11 July, 2011

Edward of Caernarfon and Rotting Animal Corpses

The chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, written around 1350, vividly describes the torments supposedly inflicted on the former Edward II as he was taken from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle in the spring of 1327, and during his incarceration at Berkeley, paraphrased here:

- Edward's jailers make him travel at night, riding bareheaded despite the cold, and deprive him of sleep. They taunt him by placing a crown of hay on his head, make him shave off his beard with cold, dirty ditch-water - whereupon Edward cries, thereby providing himself with warm water - feed him on rotting food to make him ill, and do their utmost to make him believe he is mad. Once this nightmare journey is over and he arrives at Berkeley, he is incarcerated in a cell with a deep hole nearby into which the rotting corpses of animals are thrown, in the hope that the putrefaction will kill Edward by asphyxiation. This failing, he is murdered by means of a red-hot poker, "the aid of enormous pillows and a weight heavier than that of fifteen substantial men."

Needless to say, this has been grist to the mill for a lot of writers over the centuries (including Christopher Marlowe), and is repeated all over the internet and in numerous published books as certain fact.  But - surprise, surprise - it isn't. Geoffrey le Baker is the only even vaguely contemporary source for the notion that the former Edward II was so cruelly mistreated and abused at Berkeley, and Baker was not writing history but hagiography, at a time when the amusingly implausible campaign to have Edward canonised was well underway. (Miracles were widely reported at his tomb in Gloucester.) Baker's intention was to portray Edward as a Christ-like figure nobly suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the torments of lesser men, the "satraps of Satan" as Baker memorably calls them: the Passion of Edward of Caernarfon. If we accept Baker's story of the former king's fate in 1327 as historical truth, we might as well accept Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III as the hunchbacked epitome of evil as historical truth.

Geoffrey le Baker was about the only fourteenth-century chronicler who actually liked Edward II, and blamed all his faults and mistakes on the Despensers.  As a corollary, Baker loathed Queen Isabella and portrayed her as, well, a she-wolf*, cruelly taking delight in making her husband suffer.  Although I have to admit I find it quite amusing to see Isabella called 'Jezebel' and 'the iron virago', Baker's portrayal of her is very wide of the mark. Chronicler Adam Murimuth, a royal clerk who knew Edward II and Isabella well, was in the south-west of England in 1327 and is a much more reliable source than Baker (though by no means infallible), says that she sent Edward kind letters and gifts while he was at Berkeley - hardly, one might think, the actions of a woman keen to inflict torments on her husband. After all, after Edward's deposition in January 1327, Isabella had no reason to manipulate him into thinking she still loved him, and no reason to send him letters and gifts unless she wanted to.

* Not a contemporary nickname, as many people think, but invented by Shakespeare for Margaret of Anjou and first applied to Isabella in a 1757 poem by Thomas Gray.

King Edward III was too young in 1327 to be in a position to protect his father, but he wouldn't be fourteen forever, and one day he would take over the governance of his own kingdom.  Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers, appointed custodians of the former king in April 1327, would have been pretty stupid to mistreat the king's father, knowing that one day they would have to answer for their actions - and Edward III never accused them of mistreating Edward of Caernarfon.  Adam Murimuth claims that although Berkeley treated Edward well and humanely, Maltravers did not.  This may be correct, but is not supported by any other evidence - and most fourteenth-century chroniclers, even Murimuth, thought that Maltravers was accused of Edward II's murder, which he certainly wasn't; he was condemned to death in the November 1330 parliament for his role in entrapping the earl of Kent and bringing about his execution. At no point in Maltravers' very long life - he lived until 1364 - did Edward III accuse him of complicity in Edward II's death, or of mistreating and abusing the former king.  Murimuth's statement that Maltravers behaved harshly towards Edward II may be an assumption based on the false (albeit widespread) belief that Maltravers was one of Edward's murderers.

Paul Doherty in his 2003 book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (p. 119) says that kings and princes, once deposed, have suffered from the actions of their former minions, who were "only too quick to join in the fun of cruel mockery of one who formerly lorded it over them." Well, possibly, but that's missing the point.  Edward II was no longer king in 1327, but he was still royal, the son of a king and, more to the point, the father of the present king. Edward II is unique among the deposed kings of medieval England, not just because he was the first, but because he was the only one succeeded by his son, who would not take kindly to allegations that his father had been abused by those appointed to care for him.  (Incidentally, Paul Doherty, like many other writers, repeats the myth about John Trevisa on which I wrote a post.)

One of the charges against Roger Mortimer at his trial during the November 1330 parliament was that he had had Edward removed to Berkeley in order to have him killed, when "the father of our lord the king was at Kenilworth by the ordinance and assent of the peers of the realm, to remain there at their pleasure in order to be looked after as was appropriate for such a lord." According to the chronicler Jean le Bel, it was decided in early 1327 that Edward "would be well guarded and honestly kept for the rest of his life, according to his estate."  'According to his estate' and 'looked after as was appropriate for such a lord' does not mean 'OK, lads, we can abuse him as much as we want because he no longer wears the crown', it means 'he must be treated with all the respect, deference and courtesy due to a man of royal birth who is the father of the king'.

Paul Doherty (p. 120) also claims that "no real evidence exists that Edward was not mistreated."  OK, here's one: Lord Berkeley bought wax for him, presumably for candles. Wax was expensive, and Berkeley might easily have bought the much cheaper tallow (made from animal fat) instead. But then, if Berkeley and his allies were mistreating Edward, why did they bother to buy him wax (or tallow) at all?  Do people usually buy candles for a man they're keeping incarcerated in a dungeon or pit and trying to asphyxiate with animal corpses?  The Berkeley Castle muniments roll records the purchase of wine, cheese, eggs, beef, capons and spices for Edward (Seymour Phillips, Edward II, p. 541 n. 118, citing rolls 39, 41, 42). Paul Doherty suggests (pp. 119-120) that Edward didn't get this food, but that "the supplies, the delicacies may well have gone to others" and furthermore that the produce purchased for him and Isabella's gifts are "perhaps not evidence enough to reject the allegations of ill-treatment."  This is pure speculation.  I don't see why there's any reason to assume that Edward didn't receive them. These purchases of food were recorded in Lord Berkeley's own household accounts; they were not intended to be presented to the Exchequer as proof that he was feeding Edward of Caernarfon properly. I don't see why Lord Berkeley would lie in his own accounts and record the purchase of food for Edward if the former king wasn't going to receive it.

And here's another piece of evidence: there are several entries on the Close Roll which record payments made to Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers for Edward's upkeep, and refer to the expenses of Edward and 'his household'. There are also references in the Berkeley Castle records to liveries, i.e. clothes, provided for "the household of the king's father," as he was almost always referred to. Yes, Edward had servants at Berkeley.  How many is not clear - a very small fraction of the 400 or 500-strong household he'd had as king, of course - but he wasn't locked up alone with no-one to attend him. Men imprisoned in pits do not, generally, have servants attending them. This evidence is ignored by writers who want to believe the notion that Edward was mistreated, among them Paul Doherty, who - following le Baker - is pushing the notion of Isabella as an evil nasty murderous b*tch and says several times that she desperately wanted Edward dead and to suffer as much as possible first. (If you have the book, notice that Doherty doesn't provide a note for his claim (p. 109) that Isabella publicly called for Edward's execution in early 1327, even before his deposition; that's because he can't back it up with any primary source.  And "Isabella had murder in her heart" regarding her husband in late 1326/early 1327 (p. 108)?  How can Doherty possibly know that?).  An anonymous chronicle which Doherty makes much of claims that workmen at Berkeley Castle heard Edward sighing and groaning when he was incarcerated there in 1327. Maybe that's significant, maybe not. Edward of Caernarfon was a highly emotional man at the best of times, and 1327 was definitely not the best of times for him.  He must have been suffering a great deal emotionally from losing his throne, his wife, his children and Hugh Despenser.

The guides at Berkeley Castle and numerous websites spread the stories of Edward of Caernarfon's mistreatment and supposed horrific red-hot poker murder.  Lurid stories of murdered kings and agonised screams and vile torture and asphyxiation by animal corpse and men getting their just desserts for allowing themselves to be anally penetrated by other men (a theory of the supposed red-hot poker murder frequently repeated as though it's 'truth') bring in the tourists, don't they.  Websites and books about Castle Rising in Norfolk do much the same thing, claiming that Isabella of France was imprisoned there by her son as punishment for her role in the murder of Edward II and subsequently went mad; the story of an imprisoned queen going insane and wailing for her dead lover Mortimer is apparently far more interesting than the truth, which is that Isabella lived a perfectly conventional life after 1330 as queen dowager.  Geoffrey le Baker's tales of the vile abuse inflicted on Edward at Berkeley Castle are contradicted by contemporary evidence, and were concocted with a specific purpose which had little to do with actual historical events as experienced in 1327.  It's a shame that they're still so often repeated as though they're certain truth.


Rowan Plantagenet said...

Indeed, it is!
Just like the "ungracious boor" Richard I... God, I am still angry about that.
Hah, "the iron virago", that is something I thank Geoffrey le Baker for. =D
And I have to admit that I quite like the thought of another Saint Edward.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, we've both seen some real stupidities lately, haven't we? :-(

Iron virago, hehehehe...:) And yes, can't help loving the thought of Saint Ned...:)

Gabriele C. said...

Argh, you'd think that historians would look at their sources within the context of the time they've been written and agendas they may have had, but no luck. :(

Don't get me started on Paterculus' portrayal of Varus that's quoted as fact all over the place. It's about as realistic as to portray Edward as giggling whimp.

Anerje said...

Geoffrey le Baker was trying to make a martyr out of Edward II, and there are parallels with the treatment of Christ - a crown of hay, rather than a crown of thorns. I remember going to Berkely and seeing the 'hole' in the room where Edward was kept and being deeply moved - but then I was only 15 and it was before the time of the internet :>

Kathryn Warner said...

Exactly, Gabriele - and going for the most sensationalist account rather than calmly evaluating the sources and the likeliest scenarios. :-(

Anerje: great point about the crown of hay and the crown of thorns - I hadn't thought of that. I also got the usual torture/red hot poker story at Berkeley. :(

Sergio IN said...

Excellent post! (as usual)

Clement of the Glen said...

First class historical detection Kathryn.

It is time you had your work published and finally put the record straight.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Sergio and Clement!

Carla said...

Tourist guides at least have the excuse, I suppose, that they are essentially sales brochures and perhaps expect to be taken with a shovelful of salt. Academic historians do themselves (and, more importantly, their subject) no credit by being casual about evidence and sources. To paraphrase CP Scott, interpretation is free but evidence is sacred.

Kathryn Warner said...

Couldn't agree more, Carla!