09 December, 2005

Edward II's sexuality

I knew that'd get your attention! :) I've often seen Edward described as 'England's only openly gay king' or something similar, and it seems to be taken as historical fact that he was homosexual. This is based at least in part on the previously-mentioned Hollywood film Braveheart, where Edward appears screamingly camp and correspondingly incompetent, in a manner I for one find disturbingly homophobic and unpleasant. His lover even gets thrown out of a window by Edward's father (this didn't happen in reality). A much more sympathetic portayal can be seen in Derek Jarman's 1991 adaption of Marlowe's play - I find the film a rather wonderful piece of work. However, this also over-simplifies the situation, and Edward and his lovers Gaveston and Spencer are shown simply as the victims of homophobia, with the English nobles simply unable to cope with the king's different lifestyle. An important thing to remember is that it's only been fairly recently in history that people have defined themselves as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Whoever Edward slept with, he couldn't have thought of himself as gay: so it is really possible to argue today that he was, when his society had no concept of this? In the 14th century, declarations of love were bandied around pretty freely. Edward's cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, had a retainer called Sir Robert Holland, and some of the contemporary chronicles speak of the Earl's love for Holland. So when we read the comments of the Vita Edwardi Secundi - a chronicle of Edward which ends abruptly in 1325 - that "I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another" we should be careful not to interpret this in a modern way. We know that Edward referred to Piers Gaveston as ‘my brother Perrot’. However, the Meaux chronicle states that "Edward took too much delight in sodomy" (written decades later). The Flores history calls the friendship of Edward and Piers "beyond the bounds of moderation" and speaks of Edward’s desire for "wicked and forbidden sex" and the Westminster chronicler says that Piers led Edward to reject the sweet embraces of his wife.

None of this necessarily proves that Edward really did sleep with Gaveston, of course: only that some of his contemporaries and later writers thought that he did. Hugh le Despenser, Edward’s presumed last lover, was said by the chronicler Froissart, writing in the 1360s or 1370s, to have been castrated during his execution, because of his sodomy with the king. This could, again, be a matter of perception than reality. The point is, that until someone invents a time machine so that we can go back to Edward’s bedchamber, we’ll never know who he slept with.

Edward fathered 4 children by Isabella, but this proves nothing: kings needed heirs and we have no way of knowing how he felt about performing his marital duty. Edward is also known to have fathered an illegitimate son, called Adam, who crops up in a wardrobe account of 1322 and is described as "Ade filio domini Regis bastardo": "Adam, bastard son of our lord the king". He was provided with equipment for the Scottish campaign, but was accompanied by his tutor Hugh Chastilloun, which suggests he was somewhere around 14 or 15. After this, he disappears from the records and is assumed to have died on the campaign. The fact that Edward openly acknowledged the boy suggests that perhaps he had a relationship with the mother – if Adam had been the result of a one-night stand, could Edward really have been sure that Adam was his? Interestingly, Piers Gaveston also had an illegitimate daughter called Amie, as well as a legitimate one called Joan. We do not know the mothers of either Adam or Amie.

So there is direct evidence, via children, that Edward slept with at least 2 women. Clearly, there cannot be direct evidence that he slept with men, and we have to rely on what the chroniclers say (bearing in mind that they had their own prejudices and agendas) and also by our judgment of Edward’s actions. I personally think it is clear that Edward was emotionally reliant on men, whether he had sexual relations with them or not – although I also tend to think that he did. I strongly doubt that that it was the simple act of having sex with men that caused his downfall –the English nobles hated Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, whatever they did or didn’t do in bed. Piers was hated for overwhelmingly personal reasons – he was good-looking, had a sharp tongue and could knock the nobles off their horses at jousting events almost at will. Edward’s relationships with Gaveston and Despenser are fascinating topics, which I’ll be returning to soon.


Prince_Lieven said...

I'm inclined to think he was bisexual, but I'm open minded! ;)

Kevin said...

An old post, but perhaps still open to some "new" information...

Chalfant Robinson, in his article titled, "Was King Edward the Second a degenerate" [The Journal of American Insanity, v. LXVI, pp. 445-464], provides a unique first-person account of Isabella's attitude regarding her husband's sexual liaison with Hugh the Younger Despencer. After she had gone to France, a letter Isabella wrote is preserved in the original Latin in Chron. Edw. I & II, v. II, p. 287:

Ego, inquit (Isabella), sentiens quod matrimonium sit viri et mulieris conjuncto, individuam vitae consuetudinem retinens, mediumque esse qui inter maritum meum et me hujusmodi vinculum nititur dividere; protestor me nolle redire donec auferatur meduis ille, sed exuta veste nuptiali, viduitatis et luctus vestes assumam donec de hujusmodi Phariseao viderim ultionem.

Isabella is quite clear here that Despencer has stolen her marriage bed. She vows vengeance. She got it (Isabella's peculiar anatomic mutilation of Despencer now makes perfect sense, no?). What is the saying, Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned...

Alianore said...

LOL, exactly! ;) It's interesting about Despenser's execution, as it's not entirely certain if he actually was castrated/emasculated or not - he may well have been, but it wasn't part of his sentence, which mentions being dragged to his execution, hanged, cut down, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered, but not the, ahem, more personal bit.

Michael said...

What I find interesting is that we actually seem to be more homophobic today than during the reign of our beloved Edward II. Being gay is not just "sleeping" with another man; it's a lot more than that. I can understand how the King must have felt and it's quite obvious to me that he was deeply in love with Gaveston. It's been noted that Gaveston was handsome and attractive. The King, being that he was, had every right to take him as he pleased, as monarchs have had "mistresses" over the years.

After reading as much as I have so far, I think that King Edward II was a gay hero! He wasn't afraid of anyone, not even his wife, and he lived his life the way he pleased. I wish all of us gay men could say that! And the fact that he was actually able to do so for so long, proves that people in those days weren't so afraid of male-to-male sex or affection as they are today. It happened and nobody talked about it.

On the other hand, the King was also a victim of a vicious hate crime by his wife and her lover. The way he was killed is horrid. It's obvious she was jealous of Gaveston, but what I find puzzling is that she didn't let it just be. She had her lover and the King had his. Sort of like Henry VIII's wife Katherine Howard and Culpepper.