26 August, 2006

Edward II And The Imposter

Edward II was, by the standards of the fourteenth century, an extremely unconventional king. As I wrote in my previous post on his character and hobbies, he enjoyed the company of peasants - eating dinner with carpenters and going swimming with a large group of 'common people', to name just two examples - and loved digging, thatching, rowing and numerous other activities considered incompatible with royal dignity.

With this in mind, plus the disasters of his reign and his general ineptness at ruling, it's hardly surprising that many of his contemporaries wondered if he really was royal. Rumours that he was a changeling were widespread during his reign, and matters came to a head in 1318 with the appearance of John of Powderham.

John, also known as John Deydras or Drydas, was (according to contemporary chronicles) the son of a tanner. He somehow gained access to the royal palace of Beaumont in Oxford, and claimed that "he was the true heir of the realm, as the son of the illustrious King Edward, who had long been dead. He declared that my Lord Edward was not of the blood royal, nor had any right to the realm, which he offered to prove by combat with him." (Lanercost Chronicle)

John's story was that as a young child he had been attacked and mauled by a sow in one of the royal residences, and had lost an ear. His nurse was far too terrified to admit this to the king, so substituted a carter's son for the royal child. John, who apparently bore a close resemblance to the king, was indeed missing an ear, and claimed that he, the rightful king of England, had been brought up by the carter while the peasant boy ascended the throne.

John was taken before Edward during the Northampton Parliament of 1318. Edward, who for all his faults was not lacking a sense of humour, greeted him with the words "Welcome, my brother". Edward in fact seems to have taken the whole affair as a huge joke and wanted to make John a court jester, but he was put on trial for sedition anyway, apparently at the request of some of Edward's barons. Finally, John admitted that his story was untrue, but he had been inspired to his actions by the Devil appearing to him in the form of a cat. In true medieval fashion, the 'rightful king of England' was hanged, with his cat alongside him.

Although Edward evidently found all this amusing, Queen Isabella was said to be "troubled beyond measure" by the appearance of John. Early in the twentieth century, Professor Hilda Johnstone wondered if this humiliating episode had sown seeds of doubt in Isabella's mind and ultimately led her along the path that ended with Edward's deposition in 1327. However, in her recent biography of Isabella, Alison Weir points out that there is no evidence that Isabella believed the story, and also that she was probably emotionally vulnerable after childbirth (their third child Eleanor had been born only a few weeks earlier). I believe that Weir's interpretation is the correct one.

It's easy to understand Isabella's concern - as the daughter of two sovereigns, Philippe IV of France and Jeanne, Queen of Navarre in her own right, she would have grown up with a strong belief in the power and dignity of royalty. I can imagine that Edward's love of 'peasant things' was incomprehensible and shameful to her, and for John of Powderham to publicly proclaim that her husband was not royal, but a carter's son - untrue though it certainly was - must have been profoundly humiliating.

As for Edward himself, his unconventionality and individuality are probably the most striking things about him. He was a man out of his time, a man who would have been much better suited to living in a later century, when his preferred activities (not to mention his love for men) would not have been so harshly judged, when a king with the 'common touch' would have been welcomed, not condemned. John of Powderham's story, a nine days' wonder in 1318, demonstrates how Edward and his unconventional behaviour were perceived by many of his contemporaries - with horror and disbelief.

18 August, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (6): 'The Death of a King' by P. C. Doherty

Published in 1985, this is the highly prolific Doherty's first novel. It takes place in 1345/6 and is narrated in the first person by Edmund Beche, a clerk who is ordered by King Edward III to investigate the circumstances of his father Edward II's death.

I enjoyed the structure of the novel - every chapter consists of a letter sent by Beche to his friend Richard Bliton, Prior of Crowland Abbey, as he details his investigations and discoveries. (According to Doherty's Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, Bliton was the confessor of Hugh Despenser the Younger. That must have been a full-time job.)

Unfortunately, Beche himself remains an engima - other than the fact that he's competent and resourceful, I feel that I never really learn anything about him as a character. This is also true for other characters - Edward III, for instance, never comes to life (admittedly, he only appears a couple of times) and few other people appear long or often enough to be fully rounded characters. Dowager Queen Isabella is emphatically an 'old bitch', as the narrative often calls her, and tries to have Beche murdered twice.

There are some historical inaccuracies, though nothing too bad. Beche states (in 1345) that he can't speak to Thomas Berkeley, Edward II's jailor, because he's dead. However, Berkeley lived to 1361, and his son was only fifteen in 1345, not the hardened soldier depicted here. The earl of Kent was executed in 1330, not 1329; Adam Orleton was not Bishop of Worcester in 1345, having been promoted to Bishop of Winchester in 1327; and it was in the reign of Edward III, not Edward II, when John Stratford was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. (These are the kind of picky little details that only a hopeless anorak such as myself would spot, and are unlikely to bother the general reader.)

The 'error' that bothered me most, though, occurs early in the novel, when Edward III tells Beche that he was born in March 1312. In fact, Edward was born on 13 November 1312, a date which is undisputed. I assumed this was a careless error by Doherty, but there is a reason for this change - which I'll comment on later.

**NOTE: SPOILERS. In order to discuss the novel properly, I'm going to give away the 'secrets' that Beche discovers. Anyone intending to read the novel, and who doesn't want to know what happens, should stop reading here.**

Beche's journey takes him all over the country, to talk to Queen Isabella, the Bishop of Winchester, Lord Berkeley, and so on. He comes to realise that all is not as it seems, and comes to the startling conclusion that Edward II was not murdered at all, but escaped from Berkeley and is still alive in Italy. As if that revelation wasn't enough, Edward III's father is not Edward II, but Roger Mortimer. Edward III is desperate for this truth to remain hidden, as it means that he is not the true king of England, and would also invalidate his claim to the French throne.

This is the real reason for Doherty's 'careless error' with Edward III's date of birth. As Doherty certainly knows perfectly well, Edward II and Isabella were together in York in February/March 1312 to conceive Edward III, born in November that year. However, if Edward III was born in March 1312, this would push the date of his conception back to the summer of 1311 - when Edward II was on campaign in Scotland and nowhere near Isabella. Unfortunately for the Mortimer theory, Roger Mortimer spent the whole of 1311 in Ireland, and couldn't possibly have fathered Edward III. (Not to mention that there isn't a shred of evidence that his affair with Isabella began before 1322 at the absolute earliest, and probably not until late 1325.) And surely someone would have noticed if Isabella became pregnant when her husband was hundreds of miles away?

I have to say I find this very dishonest - to change a perfectly well-known, undisputed historical fact to fit your plot. However, for me it's the only major flaw in the novel. The plot unfolds very nicely, one startling revelation following another, and I loved seeing Edward II survive his imprisonment at Berkeley - the scene where he escapes with the Dunheved brothers is very well done. Edward himself appears at the end of the novel, in a monastery in Italy. He has taken the name Hugolino in memory of his friend Hugh Despenser, and is relieved to be free of the burden of kingship. He has no wish to return to England, or to become king again, but wants only to be left alone - a wish which sadly doesn't come true.

This is a very interesting take on the mystery of Edward II's death. Doherty makes Edward's survival seem plausible, and shows how the fact that he isn't dead affects Isabella and Edward III - they know he's still alive, but they don't know where. Isabella shuts herself up at Castle Rising with a large bodyguard, afraid of her husband taking revenge on her, and Edward III fears that his father will re-surface with the truth of his 'son's' paternity. I really love the idea of Edward II escaping from Berkeley and living out the rest of his life at peace.

The real question is, can this be what really happened...?

05 August, 2006

Review of Marlowe's 'Edward II'

Performed by the Wales Theatre Company and directed by Malachi Bogdanov at the Globe Theatre, Neuss, Germany, on 30 July. (See my earlier post for more details.) There's a review here, in German.

The play was pared down to the bare minimum of characters - only Edward II, Queen Isabella, Piers Gaveston, Roger Mortimer, the earls of Kent and Lancaster, Edward III, Edward's jailor Maltravers and his murderer Lightborn (and the earl of Arundel, very briefly). There was also a character 'Mario', played by Italian Daniele Monachella, the stage assistant. Mario represented Edward's supporters after the death of Gaveston.

I found this paring down of the text very effective, as it allowed far more focus on the themes of thwarted love, hate, revenge and deceit, and pointed up the harsh 'eat or be eaten' nature of power politics. Although one of the people I attended this performance with didn't enjoy it too much, I thought it was great. It was a very modern production, with frequent loud music - Blur, Coldplay, The Clash, etc - and modern costumes, including the earl of Lancaster as a football fan in an England shirt, shorts and trainers, Queen Isabella in a leopardskin dress, and the earl of Kent in a baggy suit with a beret and big trainers. And Piers Gaveston in black leather trousers...hubba hubba!

The setting was minimal, a bare stage surrounded by the bars of a cage. There was a claustrophobic feel to it all, as though the characters were trapped in a deadly struggle to the death, suffocating in their confinement, every little quarrel and quibble magnified by their proximity to each other.

The acting was uniformly excellent. Stephen Eliot-McDonald as Mortimer gave a commanding performance as a man with good intentions who is slowly corrupted by power, and Hester Ruoff was very believable as a woman driven to the end of her tether by her husband's neglect. On the other hand, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Edward (Adam Dunseath) and Gaveston (Matt Rozier), lovers bewildered by the barons' persecution of them, wanting only to be together. Their love for each other was obvious and moving. Peter Wilkinson took the role of Edward III (he also played Kent) and made him a shy, uncertain teenager, who nevertheless found the strength to overthrow his mother and her lover.

However, I thought that Mike Rogers as the earl of Lancaster was the best thing in the play (Rogers will be a familiar face to viewers of British soap operas, as he's appeared in Coronation Street, Eastenders and Emmerdale). He also took the role of Lightborn and the small role of Arundel. Lancaster doesn't have a huge part in the play, but Rogers stole the show with his facial expressions and body language.

Some highlights:
- The performance began with Queen Isabella in a gold bikini, table dancing (only without a table!) to the sounds of 'Girls and Boys' by Blur. This was the prelude to Edward's coronation, a booze-up in a seedy nightclub which concluded with Edward's being given a golden key as symbol of his regality. King Edward wore his key throughout, until forced to give it up to Mortimer.
- Any time Edward and Gaveston appeared together was excellent, thanks to the intensity of their relationship and their defiance in the face of universal condemnation.
- The infamous red-hot poker scene was of course present. Mike Rogers (Lancaster) also took the role of Lightborn, and made him frightening and utterly sinister, amicably talking to Edward in his cell and eating a bag of M and Ms (and offering Edward one). Edward lay on a table, legs in the air, covered with a cloth. The 'poker' was a length of lead piping, four or five feet long, all of which was 'inserted' into Edward and then pulled out. The song 'Ring of Fire' was played throughout.
- My fiance considered Isabella's table dancing to be a particular highlight. ;)

In case this all sounds like doom and gloom, there were some nicely comic moments to lighten the mood: Mortimer, held at gun point by Mario, effortlessly knocking the gun out of his hand and escaping, and the earl of Lancaster muttering 'tw*t' (and I don't mean 'twit') under his breath several times whenever Edward or Gaveston annoyed him. Maybe you had to be there, but it was really funny, honestly. Edward's death scene was also grimly amusing, thanks to the music, Lightborn's facial expressions, and the fact that the insertion of the piping was physically impossible - meaning that Edward's death was less horrific than it might have been.

I've checked online, and so far haven't found any performances outside Germany, rather oddly. It was extremely fortunate for me that it took place in a theatre twenty minutes from my house (fate, almost)! All in all, this was an excellent production, well worth seeing, and I hope that it is taken to a wider audience.