12 February, 2006

Character and Hobbies of Edward II

Now, I'm not denying that Edward II was an appalling king. He didn't have any of the qualities required in a 14th century ruler, and it was surely the best thing for England that he was deposed and replaced by his son, a much more competent ruler. However, I don't believe that Edward was a bad man, and in fact many of his character traits, though incomprehensible to his contemporaries, are very attractive to the modern mind.

For example, Edward had a general preference for the company of peasants over his nobles - a fact heavily criticised by chroniclers of the time, but to a 21st century observer, a king with the 'common touch' who could communicate with people much further down the social scale seems much more attractive. Edward loved pastimes such as building walls, digging ditches, thatching roofs and shoeing horses - considered odd back then, and even into the 20th century, when some historians assumed that these interests were indicative of low intelligence. I hope we are more enlightened than that nowadays!

Personally, I love the fact that Edward enjoyed rowing and swimming, and sailing his barge along the River Thames, buying cabbages from peasants on the banks to make soup with. Am I the only person who finds that extremely endearing behaviour in a king?!

What come down the centuries to me are Edward's strongly emotive character traits, which are really the main reason why I'm so interested in him. He comes across to me as a real person I can imagine knowing (and liking) which most of the other medieval kings of England don't (I find a lot to admire in Edward III, for example, but his personality is a closed book to me.) Edward was fiercely loyal and generous to those he loved, not perhaps the most sensible trait in a king but attractive in a man, and he had a huge capacity to love and be loved. The 'wrong' people, maybe, but who of us can choose who we love?

He loved music, dancing, romances and watching plays: signs of a cultured man, surely? As Caroline Bingham, one of his biographers, points out, other historians often sneeringly comment that Edward was followed everywhere by 'Genoese fiddlers' which sounds frivolous, but they could equally well be described as 'Italian musicians', which sounds cultured. Edward had a great sense of humour, as is proved by the many records of payment to people who had made him laugh, and he greeted the impostor John of Powderham in 1318 (John had claimed to be the righful king of England) with the words 'Welcome, my brother'. (Edward apparently wanted to make John a court jester, but Isabella and various nobles demanded his execution.)

Edward was mostly an easy-going man, although prone to violent outbursts of temper (like all his family). The last few years of his reign, from 1322 to 1326, were, however, a tyranny. It's tempting to see the hand of Hugh Despenser the Younger, who was king of England in all but name, here - this time is demonstrably different from the rest of Edward's reign. Edward was not much interested in governing, and seems to have been happy to let Despenser rule the kingdom however he saw fit - presumably because of the personal (and probably sexual) hold Despenser had over him.

Although a disastrous general whose campaigns in Scotland ended in failure, Edward was not lacking in personal bravery, and a contemporary chronicler states that Edward fought like a lion at Bannockburn in 1314 - although he is often accused of cowardice by modern writers and commentators who claim that he 'ran away'. Surely leaving the field was better, though, than being captured by the Scots (and apparently the Earl of Pembroke had to drag him unwillingly from the battlefield)? If he had been captured, no doubt modern writers would castigate him for his stupidity, as well as his cowardice.

Poor Edward II: damned if he did, damned if he didn't. I think he must be the only man in history condemned as a pervert for NOT having sex with a 12-year-old girl - Isabella was almost certainly only 12 at the time of their wedding in January 1308, and they didn't conceive their first child till they'd been married a little over 4 years. Edward apparently preferred the company of Gaveston, but who would any other 23-year-old man prefer to spend time with: a 12-year-old girl he'd never met before, or a man of his own age he'd known half his life?

Edward had 3 older brothers - John, 1266-1271; Henry, 1268-1274; and Alfonso, earl of Chester, 1273-1284. If any of them had lived, Edward would never have been king, and I get the strong impression that he would have much preferred that. He would have been in his element as a country knight, building walls and digging ditches and such like!
It's hardly his fault that he was so unsuited to the role of king - it's not as though he had any choice in the matter. He was the eldest surviving son of his father, and therefore he had to be king, whether he liked it or not. The same with his marriage: Edward and Isabella's union was arranged by their fathers when he was about 16 and Isabella about 5, and Edward had to marry her, or almost certainly face a war against her father, Philip IV.
Isabella gets a lot of sympathy these days for taking a lover after years of marital unhappiness - fine, but Edward still gets a lot of criticism for his own presumed infidelities, which hardly seems fair. The attitude often seems to be - Isabella was beautiful, therefore Edward 'should' have loved her, and if he didn't there was something wrong with him. It doesn't work like that, though! You don't automatically love someone just because she's beautiful, and in an arranged marriage, it's hardly surprising that people find love elsewhere (and Edward had clearly loved Gaveston for many years before he married Isabella). Yet even in our supposedly enlightened times, many people seem to believe that Isabella's adultery was heterosexual and therefore OK, but Edward's preference for men was perverted. Even Alison Weir trots out a similar line in her recent bio of Isabella.

So there you are. Edward II, the disastrous king, but very likeable man! He had many faults, but these have been overstated - none of us is perfect! One historian, in a thunderingly 19th century way, called Edward II the greatest failure of his father Edward I; he also claimed that Edward I's eldest 3 sons 'were worthy to have outlived him, while Edward II was worthy never to have been born at all'. Edward II's 3 elder brothers are totally obscure, boys who died at the ages of 5, 6 and 10: how can anybody possibly know what kind of kings they might have made? Maybe they would have been even worse! And secondly, which of us has the right to say that someone should never have been born? (Except for people like Hitler, possibly).
Now in the 21st century, the time is long overdue for us to treat Edward II a bit more kindly, and a bit less judgmentally.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Liked your comments about Edward and Isabella. It amazes me how many people assume that Isabella was sexually ripe when she married Edward and that he therefore was a cad for not flinging her across his shoulder and carrying her off to bed immediately after the wedding. For all we know, she might not have been that well developed when Edward married her, and the lag in her getting pregnant might have been prompted by concerns that childbirth at an earlier age would damage her health.

Drema Stringer said...

. Consummation of marriage between child brides and their mature husbands didn't take place until after she began menstruation. Perhaps Isabella was a late bloomer in that area.