History Today Christmas Subscription offer.

Menage a Roi: Edward II and Piers Gaveston

J.S. Hamilton weighs the evidence and concludes that Edward II and his notorious favourite were more than just good friends.

An 1872 painting by English artist Marcus Stone shows Edward II cavorting with Gaveston while nobles and courtiers look on with concern.There have been very few liaisons in English history that have gained greater notoriety than that which existed between King Edward II (r.1307-27) and his Gascon favourite Piers Gaveston. Until very recently it has been a commonplace assumption that the two men were homosexual lovers, and that Edward’s passion for Gaveston drove a wedge, ultimately fatal for both men, between the King and his young queen, Isabella of France. Recently, however, Pierre Chaplais has suggested, in Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother (1994) another interpretation of the relationship, arguing that the two men entered into a brotherhood-in-arms at some point in the early 1300s, and that this compact is sufficient explanation for the intensity of their relationship, even to the extent that the King ignored and indeed humiliated his indignant spouse. Chaplais defines such a brotherhood as ‘some sort of very close relationship established formally between two persons of military status’. So, were Piers and Edward just good friends, or brothers, or lovers? And what about poor, neglected Isabella? Was she really the ‘She-Wolf of France,’ or, was she, as contemporary French chronicles styled her, ‘Isabella the Fair’, an unfortunate victim more sinned against than sinning?

It is best to dismiss all of our stereotyped images at the outset, whether they are derived from Marlowe’s Edward II or Derek Jarman’s 1991 film of the play, from Maurice Druon’s historical novel The She-Wolf of France , (1960), or, perhaps least historically of all, from Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart. What do we, and what can we, actually know about the lives, and sexualities, of the protagonists, especially in relation to each other?

Edward II was born at Carnarvon on April 25th, 1284, the fourth son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, yet by the summer of his first year he was the heir to his father’s throne. Little is known about his education, but by 1300 he was said to be a skilled horseman, although his later lack of martial skill and/or interest has been often remarked and makes one wonder why he should wish to enter into a brotherhood-in-arms with Gaveston or anyone else. He possessed a small but varied collection of books, and was probably more comfortable in French than Latin, though his frequent characterization as rex illiteratus seems to have no basis in evidence. In any case, he was being groomed to rule, and in the last ten years of his father’s life, Edward was given increasing public exposure and responsibility. Interestingly, it is also during these years that he was betrothed to his future queen as well as introduced to his great friend and, I would argue, lover, Piers Gaveston.

Let us now turn to Piers Gaveston, whose introduction into the household of the adolescent prince was to have such an unforeseen impact. First of all, there can be little doubt about the fact that Gaveston was introduced into the household of Prince Edward by Edward I himself. The young Gascon, probably a few years older than the Prince, had already seen military service in Flanders in the company of his father Arnaud de Gabaston, a minor Gascon noble. Piers was consistently described in contemporary chronicles as handsome, athletic, and well mannered: in short, he was a suitable role model after whom Prince Edward might have been expected to pattern himself. From 1300 until his execution in 1312, his fortunes were inseparably linked to Edward’s, and in general his wealth and status rose steadily, if not at first remarkably. Gaveston appears in the records drawing wages and performing a variety of services in the Prince’s household, and his rising status may be indicated by his designation as socius (companion) rather than scutifer (esquire) by 1303. According to the Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II , upon looking on Piers, the King’s son immediately felt such love for him that he ‘tied himself to him against all mortals with an indissoluble bond of love’.

Nevertheless, the growing attachment between the two young men is not apparent in any documentary sources until 1305, when Prince Edward fell out with his father over his alleged trespass against Walter Langton, bishop of Chester and treasurer of England. The Prince was banished from his father’s presence and cut off from financial support. More importantly for the young man, the King reduced the size of his son’s household, and among those thus separated from the Prince was Gaveston. Edward wrote to his sister Elizabeth asking her to persuade their stepmother, Queen Margaret, to intercede with the King in order that Gaveston and Gilbert de Clare might be restored to his household. In this letter he says

If we had those two, along with the others whom we have, we would be greatly relieved of the anguish which we have endured and from which we continue to suffer from one day to the next

In time, Gilbert was restored to the Prince’s household and the following spring when Edward was knighted, so was Gaveston. The Prince accompanied his father’s army to Scotland in 1306, and his forces consolidated Aymer de Valence’s victory over Robert Bruce at Methven by capturing Lochmaben Castle in June, and Kildrummy in September. But after the King established winter quarters at Lanercost, Gaveston was one of twenty-two prominent knights who deserted the army to attend tournaments in France, despite specific royal orders to the contrary. The aged King was enraged and ordered the confiscation of all the lands held by these deserters. Eventually, however, he relented, and all the knights involved were pardoned except for one: Gaveston. He, and he alone, was sent into what was to be the first of his three exiles. Significantly, the decree of exile was temporary in nature and unspecific with regard to cause. Gaveston could be recalled, and of course he was recalled as soon as Edward I died in July 1307 and Edward II ascended to the throne. But would he ever have been recalled by Edward I? What was the nature of his crime?

The contemporary chroniclers are largely silent, except for the highly colourful, and unlikely, account of Walter of Guisborough, which claims the Prince sought to have Gaveston ennobled as Count of Ponthieu. This, says the chronicler, sent Edward I into a rage in which he beat his son, and then called his Council and saw to it that Gaveston’s exile was decreed. And yet, the exile was far from onerous. Although the decree called for Gaveston to remain in exile in his native Gascony itself, in fact he was permitted to go to nearby Ponthieu – which the Prince was scheduled to visit in 1307. He was also given a very comfortable annuity of 100 marks sterling, which the Prince supplemented considerably.

It is possible to argue that Edward I sought the separation of his son and Gaveston in order to break a bond of brotherhood, but it seems equally possible that the old King wanted to separate the young men in order to break a different bond, and in hopes of redirecting his son’s sexual energies. The Prince was to marry Isabella of France in less than a year, and Edward I may well have expected marriage to turn his son’s mind away from his former lover - or lovers. It is worth noting that Edward II fathered at least one illegitimate child, a son named Adam, who apparently died in Scotland in 1321. Presumably this child was born prior to Edward’s accession, and this might have further reassured his father that the relationship with Gaveston, however unfortunate, would prove impermanent. In any case, Gaveston’s exile was temporary, and given Edward I’s advancing years and failing health, he does not seem to have been overly concerned about the long-term implications of this relationship, for he provided no contingencies with regard to the terms of the exile in the event of his own death.

Edward I died at Burgh-on-Sands on July 7th, 1307, and Gaveston was at once recalled by the new King. The chroniclers express no surprise, but some disappointment, at this. After all, the new King’s love for Gaveston was known to be ‘beyond measure and reason’, ‘immoderate’, ‘inordinate’ and ‘excessive’. ‘Indeed’ wrote the contemporary author of the well-regarded Vita Edwardi Secundi , ‘I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another.. our king was ..incapable of moderate favour’. While the author goes on to say that Gaveston was thus accounted a sorcerer, Robert of Reading went even further in the Flores Historiarum , asserting that Edward entered into ‘illicit and sinful unions’, rejecting the sweet embraces of his wife. This sounds like more than adoptive brotherhood.

And where is the evidence for a brotherhood? There is one chronicle, BL MS Cotton Cleopatra D ix, which does indeed say they entered into a fraternitatis fedus , ‘an oath of brotherhood’. Here Chaplais is right; G.L. Haskins’ earlier reading of firmitatis fedus as ‘an oath of steadfastness’ is inaccurate and misleading. Moreover, theVita Edwardi Secundi is not alone in noting that Edward always wanted Gaveston to be addressed as ‘our brother’, and this style of address does survive in documentary sources. The argument in favour of artificial kinship is plausible. It may, however, be weakened by the fact that Edward II’s second wet-nurse, Alice de Leyburn, herself the object of an inordinate amount of royal patronage throughout the reign, is styled in the close rolls as ‘the king’s mother... who suckled him in his youth’. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the idea of a brotherhood-in-arms seems difficult to sustain in the face of Edward’s apparent lack of interest in the practice of arms.

One of the problems we face in trying to define the nature of this ‘bond of indissoluble love’ is that the voices of the protagonists are mute. The chroniclers tend to be biased one way or the other, and in any case are reporting second-hand at best. Virtually none of Gaveston’s private correspondence has survived, and very little of the King’s reveals emotional qualities. The Anglo-Norman poem attributed to Edward during his captivity in the wake of Isabella’s coup of 1326, even if genuinely written by the King, says nothing about his relationship with Gaveston or any sort of impropriety. There is nothing here to justify the means by which the King was allegedly murdered following his wife’s triumph; a red-hot poker inserted into his fundament. We are left to form an opinion based upon the perceptions of contemporaries and our own analysis of largely circumstantial evidence, including the gruesome manner in which the King was reportedly killed.

Upon his return to England in 1307, Gaveston was lavished with honours. He was elevated to the earldom of Cornwall, and if he did not become the King’s brother; he at least became his relative, by marrying the King’s niece, Margaret de Clare, sister of the Earl of Gloucester. Chaplais has made a detailed analysis of the charter of enfeoffment, particularly noting the date - August 6th - the Feast of the Translation - and the decoration featuring the royal arms and the arms of Gaveston and Clare, all three embraced within the wings of the Earl of Cornwall’s symbolic eagle. Here, as elsewhere, the evidence seems ambiguous, and to lend itself equally well to either a homosexual relationship or an adoptive brotherhood. In any case, over the next months, Gaveston was both the recipient and the distributor of an exceptional amount of patronage, which certainly occasioned discontent among his peers. His acerbic wit and athletic prowess - he defeated a team led by several of his fellow earls at a tournament at Wallingford in December 1307 - probably did not help either. The chroniclers were surprised, if not outraged, that Gaveston was named custos regni when the king sailed to France in January 1308 for his marriage to Isabella, but his regency was uneventful.

Let us now add the third character to this menage. Isabella of France was born in 1296, daughter of Philip IV(r.1285-1314),‘the Fair’, of France. Two years later, aged two, she first appears in English sources, betrothed to Edward through the peace-making efforts of Pope Boniface VIII, the terms of the marriage being further discussed the following year in the Treaty of Montreuil. The marriage took place in due course, on January 25th, 1308, at Boulogne, after a certain amount of hard bargaining between the representatives of Philip the Fair and Edward II. Isabella was twelve or thirteen, Edward twenty-three. When the couple returned to England, the King afforded his young bride a powerful demonstration of her relative position in his affections. According to Trokelowe’s chronicle, Edward ran to Gaveston, and showered him with kisses and hugs. This was reported to have bred further jealousy of the favourite among the magnates, but surely Isabella herself also took note. Doubts occasioned by the reunion of King and favourite in early February were reinforced later that month at the coronation of Edward and his Queen. When Gaveston arrived dressed in regal purple trimmed with pearls, ‘ appearing more like the god Mars than a mere mortal’, the King spent very little time on the Queen’s couch. We are told that Isabella’s uncles, Louis of Evreux and Charles of Orleans, were deeply offended by this behaviour and stormed out.

Soon there were reports of Philip the Fair bringing his power to bear against the favourite. Isabella is said to have written to her father in the spring of 1308 complaining of her ill-treatment, and rumours soon spread through England that the King of France was conspiring against the favourite, if not the King, with leading figures in the baronial opposition. Could Philip the Fair have turned a blind eye to his son-in-law’s opprobrious behaviour? This was the same French King who, six years later, would imprison his daughters-in-law, Margaret and Blanche of Burgundy, on charges of adultery, executing their lovers in gruesome fashion. Chaplais views the homophobia of Philip the Fair as one of the key arguments against a homosexual relationship between Piers and Edward, but the immediate and intense opposition to Gaveston that was apparently aroused in Philip in the spring of 1308 seems to me to be a strong argument for the existence of a homosexual liaison. A letter concerning a disputed election at Westminster Abbey, written in the spring of 1308, gives some insight into the perceived attitude of the Queen and her father. The writer advised his reader that:

..Whatever in any way concerns Peter (Gaveston) and his followers, the Queen and the earls, the Pope...the cardinals and the King of France are delighted to hinder..let the queen be so informed of all these things, that out of hatred of Peter she may deign to write specially and secretly to the lord King of France her father, to the Pope, to the cardinals, and the lord Charles, brother to the said king of France.

Philip and his sister Margaret, Edward I’s widow, were said to have sent 40,000 livres to the earls of Lincoln and Pembroke to encourage them to proceed against Gaveston.

Those who reject the notion of a sexual relationship between Edward II and Gaveston argue that all this is about an oath of brotherhood and that Philip’s opposition to Gaveston ‘is more likely to have been connected with politics than with morals or with the future of his daughter’s marriage’. Yet Philip is known to have been very concerned about his daughter’s marriage and the political consequences of children born of that union. So, while his concerns may have been political in one sense, the moral and marital issues that intertwined with political relations in this age cannot be so neatly separated or compartmentalised.

What can be said about the sexual dynamics of this menage a roi ? With regard to the Queen, Edward fulfilled his duties, if rather belatedly. Edward III was certainly the son of Edward II and Isabella. That she did not bear a child until after Gaveston’s death is probably coincidental. She was only sixteen when she gave birth to the future King, and she and Edward went on to produce three amemore children. Comparison between the itineraries of Edward and Isabella indicate that while they did not spend a great deal of time together, they did co-habit at the essential times to indicate the king’s paternity of her children. As we have seen, Edward also fathered an illegitimate son, Adam. Gaveston too performed his marital duties, fathering a daughter, Joan, by his wife Margaret de Clare, a birth that was lavishly celebrated by the King. Gaveston also appears to have fathered an illegitimate daughter, Amie, who appears sporadically in the records of the reign of Edward III.

Perhaps the most notorious moment in the first five years of the reign – apart from Gaveston’s execution – came when Edward and Gaveston were fleeing from the baronial forces led by the Earl of Lancaster. In a desperate effort to avoid the capture of Gaveston, on May 4th, 1312, the King abandoned his baggage at Newcastle. This included innumerable jewels and plate, along with a large number of valuable warhorses and their trappings. And the Queen. Five months pregnant. Once again, Edward’s devotion to Gaveston can be explained either in terms of brotherhood or a homosexual union. But if one is to argue that the King’s oath was his bond, what about his marriage oath? The love that the King felt for Piers Gaveston has been described as greater than the love of women. It still seems most likely that it was also stronger than the love of brother.

Jeffrey Hamilton is Associate Professor of History at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X