A post detailing what fourteenth-century sources said about Edward II's love of physical labour and 'rustic pursuits' and his fondness for the company of his low-born subjects...
- The Chronicle of Lanercost: "...from his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king."
I wonder what the night-time activities 'of ingenuity and skill' were?
- The articles of deposition in January 1327 mentioned Edward's inclination to "give himself up always to improper works and occupations, neglecting the business of his kingdom" (se ad doné toux jours as ouraignes et occupations nient covenables, entrelassaunt lesploit des bosoignes de son roialme).
- According to the Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray, whose father must have known Edward II well as he served in the Despensers' retinue, Edward "tarried in the south, where he amused himself with ships, among mariners, and in other irregular occupation unworthy of his station, and scarcely concerned himself with other honour or profit, whereby he lost the affection of his people." The chronology in this section of the chronicle is unclear, but it seems to be referring to 1315.
- The Vita Edwardi Secundi laments: "If only he had given to arms the labour that he expended on rustic pursuits, he would have raised England aloft; his name would have resounded through the land."
- After the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert le Messager, a member of Edward's household, was arrested for speaking irreverently of the king: he complained that Edward had lost the battle because "he spent the time when he should have been hearing Mass in idling, ditching, digging and other improper occupations."
- Edward's love of rowing appears to have been known in Scotland too, to judge from a song written there after Bannockburn, which mocks the traditional oarsman's chant of Heavalow, Rumbelow:
"Maidens of England, sore may you mourn,
For you have lost your men at Bannockburn with 'Heavalow'.
What, would the king of England have won Scotland with 'Rumbalow'?"
- Here's the Polychronicon of Ranulph Higden on Edward's affection for the company of his low-born subjects: "He forsook the company of lords, and fraternised with harlots, singers, actors, carters, ditchers, oarsmen, sailors, and others who practise the mechanical arts."
- The Flores Historiarum comments derisively that Edward spent a month swimming and rowing in the Fens in 1315 "with a great company of common people" (who saved him from drowning on one occasion, apparently).
These statements are to some extent borne out by the evidence of Edward's own accounts, and I could give numerous examples of the eccentric king's fondness for the company of his lower-born subjects and for watching - if not necessarily actively taking part in - manual labour. Here are a few:
- Twenty-seven men in July 1326 "cleaned the ditches around the manor of Burgundy in the king's presence." Burgundy was Edward's cottage at Westminster, where he spent a lot of time in the last couple of years of his reign.
- In November 1322, ten men of Thorne near Doncaster "fished in the king's presence and took great pike, great eels, and a large number of other fish."
- December 1322: "Paid to Master John Cole, king's blacksmith, for iron and steel bought by the said John at the king's command, for various things, and who this day showed the items to the king himself, paid at the king's command and in his presence in the forge of Templehurst, 7s and 1p."
- May 1326, at the wedding of Hugh Despenser the Younger's niece Margaret Hastings to Sir Robert Wateville in Marlborough: Edward gave a pound to one Will Muleward, who "was for some time with the king and made him laugh greatly."
- In July 1326, Edward gave a gift of a pound to Alis de la Churche, who had brought him a pike (fish), "by the hands of the king himself."
- In September 1326, Edward paid a fisherman three shillings for two salmon "bought by the king himself" at the postern gate of the Tower of London.
There are dozens of other examples.
Edward's eccentricity by the standards of his age is demonstrated by the emergence in 1318 of the impostor, John of Powderham, who claimed to be the real son of Edward I and to have been swapped in his cradle for a peasant baby. It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine this happening to Edward I or Edward III...