20 January, 2013

Edward II's Death And Afterlife Revisited (1)

I wrote this post about Edward II's death more than six years ago, on 21 September 2006 (my goodness, how the time flies!), and it's by far the most popular post I've ever written, getting between 1000 and 2500 hits a week, every week.  So I decided, given the popularity of the subject and the frequency with which the 'red-hot poker' story of Edward's death is still repeated online, in books and on TV, that it's high time to address the matter again.  When you read the original post, please note that there's also a lot of information and debate in the comments (actually, Carla's comments are better and more informative than my original post, haha!).  And see also my post about John Trevisa, chaplain at Berkeley Castle, who did not, contrary to popular modern belief, have any special secret knowledge of Edward's death, and also this one about Edward of Caernarfon's treatment at Berkeley Castle in 1327 and why we can be almost certain that he was not tortured and tormented there, as popular legend has it. I'm intending to write several posts about this subject, and also several about Edward's possible/probable survival past 1327.  (Also coming on the blog soon: a guest post about the battle of Bannockburn, and more mythbusting about Edward II.)

It's important to realise that the cause of Edward II's death on 21 September 1327 - let's just assume for the moment that he actually did die on that day - was never stated officially.  His death was announced publicly on or shortly after 24 September 1327, soon after news of it reached his fourteen-year-old son Edward III in Lincoln; according to the young king's own (seemingly rather guarded) testimony in a letter to his cousin the earl of Hereford dated 24 September, the news that "our very dear lord and father has been commanded to God" was brought to him the night before.  Berkeley Castle records demonstrate that Sir Thomas Gurney (see also below) was sent to Edward III to tell him, and received a little over thirty shillings for doing so.  Gurney left Berkeley on 22 September, presumably at first light, and must have galloped remarkably hard to ride the 160 or so miles to Lincoln in order to reach the town during the night of 23/24 September, especially as it was apparently believed at Berkeley that Edward III was in Nottingham and Gurney may well have gone there first.  [1]  At this time, there is little to indicate that anyone believed the former king's death to be due to anything other than natural causes, or at least no-one said so publicly, whatever they may have thought.  Given the number of plots to free Edward of Caernarfon and perhaps attempt to restore him to the throne in 1327, his death might have appeared suspiciously convenient for Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, but for the time being the former king's funeral in Gloucester on 20 December went ahead with nary a voice raised in protest, at least not yet.  (See here for events which happened between the announcement of Edward's death in September and his funeral in December 1327, including the guarding of his body and local dignitaries coming to look at it.)

It was only after Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer's downfall when Edward III took over the governance of his own kingdom that Edward of Caernarfon was said to have been murdered, at the Westminster parliament of November 1330.  No cause of death was stated; I make this point again as I've actually seen people online claiming that the red-hot poker story was given out at parliament as an official version of what happened.  Sir Thomas Gurney, the Somerset knight who informed Edward III that his father was dead, and the (possibly Irish?) man-at-arms William Ockley or Ogle were named as Edward's murderers in parliament - see my long post here for lots more information about them and the situation - and fled from England, or perhaps already had fled before parliament began.  The records of parliament merely state that judgement was passed on Gurney and Ockley "for the death of King Edward, father of our present lord the king, that they falsely and traitorously murdered him."  [2]  That is all that is stated, except for the price on their heads.

Additionally, the murder of Edward II was the second of the fourteen charges the now eighteen-year-old Edward III laid at the door of his mother's favourite Roger Mortimer, earl of March and lord of Wigmore, who was executed at Tyburn on 29 November 1330: Roger "ordained that he [Edward II] be sent to Berkeley Castle, where he was traitorously, feloniously and falsely murdered and killed by him and his followers".  [3]  The obscure knight Sir Simon Bereford was also accused of "aiding the said Roger Mortimer in all his treasons, felonies and wicked deeds," including the "murder of a liege lord" (murdre de seignur lige), though how Bereford was involved is unclear, and he was executed shortly before Christmas 1330.  Contrary to what some contemporary chroniclers believed, even the usually well-informed and reliable Adam Murimuth, Sir John Maltravers, one of Edward of Caernarfon's custodians in 1327, was never accused of any complicity in the former king's death or of mistreating him while he was at Berkeley Castle (though Maltravers was sentenced to death by the November 1330 parliament for his role in entrapping Edward II's half-brother Edmund, earl of Kent).

Thomas, Lord Berkeley, Edward's other custodian in 1327 and Roger Mortimer's son-in-law, puzzlingly told parliament in November 1330 that "he wishes to acquit himself of the death of the same king, and says that he was never an accomplice, a helper or a procurer in his death, nor did he ever know of his death until this present parliament".  [4]  As Ian Mortimer has pointed out in his article 'The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle' [5], Lord Berkeley said very clearly nec unquam scivit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto, which Professor Seymour Phillips and the other eminent scholars who worked on the rolls of parliament translate, as stated above, as "nor did he ever know of his [Edward II's] death until this present parliament."  Despite the best efforts of a few other modern commentators to provide over-elaborate versions of these words so that they mean what they want them to mean, that Berkeley was indicating that he didn't know how Edward II died, or under what circumstances, or hadn't realised that it was murder and not natural (despite the death supposedly occurring within Berkeley's own castle and when he had legal responsibility for the former king's safety), Berkeley in fact told parliament that for more than three years, from September 1327 to November 1330, he hadn't known that Edward of Caernarfon was dead at all until he heard about it in parliament.

In the absence of any official explanation as to how Edward II had died, and given that none of the men said to have been involved in his death ever spoke publicly about what really happened at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327, rumour and lurid speculation quickly filled the gap.  In my next post about all this, I'll take a look at the chronicle evidence and the highly unlikely story that Edward II died by having a red-hot poker inserted inside him, and what other chroniclers say about his death - not that you'd know it from the utter certainty with which many modern commentators, although none who actually know what they're taking about, claim that the red-hot poker story is true, but fourteenth-century chroniclers put forward other possible causes of death as well.  I'll also take a look at the rather substantial evidence that Edward II did not die at all in September 1327.


1) The National Archives, DL 10/253 (Tresch[er] cosin, nouelles nous vyndront y ce merkerdy le xxiij iour de septembre de deinz la nuyt qe n[ost]re tr[es]ch[er] seign[eur] e piere est a dieu comaundez); Berkeley Castle Muniments Select Rolls 39, cited in Seymour Phillips, Edward II (2010), p. 548; Ian Mortimer, 'The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle', in his Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies (2010), pp. 66, 68, 71.
2) Rotuli Parliamentorum and Parliament Rolls of Medieval Englanda tieu juggement est assentuz et acorde de Thomas de Gurney et William de Ocle pur la mort le roi Edward, piere nostre seignur le roi q'ore est, qe fauxement et traiterousement lui murdrerunt.
3) Ibid.: ordina qil feust mande au chastell de Berkle, ou par lui et ses seons feust treterousement, felonessement et falsement murdre et tue.
4) Ibid.: dicit quod ipse nuncquam fuit consentiens, auxilians, seu procurans, ad mortem suam, nec unquam scivit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto.
5) Mortimer, 'Death of Edward II' (see note 1), pp. 69-77.


Sami Parkkonen said...

Brilliant! It is funny how the lord of the said castel did not know about kings death untill he was told so at the time the parliament. I mean, he should have known it for some time by that. Makes one wonder what on earth was going on and by whom. If Edward II got away, even escaped, could it be a panic reaction from the guys who wanted him dead? Or was it a cover up by his son or wife to slip the death story in to the gossip mill? More of this, thank you.

Paula Lofting said...

I was going to say the same thing as Sami. You think he would have known wouldnt you. I look forward to your next post about this Kathryn

Anerje said...

Well Kathryn, you convinced me long ago the red hot poker story is a myth, and I am convinced Edward survived. Carry on your splendid work! I just wish this subject got some air time rather than the usual popular subjects of Richard III etc. It's such a fascinating mystery.

Anonymous said...

Can't help wondering if all these doubts about Edward II's death might explain Edward III's decision to restore Mortimer's son to his earldom, etc. I also look forward to more.


Deirdre said...

Great! I'm looking forward to reading what the chroniclers had to say.

chris y said...

The Latin you quote is perfectly unambiguous as far as I can see, but something is seriously wrong here. I would think it was pretty incredible that Lord Berkeley, having a VIP (and how!) prisoner in his care at his own castle, would never in three years have visited that prisoner and noticed whether he was sitting in his cell, or dead, or otherwise AWOL. It makes no sense.

Kathryn Warner said...

It only makes sense if we assume that Edward was taken away from Berkeley and was held in captivity somewhere else, and Lord Berkeley of course knew that he'd been removed from his own castle but had no knowledge of what happened to him after he left. The earl of Kent and others believed that Edward was being held at Corfe Castle in 1330. Edward's joint custodian John Maltravers was at Corfe in September 1327.