Piers Gaveston was the son of a Gascon lord. When Edward I chose suitable persons for his eldest surviving son’s household young Piers was selected on account of his father’s loyalty and the fact that Edward thought he’d make a good role model – Piers was apparently a bit of a charmer.
The Prince of Wales and Piers were both about 16 when they met. They certainly took to one another though how close their friendship was is a matter of speculation. After all, Edward went on to have four children with his wife Isabella. Many at the time thought Edward and Piers were having a homosexual relationship (it explained why Edward could refuse Piers nothing), but some modern historians see it as more like close brotherly love. Edward referred to Gaveston as ‘my brother Piers’. Whatever the exact nature of the relationship, it was a disaster for the kingdom.
In 1307 Edward I banished Gaveston from England, though he was to be paid an allowance. The king asked the men gathered round his death-bed to ensure that Gaveston did not return (one of them was Robert Clifford) unfortunately for England all the men gathered around Edward at the time appear to have had their fingers crossed when they promised Edward that Gaveston wouldn’t be allowed back.
The new king, Edward II, immediately brought Gaveston back to his side, made him Earl of Cornwall and bestowed on him an aristocratic wife, land and money. Edward II was not like his father – medieval kings were supposed to be successful warriors. Edward II was more interested in digging ditches and chatting to ordinary men – preferably burly ones with a good set of biceps if some accounts are to be credited. He was also prone to doing slightly silly things such as burning Wetheral Priory on an evening out (well it saved the Scots a job) and it was swiftly becoming clear to all around him that he was not a good judge of men.
In 1308 Edward allowed Gaveston a prominent role in his coronation and later at his wedding banquet, at which he paid so much attention to the favourite that Queen Isabella’s French relatives walked out. It probably didn’t help that Gaveston had ordered tapestries for the occasion – they depicted the king’s arms quartered with his own. There was also the matter of Piers wearing the queen’s jewelry ‘for safe keeping.’
The king was forced to send Gaveston away to Ireland later that year, but he was back in 1309 and resumed his position at court as Edward’s principal adviser. This effectively meant that if you wanted to get the king you had to go through Piers. He controlled royal patronage and used his position to get rich.
By March 1310 opposition had mounted to such a point that the king had to agree to the appointment of the Lords Ordainers, a committee of 21 earls, barons and bishops who were to draw up rules for the management of the royal household and the realm. At the forefront of this drive to curtail Edward’s power was his cousin Thomas of Lancaster.
Gaveston was exiled by the Lord Ordinancers in November 1311. He returned without permission in January 1312 and was captured. He was effectively kidnapped on his journey south by Thomas of Lancaster at Warwick. He sentenced Gaveston to death and had the sentence carried out as soon as possible. The problem was that the execution wasn’t entirely legal. Lancaster had exceeded his authority. This caused a rift between some of the Lord Ordainers and although Edward II couldn’t act against them immediately he stored up his anger and took his revenge at a later date when he felt that he was in a position of strength.
Meanwhile the king led a military campaign in Scotland that failed to subdue Robert the Bruce. It would eventually culminate with a crushing defeat for the English in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. Edward had no idea of strategy or good positioning for an army. He thought that it was enough to turn up with lots of men. The north of England found itself open to wave after wave of Scottish invaders and raiders. Skipton Castle came under attack in 1317, 1318, 1399 and 1322. It was partly because of this that Sir Roger Clifford, second Lord of Westmorland joined with the king’s enemies.
It didn’t help either that the harvest failed in 1315. The famine was not the king’s fault but it was symptomatic of the problems besetting his realm. The country was descending into chaos and just to make matters worse Edward found himself a new best friend. Hugh Despenser and his dear old dad also called Hugh Despenser. Hugh Despenser the Younger was married to Edward II’s niece so he was already part of the family.
Edward was clearly attracted to arrogant and greedy men. The Despensers made Gaveston look positively mild in comparison. They seized castles that didn’t belong to them, bullied women (by which I mean breaking their legs) and were probably unkind to small animals. Things came to a head when they took possession of land in the Welsh marches that definitely didn’t belong to them. It was at this point that court politics erupted into open rebellion. Parliament caused the two men to be banished in 1321 but Edward called them home the following year.
At first Edward was victorious. His army quelled the Mortimers and then another army loyal to him was victorious at the Battle of Boroughbridge. The army was led by Sir Andrew de Harcla who knew that Thomas of Lancaster had called upon the Scots for support. Lancaster is supposed to have said that Sir Andrew would find himself in a position similar to that of Lancaster before the year was out. It turned out to be true. Roger Mortimer found himself in the Tower of London and Thomas of Lancaster found himself without a head. The following year Sir Andrew de Harcla, who had lost confidence in his king’s ability to protect the people of the north following the Battle of Byland in 1322, was found guilty of treating with the Scots. He was hanged, drawn and quartered in Carlisle. Ironically Edward was forced to make terms with the Scots shortly afterwards because he’d had his best warriors executed.
It was just after this in 1325 that Queen Isabella took the opportunity to go home to France for a holiday along with her son where she wreaked havoc upon her family as well as meeting and falling in love with Roger Mortimer who had managed to escape from the Tower.
Isabella and Mortimer invaded England from the Continent in 1326 with only 1500 men. Such was the unpopularity of the king and his favourites that people flocked to join them. The Despensers suffered unpleasant deaths. Hugh Despenser the younger was taken to the market place in Hereford covered in tattoos outlining his many sins which included rape (Alison Weir has a theory that Despenser raped the queen) before being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Edward was forced to abdicate in January 1327, in favour of his son another Edward. Edward II was murdered at Berkeley Castle. He is the king purported to have been killed with a red-hot poker shoved somewhere unmentionable. However Dr Ian Mortimer presents an intriguing theory that the king’s death was feigned.