18 November, 2015

Medieval Murder Mysteries: Edward II

Part two of this series on the Yesterday channel in the UK was King Edward II: A Mysterious Death, shown on Tuesday 17 November at 9pm.  Anerje gives her thoughts on it here.

So I knew it was going to be bad when the historian they got to argue for Edward's possible survival was not Ian Mortimer (or even me, for that matter), but Paul Doherty.  The man who wrote his doctoral thesis on Isabella of France but doesn't even know which of her brothers was king of France in 1320 or which year her mother died, and who appears to think he has some kind of telepathic connection with Isabella by making dogmatic statements such as '"Isabella had murder in her heart" towards her husband Edward in 1326/27.  There were no historians to argue the other side, i.e. that Edward II did indeed die at Berkeley in 1327, such as Seymour Phillips, Michael Prestwich or Jeff Hamilton.  Instead we got this baffling line-up: Richard Felix, who's a paranormal investigator (let me repeat that: he's not a fourteenth-century historian, he's a paranormal investigator) who's always dragged out for TV programmes about torture; Ciaran O'Keeffe, billed on the programme as a criminal psychologist, otherwise known as a parapsychologist and also a paranormal investigator who used to appear on a TV programme called Most Haunted with Richard Felix; Andrew Rose, a 'barrister and historian'; Professor Mike Green, a forensic pathologist (OK, hearing about the plausibility or not of murder by red-hot poker was pretty interesting); and the current owner of Berkeley Castle, Charles Berkeley, and a castle guide, Linda McLaren, who argued that at the castle, they believe that Edward II was suffocated on his bed there. Not an unreasonable statement, though perhaps not exactly an unbiased one either, given that the presumed murder of a king at Berkeley must bring a lot of visitors to the castle.  "The king was well-treated here and probably died many years later in Italy" doesn't make nearly such an appealing story to get the paying punters in, kind of like the way Castle Rising in Norfolk makes a big deal about Isabella being imprisoned there after 1330 and going mad, and doesn't admit that "Isabella lived a purely conventional life as a dowager queen and just happened to spend quite a lot of time here because she liked it."  Next week on Medieval Murder Mysteries, for the episode about the death in 1203 of Arthur, duke of Brittany, they've got Derek Acorah.  Derek freaking Acorah.  For those of you who are lucky enough not to know who Acorah is, he's a 'spirit medium', also a member of the Most Haunted team - you might be spotting a certain pattern emerging here - and someone who claims to be psychic and in touch with the dead.  God help us.

Richard Felix stated that the story of the red-hot poker is too ridiculous to have been invented, so therefore must be true.  Huh.  Now there's a strong argument.  I once read this story about a boy who thinks he's normal but then finds out he's a wizard, and he plays a game called Quidditch on a broomstick and has an enemy called Voldemort and goes to a school where he learns to do all kinds of magic things.  Clearly that's too crazy to be made up, and therefore it must be true.  A voiceover assured us that "Richard Felix has researched the red-hot poker story and believes it to be true."  Oh well then, if a paranormal investigator and torture expert thinks that a torture story is true, it must indeed be true.  We mere fourteenth-century experts who delve into the contemporary documents, weigh up the facts and try to come to a measured conclusion might as well just give up and go home.  Felix also repeats the story that Edward's jailers tried to suffocate him with the stench of animal carcasses, which was invented decades later by Geoffrey le Baker and is nonsense, and is disproved anyway by Berkeley Castle records.  Felix claims that the king's screams could be heard outside the castle without noticing the contradiction with his previous claim that the men killed Edward in this manner so as not to leave a mark on his body and so that no-one would realise he'd been murdered.  He also claims "it took him well over quarter of an hour to die in dreadful agony," which is something not recorded in any source.  He also says that with Edward dead, "the road was now clear for Mortimer and Isabella" without clarifying what that means, and that Isabella, who he says was known as the 'She-Wolf' (a nickname in fact only given to her in 1757), wanted to punish her husband for being "openly gay."  Ciaran O'Keeffe continued this theme by talking about Isabella's "public humiliation."

Paul Doherty argued - yay! - that Edward escaped from Berkeley Castle in 1327, but the only evidence he cited for this was Thomas, Lord Berkeley's curious words to parliament in November 1330, the lack of royal officials present at Berkeley Castle after the death, and the fact that Edward wasn't buried at Westminster Abbey.  The Fieschi Letter of c. the late 1330s was only briefly mentioned, and the Melton Letter of 1330 (both letters state that Edward survived past 1327) and the plot of William Melton, archbishop of York and Edward's half-brother the earl of Kent to free him in 1330 were not mentioned at all.  The narrative of Edward's survival as described in the Fieschi Letter was dismissed as 'unlikely' without further explanation, and it's stated that there's 'precious little evidence' that he didn't die at Berkeley and an 'absence of hard proof' for this notion.  I suppose a letter written by an archbishop over two years later stating that Edward was then still alive and in good health somehow doesn't count.

Weird/horrid bits: at one point they were talking about the execution of Edward's cousin Thomas of Lancaster in 1322 (he was beheaded), and we were shown a man tied to a stake, screaming as he's burned to death.  Heh?  Naturally we had to get a long-ish reconstruction of the red-hot poker murder with lots of screams and close shots of Edward's face as he's tied up and bent over a table, though thankfully we didn't see what's going on below (and this scene was repeated what felt to me like about forty-seven times).  As if that's not enough, there was then a discussion of how fast, or otherwise, a poker inserted inside the bowels would have killed Edward and how far up you'd have to insert it (yuck), and a computer generation of a skeleton having this done to it.

Stuff that's fine: the documentary was quite good on Edward and Isabella's relationship, saying that 'by 1325 it had started to crumble' rather than depicting as a disaster from start to finish.  Isabella went to France and began an association with Roger Mortimer, rather than beginning a passionate affair with him.  The shots of Berkeley Castle were terrific, and it was nice to see Charles Berkeley looking at the fourteenth-century manuscripts held there.  The guide at the castle, Linda McLaren, stated that Edward was well-treated at Berkeley with his own chef, servants and even a marshal to look after his horses, which is correct and contradicts Richard Felix's taking Geoffrey le Baker's tales as gospel truth.  The discussion about suffocation being far more plausible than a poker is interesting, the pathologist also made a good point about the lack of independent witnesses at Berkeley Castle to verify the cause of Edward's death or even his identity, and the barrister points out the improbability of a red-hot poker when there would have been much easier methods to hand.

Conclusion: some not so bad bits, but for the most part, sensationalist and superficial, and a wasted opportunity.  I've been hoping for a long time that we might get a TV programme featuring Edward II's death and survival, done properly and seriously with people who actually know what they're talking about.  Instead, we get paranormal investigators.  Frankly, I find it weird to see people discussing Edward II when I don't even know who they are, besides Paul Doherty and Charles Berkeley.  (Paranormal investigators!?!)


Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Really weird! I hear "paranormal experts" and find myself instantly on the alert!Even stranger is the fact that they come up with some contradictory views in the same documentary, as if nobody bothered to check and revise.

Anerje said...

Hmm - I never watch any paranormal programmes so didn't know about Richard Felix! He doesn't quote any sources or challenge them. Obviously the red hot poker story is made up to symbolise Edward being 'punished' for possibly being homosexual - we're talking medieval minds here. So in a way, it's not too ridiculous to make up. What is ridiculous is to think it actually happened.

Yes, I saw the bit with Thomas of Lancaster and wondered why there was a man burnt at the stake!! Also, when Despencer was captured, we were shown Charles, Duke of Orleans inside the White Tower, and Isabella seemed to have a Tudor headress on. The programme cried out for a more detailed look at Edward's possible survival.

Ulrik said...

It sounds like you've watched a relatively entertaining made-for-TV-movie about a 14th century murder mystery being investigated by a ghostbuster-like team, Kathryn! I sure wish they'd broadcast more of that stuff here in Denmark and not be so damn conservative in their choices. I mean, I'm not afraid to admit I like B-movies - at least not as long as I have popcorn to go! :-)

sami parkkonen said...

Öööh... paranormal investogators and beliefs? Now, I might be too harsh here but that sounds like MTVs Jersey Shore cast would have done better job. But like I said, I might be just a bit harsh here.

Like, how do we know that parapsychologist does not know these things, right? I mean, perhaps Edwards ghost visited him couple nights before the show and said something like: Yeap, that ole poker was summin else, lemme tell ya.

PS. What is this? I could get it if it was just a tv show, you know, BB house mixed with pole dancers or something like that, but series supposedly handling true historical events? What the hell happened to the brittish television productions, their values and high quality??? Don't they have any pride of their work anymore?

Jerry Bennett said...

What's the old Hollywood adage - "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." It sounds as if the producers of this series have taken that philosophy on board in a very big way. Thank God I chose to watch the football!

Susan Wakefield said...

Richard Felix mainly fronts shows about medieval torture and similar nastiness - he is slightly weird in anything that he does. It was entertaining to shout at him whilst at the same time trying to put a commentary on Kathryn's FB page and passed the time!

Anonymous said...

Paranormal investigators didn't check with the relevant ghosts? I'm disappointed. Seriously, I think there is a rule against having serious historians dealing with historical disputes -- this one, and I have seen other shows with Ms. Gregory passing herself off as a historian. Glad that the poker story got debunked, at least.


Gabriele Campbell said...

OK, that is worse than German documentaries. They may have stirrups on Roman saddles, taken Velleius Paterculus account for a true characterisation of Varus (instead of deliberately turning him into a scapegoat), and simplify the complex history of the Roman occupation of Germania down to one German and two Romans involved, but they have not yet brought in a paranormal expert.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this. I'm not a historian but enjoy history both reading and some of the historical programmes on tv. But I was horrified by this. I thought the hot poker scenes totally unneccessary and just another example of gratuitous violence. As for Richard Felix. I think he needs help. I have seen him on another programme on torture and was revolted by the way he seemed to enjoy repeating the gory details. And, as you say, repeated too often. In fact the whole programme was far too repetitive. 15 minutes would have done it. Thanks for straightening out the facts and pointing out the inaccuracies. Must put your book on my Xmas list.

Lisa said...

I will avoid Paul Doherty's books. He sounds like the most sensible of this crowd, though!