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The fairy tale of Edward II.

IT HAS BEEN a strange life after death, that of Edward of Caernarfon, born in Wales on April 25, 1284, St. Mark's Day in the Catholic faith. This is the boy who grew up to be Edward II of England, who married in 1308, was deposed in 1327, and was murdered at age 43 at Berkeley Castle in the west of England, purportedly by means of a red-hot poker through the bowels. History records that Edward was the lover of a Gascon knight, Piers Gaveston, and also of an Anglo-Norman one, Hugh le Despenser Junior.

While the story of Edward was remembered throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, it was the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) who consecrated Edward as a suffering homosexual on the London stage, circa 1592. The author of the most beautiful sustained homoerotic poem in the English language, "Hero and Leander," Marlowe leaves no doubt as to the sexual nature of Edward's relationship with Gaveston, nor about the homophobic motives of those who executed the King.

And yet, evidence has been accumulating since serious work on the British medieval archive began 150 years ago suggesting that Edward II was probably not sexually involved with the men traditionally named as his partners, and very possibly wasn't homosexual at all. If anything, Edward may have been promiscuously heterosexual. It looks as if what we have here is a great European myth, 700 years old and still going strong, inspiring artists and writers for four centuries, but based on little sound historical evidence.

This is not to insist that Edward II was demonstrably heterosexual. After all, the most gifted gay historian of the Middle Ages to date, the late John Boswell of Yale University, accepted the accounts of Edward's homosexuality in his 1980 magnum opus, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. And it's certainly possible that at any moment some archive may yield a proof that Edward II was indeed gay. But given the current weight of evidence, I think such proof would have to come in the form of contemporary letters of unimpeachable authenticity, written on behalf of someone profoundly in the know, perhaps a member of Gaveston's own family. But until such evidence materializes, I propose that Edward's homosexuality is one of English history's big lies.


Whether the truth of Edward's sexuality is ever finally known, the more interesting question is how Edward came to be remembered--or misremembered--as gay. We should look first to the year 1308 and an event that involved Piers Gaveston. That year, the new young king, who had succeeded his father in July of 1307, was opposing his virtually bankrupt future father-in-law, Philip IV of France, who was making feverish efforts to expropriate money deposited with the French branch of the Knights Templar. Indeed Philip was trying to close down the entire international organization on fabricated charges that it had been infiltrated by Islamic influences and was imposing homosexuality upon recruits. Philip IV, known as "le Bel," was in the habit of calling his political opponents "sodomites." He did it to Bernard Saisset bishop of Pamiers in 1301, to the elderly pope Boniface VIII in 1303 (saying he had sex with Roman serving men), and to the whole Templar order from 1307 to 1312, torturing the knights and their servants to get false confessions out of them.

Twenty-three-year-old Edward II married Philip's twelve-year-old daughter Isabella at Boulogne, France, early in 1308. Given Philip's proven support for Gaveston's enemies in England over the coming years, it would have been in character for the French king to have started the rumor that his son-in-law was having sex with his counselor, Piers Gaveston, a Gascon knight, to imply that Edward had a disreputable personal motive for protecting the Templars. But we can assert with some certainty that no one was expected to believe the charge at the time; it was only ordinary medieval vituperation, politics as usual.

No researcher has yet discovered a written text dating to Edward II's lifetime indicating that he had affairs with men, so we're left with the most famous "proof" that he was considered gay by his contemporaries: the manner of his death, rape by heated poker. As late as 1959 the French novelist Maurice Druon was still drawing on this supposition in his series of historical fictions, Les Rois Maudits (The Accursed Kings), in which he asserted that Edward's captors had determined that the imprisoned king "be punished where he has sinned." Yet for more than a century, ever since the research of the Victorian historian E. A. Freeman from 1867 to 1877, the poker-death story has been known to be just about certainly a fiction, a medieval urban legend. Freeman found that the story had been told of a number of earlier European leaders, including an Anglo-Saxon king, Edmund II ("Ironside"), who ruled for only a few months in 1016. An account from the Historia Anglorum of 1130 by Henry of Huntingdon, published in the original Latin in 1879--"[King Edmund] went out to answer a call of nature, whereupon duke Edric's son setting a trap by agreement with his father, struck him in the hidden place with a knife sharpened on both sides; and thrusting the iron in, fled" ("Ivit nocte quadam in domum evacuationis ...")--bears a striking resemblance to later descriptions of Edward II's execution. It's quite possible that the two kings were confused in the fullness of time.


Of Edward II's love for Gaveston a contemporary wrote, "The king had an unswerving love [or affection] for him" ("Rex autem continuum amorem erga eum habebat")--a statement that's highly suggestive to modern readers, but one to which we should not automatically ascribe our assumption that an impassioned male friendship entails genital sex.

The best contemporary witness to the love of Edward II and Gaveston was the anonymous author of the Latin-language Life of Edward the Second, which was left unfinished in around 1325, unfortunately breaking off before reaching Edward's deposition. The author has tentatively been identified as the civil servant John Walwayn Senior, one of Edward's employees. The writer compares Edward and Piers to David and Jonathan and to Achilles and Patroclus, and adds that their relationship was even more intense ("illi modum excessisse non leguntur"), but he does not describe it as a sexual relationship. Yet there's one sentence that seriously undermines the idea that the author believed it was a sexual relationship with the king that provoked the revolt against Gaveston: "I believe and firmly maintain that if Piers had from the outset borne himself prudently and humbly towards the magnates of the land none of them would ever have opposed him."

Edward II had occasion to comment on sodomy in a letter to Pope Clement V dated December 10, 1307, in which he described it as "terrible to think of, horrible to hear, and detestable in wickedness." Of course, this utterance came in the highly political context of a missive denouncing Philip IV of France's just-released allegations of Moslem heresies and sodomy among the Knights Templar.

It is improbable that in preparing Edward the Second Christopher Marlowe was aware of the extent of Philip IV's anti-gay tirades, and his 16th-century sources knew far less than we do about the historical Gaveston. The wonderful result of this ignorance of Marlowe's immortal play, including the following vivid description of Gaveston:
 I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
 Musicians, that with touching of a string
 May draw the pliant king which way I please....
 Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
 With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
 Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
 And in his sportful hands an olive tree
 To hide those parts which men delight to see.

This is the Gaveston of a delighted if overwrought erotic imagination in the English Renaissance. But it is far removed from the historical Gaveston, a soldier who had experience in at least seven wars and had friends high up in government before he ever met Edward II. The theatrical Gaveston is a bawd who fixes up a king's entertainments and provides him with boys in a struggle to remain his favorite.

It was finally Marlowe who immortalized the hot poker story. At the climax of his play the lead assassin calls for "a spit and let it be red-hot ... What else? A table and a featherbed." By 1924, in Brecht's variation of Marlowe's play, Leben Eduards des Zweiten von Englands, staged at Munich just after Hitler's beer-cellar putsch, Gaveston, now called "Danny," is a timid and plump butcher's boy with whom--rather inexplicably--Edward II is obsessed. Danny and "Neddy" (Edward) get homophobic abuse for their relationship: "Neddy's woman has a beard on his chest."


Who first wrote down that Edward II had sex with men? The first person I can find to have written it out plainly was Jehan "le Bel" ("the Fair" once again, though nicknames were often satirical reversals of the truth), a Belgian soldier-turned-priest who was very well acquainted with England and Scotland and wrote in the 1340's, according to present estimates of composition date. Citing the authority of earlier works that have not yet been found, he wrote a history of the Hundred Years War known today as Vrayes Chroniques, or True History. In this work Jehan reported that by 1326 there were rumors that Edward II had bedded his principal adviser, Hugh le Despenser Junior. In context, this would mean that they were rumored to be having sex with one another between 1321 and 1326, when, as we now know, both men were in their late thirties, had known each other for a quarter of a century, and had perhaps ten children between them by their respective wives. Le Bel said nothing about Gaveston.

Executed at Isabella's behest in November 1326 after the overthrow of Edward II, Despenser was raised on a high ladder in Hereford, according to Vrayes Chroniques, so that all could see, and with a great fire below they cut off his "vit et les coulles" (cock and balls) "because he was a heretic and sodomite, even it was said with the king himself, and had incited the king to abandon the queen" ("pour tant qu'il estoit herites et sodomites, ainsy comme on disoit, et mesmement du roy mesmes, et pour tant avoit le roy dechasse la royne par son enhortement"). Jehan le Bel offered no heated poker story about Edward, however. Indeed he said nothing about how the King died, other than to report that orders were given that he be "well guarded and honorably treated for as long as he might live, according to his estate" ("bien garde et honnestement tenu que vivre pourroit, selon son estat").

The next, and more important, popularizer of the tale about Hugh Despenser and Edward II having sexual relations (at least that I can find) was yet another Belgian, Jehan or Jean Froissart, who was born in Hainault in about 1338 and died at Chimay circa 1410. He knew Edward II's family, for during the 1360's he worked as secretary to his fellow countrywoman, Edward II's daughter-in-law Philippa of Hainault. Froissart had hoped to be a poet, but descended to prose, starting his French-language history of the 14th century known to enthusiastic later generations as Froissart's Chronicles some time between 1374 and 1386. He carried the work through to a final reference to the murder of Richard II of England in 1400.

Froissart received a nod from the great English historian Sir Walter Besant, who said of him: "No newspaper correspondent, no American interviewer, has ever equaled this medieval collector of intelligence." Subsequent generations all thought him the greatest historian of the Middle Ages, yet in dealing with the 1320's he merely repeated in identical terms Le Bel's assertion of thirty years earlier that Despenser had been "herites et sodomites, ensi que on disoit mesmement del roy." Froissart did go to Berkeley Castle to inquire around the neighborhood how Edward II had died. Nobody told him the poker story.

The first home-grown English author to have asserted that Edward II had sex with men--without saying who they were--appears to have been a Yorkshireman, Thomas Burton, abbot of the Cistercian Yorkshire monastery of Meaux starting in 1396. Tired of trying to lead the abbey through its internal feuds, he resigned as abbot in 1399, but continued to live there and devoted the next thirty years to writing a history of Meaux within the context of larger public events. Burton wrote of the death of Edward II, repeating a rumor that had had been circulating for 75 years, namely that the King had been murdered at Berkeley Castle with an iron spit ("veru ferreo"). Then, in a phrase that would later become famous, he wrote in his Chronicle of the Monastery of Meaux that Edward II "delighted excessively in the sin of sodomy" ("in vitio sodomitico nimium delectabat").


Now "sodomy" was a catch-all accusation applied by Church writers to any kind of sex that wasn't directly procreative, even sex inside of marriage, so Burton may have intended to reprove Edward's heterosexual excesses. The King had acknowledged one illegitimate son, and if he had one mistress he may have had many. Still, a case can be made that Burton did have homosexuality in mind when he made this accusation. In his Chronicle he recited the "hot poker" version of Edward II's death, with its obvious imputation of homosexuality. And Burton probably did not know about Edward's short-lived illegitimate son Adam. At any rate, it was this interpretation of "sodomy" that everyone came to accept, whether it's the one Burton intended or not.

And just to underscore history's capriciousness, there was also a 14th-century rumor that it was Despenser's wife Eleanor, not Despenser himself, with whom Edward had had an affair, and it was this fling that stirred Queen Isabella to start plotting her husband's deposition. But this is not the story that would come to capture the popular imagination.


In November 1990, even as Derek Jarman was putting the finishing touches on the script for his brilliant film Queer Edward II, and as the English historical novelist Chris Hunt was writing his happy romantic novel Gaveston (1992), a reader emeritus in diplomatic history at Oxford University, Pierre Chaplais, was proposing to a meeting of the Medieval Group at All Souls College Oxford that Edward and Gaveston were not lovers at all. Noting that "there is no specific reference in any contemporary chronicle to such a relationship," Chaplais advanced the thesis that Edward II and Piers Gaveston, a cavalry officer, were blood brothers in the military style, sworn to mutual protection and loyalty to death. He further developed this thesis in his 1994 book, Piers Gaveston: Edward II's Adoptive Brother.

Chaplais concedes that the exact nature of the relationship between the two men is "disappointingly vague," perhaps out of reticence where such matters are concerned. But a more probable explanation for why the written record is vague is that contemporary writers "genuinely had no clear idea of what really went on between the two men.... [The] mudslinging efforts of late chroniclers have been so successful that they have made us overlook the significance of what may seem at first sight a very small point, which had been made by their more reliable predecessors, namely that Edward called Gaveston his brother." An anonymous chronicler did say there had been a "fraternitatis fedus," a "compact of brotherhood," between the men.

We can certainly continue to regard Edward II, as do most historians even now, as an authentic homosexual of the High Middle Ages. But it seems just as likely that he was a confirmed hetero, even a ladies' man, and that an ephemeral smear campaign by his father-in-law one winter in Boulogne grew legs after Edward's death and became one of the great legends of English literature. In 1877 a letter was found to Edward II's son Edward III--a letter that would become famous but may or may not be authentic--indicating that the King had escaped to a long, quiet retirement in Italy. Be that as it may, there's no doubt but that Edward II's reign came to a bad end, probably because he was unlucky and incompetent, an unpleasant tyrant who clearly didn't understand how the game was played. Perhaps his emasculation began after he lost the battle of Bannockburn to a grossly inferior army of Scots in 1314. Doubtless it had much to do with the fact that it was a woman, his own wife Isabella, who ousted him from power in 1326.

That this image of Edward stuck, that it transmogrified into the legend of torrid sex with Gaveston and death by poker, probably has more to do with the homophobia of subsequent ages than with Edward's own rule. The urban legend probably started in Paris in the 14th century; by the time it found its way into Christopher Marlowe's play it was a lurid and deeply homophobic tale of crime and punishment.

Andrew Lumsden, a London-based writer, was the first British journalist at a national newspaper to come out as gay, in 1970, at The Times of London. He was a founder and an editor of Gay News.
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Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Lumsden, Andrew
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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