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.