The Death of Edward II

Nigel Saul | Published in History Today

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330
Ian Mortimer
Jonathan Cape  xix + 377 pp.   £17.99     

Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
Paul Doherty
Constable    262 pp.   £17.99 

In January 1327 Edward II became the first English king since the Conquest to be deposed; his son, Edward III (1327-77), was put in his place. Following the King’s removal, the new King’s guardians – Isabella, Edward II’s queen, and her lover Roger Mortimer – had to decide what to do with him. Initially it was decided to keep him a prisoner. But by the summer, after a failed bid to release him, it was felt that he was safer dead. On the night of September 21st, at Berkeley, he was brutally murdered.

Or was he? This is the intriguing question raised by these two books. Mortimer and Doherty both believe that Edward’s death was faked. The two studies are very different. One is the exceedingly racy life of Edward’s queen, and the other a full-length biography of her magnate lover. But they both have the King’s fate as their climax.

Mortimer’s is the weightier of the two books. It is a superb study of the man who was effective ruler of England from 1327 to 1330. It is not easy to write the life of a medieval magnate. The sources are few, and it is hard to bring them to life. Too often, an attempted biography degenerates into a ‘life and times’ treatment, in which the subject recedes into the background. But not so here: Roger is kept firmly to the fore.

Ian Mortimer sees the king-making Marcher lord as a man who was a courtier by instinct, driven to opposition, as were so many of his peers, by the rise of the Despensers. In Edward’s early years he had been strongly royalist in sympathy: he had stood by the King when Lancaster was demanding the removal of Gaveston, and he supported him after Bannockburn. In a brilliant chapter he shows how Roger reimposed English rule on Ireland in the wake of the Bruce invasion in 1315. For Roger, he argues, the parting of the ways came with the rise of the Despensers from 1320. The Despensers were engaged in empire-building in the Welsh Marches, Roger’s own part of the world. When in 1321 the Marchers rose in rebellion, Roger was arrested and locked in the Tower. Two years later, however, he made a dramatic escape – aided, it is argued, by Isabella – and he fled into exile. By 1325 Isabella herself had joined him on the Continent and the two became lovers. In 1326 they invaded England and Edward’s regime collapsed. For three years from 1327 Roger and Isabella effectively ruled England under Edward III’s nominal authority. But Roger’s arrogance brought him down. When his airs and graces became too much, Edward had him arrested and executed. 

Doherty’s no less compelling book focuses more directly on Isabella. It conveniently summarises much of the material in his unpublished Oxford thesis of the 1970s – a work on which Mortimer draws extensively. He takes us at a cracking pace through Isabella’s early life, sketching the background to her marriage (a peace deal with France) and stressing her loyalty to her husband even during the years of Gaveston’s dominance. He argues that the breakdown between king and queen came with the rise of the younger Despenser. By the 1320s there were three in this marriage (a phrase we have heard in our own time).  Startlingly, he suggests that Despenser may have been guilty of sexual impropriety towards the Queen. If that was the case, no wonder Isabella was repelled. And no wonder she insisted on the most gruesome of deaths for him.

For many readers this material, however salacious, will be no more than a warm-up for the real mystery: what happened to Edward II? Both Doherty and Mortimer are in agreement: Edward II did not die at Berkeley.  While Roger and Isabella said in public that he did, they told a lie. Edward regained his freedom.

The theory is admittedly not new. It was first floated in the nineteenth century, when a document known as the ‘confession of Edward II’ was discovered in an archive in southern France. In this curious narrative, recorded by a papal agent, Manuel Fieschi, who passed it on to Edward III, someone claiming to be Edward II recounted that he had escaped from Berkeley, fled to Corfe, then made it to Ireland, and thence to the Continent. Fieschi found this strange man living the life of a hermit in northern Italy – where he took down his story.

What are we to make of this document? Scholars have generally discounted it, and perhaps rightly. Whenever a king in the Middle Ages was toppled, an impostor would pop up somewhere claiming to be him. Ian Mortimer, however, is impressed. He says that at many points the narrative can be substantiated from record sources: for example, in the statement that Edward fled from Chepstow in 1326. No run-of-the-mill impostor would know this. Accordingly, on the basis of accepting the document’s authenticity, he offers an interpretation of the years 1327-30 which assumes that Edward was alive. His argument is that Roger and Isabella wanted him alive in order to control his son.

Paul Doherty, by contrast, is distinctly unimpressed by the document. His demolition job on it is superb: he dissects it sentence by sentence, exposing its inaccuracies and ambiguities. No one could possibly take the document seriously after reading his pages. He says that one thing is true: the document has a ring of verisimilitude; but, he adds, we need to remember that Manuel Fieschi knew a lot about English affairs and had spoken to people involved in the deposition. Doherty argues that Fieschi concocted the yarn. Fieschi was greedy and avaricious, keen for preferment in the English Church. He wrote to Edward as a way of bringing pressure to bear on him.

Doherty’s reading of the document is greatly to be preferred to Mortimer’s. But if we go along with him, accepting it as a forgery, where does that leave the argument about Edward II’s fate? Doherty reminds us that the government did once admit that Edward had escaped – in July 1327, when he was sprung from prison by a group of partisans. According to the government, he was quickly recaptured. But Doherty does not believe this. In his view, he remained at large, but just faded from the scene.

And perhaps that was indeed the case: it is certainly possible. If Edward was not murdered at Berkeley, then Doherty’s hypothesis has much to commend it. But are Doherty and Mortimer actually correct in supposing that he was not murdered? Both authors agree that the official account of the King’s death and the arrangements for his burial raise difficulties. But they may be jumping too quickly to a sensationalist conclusion. They argue, for example, that Edward III took no interest in commissioning a tomb for his father at Gloucester. This simply is not true. The magnificent tomb over the burial place, with its shrine-like features, is court art: court art carried from Westminster to Gloucester. And the same can be said of the remodelling of the choir: this early Perpendicular masterpiece too is court art. Edward III apparently believed that his father was buried at Gloucester. It is not entirely clear that we should believe the opposite.

Nigel Saul is the author of Death, Art, and Memory in Medieval England: The Cobham Family and their Monuments 1300-1500 (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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