only years later that their marriage fell apart with such devastating consequences.) The birth of an heir, another Edward, at Windsor Castle on 13 November 1312, five months after Gaveston’s death, was a personal triumph for Edward II. Four years later, the heir was followed by a younger brother, John, and two sisters, Eleanor and Joan, in 1318 and 1321.

The King briefly attempted to repair his relations with the nobility by resuming the war with Scotland, in the hopes that victory would paper-over the cracks shown by Gaveston’s demise. On 24 June 1314, near Stirling, he suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of Bannockburn. Years later, when he began to pick off Gaveston’s killers and enemies, even as the policy of revenge served cold undercut his own political authority, it was clear that the legacy of Piers Gaveston remained a potent and defining one in Edward II’s reign.

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