Today is the 696th anniversary of the death of Piers Gaveston, run through with a sword and beheaded at Blacklow Hill, Warwickshire, on 19 June 1312.
The story of Piers' death - abducted from the earl of Pembroke's custody by the earl of Warwick and killed in the presence of the earls of Lancaster, Hereford and Arundel - has been told so often I'm not going to bother repeating it here. Instead, I'll look at some lesser-known aspects of the whole sordid business.
According to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Piers is meant to have said before being killed:
"Oh! Where are the presents that bought me so many intimate friends, and with which I thought to have sufficient power? Where are my friends, in whom was my trust, the protection of my body, and my whole hope of safety; whose lusty youth, unbeaten valour, and courage was always aflame for hard tasks? They had promised to stand by me in war, to suffer imprisonment, and not to shun death. Indeed my pride, the arrogance that one single promise of theirs has nourished, the king’s favour and the king’s court, have brought me to this sorry plight. I have no help, every remedy is in vain, let the will of the earls be done."
To me, this sounds far more like something the author – who strongly disapproved of Piers – thinks he should have said, rather than anything the courageous and bitingly witty Gascon really would say. Except possibly the ‘lusty youth’ part.
On the day of Piers' death, Edward II was at Burstwick near Hull with Queen Isabella, who was about four months pregnant. The king and queen stayed at Burstwick until 21 June, and were in Beverley on the 22nd, Pocklington on the 23rd, and York on the 24th. It is not known when Edward heard the news of Piers' death, or which poor messenger had the unfortunate task of telling him. I'd imagine that the earl of Pembroke sent the message, rather than the earls present at Piers' death ("Dear Ned, we've killed your best friend. Hope you're well. Love, Tom, Guy, Humph and Edmund.")
Warwick to York/Beverley is around 150 miles, a journey a fast rider could have made in three, or maybe only two days (given that the hours of daylight are extremely long in June, when it's light by 4am and still light enough to ride at 10.30 or 11pm).
The fact that Isabella was with Edward when he received the news has been missed by almost every writer on the subject (but is certainly true, as a quick glance at The Itinerary of Edward II and The Household Book of Queen Isabella proves). The queen's reaction is not recorded, but whatever her private feelings might have been, it is unthinkable that she would have gloated to Edward about the death, and we can probably assume that she did her best to comfort him, and expressed her sympathy and support. If nothing else, she was clever enough to know that Edward would never forgive her if she openly demonstrated any pleasure at the killing of his beloved. It goes without saying that she had nothing whatsoever to do with Piers' death.
As for Edward, from his later actions it is clear that his primary reaction to Piers' murder was utter rage. His grief at the loss of his beloved must have been shattering. He had loved Piers for at least twelve years, and been emotionally reliant on him to an extraordinary degree. Losing him must have been like losing part of himself.
Not that you'd guess it from his first words on the subject, which, according to the ever-useful Vita, were:
"By God’s soul, he acted as a fool. If he had taken my advice he would never have fallen into the hands of the earls. This is what I always told him not to do. For I guessed that what has now happened would occur. What was he doing with the earl of Warwick, who was known never to have liked him? I knew for certain that if the earl caught him, Piers would never escape from his hands."
('By God's soul' was Edward's favourite oath.)
This is such an odd thing for Edward to say, it rings true. I can only imagine that shock and grief do not lend themselves to eloquence, or that he managed to control his emotions in public for once, however much he mourned and raged and howled in public.
The Vita goes on to say, with notable compassion for a man who wasn't a great fan of Edward II, "when this light utterance of the king was made public it moved many to derision. But I am certain the king grieved for Piers as a father grieves for his son. For the greater the love, the greater the sorrow." That Edward loved Piers as a son is stated again in the Vita: "they put to death a great earl whom the king had adopted as brother, whom the king cherished as a son, whom the king regarded as friend and ally." I think it's safe to say that whatever Edward II felt for Piers, it wasn't paternal, but then, the author of the Vita could hardly write 'whom the king loved as his lover...'
Edward swore revenge on the men responsible. At first, he mostly blamed the earl of Warwick, and the Vita says that Edward swore either to have Warwick's head, or to banish him from the kingdom. Later on, though, the earl of Lancaster became the main focus for Edward's rage and need for revenge. Oddly, Edward did not blame the earl of Arundel, who was certainly present when Piers was killed. In October 1313, Edward finally pardoned everyone involved in "all causes of anger, indignation, suits, accusations etc arisen in any manner on account of Piers Gaveston..." Over 350 men were pardoned (all the names are listed in the Patent Rolls and Foedera), but Arundel was not one of them. Maybe Arundel spoke up for Piers, or tried to save him - or at least, persuaded Edward that he did.
Edward left York on 28 June and travelled to London, via Lincolnshire. He left Queen Isabella behind, probably to keep his pregnant wife out of the way of danger - for a while, it seemed as though the country would slide into war. The day after Edward left York, Isabella sent him a letter, the contents of which are unknown, unfortunately. In late July, Edward sent Isabella an escort to bring her south, but she had to travel very slowly because of her pregnancy, and didn't reach London until 9 September. A few days later, she and Edward retired to Windsor Castle and spent most of the next eight months there together. Two chronicles, the Vita and Trokelowe, say that Edward's joy at the birth of his son on 13 November went some way to assuaging his terrible grief.
Many people in England rejoiced at the death of the flamboyant favourite. A contemporary song reads:
"Celebrate, my tongue, the death of Piers who disturbed England,
Whom the king in his love placed all over Cornwall
Hence in his pride he would be called earl and not Piers…
Now he no longer behaves himself as an earl, or a king;
The unworthy man, worthy of death, undergoes the death he merits…
Glory be to the Creator! Glory be to the earls
Who have made Piers die with his charms!
Henceforth may there be peace and rejoicing throughout England!"
And according to the Vita:
"When Piers had met his end, and the voice of the people had dinned his death into the ears of all, the country rejoiced, and all its inhabitants were glad. I may assert with confidence that the death of one man, unless he had been a burden upon the state, had never before been acceptable to so many. The land rejoices, its inhabitants rejoice that they have found peace in Piers' death..."
To say that 'all the inhabitants' rejoiced is an exaggeration. Many did, but others were horrified at the earls’ brutal act and the violent illegality of it, and a groundswell of sympathy for the king swept the country. Piers' death strengthened Edward’s position, especially as the earls of Surrey and Pembroke came back to his side, appalled by the murder. Edward did not blame Pembroke for his role in the death of his friend; several months later, he gave his cousin some of Piers' falcons. The reaction of Piers' widow Margaret de Clare is, inevitably, not recorded, but she and Edward paid for two clerks to watch over his embalmed body, which was dressed in cloth-of-gold.
On 3 January 1315, Edward finally buried Piers. At the time of his death, Piers could not be buried, as he died excommunicate. This must have been lifted, which probably happened in September 1312, when Piers' elder brother Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan visited Pope Clement V at Avignon. (Arnaud-Guillaume was Piers' full brother, but used the name of their mother, Claramonde de Marsan.)
However, Edward still waited more than two years to bury his friend, partly because (I assume) he couldn't bear to commit the body to the ground, but also because he had sworn "first to avenge Piers, and then consign his body to the grave", according to the Vita.
Revenge would have to wait a while longer. But Edward never forgot his promise. In September 1319, during the siege of Berwick, he said "When this wretched business is over, we will turn our hands to other matters. For I have not forgotten the wrong that was done to my brother Piers." Ominous words, and in March 1322, three months short of ten years after Piers' death, he finally had the earl of Lancaster beheaded.
Piers Gaveston was about twenty-nine or thirty when he died, father of a five-month-old daughter and, apparently, an illegitimate daughter, age unknown. So many centuries later, it's hard to see exactly what he did that merited death. But the murder of this flamboyant, charismatic, handsome and aggravating young man on 19 June 1312 was to have the most profound impact on political events for the rest of Edward II's reign.