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.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Hard to keep it straight how all the deposed kings died (if they did -- any debate over whether Richard II died, like there is with Edward II and, according to Matt Lewis, Edward VI)? Also, as I understand it, "Outlaw King" shows Edward actually fighting ... an improvement over the usual "Edward as coward"?

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther! Although some people in the early 1400s seem to have believed, or wanted to believe, that Richard II was then still alive, there's really no doubt that he died at Pontefract, and starvation seems the likeliest scenario (though is not certain).

I can't bring myself to watch Outlaw King because I'm not sure really that depicting Edward II as a screaming psychotic is much of an improvement, to be honest.

sami parkkonen said...

I steeled my nerves and watched THAT movie. And yes, instead of following the weakling image they showed him as a somewhat disturbed young man bullied by his father (americans firmly believe that everyhting is all about our relationships to our parents) who showed signs of sadism and who lost twice to Robert the Bruce in duels. Funny idea that one: 1. Not Edward nor Bruce would've ever even considered a duel to solve their issues and 2. their closest men would have never accepted or allowed such a thing to happen.

PIers was mentioned once by his name but kept away from the center stage, which would have made the real Pierce laugh out loud, and yes: since the movie makers were not sure they could make a sequel they put Edward in the battle of Loudon where he was not. And yes, Edward falls down from his horse (happened once in Bannockburn where his horse was killed from under him and where he fought his way back to fetch his spare horse on which he rode BACK TO THE BATTLE). In this movie Edward and Bruce meet in the middle of a chaotic battle which makes sense somehow as there are only few thousand men fighting all around and yes, they wear no helmets because they are so cool and the audiences would not see their faces behind the bassinets or full visor helmets.

And yes, Edward, who was famous of his shoulder long hair as is shown in EVERY medieval image of him, sports the same hair-do which was actually on Henry V in Agincourt over hundred years later but what the heck. Edward was a pop icon and head of his time, I guess. One very funny detail is his armour which has gold shoulder pads etc. because, well I have no idea why. In reality every man in the whole kingdom could tell who is the king simply by the cloth he wore. No one else had the same textiles. PLUS: one look at his body armour, horse and weapons would have told even the dimmest foot soldier who he is.

Robert the Bruce is naturally much more sympathetic man even though in reality he was a genuine bad ass, very very hard man, and a murderer for real. But I guess Clint Eastwood was too old for this role.

In conclusion: I am still waiting for a movie where Edward is like he was in real life: a king with an exceptional rapport with commoners, who laughed and joked and gambled with the commoners and lost money to them and paid up even though he was a king. A king who was one of the strongest men in the realm, good looking man who did not get along with his noble men as he did with ditch diggers of fishermen, for example. Now that would be a very interesting movie.

Sorry about this lenght, Kathryn. I had to get this out.