05 July, 2008

The Saint's Two Bodies

In which Edward II puzzles over the fact that St Alban appears to be buried in two places

In late March and early April 1314, Edward II spent a few days at St Albans Abbey, which was only eight miles from his childhood residence of (Kings) Langley and must have been a place he knew well. Edward made an offering to the abbey of a gold cross decorated with precious stones, supposedly containing relics of St Alban himself (he was the first British Christian martyr, and probably died in the early fourth century). While there, Edward learned that his father had intended to rebuild the choir, and gave the monks a hundred marks and quantities of timber for the purpose, ordering that no expense should be spared in honouring God and St Alban.

Edward then moved on the seventy miles to Ely near Cambridge, where he celebrated Easter Sunday, 7 April, at the cathedral. St Albans Abbey possessed the body of St Alban, but Ely Cathedral owned a reliquary which they described as ‘St Alban’s.’ According to the St Albans monks/chroniclers Trokelowe and Walsingham, a curious Edward ordered the monks to open the reliquary, telling John Ketton, bishop of Ely, "You know that my brothers of St Albans believe that they possess the body of the martyr. In this place the monks say that they have the body of the same saint. By God’s soul, I want to see in which place I ought chiefly to pay reverence to the remains of that holy body."

The monks went pale, assuming that either they would be accused of deceit, or forced to give up the relics, which brought in large revenues from pilgrims, to St Albans Abbey. Edward raised the lid of the reliquary himself, and discovered that it was full of rough cloth, spattered with blood that appeared fresh, as if spilt only the day before, and declared that it was the clothes worn by the saint at the time of his maryrdom, a millennium earlier. All the spectators fell to their knees at this miracle, including Edward, presumably - though he was the only one who had the nerve to close the lid.

Edward spent the remainder of his stay at Ely in high spirits, talking much of St Alban and praising the divine providence that had allowed two locations to possess relics of the famous martyr. On his departure, he gave the monks of Ely many gifts and told them, "Rejoice in the gift of God, rejoice in the sanctity and merits of so great a martyr; for if, as you say, God does many miracles here by reason of his garment, you may believe that at St Albans he does more, by reason of the most holy body that rests there."

For all the contemporary criticism of him - that he lost Bannockburn because he didn't spend enough time hearing Mass, and the odd comment by the Lanercost chronicler in 1314 that he "did and said things to the prejudice and injury of the saints" - there's no doubt that Edward II was sincerely and genuinely pious. He and Queen Isabella especially venerated St Thomas Becket, and often went on pilgrimage to Canterbury. In May 1300, when he'd just turned sixteen, Edward and his father stayed at Bury St Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk. Edward I soon left, but Edward stayed on a week longer, enjoying the peace and solitude. According to the St Edmundsbury Chronicle, "He became our brother in chapter. The magnificence of the place and the frequent recreations of the brethren pleased him greatly. Every day, moreover, he asked to be served with a monk's portion such as the brothers take in refectory."

The statement "The magnificence of the place and the frequent recreations of the brethren pleased him greatly" sums up the contradictory Edward nicely - a man who loved costly and luxurious clothes, jewels and surroundings and was described by the chronicler Ranulph Higden as "bountiful and splendid in living," yet who also loved rustic pursuits like digging and thatching, and who built himself a hut to live in at Westminster.

In December 1308, when he was twenty-four, Edward founded the Dominican priory at Langley where he later buried Piers Gaveston, and endowed it generously. Apparently, the foundation was "in fulfilment of a vow made by the king in peril" (Patent Rolls), whenever that might have been. In 1326, he founded a college of Carmelite friars at Oxford, supposedly in gratitude for escaping from the field of Bannockburn (according to the fourteenth-century chronicler Geoffrey le Baker), which became Oriel College.

Edward strongly favoured the Dominicans (the Friars Preacher or Blackfriars), who reciprocated his support in full measure, and often stayed at one of their houses when attending parliament, for example at Stamford in the summer of 1309 and in London in the autumn of 1311. It was of course the Dominicans of Oxford who took care of Piers Gaveston's body between June 1312 and his burial in January 1315. This is not a coincidence.

Edward often asked the Dominicans to pray for himself, "our very dear consort" the queen, and their children, for example on 30 August 1316, fifteen days after the birth of their second son John of Eltham: "To the prior-provincial of the order of the friars preacher of England...Request for their prayers on behalf of the king, his very dear consort queen Isabella, Edward de Wyndesore [Windsor], the king's eldest son, and John de Eltham, his youngest son, especially on account of John." (Close Rolls/Foedera; I find that last bit really sweet!)

In April 1317, Edward even asked the Dominicans of Pamplona, for some reason, to pray for the royal family: "To the master and diffinitores of the chapter-general of the Friars Preacher about to assemble in Pampeluna in Arragon. Request for their prayers for the good estate of the king, his very dear consort queen Isabella, Edward de Wyndesore his eldest son, and John de Eltham his youngest son, and that they will cause them to be commended in like wise by the other friars of their order." (Close Rolls/Foedera; I thought Pamplona was in Navarre, not Aragon?)

Edward II also enjoyed excellent relations with the papacy throughout his reign, and several of his bishops, William Melton, archbishop of York, Stephen Gravesend of London, John Ros of Carlisle, and Hamo Hethe of Rochester, had a genuine and long-lasting affection for him - not to mention all the clerics of various orders who gladly joined the Dunheved gang in 1327 and Kent's conspiracy in 1330 to fight (and die) for him. I do wonder sometimes how Edward reconciled his deep and sincere religious beliefs with the fact that he loved men, which the Church of course considered sinful and evil. Maybe it caused him a great deal of emotional pain and torment. Given how many churchmen served Edward faithfully, I can only suppose that they were willing to overlook his 'sin' - and it's worth pointing out that one of the men most dedicated to helping Edward in 1327 was Thomas Dunheved, his former confessor.

25 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post, especially the comment about "The magnificence of the place and the frequent recreations of the brethren pleased him greatly."

Gabriele C. said...

I wonder if not his piety was paired with a good deal of common sense in case of the St.Albans relics. With two churches benefitting from the saint and a bunch of bloody clothes in one coffin, his declaration was the one that worked best for all parties involved, whatever he personally thought. After all, Henry II 'invented' King Arthur's body, so it was not unusual to tamper with the evidence.

Cadfael would have wondered about the fresh blood and looked for a matching body that was not St.Albans. :)

Ed's good relationship with the Pope should have been another reason to hold out in Caerphilly. There's a chance the Pope would have heard about the whole mess and threatened to excommunicate Mortimer and maybe even Isabella if they laid hands on an annointed king. Though I suppose Hugh would have had to go, somehow.

Lady D. said...

Fascinating post! I love all those little stories - I think it really gives an insight in Ed's character.

And yes, Ed certainly did seem to have a good relationship with the clergy - I noticed that myself. And I've also been finding bits and pieces that seem to show that Hugh was fairly pious too - or in his case, it could possibly have been just show ;-)

Anerje said...

Really enjoyed today's post - particularly the story about Ed's involvement with St Albans.

He was very generous to the Dominicans - and I know he gave them a lot of money to say prayers for Piers. And he worked tirelessly to get Piers excommunication lifted. How on earth did the Pope have the power to do that, anyway? Pressure from Philip? Or how could the barons exert such power to get the Pope to issue the excommunication? basically, I guess I'm asking what right had the Pope to do that?

Kate Plantagenet said...

Maybe Edward II would have been a good monk...?

Alianore said...

Thanks, all!

Susan: it's sweet, isn't it?

Gabriele: good points, and I enjoyed your comments about Caerphilly on Lady D's blog, too.

Lady D: LOL! I'd tend to think it was just show, but who knows? ;)

Kate: you may be right, though I think his love of ostentation and rich possessions might have been a bit of a barrier there! :)

Anerje: it was the archbishop of Canterbury who excommunicated Piers in March 1312 - the Vita says, dramatically, "he seized his sword and struck Piers with anathema." I'm not well up on how excommunication worked, but bishops and archbishops, and other high-ranking churchmen, had the right to impose it, but I think (might be wrong though) that the pope was the only man with the power to lift it. In 1308, the archbishop of Canterbury threatened Piers with excommunication, which the pope lifted a year later (after numerous pleas and bribes from Edward). In 1311, the bishop of Norwich and other prelates threatened to excommunicate the earl of Surrey for keeping a mistress. The pope was pretty susceptible to Ed's bribes - for example, appointing Walter Reynolds as archbishop of Canterbury in 1313 after Ed sent him "large amounts of gold and silver," according to 4 contemporary chroniclers.

Carla said...

Who was the obliging medieval saint who was said to have miraculously provided three copies of his body to the three cathdrals that claimed them?
It isn't all that uncommon for different bits of the same saint to be venerated in different places, is it? Edward's explanation is quite plausible, as well as a neat bit of quick thinking. It's impressive that he had the nerve to open the reliquary in the first place! I suppose only a king would be allowed to take a look.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it the, ahem, act that the church condemns? Edward could have 'loved Piers like a brother' and provided he didn't do anything unbrotherly would the church have condemned him for it?
(Lack of judgment is a different matter).

Anerje said...

Thanks Alianore for the explanation. So it obviously didn't do to fall out with the Archbishop of Canterbury, eh? I expect the Pope didn't mind as it was a nice little earner for him:) Just regular ecclesiastical abuse of power then:) I reckon John had the right idea re the clergy.

Gabriele C. said...

I suppose faced with generous donations, the Church tended to play those three apes when it came to whom Ed may have slept with. ;)

Comment moderation activated? Did you get some nasty ones?

Anerje said...

Carla - yes, the 'act' was cause for condemnation - and so were lots of other things. I guess it depended on who your Archbishop of Canterbury was at the time hehehe! I know Despencer was condemned as a 'sodomite' - that's what we're talking about, right? He was even blamed for leading the king astray. The charge tended to be bandied about to get rid of powerful enemies - a bit like witchcraft, really. Piers escaped such condemnation. Maybe as King, Ed thought himself above such laws? Or it as just impossible to deny what he was. I expect a generous donation to the church would result in pardon, if he'd needed it. Kings did much worse anyway - murder and acts of cruelty. They seem to have had incredible elastic consciences.

Alianore said...

Carla: I'm not sure - John the Baptist, maybe? I seem to remember something that his head was on display in several places!

What I find funny is that two places claimed to have St Alban's body, then then Ed II gave one of the places a cross containing yet more parts of the saint!

I think it's beyond question that Ed loved men more than in a brotherly way (ahem), but no, brotherly love wouldn't have been condemned.

Anerje: no, definitely a bad idea to fall out with the AB of C. Ed II was probably delighted when Archbishop Winchelsey died in 1313 - he was one of his most implacable enemies.

Gabriele: LOL! And yes, I picked up a rambling troll on a couple of older posts. I'll probably turn comment moderation off in a day or two, though - I don't like it.

Anerje: that comment on Hugh Despenser doesn't appear till the 1360s, by Froissart - "he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the king." Heresy and sodomy went hand in hand, and then of course there's the vexed question of what sodomy really meant - could be anything that wasn't procreative intercourse between a married man and woman. The first known ref to Ed's sodomy came in late 1326, after Mort and Isa's invasion, by the bishop of Hereford (who hated him) - "tyrant and sodomite." Hereford claimed years later to have been referring to Despenser (yeah, right!)

Sodomy was often used as a political accusation, for example against Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 and the Templars in 1307.

Gabriele C. said...

Against our dear Heinrich IV - you know, the Canossa guy - as well. ;)

Alianore said...

Oh, really? I've heard of the Canossa affair, but I didn't know he was accused of sodomy.

Gabriele C. said...

Alianore, the Saxon nobles presented him with a whole list of his 'crimes' at some point:

- Listening to the wrong advisors (that was true from their POV because he didn't listen to them).
- Building castles on the territory of nobles (partly true, feudal ownership of some of the lands was disputed, to put it midly).
- Starting an unjust war against the Saxon nobles (a bit of the hen and egg question who started that war).
- Bribing clerks (who didn't?).
- Sodomy (difficult to say if it holds).
- Sleeping with his sister (while we're at it ...).
- Offending representants of the Holy Church (I bet he did) and the Saxon nobles (oh, sure).
- Greed.
- Assorted other misdeeds (anyone got more ideas?).

Some of the accusations were an issue with the pope and part of the whole Canossa mess, but the sodomy was not part of it, as far as I know.

Alianore said...

Hmmm, how interesting to see that they're very similar to the charges against Ed II...!

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe there was a checklist: Possible Accusations Against a Bad King. :)

Alianore said...

Yeah, they must have had a checklist. ;) The 'evil counsellors' one cropped up really often.

Ceirseach said...

I must say, the 'fresh blood' idea does sound very much like that 'miraculous preservation of the saintly body' myth we get so vividly in poems like St Erkenwald. When the tomb of the righteous pagan judge is opened in that poem, not only is the body perfectly preserved, but surrounded by sweet smells, and (if I recall rightly) dressed magnificently, courtesy of our helpful lord up above (or maybe his valet?). I wonder, if we had multiple accounts of this particular event, how many of those popular miraculously-preserved-body details would start creeping in.

On the subject of sodomy, I do think it's interesting that kings who were popularly viewed as weak - like Ed, or Richard II - tended to have that accusation dragged out, while with kings like Richard I who were the picture of heroically robust manliness (while busily having lover's tiffs with the king of France), it barely registers. I find it more fascinating that, despite a fondness for contemporary accounts of Henry VI's life, I've not yet come across a single accusation of that nature towards him - because who needs to blame the man when you have a woman beside him who is busily transgressing gender boundaries and offending sensibilities? Much juicier scapegoat there.

Interesting that the same doesn't seem to apply when it comes to Isabella...

Alianore said...

Hi Ceirseach, and thanks for commenting! That's interesting about the 'perfectly preserved body of the saint' myth. I've heard it before, but can't remember offhand which saint(s) it referred to. I do love medieval attitudes - especially that lots of people in the 14c thought Ed II should be canonised. *falls off chair laughing* :-)

Do you know the book The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, which came out in 2006? There's a couple of really good articles in that, by Mark Ormrod and Ian Mortimer, about Ed's sexuality and sodomitical reputation. Fascinating stuff.

I've occasionally wonderered if Henry VI wasn't repressing homosexuality - can't remember ever seeing that theory discussed, though.

It's interesting that the first known reference to Ed's 'sodomy' came in Sept 1326, by the bishop of Hereford, after Isa and Mort had invaded and Ed had fled to Wales. He was called 'tyrant and sodomite' as part of the ongoing propaganda campaign to portray him as an incapable, unnatural pervert - a campaign so successful it's still repeated as fact today. (Even by people who otherwise complain about 'sexual prejudices'.)

There's sooooo much I could say about all this, about Isa being forgiven for transgressing gender roles, about the significance of the younger Despsenser's execution - it's really a fascinating topic.

Ceirseach said...

Some mediaeval reigns do just beg for analysis from a gender point of view, don't they? I think if Henry VI was repressing homosexuality he was repressing it very well - though it could well account for a measure of his reputed aversion to sex. But then again, the insistence on reinterpreting him towards sainthood later on could account for that too!

No, I hadn't heard of that book - I shall put it on my list of Literary Quarry. Thanks!

Ceirseach said...

I wonder if I might have the impertinence to ask a favour! Largely inspired by your comment above, I'm currently writing an essay on why certain accusations were levelled at Edward at certain times - for example, not when he was being all over Gaveston around the time of his wedding and coronation, contrary to what we'd expect nowadays - in relation to contemporary ideas about the body personal / body politic, etc.

My assumption was that I'd not find any contemporary accusations of homosexuality for the earlier part of his reign - which proved right - but that I would after the invasion. That bit, not so much - I can't find anything! Well, except for chronicles like Baker's, well after the event and full of gossip.

The nearest I can find are the sermons of Orleton and Stratford around the time of the deposition (you know, the 'vae terrae cujus rex puer est' and 'caput infirmum' vein), which generally work on infantalising and diminishing (almost feminising) his public image. Can you think offhand of anything more direct that came out around that period, or is it perhaps just more a case of the general rumour-mills getting to work?

Odd that I can't find anything in the secondary sources about propaganda campaigns, beyond the immediate attempts for the deposition parliament.

Thanks either way!

Alianore said...

Wow, that sounds like a fascinating essay, Ceirseach!

The first point I'd make is that it was impossible for anyone to accuse Ed of homosexuality, as the word (ditto hetero- and bisexuality) didn't exist till the 19c. What he was accused of was 'sodomy' - a vague word which could mean pretty much anything that wasn't procreative sex between a husband and wife, in the missionary position, and was used far more often to describe sexual relations between men and women than sex between men. (The reason why so many people are convinced Richard the Lionheart was gay was because he was accused of sodomy.) For more details, see J. Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, which is available for limited preview on Google Books.

The first known, and only known contemporary ref, to Ed II's 'sodomy' came in a sermon of Sept (or early Oct - can't remember offhand) 1326, in Oxford I think, after Mort and Isa's invasion, by the bishop of Hereford. Hereford claimed in 1334 that he was actually talking about Hugh Despenser. However, later writers picked up on this theme, such as the Meaux chronicle of the 1390s, which says Ed 'took too much delight in sodomy' (but given the date, can't be taken too seriously).

The rumour-mill seems to have picked up this theme too, most obviously in the (utterly untrue and nonsensical) depictions of the red-hot poker murder. And Jean Froissart wrote in the 1360s that Despenser was castrated at his execution 'because he was a sodomite, even, it is said, with the king'- something no earlier source comes even close to hinting at.

The bishop of Hereford had spent time at the papal court, where Philip IV of France accused Pope Boniface VIII of sodomy in 1303. Philip also accused the Templars of sodomy in 1307 - so it was well known as a political accusation and propaganda, to hurt your enemies.

The Flores Historiarum chronicle, written in Ed's lifetime, accuses him of enjoying 'wicked and forbidden sex' - and was probably written at the instigation of Isabella (and maybe Mortimer too) to prove that Ed's deposition was justified. It's so hysterically anti- Ed it can't always be taken seriously.

The Lanercost chronicle says that Ed 'loved [Isabella] indifferently because of the aforesaid Piers [Gaveston]', and Adam Murimuth that Ed 'loved an evil make sorcerer more than he did his wife'. A few others say that Ed loved Piers as his brother.

I'd definitely recommend (again!) Ian Mortimer and Mark Ormrod's articles, which have loads to say about this. Ian Mortimer's Perfect King, a bio of Ed III, also talks about the political lies and propaganda of the autumn of 1326, which depicted Ed II as unnatural and perverted. Isa was the daughter of Philip IV, after all...

Most of the modern assumptions that Ed II was gay come from Christopher Marlowe's play of c1592 and Renaissance portrayals of kings and their favourites, not 14c chronicles - and of course numerous modern productions of Marlowe's play and Derek Jarman's 1991 film, which sexualise Ed's relationships in a way that Ed's contemps (in his lifetime and for the rest of the 14c) didn't in the slightest.

It's probably significant that Ed's (presumed) sexuality was never used by Isa as a reason not to go back to him in 1325/27, not used in the official articles of the deposition, never used as a weapon by any of Ed's political enemies (such as Lancaster), not used as a criticism of him when his rustic hobbies were...

Alianore said...

Oops, that should say 'evil maLe sorcerer'. :-)

Ceirseach said...

Thank you, t hat does help! Yes, sodomy is a very vague and general term for most of our history, isn't it - practically every gender/queer studies essay or article I've read has to start off defining what they mean by it in the context of this time/place/argument! I certainly won't be using terms like homosexual in the course of the essay, because they have far too many modern connotations and would need to be qualified too much to be at all useful.

Soo, in fact, what we're getting at is less an official use of rumours of sodomy in an attempt to get him defamed/deposed, and more... well... encouraging those rumours to take off themselves... sermons like the "vox populi vox dei", using the populi to legitimise what they were doing and lend it power... this seems to be the first time in his reign that anyone was actually taking the ordinary people into account and bothering to manipulate their opinion. Perhaps because of the way London made itself so felt in the early 1320s. Perhaps when you're dealing such larger numbers of people, who don't actually KNOW the characters involved (as opposed to the aristocracy and nobility who were a little closer, overall, to what was going on) it helps to engage those really lurid stories (red hot poker, anyone?), to rephrase them as literal allegories, whereby the symbolism of the effeminate king's body being violated/overruled becomes understood literally.

Of course, Despenser's actions probably affected people nationally a good deal more than Gaveston's did. You can understand a much greater proportion of England's population being peeved by a man who grabs lots of money and lands and does generally tyrannical things than one who dances around calling the lords nicknames and flitting over to France for tournaments and Being A Foreigner. Kind of m akes sense for the Gaveston objections to stay at a peerage level and the Despencer ones to become national.

Oh dear, too many thoughts before morning coffee.

Ceirseach said...

Oh, and I am trying to track down the New Perspectives - none of the libraries I have access to have it, so I've ordered it via interlibrary loan, but no guarantee it will get here in time. Which is frustrating, because you're right, those two articles DO look very relevant. I'll look for The Perfect King too - I just finished reading his Greatest Traitor, so that would probably continue the narrative nicely!