11 July, 2009

John Trevisa And That Famous Red-Hot Poker

A post about a misconception I've been dying to clear up! John Trevisa was an English writer of the later fourteenth century, and one of his most famous works is his 1387 translation, from Latin into English, of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, written in c. 1350. Higden was one of the chroniclers who believed in the red-hot poker murder of Edward II, which Trevisa translated into English as "a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posteriale." I've often seen it argued that because Trevisa was the chaplain and confessor of Thomas, Lord Berkeley, Edward II's custodian of 1327, he was therefore in a position to know the truth about Edward's murder, and because he translated Higden's words without comment, the story must be correct. It's also sometimes stated that Trevisa came from the village of Berkeley and was a small boy there in 1327. This article ("John Trevisa, who was born in Berkeley and, though a child at the time, later served as chaplain to one of Edward II's keepers and so knew the truth") is a good example, as is this page quoting a published book: "some years later one John Trevisa, who had been a boy at the time, revealed what had actually happened. Trevisa had grown up to take holy orders and become chaplain and confessor to the King’s jailer, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, so he was well placed to solve the mystery." The myth that 'John Trevisa was Berkeley's chaplain and so must have known the truth about Edward II's murder' is mindlessly repeated in a number of books, some of them very recent, by writers who should know better. Naming no names, but glaring in their general direction. I mean, do some research, people.

All of this theory is based on fundamental misconceptions. (No pun intended with 'fundament', honest.) Firstly, according to his biographer Professor David C. Fowler, John Trevisa was born in about 1342, fifteen years after Edward II's alleged murder. Secondly, he didn't come from the village of Berkeley but from Cornwall, probably Trevessa in the parish of St Enoder between Newquay and St Austell, hence his name. Thirdly and most importantly, the Thomas, Lord Berkeley he served as chaplain was not Edward II's custodian of 1327, but his grandson of the same name.

Thomas Berkeley, the custodian of 1327, died in October 1361, when Trevisa was about nineteen. According to Professor Fowler, the earliest documented evidence of a connection between Trevisa and the lords of Berkeley is Trevisa's dedication in his translation of the Polychronicon, which he completed on 18 April 1387, to Thomas, Lord Berkeley the grandson. Trevisa was still at Oxford when he finished his translation, and the first certain evidence that he was living at Berkeley comes in 1388 - in other words, twenty-seven years after the death of Edward II's custodian Lord Berkeley, and a whopping sixty-one years after Edward's supposed murder.

Thomas Berkeley the grandson was born on 5 January 1353, was eight years old when his grandfather of the same name died in 1361, succeeded as Lord Berkeley when he was twenty-one in January 1374, and lived until July 1417. His ancestry is fascinating: grandson of Edward II's custodian, grandson also of Hugh Despenser the Younger, great-grandson of Roger Mortimer. Thomas was the eldest son of Maurice Berkeley, himself the eldest son of Thomas Berkeley the Elder and born sometime in 1330, about two and a half or three years after Edward II's alleged murder in his father's castle. Maurice married Hugh Despenser the Younger's daughter Elizabeth in August 1338 when he was eight, and died in June 1368, supposedly of old wounds received at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. Whether the Thomas Berkeley of 1327 ever told his son Maurice anything about Edward II's fate, and whether Maurice passed this information on to his own son - or to his wife Elizabeth Despenser, Edward's great-niece - is a matter for conjecture. Given that John Trevisa copied the story of the red-hot poker, which is an utterly ludicrous fabrication, if his patron Lord Berkeley did know the truth of what happened to Edward II, evidently he didn't tell Trevisa.

If people would just think a little before repeating the myth 'Trevisa was Lord Berkeley's chaplain and must have heard the truth about Edward's murder' they'd realise that as Trevisa translated the Polychronicon into English, the Lord Berkeley of the dedication cannot be Thomas Berkeley the grandfather. He lived in an England where the French language still dominated among the nobility, and the odds that he would have wanted to read a text translated into English are remote. For his grandson, however, who grew up in a world where English was becoming more and more significant as a literary and courtly language, it does make sense. If people would just think a little, they'd realise that a man with the last name 'Trevisa' is not likely to have come from Berkeley. If people would just do a little basic research - I found Trevisa's correct date of birth in about five seconds on Google Books - they'd discover that he was not alive in 1327, did not serve as confessor to Lord Berkeley the grandfather and arrived at Berkeley Castle six decades after Edward II's supposed murder. But then, why bother to do such basic research when it's so easy to mindlessly repeat the unfounded assumptions of earlier writers? And it always amuses me when I see writers solemnly declare that Trevisa was a child in Berkeley village when Edward was imprisoned at the castle there, as though this means that Trevisa therefore had inside knowledge of the king's fate. Are we supposed to think that Lord Berkeley was in the habit of sharing state secrets with local village boys?

By the time John Trevisa arrived at Berkeley in the late 1380s, there couldn't have been anyone alive there who knew the truth about Edward II's fate, and he had no more insight into the affair than anyone else. As for Ranulph Higden of the Polychronicon, he was a monk of Chester and knew no more about Edward's death than anyone else did either, and just because both men repeated the red-hot poker story is not proof that it's true.

13 comments:

Anerje said...

I guess John Trevisa has become such an oft repeated part of the story of Edward II, very few writers actually bother to research his history and find out the flaws. Sloppy research on their part! Hopefully your blog will have saved them the effort:>

Kate Plantagenet said...

BRAVO! *stands and cheers loudly*

Alianore...what a wonderful blog post! There is an old saying often repeated that "history doesn't repeat itself....historians repeat each other". This blog post is proof of that regarding how the poker story started, and why it continued. Humans love a gruesome story that captures the imagination of people at large - and because Edward was a 'bad' king in their eyes people were happy to see him 'punished', and they probably thought the instrument of his (supposed) death appropriate also. Love your mythbusting - love it.

Lady D. said...

BRAVO *joining Kate P in standing and cheering loudly*

A sensationalist story sometimes blinds people so that they forget about doing their own research - even today a good tabloid headline will sell millions of copies! The other (and far more often repeated) stories of the means of Edward's death in other chronicles are bypassed because they are not so 'gory'.

I believe Ian Mortimer did an article looking at the different chronicles, the means of death recorded, and also their general reliability?

Alianore said...

Thanks, all!

Anerje - this is a good way of seeing which writers have just repeated what they've read in other secondary sources without checking very simple facts - which is quite amusing, really! :-)

Kate: we're going to have a Mythbusters section on our new website dedicated to stuff like this, supposed 'facts' about Ed II that are anything but. I think you'll enjoy it!
I also think that the endless repetition of the red-hot poker story is only proof that lots of people enjoy gruesome, sensationalist fiction, no matter how ludicrously implausible.

Lady D: yes, it's in Ian's Sermons of Sodomy article (in Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives), and reproduced on his website: http://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm (about a quarter of the way down the page).

Brian said...

I think a lot of 'history' is nothing but repeated lies. However to get to the truth one has to work on the micro elements that make history. This is exactly what you are doing! What you are building here would build into an amazing book. Trouble is I guess it would be 1500 pages or more...

Gabriele C. said...

But Alianore, thinking is not half as much fun as having prejudices. And that hot poker story is just too good to miss. :)

Clement of the Glen said...

I must agree with Brian, Alianore.

I think you must put your hard work and dedicated research into a book.

Alianore said...

I am writing a biog of Edward, but sadly no-one wants to publish it at the moment! My main problem is trying to keep the word count down to less than about a million...;)

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Alianore - I've been a fan of your blog for some time, primarily for reasons such as this post, and would be among the first in line to scoop up your biography of Edward I. Thanks for shedding some truth on one of history's most intriguing figures.

Alianore said...

Thanks, Gemini! Glad you enjoy the blog, and hope you find it informative. I'm dedicated to setting right the many myths and lies that are endlessly repeated and recycled as 'fact' about Edward II and Isabella, especially online, that are anything but, and when the primary sources are examined prove to be inventions of 20c historians. To give just a few examples of hundreds: that Ed gave his wedding gifts and jewels to Piers in 1308; that he abandoned Isa while she was pregnant in 1312; that he imprisoned her and took her children from her in 1324; that he was murdered by red-hot poker. All of this is utter nonsense, but sadly it's repeated over and over again so that many people believe it's the truth.

I'll be looking at all these, and many more, in a Mythbusters section of the new website my friend and I are setting up. I hope the site, and this blog, go some way to correcting the many myths still perpetuated about Ed II, but as people keep writing crap about him as though it's fact, I'm afraid not...:(

poker en ligne said...
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Brian Stevenson said...

Belated congratulations on this post, a convincing demolition of an oft-repeated myth. It would not have lasted so long had there not been so many lazy beggars masquerading as historians.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, Brian! Yes, it's astonishing the way so many writers just mindlessly repeat this stuff without bothering to check...