07 January, 2014

Was Edward II Violent?

Recently I was reading through the Polychronicon, a chronicle written around 1350 by Ranulph or Ralph Higden, a monk of Chester.  It has this to say on the subject of Edward II:

"A handsome man, of outstanding strength...He forsook the company of lords, and fraternised with harlots, singers, actors, carters, ditchers, oarsmen, sailors, and others who practise the mechanical arts...He was prodigal in giving, bountiful and splendid in living, quick and unpredictable in speech...savage with members of his household, and passionately attached to one particular person, whom he cherished above all..." (Bold mine).  [1]

The part 'savage with members of his household' immediately grabbed my attention.  I've also seen it quoted as 'lashed out at members of his household' or as 'cruel to his household'.  Frankly I find this quite astonishing.  There's no doubt at all that Edward II had a vile temper, as did most of the Plantagenet kings, and certainly he was a capricious and unpredictable person prone to difficult moods - he can't have been an easy man to be around sometimes - but I've never seen any confirmation anywhere else that he was ever actually violent, and definitely not with members of his own household.  All the evidence I've seen from Edward's household accounts indicates mutual affection between the king and the men who served him closely.  The only possible indications that he was capable of violence are, to my mind, unreliable: statements by Roger Mortimer and later Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford, that if Queen Isabella returned to her husband in 1326/27 her life would be in danger from him, and in the very pro-Lancastrian Brut chronicle there's a passage wherein Edward was informed after his deposition that people suspected him of wanting to strangle his wife and son Edward III to death.  He responded "God knows, I thought it never, and now I would that I were dead! So would God that I were! For then were all my sorrow passed."  [2]  Edward's horrified reaction, that he would rather be dead than have people think him capable of murdering his wife and child, is surely an indication that he had never thought such a thing.  Isabella needed an excuse in 1327 not to return to her lawful husband; claiming that he might potentially hurt or even kill her provided a cast-iron one, and Roger Mortimer and their ally Orleton are hardly unbiased witnesses.

I can't, however, conclusively prove that Higden was mistaken in his assertion.  Perhaps Edward II did indeed lash out at members of his household when in a rage, and there's just no other evidence of it which survives.  This lack of corroborating evidence in itself doesn't necessarily make Higden wrong, of course, and the rest of his description of the king seems very accurate.  (Higden also says that Edward habitually drank too much, and spilled state secrets while in his cups.  That strikes me as entirely plausible.)  I'm inclined to think, however, that at least in this instance, Higden confused Edward with his father.  We do know that Edward I assaulted servants on occasion - he had to pay twenty marks' compensation to a squire at his daughter Margaret's wedding in 1290 after hitting him with a stick - and then there are the famous stories when he assaulted his own son Edward of Caernarfon near the end of his life and pulled out handfuls of his hair, and the earlier occasion when he was so exasperated with his daughter Elizabeth he tore the coronet off her head and threw it in the fire.  There's also Edward I's cruelty as a young man, when for example he and some of his followers had another young man they encountered mutilated for very little reason.  Here, for the record, is an example of Edward II's temper: on one occasion in the 1320s he flew into such a screaming rage with his ally Walter Reynolds, archbishop of Canterbury, that the archbishop pretended that he had to make an urgent visitation to his cathedral in order to escape from the king's presence.  OK, shouting and ranting in an archbishop's face isn't very pleasant behaviour, but given that Edward's great-great-grandfather Henry II had the archbishop of Canterbury assassinated and his great-grandson Henry IV had the archbishop of York executed, it's hardly that bad.  Edward II's first cousin Sancho IV of Castile, incidentally and to put Edward's relations with his barons into some kind of perspective, killed dissident nobles with his own hands.  (Which was perhaps something Edward wished was possible in England in the weeks and months after Piers Gaveston's execution.)

As for Edward being cruel or savage to his household in ways that didn't necessarily involve violence, well, perhaps, but I don't really see it.  I've pored over Edward II's household accounts and only see the king's frequent generosity towards his servants.  The fact that many members of his household joined the Dunheveds' attempts to free him from Berkeley in 1327 and the earl of Kent's plot to free him in 1330 - willing to help him long after his downfall and even years after his alleged death - doesn't indicate to me that he had been cruel towards them.

In conclusion, no, I tend not to think that Edward II was physically violent towards anyone and especially not his servants, despite his temper and occasional rages.  If he had been, I'm sure we'd have more evidence of it in chronicles, or, as we do for his father, records of compensation paid to injured servants (even the king wasn't allowed to hit people with impunity!).  There is, for example, a record of Edward of Caernarfon as prince of Wales in February 1303 paying four shillings in compensation to his Fool Robert Bussard or Buffard for accidentally injuring him by playing some unspecified trick on him while they were swimming in the river at Windsor.  Although it seems highly likely that Edward drank too much sometimes, alcohol seems to have made him liable to talk too much rather than aggressive.  For all Edward II's numerous faults, I rather doubt that being violent was one of them, and I think that probably Ranulph Higden mistakenly had his father in mind when he thought that Edward assaulted his servants.


1) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, monachi Cestrensis, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (1857), vol. viii, p. 299.
2) The Brut or the Chronicles of England, ed. F. W. D. Brie (1906) vol. 1, pp. 252-253.


Sami Parkkonen said...

I find this allegation kind of strange. This was a man, after all, who was despised by other nobility because he was so at ease with the lesser people and joined them easily.

However, he could have had a sharp tongue and if he did mocked some or was too out spoken, lashed out verbally that might explain this "savage", compared his otherwise quite jovial handling of the commoners.

One would think if he was savage towards his household there would be nobody loyal to him after his dethroning. Also this does not fit in to what we know: he used to pay large sums to those commoners who made him laugh or enjoy himself, or who simply spent time with him.

I wonder...

MRats said...

I wholeheartedly agree, Kathryn!

And I believe that you found the answer. When Higdon accused Edward of being "savage with members of his household" he was probably referring to the trick Edward played on his fool, Robert. At least that was the first thought that came to my mind when I read it.

And, as I commented on an earlier post yesterday, I still think Edward inherited a far more refined version of his father's temper, which allowed him to bide his time and feast upon his revenge later, as it's best served cold. I've said it twice before: he was utterly shrewd when it came to achieving a desired end.

As for Edward I's temper, I still believe Walter de Guisborough's account of the hair-pulling incident. In his Chronicles he states that Edward I knocked his son down and kicked him. In my humble opinion, it's far more likely, though the old King may have dragged Edward around by the hair and pulled some of it out in the process. I may be wrong to look at it from a modern-day point of view, but "snatching someone bald" is now considered a more feminine tactic, and I just can't imagine Edward I, in all his epic masculinity, resorting to it. Is Guisborough a reliable source? You know I trust in your opinion.

A splendid post, as always, Kathryn!

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Very interesting, Kathryn! The title has caught my attention for, after what I read about Edward here, on your blog, I would never think about him in these terms :-) Coincidentally, since early December, I've been working on a text dealing with Henry's features of character, which I hope will be ready in mid-January). Your post made me wonder whether Henry II ever bother to compensate for his (in)famous fits of temper :-)

Sonetka said...

I wonder if there were other "tricks" which didn't result in any injury and so didn't make it into the account books. Edward may not have seen them as "savage" but someone who'd been on the receiving end of whatever happened in the water might not have taken it so kindly -- though whether they'd resent it to the point of supporting his deposition seems unlikely!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone, and Happy New Year! ;-)

Thinking about it, there's a ref in Edward's chamber account in the summer of 1326 when he gave a pound to one of his cooks for falling off his horse, seemingly over and over, and making the king laugh. This might well be something the cook did deliberately to amuse the king, but if he was ill and Edward was still laughing at him, it would indicate a rather cruel sense of humour! Possibly, and I'm only speculating here, Edward unintentionally hurt people on occasion by being unaware of his own enormous strength. I still think evidence of 'savagery' towards his household is extremely thin on the ground, though.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I tend to think, though, that the reference to savagery is to something Edward II did or said that was misunderstood or misreported, rather than confusion with Edward I because so much of the original quote is only applicable to Edward II. Hope that you have a great new year


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther, great point! Happy new year to you too!

Anerje said...

It was the mixing with harlots that caught my eye lol! Methinks certain 'novelists/historians' should take note!

I wondered if it might mean Edward had a sharp tongue. It wouldn't surprise me if he occasionally 'boxed his servants ears' etc - something all kings and nobles doubtless did. Certainly his father had a foul temper - far worse than his son! Edward was known for mixing with common folk - I'm sure his father would have boxed their ears just for looking at him!

Anerje said...

Blogger playing up - hope my comment is not lost!

Anonymous said...

I've been following your posts for quite a few years, being a tiny bit obsessed with Edward!

A couple of things occur to me.

I thought it was pretty standard for medieval men to beat their servants and dogs as part of maintaining discipline in the ranks. Is it possible Higden is referring to such behaviour?

Second, Seymour Phillips (page 497)recounts a meeting between Edward, Hugh and the Bishop of Rochester on 15 June 1326 when the Bishop told them a story of a councillor who was hanged for trying to estrange a king from his queen. Far from being angry, Edward offered the Bishop any reward he wished. This is all the more surprising when you consider the tremendous pressure Edward was under at the time.

Brilliant site. Thanks for all your hard work over the years, especially in translating original docs and posting them.

MRats said...

"The Bishop told (Edward and Hugh) a story of a councillor who was hanged for trying to estrange a king from his queen. Far from being angry, Edward offered the Bishop any reward he wished."

Is it possible that Edward was thinking of Roger Mortimer, who most certainly came between him and Isabella? That would give the incident a whole different context. It would be justice, not cruelty.

(The Mortimer apologists will most likely be unhappy with me now. I'd best lie low for a while . . . )

MRats said...

"The Bishop told (Edward and Hugh) a story of a councillor who was hanged for trying to estrange a king from his queen. Far from being angry, Edward offered the Bishop any reward he wished."

Is it possible that Edward was thinking of Roger Mortimer, who most certainly came between him and Isabella? That would give the incident a whole different context. It would be justice, not cruelty.

(The Mortimer apologists will most likely be unhappy with me now. I'd best lie low for a while . . . )

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon, and welcome! Great to see someone else obsessed with Edward! ;-) Hmmm, good point, though I wonder that if it was normal behaviour to beat your servants, would Higden have mentioned it in relation to Edward as 'savagery'? That's a very interesting story about Edward and Hugh meeting Hamo Hethe, isn't it? Maybe I should write a post about it sometime ;)

MRats, be very careful of the Mortimer apologists! I had a very scary one on the blog back in 2007/08. *shudders*

MRats said...

I hope you will write a post about that meeting. I would love to know your interpretation of it!

\ /
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(I wonder why my comment printed twice. I only proved I wasn't a robot successfully once--or so I thought.)

That you for the warning. I will take it to heart!