"I love you. I love you as I shall never love another human being in my life. You are my life!"
The King's Minions by Brenda Honeyman, published by Robert Hale in 1974, is the prequel to The Queen and Mortimer. Unfortunately this novel is long out of print and almost impossible to find these days (thanks to Susan Higginbotham for sending me a copy!) which possibly renders this review somewhat pointless, but I'm hoping it'll be reissued one of these days.
King's Minions comes very near the top of my favourite Edward II novels ever, a delightful little book which focuses on Edward II's passionate and all-consuming love affair with Piers Gaveston. Right from the first paragraph, we learn that Edward loves men, and "loved Piers Gaveston with the same kind of passionate intensity that his father had for his mother, the same soul-shaking devotion." It's a beautiful, touching depiction of an obsessive and doomed relationship between two men, a relationship that's emphatically sexual as well as romantic. It's not explicit - the novel was published in 1974, after all - but there are a few references to their "passionate lovemaking" and the strong physical need both men have for each other. The relationship is not one-sided, either. Piers holds Edward in his arms at one point, "adoring him more hopelessly than ever...it was neither greed nor lust for power which kept the life of Piers Gaveston intertwined with that of his King; it was love."
Early in the novel, the two men plight each other their troth, and neither breaks faith. Piers goes to his death with the name Edward reverberating around his head, focusing on the "beloved features" of his lover, the great love of his life. Edward here is intelligent and capable of self-insight, aware of his own limitations as a ruler and a military leader. His terrible childhood has starved him of love and affection, and he needs Piers to fill that void, which Piers does, admirably. "Piers was a part of him; of his body, his soul, the very marrow of his bones."
What I particularly love about King's Minions is that Edward and Piers are portrayed emphatically as men, who behave like men and love each other like men. There's nothing here of the tired old caricatures of 'gay men acting like twelve-year-old girls', with the mincing, shrieking, foot-stamping, tantrum-throwing Edward II so often found in novels. Edward makes a lot of mistakes and alienates most of his supporters because of his great passion for Piers, but it's easy to feel sympathy and liking for a man who adores so hopelessly and so loyally, however politically foolish it might be.
Both Edward and Piers come to full acceptance of themselves as men who love men. They see no reason to hide that fact or pretend to be otherwise. The "contempt" and "revulsion" most of the other characters feel for Edward wound him profoundly, forcing him to withdraw deep within himself. Even his stepmother Margaret, more sympathetic to him than most, can't help feeling that "such a depth of homosexual passion was obscene." Queen Isabella thinks of his sexuality as a "perversion", but admits that it "gave him an added piquancy in her eyes." She also thinks that whatever drives her away from Edward, if anything does, it won't be his love of men. Her father Philip IV, who has a cruel and malevolent sense of humour, finds it deliciously ironic that his beautiful daughter, desired by half the men of Europe, should be married to a sodomite (the character's word, not mine).
Several years into his marriage, Edward steels himself to go to his wife's bed for the first time, gulping down wine and trying to still his nervously fluttering stomach. He almost flees, but doesn't, and a little later in the novel realises "with an almost traumatic sense of shock" that heterosexual intercourse isn't quite as bad as he feared; he decides that even Piers' return from exile won't stop him going to Isabella's bed. After Piers' death, he does his best to please Isabella sexually and emotionally, and to the surprise of them both, manages it, to a certain extent. There are hints of Isabella's physical need for men and her desire to be loved and cherished, needs which she realises (and accepts) Edward can't completely fulfil; a foreshadowing of her relationship with Roger Mortimer in the sequel. Edward adores their children, and is an excellent father to them.
After Piers' murder, Edward turns to Hugh Despenser the younger for comfort, but refuses to make love with him. Partly this is because the terrible thoughts of Piers' death get in the way, but mostly it's because "it would be sacrilege for Edward to offer his body to any other man than Gaveston." Despenser is sexually frustrated and becomes intensely jealous of Isabella, who Edward does sleep with. It's a very interesting take on Edward and Despenser's relationship, one I haven't seen before (except in the sequel The Queen and Mortimer). Edward's appalling grief over Piers' death is very moving.
In a few deft strokes, Brenda Honeyman paints the people who surround Edward, the earls, lords and bishops, their politics and side-switching, their mixed feelings towards their king. Honeyman has the great skill of keeping the characters sympathetic without simplifying them, skating over or exaggerating their faults. Everyone here appears in shades of grey, not black and white.
In conclusion, The King's Minions is the most beautiful, erotic, and touching portrayal of Edward II and Piers Gaveston I've ever read. As with the sequel, my only criticism is that it's much too short, at only 189 pages. Such compassionate and insightful writing deserves and demands a much broader canvas. Brenda Honeyman is well known these days as Kate Sedley, author of the 'Roger the Chapman' series of medieval mysteries. I can only hope that her publishers decide to reissue this novel and give it the wider audience it so richly deserves.