What happened to Edward II?

David Carpenter

  • The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the British Nation by Ian Mortimer
    Pimlico, 536 pp, £8.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 1 84413 530 1

Here the glory of the English; the flower of past kings; the form of future kings; a merciful king; the peace of his peoples; Edward III, completing the jubilee of his reign; an unconquered leopard; victorious in battle like a Maccabee . . . he ruled mighty in arms; now in heaven let him be a king.

So (in translation) run the verses around the tomb of Edward III in Westminster Abbey, erected soon after his death in 1377. Edward, the initiator of the Hundred Years War, the victor of Sluys and Crécy, the conqueror of Calais, achieved legendary status in his lifetime, and was long revered after his death. Dr Johnson, in his poem London, called on ‘illustrious Edward!’ to survey the current crop of degenerate Britons: ‘Lost in thoughtless ease, and empty show . . . the warrior dwindled to a beau’. Perhaps the only comparable hero in British history has been Churchill, and as with Churchill, Edward’s reputation survived a long period of dotage. In the 19th century, as Ian Mortimer shows in the introduction to his new biography, Victorian rectitude and a preoccupation with constitutional history caused feelings about Edward to change. Bishop Stubbs, ‘peering down on the Middle Ages from the twin heights of an episcopal throne and a professorial chair’, as Mortimer puts it, condemned Edward as ‘ambitious, unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant and ostentatious’.

In more recent times, historians have continued to enter reservations. ‘He practised appeasement at home to pursue war abroad’ is a judgment undergraduates are frequently asked to address. Thus Edward has been seen as careless of the rights of the Crown, too little concerned with the maintenance of law and order, too generous in his patronage of nobles, too ready to hand local government over to a corrupt ‘bastard feudal’ combination of magnates and gentry, and too accommodating to the demands of the Commons in Parliament. All this, it is suggested, created difficulties for his successor and grandson, Richard II, and even laid some of the foundations for the Wars of the Roses. These views have not gone unchallenged. In the 1950s May McKisack wrote a sturdy defence of Edward (rightly praised by Mortimer). Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, in a series of books and articles based on extensive work in the record sources, Mark Ormrod argued vigorously that Edward had been a conscientious, ‘hands-on king’ who successfully asserted royal authority.

It is not Mortimer’s intention to enter into these debates or to examine Edward’s government in any detail. This is a narrative biography, with Edward’s personality, martial exploits and way of life very much to the fore. Mortimer’s tone is confident and his writing style dramatic. His approach is reflected in the chapter titles: ‘A Treasonable Youth’; ‘The Devil for Wrath’; ‘Absolute Royalty’; ‘Warrior of God’; ‘The Vow of the Heron’; ‘Chivalry and Shame’ and so on. In his conclusion, he praises Edward for five major achievements: the restoration of royal authority after his father’s disastrous reign; the maintenance of domestic peace; the reassertion of England’s power on the international stage; the development of Parliament; and the practice of ‘modernised warfare’. ‘Whether we like it or not,’ he tells us, ‘Edward was to warfare what Mozart was to music’: the ‘perfect king’. Although written for a popular audience, the book’s judgments, and the narrative that underlies them, are based on a considerable amount of work in both primary and secondary sources, as is clear from a hundred pages of appendixes and endnotes. Nor is Mortimer shy of developing his own ideas. Indeed, the first part of the book is informed by an original hypothesis for which he has become renowned. Edward, he argues, concealed the fact that his father, Edward II, remained alive after his deposition and supposed death in 1327. The first phase of his reign needs, therefore, to be seen in an entirely new light.

Edward II had been completely unsuited for kingship: he had no martial talents and precious little interest in domestic government. In the 1320s, his relationship with his favourite, Hugh Despencer, alienated his wife, Queen Isabella. As a result, with the future Edward III in her company, she refused to return home after a visit to the French court. She was joined abroad by Roger Mortimer, and together they invaded England, gained wide support and, in January 1327, forced Edward II to abdicate in favour of his son. Edward III, however, was only 14 and it was Mortimer who now effectively ruled the kingdom. The deposed Edward II eventually ended up in Berkeley Castle, and there in September 1327 he apparently died. Certainly, his death was proclaimed in royal letters, a body was buried with much ceremony in Gloucester Abbey, and thereafter, on 21 September every year, Edward III heard Masses for his father’s soul. In 1330, having seized power for himself, Edward accused Mortimer of his father’s murder, a murder about which two near contemporary chroniclers add further details, one mentioning the notorious red hot iron that was supposed to have been the instrument.

But almost from the start there were rumours that Edward II was still alive. In 1330, Edmund, Earl of Kent, was executed by Mortimer for saying as much and allegedly contemplating the old king’s restoration. Then in 1338 the records of the king’s wardrobe show that a man called William le Galeys ‘who asserts that he is the father of the lord king’ was taken to Koblenz, where he may have met Edward III. Around the same time a papal notary, Manuel Fieschi, wrote to Edward about encountering a man who claimed to be Edward II and was able to give details of his escape from Berkeley in 1327 and his subsequent wanderings.

These facts have long been known to historians and were discussed in a well-known article, ‘Where Is Edward II?’ by G.P. Cuttino and T.W. Lynam, which appeared in Speculum in 1978. In general, the scholarly consensus is that they should not be taken as evidence of Edward II’s survival: Kent and those with him were deluded; William le Galeys and the man in the Fieschi letter (even assuming he was not a fabrication) were impostors. Such opinions do not daunt Ian Mortimer. He concentrates not on the evidence for Edward’s survival after 1330 but on the evidence for the actual death in 1327, and on the way the news of that death spread. What emerges, as he sees it, is that the evidence for Edward II’s death is inconsistent, incomprehensible and ultimately unbelievable. To reconcile this finding with the known facts (he accepts that a body was buried and a death announced – by Edward III himself) he has constructed an entirely new hypothesis: namely, that, for his own purposes, Roger Mortimer faked Edward II’s death using another body. Then, having allowed Edward III to believe his father was dead, Mortimer revealed the truth and got the young king to continue with the deception, thus drawing him into a conspiracy of concealment, a concealment Edward thought wise to continue after Mortimer’s fall and execution in 1330.

When Ian Mortimer first broached these ideas in his biography of Roger Mortimer, published in 2003, they were greeted with some scepticism. This prompted him to work through the whole subject again in a long article for the English Historical Review; the ideas in this article inform and in some ways are extended in this book. In urging his case, Mortimer is insistent, intriguing and ingenious. He is also, in my view, mistaken.

What conceivable motive did Roger Mortimer have for concocting such a plot as opposed to killing Edward outright? Ian Mortimer believes that murdering him ‘would have been of limited benefit to Mortimer and Isabella. Its sole advantage would have been to prevent attempts to rescue and restore the ex-king.’ This is puzzling. Ian Mortimer seems completely right when he describes the advantage of killing Edward – and completely wrong in judging its usefulness, which was very great indeed. Edward II was vindictive, as the executions after the capture of Thomas of Lancaster and his adherents in 1322 had shown. He must have hated Mortimer, the man who had deposed him, executed Despencer and seduced the queen. Had he recovered power (and there were attempts to free him), Mortimer’s life would not have been worth two minutes’ purchase. He had every reason, if he could get away with it, for wanting Edward dead.

What then are the countervailing reasons suggested by Ian Mortimer for Roger Mortimer to pretend that Edward was dead while keeping him alive? One is that the queen was reluctant to see her husband killed. I am sceptical about this, given the state of their relations; even if true, it does not provide a reason for the deception. More important, in Ian Mortimer’s argument, is the notion that it was Mortimer’s way of controlling the young king. When Edward found out that his father was alive, having announced to the world that he was dead,

any relief . . . would gradually have been eroded by the disturbing implications of this news. Mortimer had power over his father. His father had been forced to abdicate. What if Mortimer were to turn against him? Edward would be exposed as having officially announced his own father’s death and having subsequently attended the funeral, when a false body was lowered into a royal grave. How on earth could he, Edward, do anything but support this upstart monster, Mortimer? He had not only been tricked, he had been trapped.

This statement seems as puzzling as the first. How could Mortimer keep Edward in line by threatening to reveal the deception, without also revealing the part he himself had played in it? All Edward had to say was that the whole sordid scheme, the replacement body and the faked funeral, were of Mortimer’s own devising, as indeed they were. Mortimer would then have been entirely discredited, and on the way to gallows even higher than the ones on which he was eventually hanged in 1330. Far from placing Edward in Mortimer’s power, such a deception would have done the reverse. Edward, after all, had nothing like as much to fear as Mortimer were the plot uncovered and his father known to have survived. Given the contrasting characters of father and son, Edward III’s growing maturity, and the fact that Mortimer would now be out of the way, a comfortable retirement for Edward II was far more likely than any reascent of the throne. His original abdication in 1327 had commanded wide support: what was objected to now was not the rule of Edward III but that of Mortimer.

The advantages of the deception for Mortimer were therefore non-existent, yet we are asked to believe that in return for them, he concocted a plot more complex and discoverable than any murder. Edward II was spirited away and kept concealed, while a false body was produced. It was clothed (something Ian Mortimer doesn’t mention) in the robes, sent from the Treasury, that Edward II had worn at his coronation, including his cap of unction (the cap worn after the anointing). There was then a lengthy lying-in-state followed by an elaborate funeral at Gloucester three months after the purported death. True, it was probably a wooden effigy of the king that was visible during the lying-in-state, but many people would certainly have seen the body itself before that. Ian Mortimer, aware of this problem, points out that the body was embalmed and suggests that, as a result, a cloth would have been placed over the face, but there is no evidence of this one way or the other. Adam Murimuth, in his chronicle of the time, says that many abbots, priors, knights and burgesses of Bristol and Gloucester were called to see the body and viewed it ‘superficially’, but this probably means that they couldn’t examine how the king died, not that they couldn’t see his face. It is hard to imagine a quicker way of adding to the rumours that the king was alive than for large numbers of people to see a corpse with the face covered up. That problem alone might have given Mortimer pause.

Equally risky were the calculations Mortimer would have had to make as to Edward III’s reactions. Edward got the news of his father’s death in a letter from Lord Berkeley, custodian of Berkeley Castle, which he received on 23 September at Lincoln. Mortimer (who was not with the king) had then to trust that Edward would not insist on going to Berkeley to see his father’s body. Mortimer had also to trust that some days after Edward II’s funeral (this is the date Ian Mortimer suggests for the revelation) Edward III would both believe the amazing news that, thanks to Mortimer’s plot, his father was actually alive, and agree nonetheless to continue as though he was dead. If it is said that Edward (by now 15) was simply in Mortimer’s power, that raises the question as to why Mortimer needed to concoct the charade in the first place.

None of this would matter if there was convincing evidence for Ian Mortimer’s hypothesis, but there isn’t even any convincing evidence for Edward’s survival, let alone for it being the result of a Mortimer plot. Ian Mortimer sets great store by a statement made by Lord Berkeley in 1330 when accused of Edward II’s murder. Despite having originally announced the king’s demise, now ‘defiantly he maintained in Parliament that the ex-king was not dead.’ When we turn to the relevant footnote we find this was hardly the case. There, Ian Mortimer tells us that Berkeley said ‘literally’ that ‘he had not heard about the king’s death.’ To discover whether this can be interpreted as a defiant statement that the ex-king was alive, we have to go back to the English Historical Review article. There we find that Ian Mortimer’s is only one possible interpretation of Berkeley’s words, which were in any case part of a longer sentence: ‘quod ipse nunquam fuit consentiens, auxilians, seu procurans, ad mortem suam, nec unquam sciuit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto’; ‘he was never consentient to aiding or procuring his death, nor did he ever know about his death until the present parliament.’ When taken with the sentence as a whole, by far the most natural meaning of sciuit de morte sua is that Berkeley did not know anything about the alleged circumstances of Edward’s death: that is, he didn’t know anything about the murder, not that he did not know Edward was dead. If, on the contrary, Berkeley’s defence was that the king was still alive, why didn’t he say so explicitly? (‘I cannot be guilty of murder since your father is not dead.’) In support of his interpretation, Mortimer very reasonably makes much of the fact that Berkeley got off and rose in Edward’s favour. Surely, he argues, this means that Edward knew there had been no death and no murder. Is it not equally possible that Berkeley was able to persuade Edward, not a suspicious or malicious man, that he had had nothing to do with what happened? Either he was not in the castle at the time (as he asserted), or, if he was, the murder took place without his knowledge. Curiously, Mortimer himself thinks that this might have been the case with the man he supposes was dispatched in Edward’s place: ‘it is by no means impossible,’ he writes in the EHR article, that the murderers ‘were acting on Mortimer’s orders, without Berkeley’s consent or knowledge.’

The Kent plot may be briefly treated. There is no doubt that Kent himself and some other high-ranking lay and ecclesiastical magnates, most notably William Melton, Archbishop of York, came to believe that Edward II was alive, or said they believed it, or were alleged to believe it. This doesn’t mean it was any more true than the belief that Richard II was still alive in the 1400s or Richard Duke of York, the younger of the princes in the Tower, alive in the 1490s. Mortimer makes one new point: he suggests that Kent got his information from Sir John Pecche, who was in a position to know since he was, according to Mortimer, castellan of Corfe, where Edward II was in confinement. If Pecche was indeed at Corfe between 1327 and 1329, he was certainly well placed to spread stories of Edward’s survival. Whether they were true is another matter. By 1330 Mortimer’s regime was hugely unpopular, and men were clutching at anything to bring it down. Edward III himself was still in Mortimer’s power. What better way to undermine the regime than by spreading the rumour that Edward II was alive? Equally, in those times of deadly intrigue, it is far from impossible that Mortimer himself, as was later claimed, encouraged his enemies in their belief in order to have material to destroy them.

At the end of his EHR article, Mortimer says ‘it is almost certain’ that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle. I would say that it is almost certain that he did, although it’s always possible that new evidence may emerge and new considerations be adduced. Whether or not that happens, a debt is owed to Mortimer for challenging conventional wisdom with such commitment. Nor does disagreement over Edward II’s death affect the laudatory picture he paints of Edward III. Which was worse: to know your father had been brutally murdered or to live with having to conceal the fact that he was still alive? Either way, Edward seems to have coped superbly, testimony to the courage and self-confidence that this biography celebrates.