06 December, 2018

Edward II Was Not Starved To Death

Or at least, there's not a single shred of evidence that he was or that this particular cause of death ever occurred to anyone in the fourteenth century, but the idea has taken off in at least one Facebook medieval history group I sometimes look at, where it's claimed that Edward II's death by starvation (at Berkeley Castle in September 1327) is the 'current theory' of his demise. Well, no, it isn't, except on Facebook.

I suspect this latest theory might represent a confusion with Edward II's great-grandson Richard II, the next deposed king of England, who almost certainly did starve to death at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire in February 1400. Or perhaps even with Edward's powerful chamberlain and 'favourite', Hugh Despenser the Younger. Hugh refused all food and drink between his capture on 16 November 1326 and his execution in Hereford eight days later, according to the Brut chronicle, which states that by the time he arrived in Hereford he was "almost dead for fasting."

Starvation is one of the few causes of Edward II's death that fourteenth-century chroniclers didn't speculate about. They did mention illness, grief, natural causes, suffocation, strangulation, poison, a fall, and of course somewhat later the mythical red-hot poker, or stated that they didn't know what happened to him or merely that he died at Berkeley without further explanation. Starvation doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them, and even Geoffrey le Baker, who invented the tales of Edward's mistreatment at Berkeley Castle some decades later in the interests of promoting him as a suffering saint, didn't claim that he starved to death.

Sometimes you can actually see new myths about Edward II developing. It's weirdly fascinating. Now that the film Outlaw King has come out, depicting him as some whining psychotic rolling around in the mud screaming with an anachronistic fifteenth-century pudding bowl haircut - at a battle he didn't even participate in - no doubt there will be even more. Oh yay.

02 December, 2018

Edward II's Visit to Eleanor Despenser, 2 December 1325

On 2 December 1325, 693 years ago, Edward II visited his eldest and favourite niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare (born c. 14 October 1292) at his manor-house of Sheen - later known as Richmond Palace - west of London. The day before this visit, Edward had written to his queen, Isabella of France, who was refusing to return from her brother Charles IV's court in Paris or to permit her and Edward II's thirteen-year-old son Edward of Windsor to return to England either.

Edward II was staying at Westminster in early December 1325, and parliament had recently taken place there. An entry in his chamber account states, in French (my translation):

"Monday the second day of December, paid to my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser [ma dame dame Alianore la Despensere] of the king's gift, by the hands of the king himself, when the king went from Westminster to Sheen to my said lady and returned the same night back to Westminster, in going and returning in a flat-bottomed boat, 100 marks."

The next entry states:

"Item, paid to Syme Laweman, Will Shene, Ric[hard] Hustret, Henry Hustret his son, Robyn Curre, Jak Edriche, Watte Couherde, Ric[hard] Gobet, to each of these eight valets, porters of the king, following the said boat between the said Westminster and Sheen, of the king's gift, by the hands of John Harsik giving them the money in the said boat in the king's presence, to each of the eight four shillings for boots for the water, twenty-four shillings."

So it seems that the king rowed himself along the River Thames, with these eight men - all of whom frequently appear in Edward's extant chamber accounts of 1322 to 1326 - following behind in another boat. A third entry relates that John Harsik, the chamber squire who gave the eight men their money to buy boots, bought fish for the king and Eleanor's supper at Sheen: roach, dace and loach. Given that it was December and the days are very short at this time of year, it must have been dark when Edward returned to Sheen, and perhaps even when he left Westminster. Imagine rowing yourself along the Thames in the dark and the cold, though for sure Edward must have known the river really well.

Eleanor Despenser had been staying at Sheen, at Edward II's expense, since 9 October or a little earlier. He bought firewood for her chamber there. She was either very close to term at the time of her uncle's visit or had just given birth; another entry in the king's chamber account on 14 December 1325 states that Edward gave thirty shillings as an offering to the Virgin Mary in gratitude that God had granted Eleanor a prompt delivery of her child (though the date of this offering is not clear and it may have been made a few days before the king's clerks recorded it). Eleanor's husband Hugh Despenser the Younger may have been at Sheen with her after his recent return from Wales, where it was rumoured that he had been killed, though he isn't specifically mentioned in the account as being present. Annoyingly, the child Eleanor bore in early December 1325 is not named or even given a sex in Edward's account - it's as though his clerks didn't care at all about historians 700 years later who would dearly love to know such things - though it may have been Eleanor's fifth and youngest daughter Elizabeth Despenser, future Lady Berkeley.

And finally and as a completely off-topic point, tomorrow, 3 December 2018, is the thirteenth anniversary of this blog! I started it on 3 December 2005, and it has now had just under 2.4 million visitors. Here's to the next few years!